Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, 2012
Good Shepherd, Charlestown; Trinity Church, Lebanon

 

Let us Pray: O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee; Mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

This past week, our diocesan Summer youth camp was held at a new location in Massachusetts. Because it was a new location, no one was quite sure how it would work. The only time I had seen the site was in the middle of January. It was a very cold day. The lake was freezing and so was I. Summer cabins do not seem very inviting in January, the beachfront swimming area even less so. But the staff seemed friendly and we were in need of a new location. It was worth a try.

 

Well, the “try” worked. The week was very successful. We had a great group of campers and all went very well. The play was a hit, the talent show very successful and several of the campers, in an annual event, were able to “stump” the bishop.

 

But on the last full day of camp, something very unusual happened. Reports circulated that our chapel had been vandalized. The chalice and paten had disappeared. The wine bottles were emptied and prayer books scattered around the floor of the chapel. It was very troubling. And very mysterious. Who, we all wondered could have done such a thing. Certainly, it couldn't have been any of our campers. Or could it? Pranks are sometimes part of Summer camp, but this seemed just mean spirited. But everyone wondered.

 

Father Williams confided in the staff that he had planned the whole thing. He wanted the campers to know what it might be like to live in a place where Christians were persecuted. And, in many parts of the world, they are persecuted. Even in our country we often face persecution, however subtle.

 

During the day on Friday, activities occupied the attention of the campers, but now and then, a camper might wonder: “who could have vandalized our chapel?” There was no answer. But after a very busy day, just as the campers were getting ready for bed, they were told to visit a darkened cabin. They turned off their flashlights, they sat on the floor or on the bunks. Then two candles were lit. Father Williams explained that the chapel had not been vandalized by anyone. It was an exercise to teach the campers what it might be like to live in a place where Christians might have to leave their churches and worship in so-called “underground” churches. They would face great danger for practicing their faith. The campers and the staff became very quiet. And a service of holy communion began.

 

But this communion service was held without the benefit of the prayer book or a Bible. It was presented by the priest and bishop from memory. When memory failed, the spirit of the communion service was said with words that came from the heart and conveyed the full meaning of the written text. It was a valid communion service given in love and in the presence of God and his faithful people.

 

When it came time for the gospel, a certain parable was given from St. Luke's gospel. It is the gospel passage that includes these words: “two men went up into the temple to pray.” It is the gospel message for today. And that gospel message was spoken as I best remembered it, without the benefit of a written text. We remember that, when the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ was first spoken, it was indeed spoken. There were no written words to assist the speaker. They were living words, words spoken from the heart to the hearts of those who listened. They were living words, words that brought to people the life of Jesus Christ; words that spoke of the presence of Jesus in our world even today.

 

There were two men who went up to the Temple to pray. They went to the holiest place in all Jerusalem. They went there to be close to God. One man did indeed become close to God. Which one could it have bee. One of these men was a Pharisee. He certainly believed he was close to God. Hadn't he received great rewards? Clearly God favored him. He hadn't broken any laws; he wasn't an extortioner, an adulterer or an unjust man. He observed the people in the Temple. He noticed the publican. He thanked God that he wasn't like the publican. The Pharisee thought pretty highly of himself. But did his prayers reach God? Was he at one with God?

 

The publican could not look toward heaven. He asked God for mercy: “God be merciful,” he asked, “to me a sinner.” God be merciful to me a sinner. And that was all. Though the Pharisee may have spoken for quite a long time, extolling his virtues and thanking God that he was not like other men, he did not come close to God. He separated himself from God, just as he separated himself from other people. It was the publican who was right with God. He knew who he was and who God was. He placed himself in a right relationship with God; not criticizing others, but seeking forgiveness for his own sins.

 

Jesus tells this parable to open the hearts of all who would seek to know God. God is always ready to forgive. But the Pharisee must know this and learn to love God. And to love his neighbor. His prayers must be prayed to God – and not simply to himself. Sometimes, as we learn from the publican, all it takes is to ask of God: “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

 

On Friday evening, bread was broken and wine was poured out in a tiny cramped cabin in the Berkshire hills. All who were there shared the communion of God's people. Little hands reached out to receive the body of Christ, safe in the spiritual shelter of His holy church. The final prayers were spoken and the little band of faithful Christians left for bed.

 

As Father Williams and I packed up the makeshift altar, the plastic chalice and the remnants of the communion, we talked about the living word. Something very special had taken place. It is that way when God's word lives within the hearts and minds of faithful people. It is that way when the word of God is spoken in truth. Because it is known and understood at the deepest levels by all who have ears to hear.

 

Two men went up into the Temple to pray...and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

 

Let us pray: Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service; Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.