Text of the sermon preached
By The Very Reverend William Carl Thomas
The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 10 Year B)
July 15, 2012
At Saint Matthews Episcopal Church, Charleston West Virginia
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, for God calls us to be Christ-centered community, equipping and enabling ourselves in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that people are drawn to Christ.
We’ve come to celebrate the ending of our pastoral relationship. The word “celebrate” sounds awkward yet that is how we approach most funerals in the Episcopal Church. When a life has been lived full and well, we bring our memories when we gather: some sad and some filled with laughter. We do our best not to focus simply on the life of the one who died, but on our faith. We say as much in the proper preface: “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.” This is one of the reasons I print the obituary and place a picture of the one we will no longer see on the last few pages of the worship bulletin. There is no need to dwell on the details of the life shared, but rather to focus on God’s activity in and through that life.
Mark Twain captured the essence of how best we can share our changing relationship: “Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of joy you must have someone to share it with.” Jesus said as much to his disciples in John’s Gospel, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
I feel a little bit like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. The town thought Tom, Huck, and Joe lost in an accident on the river. The boys snuck in and watched people offer memories that might not stand up to the test of time or reality. Twain has a lot of fun with our humanity and captures well the thin space between grief and joy when Tom and his friends appear in the middle of the service.
I’ve tried to frame the essence of my memories in my letter of resignation and pictures in the bulletin. My hope is they point to God’s activity in and through our lives. The Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians about the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people. He is pointing to God’s activity in and through our lives with these words, “In Christ, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.”
The mission statement of Saint Matthews, written years before I came, points to God’s activity in and through our lives when we expect to be “in the power of the Holy Spirit.” God calls us to be Christ-centered community, equipping and enabling ourselves in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that people are drawn to Christ. I began my first sermon with these words of mission. Just about every sermon that followed over nine years began with these words. I have to wonder: Is the most powerful gift I leave with you the one you already had?
The answer is a simple and emphatic “yes.” Technique, discipline, faith, interpretation: theses are all words that might describe what the ordained leader brings to a congregation. Saint Matthews publically claimed years ago that life would best be lived “in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Technique, discipline, faith, and interpretation help us appreciate that power.
What is it like to lose connection to such power? How many of us suffered through days on end of no electrical power? Life was certainly changed. In many ways life as we had known it seemed to end. When you lost power did you feel a connection to the Prophet Elijah? First Kings records “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.” Elijah had been told by God to “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass.” After the wind, after the earthquake, after the fire it became clear that the Lord was to be found in what differing translations note as “the still small voice” or “the sound of sheer silence.”
No power in our homes. No noises. No blinking lights. Yet God is fully present. To be “in the power of the Holy Spirit” is what makes it possible for us join the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews as we pray, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Not seen, not heard, yet fully present. This gift is all wrapped up in the paradox of what it means to be “in the power of the Holy Spirit.” John the Baptist, whose death at the hand of a very foolish and worldly Herod we remember in today’s gospel, recognized how to live in this paradox. John the Baptist understood his mission when he said the following about his relationship to Jesus: “I must decrease that he might increase.” John knew well the teaching of the Prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
I am grateful that Saint Matthews has withstood the temptation to establish what clergy often call a “rogues gallery.” This would be the wall with the picture and dates of service of every rector. The implication of such a memorial is to place the focus of memory on the person and not necessarily on God’s activity in and through our lives. Such a wall makes it all too easy to minimize the importance of being in the power of the Holy Spirit. I wonder: Does such a wall flip the meaning of Jesus’ teaching when he says, “Servants are not greater than the master?”
Saint Matthews has shown that we are at our best when serving God and one another in the power of the Holy Spirit. You helped me find that I am at my best when I remember that I must decrease that he might increase. Today we celebrate, with moist eyes that twinkle, and hearts the beat with love, that the noise of the world is silenced when Christ-centered community is equipped and enabled in the power of the Holy Spirit to offer praise and service: so that people are drawn to Christ!
All these words I offer in the Name of God. Father Son, and Holy Spirit.