Sermon for July 26, 2020
There’s a legendary story about a fisherman from Louisiana, who was famous for the number of fish that he could catch. One day a stranger came to his cabin on the bayou and asked him if he would take him fishing. As they got into the boat, the stranger noticed that the famous fisherman had no rod or reel– just an old rusty tackle box and a net. After a while, they came into an isolated cove surrounded by tall, massive oak trees draped with Spanish moss. The stranger watched with interest as the fisherman reached down into his tackle box, pulled out a stick of dynamite, lit the fuse, and threw it into the water. There was a muffled explosion followed by the surfacing of a number of dead fish, which the fisherman proceeded to scoop up into his net. Whereupon the stranger pulled out a big badge and announced, “I caught you. I’m the game warden. You know that it’s illegal to blow up fish!” The notorious fisherman didn’t bat an eyelash. He calmly reached down into his tackle box, pulled out another stick of dynamite, lit the fuse, handed it to the game warden, and said to him, “Are you going to fish, or are you just going to sit there?”
Whenever I hear that story, I am reminded of the Kingdom of God. Throughout his entire ministry, Jesus attempted to teach his followers about the Kingdom of God. He was forever describing it through the use of simile, metaphor, and parable. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field; it is like a householder who brings out of his treasure that which is new and what is old; it is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; it is like a net which is thrown into the sea, and gathers fish of every kind; the good are put into baskets but the bad are thrown away. In this morning’s gospel, St. Matthew has Jesus say that at the end of the age, angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is a warning here. It is as if God has given us a lighted stick of dynamite and has said, “Are you going to respond to the kingdom, or are you just going to sit there?” So, briefly this morning, I would like to reflect with you upon the Kingdom of God: its location, its demands, and our response to it.
There’s a wonderful story about an old forester, who was said to be the only person who knew the way to the Enchanted Forest. In the forest, according to legend, beauty was in every rock and tree and stream; the deer approached human beings without fear; sun and shadow, earth and sky, the sounds and stillness of the forest all combined to give the visitor a sense of exaltation and clear vision. Every year people visited the old man to ask the way to the forest, but he answered them in what seemed to be irrelevancies. To some he said, “I’ll teach you the ways of the birds and wild animals,” but that didn’t satisfy them. To others he said, “I’ll teach you how to live off the land, to find water where no one else can, to find shelter from the cold, to find food,” but that didn’t interest them either. Sometimes he said, “I’ll teach you the ways of the nature person: patience, endurance, seeing, listening, being a part of nature.” His offers satisfied no one. When the old forester died, his daughter married a young man who knew the whole area well, and one day he said to her, “Isn’t it true that there is no Enchanted Forest?” “Not as a place on the map,” she said. “Why didn’t your father tell his visitors that?” “Because he was stubborn,” she said. “If they had let him teach them the ways of God, they would have discovered the only enchanted forest there is. It has many locations, but few discoverers.”
The Enchanted Forest, the Kingdom of God, is within us. The truth of God is already in you and me. The best that any man or woman can do is to inspire it, to give it form, to give it expression, to give it consciousness, and in this way to pull it out. Jesus knew this, when he said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He knew that the Kingdom was a matter of the heart, not of conspicuous consumption. Your treasure, my treasure, is God’s truth, firmly implanted within us. Karl Rahner, one of the most brilliant and insightful theologians of the Roman Catholic church, who died in 1984, once said: “The task of our century is not to stuff the truth into people, but to pull it out.” God put the truth there. Our task is to pull it out. As all good teachers know, the true task of education - educatio – is to inform, to inspire, to bring out of their students the truth.
Those of you who are conscious of repetition in the world around you will readily recall that I have a favorite prayer that I like to say before I begin my sermon. I used it this morning. It is always the same prayer – it never changes. At least the sermon is different. Although, the first rector I ever worked for once told me that he used to preach the same sermon 52 weeks a year; it was only the illustrations that he changed. The prayer that I use before the sermon is one that used to be used by the late Theodore Parker Ferris, who for thirty years was rector of Trinity Church, Boston, and one of the great preachers of our times. The prayer begins: “Help us, O Lord, to be masters of ourselves that we may become the servants of others.” I like the prayer because it speaks to us of one of the fundamental characteristics, indeed, one of the primary demands of God’s kingdom – namely, that of servanthood. It reminds us of our servant calling.
For centuries, and even to this very day, the Pope in Rome has often been referred to by his Latin title of servus servorum Dei - “the servant of the servants of God.” I came across an article a little while ago that sought to extend that definition on down the ranks. A Bishop became the servant of the servant of the servants of God; a Priest became the servant of the servant of the servant of the servants of God; a Deacon became the servant of the servant of the servant of the servant of the servants of God. And finally, a lay person was simply a rich man with servant problems. That is not the kind of servanthood which characterizes the Kingdom of God. Help us to be masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others.
It was the last year of our war in the Pacific; it was the winter of 1945. The Japanese empire was contracting, and they were having one of those horrid and celebrated death marches from one concentration camp to another. There was an elderly missionary in this group, and as they trudged along the road in the cold rain, the young guard would yell at these prisoners, “Walk on.” The elderly missionary said to the guard, “I beg of you, please let me leave the line and die in peace.” The guard would yell at him again, “Walk on.” Again, the missionary asked him if he might just go and fall into the ditch, and there die by himself. And again he was heralded by the unfeeling command, “Walk on.” Thrice he asked the young guard if he might die in peace. The third time, the guard did not answer him, but drew near to him and whispered, “We are coming close to my grandmother’s house.” In puzzlement the missionary stumbled on, and when they came to the house, the guard disappeared momentarily into this humble little dwelling. He came out with something in his hand. He went over to the old gentleman and said to him, “Give me your hand.” He put a warm potato into his hand and said, “Take. Eat.” And then he yelled again, “Walk on!” The master becomes the servant. Is there something, do you suppose, vaguely reminiscent in that story of yet another master who became a slave, and who, on the night before he suffered and died, broke bread with his friends, and said, “Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me?” In another place and at another time, Jesus said, “whoever among you wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all.” We become the willing slaves of others in remembrance of Him. That is our calling. That is a demand of God’s kingdom. That, too, is our treasure.
The late John Coburn was the bishop of Massachusetts from 1976 to 1986. Back in 1967, the year I entered seminary, he was the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Later he went on to teach in one of the street academies of NYC, and then became rector of St. James’ Church, Madison Avenue. John was always a very quiet and soft-spoken man, and frequently dressed in a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain dangling from his vest. It probably held his Phi Beta Kappa key. I remember one fall afternoon during my first year in seminary, I was in my third-floor dormitory room, when all of a sudden there was a peculiar odor in the hallway. I went to the stairwell to see what was going on, and was met by large clouds of billowing yellow smoke. The fire alarm soon sounded and we all evacuated the building. What had happened was that two men from the oil company were cleaning the furnace in the basement. One of them dropped his work light, and it quickly ignited the cleaning fluid which they were using, causing a loud explosion and fire to occur. The man who had dropped the work light came running up the basement stairs and out onto the front lawn, his clothing totally engulfed in flames. Those who were standing nearby attempted to roll him around on the grass in order to smother the flames. Soon the Rescue Truck arrived along with the fire engines, and the first thing the paramedics did was to strip the burning clothes off the man, and wrap him in clean white sheets. They loaded him into the rescue truck, and just as they began to head off toward the hospital, a most astonishing thing occurred. Dean Coburn came running out of his ivy-covered office building in his three-piece suit, dashed across the lawn, and climbed aboard the moving rescue truck to ride with the burned man on his way to the hospital. Unfortunately, the man never recovered from his burns and died six days later.
We are called to act out of unconditional love. That is our response to God’s kingdom. It is the same unconditional love with which God loves you and me. We cannot earn it---not you, not me, not any man or woman who has ever walked the face of this planet. We do not deserve it. We can only learn to accept it. God loves us in spite of ourselves. His love is unconditional, unearned, eternal. There are no strings attached. That love is the hallmark of God’s kingdom, and he has chosen to give it to us. Our task is to share it with others.
Bernie Siegel, that remarkable surgeon from Yale University, in his best-selling book, Love, Medicine, and Miracles, from which I have quoted before, tells an amazing account of a doctor from California, Jerry Jampolsky. As part of his training, Dr. Jampolsky was sent to a tuberculosis sanitarium. He feared that he would contract the disease but decided that he could take a deep breath when he got there and hold it for three months. One night he was called out to see a woman with active tuberculosis, who had had a massive pulmonary hemorrhage and cardiac arrest. Dr. Jampolsky gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and afterwards the nurses told him, “How could you do that? Now you’re going to get tuberculosis.” He never did, and he realized that he was not vulnerable while he was doing something for someone out of love. Commenting on the incident, Dr. Siegel said, “His realization strengthened mine, and now I’ve come to understand why it is that Mother Teresa and dedicated nurses can work among hundreds of sick, infected people every day without becoming ill.” Dr. Siegel continued, “I am convinced that unconditional love is the most powerful known stimulant of the immune system. If I told patients to raise their blood levels of immune globulins or killer T-cells, no one would know how. But if I can teach them to love themselves and others fully, the same changes happen automatically. The truth is: love heals.”
The Kingdom of God is within us. The time for responding to that kingdom, for bringing it out of us and giving it form and expression, for exercising our servant calling, for acting out of unconditional love – is now! The fuse is already lighted; we dare not wait any longer. The time of preparation for God’s kingdom is upon us. We need to be about our tasks of forgiving, healing, loving – ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies.
So when we hear again those words from the Gospel: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” let us claim that kingdom; let us rejoice in it; let us respond to it. Let us share it. It is our calling; it is our task; it is our treasure. AMEN.
I realized after preaching this sermon that some of you might think that I am advocating when it comes to COVID-19, that you do something similar to what Dr. Jampolsky did in my example. We must remember that every disease is different and what worked for Dr. Jampolsky with tuberculosis might not work with COVID-19. Unconditional love, it is true, is powerful, but we must also use it in combination with common sense and our advanced scientific knowledge of microbiology and epidemiology. Love does heal, but that healing many times comes about by God working through the loving hands and expertise of trained doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and first responders. It is not always a sure thing, but whenever it manifests itself it is truly a miracle.
The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
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