Epiphany 5 February 6, 2011

This sermon was preached by Bishop Arthur Walmsley. The occasion was “Scout Sunday” and a number of scouts and leaders were present.

Isaiah 58:9b-12

Matthew 6:24-34

Once upon a time, an eleven year old boy thought he had lost his father.  There was a war on, and his dad who was in the army had been sent overseas.  With his mother and a younger brother, he had to move to a distant city know where they crowded into his grandparents’ apartment.  Going to an unfamiliar school was a real challenge; he was a scrawny kid, he was small for his age, he wore glasses, and he quickly became the butt of a gang of bullies which controlled his fifth grade classroom.  Luckily he could run faster than them, and mostly he paid no attention to the bullying.  Except that he was very lonely.

Someone suggested he might find friends at a boy scout troop located in a church up the street from his grandparents’ house.  He swallowed hard and went to a meeting, and to his surprise he found himself hooked.  He joined the troop, the scoutmaster took a real interest in him, and he discovered a world he had not known in the family or in school before then.  He belonged.

I was that boy.  For the next five years, I became an ardent scout, made it up the ladder of advancement from Tenderfoot to Life, just a couple of merit badges from reaching Eagle Scout.  I never turned my back on scouting, just grew into new interests as I got ready to go off to college.  I am surprised by how much I remember of those early years of my life — the challenge of leaving a familiar place and discovering scouting happened seventy years ago — the year was 1940.  I am surprised that I can still recite the scout oath we took every time we met:

On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country;
To obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.

And without looking it up, I can rattle off the Scout Law: A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

It was not that much a stretch to think back seventy years — and remember for good what being a scout had meant to a young boy on his way to grown-up life. There are some things in life — both the good and the bad — which stay with us all our years. Today at Holy Cross, we welcome a number of scouts, and their akelas, the cubmasters and parents who lead them.  Indeed, it is entirely fitting and a gift to us, for Holy Cross has been the home of this group of cub scout dens ever since our new community center was completed six years ago. Holy Cross seeks to be a place of meeting and service for all the people of our area, not just our own members. Yesterday, a number of the scouts were here to serve a dinner to various seniors from the town.  Our pastor John McCausland is away on a brief vacation and it is a treat for me to preside at this service and welcome you here.

Scouting came to this country in 1910.  It was the brainchild of a retired British army officer, Robert Baden Powell, who had put together its basic outline in England three years earlier. The aims of scouting from the start have been character development, training for citizenship, and personal fitness. For a hundred years, literally millions of young people have been part of the scouting movement, with the development of the cub scout program, the parallel organization of girl scouts, and all sorts of special programs as society has changed. 

Most of the young people here today are Cubs, and as you know the program takes place not only at meetings but often with family members. I remember my years as a scout as a time when I learned a whole lot about outdoor life, and about those core values listed in the Scout Law, what it means to belong to a group which stands for cooperation, courage, faith, health and fitness, honesty, positive attitude, and especially respect and responsibility towards others.  I was lucky, I think, in the two scoutmasters I had — one that first year and then a man who modeled his life as a high school teacher as well as a part-time farmer.  What I learned is that while for several years I did not have the close presence of my father, others — both men and women — became my mentors and models.  It was all about belonging to the human family.

If you will now turn to today’s service bulletin, there is a brief essay about how the Christian Church — especially how Holy Cross Church — understands Belonging and Believing.  You could say that those words describe scouting — they did for me..  We think they also describe what it means to belong to God, and to practice what we believe, in our lives as well as in our worship. 

We just heard the reading of two passages from the Bible.  The first one was written by a Jewish prophet to his people in a time when they were struggling to find peace in  troubled world.

This is what the Lord God says to us, his people.  If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word: if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need¸ then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon.  And I will always guide you. . .I will keep you strong and well.  Isaiah 58:10-11

That sounds a lot like what the scouting movement says about people living and working together.  It is why a church like Holy Cross reaches out to serve the community of Weare and its surrounding towns.  On Sunday mornings, for example, our youth group gathers to talk about what they believe, and they have come up with some wonderful activities as well as programs of reaching out to people in prison and their families.  Recently some of our adults spent time at our breakfast forum talking about the new principles which our state legislature has put in place to deal with the problem of bullying in the schools.  That subject sounds a lot like what we read from the prophet Isaiah: If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, to every evil word, your people will be rebuilding what has long been in ruins.  It is what our ancestors the people of Israel believed as they followed Moses our Ancestor, who taught them a way of living together we know as the Ten Commandments.  It is what Jesus said to his followers who gathered round him: You are like salt for the human race; you are like light for the whole world: whoever obeys the law (of life) and teaches others to do the same: you will be great in the mind of God (that is, the kingdom of heaven).  To be a believer in God is to stand for what brings people together, not what separates us from others.

It is all about community, which is why we Christians find it important to come to church, weekly if possible.  In this first part of our service we listen to readings from the Bible and reflect on them, as I am doing now.  The Bible gives us an anchor or reference point, as does the Constitution for the United States or the Scouts Oath for the scouting movement.  We listen for the voice of God in scripture, we try to understand what that means for our relations with God and with others, as individual persons and in our public life.  We respond by saying our prayers, reaching out in our hearts and minds and offering ourselves in service to others and through our gifts.  Some churches do this very simply, others like ours with a certain amount of formal custom.  But the purpose is the same: human beings need a way of talking about what they believe, but they also need communities in which to practice it.

In the second part of our service, we share the oldest custom of his followers, by receiving bread and wine, as Jesus encouraged his disciples to do the night before his death.  We belong not only to one another but to God, and we believe that Jesus is present with us in the Holy Communion. The Episcopal Church invites all baptized persons to share the bread and wine.  If you are not baptized, or you aren’t comfortable taking the bread and sipping from the cup, you are invited to come forward to receive a blessing. I’ll describe how we do this when the time comes.

I began by talking about how a scout troop had included me in its community.  That’s a lesson which is also written on a global scale.  We watched on television this week how a grass roots movement of protest has brought about huge changes in Egypt.  Young people, well educated but lacking jobs, rose up to challenge a dictator to step down and allow an inclusive government and society to emerge.  That’s what our ancestors in this country did in 1776.  It took a terrible civil war in 1861 and mass protests a hundred years later to accept all citizens regardless of race.  It is less than a hundred years since women won the right to vote.  The struggles for community and justice continue.  God help us that we may continue to build communities of fairness and service as those of you who work with the young are doing.  And God help churches like Holy Cross to model the love of the one who lived among us, Jesus our companion and our friend.

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