A sermon for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost
Jesus Christ is the center of our faith. I don’t think that is too controversial a statement to make in leading off my first sermon here at St. Stephen’s. We center our readings, our liturgy, around the stories of Christ’s life and ministry in the gospels, it’s impact as seen through our epistle readings, and in living into the tradition left before us in sharing in Holy Eucharist with each other every week. Our Presiding Bishop continually speaks of our life in faith as being part of a “Jesus Movement” of which we congregate in the “Episcopal Branch” to worship, learn, and grow together in community with one another. And it’s important to note that this center of our faith found in Jesus Christ is not always, or even necessarily that often, an easy call to live into. A life lived in response to the life of Jesus, to the teachings and example left for us, is a life that calls us to live for others, is a life that calls us to love others with no exception, is a life that challenges us to see Christ in all, in everyone. But even when this life is difficult, even when the call to follow Christ pushes us beyond our comfortable boundaries we have set in this world, what else can we respond with but “to whom can we go?”
We are called into a very radical understanding of the world when we choose to follow Christ. It is not the way of the world to love all of our neighbors with no exceptions. Just look at how we talk about news today, whether on TV or radio or facebook comments on news stories (or don’t, it makes the next part really hard). When you read “the comments,” when you hear opinion put out into the world as cold hard fact, it distorts what is actually happening in our world. When we allow our perceptions of others to be molded and shaped not by our love for them but by fear, by labels, by denigrating comments that seek to belittle and demean, that seek to divide and separate, we lose our way in following Christ, in following the way of love that Christ is constantly and continually calling us into. We lose the connection we must have with our neighbor to see them as a beloved sibling in Christ, a beloved part of God’s creation, someone that not only needs our love but deserves our love for they are us and we are them.
Jesus is pretty clear about what we are supposed to do in this world, about how we are to show our love for all, with no exceptions. We are called to feed the hungry, give something to drink to those who thirst, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. When we do these things for the least in our community, in our society, we are doing them to and for Christ. When we do these things, we are centering our life on Christ and living into the call that we have been given. But, as I am sure you are aware, this is a very high bar to meet. Because it is centered on an understanding that there are to be no barriers to what we offer, there are to be no barriers to the fullness of love that we express, it takes a lot from us to strive to achieve this standard, let alone to actually meet it (if that’s even possible for us as imperfect and broken people). So, how can we work towards this? How can we read “the comments,” or see news about tweets that seek to attack and divide rather than unite and spread God’s love, and still feel emboldened to follow the counter-cultural movement that is Jesus Christ? How do we have the energy to keep stepping up and serving the least of these when it seems that the problems are only getting worse?
It is the flesh and blood of Christ, the Holy Eucharist that we share each and every week, it is the communal feast that we come together to share in regardless of who we are, regardless of who we voted for, regardless of the car we drive, the clothes we wear, the labels society would force upon us, regardless of any trappings of this physical world, we all come together in this place as one body, seeking the one bread and one cup. It is this bread, this cup, the flesh and blood as Christ describes it today, that is the food and drink we consume as we come hungry and thirsty to the table.
We hunger and thirst because it takes real energy to live into the call that Christ has laid before us. We hunger and thirst because if we work to seek and serve Christ in all persons, if we strive for justice and peace for all people, it takes a lot out of us. It is not easy work. Whether it be cooking a meal in radical love, working to end homelessness through keeping families together, responding to epidemics of drug use and abuse, of standing up and using our privilege to speak for those without, it takes a lot of energy and time and passion and love, only to run into barriers, to run into doubters, to run into failures. But what else are we going to do?
We are not simply going to give up. We are not simply going to give into the ways of this world, into the ways of a world that demands everything from us and offers nothing in return. No. We turn to Christ. We turn to the Eucharist that is here at this table available for us each and every week. We turn to each other, to each and every person that is sitting in the pews today, and say “I have your back.” And we do this because Jesus is the source of the food and drink we hunger and thirst for. We do this because Jesus is the Holy One of God. Jesus is where we receive the words of eternal life, and it is in Jesus, in this meal that we come together to share in, that we find the wellspring that empowers us to continue in the work that we are called to do as followers of Christ. We live our lives filled with the presence of Christ that we receive at this table, that we see reflected in each other, that we search for in every person we meet.
We live this life, this way of love, as active members of this Jesus Movement, because we actively engage in this relationship with Christ. We are living into this life, this movement, when we abide in Christ. We are living into this life when we follow Christ, even as others turn away from the message because it is difficult, because it is hard. In many ways, we live into this life because it is difficult and hard, because we know that we have the power and presence of Christ with us to take on these barriers, that if not me, if not us, then who?
I am excited to live into this life, this way of love, this Jesus Movement with the people of St. Stephen’s here in Longview, in Kelso, in Cowlitz County, in the greater Southwest Washington. We have an amazing opportunity to come together as a community that is already one and will also never be the same after today, because we will constantly and continually grow and evolve with one another. Along the way, we will lose some, and, hopefully, we will gain some, and our community of St. Stephen’s will constantly shift and change and evolve into new expressions of following Christ. This work will at times be difficult because of the nature of the work, and at times it will be difficult because we all, including me, are imperfect and broken people seeking to do the best we can with what we have. But through all of that, through ever evolving changes in missional focus, to liturgy, to the people we see in the pews every week, we will always have this table to return to and be filled, to have our hunger and thirst satisfied, to be reunited with one another around a common table that is open to all, without barrier.
By choosing to live into the life that we have been called into by Christ, we are choosing to live into a life that is challenging, demanding, and ultimately, fulfilling. When we choose this life, we will actively seek to remove barriers. When we choose this life, we will actively seek to love all of our neighbors. When we choose this life, we will be filled by the strength and power of Christ who is with us always. When we choose to live into this life as a community, a gathering of diverse and varied believers, we connect to the Holy through our experience of a shared table where all are welcomed and gathered to eat. When we choose to live into this life as the people of St. Stephen’s, here and now in this moment, we are committing ourselves to following Christ and exploring together how that call is best lived out in this place, in our community, today and in the future.
I cannot wait to see what we can do as followers of Christ together. I cannot wait to see the impacts we make on this community and this world. And, I cannot wait to be here, every Sunday, to welcome you back to the table to receive that which has been given for us, so that we may go back out into this world and continue in the way of the love.