The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – The Rev. Samuel J. Smith

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: July 7, 2013

2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church.

In the name of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hello, St. Michael’s! How wonderful it is to see you here. I have been at St. Michael’s for a whole week now, and I have really been anticipating this moment, when I would stand in this magnificent pulpit, and see all of you, and once again have the privilege of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, but now in this most wonderful place.

And I’ve learned this place is wonderful not only because of the incredible stained glass, and the impressive bell tower, and the significant history on this corner in the middle of Manhattan. I’ve learned that what makes this church particularly special, and what makes me the envy of many of my clergy colleagues, is the spirit of this place.

You know that old hymn – “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and I know that it’s the spirit of the Lord.” [LEVAS, 120] That’s what is so apparent at St. Michael’s. It is a spirit of giving – a spirit of grace – a spirit of love. Over and over again I have been floored by the generosity and openness of parishioners and staff. And I also have a sense that you are a congregation that, as today’s collect says, is devoted to God with its whole heart and united to one another with pure affection. It is clear that you—that WE—have something special.

And there’s been something special here for more than two centuries. (I’ve been reading St. Michael’s history—I’ve been doing my homework!) Since the parish’s beginning in 1807, St. Michael’s has always served a diverse population, people who gathered together. While the church was started by wealthy pewholders from Trinity Church downtown in order to have a place to worship close to their summer homes, from an early time there were also local shopkeepers, farmers, and migrant workers active here. As St. Michael’s grew along with the city, the church history tells us it became the mother of about a dozen new Episcopal congregations in New York City, Wisconsin, and Oregon, as well as helping start many church institutions.

There is also a long history of social activism here, of serving those in need in the name of Christ. Our work with St. Jude’s Chapel, established in 1909, today, is just one sign of this church’s commitment to this neighborhood in times past. (St. Jude’s beautiful altar stands at the back of the church today.) That tradition of service continues with the Saturday Kitchen and the Pilgrim Resource Center.

And through all of this history, there have been three different church buildings on this corner, this current one having been built in 1891. I think the very walls of this place carry the spirit of St. Michael’s—this magnificent building is inhabited by that great cloud of witnesses that we cherish.

Incidentally, on Tuesday Vestry member Chris Seeley gave the staff a report on the renovation work underway in our bell tower. As you may know, the structure that holds the bells in the tower was discovered to be rotting away, and it was vitally important that a new structure be created to carry the tremendous weight of those bells. It was fascinating to hear about the ingenious solution that has been created to insure that the bells will be safely held in place to ring for another 100 years and hopefully more.

In any event, there is no question that there has been, and still is, and, a sweet, sweet spirit in this place. St. Michael’s has something special. The question I’m thinking about today is what should we do with that sweet spirit?

The followers of Jesus we hear about in this morning’s gospel knew they had something special in Jesus. Today’s reading from Luke is at the beginning of Christ’s journey to Jerusalem to meet his death—you may remember that last week’s gospel passage began, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” [Luke 9:51] He knows that he will soon be gone, and so he begins to widen the circle of those who will spread the Word. This ever-widening circle of evangelists is a central theme of Luke: first it is Jesus who delivers the Good News; then the Twelve are commissioned; and now the seventy to take the message to “every place where he himself intended to go.” [Luke 10:1] [i]

The selection of seventy is no accident: “Genesis 10 provides a list of all the nations of the world, numbering seventy.”[ii] So these seventy are probably symbolic of all of humanity being called to tell the story of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This is a foreshadowing of the universality of God’s gift—that it is given to all, and that all can be messengers of  that grace. And, of course, all of this anticipates the Book of Acts, Luke’s sequel to his gospel, where the Word will be given to the whole world.

It is interesting to note that Jesus does not promote this new job very well: first, he doesn’t promise to make the work easy for them; he says, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” [Luke 10:3] Nor does he promise that they will be taken well care of: “eat and drink whatever they provide,” he says. [Luke 10:7] And finally, he does not assure their success; in fact, he makes it clear that will face rejection, at least some of the time.

Further, we know nothing about the qualifications of those seventy—who they were or why they were chosen. And that, my friends, we should understand as a welcome omission. Who they were doesn’t seem to be important; what they were to do is what mattered. It is the message, not the messenger, that is Jesus’  focus.

We glean from this passage that we are worthy to be God’s messengers—certainly not because of anything we have done. God needs us to be messengers, and can and does use each of us, often in ways we might never anticipate. And because we bring good news, we need never fear whether we are worthy—the good news is all we need.

By now I hope you’ve figured out that we are talking about the dreaded “E” word: Evangelism. If you’ve hung around the Episcopal Church very long, you know that evangelism is not our strong point. In fact, I have read that it is estimated that the average Episcopalian invites an acquaintance to church once every 27 years.[iii]

But evangelism matters—and not because we want more people in the pews, or more money in the plate. I have on my desk a slim volume entitled, A Shy Person’s Guide to the Practice of Evangelism. It starts from a very simple premise: “Evangelism is not a marketing strategy for a declining institution; it is a great work of hope.”[iv] It goes on to explain that evangelism is about relationship—inviting others into relationship with us and the Church, in order that they might build a more fruitful relationship with God. rst,  to God with its whole heart and  with pure affection. oday’ll: he say’the Harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.

And the world is hungry for the news we bring. You may have heard that the fastest growing religious affiliation in America today are the “nones” – that N-O-N-E-S nones. And often these are the “spiritual, not religious” types. They are often folks who have come up with their own religious views, not wanting to willing simply to accept what others believe.

“In 1985 authors Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen coined the word ‘sheilaism’ in their book Habits of the Heart. As typical of many modern people, they quoted a young nurse, Sheila, who said

‘I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s “Sheilaism.” Just my own little voice … It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. And, you know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.’

“’Sheilaism’ is shorthand for that kind of religiosity, a rather do-it-yourself well-meaning mish-mash of religious views, often from strands of many religions.”[v]

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this approach to God—it sounds to me like Sheila is on the right track. But what she and the rest of the Nones have forgotten is community: the meaning, and the support, and the strength, and the joy, and the delight of community. Jesus gathers the seventy together to hear his word, and then he sends them out in pairs. It’s all relational. It’s all community.

The key to the model Jesus introduces in this morning’s gospel is that we strengthen each other to do the work of Christ. Together we can act as Christ’s hands and feet and heart for the world; together we can spread the Good News of Christ, inviting others into relationship with God and the Church; together we can reap the harvest that God has prepared.

And we who are now St. Michael’s have an amazing legacy undergirding us. But just like the supports for the bells in our tower, we must continually renovate and remake ourselves, so that we can best serve the world today. And we must dare to go outside of our comfort zones and dare to share the good things we have found in this place with those outside who are hungry for the nourishment that we all enjoy.

Each of us must do the work of evangelism. It will require learning how to tell your story: How you came to know God; how God has acted in our life; how you have found God in this community. It will also require a willingness to share the good things in your life with others.

I so look forward to hearing your stories, and to telling you mine. I look forward to being part of this community with you. I look forward to learning from you what we can do to bring the gift of Christ to more and more hungry people. I look forward to working with you to share the gift of St. Michael’s.

There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord. Amen.

[i] Lose, David J. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. pp. 215, 217.

[ii] Heath, Elaine A. Feasting on the Word, p. 214.

[iii] Bonsey, The Rev. Steven. A Shy Person’s Guide to the Practice of Evangelism. The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, 2004. p. 8.

[iv] Ibid, p. 4.