St. Mark's Episcopal Church

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Epiphany 3 2011 Sermon
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Corby Varness

A young man called Jesus has arrived in Galilee and is going about quoting the old teachings of Isaiah.  He tells how light has come to a land of great darkness.  His message was simple and easy to understand: Repent.  Change your ways because ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Notice that he is not telling us that somewhere, off in the distance or far in the future will be the kingdom of heaven.  No.  It has come near.  How exciting to hear that nearby, right around the corner, the kingdom of heaven has come!  All you need to do to be a part of it is change your ways, maybe a little, maybe a lot.  It depends on how you have been acting.           

Jesus strolls on by the Sea of Galilee and sees men fishing.  I wonder if these young fishermen have heard rumor of this exciting young preacher.  We don’t know.  He approaches them and says, ‘follow me.’  With these simple words, Jesus calls the young men to fall into step beside him.  “Come, follow me.”  Just like that, they drop their nets, leave their boats, hug their fathers and change their lives.  Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John turn from the sea toward Jesus and off they go to change the world.           

Don’t you wonder about this?  Would any of us do this?  If Jesus walked up to me today, this morning, here in church, right now and said, “Follow me,” what would I do?  I’d have to go home and pack, convince Kevin and Jeff to come with me, arrange for someone to take care of my dog, turn off my cable, turn down the heat, rent out my home, fill my prescriptions, charge my IPOD and my phone ... I can’t see an end to the list of preparations I’d have to make before I could take off.  I really wish I could say that I would drop everything, including my family and just walk out of church today next to Jesus.  Don’t you?          

But you know, we have chosen to follow Jesus.  Some people make spectacular, instantaneous choices to change their lives and accept Jesus as their personal savior.  My choice to follow Jesus wasn’t like that.  My choice has come slowly, almost imperceptibly.  Little by little, over years I’ve found myself thinking differently about my life, about my relationships, about God.  I’ve found myself just generally trying to be a better person.  The biggest change for me has been trying to love my enemies ... or at least to hear their side of the story, even when I know that I’m right and they’re wrong!           

It is hard to be a good follower of Christ and it always has been!  Look at our reading from 1 Corinthians!  This is very, very early in the church, maybe 20 years after Jesus died.  Paul had spent over a year in Corinth preaching and starting new churches.  He worked hard to share his message of this loving God made man.   He taught the powerful message of Jesus dying on the cross because of his love for us.             

He chose a complex place to work.  Corinth was a major trading center.  People came there from all over and had many different beliefs and traditions.   Paul taught Corinthians from all these different backgrounds and faiths to come together in this radical new faith.  Try to imagine how complex it must have been to start a new church.  Who was to be a part of it? Gentiles?  Jews?  Pagans?  How would they worship?  What dietary laws would they follow?  How important was it to remember the last supper? Who was to lead them?  What was the role of women?  Exactly what did they believe?  What was their purpose?           

Churches today share these same questions.  Whom do we include in our churches?  People just like us?  Immigrants?  Gay people?  Do we remember the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and celebrate the Eucharist or do we have Morning Prayer?  Some churches only have communion once a year.  How do we worship?  We follow the lectionary.  Many churches don’t.  Who are our leaders?  Do we allow women leadership roles in our church?  Many churches don’t.  The issues that faced the church in it’s first decades are alive today.           

Let’s go back to the year 53 when this letter was probably written.  Paul had been to Corinth to establish churches and now he has moved on to Thessalonica.  He hears in letters from Chloe and others in Corinth that things are not going well.  The people of Corinth have become divided into groups and are arguing.  They are claiming to belong to Paul or Apollos or Cephas or Christ.  Today we think that maybe Paul’s people were the poorer members and Apollo’s were the more well to do.  Those who followed Cephas, aka Peter might have been converted Jews.  Even those who claimed to belong to Christ might have thought themselves different, or better than the others.  They were divided and squabbling.            

Paul sounds fed up.  First he appeals to his dear brothers and sisters to be in agreement, to have no divisions amongst themselves.  He asks that they be united in the same mind and the same purpose.  How sad he must be to see how much these people have missed the message?  He asks: “Has Christ been divided?”             

Has Christ been divided today?  Does Christ look down on all of his followers around the world and say, “Wow, my beloved are divided and squabbling about how to follow me.  But look!  Those Episcopalians at St. Marks in Montesano, Washington are the only ones who have it right!  Everyone else is mistaken in how they worship me!”  I kind of doubt it.  I doubt that Christ cares how we choose to play out his message of love in our many churches ... as long as we put love first in our lives, maybe all or our differences don’t matter that much!           

Paul ends this letter to the Corinthians by going for the jugular.  “Hey, you petty children!  Have you forgotten what it’s all about?  Our messiah, our Christ DIED for us.  He died on the cross out of love for us.  That message of love is the whole deal.  If you’ve forgotten that you are lost. Do not make folly of the message of the cross.”          

Christ died full of love for us.  He does not ask us to die for him.  He asks us to love one another as he loves us.  How are we doing?  Since the shootings in Tucson there has been much talk about toning down the national debate, talk of a return to civility in our discourse.  Sorry, I can’t help but also hear in most of this calming talk a lot of blame.  “We’ll tone down our talk as soon as those crazy nuts on the other side quit their talk!”  No one wants to start first.   I get all heated up about everything and I have realized this: it starts with me.  Corby.  Calm down.  I must change my own words.  Love has to start with me.             

Christ forgave us our sins.  Christ died in love with us.  That is the message of the cross.  We have responded to that in our lives, in our churches, in our country, by being divided and squabbling, just like the early church.   I found this message of peace in Sojourner’s magazine.  I liked it so much that I’ve printed copies of it for you all.  This peace and civility pledge starts:   (Link to the full pledge is here.)       

“The church can offer a message of hope and reconciliation to a nation that is hurting and deeply divided. We pledge to God and to each other that we will lead by example in a country where civil discourse and peacemaking are rare. We will work to model a better way in how we treat each other in our many communities, across religious and political lines. We will strive to create common prayer and community discussion as we come together to seek God's will for our nation and our world.”            

 

Christ asks us every moment of every day: “Will you follow me?”  We say, “Yes!”  And we turn, we change our way, we walk together in love with him and each other.  Let us sing an anthem to that love as we step forward united in love:

We are one in the Spirit,
we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the Spirit
we are one in the Lord,
And we pray that all unity
may one day be restored:
And they'll know we are Christians
By our love, by our love,
Yes, they'll know we are Christians
By our love.

 

We will walk with each other
we will walk hand in hand
we will walk with each other
we will walk hand in hand
and together we'll spread the news
that God is in our land:
And they'll know we are Christians
By our love, by our love,
Yes, they'll know we are Christians
By our love.

We will work with each other
we will work side by side
We will work with each other
We will work side by side
And we'll guard each man's dignity
and save each man's pride:
And they'll know we are Christians
By our love, by our love
Yes, they'll know we are Christians
By our love.

 

 
 
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