Distilling A Lifetime of Faith, June 28 2020
Distilling A Lifetime of Faith
This is one of the hardest sermons I have ever had to write. This is a time of both joy and sorrow.
I have written 1434 different sermons during my 38 years of ministry. I have preached almost 1600 sermons … which means I repeated a few, but most of the sermons I offered were new, written for different times and different celebrations and different contexts.
This is my last “regular” sermon. I may preach again occasionally as a guest, but I suspect those times will be few.
Before COVID–19 hit, I was beginning to think about what I would say in my last sermon. I had started to make some plans … and then everything changed. We haven’t been able to worship together since March 8. I have kept writing sermons to help nourish us in this time, but it hasn’t been quite the same.
My greatest sorrow is that we should have been able to walk through this time together. We should have been able to celebrate this ending of our time together. But we can’t, so we make the best of this situation and time. It breaks my heart not to be able to share this moment with you, and we will have to wait until we can say our goodbyes properly.
In my preaching and ministry among you and with you, I have tried to tell the truth and to tell it in love. (I’ll say a little more about that at the end of this sermon). I have also tried diligently to live out my words. More often than I would like to think, I have failed to do so because I am a fallible human being. But I got up and tried again.
The heart of what I believe, what I have tried to proclaim, what I have tried to live is found in these ten thoughts:
1. God lives. I believe profoundly in the presence of the living God whose deepest desire is to fill us with abundant life.
2. God loves us and all creatures deeply and passionately. As I learned from an early mentor, “Nothing we can do will make God love us any more. Nothing we can do will make God love us any less.” We are God’s beloved people, and the earth teems with the creatures with whom God has fallen in love.
3. God cares. God is not some remote being who set the world running and then promptly forgot about it. God is not some distant force. but is as near as our next breath. God is involved in our lives, and longs fiercely for us to be involved with equal passion in the life of God.
4. God calls. God entrusts us with the message of love and invites us to live it out in the world. God calls us to a vocation of compassion and passion for the gospel, that we be a people for whom love is the highest value. That vocation is encapsulated in the Great Commandment: love God with all that you are and love your neighbour as yourself. Be people of love, and reach out to all others in as many creative ways as we can in everything we do.
5. God empowers us. We do not live out our vocation by our own strength. God is at work in us and with us and among us and around us. God strengthens us to be people of love, grace, compassion, joy, and hope.
6. God needs us. St. Teresa of Avila (15th century Spanish mystic) wrote, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands,
yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” God simply cannot fill this world with love and compassion without us.
7. God leads. Which means that we follow. God always takes the initiative, and we respond. If you’re a grammar nerd like me, the gospel always begins with the indicative, and only then does it move to the imperative. The gospel begins, “I am God, I am with you, you are Mine, I love you.” Then God says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news of life.” The Ten Commandments is a wonderful example of this. Exodus 20 begins, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is what I have done; how, here is how my people can live together in peace and grace.
8. For Christians, Christ is the very image of God. We claim that we see the purposes of God most clearly in Christ. This doesn’t mean that Christ is the only image of God. Other religions speak of God in different ways, and we can, and must, treat those other religions with respect and love. While it is not true for all, for us who follow Jesus, we claim that he is the one who shows us God most clearly.
9. We are, in Christ, the very image of God. As we follow and respond to God, as we seek to walk in the Way of Jesus, we bear within us the image of God. Like Mary, we are Theotokos, “God–bearers”. Each day we give birth to God.
10. The Bible is not a manual for life. Rather, the Bible tells the stories of God’s people who throughout history have tried to live in relationship with God. The Bible is not a rule book or a set of commandments or God’s little instruction book. The Bible’s stories can inspire the stories of our lives, so that as we learn from our ancestors in faith, we can seek to live in the same faith as we add our little bits to the grand story as we live in very different contexts in the 21st century.
These ten thoughts are the basis of my faith, my trust, my relationship with God. Of course, there is much more to be said about each of these, but people have told me that brevity is the soul of wit. It’s a good way to end …
… but I can’t end without at least a comment about one of the readings for today. It’s my Presbyterian heritage coming through, I suppose.
The alternative Old Testament reading today comes from the prophet Jeremiah. It’s the story of two prophets in conflict at a time just after the people of Israel had been taken into Exile. The Babylonian armies had overrun Jerusalem, destroyed and looted the Temple, and took all the leaders and many of the people to Babylon. It was a crisis of unimaginable proportions.
Along comes a prophet named Hananiah. Please remember that a prophet is not someone who predicts the future. A prophet is similar to what we mean when we say “preacher”. (Now you can see why this reading seems appropriate to me on this last Sunday as a preacher, and why I couldn’t resist commenting on it.)
He claims to speak in the name of God. “When you get to Babylon, don’t bother to unpack. I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon; you will be back home within two years. All the treasures of the temple will come back with you, and your leaders as well. God has promised a quick and easy deliverance.”
You can see why the people would love a preacher like this. This difficult time won’t last. It will come to an end soon. Hang in there, God is with you, God is on your side, all you need to do is believe, and you will find prosperity and deliverance.
It almost sounds as if Hananiah could have written Robert Schuller’s book Tough Times Never Last, but Tough People Do. Well I’m sorry, Robert. “If it doesn’t kill you it will make you
stronger” may be a nice slogan, but sometimes tough times do last. And sometimes vulnerable people are hurt and killed. They don’t become stronger.
On the other side stands Jeremiah. In chapter 27, he fashioned a yoke which he put on his shoulders as a visible prophetic act that the people were under the yoke of Babylon. In response to Hananiah, Jeremiah says, “Amen, brother! How I wish you were right! But you’re not. You’re wrong. Dead wrong. This is going to last for a long time.” Jeremiah dares to tell his people the truth, hard and holy truths.
Then in chapter 29, Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon. “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat the produce. Marry. Give your children in marriage. Multiply in Babylon, and do not decrease. Above all, seek the welfare of the city where I sent you, for in its welfare you will find your own welfare.”
This is going to last for a while. Even in exile, be God’s faithful and loving people; pray for the enemies who took you into exile.
Jeremiah told a hard and holy truth.
That’s how I have tried to live in my vocation as priest. I don’t claim to have always done it right. I don’t claim to have always succeeded. I don’t claim to be the only one who can hear God’s voice.
But I have tried to tell the truth as I have discerned it—hard truths like:
- • we need to listen to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and act towards reconciliation with indigenous brothers and sisters;
- • we need to serve our city and region as a way of loving our neighbours, and to take care of the poorest and most vulnerable among us;
- • we need to embody God’s love in all we do and say;
- • we need to be wildly and joyously inclusive of all people;
- • we need to shine like a flickering candle in the darkness of the world.
As we do that, we are responding to God’s passionate love for us. We are walking in this world as God’s beloved children. We are precious, chosen, called, and empowered.
We can live as the church.
We can live as God’s people.
Finally, a small gift. I have known a story “The Parable of the Lighthouse” for many years. A 4–minute video tells the parable beautifully. You can find it at:
Thank you for your love and grace in this time of ministry we have shared for 16 years. I am deeply, deeply grateful.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
June 28, 2020 (4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13)
Jeremiah 28: 1–11
Matthew 10: 40–42
Romans 6: 12–23