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October 9, 2011 – 17th Sunday after Pentecost

by The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley

Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 23;  Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

The telephone rang just as we were sitting down to dinner.  Often such calls come from someone trying to sell us something — new siding for our house, maybe, or cheaper car insurance — I seldom remember what it was five minutes later.  I sometimes get irritated when the seller is insistent, even though my better judgment says that the caller is probably low-paid and has taken the job because he — usually it’s a he — because he needed work  and is paid by the volume and success of his calls.  So I try not to be abrupt.

This time the call came from a pollster wanting my views on the economic situation and the upcoming election.  He was well-spoken and obviously well-trained, and I was hooked.   I tried to guess from his opening remarks which candidate he hoped I would look on with favor.  When I finally declined to answer the survey, he pleaded, “Don’t you want your voice to be heard?”  “It will be,”  I said, “when I cast my vote.”  To my surprise, that did not end the conversation, but began a very different one.

“You know,” he said, “we both face something of the same challenge.”  He clearly had seen the words “The Reverend” before my name on his list.  “Lots of people in our society don’t think their voices count.  They feel powerless in the face of the forces which control their lives, they are isolated and not knowing who to trust.  They think that about politics.  I guess that you must find it hard to know what to preach about.”

“No,” I said, “I know full well what to preach about: Jesus and his love.”  That’s not the problem.  What is, is that few people know very much about Jesus and the Bible, or church history, or just why we do what we do in our worship.  And they wonder if it has anything more useful to do with real life than the politics and public discourse my questioner was asking about.

Turn the clock back say to the year 1900, and you could count on the fact that most homes not only had Bibles, but those Bibles were read. There was a familiarity with what the Bible said, and people cared, often passionately, at what was said in sermons, even argued about them over Sunday dinner.  You might be surprised that as late as the 1950s, The New York Times printed summaries on Monday mornings of the sermons of the leading preachers in town.  But today in New Hampshire, only about 6% of the people have any connection with church.   There may be Bibles collecting dust in homes around the state, but the level of adult study of Christian faith is next to zero, even in most churches.  It is a fact that the population of New Hampshire population is 4th in the nation in its percentage of people over age 65, so some of us old-timers may remember the active church-going days.  In most places the young are underrepresented, and most have had little or no exposure to Christian faith.

So I said to my telephone caller, I do know full well what to preach about in a Christian  Church: it’s about Jesus and how Jesus opens God’s love for our lives.  The problem is: how do we connect in a compelling way to people who haven’t really heard the message beyond those sentimental pictures of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus surrounded by smiling children they might have picked up in Sunday school years ago.  More likely in 2011,  not even that.

It may seem a surprise to some of you that the occasions of preaching I have found most compelling during my years as a pastor have been at funerals.  On such occasions, we start where people are.  They may be sending off someone much loved who has led a rich life, as John Heckman’s family will bury his 99 year old mother on Tuesday.  Or their lives have been broken open by loss and by grief, and in either case there is a nagging sense of wonder about what if anything is next for the person who has died.  Is there something more than death?   Of course, we don’t have the answer to that question this side of the grave.  So what does that say about life?  (In words used by a great pastor and teacher, Eugene Peterson),

You go through death with somebody, with their families, and there’s an intimacy that comes through that that is just incomparable.

It is times like that, or when there’s a sickness, or a rupture in relationships, when people find themselves with raw edges and life doesn’t add up, or in the words of my telephone caller, “they feel isolated and powerless in the face of the forces that control their lives.”  The preacher’s job is to stay with them where they are, and point out what Jesus is seeking to do for us and with us in the real world of our lives, is to provide healing and a sense of direction, and importantly support when we need it.  Christian believing is about the ordinary world we live in, not some sort of goody- goody one, nor is it just something which spoke to an earlier generation, but the here and now, tough as a funeral, or complicated as your family life, or how you think and act in a society in which so many of our neighbors are suffering from the impact of medical care which is too expensive, and the loss of jobs by them or your neighbors, and a climate of dissention in our public life. Being saved by Jesus is finding companionship as we live the life we have.

My problem as I set out to prepare for this morning’s sermon was looking at the three long passages of scripture assigned to be read today.  Any one of them might offer a serious entry into what Christians have believed through the ages, something better discussed in an hour-long class. Too much. Too much to handle in sixteen minutes or so.  I do think that most people come to be fed, or at least check out if there is something that offers a word for the day.  And we preachers have the challenge to invite them to a place where they can meet Jesus, and be fed with bread and wine at his Table.

In an Episcopal Church service, we offer you a meaty plate of scripture each week, something from the Hebrew scripture, something of Jesus’s life from the Gospels, and comments on the life of Christians written by Paul or other apostles.  As a useful practice, if something grabs you when you hear it, make a mental note to revisit it — take the bulletin home with you.  And I for one think a preacher is pleased if you read or hear something you want to remember that it’s fair game to scribble it down on the bulletin.  A word to the wise: take something with you (that challenges us preachers to say something worthwhile), and chew on it.  That is often the beginning of prayer.

I went on retreat for five days this past week at the monastery in Cambridge to which I have been going for a quarter of a century.  And I couldn’t forget the words from that telephone call I began with about people feeling isolated, powerless, and not knowing who or what to trust.  A lot of people who are conservative politically organized the Tea Party.  Now, some who are liberal are demonstrating in the economic crisis outside the banks in Wall Street.  During my retreat, I spent time thinking about what I might preach on today, and I was drawn to the second of our readings for today, part of a letter Paul wrote to one of the congregations he had started, the one in Philippi in Greece.  Paul’s mission churches were started a couple of decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  They were small, probably the size of Holy Cross Church, perhaps a hundred or so people.  He spoke affectionately to them, sharing the hope that they would welcome an early visit, and in the meantime some of his companions.

But then he spoke very pointedly to two women in the congregation who were having a fight over leadership (we’re very fortunate that in my time here, that hasn’t been a problem).  He names them:

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion (the man’s name is Syzygus) help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.

And then Paul lays out a description of behavior to which we are invited in life, but especially for situations of conflict.  He is speaking not only to the women, who must have been divided over something each thought important.  The clue is that others in the community have a responsibility and a role of being peacemakers.  He specifies six motives which all who seek maturity should keep constantly in mind, before you act, or as you act:

Whatever things are true. This is not just truth in speech; not just the sort of speaking you might use in court¸ but the truth, the whole truth¸ so help me God ; it is truth in itself and for its own sake.

Whatever things are noble. We don’t use the word noble much in present day speech, but it conveys a kind of reverence for people or for deeds.. The King James Bible translates it as “honest.”

Whatever things (are) just. The Greek word for “just”, dikaios, conveys conduct and has to do with doing good.  We don’t act because we feel like it, or because it squares with the civil law or custom.  Doing justly is the duty of every Christian.

Whatever things (are) pure. Hagnos, the Greek word translated “pure,” literally means that which is not tainted. Right conduct means abstaining from what is wrong — it is — negative goodness.

Whatever things (are) pleasing. Again, taking the Greek word prosphiles which Paul uses, we are to engage in behavior which is agreeable, acceptable.  In the last analysis, be act in ways which truly satisfy us:  “I’m really glad I did that.”

Finally: Whatever things (are) of good report. Here Paul is writing of things so clearly right that they ought to be recognized for their integrity. “Shape up,” Paul is saying to Euodia and Syntyche, “you are called to model behavior which puts your disagreements behind you.”  And to the whole of that congregation he says, “Christians ought to be ready to praise anything and everything worthy of commendation. The standard you must use is different than that of the world around you.  Meditate on these things.  What you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these things do.  And the God of peace will be with you.

The great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, wrote that in life there are only two questions: Why was I born? And For what should I live? The story of those two women in the Philippian Church is a good place to begin.  They were clearly people who had become Christians, been baptized, were leaders in church, and yet some sort of difference between them made them a source of controversy.  Paul went right to the heart of the matter: Sisters, shape up.  Your lives depend on it!