Sermon Archives

Sunday, September 27, 2015
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21, Year B)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
Collect for Proper 19
Where God Is

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Collect for Proper 19)

Every fall, as the program year begins and as we make preparations for the new fiscal year ahead, we revisit the fore core areas of our common life and ministry:  worship, formation, community, and service.  Everything we do as a Christian community fits into one of these four core functions of the church, and, more often than not, what we do crosses over from one category of our life to another.  The Wednesday Catechumenate, while focused on our formation as adults in faith, naturally builds our community as well.  Similarly, our Crossroads ministry team which will form again in a few weeks’ time, or our Shelter Week Meal team, which is coming together even now, will deepen the sense of community among those that serve these important meals even while they are engaged in an intentional act of service to our neighbors.

Our Gospel reading today, as it so often does, reminds us of a crucial fact of our common life:  When we consider both our commitment to service as well as our responsibility to share the life-giving truth of the Gospel, we cannot always say for certain where God will be active. This means two things primarily. It means that we have learnt to be wary about passing judgement on others, and we have found that partnerships in our work produce much more fruit than if we were to do something on our own.

Let’s look again at that Gospel reading.  In today’s lesson, the disciples reveal two basic temptations of the religious: jealousy and exclusivism.

You will remember that, just before our reading, the disciples had failed to heal an epileptic boy. Now they want to stop someone who is managing to do what they could not do – simply because he is not part of their group. This is a frequent, and age old, problem for religious people, a problem that is still very much with us today. Very little is more unattractive to non-Christians than the manner in which we contend with each other, not just between denominations but within our respective churches, and, even more, within our individual congregations. We do not know how to “be at peace with one another.”

But there is another them here, one that can shape us and bear much fruit if we let it:  be very careful about putting limits to the presence and activity of God in the human community.

We do say, as well as we can, that we know God to be present in a range of areas of our life.

We know God to be present in our worship, in our sacramental life, and when two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name. We know the presence of God in a pastoral touch or quiet presence of a Stephen’s Minister. We know the presence of God in a meal shared, a marriage celebrated, or a church hall filled with new and old friends alike. We have been assured that God is in all these things that we do, whether or not we feel God’s presence. If we do certain things, and act in certain ways, we are confident that we do them in God’s company.

And so we can often say with confidence where God is.

But we have also learnt that we cannot always say where God is not. (Now obviously we can say in some circumstances where God is not. God is not in the evil actions of men and women and the full range of evil action in the world; but that is not I mean to be discussing this morning.)

Our experience, in fact, tells us something different and something very important. We have all been involved in activities that have had absolutely no obvious religious or spiritual aspect, perhaps even our professions. Yet there have been times, even long periods of time I suspect (and hope), that have been clearly filled with God’s presence, times so filled with God’s presence that we might even call such times holy, in spite of their entirely non-religious context.

It might have been a meeting with a remarkable person who changed our life. Or a provacative meal shared with people that opened up for us a new world of thought. Or a chance encounter that resulted in a new opportunity for someone in need. Or it might have been in the workplace where we discovered that our lives were shot through with meaning and that together with those who had no particular religious affiliation we were accomplishing together something for good. None of it apparently to do with God in any primary way, but all of it, in retrospect, full of God.

It happens all the time.

And this is Jesus’ point!  It’s one thing to point out where God is active, but beware of insisting where God is not, for God can show up anywhere.  Jesus is so clear about this that he uses some of the most striking and extreme language in the Scriptures to make his point – and to keep us attentive this morning.  Jesus is not recommending murder or self-mutilation, of course, but he is trying to drive his point home – if you or any bit of you, for that matter, gets in the way of this fundamental way of looking at the world and helping others to see the same thing, you had better deal with it or you will render yourselves useless for the mission of God in the world.  And as assuredly as his disciples and the religious community of his day grappled with this truth, we continue to struggle with it as well.  Yet, Jesus’ message remains:  God will be who God will be wherever God will be.

It’s one thing to point out where God is; it’s an entirely other thing to insist on where God is not.  Do the one, Jesus reminds us; be wary of the other.

This, in fact, is one of the great gifts of the Christian community at its best.  It is the gift of illumination, if you will.  If we choose, we have the great opportunity to shine a light on the wondrous activity of God that we have seen and experienced, especially for those who would limit God’s activity to a chosen few.   We know, first hand, that God’s activity is not limited to the walls of the Church or the lives of the saints – God is much too big and far too present in this world for such limitations.  To this we can be witnesses, for if we know one thing for sure, it is that the God we worship will show up in the most unlikely of scenarios and in the most unlikely of people.