Text of the sermon preached
By The Very Reverend William Carl Thomas
The Sixth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 9 Year B)
July 8, 2012
At Saint Matthews Episcopal Church, Charleston West Virginia
There’s not much evidence that the Apostle Paul had a sense of humor. We have an example of just how serious Paul can be in today’s lection: “To keep me from being too elated,” he writes to those fun-loving folks in Corinth, “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.” I wonder how Paul might react, however, to the following humorous question: When is tennis first mentioned in scripture: “When Joseph served in Pharaoh’s court.” Come on, Paul, you can chuckle just a little.
I think Paul’s sense of humor, or evident lack of one, was a reason he never stayed long in any community. In my 23 years of ordained ministry, I have yet to come across a parish profile that seeks a priest with a dour outlook. Laughter gets us through tough times. While there’s no record of Jesus laughing, I know he wept at the grave of Lazarus. “Laughing so hard you cry” is an expression that makes it clear to me that anyone who can weep has a full range of emotions.
Let’s give Paul another chance. When is a fine Japanese car first mentioned in scripture: “When they were all in one accord.” Okay, Paul, I saw the glimmer of a small upside down frown.
Ministry is very serious business. Ministry, in the power of the Holy Spirit, changes lives. A deep commitment to draw people to Christ, to know Christ and make Christ known, carries on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. As we share in Christ’s work of reconciliation, change is inevitable and leads to transformation. Paul used these words to the Ephesians to describe this serious business: “The gifts that Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Together, we have been about this serious business for the past nine years.
I think we might get a full smile from Paul if we connect the Ephesians passage to the following bit of biblical humor. When is baseball or softball first mentioned in scripture: “In the big-inning.” No smile yet. Hang in there, Paul.
Paul knows a great deal about big-innngs that are really beginnings that lead to transformation. He was a persecutor of the earliest Christians. Paul stood with the crowd that stoned Stephen. In the Acts of the Apostles, the early church remembered Paul’s dramatic conversion experience on the Road to Damascus. Paul was much more reticent in his own writings. Paul told the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now life in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.”
Paul is quite clear that his transformation, his change from persecutor to proclaimer, was ongoing. The big-inning led to many more innings. Paul helps us understand that the game is serious. We participate as we play. We are not on the field alone. Others share their gifts. As we carry the baseball / softball image forward we realize the importance of being a team where some would be pitchers, some hitters, some fielders, some catchers and coaches. A team, when fully committed to Christ as Christ-centered community, is equipped and enabled, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to draw people to Christ.
My time over the years on our church league softball team has helped me better understand that I am not on the field alone. Paul shows a bit of a sense of humor when he writes to the Corinthians about the concept of team in these words, “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”
Sometimes when I played right field, I felt “left out” of the game. When it became clear that I did not have the speed to run and catch a fly ball, I moved to catcher. When my knees rebelled, I filled in one evening as the pitcher. Over time, that became my primary position. I’m now in the center of the action when the team is on the field. I could easily fall into the trap of thinking I’m the most important person because all eyes are on me as each play begins. I could take the game so seriously that my real purpose for coming to the ballpark would be lost. While I come to compete to the best of my ability, I really come to share in the love for the game that brings players, coaches, fans, and even umpires to the game.
The lessons of a life lived well are deepened and strengthened when love permeates that life. The invitation to a life lived well is what God offers in the reconciling love of Jesus Christ. I think the thorn in Paul’s side was to remind him that a little elation is okay when one is serious about what we call the business of ministry. This is the elation felt when a ball is well-struck by a batter who hasn’t played for years, a double-play is made by aging athletes, or two teams laughing together at the end of game over something that brought them to tears in someones big-inning.
Thank you Paul, for your serious conviction and God-inspired wisdom. We would not be Christ-centered community without you. In the power of the Holy Spirit, you brought gifts and skills that equipped and enabled ministry. When we remember your teaching, we are better able to know Christ and make Christ known as we draw people to Christ. You said it so well in these words to the Romans: “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.”
When is such love made known to us in Holy Scripture? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Transformation comes when light overcomes darkness; when we know Christ and make Christ known. When we share our gifts fully with God and one another. Paul, you seem elated. Your countenance is bright and your smile broad. Are those tears of joy?
All these words I offer in the God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.