Keep the Fires Burning! – May 19, 2019
Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang, Rector
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
May new life spring forth in every place and God, Creator, Redeemer, and Life-giving Spirit be our foundation. Amen.
“Little children, I will be with you only a little longer…” You can imagine how these words in today’s Gospel struck me as I sat down to write on of the last sermons I will preach as your rector.
I’m going to begin by telling one of my favorite stories that resulted in great hilarity at its first review then debunk a little disturbing theology I find in the opening prayer today and last week’s Gospel, and offer some pastoral reflections for you as you move forward to the next chapter in the life of St. Paul’s Church. Or…we could dive into the reading from Acts and talk about circumcision? No?
So, Alice Grayson was supposed to bake a cake for the Church bake sale, but forgot to do it until the last minute. She remembered it the morning of the sale and found a dusty old Angel food cake mix in the back of her kitchen cabinet. She quickly made it while drying her hair, getting dressed, and helping her son pack up for Scout camp.
When Alice took the cake from the oven the center had dropped flat and the cake was horribly disfigured. There was no time to bake another cake so she looked around the house for something to build up the center of the cake. Alice found it in the bathroom—a roll of toilet paper. She plunked it in and then covered it with icing.
The finished product looked beautiful so she rushed it to the church but, before she left, Alice gave her daughter some money and instructions to be at the bake sale the minute it opened, buy that cake and bring it home. When her daughter arrived at the sale, she found that the attractive perfect cake had already been sold. Alice was mortified. Her only relief was that her name was not on that cake.
The next day she was invited to a fancy luncheon at the home of a friend of a friend. She really did not want to go because the hostess was a snob but could not think of an excuse to avoid it. The meal was elegant, the company was definitely upper crust and to Alice’s horror there in the center of the buffet table sat the cake in question.
Alice felt the blood drain from her and was about to rush into the kitchen to fess us to her hostess, but before she could get to her feet, the Mayor’s wife said, “What a beautiful cake!” Alice sat back in her chair and breathed a huge sigh of relief when she heard her hostess respond, “Thank you, I baked it myself.”
Pretty smug hostess, she was; not very honest. And when she cut that cake, she got her just desserts, pardon the pun. I’m guessing she was also very self-righteous; not unlike some Christians who also don’t always tell the truth about Jesus. I have a magnet on my refrigerator that shows a well-dressed gentleman answering the phone with pen and pad in hand ready to take down a message. The caption reads: “Jesus called. He wants his religion back.”
You see, I have a problem with the dogmatic stance that Christians hold that Jesus is the only way to God; everyone else is out. Their goose is cooked. Two major denominations declare that each is the One, True Church established by Christ and that outside their church there is no salvation.
Somehow there seems to be a disconnect between the Jesus of radical inclusion that I know, the God who has unconditional love for all, and the exclusionary texts that some Christians use to demean people of other faith traditions—or those with no religious affiliation at all. The fruit of such religious and racial bigotry is manifest in the shootings, bombings, and burnings of Synagogues, Mosques, and African-American Churches that are endemic.
Jesus made the statement about being “the way, the truth, and the life” at the Last Supper,” adding that no one comes to the Father but by Jesus. As Barbara Brown Taylor notes in her recent book, Holy Envy, the subject of that discourse was his imminent arrest, death, and the real possibility that his closest friends who were dining with him that night would be the next to die because they had chosen his way, his truth, and his life.
He was reassuring them that they made the right choice. He is the only way for them. He is the only way for me. Maybe he is the only way for you. I don’t believe that he meant that all other paths of faith are bad choices and will lead to condemnation.
The Gospels are full of stories about Jesus engaging religious strangers—Romans, Samaritans, Canaanites, Syrophoenicians—those who worshipped other gods or worshipped the same one as he did in an unorthodox way.
New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, who is Jewish, tells the story of how she imagines herself arriving at the gate to heaven after a long and happy life. While she is waiting in line to see whether St. Peter will admit her, she makes a list of everything she wanted to ask him while she was still teaching: “Can you speak Greek? Where did you go when you wandered off in the middle of Acts? What happened to your wife?”
When it is finally her turn to tale to St. Pater, she starts pelting him with so many questions that he just waves her through. This concerns the next person in line who knows that Dr. Levine is Jewish. “Excuse me,” the guy says to St. Peter,” but I don’t think she’s supposed to be here.”
This is when Jesus sticks his head through the gates and says, “It’s fine, Peter. I know her, and she’s okay by me. Get it? No one comes to the Father but by me, and she’s okay by me. The point of Levine’s story is that no church, no church doctrine, no individual gets to referee, gets to judge, gets to decide who enters the presence of God.
In a sermon he preached at the National Cathedral at the several years ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke of God’s desire for community. “And God has a dream,” he said, “a dream that we will realize that we are members of one family. That’s the one lesson God is hoping we will learn, and if it takes millennia for us to learn, God will give us those millennia.
“But that’s the one lesson God wants us to learn: We are family. Not as a figure of speech, but as the most real thing about us. That we’re members one with another. In this family there are no outsiders. All are insiders… There are no aliens. All, all, all belong: black, white, yellow, gray, rich, poor, educated, not educated, beautiful, not-so-beautiful, lesbian, gay, straight. ‘Hey,’ God says, ‘all, all.’”
And so do we—and have for many years and, I pray, that you will continue to do so. Sisters and brothers in the family of God, I will be with you only a little longer. I’d like to offer two metaphors as some parting counsel, especially as some of you may not be here next Sunday.
Keep the Home-Fires Burning is a British patriotic First World War song composed in 1914 by Ivor Novello with words by Lena Guilbert Ford as a call to those who were awaiting the return of those who were off fighting World War I.
I suspect that it inspired the wonderful British period TV drama, Home Fires, about the life of Women’s Institute members on the Home Front during the Second World War. I heartily recommend you watch this series. It is inspiring and engaging.
Speaking at a leadership conference some time ago, actor Martin Sheen offered these words: “That fire inside you, burning bright—it’s what keeps you up all night or rising first thing in the morning. Without that fire, you’re just another person with an idea. With that fire, you are a force to reckon with, a wind of change, a person on a mission. Therefore, you must keep that fire burning, at all costs.”
Please keep the fire that God’s Spirit has ignited in this community burning…burning…burning. Ask Her to keep stoking it! The brand of Christianity people experience here is unique and difficult to find. There are far too few St. Paul’s on the Greens on the church map.
Ghandi once remarked that to a Christian missionary, “Let us think of the bulk of your people who preach the gospel. Do they spread the perfume of their lives?” Quite frankly, some of the messages that those who claim to be Christians “stinks.”
What you have here in this faith community is a precious, precious commodity. Do not take it for granted. It took years to build and can easily be dismantled. I will be with you only a little longer. Know and own who you are a God’s people. Go out into the world. Spread the Good News. Welcome everyone. Let them breathe in the fragrance of your faith. Keep the fires burning! Keep the fires burning! Keep the fires burning!