Sunday, July 18, 2021

A Sermon
The Reverend Richard E. Greenleaf St. George’s Chapel

18 July 2021
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 11B
Morning Prayer II

2 Samuel 7:1-14a Psalm 89:20-37 Ephesians 2:11-22 Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

“O God, make thy word a swift word, passing from the ear to the heart, from the heart to the life and conversation: that as the rain returns not empty, so neither may thy word, but accomplish that for which it is given. O Lord, hear, O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hearken, and do so for thy blessed Son’s sake, in whose sweet name we pray.” Amen.

George Herbert, 1593-1633

I once was acquainted with a man, an accomplished man,a learned man,
a clergy-man who was elected bishop of a diocese
that included a number of Indian reservations, and the Episcopal Churches therein, which were many.

Once installed, the new bishop set off on a tour of all the churches in his new diocese, churches great, but mostly small, and prepared a paper to deliver on “the phenomenology of pastoral care” in such places, a subject on which he had done doctoral work and wanted to use as his personal “mission statement” for his work among reservation parishes. At one of these small parishes, the bishop entered, vested in cope and mitre, carrying his Episcopal crosier, and began the service in the usual way.

When it came to the time for the homily, the bishop introduced his subject on “the phenomenology of pastoral care” and his intentions for how it applied to reservation parishes in his diocese.

But as he launched into his sermon,
a man in one of the front rows slowly stood up, a man who was an elder in the community, an elder in years,

but more importantly

an elder in church and tribal standing.

The elder stood and slowly but deliberately began to make his way forward

while the new bishop –pretending not to notice–

continued with his learned sermon.

To the bishop’s surprise,
the elder mounted the few small steps to the pulpit,

circled the bishop, reached over,

lifted the script
of the bishop’s carefully crafted sermon,

and just as slowly walked down the steps on the other side of the pulpit.

When the elder got back to the floor,
he turned back to the astonished preacher

and simply said, “Speak to us, Bishop.” And then he took his seat.

“Speak to us.”

I have taken the liberty of telling you this story because the bishop in question told it to me, and he told this story in public not a few times.

I also tell you this story because it is a good admonition for every preacher, especially so-called “learned preachers,” of which I, by training and vocation, supposedly am one.

But more importantly, I tell you this story because

I believe it touches something at the heart of today’s Gospel,

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and that is the ravenous hunger of people

–of all of us— for a word.

A ravenous hunger to be truly,

authentically , and personally

spoken to.

And Scripture tells us that wherever Jesus went that is exactly what he did.

Earlier, in the Gospel of Mark:

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, Jesus entered the  synagogue and taught, and “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one  having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:21-22) 

A little later, after Jesus had delivered a man supposedly possessed, 

“They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new  teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1: 27) 

After Jesus stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee, his disciples, 

“were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind  and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:41) 

And then, in the Gospel of John, the Samaritan woman meets Jesus at the well and after that “left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man  who told me everything I have ever done!’”(John 4: 28-29) 

Or in the words of another translation,

‘Come and see a man who told me everything that I am!’

And the woman concludes

with the wide-eyed question,

“He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

Speak to us!
Speak to us as one with real authority.
Speak to us with words that even the sea and winds obey. Speak to us with words that tell us all that we are.

This past week,
I was hungry for such a word.

Last Saturday, I attended a party for an old friend and colleague that was a combination birthday, house-warming, and retirement party. Family, friends, and colleagues came from near and far to celebrate my friend,
and the toasts and testimonials were many.

What was left mostly unsaid, though, was that my friend had retired early because he had developed not one but two neuro-muscular conditions that left him unable to continue working.

The following day, last Sunday, my wife Jenny and I traveled to Yarmouth, Maine to attend the celebration of the life of my late cousin, Kathy Greenleaf. Four years ago, following the death of her husband, my late cousin Peter Greenleaf, Kathy had been diagnosed with a virulent cancer
for which she was, fortunately, treated in a drug trial that worked quite well for her, at least for a while.

But last fall the cancer returned, and it was angry,and just before Christmas it took Kathy.

And then this past Monday, Jenny and I moved her 90 year old father
from a family member’s home in Massachusetts to a memory care unit near us in southern Maine, all because of the effects of a stroke he had suffered some eight years ago that left him blind and with mild dementia.

In each of these moments I had a moment

where I thought, “What do you say?”

What can you possibly say
that would make a bit of difference?

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In today’s gospel,
there are a number of such moments.

And what does Jesus do?

He first and foremost speaks to the people and situations as he found them.

He gives them a word.

And only after that does he . . .

feed them,
heal them,
and give them rest.

And because Jesus speaks to them in his Jesus way, everything is changed, transformed, redeemed.

And he is still speaking in this way today .

At last Saturday’s party just when the tributes were about to get maudlin, and I was beginning to wonder “What should I say?” my not-obviously-religious friend quite unexpectedly introduced his new good friend the very young local rector, who proceeded to hug my friend and then, with pine bough and holy water, to bless the new house and all who lived in or visited it with the healing, life, and rest that Jesus came to bring. 

And in this, Jesus spoke.

At last Sunday’s supposedly “non-religious” gathering to honor my cousin Kathy, her older brother, a veteran of the foreign service and a cranky Yankee if ever there was one, began his remarks by saying we weren’t there to “get all religious or mystical”and I started to wonder “What should I say?”

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But then he went on to remember Kathy in terms that were profoundly religious, if not mystical, and deeply expressive of a Christian love and hope that, I dare say, seemed to be shared by all in attendance.

And in this, Jesus spoke.

And on Monday, when we were settling my father-in-law, Bob, into his new room in the memory unit, there were moments quite good and more than a few when we found ourselves wondering if this was going to work. One of those questionable moments came when the nurse was asking Bob, in front of a team of caregivers, how he wanted to handle going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and I again found myself wondering, “What should I say?” But at the nurse’s question, Bob suddenly brightened, screwed up his lips, and let go a piercing whistle. And then sat there beaming, proud as a peacock,at which the assembled caregivers laughed and applauded. And in this, Jesus spoke. 

The Christian writer Anne Lamott says that there are really only 3 types of prayer: Help! Thanks! Wow! But to this I would add a fourth type of prayer: “Speak to us. Give us a word.” 

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In answer to which God speaks his word Jesus. And if we would see who God is we need only see who Jesus was and what he did, and what he is and does even now. 

Jesus is God’s word to us.

The Word God spoke long ago and continues to speak to us today in our every situation.

And so let us conclude the way we beganwith the prayerful words of George Herbert.

“O God, make thy word a swift word, passing from the ear to the heart, from the heart to the life and conversation: that as the rain returns not empty, so neither may thy word, but accomplish that for which it is given. O Lord, hear, O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hearken, and do so for thy blessed Son’s sake, in whose sweet name we pray.” Amen.

George Herbert, 1593-1633

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