Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 7, 2010
A week ago my apartment was filled with snippets of construction paper – I had purchased some of the wonderfully large paper that comes in a wide variety of flesh tones and I was busy cutting out body parts.
We were getting ready for last Sunday’s ministry expo and I thought it would be fun to have an activity for the kids.
My idea was to provide the basic parts of a body – head, torso, arms, legs, hands and feet – and then let the children add to it – I had hoped to see a nose with Lincoln’s name on it, eyes crafted by Matthew, fingers and toes – painted perhaps – by Nina, Beth or Claire – one whole body made up of the wonderful kids in this parish.
Well, my idea was not a smashing success. Eventually I stuck an eye on it myself – but the body remained slightly more than skeletal for most of the coffee hour expo.
Eventually, I got involved in a conversation with some adults about church membership and opportunities for adult formation. When I finally turned my attention to cleaning things up, I saw that the body had been transformed.
Two young women had been busy – here’s what they had produced. You see, they had not put their own stamp on just part of the paper body – they had put their stamp – their identity, it seems, on the whole thing – carefully cutting and arranging paper clothes, hair, the rest of the face, they even created shoes for the goofy feet I had cut out. The body I planned – a body make up of many persons had instead become the body of one person – a person that looked an awful lot like Lauren! Clearly my plans had failed…. Or had they?
Once again, I was made aware of the tension that exists when we begin thinking about what it means to be Christians – to be followers of Christ.
We’ve been talking a lot recently about what it means for us to be the body of Christ together – to be God’s people gathered for worship and service at St. Paul’s. That’s what last week’s ministry expo was all about – trying to figure out how each one of us fits into this part of God’s body in Norwalk. What are our particular gifts for ministry that, when combined with that of our sisters and brothers in this place, will make us into a people that make a difference – that will allow us to be an effective community in bringing God’s message of love and forgiveness – message of redemption and transformation that we proclaim together.
We’re good at this. Our reputation as an open, welcoming community of faith is well known – we experience it every week as we ourselves find a welcome – find acceptance. Together we do make a difference – we’ve collected and shared resources with some of the most marginalized in our community, we’ve filled this space with glorious music and beautiful liturgy that nourishes hungry souls; we have pointed to a living God. As a parish, we have made a difference.
Prompted by what happened with my Children’s activity last week and the time I spent thinking about the scripture lessons appointed for today, I’d like focus this morning on our lives as individual followers of Christ.
In each of our lessons, we meet someone who has had an encounter with God. Isaiah meets God in a glorious vision; the Psalmist meets God in his realization that he is the work of God’s hands; Paul was visited by the risen Christ himself; and Luke shares with us the story of Jesus spending an afternoon with Peter on the lake in a boat.
In all of these stories, the encounter with God causes at first a deep sense of unworthiness – a feeling of being both undeserving and incompetent. N their own words, Isaiah is “lost, a man of unclean lips”; the Psalmist is “lowly”; Paul identifies himself as “the least of the Apostles”; and Peter, describes himself as “a sinful fisherman”.
This sense of unworthiness, however, is quickly replaced by a sense of awe and a kind of freedom stemming from a personal encounter with the living God.
In the presence of God – the complete “otherness” of God is clear. Each of these biblical characters recognizes how incredibly wide the gulf is between the Creator and that which is created. And while that gulf seems too wide and deep for any kind of crossing, each of these individuals experiences God’s desire to close the gap.
If we’re honest, we, too know that we are incapable of closing that gap ourselves – we are lazy, indifferent, too sophisticated perhaps, or many just too self-centered to care.
But God does. God has already provided a way for all the world to be redeemed – God has closed the gap in the incarnation – through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But I think God may want more for us.
Yes, we are called as a community to be Christ’s body in the world – but what about us as individuals? Does God call us – one at a time – to something more? I believe he does.
But how does this happen? What does God’s call look like or sound like today?
I can’t answer that question for all of you – or for any of you, for that matter – but I can tell you about one of my encounters with God.
Several years ago, one of my friends, a priest, invited me to join a group of women who met together for spiritual direction twice a month at a local convent. Our time together was spent around a particular passage of scripture, chosen by Sister Laura. We would sit in extended silence after hearing the reading and then were welcomed to respond to it verbally. Sometimes the hour felt like a self-help group, sometimes I left feeling a little more peaceful, sometimes I left frustrated – like I had just wasted a perfectly good hour.
One day – a day very similar to today – cold and bright – the scripture lesson Sr. Laura had chosen for us was the story about Jesus and the fishermen we heard today.
As I sat in the silence, imaging the scene, I had an overwhelming sense that something needed to change. I had been one of Jesus’ friends for a very long time – I had been out on the water doing my work night after night – and I had cleaned lots of nets in the wee hours of the morning. But that particular day, I was overcome with the feeling – a new understanding – that I needed to move from the shore and get into the boat with Jesus.
I didn’t tell anyone about this experience for several months – in fact this is the first time I’ve shared it with more than a few close friends – I mean, how could I explain it? Did I have to understand it? What did it mean? Why in the world would God be speaking to me? Was God speaking to me – calling me to something new – something different? I felt scared, I felt confused, and like Isaiah and Peter, I felt unworthy to be the recipient of what seemed like a very personal call from God to go deeper.
While it might be easy to understand this as some kind of call to ordained ministry, I have not come to that conclusion. In some ways, that kind of interpretation makes sense, but it would be way too easy to infer that God’s call is to certain people for particular “official” ministry. And I don’t believe that for a minute.
No, I have come to believe that God is calling all people, especially those of us who identify ourselves as Christians –– inviting us into an ever deepening relationship – wooing us back to himself and inviting us as individuals to take part in his mission of reconciliation and transformation.
Just as we are unique creatures, God’s call to each of us is unique – it is a very personal and often very private experience. It may take a variety of forms – a still small voice heard in the discipline of silence, it may be in music, in the words of another, through the words and images of Holy Scripture – perhaps even in the artwork of a child.
Follow me, Jesus says – I have new things for you: new experiences, new work, new joy, new meaning for your life.
But as wonderful as that may all sound, we know that new things are often accompanied by hard adjustments. Isaiah had to deliver some pretty devastating news to his people; Paul had to totally reorient his religious beliefs; Peter had to leave his boat. Following Jesus is not always that easy. It may involve learning to say no to things we think we deserve, or perhaps it means saying yes to things that seem impossible. It always means giving up some control and it often means being willing to change our perspective and our behavior.
As a community of faith, we’re committed to doing our best to be Christ’s body in the world. Today, I invite you – each one individually – to open your hearts and yield your will in order to hear God’s call to you.
Follow me, Jesus says – I want you – and I need you – because I love you. Amen.