My colleague Paula had a last-minute appointment come up, so I’m suybbing for her at tonight’s Community Eucharist in commemoration of St. Martin of Tours. I haven’t had much time to mull things over, but will clutch at a few homiletical straws from the neighborhood of Matthew 25:34-40, Isaiah 58:6-12, and Psalm 15.
I’ll post the sermon below, when I found out how it ends. . . . .
Anderson Chapel of St. John the Divine, Seabury-Western
Isa 58:6-12/Ps 15/Matt 25:34-40
Martin of Tours, November 11, 2004
We don’t usually celebrate Martinmas as a particularly Trinitarian feast; our readings and prayers push hard for us to remember the saint as the soldier who shared his cloak with a rough sleeper in Amiens. But as a wise theologian once said, “It’s more complicated than that” – both in the readings and in the church history – and as almost always, the complications point us toward the hard work, the hard thinking where the gospel finds its richest soil, its strongest roots.
One hard part of tonight’s gospel lesson lies in the frustrating unselfconsciousness with which the righteous sheep responded to the need that they saw. The blessed righteous in tonight’s gospel lesson not only fed the hungry, watered the thirsty, clothed the naked, sheltered the stranger, cared for the sick and visited the prisoners, they did so without any thought that in so doing, they might be serving Jesus. As elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commends not only those followers who hear his words and do what he asks, but Jesus also extends his blessing to unanticipated saints. Like the prodigal’s elder brother, we who enlisted as volunteers in Martin’s army of disciples must simply look on as Jesus brings aboard a bunch of conscripts, draftees, to take places among us at God’s right hand.
Matthew wants us not to think about the consequences of our ministry, though – he explicitly reminds us not to think ahead about what will be our reward. Don’t we trust that God recognizes goodness and will care for us? Matthew’s kind of discipleship rules out calculation, relies on trust and ungrudging love. And oddly enough, that sort of immediate generosity overflows from our hearts not so much because we heard edifying stories and pointed sermons about why we ought to be generous – and more because we come to know God, and to understand that our Way sets us free from the illusion that we can match our foresight against the contingencies of serving God.
Yet – another hard part here – recognizing God rightly requires that we know for whom we’re looking, that we not seek out just any self-proclaimed generic deity, suitable for most everyday spiritual purposes. Our hands, our minds, our affections learn to love this God in ways joyful and frustrating, simple and baffling. The deeper our longing to know this God, the harder the Way of discerning, of yielding, of following will be – especially if we find ourselves constantly deliberately aware of the cost of discipleship, of the weight of ministry.
You perhaps have already encountered some of the costs, the challenges, the obstacles, the burdens, the complications of answering a call to step forward to lead God’s people. You may want to throttle the next person who suggests that the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Bless you, for your willingness to come this far — and we can pray together that you will be relieved. But for most of us, the path to the tabernacle of the Lord runs a rugged and strenuous way. That is how we recognize it.
On that path, you will not be alone. We look unpromising, we fellow-travelers and roadside hermits and monarchs and prelates and children and musicians, but watch out, sheep! Looks may be deceiving, and even a gruff or grandiose façade may conceal a heart that speaks truth, a guileless tongue, a respectful neighbor, a soul that longs for an opportunity to live blamelessly, to do what is right. You are not alone, but surrounded by saints, comforted by choirs of angels, sustained and strengthened by the Spirit – and surprisingly, constantly, walking in the presence of the Christ who came among us to give a grace we could never plan for, to welcome us to a sharing in God’s life that we could never work up on our own. With the holiest of company, we may give a day or two, a year or three, a lifetime and more, to abiding with the complications that come from learning to love God spontaneously, and we may come to recognize that the hardest part isn’t the learning, or the loving, but the living, together.