On Tuesday, November 12, I gave the homily at the monthly gathering of the Manhattan Ministerium. The Ministerium consists of the ECLA Lutheran pastors and leaders who work in Manhattan or call Manhattan home. We were using the readings for the lesser feast day from our Episcopalian brothers and sisters because later that evening I would be delivering my senior sermon at General Theological Seminary. My plan was to use the Ministerium gathering as a trial run for my sermon. Instead, I wrote two different sermons for Tuesday. The context for the two were just too different to use the same sermon twice.
For the audio inclined, download an .mp3 file here (warning, some loud noises make the first 3 seconds a tad annoying): A reflection on Charles Simeon.
Imagine, for a moment, if every sermon you’ve ever preached was collected in a book. Every single one. All the manuscripts, all the notes, all the ones that were preached off the cuff ‚Äì all of it collected in one big book. In some ways, that might look like our life’s work. So now that I’m imagining that collected body of work ‚Äì and being a former engineer – my mind just starts asking quantitative questions like, how much of the bible would those sermons actually cover? What’s the ratio of Sunday sermons to the others? Which gospel book did I preach on the most? The least? And what’s the ratio of clunkers to actually decent ones? And I’m sure I could come up with a bunch of other questions look at ‚Äì but there would be one that I would want to wrap up on ‚Äì one final question – looking back, how many of them truly preached Christ crucified?
Our readings today are for a lesser feast from the calendar of our Episcopalian brothers and sisters. It’s the feast day of Charles Simeon, an Englishman born in 1759. He grew up from modest means, attended Eaton, and graduated from Cambridge. He eventually was ordained and appointed Vicar of Holy Trinity in Cambridge. During his ministry, he helped co-found missionary societies, send missionaries to India, and actually built a campus ministry before those things even existed. And he served as the Vicar of Holy Trinity for 54 years. One place – for 54 years. And during that time, he wrote a sermon for every chapter of the bible. Every single one. But he didn’t just keep his sermons for his congregation and himself. During his ministry, he was constantly publishing his sermons and his sermon outlines ‚Äì he called them “sermon skeletons.” When these outlines were finally complied together, he had a 21 volume commentary on the complete bible. And these sermons and outlines were just devoured by his peers. Hundreds of priests all over England were busy using his outlines or just stealing his sermons when they had to preach. He’s a reminder of those great movers and pillars of the Christian church who’s influence grew not in some great event but in the long, drawn out slog that can be congregational ministry ‚Äì of feeding lambs, tending sheep, and also having breakfast while you’re at it.
And that’s one of my favorite bits from this part of John ‚Äì the fact that this exchange happens after breakfast. This snippet is completely pulled out of it’s context but you still can’t take breakfast out of it. Being fed by Jesus ‚Äì being invited to the table to have a little meal ‚Äì that happens first. Peter is nourished before the questions from Jesus begin. I almost imagine Peter lounging a bit, full and alert. He’s in a secure place; he’s sitting with Jesus; he just caught a ton of fish; and he’s just been fed. He’s in the best place he could possibly be in, right now. And it’s only then, once the food starts being digested, that Jesus starts questioning Peter. Jesus tackles him when Peter’s feels he’s at his peak ‚Äì that’s when Jesus’s three questions begin. And Peter can’t do anything but be fluster about it.
I fully identify with Peter here. There are definitely times in my ministry where I’ve had some successes and felt good about what happened, confident about what went down, excited and secure about what the future will bring. I forgot to show humility ‚Äì I act like I’m full from breakfast, and that I can handle anything that comes down the road. I start to just get a tad too me focused ‚Äì and forget that God’s got a say in all of this too. And it doesn’t usually take long before reality hits, things crumble, because I became a tad too confident in me and not confident enough in God’s faithfulness and love.
But even when that happens ‚Äì there’s still breakfast; there’s still that nourishment from God; there’s still, as I’m hearing in this text today, there’s still Jesus right here, in the thick of things, not abandoning me to my confidence, but transforming me into a better servant; transforming all of us, all the time, to be better servants; better caregivers to the lambs, to sheep ‚Äì to all of those who God calls us to serve. Whether ordained or not, we’re all in ministry for the long haul. We might not be in the same place for 54 years, but we’re called to live out our ministry fully and completely. But we’re not called to do that alone. We’ve got Christ; we’ve got this ministerium; we’ve got our brothers and sisters in the Episcopal church too ‚Äì so let’s everything we do, as we gather today and next month and the month after ‚Äì tend sheep, feed lambs, proclaim Christ crucified ‚Äì a Christ given for me and for you.