Sermon Preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
note: my apologies for the informal text. I preached with some notes and simply tried to flesh them out a bit here for the handful of folks who requested a copy of today's sermon.
For the past 30 years, a group of clergy called “Positive Presence” have been involved in the lives of teenagers at ETHS. Either before or after school or during lunch hours, one or more clergy person arrives at the high school to stand outside on the sidewalk or to walk through the cafeterias. Sometimes there is an opportunity to have a conversation with a teen – if the teen initiates it - but more times than not the purpose of this presence is quite simply, as the name of the program implies, to be present.
Fr. Bob Oldershaw – now an emeritus priest at St. Nicholas - has been involved in this ministry of presence since the very beginning and earlier this week he shared this experience.
One morning, standing on sidewalk outside of the high school before school began, a student came up to him and asked, “Haven’t you heard of the separation of church and state? What are you doing here?” The question was, of course, intended to trap Fr. Oldershaw; perhaps to engage him in some sort of debate or controversy. But, Fr. Oldershaw didn’t take the bait. Instead, he responded simply: “I’m here for you.” With that the teen walked away, somewhat perplexed.
Positive Presence. That’s all it is. It’s not about preaching the gospel (at least not with words). It’s not about teaching church doctrine. It’s not about inviting a young person to get involved in one’s church. It’s not about doing. It’s about being.
Last week and this, our Gospel readings have been stories of the religious authorities trying to trap Jesus; trying to get him in one way or another to break the law – either the religious law or the law of Rome. These two stories are not unique in Matthew’s gospel. In fact, there are several such stories. In chapter 12 of Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisees and Jesus are in the synagogue on the Sabbath:
“a man was there with a withered hand, and [the Pharisees] asked [Jesus], “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” . . . . [Jesus] said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. (Matthew 12:10-13)
A few chapters later, Mathew’s gospel records an incident in which the Pharisees ask Jesus why it is that his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat. Jesus responds by asking the Pharisees why it is that they break God’s commandments in the things that they do. (Matthew 15:1-9).
This pattern of questioning punctuates Matthew’s gospel:
- Chapter 19: The chief priests and Pharisees question Jesus about the divorce laws.
- Chapter 21: the Pharisees ask Jesus by whose authority he is acting
- Chapter 22 brought us last week’s question of the lawfulness of paying the tribute tax to the Roman Emperor
- And then today’s reading with its question, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
As I reflected on this series of tests and challenges to Jesus authority and as I reflected on the Confirm not Conform commitment that our young people would be making this morning I began to think differently about the Pharisees and Sadducees, the chief priests and the scribes, and about all those around us who would question the authority of Jesus. Because, at the end of the day, accepting the authority of Jesus is the central aspect of our faith and, quite frankly, that can be a tremendous stumbling block for some people – and, if we are honest with ourselves, I think that at least some of the time, it can be a tremendous stumbling block for even the most devout among us.
The questions take a variety of forms:
- Fr. Oldershaw’s encounter with the high school student – “Why are you here?”
- The mother or father who has lost a child – “Why would God do this?”
- The gay man or woman who has been hurt by the church – “How can you belong to a church?”
- The person in the seat next to us on the train or airplane who sees us reading a Bible or a book about theology – “Do you believe that stuff?”
- The young person about to embark on a two year commitment to the Conform not Conform program – “What does this have to do with my life?”
When I hear questions like these, my gut reaction is sometimes to get out of the situation as fast as I can. I don’t like debate. I don’t like controversy . . . and, if I want to get real honest, I don’t have all the answers and so my desire to flee is really a desire to save face. By what authority?
And, if I look to Jesus for the answer – in that “What Would Jesus Do” kind of way that so many like to talk about – what I get doesn’t feel all that helpful. Because when Jesus is confronted with challenges to authority he is quick on his feet. He can tell a story that cuts to the heart of the matter. He knows Scripture inside and out and can quote it right back to those who would challenge him. He’s witty and insightful and he’s confident. And me? . . . on a good day, as I’m drifting off to sleep, I might think of what I wish I had said to the person who needed an answer; but, in the moment of confrontation, I often fall short.
But perhaps the invitation we receive as faithful persons is not to be ready with the witty answer, the relevant story or the right response. Perhaps the invitation we receive is simply to be present. To answer, like Fr. Oldershaw, “I’m here for you.”
This morning, [Names of Teens] have signed a commitment to fully participate in the Confirm not Conform program at St. Mark’s. They have said, “I will show up.” “I will be present.” “I will come with an open mind and an open heart.” And we, in turn, have said to them, we will listen to your questions and concerns with open minds and hearts, we will take your contributions seriously and treat them with respect, we will expose you to the fundamental questions of faith and explore them with you, we will provide a mentor who will share their faith experiences and questions with you, and who will respond to yours, we will offer help when you need it, and we will keep you in our prayers.
[Names of Teens] have said, “I will show up.” “I’m here for you.” And we, in turn, are invited to respond – not with the right answers, the right beliefs, the right way of being in the world – but with our real selves. We are invited to respond, “I’m here for you.” It’s a ministry of presence. And we need one another – it’s not about doing. It’s about being. Being the Body of Christ with and for one another. Being able to say to one another – through our words and our actions - nothing more and nothing less than, “I’m here for you.”