Mother Susan’s last sermon

Sermon 9 27 20

Aaack! My last sermon! But I can’t think of this like my last sermon.  Because then I’ll set myself up for disaster and it will be reeeally baad! No! I have to treat this like every other sermon, so at least I have some chance of success. 

Today, I will preach from our readings and then end with some important final words (at least I think they’re important) for all of you.

But first I have to say this, packing to move is depressing. There’s no getting past it – it’s depressing. And this time we’re really reducing our load, believe it or not. (Our kids don’t believe it.) So – lots of decisions were made – lots of memories – lots of angst – and hopefully a lot less stuff. Not fun, but necessary.

Our collect for today notes that God declares his power by showing mercy and pity. What if we did that? There are those who think that mercy and pity belong to “losers.” Is God a loser? No! Mercy and pity show power.  What will we be, what will we have turned into when we reject mercy? How much of our humanity do we lose when we lose the ability to feel pity? God teaches us that there is power in mercy and pity.

We don’t often have readings  from the prophet Ezekiel.  He is another prophet who wrote from the Babylonian exile. What is interesting about today’s reading from him is that he establishes pretty quickly that children are not to be punished for their parents’ sins. For centuries the Jews and others believed that they could continue to be punished for their ancestors’ sins — into perpetuity!  Ezekiel establishes that we are to be punished for our own sins, not for the sins of our ancestors. Because, as Ezekiel says, our own sins will be enough to answer for. It’s like cleaning out the basement – which can give you a new heart and a new spirit.  [You wanna feel fresh and clean? Get a dumpster and fill it up!]

Paul probably wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was in prison, around 62 CE.  Considering that he was in prison, it’s actually lovable and charming to read his words of encouragement.  They remind us to be encouraging. And indeed Paul finds, even in prison, encouragement from Christ. He begs the people of this little congregation to look first to Christ for love and consolation, for sharing in the Spirit, for compassion and sympathy. He is asking them to keep Christ as their focus and to love as Christ loves. He advises them to behave with humility. That way they can never be found to be wallowing in self interest, but can then focus on each other and each other’s needs.

What if everybody did that? What if our humility and our obedience to God always came first? Sounds really hard, doesn’t it? But what if we could actually do that – even just once in a while? What a difference it could make! In our lives – in the world! What great advice for a congregation! These are good ways for a congregation to live.

And at the end Paul challenges these folks with a surprise. He doesn’t tell them to just do as he says.  He challenges them to work out their own salvation, for themselves, with fear and trembling. This means truly believing that God is with us and at work in us, that we can be God’s presence in the world, that we can trust ourselves and God can trust us to work for God. Fear and trembling? Sure! But that only reminds us how real God is.

One of my favorite quotes is from the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, most of whose writing I don’t understand (he’s pretty dense), but this I love: “When I behold my possibilities, I experience that dread which is the dizziness of freedom, and my choice is made in fear and trembling.” We are all faced with choices.  And we all face the dizziness of freedom every day.  God gives us the gifts of choice with guidance – IF we are paying attention! We can work out our own salvation, letting God work in us. 

Our gospel presents an interesting problem. The chief priests and the elders of the temple came to Jesus as he was teaching and asked him “by what authority” he was teaching.  What were they looking for? A diploma? A certificate? I’ve got a certificate for my ordination, signed by my Bishop, that hung on my wall in my office. Does that give me “authority”? I doubt it. I think of the Wizard of Oz who handed out certificates and awards to the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion,  and the Tin Man before he and Dorothy left, and those meaningless, silly gifts only told them what whey were already gifted with!  

But Jesus put a question to these chief priests and elders – did John the Baptist’s baptisms come from God or did John just take it upon himself to be a baptizer? And here’s the telling thing about their inability to answer his question. All of these so-called authorities didn’t use their own discerning intelligence. They didn’t consider their own relationships with God. They didn’t consider their faith. They didn’t ask themselves what they really believed in! They just thought about what they were afraid of! Ultimately, when they said they didn’t know where John the Baptist’s baptisms came from, that was the truth – they really didn’t know. They couldn’t comprehend. They were too afraid to know. They had cast knowledge and understanding aside — out of fear.

We need to look within ourselves and ask ourselves if we are doing and living the will of God. We can talk a good game, like the son who said he would work in the field but didn’t, or we can be honest with God and say, “Sometimes I’m going to mess up, but I’m going to try.  And I will work in your vineyard, God for the good of your world.” What Paul’s little congregations were discovering is that THEY WERE THE CHURCH. They birthed us all.

And that’s my message to all of you. Never forget – YOU Are The Church! No bishop, no diocese, no priest – YOU!

Priests come and go. Bishops come and go. And it’s all very impressive, but it really all comes down to you. The church is most alive and well on the parish level. That is where you are most deeply connected to God and to each other. Whenever you begin to have doubts, just stop everything and pray to God for guidance and then turn to each other and repeat out loud – loudly – WE ARE THE CHURCH!

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