A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016. The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 23:23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, and Luke 12:49-56.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
The other night I was moving some books around and came across my old childhood Bible. It’s one of those oversized, picture-and-story Bibles, that helped introduce me to the stories and characters of scripture who have become lifelong companions. The art now looks a little dated to me and the stories leave out a lot of details. But the very best part (for me) is inside the first few pages. There on the dedication page it says, “Christmas 1970. To John Beddingfield, from Santa Claus.”
That one page summarizes a great dilemma in the Christian faith: What is real and what is make-believe? Some would argue that faith of any kind is more make-believe than real-world, but I would disagree. Faith is something very different, and as Christians, we’re called upon to sort out the difference between reality and fantasy.
In today’s Gospel Jesus describes some of the results of living faithfully, with our eyes open. Sometimes our being faithful leads to conflict—with the religious establishment, with the state, conflict with one another. Here, I don’t think Jesus is just talking about people who are simply offensive in the way they share their faith, demanding that others see things as they do. Instead, what he is talking about, I think, is the kind of conflict that comes up in families, among friends and loved ones, and in churches when we disagree because of our faith.
There’s an old joke, “What do you have when there are ten people with twenty different opinions? An Episcopal Church! This can especially be the case, the less authoritative and the more democratic our congregation. We may disagree about the spending of money. We may differ about the direction of ministry or the use of particular resources. We might argue about the way God should be worshipped, or even about who should be ordained or consecrated. We disagree about government, about the use of war, about the advances of science and technology. But this is all a part of our living in a real world of faith— a world in which we disagree, a world in which life is not always just about the peace of Christ, but also about the divisions and disagreements that arise along the way to life in Christ. Our other scriptures today also point to a tough kind of faith, a faith that does not settle for superstition or make-believe.
In our first reading from Jeremiah, there’s a call to honesty. Jeremiah is preaching to the people he’s been called to lead and love, but he’s especially warning the prophets—those who would say they know the direction forward. He reminds them of the difference between a dream and what is lived out in the real world. The dream may inspire, Jeremiah suggests, but never let the dream blind you to the present.
Though Jeremiah’s words are thousands of years old, the same struggle is with most of us who seek to follow God with a faith rooted in history. How do we call upon the best of our traditions, but be alive to a world that moves and thinks in very different ways? How do we be people of faith in a culture that has little use for faith? Some faith traditions respond by buckling down, sticking to the letter of the law and making it all about following the fundamentals. Others faiths do what they can to attract newcomers with whatever it takes—whether it’s buying tanks of gas for people on a Saturday morning or administering baptism in creative ways.
Our own church, too, struggles to live faithfully between a vision and the real world. The Church of the Holy Trinity, was built with a dream and a vision. St. Christopher’s House came first, and it was to be a settlement church, a church alive and sensitive to the needs of the neighbors, especially those in need. That was 119 years ago and since then, there have been times when it must have seemed like that dream was being met, and there are other times when we are painfully aware of the ways in which we fall short. A part of our living with a dream but in reality might involve our being honest about the ways we are different from the people of 1897. We are different from the congregation of the 1950s, the 1970s, and even the 1990s. But we still have a mission and we are still guided by the vision of those who have gone before us. Jeremiah hears God say, “let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” Our calling is that simple and that demanding: speak God’s word. Speak God’s work of grace and welcome and forgiveness and healing to one another, to strangers, and stand still long enough to hear it spoken to yourself.
The epistle reading today, the Letter to the Hebrews, was written to a group of Christians who were getting tired. They were tired of being different, tired of the struggle and tired of the demands of the Christian life. They seemed to be on the edge of turning back to their former faith or to no faith. And so, they are urged to toward discipline, toward doing the right thing over and over, even when the end isn’t clear and even when the payoff is far off. These struggling Christians are urged to rise to the occasion, to turn trials into opportunities and to develop a perspective, to develop discipline.
At Holy Trinity the classic spiritual disciplines are taught, encouraged, and nurtured. We explore together the disciplines of fasting, of almsgiving, of daily prayer, of participating in the sacraments. The discipline of silence and the discipline of joyfulness—all are encouraged, are grown, and are shared. A disciplined life helps us to remain honest with one another and helps us see where we’re going. It helps us move, day by day, toward the ideal while never losing site of the here-and-now.
Finally the Letter to the Hebrews names what so many of us, here, have found to be the sustaining, nurturing, and encouraging answer to living in a less-than-perfect world. “We are surrounded by a great a cloud of witnesses.” Our witnesses here include the living and the dead, those who have gone before us, those who loved us and this place who have died.
At Holy Trinity, our cloud of witnesses includes people all over the country—former members, friends, family members, and with increasingly– visitors and guests who are touched by our worship and our ministries. This cloud of witnesses compels us into new mission opportunities and relationships. In the future we will look very different from the church of 1899 or of 1999, but with faith and energy, will continue to expand and welcome.
This is a GREAT CLOUD, and it is this cloud that gives us the faith as Hebrews says, to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, [but] is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The Gospel today still speaks of hard truth: that sometimes in following Christ, we will find ourselves in conflict. There will continue to be those times when we experience the Body of Christ as broken and divided. We may argue and seem to work against one another—but that great cloud of witness is still here, around us inspiring, strengthening, and reminding us of our calling.
We may not live in a world where Santa gives away personalized Bibles. And we may not yet be the people we are called to be— individually or as a church—but we’re on our way, and by continuing to be honest, to be disciplined and to be surrounded by such a cloud as this, we will grow in faith; we will grow in love.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.