Sermon at New Song Episcopal Church on July 4, 2021:
The readings for today provide rich material for reflection—the thorn in the side of Paul, for one thing, which has intrigued Biblical scholars for many centuries. Was it a physical pain, an obsession that he couldn’t control, or a mental burden of some sort? Whatever it was, he gave it credit for keeping him from being too full of himself. “For whenever I am weak,” he wrote, “then I am strong.”
Then there’s the all-too-true line about prophets: they are not without honor, Jesus says, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house. He clearly speaks from personal experience on this.
So the readings explore the theme of difficulties, both personal and public. And even though they were written two thousand years ago, we can certainly relate to the dilemmas they present.
Take as well the verses about Jesus sending out his disciples two-by-two to preach and heal, for example. He tells them to take nothing with them except their walking staff. And if they’re not welcomed in a place, there are to shake the dust from their feet and go to another place. That’s such an evocative, poignant image, isn’t it? We don’t have nearly as many dusty roads as they did in Jesus’ day, but we understand the meaning of his words. If your message is not welcomed in one place, move on to another. Shake the dust off your feet and try again.
All of us have had times in our lives when we’ve faced a situation like this. Our rejection may not have been because of preaching the gospel, but we got kicked out nevertheless—maybe it was a divorce, a job loss, a breach of friendship, or a controversy that left us on the outside, looking in. We were left feeling bruised and battered, and the only thing we could do was leave.
That had happened to me when I first showed up at New Song six years ago. And New Song took me in, as it has so many people who are lost and wandering.
During that time, there was a poem that spoke directly to my heart. It’s by Jan Richardson, and it’s called A Blessing in the Dust.
You thought the blessing
in the staying;
in casting your lot
with this place,
in learning the art
And now you stand
on the threshold
The home you had
had ached for,
is behind you—
not yours, after all.
The clarity comes
as small comfort,
but it comes:
for the next step.
As you go,
may you feel
the full weight
of your gifts
in your two hands,
the complete measure
of their grace
in your heart that knows
there is a place
for the treasure
that you bear.
I promise you
there is a blessing
in the leaving,
in the dust shed
from your shoes
as you walk toward home—
not the one you left
but the one that waits ahead,
the one that already
reaches out for you
for the gifts
that none but you
When I arrived at New Song, I felt like my gifts were welcomed—and my sorrows too.
The gospel reading for today is a reminder that Jesus also knew what it meant to be rejected. That’s why he sent out his disciples two by two—he knew they would need support and comfort during the many times when doors would be shut in their faces, when they would be persecuted and despised. And he knew that often you are treated the worst in places that should treat you the best.
Think of these lines from the gospel: “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.”
In other words, even Jesus couldn’t do much in such a situation. So he tells his disciples, be strong. Take up your staff and keep going.
This is a classic image of the pilgrim, by the way—a wanderer who travels lightly, with few possessions. I’ve seen many people like this on my trips around the world to holy sites. They are often a little rough around the edges, but there’s wisdom in their eyes.
I like to think that New Song specializes in welcoming such people—the pilgrims, the wanderers, and the lost. We’re certainly not the biggest church in the area, nor the fanciest, nor the wealthiest. But I think we’re good at welcoming those who need respite. On my first Sunday here, I remember that Jerry Howe described New Song as the church of God’s Odds and Ends. I immediately thought, “Well, that description certainly fits me.”
This gospel passage also tells us that despite the difficulties we face, as followers of Jesus we are to practice evangelism, a word that I know strikes fear and terror into the hearts of most us Episcopalians. We’re certainly not Mormons, knocking on the doors of strangers—but maybe we could learn a lesson from them, It takes a lot of courage to walk up a sidewalk and knock on a stranger’s door, and then to be rejected time and again. But they are actually following the command of Jesus better than most of us.
It reminds me of an old story about a man who prayed every morning that God would give him the opportunity to witness to someone about his faith. “Please give me a sign to show me who I should talk to,” he prayed. One day he was sitting on a bus when a woman in obvious sadness and distress took the seat next to him. The woman made him uncomfortable, and he anxiously waited for his stop so he could exit the bus. But before he could do so the woman began to cry. “I’m a lost sinner and I need the Lord,” she said. “Won’t somebody tell me how to find him?” She turned to the man and pleaded, “Can you help me?”
And the believer immediately bowed his head and prayed, “Lord, is this a sign?”
Believe me, I’ve been there. You’re listening to someone who seems lost, or upset, and you’re wondering if you should say anything about church. But you don’t want to be known as a holy roller or a Bible thumper. So the opportunity passes.
I think the current moment is a key time in the life of New Song and of the larger church. Our society is emerging from the pandemic, a time when many people have felt spiritually lost. Many people have suffered greatly because of the disruption of the normal activities of life. Social distancing, alas, has often meant spiritual distancing as well.
And I think, too, that many of our hearts are heavy because of those who are missing in our community. There are empty chairs where Ann Hulme and Chuck Coulter once sat, for example, two people who devoted much of their lives to this church. And more recently, we are sad about saying goodbye to Chris Epting, who left just this past week to start a new life in Colorado.
So let me return to Jan Richardson’s poem, in particular to the line about a place that is waiting to welcome you “in gladness for the gifts that none but you could bring.”
At its best, that is what a church community does. Every person who walks through our doors bears a gift for us. It might be a skill or a talent or a passion. It might be the chance to help them, so that in the process we grow ourselves.
And a healthy community, I think, is one that mourns those who are no longer there, and then looks to see who will come through the door next. And its members also go out looking for those who are waiting for an invitation they don’t even realize that they need. We’ll never replace Ann or Chuck or Chris, but there are people out there who bear gifts we can’t even dream of.
And in your circle of friends, I expect there are people who are like that woman on the bus, only their cries for help are silent.
So let us take up our staff and head out into the world. We follow a man who knew rejection and persevered. Let us follow his example and reach out to those who are in need of healing, community, and love. They are waiting for us. And they have blessings that we need in return.