30 Aug Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 3rd, 2021
Holy Gospel: Mark 10:2-16
Rev. Stephen McPeek
So I want to before I start my sermon assure you. That was kind of a hard Gospel to hear and I’m going to sidestep it this morning because I have something else I’d like to preach from Hebrews. But I just want to say to those of you who might be stirred up in turmoil because of this Gospel: Please come see me, let’s talk about it. There are other ways, many ways to see this text, and so I don’t want you leaving here feeling down or like guilty about it, just come and see me and let’s talk.
One year ago, one year ago you called me to be your priest in charge. The search committee outlined two things that they were looking for: Number one, a priest who is pastoral. And number two, a priest who can lead.
I came on board and I preached my first sermon. I don’t know if any of you remember anything of what I said a year ago, but I preached from psalm 23 about the Good Shepherd which was our song for that day and interestingly, it was also proper 23 of the liturgical year and I made reference in the sermon to characteristics of good leadership as they are found in this song of the Good Shepherd and in this sermon I made a very strong commitment to you. These are some of the things I said a year ago.
I said this, psalm 23, is a picture of a good leader. It’s the way God is towards us. It’s the way I have experienced God in my life and it’s the way that we as priests and pastors and leaders are called to be. And this is my commitment to you and I want to say it to you a fresh today at the beginning of the second year.
I will do my very best to love and care for you, to guide you and to be a staunch advocate and ally for you.
I commit to be compassionate and merciful with you.
I commit to be kind and hospitable towards you.
I commit to lead firmly and always in gentleness and love.
I commit to speak directly to you and with you if I have questions I don’t understand, if I don’t agree, I will not gossip about you or talk behind your back, I will not gossip about others with you and I will not entertain gossip about you, about from others about you.
I will be a Good Shepherd to you and will serve you with love.
This is my commitment to you personally and corporately.
God has called me here, and I am here for you, you may hold me to these commitments.
It’s been a hard year on many levels. We walked through the valley of the shadow of death together, I have not baptized a single person, I have not married a single couple, but I have held memorial services for people who have died. I’ve done a memorial service for Jeff’s dad, three of them actually. I did a memorial service for Marcel’s mom, for Salmas mom, for Andrew, Theresa, for Darryl. And I have had many deep and meaningful conversations with many of you, and some of you have shared with me your loss of loved ones and your challenges in your life right now.
As a family it’s been a challenging year too. We’ve had some really real struggles with Alexis in school, Vinny has been facing a life threatening illness.Together it’s been a year of navigating this Covid era of church, with all of its technological challenges, right Miriam? Online services, hybrid services in the Chapel and now here in the sanctuary. It’s been a year of trying to figure out how to relate to a congregation that is not visible and when visible only partially visible. How to build meaningful relationships in an environment of distancing. Through it all, I have tried hard to remain true to my commitment to you, whether I have been successful or not is something only you can say.
This year has shaken our foundations and has forced us to ask questions about the future of the church. Questions that are still not answerd and many questions that are still not asked. These are questions that congregations all over the world are asking right now, and some of them are answering the questions, the difficult questions by closing up shop and closing their doors.
According to David Kimmelman, the president of the barna group, one in five churches in the United States is closing because people are not returning to church after taking a Covid break. He said a lot of people are recognizing that relationships that they thought were much deeper with people, were actually not as deep as they thought. According to the same report from Barna many pastors are discouraged and in a drop from 70% only 58% of pastors interviewed are confident that their churches will survive a pandemic. In an article from January 5th 2021 the Bishop of Manchester, the Church of England, warned of accelerating church closures due to a drop in financial giving. One of the most troubling articles I read was dated this summer July 6th 2021 from Ryan Berge from the Eastern Illinois university and the title of this article was ‘The death of the Episcopal Church is near, …’. It was a follow up to another article written by the same author for the publication religion in public, with the title ‘The data is clear, Episcopalians are in trouble’.
So you can imagine, for me, as a new Episcopal priest what these kind of articles do: they shake it up a little bit, they make me scared and they make me wonder. Wow, if this is happening around the world, who are we? So this author had good and bad news for us. The good news is that, and this is something that we experience here as well, the good news is that giving and income of Episcopal Churches has been relatively consistent over the last six years and, in fact, even increasing slightly, but here’s the bad news about that: Most of this giving is coming from an older population and some of the older people are leaving the quests to us in their roles which raises our income. The further bad news is that church attendance in the Episcopal Church has dropped and – listen to this – by 25% over the last 10 years and continues to consistently decline.
The writer of Hebrews delivers a beautiful and masterful description of Jesus in today’s Epistle. Such words come only by revelation. The writer describes Jesus as the reflection of the beauty of God, the radiance of this light, illuminess light. He further describes Jesus as the reflected brightness. What a breathtaking description written by someone who hadn’t personally been with Jesus and yet he must have had some kind of a revelation that allowed his eyes to see the beauty of Jesus.
He goes on to describe Jesus as the exact imprint of God, stepped by fire forward as a prototype of God in the fire of God’s own being. It means that Jesus is the precise reproduction of God the father. He is all that we need to understand God. Jesus connects Heaven and earth. So what is the pattern of this reproduction of God that Jesus brought to us. The pattern is so different from what we see out in the world today, especially in our current politics from people in high places. The pattern, as described in Hebrews, is a cruciform pattern. It is the shape of the cross. Jesus demonstrated that the way of God is letting go of all that makes you and us higher and better than others, whether be power by position, well, color of our skin, proximity to power, educational attainment, whatever it may be, letting go of all that makes us higher and better than others.
And the way of God has shown and Jesus is entering into the world of others, whether be humans or creation and sharing in the challenges and suffering of others. Jesus demonstrated this, that he made himself lower, a little lower than even the angels, and he came to live among us. He became acquainted with our life challenges and suffering to the point that he was willing to wrestle with everything that is destructive and alienating all the way to tasting death, something that a divine being should never have to experience.
We read in Hebrews that Jesus was perfected by the things he suffered. He was made complete and brought to the proposed end goal of his life through encountering our suffering. It was Jesus’s journey through suffering that brought us closer to him and that enabled us to be called brothers and sisters by the divine. It was through this passage through suffering that Jesus was crowned with glory and honor.
This, my siblings in Christ, is the pattern of God, the Servant King. This is the pattern that we too as followers of Jesus are called to give ourselves to. All through the ages, those who are gripped by the beauty of God. Like the writer of Hebrews was gave themselves to this pattern St Francis of Assisi, whose feast we celebrate tomorrow and who we connect with the blessings of animals, was not just a nice hippie like guy who loved animals and loved creation. As a young person Francis was gripped by this beauty of God and the way Jesus lived. He came from a wealthy family and he walked away from all of it. Even walked away from his family, his dad reminded him one day, stopped him and reminded him of where his wealth came from. And Francis, his conviction was so strong that standing there in front of his – spot i’m not going to do it – standing there in front of his father stripped down naked, dropped the clothes on the ground, turned away and walked to follow Jesus.
Because he relinquished the earthly things that made him higher and better than others, he was able to be close to people and to all of creation and this enabled him to even call nature brother son and sister moon. Francis was captivated by the beauty of God, the radiance of and was drawn into this cruciform life.
This my siblings in Christ is the essence of Church. The Church is a moving body made up of US people who have been marked by the radiance of God, of god’s beauty and together we have chosen to be drawn into the cruciform life of Christ, a life of walking away from the things that make us higher and better than others, so that we can serve the world around us. Together we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and we partake of the life of Jesus when we celebrate the eucharist together around this table. It’s a three fold formula: intimacy with God, loving one another and serving those around us. So let’s come back as we come to a close to the reality of our own situation. We have many things to face as a church. Just as almost every other church in the western world is facing, we, Christ the King, have to face hard questions: Will we make it through the pandemic? Perhaps the issues are less about the logistical and financial issues of renovating our weary dirty walls. And insulating our parish house, which is so hot in the summer. Things that we wrestle with and that are important somewhere along the line. But perhaps it’s the truth of Hebrews that speaks to the more pressing issues. If we are gripped by the radiance of God and are caught up in the cruciform pattern of the life of Jesus, then we will be a strong church and a vibrant church. And then facilities are not the most important thing. It’s what goes on in our lives in God and one another.
So at the beginning of the second year as priest in charge of this Anglican Episcopal Church of Christ the King I make the same commitment to you that I made at the beginning of my first year and I aske once again that you hold me to that commitment. I have come to love and appreciate so many of you, I know many of you by name now, and I know your stories. And I look forward to connecting with so many more of you. More than anything else I commit to invest myself in the things that really matter while also doing my part to attend to the logistical and financial needs that we face.
Holy Gospel: Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again boutthis matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commitsadultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.