(To listen to Mother Nora's sermon, please click here)
Here is a short list of unlikely things that people in our world seem to believe:
Many of us seem to believe that we can eat, drink, and spend much more than we should, without the consequences catching up with us. We seem to believe that in our cities expensive real estate and expensive restaurants and expensive shops can increase forever, but the quality of our schools and our public services can only decay. We seem to believe that changing the way we make use of our natural resources is completely impossible, even when we know that continuing on our present track is virtually guaranteed to bring suffering and destruction on a scale we are barely able to contemplate. We seem to believe that war is human nature and peace is a luxury meant only for a lucky few.
What’s destructive is easy for us to believe. What’s life-giving and actually sensible seems unrealistic to us.
Maybe this inclination only to believe what’s harmful has something to do with the set of instructions Jesus gives to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel. For Jesus’s words to them are also words to us, and they speak of a long history of being able by the grace of God to believe that in Jesus the Kingdom of God is truly near: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”
The disciples believed Jesus when he came to them. They believed him, eventually: not without doubt, not without mistakes, not without turning back when the worst came. In spite of their own weaknesses, they believed him. By the grace of God, they believed him enough. They were able to welcome the prophet who stood before them. Somehow the evidence of his love and his truth were enough to help them stop believing only what was destructive.
And when they had seen him resurrected and ascended and the Spirit filled them, they were able to go out into the world to tell other people. “We have seen him,” they said. “We have known God in him. When we were with him the Kingdom of God burst into bloom around us, and the last suddenly became the first, and the healings we had never dared to expect took place before our eyes.” And somehow, they too were believed. Not without struggle, not without persecution, but they were believed, just enough. They were believed enough, and God was present with them enough, that we are still here today, gathered on a Sunday morning in Philadelphia, listening to the words that they took care to preserve, following the teachings they recorded as best we are able, each in our own way staking our lives on the faith we inherited from them. We too believe. We follow in a long, long tradition of people who have been able by the grace of God to welcome Jesus and those whom Jesus has sent.
How did you become part of that tradition? How did you find yourself believing the words of Jesus enough to spend your Sunday morning here?
Have you seen that kingdom of God open up all around you? When did it happen? Do you talk about it much? When and where are your eyes opened? When is your heart opened? In a cloud of incense? When you hear about how someone else became a follower of Jesus? Maybe the voices of a choir lifted in praise of God changed everything for you one Sunday morning. Maybe every Sunday morning. Maybe seeing the passion and commitment of the people who have kept the Saturday Soup Bowl open for ten years, in freezing cold and sweltering heat, moves you to believe. Maybe it’s the quiet reverence of the person in the pew in front of you, actually kneeling and praying. Maybe it’s the steady, difficult, joyful progress of the Saint James School. The sweet faces, maybe, of the children who gather for the 9:00 Mass? When you serve as an acolyte, are you touched by the feeling of moving and praying in unison with your fellow servers? Aren’t you kind of amazed that someone close to you is on a medical mission trip to Honduras, or has journeyed to the Philippines in the aftermath of a destructive typhoon, or to South Sudan, to extend the embrace of God’s love to those whose needs are great?
Aren’t you amazed by the sight of your own hands stretched out to receive Communion? Your own hand guiding the chalice carefully toward your lips, because you desire to drink from the cup of salvation? Aren’t you more than a little amazed to find that that’s really you at the altar rail, taking the Body of Christ in your hands and drinking from the cup of his Blood?
Have you grasped the full beauty of the Holy Spirit working within you? Because whatever brings you here this morning, something you saw or heard, some gesture or posture or voice or act, when you stirred in response to it, you were welcoming a prophet.
Those people whose faith moved you were prophets. They dared to proclaim the kingdom of heaven instead of the little magic kingdom of futility that we humans construct on our own.
And when you welcomed that prophet, Jesus tells us in this morning’s Gospel, you received a prophet’s reward. Maybe we can even put it this way: when you welcomed a prophet, you yourself were being prophetic.
You didn’t shrug your shoulders and tell yourself that the beauty of the faith you saw in action was a fantasy. You didn’t use that moment to dig yourself deeper into the destructive hole we are all so busy digging. You saw the kingdom of heaven and for a moment you accepted it, let it carry you forward, let it propel you to your knees, to the altar, to the world’s places of need.
You are just what this world needs, because you are moved by the Spirit that moves Jesus. You are part of a long tradition of welcoming the truth—the beautiful, holy, life-giving truth—in a world that does not know how to believe in its own survival.
You are nothing less than prophetic when you reach out your hands and say “Amen.” It may not be easy for you. You may not talk about it much. You may be vaguely embarrassed when you think about the life of faith you are living. But even in hesitation and silence, you are moved by those whom God has sent. You believe enough for today, and by the grace of God you may come to believe ever more strongly. We may come to believe more strongly together. This is how Jesus has chosen to build his kingdom: by opening hearts and keeping them open. Trust what Jesus trusts. Accept the truth of the love that brings you here.
The smallest gesture of acceptance in the Kingdom of God is enough to open the floodgates of heaven’s grace.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
29 June 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia