Sermon for 5th December 2010. The Revd. J. Michael Povey at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Punta Gorda, FL
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
(Read the passages to make sense of the sermon!)
Thank you for inviting me to be with you today. My name is Michael Povey and I live in Sarasota. I retired there after thirty years of parish ministry in Massachusetts. My very first parish was the Church of the Good Shepherd in Fitchburg, MA. That’s not a bad name for a parish!
She could have been thirty years old, or she might have been fifty. It was hard to tell. She had one of those well worn faces which we often see at Resurrection House, a day shelter for homeless people in Sarasota. I am the Chaplain at Res. House and this woman came into the Chapel for a prayer service. It was too hard for her to pray. She started on a long stream of consciousness monologue. The details were unconnected and it was clear that she was deeply disturbed. This child of God was ill with a mental illness. Her illness had led her to create a world of her own – a world which had few points of connection with what we call reality. She was living in a world of her own.
One of the tragedies of some forms of mental illness is that the illness itself tells the sufferer that they are not sick, and that they do not need medication. Sans such medications it was simply impossible to engage the tragic woman in either prayer or conversation.
He was a prisoner of Taliban fighters for seven and a half months. His name is David Rohde and he was a war correspondent for the New York Times. As a prisoner he was shuffled between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, back in the United States his wife of two months, Kristen Mulville worked to secure his release. They have written a book about life as a prisoner of Taliban fighters, and life as an anxious wife.
David talks of the bizarre world view which motivates these very young Taliban. In their world the American Army is forcibly converting Afghan people to Christianity. They believe that the wearing of a neck-tie is a secret symbol that the wearer is a Christian. They think that Christians want to live for a thousand years. These fighters are living in what we would call a make believe world, a world which is quite unconnected to reality. It is their belief in that bizarre world that motivates them to fight. And they pray five times a day.
Worlds of unreality on the streets of Sarasota, and in the Mountains of what we used to call the North West Frontier. “How sad”, we think, or “how tragic”, or “how awful”.
And yet.... and yet we, who are neither mentally ill, nor Muslim fanatics, also find refuge in our private worlds in which we think too much of ourselves, or too little of ourselves. We frequently live not only in, but from these worlds. So who we are often depends on where we are. Thus we can present ourselves as one person in the work place, another at Church, yet another at home.
For instance, we all know the stories of Priests, who are saints to their congregations, but beasts with their families. We know of the folks who are constructive in their work world, but destructive on the Vestry; or those who are holy on the Altar Guild, but hellions with their colleagues.
It’s also most likely that many of us struggle with the incongruities of our inner thoughts which would shame or embarrass us were they to be made public. “If only”, we think, “they knew what I really am like”.
As we gather as God’s people each week, it is in part to undertake a reality check, because we know that we are capable of deep self-deception. So we read what we call “The Word of God” in order to hear a Voice other than our own, a Voice which calls us to change.
That Voice is sometimes stern, and filled with warning. John the Baptiser uses such a stern voice to call people to repentance.
Repentance is not penitence. It is not our own change of heart and mind. It is allowing God to change our hearts and minds.
John’s sternest words are address to the religious leaders who see no need to allow that change. He likens them to a snake pit. He says that all their religiosity is just like a rotten tree. He asserts that the rotten tree must be axed, so that a fruitful tree may grow. His is a word to those who think too highly of themselves.
In God’s Kingdom, those who think too highly of themselves are candidates for pruning. (Of course I am not talking about self-esteem. I am speaking of and to those of us who are impressed with our own religiosity and thereby see no need for repentance and the grace of God).
The Voice we come to hear is also a gracious and gentle voice. Isaiah says of the One who speaks in this gracious voice “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear”.
This is a judgement which goes beyond the obvious. It is a loving judgment which moves beyond our innermost places of sadness, fear, and hopelessness, into the places of our deepest desires. It addresses those places where we long to be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, and responds to those places with hope and healing.
This is a judgement which is to be welcomed and not feared. It is especially a word to those who think too little of themselves.
We are called through these judgments - the pruning and the healing – so that our inner wolf may live in harmony with our inner lamb; our inner leopard with our inner kid. We are called away from all that hurts and destroys us – towards that way of living when the earth and we will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.