Friday, January 25, 2013

Sent out as Wolves among Sheep

This following sermon was written and delivered today as part of the Eucharist at the conclusion of the seminary's January "Encuentro" course on Latinos, Latino culture and history, and intercultural ministry. The work referenced is Eric Law's "The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb."

Joseph Farnes
Sermon for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul (End of January Encuentro)
Seminary of the Southwest
January 25, 2013
Acts 26:9-21
Matthew 10:16-22
Psalm 67
“Sent Out As Wolves Among Sheep”
            In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Today we have come to the end of our January Encuentro. A journey that started on what was to some a chilly Tuesday morning with Brother Dahlman’s reflections on waving like a madman to Queen Elizabeth, a journey that is now drawing to a close on this feast of the Conversion of St Paul, a Jew who was sent out and who converted Gentiles.
            For me, this January Encuentro has resulted in more questions than answers. Has it been that way for you?  The more we have learned, the more I see a complicated and interwoven human reality and am faced with the sobering reality that mission is more multifaceted than before.
            The stated goal for Encuentro is to learn about the culture and history of Latinos and to understand the present. Mission and outreach become a little more complicated when remembering the mixed history of the Spanish missions and presidios. Looking back on a history of injustice makes the tongue pause when it tries to preach justice and the Gospel. There is pain in the present due to injustices in the past. Truth-telling is painful.
             Yet as we have also discussed in class, there is pain in being frozen in history. The sins and errors of our forebears can be a powerful summons to modern-day action, but guilt, shame, and self-loathing can destroy the very person who is called to act. Guilt and shame can paralyze even though God calls us to use our gifts and strengths as ministers in the world.
            In our studies we have encountered a tapestry of counter-stories to compare to the tapestries of stories each of us has brought to this place. We see new depictions of familiar stories and ideas and sometimes we become uncomfortable, as if we were witnessing fingers pulling and plucking thread after thread from our tapestry, leaving scars and empty spaces in the colors. In seeing our own stories deconstructed, our stories that make us proud to be who we are and give us nourishing roots and depth and color, it may seem that we, too, are being deconstructed. The story does not have perfect heroes and perfect villains, but human beings who devoured each other and human beings who were devoured.
            The devoured and the devourer. Wolves and sheep. Jesus and Eric Law both use this imagery to frame a duality of the powerful and the powerless. Jesus sends out the powerless among the powerful, and Eric Law cautions the powerful to face their own wolfish characteristics.
            Are we sheep, or are we wolves? What if I am a wolf, not a sheep, and what if I’m prepared to face wolves but find sheep instead?
            Even more questions came to mind as that image was drawn in my brain.
            Firstly, to bring up what Eric Law points out, how do we avoid hurting when we only mean to help? How does the wolf not rule over the sheep, even if it is meant to be a benevolent rule? Like the well-meaning but powerful giant in a children’s story, we might end up using our power wrongly and hurting the community we seek to help. We might silence other voices by our talking; we might insist on our own way and insist that our way is God’s way. Power is hard to wield well. So what do we do with our own power, our education, every privilege we’ve been given? How do we share without taking over?
            Secondly, where does the wolf get its food except by eating other animals? To say it another way, how do we as priests and future priests live except by the generosity of those we serve? A popular negative image of a pastor is the one who fleeces the flock, enjoying wealth and prestige by convincing the poor to give their hard-earned money in the hopes of an eternal future. Father Alejandro in Houston mentioned that in some Latin American countries the church charges for holy water while we give it away here. Are we seeking to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God and God the Son, or are we seeking to keep the parish doors open and the pledges up? Or both? Are we afraid of scarcity in the pews or are we overjoyed at the outpouring of God’s love? Father Alejandro talked about the practical, financial issues of building up his Hispanic congregation. You have cultural differences about giving to the church, and you have annual reports for the diocese that wants to know numbers. Pledging units, average Sunday attendance, budget figures! What drives us to share in the work of reconciliation?
            Finally, what does a sheep need from a wolf? Does the sheep need the expert hunting skills of the wolf or need to learn how to participate in wolf pack politics? Sounds crazy, but are we teaching others about how to be more like us or how to be more like Christ? In a world that loves measuring by tangible things, how do we measure whether we are doing what is good and right? And what do we do with our neighbors and friends who find no need of our spirituality or even our relationship with God? Do we convince them that there is an unseen, gaping hole in their lives that only God can fill? How do we reach out to those who are different from us and care for them as they are yet still witness to Jesus Christ?
            Yes, that was a list of questions. I hope you might have answers for them because I don’t, and the Episcopal Church and the wider Church need those answers.
            Questions are good. A good question pokes at the limits of our knowledge. A good question guides us along and helps us seek truth; however, Jesus gave us a command.  Go out there, go proclaim the Gospel, persevere in the hope that the Holy Spirit will work in you and guide you along!
Christ sends us out. He didn’t command just the perfect ones to go out. He didn’t command only the ones who had the answers or who had the right program for parish growth. He sent out his apostles, and they had their own issues they were still working out. I am sure they still had questions about themselves, about what Jesus was asking them to do, and about how to do what Jesus was asking. Oddly enough, those are the same questions we are asking ourselves even today.
Jesus sent the apostles out, and he sends us out, too. The apostles didn’t get complete answers to their questions but they managed to muddle through it. We have to proclaim the Gospel. There is no choice in that. We may not have all the answers. We may not be perfect. We may not have what it takes, but Jesus is still sending us all out.
            When Paul was knocked off his horse, he asked one question: “Who are you, Lord?” And then he was sent out. No church manual on evangelism or a strategic vision for outreach – just his own, flawed, slightly privileged self.  In fact, I think Paul might have been a bit of a wolf, come to think of it. Educated, male, astute at navigating politics …
            Whether you are sheep or wolf or both, do what Jesus tells you to do. Go out there, go proclaim the Gospel, persevere in the hope that the Holy Spirit will work in you and guide you along!

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