Farewell Sunday Sermon at Holy Cross
4th Sunday in Lent, Year A, March 30, 2014
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
Beloved Sisters and Brothers, let us look to the Lord.May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.
A friend who teaches religious studies in Chicago, once observed that Samuel was essentially the Billy Graham of his day; and he was adviser to the political leader Saul, who was pretty much the Pete Rose of ancient Israel.
So, Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king of Israel. But soon, to quote James Thurber, “confusion got its foot in the door” and then went through the entire “system.” Samuel observed Saul disobeying the explicit word of God, and it became Samuel’s job to inform Saul that God had rejected him as king.
In today’s reading we hear that Samuel “grieved” over Saul. But then Yahweh told Samuel that the time for grieving was over, and that it was time to appoint a new king.
The time of grieving was over, and it was time to move on.
It’s always been interesting to me that the Amish resist certain aspects of “moving on.” I can appreciate their resistance to the inhumane features of “progress,” and their call to simplicity and faithfulness to ancient traditions.
But if they are going to pick a point along the timeline of progress, why stop with the 19th century? Why not go to an earlier period prior to buggies, ovens, cupboards, and battery-operated adding machines?
The operative word here seems to be, as Donald Kraybill so well describes, is the German word Gelassenheit, or “yieldedness” – yieldedness to God’s loving, providing, and guiding will. But sometimes what we see as Gelassenheit is actually just a stubborn resistance to the inevitability of change.
The gospel proclaims an alarming fact about historical movement – that it is in fact what God is all about. The entire Bible hinges on one undeniable reality: that reality is God’s workshop. God doesn’t give Abraham a set of beliefs but an event – a smoking fire pot – and a rite – circumcision. And God gives the Christian church a son – a child born of a woman whose reputation was stained, and reared by a father who surrendered his status as a tsadiq (suh-deek’) or “righteous man.” Yet, this son does not just teach the gospel: he embodies it.
In acting this way, God sanctifies history, making it something to embrace, instead of resist. When Samuel resists, he hears the voice of God directing him to a future that will be better. That future will include David the shepherd boy, and like all shepherds, he is often on the move.
As the author of Psalm 23, David, the shepherd, lies down, is led beside still waters, walks through the valley of the shadow of death, and sits in the presence of his enemies.
David will do whatever it takes to guide his sheep, even as he remembers that Yahweh is his shepherd, guiding him.
Then, another shepherd will arrive. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will be the Light of the World, removing darkness and literally, as we hear in today’s reading from the Gospel of John, removing the darkness of the man born blind. Like Samuel, the disciples and others will “get stuck” because they’ll wonder whose sins have made the man blind.
But Jesus, pushing them into the “Shepherd’s era,” will lead them to see that simplistic correlations from the past – sin leads to curse, obedience leads to blessing – don’t always work.
He will guide them with his light, and when that light is turned on, a few things will happen. First, those who live in that light “try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.”
Samuel was stuck for some time in wanting Saul’s era to be the kingdom era, but God gave him a horn of oil to search for the Shepherd’s era. It does no good to apply more and more oil to the old era, God said. It is gone; it is history. We please God by moving on.
We do this too by taking no part in the “unfruitful works of darkness,” but instead by exposing them. Like many, I am deeply saddened by our cultures tendency to gloat triumphally in its victories. I am also saddened by Christians who, instead of lamenting current world affairs; have picked up a new sword of Constantine, a wicked instrument of triumphalism.
We need what John Howard Yoder calls the “politics of Jesus” and what Stanley Hauerwas calls the “peaceable kingdom.” I think that former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says it well: “From now on, all that can be said of God’s action in the past or the present must pass under the judgment of [the cross].”
He also says, “God is known in and by the exercise of crucifying compassion; if we are like him in that, we know him.”
These theologians are calling us out of the old era of warfare, the Saul era, into the Shepherd’s era of justice, peace, and love.
This future kingdom is marked by “justice”, a word that seems to have lost some of what had been once been a healthier Christian understanding. It has, as Flannery O’Connor said of another word, “a private meaning and public odor.” Some use the term in the sense of “retribution” – bring them to justice, and some in the sense of “rectification” – give the victims and the marginalized an equal opportunity.
Neither of these senses is adequately Christian. The Christian sense of “justice” is “what is right before God and others.” And, according to Jesus’ own creed, what is “right” is to love God and to love others. In the Christian sense, justice means providing our world an opportunity to love God and to love others.
I think that it’s helpful to hear the words of the apostle Paul, who said, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” I think that we might benefit from a renewed commitment to listen to Jesus Christ, to let him be the good shepherd who can dispel the darknesses of war, and bring in the Shepherd’s era.
Peace and justice embrace one another because they will be empowered by love on a day when, to quote Samuel Johnson, “we shall not borrow all our happiness from hope.”
And now I think that I will take a point of personal privilege… for those of you who know, and for those of you who are hearing for the first time, today, I begin to conclude my ministry here at Holy Cross, and in this is my final Sunday sermon. I know that I stand in a long line of former clergy who have been blessed to serve the good people of both Holy Cross and St. Michael’s.
One of the things that I’ve learned during my life’s travels is that it is important to leave a place well, so that you can enter the next place well. I hope that I'll be able to say goodbye to Holy Cross well so that I can arrive in Richmond, ready to hit the ground running, in a few short weeks.
Starting to say goodbye’s has been harder than I expected, and I hope to get a chance to say goodbye to all of you personally.
In the tradition I learned how to be a deacon in, we say prayers as we put on each part of our vestments. As I am putting on my stole, I remember Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew "Take my yoke upon you… for my yoke is easy and my burden is light." My burden serving here, as your deacon, has indeed been light and for that you have truly blessed me.
May you continue to shine with the light of God’s love, to bear witness to God’s healing power, and to welcome every single soul who walks through these doors. With every fiber of my being, I say, “Thank you.”
Be assured of my prayers and love for you, my Brothers and Sisters in Christ.
Thanks be to God!