A Sermon for June 23, 2013 — St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church
Pacific Palisades, CA
Greetings! My name is George Martin, and I am so pleased to have been asked to serve as your interim rector. My wife Caroline and I had a delightful trip West this past week, and the two of us are looking forward to the year to come knowing we’ll make new friends here, and that we will be part of an exciting time of transition in the life of St. Matthew’s.
It’s wonderful to be here on the morning of dedication of the staff for our Day Camp which begins tomorrow. In our midst as well is my daughter Kate Fimbres, the youth minister at St. Barnabas in the Desert in Scottsdale Arizona and eight girls on a mission trip. They are here to work with the homeless in LA this week. We’ll bless them as well.
I will not begin this sermon with a long introduction about myself. We’ll get to know each other in many ways in the year to come. I’m simply beginning with a story from the first time I was a rector of a parish. It’s a story relevant to counselors about to lead this year’s St. Matthew’s Day Camp. It fits for a group of kids on a mission trip, and for a congregation that is living in a time of transition.
The congregation of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church near Lake Harriet in South Minneapolis was built in 1924. At the age of 32 I was asked to be it’s rector. Soon after I arrived we launch a renovation project of it’s undercroft—unchanged for over 50 years. An undercroft is what ordinary people would call “the church basement. ” It had a stage, a kitchen, and seating for 150 or so. It was dark, dismal, and basically creepy. We were working with an architect who’s first name was Chris. He was doing a great job for us. The project, as they all do, involved lots of meetings and many phone calls. One day I missed a call from Chris. I came back to my office there was a note. It was signed, Lyle, our beloved custodian. It’s framed, and it’ll be hanging in the rector’s office at St. Matthew’s. It reads.
“Dec. 1. Rev. George. Christ called. Lyle.”
I’ve kept it all these years. I take it everywhere I serve. A reminder. An important reminder not just for me. But for all of us. We’re here today because Christ Called. And ministry with children and youth will take place because Christ Called. And the homeless will be served because Christ Called. And this congregation will faithfully lean into its future deliberately seeking it’s next rector and honoring a time of transition as something healthy and hopeful because Christ Called.
Indeed one of the Biblical stories illustrating an aspect of the call of Christ was our Gospel reading for today.
The story begins with Jesus and his disciples in the country of the Gerasenes, which meant they were on the other side of the lake. Jesus and his disciples, in a boat, had crossed a boundary from Judea into the Gentile world. Jews were on one side, Gentles lived on the other on that lake. And Jesus had taken his disciples to the other side of the lake. While crossing in that boat in the middle of the night there had been a terrible storm on the lake—a storm strangely calmed by the voice of Jesus. A triple scare here. First the storm and then who is this who calms a storm? And then, “Where are we? We’re in the land of the Gentiles!”
Then who’d they first meet? It was a demon possessed man, wearing no clothes, certainly a less than human creature banned and shunned by those in the nearby town. He didn’t even have a name, and therefore no identity, except that he said his name was “Mob” or it’s sometimes translated as “Legion.”
It must have been something like schizophrenia (an illness in which voices are heard). I suspect that the man was saying that he had 6000 voices within him. All saying different things. Like he had a war in his head. There’s still no cure for it, but it can somewhat managed with drugs. Some of us here have friends or family members who have this illness.
The story in Luke says he was possessed by demons, which were also called unclean spirits. We may not use that particular language but consider the number of people taken over by hate, by addictions to drugs, sex, alcohol, and even the pursuit of power and possessions themselves—addictive stories revealed to us in the tragedies that often lead the evening news hour or maybe it’s a distraught friend agonizing over someone in their family.
What about the destruction of the pigs in this story? From a Jewish perspective pigs were unclean animals. That there are pigs in this story tells you Jesus had crossed from Judea into a Gentile world—it was a region to the East called the Decapolis, the land of ten cities. There, not in Judea, could be found swineherds doing something no Jew at that time would have done. Most scholars simply take the drowning of the pigs as “it is what it is” — it happened. It’s part of the story. It seems to me like a great waste of good bacon, but you’ll not find that observation in any scholarly journal.
What we really need to pay attention to is the end of the story. The now healed, literally in Greek, the saved man, wants to go with Jesus. Get in that boat and head back to Judea and follow him. Who wouldn’t want to go with Jesus after receiving his life back? But Jesus tells him to return back to his home and “there declare how much God has done for you.”
Sounds simple on the surface: but wait a minute. He is to go back and live with the people who had seen long ago what had happened to this man, and how he had turned into a fearsome creature. Indeed they’d watched this healing, but scripture says, they were “seized with great fear,” and asked Jesus to leave. There’s something more here: these who people who’d been afraid of this man, and rightly so. They’d banned him. Probably called him terrible names. Maybe left him a scrap of food every now and then, but maybe not even that. Could they trust this healing? And what about the man himself? If he stays, is he to forgive them? How is he to live with them and how can he gain their trust again? And yes, I believe that’s what Jesus was asking of him and asking them to do. Together could they rediscover community? Were not the people of that community now called to see him as their own brother, their old neighbor, now in his right mind? We’re not told that this happened. We’re only told his calling was to stay in place. And the real miracle of his belonging to those people again that was next. We don’t know if it happened. So that story is that that there was a healing and then a calling: Christ called. The man was to stay in place.
We think the call of God must somehow be more dramatic than that. Elijah, the prophet, we heard in the first lesson went to the mountain on which he was to stand before God. First there’s a great wind. It split the mountains and broke up rocks. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. Next was an earthquake and that was followed by fire. But God wasn’t in the earthquake or the fire. And then the story says there was “the sound of sheer silence.” Another translation says it was “a sound of a whisper.” The King James translation gave us that familiar line, that it was “a still small voice.” I prefer “a sound of sheer silence.”
And in that moment God tells him, return to the wilderness of Damascus. Not exactly Judea. Not his own people. It’s a borderland, like crossing to other side of the lake. And that’s another aspect of God’s call sometimes. You don’t always get to stay at home.
The third reading is from Galatians—a letter Paul wrote with passion, some anger, and some fear for that Gentile community, somewhere in modern day Turkey, which had first heard about the Risen Jesus from Paul’s preaching. After Paul left, some leaders emerged who were saying the only way to be sure you were right with God was to also adopt practices grounded in Judaism. They were things like circumcision for the men, and most likely dietary practices and rituals that would mark them as fully Jewish as well. But for St. Paul this was going back in time—questioning the very foundation of what had been revealed to him about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
My reference to what had been revealed to Paul needs to be explained. The word “revealed” in English is the word “apocalypse” in Greek. A “revelation” is an “apocalypse.” And yes, think of it as something that is earth-shattering, explosive, and cosmic in its dimensions. That word in Greek, apocalypse, doesn’t mean it was simply something that had been covered up and which now is brought in the light of day. It’s more than disclosure. It’s more than waking up to some new reality. It isn’t just a new coat of paint or a revision of something outdated. It’s the brand new unexpected world — and it’s the end of the old world. There is no going back. The new world marked by living in faith, means that its like an invasion. And those “called by Christ” are called to live in a totally unexpected way and that’s what’s in this passage today.
So for Paul, the world, indeed history itself, was totally changed in Christ. Thus Paul says there are two ages. The age of the law and the new age of faith. And once you live in Christ, a phrase referring to their Baptism, you live in a different world. But you also stay alive in a world being changed.
It’s relevance to each of us? Counselors. Day Campers. Missioners. Church members. Let me give you a different reading of that passage about being clothed in Christ. Galatians 3:27 can be translated this way, “ For when all of you were baptized in Christ, you put on Christ as though he were your clothing.” As though Christ were your clothing.
It’s really not WWJD, which stands for “What would Jesus Do,” but it’s “WOSC.” Will Others See Christ? And see Christ in us?
Now the call of Christ is always challenging. Sometimes you’re called to stay in place and love people who weren’t always loving. Sometimes you’re called to travel to the other side of the lake, or to cross some boundary. But what matters is what has been revealed to us, or rather what has been apocalypsed. And there’s a striking example of that in this passage from Galatians.
These were people, much like us, raised up conscious of ethnicity and religion. Oh the troubles in this world that we see grounded in ethnic and religious identities. Even within the same religions there are hostile divisions. Catholic or Protestant. Shia or Sunni. Ethnicity becomes deadly serious throughout human history. Sometimes we may become Irish say for a day, but it’s rarely something silly or playful.
So what did Paul say about that? He wrote about those “clothed in Christ” that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”
We get this wrong if this is read through the lens of everyone having human rights that need to be respected. This isn’t about your right to be whoever you are, and my right to be myself. It also isn’t about everyone is equal even though we all know how many struggles there are for equality in this world.
Paul is focused, instead, on unity. And it isn’t that we belong to a particular religion or a particular church or organization. But that we belong to Christ. And in so belonging none of the markers in the old world matter. All those old world distinctions used to separate people, indeed to condemn some at the expense of others, are obliterated in the coming of Christ.
In closing I have a brief reflection on how these thoughts about our readings today apply to the Day Camp staff, the St. Barnabas kids on a mission trip and on all of us.
I am hoping that as we welcome the Day Camp kids to the St. Matthew’s campus in the weeks to come they will each discover they have stepped into a community where know each person is seen as a new creation in Christ.
For those of you who serve the homeless and learn about poverty please remember that each person you meet, no matter how they look, is a new creation in Christ.
For all of us. Remember that in Jesus Christ everyone is a child of God. They don’t have to claim that identity for themselves. What matters is that is how we see them—it’s because we live in a new world marked by Christ. This doesn’t mean making those we serve become something they are not. We’re not about converting people. They don’t need to even to know about a brand of Christianity called Episcopalian.
We who are called to be servants just need to be clothed in Christ, which means to show what happens when there is unconditional love at work in the world. Though we will be challenged at times, we must remember our call is to offer forgiveness, to seek reconciliation, and to know that no one is beyond hope.
That sentence, “Christ called” is true for everyone. WOSC. Will Others See Christ? If that is what you hope and pray as you serve Day Camp staff, or as you head out on a mission trip, or as members of St. Matthews entering a transitional year, let us close by saying together “Amen.”