I love to travel, but not for short jaunts. I have spent most of my life abroad, living and working in Europe, Asia and Africa. These forays into distant lands have provoked a deep curiosity with different cultures, languages and religions. Looking at what it means to be human.
And every culture has one thing in common – they always think that they are the best. Best food, best language, best music, best government, best this or that. At one level this very good. It unites people and gives them a sense of identity. At another level however, it vividly displays our human condition: tribal, competitive, excluding some to protect the rest. It is putting a good thing, into the place of the ultimate thing – and it can become our religion.
Every human culture is religious at its deepest level: Defined by beliefs about reality and what that reality demands of the people. This doesn’t have to be a personal God, but in the end, everyone believes in something, and this something points the way.
Here in America, 90% of us say we believe in God. We have a plethora of religious styles and types to prove it. But according to NY Times columnist, Ross Douthat, “the problem with America isn’t too much religion, or too little, its bad religion – the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of seductive pseudo-Christianities in its place”. He claims, we have become a nation of heretics.
His rather shocking observation is important, because if we really desire to take the theme of this convention seriously, to be transformed by renewal of our minds, then we must be clear about what it is we are being transformed into.
Our gospel reading today says that the way to know God is through his Son, Jesus. He is the gate by which we can enter and be saved. He is the good shepherd who will lead his people to safety. He is the one who lays down his life for us, who keeps us safe. The one, who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, where he sits enthroned beside the Father; He will come to judge the world in righteousness. He is Lord and Savior, the way, the truth and the life.
These exclusive claims about Jesus do not sit well in American culture today where each is encouraged to define truth as they see it, all with equal value. And so, it is little wonder that according to a recent Pew Research study, 60 % of Episcopalians, disagreed with or were unsure about the Bible’s claims about Jesus.
The Christian message is unique in that it does not promote a set of rules or laws, no spiritual techniques to progress – the Good News is found in the person of Jesus, who frees us to live truly human lives in harmony with God and one another. And so, if we are to follow the courageous examples of St Timothy and St Titus, we must bear witness to the truth of Jesus: his birth, life and teaching, death, resurrection and ascension.
But saying yes to Jesus means saying no to a whole lot of what the world counts as normal. This counter-culture decision means we may have to make sacrifices if we wish to be genuine witnesses.
When we were selecting folks to teach the discipleship course in Mozambique called Rooted in Jesus, we used to say, “if you are not rooted in Jesus, you cannot teach rooted in Jesus”. To be genuine gospel witnesses like Timothy and Titus, we need to be clear about what it is we know to be true, because the world does not.
In my travels in in Mozambique, I would go on safari for 2-3 weeks. I would usually preside over a confirmation service, eat lunch, travel to the next village, sleep and wake to start the same schedule the next day.
In one small village on the lakeshore, there lived a boy called Pedro. He was a fine young man, a fisherman, like his father. He worked hard, helped his family and served as an acolyte in the parish.
One day, he asked his parents for some money to travel to the big city. He wanted to see the city lights just once. His were reluctant, they knew the perils of urban live, but they trusted their son and so gave him the little money they had for the journey – and off he went.
Well, days past, then a week, and they heard nothing from Pedro. Alarmed and not knowing where to turn, they asked their priest what to do. He suggested that they make an announcement in the newly formed national public radio station, and so they did. The message said, ‘Pedro, we love you, all is forgiven, please come home”. It then ended with the promise to be at the town square, Saturday, at noon.
And so, the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all boarded the rickety old bus and road up the escarpment to the big city. They arrived early and made their way to the town square and waited.
When the chime in the tower clock struct 12, do you know what happened? 22 Pedros walked out into that square. 22 young men had heard the call of love, forgiveness and acceptance. 22 young men ached to come home.
People all over Tennessee ache for the same thing. They desire love and acceptance; they long for forgiveness and the chance to come home.
As faithful witnesses to Jesus, we are called to share this new unfolding reality as we invite others into abundant life. Our motivation is not to fill empty seats or bring back the money, but to invite others into what the poet Mary Oliver called our “one, wild and precious life”.
Now I know that we Episcopalians are a bit squeamish about evangelism. We like to quote St Francis who said something like, “proclaim the Gospel and use words when necessary” as a get out of jail free card. We conveniently forget that St Francis planted 100s of churches across Europe on his missionary journeys, preaching the Gospel – using plenty of words. We need to throw aside this false ‘niceness’ and be genuine witnesses who live out the Gospel and are able to give the reason for our hope. It’s not enough to do outreach, if we do not also explain why. How can they know, if we do not tell them? This is the work of the church.
It is said that the church is the only organization that exists not for itself, but for others. And so, Jesus sends his followers out into the world to be his witnesses. He knows that we cannot do this work alone. So, he promises the Spirit as a resource to accompany, console, guide and empower us on our way.
That reminds me of my last mass in Mozambique. It was a bittersweet moment, for we were saying goodbye after nearly 30 years of shared ministry. The night before the farewell liturgy, I had a dream. In it God said, “Mark you will sing the Great Thanksgiving like an angel”.
Therein lies the problem. I am tone-deaf.
Oh, I sing with gusto, but it seems to come out as a very painful noise.
Nevertheless, I believed the dream, and so I went to the cathedral full of confidence and anticipation.
Well over 2000 people had gathered to say goodbye. And as I stepped up the 7 steps to the high alter and looked across on the faces of friends, family and colleagues, I just knew that God was with me.
So, I began to sing the Sursum Corda, and out came the sound of a frog croaking.
It was terrible. Maybe the worst I had ever done. As my face turned crimson, I wondered how God could forsake me on this last day in Mozambique. They would forever remember me as the bishop who choked.
But then an amazing thing happened. The priests, who had gathered around the alter to concelebrate with me in a show of collegiality, began to sing the great thanksgiving. One by one, they each joined in that chant, and together, we sang like angels.
So, remember, friends.
Together with St Timothy and Titus, we can be transformed by God’s love.
Together, in the power of the Spirit, we have been given resources to build.
Together we are sent to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world.
And only together, can we sing like angels.
So, go ahead, take the risk to witness of the Good News of the Gospel, rooted in Jesus, and empowered by the Spirit. Go out and live this one, wild and precious life as followers of Jesus.
You are the hope of the world.
Be the church, make the difference, and change our nation.
Go on, go!