St. Philip’s Episcopal Church
Easthampton, Massachusetts
Sunday Sermon
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A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts,
on 18 November 2018 [Proper 28]:
Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

Be Careful!

Our parish administrator, Laura Smith, and I had a chat this week.  We both wanted to review the parish’s weekly ad in the Gazette.  It needs upgrading.  While newspaper ads are not a very effective way of getting the word out about our church (on-line inquiries are what people use to find a church), nonetheless, as long as the Gazette continues to publish a Saturday listing of the area churches, I think we at St. Philip’s need to fly our flag.  So, I emailed Laura with what I had in mind for our ad.

In addition to reformatting our ad, the main thing I wanted to change was to include our parish motto, something the Vestry adopted two summers ago at our annual planning session.  As you know (cough, cough), our parish motto reads: “If you come here, you will grow.”

As any motto worth its salt should, ours distinctly announces what we are about.  Our parish motto indicates that there is something about our life together here as God’s people in Christ that promotes growth and development.  And that growth consists of being touched by what around here we call the “God-life.”  What our motto contains is this: That the clear expression and demonstration of life on God’s terms, coupled with the support of a community of honest, yearning, faith explorers has the capacity to cause all of us to grow into “the full stature of Christ” – to use a phrase from our baptismal vows.  Our motto: “If you come here, you will grow,” not only reminds us of this experiential purpose; it also serves as a fair warning.  This is to say that any one is most welcome to window shop at St. Philip’s; but there is a distinct chance that once you choose to put on what you see, you will not only grow.  You will change – change in terms of coming to grips with what it means to be made in God’s image and likeness.

Given this, I thought that I would add two words to our published motto and have it read this way: “Be careful: If you come here, you will grow.”  I sent this suggestion off to Laura and asked her (as I always do) for her comments.  What came back to me was interesting.

Very respectfully, Laura expressed a deep hesitation about the words: “Be careful.”  So, this past Tuesday, at our regular administrative meeting, I asked her to tell me what those two words (“Be Careful”) raised up in her.

What she conveyed to me did not surprise me.  In fact, I think Laura’s initial reaction to the cautionary words might be – at first blush — fairly typical of many of us.  In essence, her perspective was that we want to convey our welcome to others.  The words “Be Careful” seemed a bit ominous about what might happen, if a person came through our doors.

Indeed so!  Laura’s comment rings true to me, and they made me think about one of the orienting questions that is posted on the wall of our parish hall: “What is the function of your church?”  Part of the answer to that question does include that our community needs not only to be welcoming but also safe and trustworthy.  Coming to St. Philip’s should allow a person to let his or her guard down and to risk being open enough to receive what God has to offer.  Yet, if we’re honest, there is more to the function of our church than this type of welcome.  There needs to be more.

Contemporary American author, Annie Dillard, pens a revealing insight into what the church’s function is truly about.  In her famous, 1982 series of reflections: “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” Dillard addresses the deep reality of the church, specifically what the real risk can be of joining a group that has gathered in the Name of the Risen One.  Dillard writes:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

So it is that I regard the addition of the two words, “Be Careful,” to our published parish motto as nothing short of honest and loving.  It is meant to convey the dear fact that you and I seek something that we cannot provide for ourselves but, in fact, is of God; and that the God-life has the capacity – if we’re not “careful” – to change our lives and through us the life of the world.  So, “Be Careful: If you come here, you will grow.”

The need to “Be Careful” emerges especially at this time of the liturgical year.  With gospel readings such as the one we heard from Mark this morning, we need to “Be Careful” because, let’s face it, none of us likes what this day’s gospel conveys; and so we are quite prone to dismiss its disturbing content or simply ignore it.  After all, if hard things are to be considered at this time of year, let it be about getting the Thanksgiving dinner organized.

It always is the case that the liturgical year ends with the type of foreboding words and images we encounter in what biblical scholars call “Mark’s Little Apocalypse.”  In effect, today’s gospel warns us to “Be Careful” precisely because the stuff of life, that which tends (for better or for worse) to give us a sense of stability – this stuff doesn’t last.  So, in our resulting astonishment and fear, Jesus warns not to be led astray by the chaos.  This same tone and admonishing message will continue next week (the last Sunday of the worship year) and on the first Sunday of the new liturgical year: Advent 1. Clearly, it’s just easier to watch the Macy’s parade and the football games and feast a lot.

Yet, the oft-putting message concerning the end of things affords a surprising amount of hope and strength.  The truth is: buildings collapse; wildfires rage; refugees wander; and our own lives will also end.  But even in these chaotic and heartbreaking events – especially in these hard events, we need to “Be Careful” not to miss what lasts, what remains, what gives new life.

The evening darkness comes early these days, and the temperatures cause us to shiver.   The news of the day rarely uplifts or fosters hope.  It is easy to taste and see the hard and sobering limits of our lives.  Yet, in all of this, we are beckoned by God to “Be Careful:” to recall amidst all the rumblings that distract us and cause us to fear that there is life beyond what we can make.  There is God’s life yearning to be born in us now.

“Birth pangs” is how in Mark’s account Jesus describes what otherwise can feel to us like death.  Amidst all this, how might we handle these “labor pains”?  For they do hurt, and the changes they portend threaten us so.  We need to “Be Careful” – be careful about our response to all the change.

The late Roman Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, has written something that I find clarifying, as you and I live through the prospect of our growth and the challenge of all the changes.  Merton writes: “A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all.  No [one] can serve two masters.  Your life is shaped by the end you live for.  You are made in the image of what you desire.”

Your life is shaped by the end you live for.
You are made in the image of what you desire.
In the spiritual tradition of the Christian faith, there is a Greek word that captures what Merton is alluding to.  The word is teleos.  Teleos refers to that perspective which evaluates things from the point of their completion, their purpose, their ending.  Christian people like us are in great need to recall a vision of life that is rooted in the completeness of God.  Being made in God’s image, striving to adopt the likeness of Christ puts us on a path with purpose and direction.  God’s teleos beckons us to keep our eyes on the prize, specifically the one that we have already seen in the Risen Jesus and, the one, by God’s will, which shall also be seen in us.

So, we take to heart the reminder to “Be Careful:” Careful to tend this life in all its manifestations because it is passing away; and in its passing to be careful to see with hopeful vision what emerges from God: Life that fear and death cannot touch.

O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make hast to help us.  Amen.