September 4, 2011

 

 

ON HAVING THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD

 Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 4 September 2011

 

Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Ezekiel 33: 7-11

                                                                           Reading for the Epistle:                      Romans 13: 8-14

     Reading from the Gospel:                Matthew 18: 15-20

 

A survey was done many years ago in the United Kingdom in which professionals in various fields were  asked to rate their job satisfaction.  Way out ahead of everybody else were Anglican clergymen.  And I think I would have to go along with that.  Our pay may not be as high as that of a member of the medical profession, and certainly we don’t get the same vacation time as, say, a university professor.  We do not exercise the same authority as a colonel in the armed forces or a CEO in the world of business. We might have access to the media, but not in the same way as a newsreader on television or a disc jockey on radio.  However, we learn very quickly that those are not the standards by which to judge satisfaction. We like to say that we have a boss who would lay his life on the line for us, and that the post-employment benefits are out of this world, but that is not what gives us job satisfaction, or at least does not give me job satisfaction.

For me the real satisfaction comes from the people among whom the Lord has placed me for a season. I am privileged to be party to their inmost hopes and their inmost fears, to their dreams and to their aspirations.  I get to feed them in Word and Sacrament, and to minister to them at the highest of high points of their lives and also at the lowest of low points.  It does not matter what a family’s station may be in life, I may be called to be their minister.

And I have met some very interesting people, from those in the highest echelons in Government to some among the most impoverished of slum-dwellers.  I have visited them in their homes, be it a mansion or a shack, or even a cell in a gaol.  I once visited a murderess in solitary confinement, and apart from the prison staff, I was the only person who ever could see her.  I have been called to the bedside of a newborn babe and to that of a person in the last throes of life.  I get to share in the joy of baptisms and weddings, and in that very different world of the funeral. I get to advise all and sundry – even though that advice is usually ignored.

Of course, I would not pretend for one moment that it is a continual round of joy and laughter, but no one’s life can be called that.  But even the most adverse of experiences have proved to be occasions to bear witness and to open people’s eyes to what our lives are supposed to be all about.  Like Saint Paul, I have experienced that getting into trouble with the authorities over matters of the faith can lead to other people understanding better what it means to be a follower of Jesus, that it is worth suffering for his sake, and this has fostered growth in the spiritual awareness of some who had previously simply gone through the motions of being a Christian.

I shall always remember some wise words I heard from my first diocesan.  He used to summon his younger clergy to his residence a couple of times each year.  He wanted to know how we were doing, what problems we were dealing with, and what we were learning through our ministries.  I am not sure what we were meant to get out of these sessions, but there are some tidbits of wisdom that I continue to recall.  One of these was not to make any assumptions about anyone, because everyone is going to surprise you and even shock you at some point in time.  But when that moment came, we were advised not to show shock or surprise, just acceptance.  As the diocesan pointed out, each of us has been accepted by Jesus, and we each of us know how unworthy we really are (at least if we are being honest).  As we read the Gospel narratives we never read Jesus saying to anyone, “You did what?”  That has stood me in very good stead when it has come to hearing confessions.  Yes, I have heard some startling things, but when someone has a burden on his or her heart and conscience, the very last thing that I should ever express is shock and surprise.  People want to hear forgiveness.  People need to experience love.  People need understanding. People need to be accepted just as they are.

Our readings today give a minister of the Gospel all the guidelines he or she needs.  From Ezekiel we learn that our job consists in part of warning people of the dangers they are in.  As a preacher and teacher I have to tell you about the dangers we face in our material and spiritual lives should we fail to live out what we have been shown are the wishes of the Lord God for us.  I have to tell you the good, and I have to warn you of the bad.  I owe that to you, and I would be risking my own immortal soul if I were to do otherwise.  So there are going to be times when some of you will not enjoy what you hear in the sermon. And as a word of caution, I have to tell you that if at any time you think my words are directed towards someone in particular, including one of you, the words are not mine for I speak in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, but equally the words might be meant for you to hear and to act on.  I remember one morning in Christ Church, Bangkok, how a particular worshipper came to me after

the service and thanked me for the sermon since he felt that he had been condemned by what he had heard said.  Had I not heeded my first diocesan’s words I might have shown shock and surprise.  I had had no idea that the words might have been intended for him.  I was not even sure that he would be in the congregation that morning.  Had I kept quiet, I would have failed him.  I do not always like what I have to say, but the Lord’s words to Ezekiel remind me repeatedly that I have to say what I have to say if that is what the Lord would have me say.

Paul, in the passage that we heard from Romans 13, highlights a second quality that a minister of the Gospel should allow to be developed in him- or herself.  As he puts it in verse 8, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another!”  You have probably heard it said often enough that we are not called to like everybody, but we are called to love them.  In my time I have met some very unlikeable people, and I am sure that there are many to whom I am unlikeable!  Yet if I, unlikeable as I am, wish to be accepted, then I have to accept you, unlikeable as you might be, at least to me.  I have to allow you the dignity of being a human being, a man or a woman made in the image of God, even if the image is just a little distorted.  I simply cannot know all that has happened to cause you to be the way that you are, and you cannot know all that has happened to cause me to be who I am.  Why! I probably do not even know all that myself!  I probably do not want to or need to know all that has gone into the moulding of me as I am.  All I need to be assured of is that, imperfect as I am, I am loved by God so much that he gave his only begotten Son to die for me, and to accept that he loves each and every one of you in exactly the same way.  So if God loves you, who am I to say that you are unloveable?  And if you are not unloveable then you are loveable, and so I am expected to love you as well, and you me.

Yet God is no fool, and he knows that there are times when we will not be who he wants us to be.  He knows that, in fact, there will be times when we fail to live up to the words of Paul in Romans 13: 8.  And this brings me to the most difficult aspect of my life as a minister of the Gospel of Christ.  I can preach till I am blue in the face.  I can preach till I am red in the face.  I can teach you what the Lord demands of us. But I cannot make you be truly Christian in your attitudes one towards another.  I watch, and I see.  And what I sometimes see gives me great pain.  There are people in this and in every congregation that I have ever been called to serve who want to have things done in the way that they think is the proper way.  They want other people to behave in a particular way.  They get affronted by the words and deeds of others.  I once served a congregation where one prominent lady (and I use the word politely rather than accurately) told me that she could have no dealings with another lady until that other lady apologized for something or other.  The second lady was upset and in her confession had imparted to me what she had done.  She said she was ready to apologize, and do you know what happened?  When she went to the first lady to  apologize the woman would not even give her the time of day!  As their minister I still had to love both of them, but you can guess which one I found the more likeable!  And you can guess who I regarded as the real lady.

You can never be sure of what you have said or done that might have caused offence to someone, and so you should be ready to set things right again.  But equally, we must all of us, even if we are too smug to admit that we might have done something or said something that caused the other party to be upset by us, be ready at all times in all places and under all circumstances to let someone apologize to us, without any Smart Aleck comments.

I cannot force you to apologize or to accept an apology.  But I have to remind you of what Jesus taught us, that we seek forgiveness from God as we offer forgiveness to others.  If you want to experience the forgiveness of God in your life, then you need to offer that forgiveness to others.  If you wish to experience the love of God in its fullness in your life, then you need to love all others in the same way. I have to preach that and teach you that, as the Lord told Ezekiel.  What you do with that preaching and teaching is up to you.  But as Jesus said on another occasion, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter into the realm of my Father, but only those who do the will of the Father.”

We have been told how to be, now let us be that way.