Second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 6], June 17-18, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
Barbara Brown Taylor, the gifted Episcopal preacher and seminary professor, tells a wonderful story about a visit she made several years ago to southern Turkey. She shares her observation in her book The Preaching Life. In it she writes that while hiking with some friends and a Turkish guide …
We turned a bend and the outline of a ruined (Christian) cathedral appeared ~ a huge gray stone church with a central dome that dominated the countryside. Grass grew between what was left of the roof tiles and the facade was crumbling.
Taylor goes on to describe the shell of a once magnificent church, which now was filled with litter and indications that it was a play place for children. On the massive walls were still visible the fading frescoes … lambs of God and angels and medieval saints. In the dome you could see one outstretched arm of the victorious Christ who had dominated the building ten centuries earlier.
It is one thing to talk about the post-Christian era and quite another to walk around inside it. Christianity died in Turkey – the land that gave birth to Paul – the land of Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, Nicaea. Today the Christian population of Turkey is less than one percent.
Such a thing is not impossible; that is what I learned in that ruin on the hillside … that knowledge keeps me from taking both my ministry and the ministry of the whole church for granted. If we do not attend to God’s presence in our midst and bring all our best gifts to serving that presence in the world, we may find ourselves selling tickets to a museum. (The Preaching Life, p. 3-5)
That story speaks to the urgency that permeates our Gospel lesson ~The Story of the Plentiful Harvest and the Inadequate Laborers. In his account Matthew tells us that Jesus was mindful of the crowds that had been following Him. They seemed lost and confused to Jesus, and he likened them to sheep without a shepherd.
Shepherd-less sheep are people without a sense of direction or purpose. The lost sheep of Israel represent those who were raised with faith, but have somehow abandoned their heritage, their sense of belonging to the God who called them in their baptism. These are not evil people … they are simply detach, disconnected, confused.
Fifty years ago the Beatles sang … All the lonely people, where do they all come from! We still do not know where they come from … but we see them … everyday: walking in Valley Forge National Park, roaming the shopping centers, blogging, tweeting and texting, and sometimes wandering into the Cabin Shop or attending an Evensong on a June afternoon at Washington Memorial Chapel. No doubt some of the lonely and the lost can be found in your family and your neighborhood!
Using another agricultural example, Jesus describes these lost, wandering people as a plentiful harvest that is ready to be gathered … but there are, Our Lord laments, few people to gather the harvest in. No wonder Jesus stressed the parallels between bringing in the sheaves and forming faith in the lives of people.
Last Saturday Bishop Daniel Gutierrez was with us to confirm and to receive sixteen new members. These are people who have united with our congregation and the Episcopal Church from other Christian traditions. Some were part of a group who joined the Chapel last November … others were in our most recent New Member Group. When we include those who have joined by transfer from other Episcopal churches we have had a total of 24 people become members or associate members of Washington Memorial Chapel in the past twelve months … an increase of more than 10%.
Now I mention that not to brag or chant the churchly equivalent of … We’re Number One! I mention it because this does not happen by accident … we are intentional. From greeters and ushers who welcome, to people who provide a fellowship time after our main service, to sincerely friendly people who take the time to engage our visitors, to pastors who seek out these folks, visit with them, and actually invite them to join … we take the harvest serious at Washington Memorial Chapel. We have this determination for precisely the reason Jesus identified in our Gospel lesson: Jesus wants us to gather those who might otherwise be … sheep without a shepherd!
We welcome the stranger here at Washington Memorial Chapel because God has put us in a unique place in a magnificent building, here at the heart of one of the finest National Parks in our nation.
We welcome the stranger here because we believe that there are people who want a fresh start … they want to begin again their walk with the Lord and the Chapel is the perfect place for a fresh start.
We welcome the stranger here because we know there are many good people, who have been distracted … angered … turned off … de-churched by the pettiness and hypocrisy they have experienced in some expression of the Church. Many have stopped worshiping and that is never good.
We take welcoming the stranger seriously at Washington Memorial Chapel because we know that being a part of a community of values is essential to our sense of well-being. When Jesus spoke to his disciples he always used the plural form of “you.” We cannot understand our own value without affirming the value of all people everywhere. God does not care for me alone … God cares for all of us equally.
A high-point in our Gospel lesson was the moment when Jesus called his disciples to take strategic steps … to proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom. This includes all of us who are baptized members of Christ’s body, the Church.
Show me a church where welcoming the stranger is the work of the Priests and I will show you a church in trouble;
Show me a church where a Welcome Committee is supposed to do all of that and I will show you a church that is in trouble.
There is urgency to all of this. It is a terrible thing to reject God’s invitation; eternity without Jesus Christ is a very long time. For that reason we need to extend our invitation in a most effective, winsome manner. We need to make certain that if people turn away it is because the Christian life is demanding and not because we have been uncaring and aloof.
May it be our prayer that God will bless us that we might be his witnesses now and forever. May the Lord bless us, the people of Washington Memorial Chapel, so that we may continue to abound in hope. And may there be such an outpouring of grace here that even those who are chronically pessimistic and perennially obstinate may catch the Spirit and enter the joy of bringing in the harvest. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.