A Time to Celebrate
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 15, 2013
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Sumter
I Timothy 1:12-17
I consider it an honor to be with you as you celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Church of the Good Shepherd. This really is a very special occasion ... and I am delighted to be part of it. On this occasion, it is appropriate to give thanks for those people in former days who have made possible what we do here on this day. There have been many, many people through the years whose efforts have brought us to this time of celebration. Indeed, this is one of those times that the concept of the communion of saints should be quite real for us. And we need to give thanks today for those saints in years past. It also is appropriate for us in our time to recommit ourselves to the continuing mission and ministry of Good Shepherd in the future. For the efforts of those in the past to have meaning, then the people here today need to take up the torch, in order to continue work begun in previous times. Thus as we celebrate today, we look in two directions - to the past, with thanksgiving, and to the future, with commitment.
Our readings and collect today provide us with interesting and helpful perspectives at this particular time in the life of Church of the Good Shepherd. In this sermon, I will offer you my reflections, in hopes that they may frame your thoughts and understandings, in helpful ways.
The collect for the day actually presents a frightening possibility to us. “O God”, we prayed, “because without you we are not able to please you” (BCP, p233). The frightening possibility there, of course, is that we could actually be without God - outside the presence of God, beyond God’s influence and being. Then, the Old Testament readings today say more about this possibility ... and the views presented there are frightening indeed.
Remember the reading from Exodus. Moses had gone up Mt. Sinai, in order to meet with God and to receive the law from God - the Ten Commandments. But we read that Moses was delayed in returning from that meeting, and the people became anxious. They even made a golden calf to worship, in place of God Almighty. The words of today’s collect should ring in our ears at this point. “O God, because without you we are not able to please you.” Those people at the foot of Mt. Sinai were acting like they were without God - beyond the presence and influence of God. And they certainly did discover that in that place, they were not able to please God.
The Psalmist also considers this terrible place - being apart from God. The prayer in today’s Psalm is one of confession - “Have mercy on me, O God ... Wash me...from my wickedness ... Purge me from my sin” (51:1,2,8). Then, in the verse just following today’s selection, comes the point of the Psalmist’s prayer: “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me” (51:12).
Therefore, again, the Old Testament readings today present us with a frightening possibility - the chance that we could find ourselves without God. “O God, because without you we are not able to please you.” And, in that circumstance, our prayer, too, might become, “Cast me not away from your presence.”
However, as we turn to our other readings today, we become aware of the graphic differences between Old Testament theology and the faith of the New Testament. That is, as Christian people, the Old Testament has wisdom and authority for us, no doubt. However, New Testament faith - fulfilled in Jesus Christ - is essential to our understanding and belief in God who is present and at work in the world. Thus, the presence of God is a constant reality, we believe. Being apart from God is not even a possibility. It is that New Testament faith which offers us hope for the future. And, I imagine that you will recognize part of the story of Church of the Good Shepherd through the years, as we turn now to our New Testament faith.
The First Letter of Paul to Timothy does not discount the presence and power of sin in our lives. Indeed, among other observations, St. Paul writes, “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence ... I had acted ignorantly in unbelief ... (and) I am the foremost (of sinners)” (1:13, 15). However, such indications of sin do not separate St. Paul from the presence of God. And that is a significant - even, a crucial - distinction in New Testament theology. Indeed, St. Paul writes of the gratitude, strength, faith, and love he has because of Jesus Christ. In spite of his imperfections, then, he has been used by God for Christ’s service.
Finally, we come to a culmination of today’s theme in the Gospel reading, from St. Luke. The two parables there remind us that being apart from God is not possible, since the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Even now, in the power of the Holy Spirit, God in Christ is with us.
The good shepherd seeks out the one lost sheep and brings him back into the fold. And then, the shepherd calls together his friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” (15:6). In the second parable, the woman who loses a coin looks diligently for it. And upon finding it, she announces to her neighbors, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost” (15:9).
The clear message is that God is with us, all the time. God seeks us when we become lost, and He brings us home, like a Good Shepherd. That is the good news of our New Testament faith.
As I read a brief history of the Church of the Good Shepherd, I was struck by how much your story looks like the Gospel story. There have been times that your future did not look bright. Sometimes people of this church must have felt neglected and, even, forgotten, like a lost sheep. They may even have wondered if they had wandered away, out of the presence of God. But the Good Shepherd knew where his sheep were. He sought them out and found them, and he brought them home again. And, we know - as New Testament Christians - that it is not our own efforts that save us, but rather, it is God’s mercy on which we depend - the efforts and the mercy of the One who is the Good Shepherd. Thus, our collect today does not end at the point that I stopped reading earlier, for we are New Testament Christians. So we pray, “O God, because without you are are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever” (BCP, p233). May it be so today, tomorrow, and in the future, as it has been through the history of the Church of the Good Shepherd! Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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