Monday, May 9, 2016

Telling Jesus' story

During Marine field training at Parris Island, South Carolina, a drill instructor threw a pinecone among the recruits and yelled, "Grenade!" The trainees immediately turned away and hit the ground. "Just as I suspected," chided the drill instructor. "Not a hero among you. Didn't anyone want to jump on that grenade to save the others?"
A little later, the DI again threw a pinecone. This time, all of the recruits but one jumped on the "grenade." "Why," demanded the instructor, "are you still standing there?"
"Sir," the recruit replied, "someone had to live to tell about it."[1]
Holy Nativity has experienced some very difficult times. You may feel heroic, having survived something equivalent to, or even worse than, a grenade attack. Importantly, you have survived, individually and as a parish and school. So, what is the story you have lived to tell? This morning's gospel reading,[2] Jesus' prayer for his disciples, suggests that our story as Christians has at least three parts.
First, Jesus prays that God's love for him may also be in his disciples. That is, he seeks the gift of God's love for us, a lesson analogous to the Maine Corps' ethos of always taking care of your Marines.
Suicide rates in the United States, and in other affluent countries, are rising. Part of the explanation is opioid abuse, which frequently begins with prescription painkillers that may or may not relieve a person's real discomfort or disease. Research repeatedly shows that money, beyond an annual income of about $72,000 in this country, and possessions do not make people happy. What's more important in determining happiness than income is a person's perception of her/his wealth compared to that of peers. Economic inequality is expanding the gap between the top 1% and the rest of us. Lastly, the real, enduring source of happiness is spiritual health. However, participation in religious communities is declining while the number of persons who self-identify as spiritual but not religious is growing. Generally, this group lacks both spiritual depth and a clear path for developing spiritual depth and health.
Episcopal priest Bob Libby learned that a parishioner named Sally whom he had never seen at the Church was hospitalized. Nevertheless, he followed his usual practice of visiting the sick. The duty nurse paused awkwardly before directing him to Sally's room. It was a semi-private room with the curtain drawn between the beds. When he asked the woman in the first bed, which was surrounded by flowers, if she was Sally, the woman pointed to the other bed. There he saw a woman who appeared to be in her mid-50s, with an IV in her arm, staring at the curtain. Fr Bob started to introduce himself, but she rudely interrupted demanding to see the nurse while complaining that she had been paging the nurse for fifteen minutes and that nobody ever came. So Bob, telling Sally where he was going, went to the nurse's station and relayed her message. While Bob waited at the nurse's station for a nurse to return from checking on Sally, the another nurse, who had rolled her eyes at his relaying Sally's request, explained that Sally constantly paged the nurses and complained incessantly about the hospital, her treatment, her family, and her life.
When the nurse returned from Sally's room and assured him that everything was ok, Fr Bob went to see Sally. True to form, she complained about the hospital, her treatment, her family, and her life. During subsequent visits, he heard an unending tale of woe and misery. When he inquired about bringing her Holy Communion, she declined. His visits seemed to produce no beneficial effects nor did they appear to contribute to his establishing a helpful pastoral relationship with Sally. So, Fr Bob found himself looking for excuses not to visit Sally and feeling like the visits were an unwelcome chore.
One day, he surprisingly discovered Sally in a better mood. She asked if he could bring communion; startled, he agreed. On his next visit, when he returned to celebrate Holy Communion, at the Lord's Prayer, she and her roommate held hands. Following the service, the rest of the story came out. One evening, whether out of compassion or self-defense, Sally's new roommate had reached out to Sally and said, "It's time to be quiet now. Let's hold hands and say the Lord's Prayer before going to sleep." Through that simple gesture, which incarnated God's compassion in a stranger, healing came to Sally. Her attitude about herself, her family, and her life changed.[3] This is Jesus' prayer for us.
Second, Jesus prays for our unity, that we may be one, even as he and God are one. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, speaking to the bishops assembled for the last Lambeth Conference, in the midst of intense conflict over decisions by the US Episcopal Church to ordain openly gay persons and to bless same sex marriages, conflict more acrimonious and bitter than anything Holy Nativity has experienced, said:
Our unity is not mutual forbearance but being summoned and drawn into the same place before the Father's throne… that's the unity which is inseparable from truth. It's broken not when we simply disagree but when we stop being able to see in each other the same kind of conviction of being called by an authoritative voice into a place where none of us has an automatic right to stand.[4]
Christian unity does not require that we agree with one another. Christian unity does require that we respect one another, for each of us is God's child made in God's image.
Third, the passage presumes that each generation of disciples will continue to attract new disciples, i.e., Jesus prays not only for his disciples but also for those who will become disciples because of the witness of his current disciples. This morning's first reading,[5] like much of the Book of Acts, records the faithful witness of the early Church.
Remember the story about the Marine recruit with which I began this sermon: someone has to live to tell the story. We are that someone. As St. Francis famously said, Preach the gospel always, and, if necessary, use words.
A pastor tells of making a hospital visit. The hospital seemed unusually quiet as he made his way down the hall to visit a church member who had suffered a stroke. After knocking on the door, he entered the room and before he spoke, the daughter said, "Daddy, guess who has come to see you?" He immediately replied, "It's my preacher." The daughter, surprised at his accuracy, asked, "How did you know that?" The father simply replied, "I know that walk."[6]
Christianity is not so much a set of beliefs as the trajectory of a person’s life. Is your life aiming toward loving God and others?
The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.[7] Amen.

George M. Clifford, III
Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 8, 2016
Church of the Holy Nativity
Honolulu, HI



[1] Nellie A. Pennella, "Humor in Uniform," Reader's Digest, November 1994, p. 126.
[2] John 17:20-26.
[3] Bob Libby, Grace Happens (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1994), pp. 55-59.
[4] Rowan Williams, http://www.lambethconference.org/daily/news.cfm/2008/8/3/ACNS4511 quoted in Charles F. Raven, Shadow Gospel: Rowan Williams and the Anglican Communion Crisis (Oxford, UK: Latimer Trust, 2010), p. 137.
[5] Acts 16:16-34.
[6] David M. Hughes, "Drop Everything!" in Following Jesus, ed. W. H. Gloer (Macon, GA: Smythe & Helwys Publishing, 1994).
[7] Revelation 22:17.

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