Love Story, Part II
A Sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension and my last Sunday at All Saints', Frederick
It's Mother's Day! I want to thank grandmothers, mothers and all the others who have been like mothers to us! I particularly want to honor and remember the matriarchs of All Saints' who are now saints and angels in heaven. And I want to tell you a story about my own sainted mother, now of blessed memory. It's a story I have told often but is worth telling one more time.
Ten years ago, the Episcopal Church made worldwide news when the election of our first openly gay bishop was approved by the required number of other bishops and diocesan standing committees. Both canonically and constitutionally equal access had now been granted within our church to all orders of ministry – bishop, priest, deacon and lay – whether the person happened to be male or female, gay or straight. Now, it was official. And in no time, we were hearing about it from all across the world.
Those who were in favor of ordaining both heterosexual and homosexual men and women were thrilled. Those who were not thrilled also let their strong feelings be known. Until that time, during a theological controversy, it was the clergy who received most of the negative, unhappy feedback. But this time, everyone even remotely connected to the Episcopal Church was getting it. Including my mother.
“I'm so tired of people coming up to me in the supermarket,” she lamented on the phone one day. “First it was women priests. Now they want to know what I think about a homosexual being allowed to be a bishop. People come up and want to argue with me. I just want to buy my groceries.”
“So, what DO you say, Mom?” I asked her. “Well,” she replied, “I've decided there are five things I want to tell people when they come up to me. Here's what I say.”
1. I love the Lord Jesus. 2. I pray for the church and the world, every day. 3. God is in charge. 4. I'm not leaving my church. 5. I'm going to leave the judgment up to God.
I memorized Mom's five-finger list. I've used it often as an example of theology from the aisle, whether in a church, a grocery store or anywhere we meet. And I'm bringing that “aisle theology” into the pulpit today, because it belongs here, too. It belongs in this pulpit because on this, the Sunday we recognize as the Sunday after the ascension of Jesus and the last Sunday before the feast of Pentecost – and my last Sunday with you good people of All Saints' – today, my farewell sermon is about love, prayer and forgiveness – and being made one in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Today's first two lessons come from a special liturgy for the departure of a rector. First, from the Hebrew scriptures we hear part of the song Moses sings as he bids farewell to the children of Israel, before he blesses them and dies, before he gets to enter the promised land. Moses begins with an image all too familiar to us this past week: falling rain. “May my teaching drop like rain. . .like gentle rain on grass, like showers on new growth” (32:2). My prayer is that “gentle” and “growth” help describe parts of your spiritual journey while I have been one of your teachers here at All Saints'. As I was writing this, I listened to the rain beat softly on the downspout near my window, and the music of the rain made me glad – and a bit sad, as I thought of what you have taught me, and how we will now be looking for new teachers.
As rector I have grown spiritually here at All Saints,' learning again the wisdom of one of the church's fourteenth-century saints. Julian of Norwich, whose feast day was this past Wednesday, met with countless pilgrims who needed spiritual guidance. Her book Revelations of Divine Love reflects Julian's clear and abiding awareness of God's never-ending, all-embracing love. My friends, no matter what has happened here in our life together – no matter how terrific or tough our times may have been, whether you have tasted sour grapes or sweet wine – the wise words of Julian say it all: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
As you know, growth – especially spiritual growth – is not always “gentle.” That prayerful song of Moses could not have been easy to sing, and it couldn't have been easy to hear. “(God's). . .children have dealt falsely with (God), a perverse and crooked generation. . .” Later Moses adds, “they are. . .children in whom there is no faithfulness” (32:19-20). I don't know about you, but I don't like being called faithless, perverse or crooked – especially by God. The truth is, that's what we human beings are capable of.
The great Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner once said that, before we can know what the Good News is, we have to acknowledge and face the bad news. “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news,” said Buechner. “It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror, all in a lather, what he sees is at least eight parts thicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But,” he says, “it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished (anyway), forgiven (anyway) – bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy” (Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale).
There's Good News today. But first, there's bad news. Moses never reached the promised land. And St. Paul never healed the Corinthian church. The people of Corinth had a really bad reputation in the ancient world as an unruly, hard-drinking, promiscuous bunch. Something like the folks who partied with the “Great Gatsby.”
“When Paul arrived,” we are told, “and many of them became believers in Jesus, they brought their reputations with them right into church. Paul spent a year and a half with them as their pastor, going over. . .the 'good news' in detail, showing them to live out this new life of salvation, (healing) and holiness as a community of believers. Sometime later Paul received a report from one of the Corinthian families that, in his absence, things had more or less fallen apart. . ..” (Introduction to I Corinthians, The Message, Eugene Peterson). “I fed you with milk, not solid food,” says Paul in the third chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. “You were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready” (3:2). The Corinthian church folk were acting like infants. Like the adult children of Israel in Moses' day. Not much had changed. Even after Jesus had lived, died and risen again, even after Paul had his conversion experience and became the apostle Paul – even then, not much had changed.
Maybe not much has changed for you in the past five years. Maybe there's been LOTS of change. Changes take place in our Christian life and faith when we respond to the Good News of God in Christ. Some say that the Gospel can be reduced to three words: “You are forgiven.” No matter what we have done or left undone, we are forgiven. Do you believe that? Do you believe it for yourself? Don't start wondering if something I or someone else did is forgivable. Focus on yourself. Or as one of my teachers puts it, “When the going gets tough, turn to wonder.” You might be wondering: Will God forgive me for THAT? Is there any sin that is unforgivable? Does God really love me, no matter what? Pray about those things, sisters and brothers. Prayer, my mother used to say, doesn't just change things. It changes us.
So. . .what's changed since I came to be rector here five years ago? That's the kind of question dozens of you have been willing to try and answer over the past few weeks. Through a process called “the parish Examen,” we have been conducting a spiritual “exit interview,” examining what has been life-giving about the time and ministry we have shared – and what has not. The Good News is that many life-giving themes of our shared time of ministry have emerged. And from where I stand, there is a whole lot of other good news: a great new Vestry, led by Mark Gibson, ready to walk with you through this transition, as they call and y'all minister with a new, interim rector; a fabulous, rock-star staff, led by the Rev. Jessica Knowles and Katie Schwartz, who will help keep all the trains running on time; a revitalized and energized Worship Team; a strong and faithful Pastoral Care Team; a wonderful web of volunteers in all areas of ministry – all of them, all of you stand poised to begin a new chapter of life in this 271-year-old parish called All Saints'. And all of the saints and angels, all those matriarchs and patriarchs are rooting for you and praying for you.
Don't forget: “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news.” Here at All Saints', as in Corinth, there is sin. Here at All Saints', as in the Sinai wilderness, there is disobedience. Welcome to humanity! No matter where we may be – whether we are at All Saints', Frederick, or at Holy Communion, Memphis, where my father still belongs; or at Calvary, Memphis, where my wife still serves as a priest; or at St. Matthew's, Louisville, where I will begin my new ministry later this week as interim rector – you and I need to believe in a God who is in charge – of our churches, our lives, our world. A God who transforms guilt and sin into forgiveness. A God who turns disobedience into faithfulness. A God who wipes away shame and pours out grace overflowing. A God who never leaves us or forsakes us. A God who loves us. NO exceptions. Look at that! It's a sign! (It reads: “God loves you. No exceptions.”)
That's why we need to keep praying today's collect, the prayer that collects up all our prayers, the one we began with today: “Grant that your church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in one body by one Spirit. . .” That's why we need the Good News of the Gospel reading today. “That they all may be one” is the prayer of Jesus for his disciples. “That you all may be one” is my prayer for you, as I take my leave.
Last week I sang a chant we've printed in the beginning of today's bulletin. I want to sing it again in a moment, three times, and I ask that you join me, as the Spirit moves you. God, call us home – once again, to your temple, your sacred space. Christ, make us one – in our glorious difference and our great diversity. Holy Spirit, come – not just next Sunday, on Pentecost, but on every day. Come, Holy Spirit, and make us one in you. Come and lay to rest our many divisions. Come, so that Love will be done. Because we know, we do believe that God is love, forgiveness, faithfulness. God in Christ will bring us together and lead us, from grace to grace. OUR job is also to love, to pray, and to hang in there and let God make the judgments as well as grant the forgiveness each and everyone of us needs.
Thank you, saints of All Saints'. Together we have worked, played, laughed, cried, fought and forgiven each other. We have shared a wonderful and blessed season of ministry. May God richly bless your next chapter of life and ministry together.
God, call us home. Christ, make us one. Holy Spirit, come! Love will be done.
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
May 12, 2013