In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.
Good morning! If I may, on this first Sunday with you, let me take a few minutes to introduce myself to many of you. I am the Rev. Barbara Thrall, your bridge pastor for the coming months. I’m an Episcopal priest, who retired three years ago after 31 years of ordained ministry. I’ve served churches in New York City, New Hampshire, Holyoke, MA and most recently I’ve been doing Sunday substitutions at churches around Springfield. My husband, Ed, who is a writer of fiction and poetry, and I live in South Hadley, and we have one son who lives in Boston. As time goes on you’ll probably hear a little more about some of this personal stuff.
As to theology, I’m absolutely convinced that Jesus is Lord, that God is real, and that the Holy Spirit is present and active, because I have experienced their power so many times. You’ll hear more about that, too, as we get to know one another better. My hope is to share and encourage these encounters with God here at Christ-the-King-Epiphany Church. As your bridge pastor, I am here to work alongside you and our lay leadership in acknowledging your feelings of loss and grief about Pastor Karen’s passing, and to celebrate her life on Saturday, September 19. Following that service and that weekend, we will begin to move together in a search for a new pastor for this fine church. I am very much looking forward to getting to know you as I serve you in Christ’s name, and I’m deeply grateful to your wardens and Deacon Pat and many others for all you have done to bring us to this point. So as my Mom taught me to say, thank you for having me.
And now some words about our lessons today. Here’s a thought: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I expect you’ve heard that commandment a time or two over the years as you’ve worshipped in this or any church, haven’t you? It’s a mandate firmly embedded in the Old Testament Law, “Love God and your neighbor as yourself,” and Jesus cites it as a distillation of all those hundreds of laws in the Torah. St. Paul cites this commandment in his letter to the Romans this morning, urging them to obey the words of their heritage. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is great stuff, but as we know, it’s not always so easy to do.
For his part, Paul had been working very hard in the various churches he had founded to build a collection that he could take to Jerusalem, where the faithful there were really in need. With this collection he hoped to strengthen his own position as an effective evangelist (some people still had some serious doubts about his suitability), and to accomplish some healing in that great city. He was now ready to make the journey to Jerusalem and from there he hoped to travel to Spain, stopping by Rome on the way. He writes to the Romans to announce his intentions and to explain his understanding of the Gospel.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” It was true in Paul’s time and it’s true now, love is often thought of as an emotion, a warm and cozy feeling, something we fall into and out of. Love sometimes translates as deep affection, or caring, or attraction. But in Paul’s context, and I think in our own context, where we live now as members of the Body of Christ, love is a decision we make. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is a mind-set and a life-style, a commitment that comes up for constant renewal.
The great evangelist Billy Graham was once challenged at the end of a revival meeting. A sharp-eyed reported had noticed that some of the people who were coming forth to be prayed for and blessed were repeat customers. They had come forward before. He pointed this out to Billy Graham and said, “Hey, they’ve been saved. Why are they coming back again?”
Billy Graham turned to the reporter and asked him, “How often do you take a bath?” The reported said, “Well, every couple of days. What kind of question is that?” Billy Graham continued, “Well, giving yourself to Christ is like taking a bath. You don’t just do it once and expect it to be good forever. It’s not that way for most people. Life presents you with challenges and you have to keep coming back, again and again, making the commitment, renewing your promise.”
For us, having to constantly reinforce our willingness to follow the commandment of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself” takes work and conscious, serious dedication. And not just a couple times a week, but in these days of close-living, uncertainties, frustrations and strife, the need to remind ourselves to Love Our Neighbors as Ourselves can come up – I don’t know, every day? Every hour? Would you agree?
So, in the words of a wise counselor I once spoke with, what would it look like to love your neighbor as yourself? I’m not talking about some vague sense of being good and holy, but what would that love look like? For St. Paul it would mean to lay aside the works of darkness – in his times, idolatry, greed, self-centeredness – (and we probably know what the works of darkness are for ourselves), put that stuff away and put on the armor of light. That would mean to live honorably, working hard, not cheating, obeying the commandments, thinking of others, working for the health and well-being of everyone. It would mean to exercise restraint for the good of everybody. In short, it would mean that we would have to be and behave differently from the rest of the world.
That “being different” is what’s behind the power of the Passover meal we heard about in Exodus. That meal solidified forever the Jewish identity in the Chosen People about to be set free. The Jews alone celebrate that feast of freedom, a formational act of God’s salvation. “Being different” from the rest of the world would mean, as Jesus directs, to take great pains to maintain concord and discipline within the body of the church, and to go way out of our way to seek and find forgiveness and justice within the church.
That “being different” would be seen in our thinking and acting from a place of groundedness in a basic biblical truth for all of us: namely, I am a beloved child of God. You are a beloved child of God. Because we are children of God, I see you, as a human being and I hope we see each other and all humanity that way. Because we are fellow children of God, we listen to each other and seek to understand our words and circumstances, our contexts and actions. We learn from each other and we respect each other.
We honor one another and work for justice and peace for everyone.
In that way we put on the armor of light, and as far as the world is concerned, we are Standouts. We are different. Some might even say we are strange, or naïve, those holy Christians who love people they don’t even know, who love people who are not like them. And at the same time, some people who see us loving our neighbors as ourselves might also say we are blessed, and we are a blessing to a hurting world. Yes, we are to be unashamedly Different, stand-outs, and that’s a good thing.
This week CTKE begins a new chapter as we undertake this journey in faith together. I am so glad to be here and I’m honored to have been asked to join with you in ministry. I don’t have to tell you, change is difficult, especially when there are so many uncertainties and reasons for sadness and concern that still surround us. And I also don’t have to tell you that God is so good, and we have already experienced what it is to live in His light. We know what that feels like and what that looks like, and that deep, abiding knowledge will help us to keep on shining. Together let us see where the Spirit will take us, and know that God already believes we are Stand-outs when it comes to love. Let’s show the world what God has done and can do, in and through us. Amen.