Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sermon: February 8

Who are we as people of faith?

This is a question I have been hearing asked over and over again this week: Who are we as people of faith?

I was at our Diocesan Clergy Conference which is an opportunity each year for the clergy to gather to hear a speaker on a topic of interest, to have some time of fellowship and worship and to be able to meet with one another from the diocese in a relaxed atmosphere. Our speaker this year, Diana Butler Bass, helped us look at some vital congregations around the U.S., those not only growing but vibrant, alive, communities open to the Spirit and yet very grounded in their practices & tradition. She helped us ask, “who are we are as Episcopalians?” and then to see in the midst of crises in our world and the great changes taking place, to see the possibilities that are out there for vibrant ministries in our churches.

Also this week, the Primates, the head of all the different Anglican or Episcopal Churches met in Alexandria, Egypt. They not only talked about the serious situations in Gaza, the Sudan and Zimbabwe, but took time to also discuss the conflict within and between the different churches of the communion. It seemed that much of the discussion was about who we are as Anglicans. One hopeful sign in their discussions was the statement that “this is a moment "to proclaim the big vision [of love for my neighbor], living it out in practice, and witnessing, where necessary, against injustices which desecrate that vision." This vision of universal neighborliness "must not end at our geographical borders. The Church of Christ is universal and recognizes that love for my neighbor is not limited to the person next door." In particular, we call on our Churches to do all that they can to ensure commitments by governments to the Millennium Development Goals are not abandoned in the face of the current crisis… Our engagement together in Christ during these days convinces us that God is calling us and our Churches to deeper communion...” The Primates’ Communiqué

And then on Thursday, the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC took place.

Tony Blair, former PM of England, one of the speakers said, “For billions of people, Faith motivates, galvanizes, compels and inspires, not to exclude but to embrace; not to provoke conflict but to try to do good. This is Faith in action. You can see it in countless local communities where those from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, tend the sick, care for the afflicted, work long hours in bad conditions to bring hope to the despairing and salvation to the lost. You can see it in the arousing of the world's conscience to the plight of Africa. There are a million good deeds done every day by people of Faith. These are those for whom, in the parable of the sower, the seed fell on good soil and yielded sixty or a hundredfold.” (read the entire speech here.)

Our President, reminded all gathered at that prayer breakfast, “We know that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to "love thy neighbor as thyself." The Torah commands, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow." In Islam, there is a hadith that reads "None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth. It is an ancient rule; a simple rule; but also one of the most challenging. For it asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with or agree with on every issue.” (read the entire speech here.)

In each of these, I heard the question, who are we? And I heard the answer too: People of Faith, each with our own beliefs but called to a common purpose, to reach out in love to our neighbors.

As we heard this morning in the Gospel, Jesus answers that question (of who we are) by what he does with his life. After his work in the Synagogue he goes to the house of Simon Peter & Andrew. Simon’s mother in law is in bed and not feeling well and even at that moment of quiet for Jesus, he goes and heals her (and I think in her thankfulness, she goes and serves Jesus, her son in law and their friends). But that’s not all, people have heard who Jesus is and “they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons and he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”

In the morning he rose early, went out to a quiet place and prayed. When he was found, the disciples said people were looking for him. And here is an important part: Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” For Jesus, he is not interested in a popularity contest, or praise, he sees faithfulness as his calling to go and proclaim and heal. And he takes time to refresh that vision in prayer and quiet.

Likewise, we are to understand our faith, taking time out to refresh who we are and what we are doing. I think of a story from the Desert Fathers & Mothers:

Many years ago, there were three friends who wanted to devote themselves to the work of God. The first devoted himself to the work of making peace among those who were in conflict, helping to reconcile the estranged and alienated. The second opened a small house to care for the sick and dying. The third went off to live a life of prayer in the desert. The first friend worked tirelessly to help warring factions settle their differences, but could not resolve them all. Tired and frustrated over the wars he could not prevent, he went to visit his friend who was caring for the sick, but found that he, too, was exhausted and discouraged in the holy work he had taken on. So the two friends decided to go spend time with their friend in the desert.

They told their friend the monk of their difficulties and frustrations and asked if he had dealt with the same discouragement. The monk was silent for a time; then he poured water into a bowl. “Look at the water,” he said. The water was turbulent and moving. A few minutes later he asked them to look at it again. The water had settled down — and they saw their own reflections in the still water as if they were looking in a mirror. “In the constant motion of our own lives lived among others, we do not see our own sins and tribulations; but if we embrace the tranquility found in the stillness of prayer, we begin to realize our own shortcomings.”

It is a reminder that we all need times of tranquility, a time of prayer, to settle the waters and to see ourselves clearly, considering who we are and whose we are (that is God’s creation). And from that time, just as Jesus did, to go out again, and to live that faith inside us.

Let me end with words from Tony Blair, words of a sermon he heard preached by an American in the Middle East: "While here on earth, we need to make a vital decision ... whether to be mere spectators, or movers and shakers for the Kingdom of God... whether to stay among the curious, or take up a cross. And this means: no standing on the sidelines ... We're either in the game or we're not. I sometimes ask myself the question: If I were to die today, what would my life have stood for... The answer can't be an impulsive one, and we all need to count the cost before we give an answer. Because to be able to say yes to one thing, means to say no to many others. But we must also remember, that the greatest danger is not impulsiveness, but inaction."

As people of faith, let us together find who we are by going out and living that faith in our world today. Amen.

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