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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on January 22, 2006

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Epiphany III

Sermon preached by
The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler

January 22, 2006

The Roman Catholic Archbishop Fulton Sheen once arrived by train in a town where he was to give a talk at the town hall. When he disembarked, he wasn't sure which way to go, so walking over to some boys playing nearby he asked, "How do I get to the town hall?" One of the boys gave him directions and then asked the bishop why he was going there. Bishop Sheen replied, "I'm telling people how to get to heaven. Would you like to come hear what I have to say?" "Heck no," replied the boy. "You can't even get to the town hall." Whether it's heaven or town hall, that's a story about destination: where we're going and how to get there.

Unfortunately, some see today's Gospel in the same way - as a story about a destination and how to get there. Earn God's favor by following Jesus and you'll go to heaven; don't follow Jesus and go to hell. But it seems to me that Christianity isn't about earning God's favor. It's about responding to it. It isn't only about a final destination. It's about a journey.

Believing that Christianity is centrally concerned with destination rather than journey poses numerous problems, but chief among them is that it creates a religion that is acquisitive, focused as it is on obtaining the prize of heaven. Faith becomes a work which earns us things. And it can also create a religion so focused on the destination that we forget it is the journey that shapes us. It is the journey that allows us to see Christ in others. It is the journey that propels us to be his hands and feet in the world.

In today's Gospel, Jesus called some of the disciples. They left everything and followed him - but not because he promised to give them something. Rather he had a job for them to do. He wasn't calling them to a particular place; he was calling them to a different way of living. They would still fish - but they'd be fishing for people. James and John would still be sons of Zebedee, but they'd also know themselves to be sons of God. Following Jesus wasn't about a destination; it was about a journey, about living a new and different life.

Sadly, throughout history, many of Jesus' disciples have reduced Christianity to a self-serving investment. As one writer has pointed out, "Constantine believed his conversion to Christ secured his victory in battle. The popes promised the Crusaders paradise in return for liberating Jerusalem. Martin Luther revolted against the practice of selling indulgences, but soon offered Lutheran princes assurances of God's blessing if they opposed the Roman Church." (Philip Gulley, If God is Love, p. 29) Christianity, rather than being a response to God's grace in our lives, has often degenerated into a self-serving strategy. What can I get rather than what can I give in response to God's love.

To follow Christ is to leave behind the concern about "me" and "my destination." It is to travel the path which we believe Christ is leading us on- and leaving the destination in his hands. Because, as Episcopalians, our response to Christ's call is not our way of earning anything; it is our way of accepting and living into the love and grace offered to us. The call to follow Christ "... is a lifelong adventure in which God is gently and patiently drawing us away from self-absorption and [drawing us] toward an authentic relationship with God and one another." (Id., p. 99) To follow Christ is to have our life shaped into one that makes a differ-ence for others now - not just for me now or me at my earthly end.

Think about how our world would be different if Christians focused not on who's going to heaven and who's going to hell but on creating a new earth, if we focused not on the destination but on the journey, seeing ourselves as partners in God's gracious work in the world. The author Philip Gulley has commented, "Growing up, I was asked repeatedly, 'If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?' I was never asked, 'If you live tomorrow, what kind of life will it be?'" (Id., p. 97) And yet that is exactly what a call to follow Christ asks us. How does this journey with Christ change our lives? Does my faith make the world a more gracious place to live? In following Christ, how will I live? "What kind of life will it be?"

It would, I think, be a life in which we are shaped to treat people with dignity and respect which means far more than either "being nice" or "tolerating." We are called, for instance, to honor others enough to get the facts straight and to address issues we might have with them.

I read the other day about a Quaker minister who - when a parishioner said he wasn't sure what to think of the Virgin Birth - the minister replied simply, "I'm not sure either." By the time that statement went around the congregation and then to the minister's superintendent (similar to our bishop), the story was that the minister has stood in the pulpit and declared that the Virgin Mary was a floozy. (Philip Gulley, Life Goes On, pp. 203-211) Everyone was happy to pass around a story, making their own changes and additions - but no one was interested in confronting the minister about exactly what he meant or discovering the facts from the minister's perspective. To follow Christ is to be shaped as one who honors the humanity of another.

Or, as human beings it is very easy to dislike a certain person - or group of people - so we assume God doesn't really like them much either. It could be a certain racial group or ethnic group, it could be a political or religious group - it could even be someone in this cathedral parish. But to follow Christ is to be shaped as one who knows that everyone is a child of God and whether we like or agree with the person, the most important thing about them is that they are a child of God and we need to respond to them in that way.

Or, many Christians today have decided to use only Christian professionals - doctors, lawyers, etc. - and to have only Christian friends. But to follow Christ is to be shaped as those who, like him, refuse to draw lines but insist instead on enlarging the circle. By associating with those unlike ourselves we are given the opportunity to invite others into the joy of a faith that has transformed our lives.

A life which follows Jesus is shaped by good news. There's nothing good about telling someone they're bound for hell. But it is good news to tell them how profoundly they are loved - and how that love can change their lives. A life which follows Jesus is shaped in such a way that we preach as loudly through actions as through words, so that when we befriend those looked upon as outcasts; when we help feed the hungry through our support of food pantries and soup kitchens; when we participate in the work of Brush Up Buffalo or Habitat for Humanity; when we work to protect the vulnerable or to protect the environment we are preaching good news. We are preaching about the value of all human beings and about creation as God's good gift.

Jesus' call for us to follow is not first and foremost a ticket to heaven; it is a means of transformation: transformation for us and, through us - by God's grace - for the world. Jesus' call to follow is not solely about a destination when we die; it's about a way of living here and now. Jesus' call to follow is not only about seeing Christ in glory at the end, but seeing Christ in those around us now. Or, as Celtic scholar Esther De Waal has put it, "I shall not find Christ at the end of the journey unless he accompanies me along the way." (The Celtic Way of Prayer, p. 3)

 

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2006 The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Buffalo, New York
Reprinted with permission