at St. Mark's, Port Royal
The Fifth Sunday after The Epiphany
February 9, 2014
I Corinthians 2:1-12
A number of years ago, a popular song became fairly well known, especially among young people – “God Is a Surprise.” The several verses of that song recalled times in the history of our faith that God has acted in surprising ways. For instance, God chose a band of slaves in Egypt to become the people of God. And, of course, God’s incarnate Son was born in an animal stable. These and other examples from our faith history testify to the truth of that song’s title. “God Is a Surprise.”
I thought of that title and theme as I prepared for this sermon. First, I looked at the collect for the day. Referenced there is “abundant life.” Now, we usually consider “abundant life” in terms of many blessings, happiness, and God’s mercy. We may even think of material goods, in our less spiritual moments. But, surprise, the collect refers to “liberty” as the result of “abundant life” (BCP, p 216). Certainly liberty is not contrary to usual topics related to that theme....but, also, liberty is probably not the first one thought of. Interestingly, though, it may be first for us in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina! Surprise!
Another surprise comes in the First Reading, from Isaiah. The prophet there deals with the subject of fasting. And we know what that means, don’t we? Fasting involves doing without food, so that we may focus on other matters. However, surprisingly, Isaiah points to other intentions as God’s will for fasting – “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free ... to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house” (58:6-7). The subsequent promise which results from this fast is not greater self-awareness but, rather, a greater witness and mission. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn ... the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (58:8). Surprise!
Following along with this perspective, we come next to the Second Reading, from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. There St. Paul refers to his own prophetic voice – a voice that he typically is not shy about claiming and asserting. However, this portion of his letter is surprising. He writes, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (2:1-3). That hardly sounds like the St. Paul we know elsewhere. Surprise!
Finally, we arrive at the Gospel reading. Jesus encourages his followers to be salt and light – enhancing the flavor of their message to the world and showing the truth of that message for all to see. Thus, salt and light. Be bold in witness, Jesus says, so that everyone will know of this new light in the world. But then comes a surprise from this revolutionary teacher. He says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5: 17). Surprise!
Thus, from our collect today and from our readings as well, we find affirmation that, indeed, “God Is a Surprise.” Therefore, now I want us to think for a couple of minutes about other applications of that same theme.
What has happened recently to our diocese is surprising ... and not all of that is God’s work, I hasten to add. However, we do need to affirm that God is at work, even in trying circumstances – and often in surprising ways.
As we approach the threshold of beginning a second year in our efforts to reorganize the diocese, I sense my own call to do some things differently. That is, during the past year, we have put together the rudimentary organization of a diocese ... and we obviously needed to do that. However, now – before we get too locked into doing business in a certain way – this is precisely the time to consider whether God might have some more surprises in store for us. Let’s be open to the surprises of God – especially now. That will be a primary message I offer in the coming year.
Now, more locally, how about St. Mark’s? There have been a few surprises in your life recently as well. When I first knew you, this was a community wandering in the wilderness. Your self identity was couched somewhat in negative terms – what you were not, where you stood over against other perspectives. But, in a fairly brief time, you have experienced several surprises. You became a Mission of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Not only that, but you now are known as the primary resource for other communities on the path to Mission status. For a while, you experienced a clergy person who was not attempting to balance retirement with pastoral demands. And, you are poised to take other significant steps on your journey of faith.
So, this moment seems to present an appropriate opportunity to raise several questions – questions about whether God may have other surprises in store for you, also. Here are a few things I want to encourage you to consider. Can you continue to envision this community as “church” in new and non-traditional ways? Even as you take further steps toward organizing, can you be open to God’s surprises? Will you respond faithfully to the uniqueness of this community and, at the same time, will you seek opportunities for mission in Jesus’ name? And, finally in terms of the big picture, what is your dream for the future of St. Mark’s?
These are indeed exciting times – both for our diocese and for this church. We face both challenges and opportunities galore. Even as we put in order aspects of our community life that deserve our care and attention, may we also be open to possibilities which present themselves. And, may we always remember, “God Is a Surprise!” Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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