Saturday, October 18, 2003

Fr. Smith's Sermon Sunday October 19th

“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb.4:12)

I’m happy to announce to you that we have a new bishop in the Diocese of Arizona. Canon Kirk Smith was elected and I believe that this person will be a excellent chief shepherd for us and lead us through the difficult times in which we live and help us all to minister faithfully in Jesus’ name. The election of the bishop brought back to mind a question that a wise Monsignor once posed to a group of newly ordained priests: You have to make a decision--do you want to be a bishop or a priest?--and that decision will affect the rest of your life. Now, the old Monsignor wasn’t trying to be critical of all bishops, for obviously there are many fine ones--hopefully the one we just elected. What he was getting at is that a priest has to decide whether he or she is going to be a careerist or a servant of the least and that decision will influence the rest of life and what kind of priest the person will be. Hopefully, Kirk Smith, who we just elected, decided years ago he wanted to be a servant priest and was totally surprised by the Holy Spirit in this election!

And we can’t just pose the Monsignor’s question only to priests and bishops only, for we live in a time when the ministry of each baptized person is valued as essential for the mission of the church. If it is the case that some who begin as fine servant priests gradually get drawn to an upward, hierarchical career track, the same can be true for some lay persons for fall into the same error of clericalism, trading their servant role in for their own needs for importance and power in the church. When this happens it becomes hard to find out what anybody believes in: God? Their Role? Or Power?

Both our election of Bishop and today’s gospel bring this discussion of servant hood to the forefront. In the Gospel, James and John boldly approach Jesus, within earshot of the other disciples, and ask Jesus to do something for them. “What do you want me to do for you?“ Jesus asks. “Give us the highest places in your future Kingdom” they reply. When all the other apostles hear this they are upset and start arguing among themselves. Now the Apostles are portrayed in the Gospels as basically good people, nevertheless, we see them as ambitious, concerned with power, and their own backside. Jesus takes this encounter as a chance to teach them about true greatness. True greatness is found only in service and the high places in Kingdom will be given to the one who serves the needs of all especially those considered the least. Jesus explains that He has come not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for sinners. Jesus is the righteous Servant Isaiah foretold who would make many righteous and bear the iniquities of many and make intercession for transgressors.

Last week Fr. Daniel spoke of the “stuff” that can keep us from serving God and at the same time cut us off from our brothers and sisters. This week the teaching from the gospel is about power. The desire for power can have the same negative effect. When service is the motivation of our lives it will bring us into close personal contact with many of our brothers and sisters in the human family. But when power is the motivation for our lives we will find ourselves distanced from one another and the needs of our brothers and sisters. A life devoted to power disconnects us from both God and other people.

As Jesus watched the power struggles of his own chosen apostles, I think he is watching the struggle that is going on in our denomination today especially around the election of the first “openly gay” cleric to be elected in the Apostolic order. The division is great between some good and faithful people on both sides of the issue. While the main disagreement is claimed to around “faithfulness to scripture”, what if at root it is a question of power in the church? Faithful and committed Episcopalians elected Fr. Robinson bishop. Why? Some think it was just because he was Gay and in a committed relationship for a number of years. I really don’t think this is the case. I think rather that our brothers and sisters in New Hampshire and at convention saw in this man a “servant first” mentality and a servant leader who never in a million years thought he would ever be elected to serve as bishop. He has been such a Good Shepherd to those he has served over the years in “small” daily differences that it was this ministry that made the “big” difference of his election and confirmation. And this “Good Shepherd” quality of his life, acknowledged by those closest to him, adheres Gene Robinson to the “scriptural norm” of righteousness.

Let us be at peace about this matter and see what come of this. Remember the story of Gamaliel in the Acts of the Apostles? The disciples were preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name and get thrown into jail. In the middle of the night an Angel comes and lets them out. The next morning they are preaching and teaching again non-stop. They are arrested for a second time and brought before the Council of the Jews where they are ordered to stop. They respond: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” The Council wanted to have them all put to death, but a wise member of the Council, a Pharisee named Gamaliel stood up and had the followers of Jesus put out of the chamber for a short time. He then told the council something that I think applies to Gene Robinson’s election and the disturbing movement it portends for some in the church. Gamaliel reminded the Council about a certain Theudas and his 400 hundred men who rose up, aspiring to be somebody. However, Theudas was killed and his whole movement died with him. And the same thing happened with another Judas of Galilee and his followers. Gamaliel made his point: So in the present case, I tell you . . . Let them alone; because if this plan or this understanding is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them--in that case you may even be found fighting against God! (Acts 5:38-39) The wisdom of Gamaliel prevailed, at least for the Jews.

So we can lift up our hearts. God reigns and is in control. And God’s purposes will be accomplished if we let go of petty struggles for power and become servants of one another and this means servants of Christ whose image we bear. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink? Or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with? The disciples answer “We are able.” But they don’t really understand what Jesus is asking: Are you ready to be a servant? To lay down your life in a million different ways so that my Kingdom of love will prevail in this world? Jesus asks the same question of us this morning. And two thousand years later, it’s hard for us to say we don’t understand. Our answer may come slower than those first disciples, but hopefully the answer will be: we will serve, we will give our lives, we will be the slave of all, and in doing all this we will help God’s Kingdom come.