Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St Luke’s, Portland
“They gathered around Jesus and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” It sounds like a reasonable request. It would be great if things could just be clear. People understand this and as a result much of what passes as Christianity in this country follows the “KISS” (Keep it Simple Stupid) rule. The problem is that when it comes to theology KISS tends to result in “KUSS” (Keep Us Simple Stupid), with Jesus being betrayed by a kiss again and again and again (Luke 22:48). In the words of Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware, “It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question but to progressively make us aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”
Jesus’ response to the disciple’s request was simple: If you want to know who I am, don’t look at what I say – or what other say about me – look at what I do. As Christians, our response to people’s questions should be the same. If you want to know what St. Luke’s is, come and see what happens at worship on Sunday mornings at 10, at our pantries on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 9, and in our lives and homes all week long. If you want to know who St. Lukans are, look at articles in yesterday’s paper and today’s. Our goal is to not just be about Jesus, it is to be about what Jesus was about. As the old song says, they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they will know we are Christians by our love. To use words attributed to St. Francis, our task is “to preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.”
This, I think, is something that my mother understood. She died a long time ago and I have to say that I do not remember her saying much about what she believed. I know that she lived it all the time. She sang in the choir, served on the vestry, and made sure all of her children kept going to church until they were done with high school. She was a physical therapist who as part of a visiting nurses association took care of all sorts and conditions of people, going to people’s homes in sections of town where others might not have gone… often taking one of her kids with her to meet her patients and cheer them up by playing an instrument or something else. Having worked with young adults who were paralyzed from motorcycle or diving accidents and discovering that, with the exception of nursing homes there was no place for them to live, she created a foundation that built the first independent living center in the state of Illinois which now bears her name. You could say that my quest for success comes from my father’s side of the family. My sense of ministry – of living my faith – comes from my mom.
On this Mother’s Day, I think of my mother not knowing I existed until I was born. I only weighed two pounds – half the size of my twin brother – and our heart beats were in sync. After my twin was born, she must have gotten some sort of message the doctor saying to “Keep pushing. You’re not done yet!” And there I was – barely viable and in an incubator for the next several months – but as you can see, I survived (and put on a little weight!). On this Mother’s Day, I think also of the birth of my son and Shari going into labor late on Christmas night during dinner in the Deanery of the American Cathedral. More poignantly, I am reminded of the phone call we received from Shari’s doctor about nine months earlier. In the same sentence he told us she was pregnant, told us she had Toxoplasmosis, and told us that the abortion would be scheduled for the next week. We didn’t even know what Toxoplasmosis was (it’s a disease carried by unpasteurized cheeses and raw meat, and also by cat feces, that if you get in utero can result in birth defects and/or blindness and other issues which can appear even into young adulthood). We were in shock and really had no idea what to do. This is when we were living in France – in a time before the internet when phone calls to the states were prohibitively expensive and when our language skills were not all that great – which made it even more difficult. In the end, we decided to go ahead, to carry the baby to term, and to deal with whatever happened next. Though for his first two years he constantly poked and prodded by the Pasteur Institute in Paris, I dare say he turned out rather well, and thanks be to God never had any of the anticipated Toxoplasmosis related problems.
We could have made a different decision. As demonstrated by the doctor, we were expected to make a different decision. Theologically, spiritually and otherwise, either option would have been OK. Theology, spiritually and otherwise, I know that God would be with us, no matter which direction we had gone. The point is that we – not the French government, nor our French doctor, not even our American and French church – were the ones who made the decision. The underlying question swirling around the Supreme Court is not about abortion but about agency, about who decides about what happens with a woman’s body. Having had just a small taste of this, I have a tiny inkling of the emotional, spiritual, wrenching agony that women must go through when confronted deciding to have an abortion or not. What is clear to me is that the decision is best made by them, not a court filled mostly with men who claim to be religious but seem to want to take religious freedom away. To not allow people to make their own decisions is not just disrespectful and demeaning, it treats them like property or vessels without value, without minds or hearts or faith or the capacity to decide what happens to their bodies, who they can marry, or anything else. In short it is exactly the opposite of what Jesus would do, and did.
That’s not to say than any of us are perfect. However, if Peter – the one who denied Jesus three times, who sank when trying to walk on water and who was always getting things wrong – if this Peter could raise Tabitha from the dead, just imagine what the women who anointed Jesus with oil — who were the first to witness the resurrection, and who always got things right – could do themselves. In Revelation, we heard these words: “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” I know that many here today feel like they are going through a great ordeal right now. If this is you, if this week has made you fearful for yourself, for women around the world, for your daughters, or your marriage — if the news about Ukraine, about the climate, about our own country or about statements from religious leaders at home or abroad is breaking your heart – I want you to remember that God and people who claim to speak for God are not the same thing. God and the church are not the same thing either. The God of love and justice who created the universe who is around you and inside you, is much bigger than that. That God is with you today. That God has given you power, agency, a brain and a heart and a faith… and responsibility to put all those things to use. If you are struggling that’s OK. Struggling is a sign that you care and are taking things seriously. If you are struggling, know that God is with you and walking with you, here to hold you up and wipe away the tears from your eyes, no matter what you decide to do. Know that I am with you and that this church is with you too.
The disciples asked Jesus. Are you the Messiah? Tell us plainly. Jesus’ response to the disciple’s request was simple: If you want to know who I am, look at what I do. Jesus was continually breaking norms by empowering women, lifting up women, caring for women – and all who society oppressed – recognizing their rights, offering them health care, and giving them hope. If we, on this Mother’s Day are to follow Jesus, our task is to follow his example, to be about what Jesus was about, and do what he did. If we did that, I think our mothers, and Jesus himself, would be proud.