Monday, June 21, 2010

For Such a Time as This

Sermon for 6.20.10
Father’s Day & Report on Conference
1 Kings 19.1-8, Galatians 3.23-29, Mark 1.29-31

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s Gospel: “Then the fever left her and she began to serve them.”

Last weekend was my first Conference, although I’d almost gotten there several times before. I’m afraid I wasn’t looking forward to a long drive and navigating new territory, I felt squeezed enough by my schedule and responsibilities here, and we all know the intensity of our grief last week for the loss of Olivia Belfiglio. Also, unless there’s a really good reason, I’m not usually one of your casts of thousands kind of person, and the Bishop had promised an assembly of 5000. (Actually, it topped 5500.) But I must tell you that I drove home Saturday afternoon with a full and grateful heart, so much so that I need to tell you about it.

Even before the grand procession with banners and the prayer service that followed, I began to be drawn in by the friendliness, high energy, and diversity of the crowd in the exhibit tents and open spaces. I actually found myself wondering whether heaven might not be a bit like that: joy, so many different kinds of people, and somehow a shared beat connecting us. To say nothing of all those chance encounters in the crowd of people I knew or know! Virginia and Lisa found me, even without a cell phone!

But what I equally wish each of you could have experienced was Worship. Of course Bishop Park warmed us up by having us sing every hymn imaginable and then, to illustrate the health of the body of Christ, he did 120 push ups. The service began cooking as several people rushed up to match him with checks of $120. I really understood the need for pushups when our preacher was introduced: Bishop James E. Swanson, Sr. whose Conference includes parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Much as I would like to, I won’t try to imitate his good old Gospel style preaching—I won’t ask Steve to supply a background of music as I reach my main point; I don’t have a tie to loosen and you’re not going to allow me 45 minutes. But Bishop Swanson was a powerhouse, fully capable of focusing and unifying a crowd of thousands. Fully capable of giving us a vision, so that we and our church will not perish. It’s worth going to Conference even once, just for such an experience. We may not want this every Sunday. But it’s good to be reminded of who we are as a larger body and to hear that body sing, pray—and sit on the edge of its chairs in silence.

This message, based on our Gospel lesson, was simple and direct. There was Jesus, come into Peter’s house. And there was Peter’s mother, too sick to move. The Bishop reminded us that we don’t have to go halfway around the world to find people who are hurting. There are people right around our churches in need. People in our own congregations who may leave the service as sad as when they entered. Even when people are very different from us—male, female; Jew, Gentile; slave, free—they are still, as Galatians tells us, “children of God” in Christ Jesus. Don’t forget Elijah in 1 Kings: First, he is killing all the false prophets with a sword, and next, he is an exile, running for his life. Without the food and drink of angels, he would have perished.

And so the need around us is greater than we can anticipate. Our own needs, yes, but also the needs of others. We need the world so that we can be the people God created us to be. But many of us are suffering from spiritual fevers, lying flat. Then who serves? Except after the Resurrection, Jesus wasn’t usually the one to whip up a meal. That was the job of Peter’s wife’s mother—and she wasn’t doing it. The choice was to sit there and not eat—or heal the cooker! Jesus doesn’t discuss her. He goes to her, pays her some mind, reaches out to her, and lifts her up. She then does what any respectable Jewish woman would have done: she serves them. To illustrate, the bishop leaped off the stage, going up and down the aisles, raising people to their feet as he grasped their hand.

Here’s a concept! Here is Jesus’ challenge: Reaching out with the power, love, and energy of God. Christians pray to do this with all their heart and soul. We do it in this church. It happened yesterday as people brought dishes and deserts for the luncheon after the Memorial Service, a service for a family that has no relation to this church, but asked if we would serve them, asked if I would be willing to say the 23 Psalm over the ashes of a beloved wife. It happened yesterday as Shandy and Mike and their boys cleaned and scrubbed and made everything sweet-smelling and ready, as Joan and Edith cooked and presided. And the family was filled.
Yesterday, we were doing our best to witness to what Bishop Swanson was preaching. He knew he was preaching to people who try their best. But he wanted us to take as our own this example of our Lord. So in true evangelical fashion, he reminded us of the power of the Invitation at the end of a service. He wanted to give us his own energy and he wanted us to energize one another. And he didn’t want all the energy of that meeting to stay in the room.

I’m not going to invite you up to our altar today, but I’ll tell you the response to his altar call was serene, holy, and considerable. I was sitting next to Ann Rossini, whom some of you know. She had just been ordained the night before. I looked at her and she looked at me, offered her hand, and together with others we took our walk to the altar to give ourselves newly to Jesus and to those we would serve through him. This was a first for your pastor, although once, when I was thirteen and a high Episcopalian, I heard an invitation of this kind at an Evangelical church service and knew it included me. As I start my second year among you, I will continue to try my very best to be true to that call and to our Lord.

And now, it seems our best response to the invitation of Conference and to our Lord is that we reach out to one another with the peace and energy of Christ. People of God, let us greet one another in the name of Christ!

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