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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 13, 2009

May the realities of the world be transformed into new possibilities as we see them in the light of Jesus Christ and our lives be filled with the radiant energies of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What a perfectly glorious morning! Today we begin a new program year at St. Paul’s. There will be registration for our children’s Religious Education classes complete with ice cream sundaes for every one who signs up. The last several weeks have been full of fall planning meetings in preparation for some new offerings on the calendar.

Today we welcome back our choristers and adult choir, meet and greet our new organ scholar, Noah Wynne-Morton, the new platform (still to be stained) is in place and I know that some of you are rejoicing the return of Communion Rails. A particular highlight of our celebration today is the ordination of a new deacon, our own Liz Skaleski who takes her place among us in that new ministry for the very first time.

In her book, Leaving Church, the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor relates an incident that occurred during her last weeks as rector of Grace-Calvary Church. She received an invitation from a couple of church members to attend an annual pool party at their home. The party was legendary, complete with live Maine lobsters and kegs of imported beer. When she arrived, the veranda of the old Victorian cottage was packed with people, only the nearest of whom greeted her as she climbed the wide wooden steps. Instead of working the crowd, she accepted a cold cup of beer from the keg and sat down on the porch swing to talk with a member of the parish whom she knew well.

After supper had settled she wandered down to the pool, where she watched a number of children swimming. Suddenly, on her right there was a deeper yell, the sound of scrabbling feet on cement, and then a large plop as a fully clothed adult landed in the water. She stood back and watched the mayhem that ensued. All around her, people were grabbing people and wrestling them toward the water. The air was fool of pool spray and laughter. The kids were going crazy. Several people hunting for potential victims turned toward her, their faces lit with smiles. Then two strong hands grabbed her from behind, and before she knew it she was in the pool, fully immersed and swimming in light. She never found out who it was, but when she broke the surface, she looked around at all those shining people with makeup running down their cheeks, and hair plastered to their heads, and she was so happy to be one of them.

“Bobbing in that healing pool with those other flawed beings of light,” says Mother Taylor “I looked around and saw them as I never had seen them before, while some of them looked at me in the same way. The long wait had come to an end. I was in the water at last.”

Barbara Brown Taylor’s story resonated with me as I was thinking about the journey that Liz began to pursue the day she walked through our doors. You may have read her wonderful article in the September Journey which tells her story. It’s really a story that is similar to one many of us could write. It made me realize that being here in church is so much more than just occupying a seat for a worship service or fulfilling a requirement to keep the Sabbath holy or enjoying spectacular music or even meeting up with friends.

Entering those doors is the opportunity to begin a life transformation, to take one’s first steps of an expedition that can lead to some of the most unexpected destinations and possibilities. I know that was true for Liz and I do not think that she ever dreamed that, five years after she walked down the aisle on her first Sunday here, she would be standing at the Altar, proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel, newly raised up as a deacon in Christ’s Holy, Catholic Church. Liz, you’re in the water at last!

That blessed water will invigorate you and enable you to reach out to the least of Christ’s brethren—the poor, the sick, the lonely, the hopeless—and empower the members of the community you serve to minister in the world as the baptized disciples of Jesus. It is a long and not necessarily easy road upon which one embarks to prepare for ordination and some might ask, “Why?” Why spend years discerning, studying, fulfilling big requirements, passing through interviews with committees, and jumping through a number of hoops to get where you have arrived today?

Perhaps it was in part because she paid attention to some of the hard sayings of Jesus, one of which we heard Liz read in the Gospel today: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.”

Now I want to be clear that I am not advocating that to be an authentic follower of Jesus you need to go get Holy Orders and be a deacon or priest. We all have received our primary ordination in the sacrament of baptism and thereby share in the eternal priesthood of Jesus. What I believe we have in these last several verses of Mark’s Gospel is a challenge for all of us to go beyond the “just what’s expected,” the bare minimum standards of membership in a faith community and be willing to get our feet—and even more—wet.

Don’t we just love the Gospels when Jesus is telling stories with lessons on human life. We get great comfort from all the episodes like last week that have him healing the blind, the deaf, the lame, and every other malady that plagued the ancient world. It’s invigorating to hear him take on the self-righteous, pompous, arrogant religious leaders.

How profoundly striking is his outreach to the disenfranchised and his enjoyment of their hospitality as he sits at table and eats with them to the horror of the Pharisees. But I suspect that this speech about taking up the cross and denying oneself presents a challenge for us. What Jesus asks of us is no less than any one of us asks from one another when we have established a serious relationship or made a covenant with another person: commitment. Jesus is asking for commitment. He is asking us to make the choice of costly grace over cheap grace – costly because it causes us to deny ourselves in some way so that we can become fully the person God has called us to be.

What this Gospel is all about is the willingness to risk in order to find our place in the water. That imagery strikes me because I can’t swim and being thrown in the pool is a rather scary proposition. It is about taking the leap from a place where we might feel safe and comfortable and head off in a direction that will enable us to see what God sees when God looks at the world and to believe that God’s dream for us can come true—even when that dream seems beyond your reach.

Remember that for the audience that first heard these hard words uttered by Jesus the dire consequences of taking the risk be identified as his follower often met persecution and death. At the very least, a disciple of Jesus could be ostracized from family and friends, lose employment, and be reliant on the support of the early fledgling Christian communities. We are so far removed from all that. Yet it is clear that Jesus still asks us to risk the consequences of making a commitment to walk in the way of the Gospel, to go beyond the “just what’s expected,” the bare minimum standards of membership in a faith community and be willing to get our feet—and even more—wet. That often means some risk-taking—but that comes with the territory of baptism and of living into the life of the Gospel. Liz, you understand that well. You have opened a new chapter on your exciting faith journey and we are grateful for the gifts you bring to your new ministry.

We are not all called to be deacons but we are all called to be ministers of God’s love, compassion, and grace in a troubled and broken world. Each of us is called to an “altar” in that world where we may preside over the gifts God has given us and by which we partner with God to usher in even a tiny modicum of God’s Kingdom.

Are you in the water yet? Maybe dangled your footsies in the shallow end? Or have you been avoiding the edge of the pool entirely? Maybe you’ve just been hoping that someone will push you in?

Entering those doors of this sacred place presents the opportunity to begin a life transformation, to take one’s first steps of an expedition that can lead to some of the most unexpected destinations and possibilities. God may be—no, God is—calling you to make a difference here in this parish or in the world perhaps even by doing something you never thought you could do. Come on, now, take a deep breath and jump in! The water’s just fine.

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