One of the many reasons that I love St. Michael’s, is because it reminds me of my beloved parish in San Diego, St. David’s. I moved from the Cathedral to St. David’s sometime around the time of Operation Desert Storm. I wanted to get more involved in the life of the church, and because my crazy, beloved mentor Bill Mahedy was there as chief troublemaker and young adult minister, it seemed like a good move. The good padre was thrilled, and got me to do stuff I never thought I would do, like youth Sunday School. I also made coffee, played guitar and sat on the vestry. That church will always have a place in my heart. While I was on the vestry, our building burned down by a fire set by an arsonist. He had set a few other church fires, and the one he set at St. completely destroyed our building. We were lucky; our parish hall was a separate building and was not damaged. For several years, we worshiped in the parish hall; we did everything in the parish hall. People would show up early to put out chairs and stay late to put them up. Someone built an altar on wheels that we could move at will. They were hard years, but they were good years too. When I left for seminary, I told them to have the new church built so I could come home and be ordained; and they did it. It was a time that really brought the community together, because we truly needed each other to make it all work. One of the most amazing stories about our fire is the relationship that the parish built with the arsonist. He was eventually arrested, and it was determined that he suffered from extreme mental illness that he wasn’t being treated for. That community could have left him to fend for himself and moved on. But they didn’t. He could not come within a particular distance to any church, but St. David’s brought the church to him. He was visited regularly by parishioners and the rector. People from the parish who worked in mental health helped to get him the treatment that he needed. It was truly an example of loving one’s enemies and going beyond what was expected, and spreading the gospel of Jesus to someone who needed it. And, they did it in words AND in deeds. Our rector Susan, during every service that was celebrated in the parish hall and beyond, reminded us that “we didn’t go to church, we WERE the church”.
Today, Jesus continues his teaching that is sometimes hard to hear. I don’t think I have ever noticed him saying, “I say to you that LISTEN”. Listening is hard work. We can hear without really listening. Listening is a skill that takes work; in order to listen we have to give the other our complete attention; we have to shut off our brains and our mouths, and really pay attention to what is being said. I imagine there were those in the crowd, who when they heard “Love your enemy” shut down their ability to listen, and said Jesus was crazy.
Well, maybe he was. I’m certain that even today when we hear this kind of teaching we have to struggle to listen. “Expect nothing in return” is difficult in a society that always expects that there will be something in it for us. Today’s gospel reading can, I think, be summed up as, “what another does or has is none of your business. Your job is to do the work of the kingdom, no matter what”. It’s easy for us to get wrapped up in the “what’s in it for us” but beloved, that’s not how ministry works. Jesus didn’t go about healing, teaching, and feeding people to get something in return; and we know what he DID get in return; he got in serious trouble with the empire and was killed as an enemy of the empire. That is an incredibly high price to bring God’s kingdom to others; and the good or bad news, is that you and I aren’t called to anything less. Love, the love that is the work of God and God’s people, is the kind of Love that breaks down walls and barriers. In the case of Jesus, it breaks down the barriers of death and hell. In the case of my friends at St. David’s, Love broke down the barriers of jail, a system that wasn’t very helpful, and perhaps most of all, the people of St. David’s broke down the barrier of their own fear, anger, and grief, in order that they might bring someone who should have been their enemy, to a place of wholeness and health.
Jesus is calling those who follow him into active ministry; it’s not enough to say and think good thoughts; we have to go beyond the easy and do the difficult. We have to act; as followers of Jesus we are called to pray, to love, to serve, to give… all of these require us to do. The work of the kingcom is not passive; it is extremely active. Sometimes, those actions aren’t comfortable. I’m sure the people of St. David’s who ministers to and with our arsonist, didn’t know what to expect when they went to visit someone with active schizophrenia. But they did it.
Jesus reached beyond death to bring us into new and unending life in him. Today, he says to us that listen, truly listen… he says that we should love, that we should do good, we should give… how are we going to do that today and everyday? What are we being called to reach beyond so that we might bring the kingdom of God to others?