Sermon at St. Martin's in the Fields (philadelphia?)
In the name of God, our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Friend along the way. Amen.
Good morning. I am thrilled to be back here, and preaching on the 10th anniversary of my ordination to the permanent Deaconate. Ten years ago, it was raining cats and dogs this day, so I've been praying hard for good weather! But, No matter what the weather is, I want you to know that I love St. Martin's, and I love all of you, so it's very good to be here. Thank you for coming.
I was baptized here when I was a baby, and I witnessed the baptism of my father here when I was a little girl, as well as the baptisms of my niece and all of my nephews. I also sang in the choir for many years under the direction of Harry Wilkinson, who unlike your current puppy dog, Ken Lovett, whom I simply adore, was fierce to us girls, and sometimes made us cry. One day, Mr. Wilkinson got so exasperated with my sister, Lilah, he threw her out of the choir. He quickly changed his mind however, when I walked out with her, saying this meant he would lose me too.
I was Angel Gabriel in a Christmas pageant, and I will never forget reading 1 Corinthians 13, at the memorial service for my close friend and fellow choir member, Sally Blake and her brother Jeff, when I was a teenager. Sally and I were not the most pious little girls when we were members of the choir. We and another friend named Janie Morgan were full of mischief. One of our challenges was to hurl tiny balled up notes across the chancel to each other, undetected, when Mr. Sturgis' sermons were especially boring.
So, even though I've been in a Presbyterian Bible Study for roughly twenty years, and first a Deacon in training, and then the Deacon at the Methodist Church at the top of the Hill for the last 12 years, my true heart has always been here at St. Martin's, because I also love our Prayer Book and being an Episcopalian.
Everybody seems to know what Priests and Bishops are, but Deacons are shrouded with mystery. Please allow me to give you my understanding of what a Deacon is, before I Preach on the Gospel.
First of all, the Episcopal Church, as well as the Roman Catholic and Lutheran, as far as I know, Ordains two kinds of Deacons, and this can be confusing. We have transitional deacons, who are ordained for about a year before being re ordained to the Priest-hood, and vocational deacons, who want to serve simply as Deacons to be their life's work, without running a whole Parish. For obvious reasons, I chose to be a vocational deacon, and when I use the word, these are the deacons of whom I'm speaking. By the way, St. Francis of Assisi was always a vocational deacon, and never a priest.
Deacons are a fully ordained Order in the Church, who have the privilege of wearing a clerical collar when working, but we are not mini-Priests. We have a tri-vocational ministry, and the three areas, or "legs of the stool" are: home, work and church. The real value of this is that we can have a firm foot in both church and society at large. In other words, a Deacon is a vocation and ordained ministry but not a church job, if that means working solely within the church.
The word deacon means servant, and in ancient times it was the deacons who served as waiters at the table. They did the grunge work for everybody else. This is why in modern times, we wear our stoles on a diagonal. It symbolizes the towel they carried.
Liturgically, it is the Deacon who reads the Gospel, and proclaims the good news of God's redeeming love to the world. We also receive the offering as a symbol of the church's relationship to the cosmos.
Our primary responsibility in the Church at large is to be bridge builders and enablers. In other words, unlike the Priest, whose focus is to control and lead the worship service making sure everything runs smoothly, the Deacon's role in the church is to open the people's eyes to see how we as a parish can best serve Christ through the world. Therefore, servant-hood is central to the role of a deacon in a way that it is not to the priestly role. Bridge-building is really part of what our Prayer Book talks about under the rubric of "interpreting the world to the church and vice-versa." Being bridge builders means that Deacons are to help the laity see how critical their lives and ministries are to the whole Body of God's world. Let us remember how St. Paul expresses this so eloquently in 1 Corinthians chapter 12:12-31, when he says we all have different gifts, but are united by the same spirit. Being a bridge builder means we are to find common ground in worldly and religious attitudes, and build upon them, so the church will be relevant to ordinary people's lives.
Part of our purpose is to help lay people identify and own their own ministries and not do it for them or, worse, take it away from them. This is a special gift for the Deacon, rather than a priest, because the Priest is so tightly bound to his/her local parish that s/he can't always focus on the world outside.
Being an enabler is the gift of drawing lay people into worship, so they will feel included, and that they really own it. This is why it's such fun for me to pick different readers for my sermons. Not only do we read Scripture together during rehearsal, but also it allows me to spend quality one on one time with them, and learn about their lives and interests.
Now then, please allow me to switch gears, and move on to our Gospel. Today we celebrate a major feast in the Jewish tradition called Sukkoth, or the Feast of Tabernacles. During harvest time the Jews were commanded to construct temporary shelters, and live in them for a week. This was a time to offer one's fruit of the harvest in praise and thanksgiving for the earth's bounty, and also to acknowledge the vulnerability of the human condition, and our total dependence on God.
It was meant to be a joyful commemoration of their deliverance from Egypt. Some scholars believe that our own Palm Sunday didn't occur in the spring, but it was really part of a fall, Sukkoth celebration. The idea of worshipping and being near God in a tabernacle was so central to the Jews in Jesus' day, you may recall that Peter suggested he and his friends build one for Jesus when Peter was out of his mind with fear at the Transfiguration.
The rich young man in today's Gospel story had a lot of self-confidence to approach Jesus with the question, , "Good Teacher, what must I DO to inherit eternal life?" Clearly, he wasn't expecting the answer he got. Nor were the disciples. The spirit of Sukkoth teaches us that earnest as this rich man was, one of the things we learn from him is that we have to let go, not only of things, but of ourselves. In other words, we eclipse the spirit when we let our egos drive us.
I have heard two very different interpretations of the metaphor Jesus put forth in this passage about riches and the camel. The first interpretation I heard was that in those days, the cities were walled, and the gates were closed at night to ward off attackers, but there was an extremely narrow gate around the back, which could be easily defended. This gate could barely fit a man through it, and for a camel to squeeze through would have been utterly impossible. It was referred to as the eye of the needle. . .
The second explanation moves this story from English in to Greek, the language of the Second Testament, and then to the language Jesus spoke, which was Aramaic, and has no written language existing. Taken literally, it is an inappropriate metaphor to have a camel squeezing through an eye of a needle, but in Aramaic, the word rope and the word Camel sound almost identical. Could Jesus have really said, " It would be easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, "? If he had, the metaphor would still be powerful, and make more sense.
Now, let me tell you a poignant story about riches, which I have shared with my Methodist congregation. One day a father of a very wealthy family took his son on a trip to the country with the firm purpose of showing his son how poor people can be. They spent a couple of days and nights on the farm of what would be considered a very poor family. On their return from their trip, the father asked his son, "How was the trip?" "It was great, Dad." "Did you see how poor people can be?" the father asked. "Oh Yeah" said the son. "So what did you learn from the trip?" pursued the father. The son answered, "I saw that we have one dog and they had four." "We have a pool that reaches to the middle of our garden and they have a creek that has no end." "We have imported lanterns in our garden and they have the stars at night." "Our patio reaches to the front yard and they have the whole horizon." "We have a small piece of land to live on and they have fields that go beyond our sight."
"We have servants who serve us, but they serve others." "We buy our food, but they grow theirs." "We have walls around our property to protect us, they have friends to protect them." With this the boy's father was speechless. Then his son added, "Thanks dad for showing me how poor we are."
Too many times we forget what we have and concentrate on what we don't have. What is one person's worthless object is another's prize possession. It is all based on one's perspective. Makes you wonder what would happen if we all gave thanks to God for all the bounty we have been provided by God, in the spirit of Sukkoth, instead of worrying about what we lack.
Let us now focus our attention on Peter's reaction to the all or nothing choice Jesus gave to this loved rich man, and the response Jesus gave to Peter. . . Jesus repeats twice. "How hard it is for wealth to enter the Kingdom of God. . ."
The prevailing view of the disciples and men and women of their day was that people who had been favored with riches automatically went to Heaven. We can detect a hint of despair in peter, whose attitude towards his wealth was probably like this young boy's, when he sees how impossible Jesus says it is.
Look here Jesus! He says. We've given up everything to follow you. Is there no hope for us? What Jesus teaches us through this passage is that to follow him is not about being perfect. It is about being open and available to God's spirit, and to cling to worldly possessions is pointless. We've got to recognize that to enter the kingdom of God doesn't happen in the way we understand it, because God's economy is different from ours.
Jesus upends the traditional, prevailing view of God's success. He tells us that NOTHING that is offered to God goes wasted. Whatever we offer to God, be it our weakness or strength, form or shadow, God will transform, and give back to us in manifold ways.
Come, let us pray: Dear Lord, we thank you for your many blessings. – For our families, our friends, and for this beautiful earth with its richness and incredible bounty. We thank you for this church, and this special Feast-day of Sukkoth, which reminds us of your goodness and loving-kindness to your creation. We thank you for Jesus, for his gift of metaphor, and the gentle way he teaches us.
Be with us through our struggles. Show us how to let go. Help us appreciate all of your gifts, and give us the confidence to come to you with our questions. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.