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Sermon for January 28, 2018: Making Decisions (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

Some of you may have noticed a new sign on my door. It is a quote from C.S. Lewis, of whom I am a great fan. It says, “I didn’t go to religion to make me ‘happy.’ I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I can’t really recommend Christianity.” Oh, ouch! That hurts! Because for many of us, including me, we want to church to be a place of comfort, peace, and retreat – a place where we go to escape from our problems -certainly not somewhere we are asked to take on someone else’s troubles.

The truth is, church is both, because the church is its people and people re complicated. The beauty of being part of a Christian community is that within in we find loving people who soothe us when we are distressed, help us in our need, and pray for us in our extremities. For many of us, we also find a sense of tranquility within the walls of our sanctuary. This is good – but it is also not all there is to being a Christian.

Over and over again, throughout the gospels, Jesus preaches and demonstrates “active” ministry geared toward meeting the needs of others rather than our own. For the past several weeks through our scripture readings we have been witnessing the beginning of Jesus’s ministry – from his own baptism to the recruitment of his first followers. In today’s story we see him demonstrate how very different his message will be from those that came before him. Faith healers in Jesus’s time were actually not unusual – many of the ‘miracles’ we think of as specific to Jesus – healing illness, even raising from the dead – were demonstrated by “prophets” long before Jesus and even during his life. So the fact that he could exorcize a demon is not what was unusual about him. What was unusual is that he did it in a synagogue – and how he did it. He did not give a speech; he did not quote scripture; he did not make a show of it. He simply helped someone who needed it, thereby showing us what it means to have the authority of a true prophet of God.

It is sometimes hard to know what the right thing to do is, and it is hard to know who to listen to when you’re trying to figure it out. For the ancient Israelites, their “go to” spiritual leader was Moses so, like any other church community, they were traumatized when they found out that Moses was retiring and they would have to adjust to a new one. (You see, we are certainly not the first of God’s people to have trouble with change). That’s why he gave them some guidelines for knowing a true leader from a false one – and these things make perfect sense. First of all, a prophet is called – that is what the name “prophet” means – one who is called. Secondly, he tells them, the prophet will come from your own people. That person will be a believer just like you – and that means he will have all of the failings that any human being has. Most importantly, the prophet will always speak in the name of God. This last one is a little tricky, because, as we know, most false prophets will tell you they are speaking in the name of God too. So how do we tell the difference? We have to think about whether what they are saying – and asking us to do - are consistent with what we know about God- whether it makes sense.

Today is our Annual Meeting, so it is a good time for us to check in and look at what we are doing here at Grace. After all, like the ancient Israelites and the Corinthians that Paul spoke to, it is perfectly normal to wonder if your leaders know what they are doing - if what we are asking of you makes sense. So, what I want to do for a few minutes is to talk about how and why we, Grace’s leadership – (which is not, by the way, just me. The Rector is the Spiritual Leader of the Parish, but the laity of the congregation have equal power in making administrative decisions) – have made the choices and changes we have.

First of all, we pray. We start every vestry meeting with prayer and a Bible study so that we can center ourselves in God and ask for his guidance in our work. Secondly, we attempt to look at everything we do here in terms of how it does or does not contribute to the mission and ministry of our Savior Jesus Christ.

This can be a struggle. Many of you know that I am not a fan of voting on things. That’s because when we “vote,” there are always winners and losers – and no one wants to be a loser. But when we simply talk to one another until we reach a consensus there are no losers. Some people will be happier than others, but ideally everyone will feel that their point of view has been heard and considered. These conversations can be very hard. It is human nature to try to change others’ minds to our perspective and very few people enjoy being in conflict with other people. What I have found, however, is that allowing bad feelings to fester always ends up worse. When you read the gospels, you will find that Jesus spoke many hard truths and many people walked away from him and his burgeoning ministry as a result, but his actions always reflected his words, and his words were always consistent with what he believed.

Today’s psalm tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” This statement is echoed in Paul’s response to the behavior of the Christians in Corinth. Anything we think we know has to be weighed and measured against the inclusive love of God. We here at Grace, like many other people, struggle with many concerns: “What are the appropriate relationships between the church and its surrounding cultures?...How can the church act prophetically in society and at the same time maintain appropriate pastoral relations with its divided membership? How does the church relate to the pluralistic environment in which it finds itself? The range of issues is immense… [but] at the heart of it all is whether the church views Christ as one who teaches us to build fortresses to protect Christian community or as one who is himself the bridge to neighbors of other faiths and traditions. Paul wants his Corinthian friends and all of us to know that being certain of what is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate is not sufficient, even if one’s position is correct. Love is greater than knowledge.”[1]

Which is good, because there is always a lot we don’t know. That’s why there are three things that I always do when I need to make a decision: I find out as much as possible about whatever it is I’m deciding about. I try to think about what is most likely to bring the most people closer to God, and I pray. And I always try to remember two things: in the scope of God’s power, majesty, and splendor, I know nothing –so I have to always be willing to change my mind. Most importantly, I attempt to weigh every choice based on “the bottom line” of Christianity – love God, and love your neighbor, because Jesus told us that everything else is secondary. That means if someone suggests doing something at Grace that I know may be uncomfortable for some folks – which may be uncomfortable for me – we consider it nonetheless, because prophets come from among God’s people, and we need to listen for the prophets among us. We need to listen for the love. Your leadership understands that change is hard and living in Christian community is harder, but I have always believed and continue to believe – and hope you believe - that it is always, always worth it. AMEN.

[1]V. Bruce Rigdon, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 304, 306.

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