Sermon for Epiphany 8, Year A

St. Paul's, Richmond, VA
February 27, 2011

I was in another diocese recently, where someone was talking about a clothes closet run by a congregation. A parishioner didn’t understand why he kept seeing the same people come back every 10 days or two weeks. Somebody finally pointed out that the people who use the clothes closet have neither a place nor the money to do laundry – they wear the clothes until they can’t stand them anymore and then come to get some more. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant by not worrying about your body or what you’re going to wear. In fact, I think he’d urge us to worry about it, in the form of doing something about the least of these, his brothers and sisters. Later on in this gospel, we hear “And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:38, 40).

When Isaiah insists that his people are meant to be a covenant to the nations, liberating prisoners and feeding the hungry, he’s talking about tending to that kind of worry. It they are going to be God’s people, they’re supposed to act like God, who can’t ignore the cries of people in the wilderness. He points out that God is like the mother of a nursing child, who can’t ignore the urgent cries or hunger of her offspring for more than a few minutes. We’re meant to serve God in the urgency of those in need, rather than some other lesser master. It’s mostly a matter of focus – are we attending primarily to our own needs, or to those of others?

The work of St. Paul’s in the heart of the city is just that – particularly through your attention to the need for office-workers around here to tell their stories, and your focus on reconciliation during this coming Lent. It’s also evident in your attention to the needs of the least of these in developing nations throughout the world, in the Millennium Development Goals – and your very concrete work in Central Tanganyika.

You have a long history in this place, and there have certainly been many worries here over the years. This was the largest church in Virginia when it was built in 1845 – big enough for General Convention! – but I recall that when I was here last, people were worried about whether this space would hold everyone who wanted to come for the installation of Bp Johnston as your diocesan. Others were worried about the snow, and the safety of people traveling. Still others were tied up in knots about issues of human sexuality – what would the Diocese of Virginia do about X and Y? – and I don’t just mean chromosomes.

What do we worry about? Is it worth the effort?

Our nation is in the throes of some really wretched and worried divisiveness at the moment – Arizona is trying to enact even more punitive immigration laws, Wisconsin is trying to remove the right of state workers to organize, Indiana did it six years ago. We’re still at war in two venues across the Middle East, and none of us knows what the current unrest across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is going to mean for peace in that part of the world. I’ve just come from Norfolk and a visit to the Navy fleet chaplains readying for another deployment. Our congregations are increasingly facing the aftermath of those wars as wounded sailors and soldiers return and they and their families try to restore life to some semblance of order.

There is plenty to worry about – and plenty to work at in healing, reconciling, and rebuilding. As the gospel says, “don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

You seem to be working hard at appropriate worrying. The focus of this congregation on being Christ in the heart of the city is a sign of tending to the worries all around us. The 85,000 people who enter this part of the city every weekday are weighed down with worries, and you’re providing a measure of healing and peace.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is to keep serving the appropriate master. Jesus says that “you cannot serve both God and wealth.” It is possible to serve the wrong one even if the outward work is tending to the needs of the least of these. A classic example is the TV evangelism empire du jour, or a charity that collects money and spends 90 cents of every dollar on itself. But there are more subtle ways of misdirecting loyalties and ministry. Most people who get involved in staffing food pantries or homeless shelters come to sense that they are receiving much more than they give. It’s possible to turn that into a subtle addiction – a way of feeling better about yourself, sometimes by believing that you’re better than the people you’re there to serve. Who are we worrying about, and which master is being served?

That’s a caution, not a critique. Strive first for the reign of God – that healed world – and the other needs will be filled as well.

I think what’s most intriguing about this place is your ability to serve all sorts and conditions of people. You welcomed African-Americans to the sacraments, both slave and free, in this community well before the Civil War. You were home to both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. There’s some silence in your history after the end of that war, but the focus of your upcoming Lenten series is testimony to your willingness to keep working on the healing. You’ve paid attention to the ongoing worries around you and the need for reconciliation. In Isaiah’s words, you are telling the prisoners to come out of jail – and that’s a recognition that we’re all going to stay bound up as long as some of us are.

If you’re going to keep serving the right master, the work is mostly about listening. What nursing child is loudest right now? Who’s hurting? Where are the cries coming from? That’s usually the voice of God, and the image of God, in our midst.

The character of faithful service – or appropriate worry – mostly has to do with that focus on the other, and the willingness to be vulnerable enough to hear and feel with the one who’s suffering. I wonder about those 85,000 people. I rather doubt that they all still have secure employment, or that everybody in this congregation does, or your neighbors do.

One of the most powerful ministries I’ve ever seen and experienced in a congregation was in Seattle in the midst of one of the Boeing layoffs in the mid-1980s. That church built a ministry of service to the unemployed and underemployed around hearing peoples’ stories, and then asking what gifts were exhibited in their stories of powerfully good experiences. Those gifts are the key to connecting baptismal vocation with employment. When we have felt most alive, we’re drawing on the unique gifts of the way we’re created – and that has something deeply significant to say about our true vocation. Understanding that is central to discovering where our work lives would bring us most joy, and where we’re likely to be most effective – and that is the kind of ministry each one of us is created for.

That’s what serving God looks like. In an economic time like this, there is renewed opportunity to serve the wandering and the uncertain and the unemployed – and people who just generally need some compassion. When we can really hear and be moved by that suffering, we’re worrying about the right things. Pray for the right kind of worry.