Delivered at the General Theological Seminary on November 12, 2013, 6 pm Eucharist. Lesser feast day of Charles Simeon.
November ‚Äì November is an event – at least here in New York. Fall just sort of happens; the trees turn gold, red, or a really tired brown. The first snow fall appears, we no longer know how to dress for the cold subway platforms and hot subway cars, and Christmas music becomes the soundtrack of our entire life. And if you’re a child of the internet like me, November brings even more events. There’s Movember where growing a mustache helps you raise money for charity; Facebook feeds are filled with people celebrating 30 days of thankfulness and then there’s Nanowrimo, where writers across the world commit themselves to writing a novel in just 30 days. 30 days to take the story inside of us and put it on paper. One whole month to create something brand new. 30 days, 50,000 words, the next great American novel ‚Äì and maybe, just maybe, completing one of our life’s great works.
Now, today is the feast day of Charles Simeon. His is a name that I haven’t come across before because, as a Lutheran, his day doesn’t show up in the front of my hymnal. So, when the rota first came out, I turned to the great knowledge bank that is Wikipedia to discover who he is. And as I scanned through the article, I really wondered why the Spirit was calling me to preach my senior sermon on a Vicar from Cambridge. Born in 1759, Charles grew up in the middle class. He attended Cambridge, became ordained, and served Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge for 54 years until his death. He helped pick missionaries for India, started the Church Missionary Society, help develop the idea of campus ministry, and might have even invented small group ministry while at Holy Trinity. And as I kept scanning, I noticed a word that kept popping up in his biography, over and over,: the word ‘evangelical’. So maybe that’s why I’m up here ‚Äì to talk about that word in this place ‚Äì since that word is in my denomination’s name. I’m a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We just celebrated our 25th birthday, and we’re a product of the last 300 years of splits and mergers of various Lutheran church bodies throughout the United States. And we purposefully grabbed onto that word “Evangelical” knowing full well that, in this modern US context, we no longer own it. But just because we don’t own it, that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t call us to live that word out ‚Äì to be evangelical – in everything that we do.
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” – that’s how our reading from Romans starts, with words from Moses. This quote comes from Deuteronomy, in the middle of Moses’ last great sermon to the people before his death. After 40 years in the desert, on the shores of the Jordan, Moses gathered the tribes of the Exodus together to bring their experiences into a word and to draw them into the covenant that God had made with them. Moses stood before the people, and stands before us, to say that this covenant from God ‚Äì it’s no far away – it’s right here, right now, on our lips and in our hearts. That gift ‚Äì resides not buried in some place deep no, it is at the center of who we are and in what we communicate. That Word that Jesus is Lord, that forgiveness, mercy, and love happens to us, that Jesus actually matters, that’s what is on our lips, in our words, in the air that we breath in and in the air that we breath out ‚Äì in and out. And isn’t that unbelievably scary?
Because if you take up the sum of all of our parts ‚Äì everything that is a part of who we are, from the tips of our toes to the top of our heads ‚Äì I bet we could think of at least one thing that we said that probably wasn’t very Christ like. There was probably a thought or two that might, just might, have been negative of another person, judgmental, or maybe we didn’t think of the other person at all. We carry with us a history of hurt that has been done to us and that we have done to others. The breaking of relationships, the hurtful things said in anger, the joys we feel that blind us to the plight of our neighbor ‚Äì taking us as a total package just shows that we’re not perfect. Taken seriously as a whole, can I ever truly believe? Is there anything that I can do to make me right with God? In the great Nanowrimo of our lives, in the novels we write everyday in our actions, thoughts, words, and deeds ‚Äì can my heart truly believe? How faithful can I actually be?
But it’s not my faith that I’m counting on; it’s God’s faithfulness to me.
Faith is a gift. Trust is a gift. Trusting in the promises of God ‚Äì promises made at the foot of the Cross – promises made to us in our baptisms ‚Äì promises that we did not earn but that were given to us because that’s just what God does ‚Äì God has made that my story; God has made that our story. And that’s the Christ event ‚Äì the external work of God telling the entire world that God loves you, all of you, and that all of you matters. Not just the part that is good; not just the part that might have a good hair day every once in awhile; or the part that is all smiles and has no sorrows ‚Äì no, all of us matters. We, as total packages, matter to God. Christ died and lives for us. And we die and live in Christ. Our relationship to God doesn’t depend on us ‚Äì our relationship to God depends on God’s faithfulness, God’s promises, God’s gifts ‚Äì gifts that are given every day, to feed and nourish us, to help us be little Christ’s to our friends and neighbors. And to give fully, to love completely, to listen and see all who are unseen. We are called to boldly go and live out the Christ event everyday, not because we are perfect; not because, as seminarians or professors, priests or pastors, Episcopalians or Lutherans, that we just know more ‚Äì we live out the Christ event because the Christ event has been given to each of us first. Because God has claimed us; and in that claiming walks with us, fully, and completely. That’s our story; that’s the story that God writes in our hearts and on our lips; that’s the story that we are called to proclaim, to confess – we’re called to fill the air around us with God’s love, God’s faithfulness, Christ’s story, and our story too.
And Charles Simeon ‚Äì I think he got that ‚Äì because that’s the heart of being an Evangelical ‚Äì proclaiming and confessing the story of Jesus Christ. Being evangelical isn’t a worship style, political party, or a social contract. No, it is proclaiming God’s love for me, for you, and for the whole world. The telling of God’s story, that was Charles Simeon’s claim to fame. During his years of preaching, he wrote and published what he called “Sermon Skeletons” – outlines of sermons that were spread all throughout England. And these sermon outlines became his commentary on the bible. That’s how he saw the text ‚Äì a story not only to be read but to be proclaimed. By the time he died, his sermon skeletons covered most of the bible and filled 21 volumes. It’s still in print today. Pastors and priests continue to reflect on his words ‚Äì and on his proclaiming and confessing of Christ’s story because that was his story; because God made that his story; and because God continues to make that our story too. God has claimed us all as evangelicals ‚Äì we are called to be the feet that brings good news into new places so that in all that we do, in all that we say, in the novels that we write and live out everyday, we know that the Word is near ‚Äì the Word is on our lips ‚Äì the Word is in our hearts ‚Äì and Christ is with us. Amen.