SERMON 9/21/22 Celebration New Ministry, St James OKC
Proverbs 3:1-6; Psalm 119:33-40; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; Matthew 9:9-13
Early this Spring, Terri and I planted a few herbs in a small garden container on our back porch. Even though we have had overwhelming heat and sun this summer, our herbs have grown faster than we can harvest and use. Terri and I have nibbled on Thai Basil, regular basil, Thyme, parsley, and jalapenos throughout the summer. We have so much in that little garden, and surely, we can never enjoy it all ourselves, so we need to share the abundance God has given us.
We are not professional farmers but rather, we are novice gardeners and "wanna be" chefs who like to kick our homemade dinners with a little spice and herbage. The garden grows despite our lack of attention and each day, we are surprised by the growth it offers. A few years ago at our home in Florida, we planted a tomato vine in another tiny herb garden. We did everything we thought possible to ensure that plant would bear fruit. We watered it obsessively for days, we staked the plant, so it would have something on which to grow, we used zip ties around the vine to help anchor it. We added fertilizer and cared for this little plant like it was the most important plant on our property.
Despite all our efforts and despite the extraordinary height this plant attained, despite the flowers that emerged several times, the tomato vine never bore fruit; there were never any tomatoes. The plant never attained its ultimate destiny, which was to provide sweet, succulent, home-grown flavor to our salads, burgers, and sandwiches throughout the summer. The problem was that our small garden space was being taken up by a non-fruit-bearing plant, and the only solution it would seem would to have pull up the tomato plant, and put something else in its place. As God always does, there was another plan for that garden that we had not yet seen, nor were we ready to make the changes needed.
Jesus said, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Jesus met a tax collector and went home with him for a delicious meal that I am sure included some lamb, bread, and Middle Eastern veggies, all seasoned with some tasty herbs and succulent spices. As awesome as this dinner party sounds however, we need to remember this little fact about the story. People back then, did not dine with folks they did not like or with people who were not of an acceptable social status. You only shared hospitality and the abundance of your garden with only with people you love; least not tax collectors or other so-called outcasts that Jesus was dining with that night.
Nonetheless, this "chance" dinner party with a tax collector and his colleagues shows us that God's table of grace is in not just setup for the religious elite, or good pious folks, or good church folks. No, all are invited and are welcome. It is open to such people as those who have missed the mark (sinners). It is open to people who have served faithfully in their vocations and ministries are invited. It is open to people who have face challenges, trials, uncertainty, and fear. It is open to people who struggle to make it every day. All people are invited to the table of grace.
For you see at God's table there is always an open invitation to dine, to feast and fellowship, to be filled with grace. At this table there is food, bread and wine, and body and blood. At this table we feast but it doesn't end there. We are sent out from the table to go and share grace with others. We dine together bringing the unique spice and herbs of our individual selves, we bring our gifts, and share the rich tapestry of our diversity and beauty. From God's table we are called to spice up the lives of our neighbors with the grace and love of Christ in them. We are the herbs and spices that flavor the grace God offers all of creation.
Throughout the Biblical narrative, the God's people were giving this mission of love, but they strayed from it time and time again. Yet, God is faithful to us and sent prophets to call us back to the path. Eventually, God in flesh, Jesus Christ came to call his people back to the chosen path of the mission of love for all people, especially those who need grace the most. In his own words, he tells us, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick."
Not our Vineyard but God's
Sometimes we have our own ideas about what God’s Kingdom should be like. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time nurtured their own ideas of that kingdom with rules like washing hands at the right time, eating with only certain people, avoiding certain foods, and worshipping in particular ways, which were all a part of a religious system that developed over time. There were strict laws that were upheld so that one could identify who was in the community and who was out. That is why so called "sinners and tax collectors" were thought to be excluded from the table. This kind of holiness in some cases became less about molding a people to be a blessing (the original mission), and more about excluding those on the outside of the insider group. There were laws that even prevented them from helping a friend in need on a particular day, because that kind of grace somehow incorrectly thwarted the law. The people forgot why they were brought together in the first place.
Early in the narrative of Israel, Abram (later renamed Abraham) was called out by God and he was given a mission to accomplish something for the Kingdom. God said, "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing." (Genesis 12) The mission of God’s chosen people, was to be a blessing to all nations, to stand out as a presence in the world of God’s Kingdom lived out in the lives of an entire people. The mission of the chosen folk was not to be exclusive, but to be inclusive and life-transforming through their example. God’s patience in dealing with this people set apart to be a blessing is seen throughout their history. Then Christ came.
He was a threat to the religious complacency that came from the people’s misconception of God's Kingdom. Jesus and his disciples did not follow the hand-washing and other purity codes, they ate with sinners and tax collectors, Jesus healed his sisters and brothers on that day set aside for something else. Jesus did not merely thwart the system because he wanted to be a “change agent,” Jesus lived into Abram’s understanding of our mission. Jesus lived it and taught it and died for it. Jesus turned upside down the misconstrued notions of the Kingdom of God that the religious leaders embraced at the time. Jesus clarified for us that the Kingdom was not a worldly nation, but a people gathered whose purpose was to be an example, a city on a hill, a lighthouse for the lost soul. Jesus brought radical change to the Kingdom, so the Kingdom represented the mission of God; transformation, reconciliation, and resurrection (new life).
Ongoing mission requires Change
In our mini garden a few years ago, right alongside our non-bearing tomato plant, we decided after being so frustrated, to place in the ground a wonderful assortment of fresh basil, a lovely lemon thyme, and selection of Greek oregano. As those herbs and spices grew like wildfire, over several months, we enjoyed omelets, salads, main dishes and vegetables seasoned with some of the most aromatic and flavorful herbs we ever had. The food we prepared at home was enhanced, because we added the fruit, or rather the irresistible leaves of our fresh herbs. It was amazing how the presence of such flavor, aroma, and oils brought a change to everything we prepared for our table.
Sisters and brothers you are planted in this neighborhood to bring God’s grace to bear on the lives of your neighbors. You sit here today as witnesses to the grace, the love, the reconciliation of Christ in our lives, made possible by your participation in the life of this congregation. Your mission to the people in the surrounding neighborhoods though, may need to be different from years' past, because the neighborhood is different than when the church was planted many years ago. However, the mission remains the same, because the spiritually hungry need to be fed, the emotionally downtrodden need to be lifted up, and the cold and needy must be provided warm clothes of mercy, grace, and reconciliation. The Church is called to be a flavorful herbs and spices that make the Kingdom of God possible right here and right now.
However, the Church must always be ready to adapt to its situation as the garden changes. Your mission and how you accomplish must be re-evaluated, reconsidered, and possibly re-formulated often. You may need to try new things, make some radical changes, and that may mean that you will need to take a look over the next few years and realize that we are being called by God to tweak, adjust, add to, or take away from areas of ministry. I am sure that in the past, there were ministries here that bore great fruit, but for some reason they do so no longer, so remember that God is always making things new.
Tomatoes and Mission
Back to our herb garden .... That tomato plant even after several months, never bore fruit. On a weekly basis, I continued to add additional Velcro stabilizing straps, I watered it, and cared for it, and it continued to grow higher and higher. The flowers continued to burst forth, but there was never even one tomato that emerged on those branches. However, I never pulled it up and planted something new because I believed, and I hoped that as long as it was green, and as long as it was growing, it had a purpose. What I eventually realized was that the tomato plant was actually a part of the entire garden, and its mission was not to bear fruit, but to provide shade for the herbs from the scorching Florida sun. I added herbs that would grow alongside the tomato vine, and in time it changed the purpose of the whole garden. It became a source of impeccable flavor that would enhance every dish at our table.
Our Mission - Herbal Mission
So, St. James, as you look over the rich tapestry of congregational life here in this community, you must continue to ask God to give you the grace to grow in a love of Christ. It is a new day and time to seek the wisdom to make right choices regarding the evolving and emerging mission you have been given. Pray for the Spirit to bring new folks to God’s abundant table of love, mercy, and grace. Pray that you have the courage to focus on your mission, that God will give you a renewed vision of mission, so that you can continue to be a rich addition to the vineyard, the broader community where the lives of the least, lost, and lonely around you, need your presence, your love, and your service to God.
Sisters and brothers, tonight we celebrate the start of a new ministry with congregation and priest. I offer you these words of encouragement but more importantly, I give you a loving challenge Fr. Robby, Fr. Cuco, and God's people of St. James Your purpose as a people is to be a lighthouse, an example, a welcoming respite, a faith forming, life-transforming community that helps all people, not just the ones you like, so all might be restored to God and each other. You all are to be a blessing to all with whom we come in contact both as individuals and as a community. Stay focused on that mission and be wary of straying away from it. Jesus warned the religious leaders back in the old days that if a community fails to embrace its mission, the task would be given to others who bear the Kingdom’s fruit. But I know you all are bearing much fruit now. So, spice up the life of those around you. Plant some delicious herbs of mission and ministry in this neighborhood. Go and invite others to this table to be fed by God's amazing grace.