The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 22
October 2nd, 2016
The Rev. David C. Killeen
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
I’d like to begin with an old Celtic prayer:
As you were there before our lives’ beginning, be there again at our journey’s end.
As you were there at my soul’s shaping, Father, be there too, at my soul’s close.
Savior and Friend, how wonderful you are, my companion upon the changeful way,
the comforter of its weariness, my guide to the Eternal Town,
the welcome at its gate.
I am going home with you, to your home, to your home,
I am going home with you, to your home of mercy.
I am going home with you to your home, to your home.
I am going home with you, to the Fount of all the blessings. Amen.
My brothers and sisters, it’s a joy to be with you this morning.
I’m especially grateful to your rector for inviting me to preach.
Let me begin by telling you something you already know: you have a gifted rector in Austin Rios, who is beloved and admired and perhaps just a little bit envied.
Most clergy stateside would give just about anything to end up in Rome ministering in a church as beautiful as this with people like you.
I enjoyed talking with many of you before the service, and as breathtaking as these newly restored mosaics are, the living mosaic of faith and devotion that I see from this pulpit is far more impressive. My wife, Carol, and I deeply appreciate your hospitality.
I bring to you the love and prayers of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tallahassee, a congregation that’s passionate about Christian hospitality. Every weekday, our café serves hundreds of people lunch, everyone from the justices of the Florida Supreme Court to young people from Leon High School, where my son, Danny is a student.
I’m pretty sure we’re the only church around that serves “A Slice of Sin,” a chocolate dessert that lives up to its name.
We’re also known for our bell tower and chimes, which real human beings have to ring by pushing what looks like wheel barrow handles.
My favorite bell tower moment came during the recent Tallahassee Marathon, which took place on a Sunday morning. The start/finish line was right by the church.
Rather than trying to beat the marathon, we joined them.
As the runners went by the church, our bell ringer played the theme song from “Chariots of Fire.”
You should have seen the runners’ reaction.
First off, they all began to run faster. But it was the expression on their faces that was priceless—a mixture of surprise and joy and gratitude. It’s what you and I would call grace.
In that brief moment, as the bells echoed through the city streets, I recalled William Temple, who once said that the church is the only institution that he knew of that exists primarily for those outside of it.
I hardly need to tell you about this: St. Paul’s Within the Walls is all about serving others outside these walls.
Your Joel Nafuma Center for refugees rings like a bell of good news through this city’s streets, the Episcopal Church, and our broken world in which so many of God’s children are living in exile.
More on that in a second, but first, let me quickly tell you about why I and 26 of my new best friends are in Rome.
We’re here with you—clergy and lay leaders from all over the U.S. —to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Anglican Centre in Rome, the embassy of the Anglican Communion vis a vis the Roman Catholic Church.
I think we all sense that something special is afoot right now, that the Holy Spirit is working to break down all of our proud divisions.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost once wrote. That something is the Holy Spirit, who is bringing God’s children together through what is called receptive ecumenism, a practice embraced by both Pope Francis, Archbishop Welby, and our own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry.
Receptive ecumenism starts with an awareness that I can learn as much from you as you from me.
And it maintains that we don’t have to wait for perfect agreement on every church teaching before we roll up our sleeves and work together: climate change; human trafficking; sickening waves of hatred and violence—there’s a new awareness that we can’t take on these Leviathans all by ourselves.
As Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, we’re 2 billion little mustard seeds that can make a difference in the lives of real people, people like my friend, Sergej.
Sergej and I met at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, FL. I served there before I was called to St. John’s.
Here’s what you need to know about Sergej: during the Bosnian War, he fought on the Serbian side. His leg was mangled when a troop transport vehicle he was riding in rode over a mine.
He spent months in a military hospital, endured countless surgeries, and was discharged both from the hospital and military service—he was too disabled to continue fighting. When he left the hospital, he was given the equivalent of $20 and a pack of cigarettes.
He told me that on the day he was discharged, he had no idea where to go, or what to do. And so he sat on a park bench outside the hospital, smoking all day. When it was dark, he got up, picked up his crutches, and made his way to a café, where he sat down and ate alone.
Fast-forward a few months: Sergej made contact with a Lutheran resettlement agency that arranged for him to come and live in Jacksonville. When he first arrived, the agency didn’t have a place for him to live, so he slept in a car. He finally got an apartment and soon after that, a job at St. Mark’s as the facilities director.
At. St. Mark’s, Sergej’s faith came alive. For the first time in his life, as he shared with me, “I have a relationship with Jesus. Before, I went to church and went through the motions. But now, I love Jesus and want to follow him.”
When I and others in the Diocese of Florida started a series of spiritual retreats for wounded veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sergej was one of the first volunteers to help out.
As someone who had been wounded by war, he had instant credibility with the warriors. They gravitated to him as soon as they arrived at our camp and conference center.
When they spoke of not being able to sleep, of their flashbacks and fear of crowds, Sergej just nodded—he didn’t need to say a thing.
I can see him now, sitting around the campfire, laughing with the warriors, ministering with them in his own way, a stranger in a strange land who had found a home in God.
To be human is to experience exile. As a child, I can remember driving with my parents in Vermont on a backroad. We drove past a barren field and then stopped.
My parents pointed and said: “That’s where Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lives. He’s a famous Russian writer who was forced to leave his country because of his writings.” I opened the car window, breathed in the cold air acrid with wood smoke, and wondered what it must be like to have to leave your country and live in a foreign place.
God’s people know exile. It’s the alienation of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, dislocated like Jacob’s hip, numb and hanging in the balance.
It’s the lonely city of Zion that once was full of people. “How like a widow she has become,” we heard in our first reading today, “she that was great among the nations! Judah has been carried off to Babylon; she has gone into exile. The roads to Zion mourn; for no one comes to the festivals, all her gates are desolate.”
Exile is Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to protect their son from Herod, the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head, Sergej sleeping in his car, refugees huddled together for warmth on a raft. Exile is physical—we always feel it in our bodies.
But it’s also spiritual. Spiritual exile is when we feel distant from God. Sometimes, this exile is self-imposed. We make choices that hurt ourselves and others. We follow, as the old prayer goes, the “devices and desires of our own hearts” and end up limping in a barren field in the middle of nowhere.
Other times, through no fault of our own, spiritual exile comes to us. Events overtake our lives. People hurt us. We get overwhelmed by life. Sometimes, for no reason at all, we just feel disconnected from God, a stranger in a strange land, scattered.
In the Bible, we hear the good news, over and over, that when we’re scattered, God gathers.
Jesus said: I came to gather together the lost sheep of Israel, the scattered people of God. Tax collectors and prostitutes, Samaritans and the sick, prisoners and captives, Sergej and Solzhenitsyn, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, refugees huddling on a raft or breaking bread together at St. Paul’s.
Through Jesus, we’ve been gathered to God in a new way. Throughout his ministry and on the cross, Jesus declared that our exile is over. It’s time for us to come home.
Which makes me think of a letter I read last week. In this letter, you’ll see faith the size of a mustard seed uprooting trees and planting them in the sea, which is just about as likely as a Serbian war veteran taking root at an Episcopalian camp and conference center in North Florida.
The letter was written by Alex, a 6-year-old American boy, to President Obama. He wrote it after seeing the photograph of the 5-year-old Syrian boy sitting wounded in the back an ambulance.
As Alex looked into the impassive, dust-covered face of a boy just one year younger than him, he wrote:
Dear President Obama:
Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]?
Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons.
We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him.
In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.
Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won’t bring toys and doesn’t have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine’s lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn’t let anyone touch it.
Thank you very much! I can’t wait for you to come!
We will give him a family. Please tell him that his brother will be Alex. . . mustard seed faith like this can uproot trees and move mountains.
At the recent Leaders Summit for Refugees, the President read Alex’s letter aloud as a challenge to himself and the other world leaders to do more to respond to the needs of displaced and vulnerable people.
When we’re scattered, God gathers. In these pews, under these glittering mosaics, around the altar, in the Joel Nafuma Center, in a group of pilgrims, in the Eternal City whose streets are full of people: we can find our way home.