Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Let’s pray. Sisters and brothers, holy partners in our heavenly calling, consider this: Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, was faithful to the one who appointed him. … He is faithful over God’s house as a son. Let us, you and I, hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope, as we - gathered here — are indeed God’s house. (From Hebrews 3:1-6) Amen.
It’s time to say adios to you. Today marks the end of my time serving the risen Christ alongside you here at St. Paul’s.
And, I have a small confession to make today. It’s my habit to crib the opening prayers for my homilies from the Bible, from something in the day’s reading. When the reading is from St. Paul, that’s easy: he starts most all his letters with “Grace to you, and peace, from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is a straightforward greeting in the Lord; it offers grace without – immediately — demanding something in return.
But “Hebrews?” It’s a whole lot less colloquial. People who know these things say it’s written in a more finely-wrought dialect of classical Greek than the rest of the New Testament. It quotes extensively from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Finding a suitable opening prayer takes some digging. The prayer asks more of us – “hold firm to confidence and pride.”
The writer wants to explain something to us, to show us the hidden connections, to prove to us the holiness of Jesus. See? he writes. This Jesus is definitely a high priest, but he’s not like the high priests of Herod’s temple on Mount Zion. His high-priestly status – connected to Melchizedek who shows up feeding Abram in Genesis — predate and transcend the Levitical order of temple priests. Jesus isn’t in it for the personal glory, but out of obedience to God in heaven. Here it’s the suffering of Jesus that makes him obedient, and his obedience that completes him and makes him the perfect source of salvation. It’s all very idealistic. It’s all about perfection.
The writer of Hebrews appeals to the idealism we’ve inherited from classical Greek culture. He talks to our yearning for perfect transcendent patterns tying everything together. He wouldn’t have said, “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds.” He would have said, “the plan of God that perfects all understanding will fill your hearts and minds.”
Through Jeremiah the Lord said, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
The writer of Hebrews would say that the route to our hearts is through our reason – that to discern the ideal perfection tying things together is to “get it” — is to have the law written on our hearts.
Now, that’s a legitimate path to walk on our journeys to God. But it’s different from St. Paul’s path. Paul’s all about the paradoxical struggles of the life of faith. He says, “it’s foolishness to Greeks and scandal to Jews, but we proclaim Christ crucified.
In all three readings today, we see that tension between Hebrew and Greek that difference between experience and idealism, between flesh and spirit. In all three readings we see the yearning to unite those two. “The day is surely coming,” says Jeremiah, when we won’t have to learn or teach the law because we’ll already know it. In Hebrews, Jesus’s high-priesthood is more perfect, more ideal, than the priesthood of the Jerusalem temple. In the Gospel reading, the Greek visitors come seeking the perfection of Jesus in the temple.
So, who am I and who are you? An idealist, seeking the highest and most perfect path? Or the one who finds God’s grace in broken places and trouble?
We can walk either the path of idealism or the path of paradox in our journeys to God. Some days we follow Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Other days, we proclaim Christ crucified.
Some days we pray prayers for order like today’s collect “Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise”
Other days we proclaim Christ crucified. Walter Wangerin, a mid-20th-century columnist and pastor, told this story. When his son was eight, the boy had the habit of shoplifting comic books. His father reasoned and cajoled him, explaining the virtues of honesty, of kindness to the shopkeeper, and of staying out of trouble with the law, but the boy kept on stealing. Finally the father decided he had no choice to spank the boy. He did so, very ritually, and then fled to the next room in tears. The boy stopped stealing after that.
Years later, when the boy was packing to leave for college, the father overheard him and his mother talking about his collection of comic books. She said, “you didn’t stop stealing them until Dad spanked you,” and he replied “I didn’t stop because of the spanking. I stopped because I saw Dad crying.” Wow. The holy perfection in that family’s path is completely from God!
In our reading from John, the Greek visitors want to see Jesus. They want to lay their eyes on this great teacher. They respectfully approach him through Philip, one of their own. Perhaps they have the idea that personally witnessing him will fill them with clarity, and cause the ideal law to be written on their hearts.
And Jesus’s answer to them is yes, and. His yes – a yes of transformation – carries the Greeks beyond idealism and the Hebrews beyond righteousness. It carries Paul beyond proclaiming Christ crucified to Christ resurrected. He transforms weakness into strength, paradox into certainty. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” he says of his coming violent death. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” In his anguish and death he conquers death. He gathers together into one the paths of idealism and paradox, and overcomes the power of violence and darkness. You and I receive the grace to follow our varying paths – foolishness, stumbling blocks, Paul, Hebrews — with the assurance that Jesus gathers us all to himself in his death and resurrection.
I’ve been talking about different paths this morning, and how those paths lead to God. As you surely know, this is my last Sunday with you all here at St. Paul’s. The time has come for me to follow a different path from you. I do so with the assurance that your future paths and mine are gathered together at the cross and the empty tomb.
The church places a peculiar demand on her ordained servants. When we leave the service of a particular congregation, we are expected to say goodbye and separate ourselves. This isn’t easy for me; I love you people and I will miss you.
In the past few Augusts I’ve gone to a training session offered by the Willow Creek association of megachurches. Various megachurch pastors came and spoke about their plans to retire — slowly. “I’ll preach once a month and do baptisms.” One of them actually said, “It will be hard to step away from all the work I’ve done to build this church;” Then he caught himself and said, “Jesus built this church.” A lot of these megachurches started in the 1960s and 1970s, and many of their pastors are facing times of transition. One wonders what will happen to those congregations should the pastors hang on. Will they be confused about who they follow? I hope not.
Our church traditions, both Episcopal and Lutheran, have this demand that we preachers say goodbye and separate. It’s a good policy. It matters to the health of the church. It has played a part in creating a church that lasts for centuries, not just decades.
It’s necessary. Why? Because the church follows Jesus. The church does not serve people like me. When we preachers say goodbye gracefully, we do just a little bit to remind ourselves and the church that we follow Jesus. We also make it a little easier for our fellow preachers to do their work faithfully.
So I must say goodbye. Thank you for the privilege of serving Christ crucified and risen alongside you all here on High Street. I am grateful for your company on the path towards God from Advent 2010 until now. I love you and I will remember you until our paths are gathered together again in Christ.
Grace to you, and peace, from the one who was, and who is, and who is to come. Amen.