Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I must admit, this morning’s Gospel reading always makes me a bit embarrassed when it comes up. The apostles are instructed to lead peripatetic, itinerant lives as heralds of the Gospel. “Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff.” No wonder the second half of this morning’s gospel which begins with those words is optional in our lectionary. It’s a discomfiting reminder. Here I am with every intention of staying settled for a while, with a stipend and a rectory and a pension and plenty of changes of clothes.

I guess this is just the nature of serving an established institution versus a nascent movement and these are just the concessions we make to the world we live in, but I hope this stark difference between the lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed and the lifestyle of the apostles continues to make me a bit uncomfortable, lest I become complacent merely relying on an institution and forgetting about being a laborer in a pilgrim church.

It seems to me that the more important reminder in these words is not necessarily that each of us is individually called to a kind of unsettled lifestyle, but that the Church herself is always being called to this vocation, to be a sort of apostolic, evangelistic pilgrim in a world which may sometimes accept but will often reject its message of radical love and healing and the proclamation of salvation coming from outside us- frustrating our designs on control and self-sufficiency.

This is especially hard for us to grasp, though, considering our history, particularly as Anglican Christians. Our heritage is that of a state-sponsored religion before our establishment on this continent, and even after disestablishment in the newly formed United States, we remained a sort of de-facto state church. We’ve got the national cathedral and the famous, for better or worse, claim of having “the church of the presidents” which seems to come up every time we have a state funeral. We’ve got our cathedral in Washington (the epicenter of political power) and our church center in New York (our nation’s financial and media capital) because for a long time people really cared about what the Episcopal Church might have to say about the issues of the day.

Now, here is a hard teaching. That’s probably not what we are anymore. Granted, our Presiding Bishop has gotten a lot of airtime over the years (preaching at royal weddings and showing up on the Today Show and so forth!), and whatever you think about him, I’m glad that at a moment when we’ve gotten a little attention we have a presiding bishop who is not afraid of talking about Jesus, unlike his predecessor, but that’s another sermon. That’s likely to fade away eventually, though. Converting to the episcopal church to get ahead in politics or business hasn’t been a thing for decades, and I say thank God for that.

There is some really good news here, I think. I believe we are at a point where the church is, for the first time in centuries, given the opportunity to go out without gold and silver and extra tunics and sandals, to live into the apostolic vocation. This is not an easy thing; it is a great challenge, in fact. Even so, it is a tremendous gospel opportunity. When all the nonsense is stripped away, when all the worldly, practical reasons for following (or claiming to follow) the Lord Jesus Christ are no longer a matter of convenience, we can get back to the heart of the matter. This isn’t about winning friends and influencing people. This isn’t about getting ahead in life. This isn’t even about having a bully pulpit before the princes of this world. It’s about following Jesus, loving those he gave us to love, and inviting others to share in the same pilgrim journey. Wealth and power and prestige can, of course, be a great blessing for the church or for a person if the institution or the individual is very careful to use those gifts faithfully. However, they can easily become dangers and distractions and even idols if the central message of Christ’s saving work becomes obscured by their trappings.

When I think about this delicate balance, threading that needle with a camel to use Jesus’ own image, and how more straightened circumstances can be a blessing in disguise, I am often reminded of a wonderful hymn by an unlikely modern saint. The poem is “O God of Earth and Altar” and its author, the great apologist and critic G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was an English convert to Roman Catholicism, active in the early twentieth century- after Catholic emancipation but while practicing that form of Christianity was still extremely unpopular and considered unpatriotic. So he knew what it was for one’s faith to lack power and prestige in a way we Anglicans historically have, now need to come to terms with for the sake of following Christ alone. I think his words capture beautifully both the challenge and the opportunity we have as Christians in the 21st Century to reevaluate what’s really important for the future not just of our institutions but, more importantly, of our efforts to bring that saving message to all the world. And so, I will conclude this sermon with that text:

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.

Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.