Text of the sermon preached
By The Very Reverend William Carl Thomas
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 5, 2012
At Saint Matthews Episcopal Church, Charleston West Virginia
Click here to listen to the sermon.
We live in an age of constant media scrutiny. The internet has made it possible for everyone with computer or cellphone access to be a reporter and a commentator. If you check your pocket or your purse you will probably find a recording instrument capable of rendering the most powerful of people ineffective. All you have to do is what I am doing now. No, not preaching, using your recording device, as I am doing now with my iPhone to capture what I hear and see: I now have a visual record of who was in church today. I am even able to use the zoom feature and see clearly the inhabitants of the choir loft as well as pews in the back of the church. As I turn to the altar, I now have proof positive of the wonderful work of our altar guild. I can even takes notes in real time on this device. I can immediately post what I write, including videos and pictures, on Facebook or Twitter or a website of my own choosing. Others can then react and do the same. News collection agencies such as TV stations, newspapers, cable news channels, (oh, the list goes on!), now use such postings as qualified sources when they try to “scoop” each other. Sometimes a lively, funny or touching story goes “viral” and we laugh or cry: such as cats confounded by sheets of paper pulled into a home printer. And often, it seems, manipulation is at the core of spurious allegations: either to tear down or repair a reputation.
In the late 1900’s, bachelor President Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out-of-wedlock. His story went slowly viral, one newspaper and one barber shop at a time. Cleveland and his aides were able to control it: truth about character was trumped by political expediency. Cleveland was twice elected President. The detail of those elections is trivia for another time.
Flip-flopping, another more modern term for political expediency, brings the question of character into every conversation. Finding just the right phrase or image to discredit is at the root of gaining and holding power. For instance, I could be seen as a credible source as I speak on this subject. After all, I earned a Bachelor of Science from the prestigious College of Communication of Boston University. However, as my children have gleefully reminded me through the years when I’m being silly or over-explaining something, Dad’s using his B.S. in communication again. Your laughter indicates that the power of my credentials has been reduced, diminished, or simply dismissed.
Imagine what we could do with the argument of the Apostle Paul if we simply sent a video around the internet of him saying, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.”[i] Can you just hear the news: Against an unflattering picture of Paul, the newscaster gravely reports: “Dateline Corinth. The huge ego of the reputed apostle Paul of Tarsus was evident again today when he used the word “win” over and over again in a recent speech.” Cut to a full screen snippet of Paul saying only what I just read. Cut back to a tight shot of the newscaster slowly moving his head as if in disbelief. Paul is damned for being expedient and tossed aside as not relevant.
In an age when expediency trumps truth it becomes all the more important to seek the truth where it wills to be found. The Prophet Isaiah, speaking as prophets do for God, said as much in what those who pray Morning Prayer have integrated as “The Second Song of Isaiah.” I can hear the assembled voices in seminary intoning, “Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; draw upon him when he draws near.”[ii] If you recall Jesus saying in the Gospel according to John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” you can easily substitute the word “truth” for “Lord.” Now God’s challenge to the expediency of human desire is very clear: “Seek the Truth while he wills to be found: draw upon him when he draws near.” When this construct enters the conversation, the Apostle Paul’s foundation to his argument about winning now makes sense: “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.”[iii] The sneer I placed on the newscaster’s face is undone by the genuine premise Paul uses to support winning at all costs for Christ. To the unbeliever this premise seems as ludicrous as the resurrection from the dead of Jesus. Paul is not being expedient. Paul is not flip-flopping to appease a certain group or interest. Paul knows who he is and why he does what he does: “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.[iv] I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”[v]
Paul is constant in his conviction just as God is constant in God’s love and faithfulness to us. Paul has been entrusted with a commission. And so, too, have we. We are entrusted with the Great Commission. We hear this at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew as, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”[vi] I prefer the manner in which Jesus is first remembered giving this command at the end of the Gospel according to Mark, “Go into all the world and proclaim the goodness to the whole creation.”[vii] “Proclaim the goodness by being true to “the way, the truth, and the life” that has found you, and is in you. “And remember,” as Jesus said at the close the Gospel according to Matthew, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[viii] Paul is able to speak directly to Jews, to those under the law, to those outside the law, as well as to the weak, by becoming as they are: not because Paul seeks expediency or just flip-flops to pander, but because Paul knows he speaks with the constant love and grace of “the way, the truth, and the life.”
Jesus knew what he was saying when he said, “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”[ix] Such is the faithfulness of God to those who seek the Lord where he wills to be found. Such is the faithfulness of God when we proclaim the goodness of God to a fearful world that distorts and manipulates. Such is the power that supports those who find Jesus in the least and the lost as do we who serve in his name. We remember him entrusting us, just as he did when he commissioned Paul, to find him when he said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”[x]
The great faithfulness of God that nurtures constant conviction through grace and truth, was, and is proclaimed to us today through the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.[xi]
My friends, expediency will always be with us. The desire to win destructively at all costs will always be with us. The struggle to combat the fear that builds distrust will always be with us. This is why we boldly say in response to the questions of The Baptismal Covenant, “I will, with God’s Help.”[xii] We can stand up to the constant scrutiny of our age when we serve as Christ served. Our dedication to serving the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, those in prison and all in need, recorded or not on our pocket devices, is how we let the world know that true power is bound up in the love we share in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to proclaim the gospel free of charge.
God’s voice continues to call us as powerfully today as that voice did when Saul discovered his true self to be Paul. Once a persecutor of the church, once at one with the power structure of the world, Paul knew and lived the Great Faithfulness of God. We are blessed that he shared his conviction and trust in the way, the truth and the life with these words, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[xiii]
All these words I offer in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] I Corinthians 9:20-22a
[ii] Isaiah 55:6
[iii] 1 Corinthians 9:16-18
[iv] 1 Corinthians 9:19
[v] 1 Corinthians 9:23
[vi] Matthew 28:19
[vii] Mark 16:15
[viii] Matthew 28:20b
[ix] Matthew 10:19-20
[x] Matthew 25:35-36
[xi] Isaiah 40:28-31
[xii] Book of Common Prayer Pages 304-305
[xiii] Romans 8:38-39