Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year A), 2017.
In our Collect this morning, we petition God to receive the prayers of His people who call upon Him so that they may understand and know what they ought to do. It is a simple request, but we should not be deceived by its simplicity and think it a mundane sort of question. Rather, let us regard this petition as a noble inquiry, one we should always be making, even daily—after all, our Collect contains the two central questions of serious discipleship asked by the first disciples to Saint Peter on the Day of Pentecost. The first was, “What does this mean?” and the second was “What shall we do?”
We could do far worse than make for ourselves a habit of asking these two questions whenever we are in prayer, or reading the Bible, or reflecting on a sermon. Asking these two questions are part of our responsibility, our responsiveness, to God and His loving initiative of coming to us with His Word. The first Christians’ response to God’s initiative on Pentecost was to ask these two questions—What does it mean? What shall we do?—and so we can see that part of the Gospel pattern we are to perceive and make our own is to ourselves ask these questions when we are presented with, or caught by, God and the claim He makes on us and our lives.
The Christian life is a life full of grace and the constant invitation to respond to grace by saying Yes to God and His vocation for us. Asking the questions, “What does it mean? What shall we do?” are part of the process of saying Yes to God. Our primary example in how to be a disciple, Blessed Mary, when confronted with God’s vocation for her by the angel Gabriel did not simplistically and automatically respond with Yes. Rather, she pondered, she discerned, she asked questions of Gabriel. She implicitly asked the questions the disciples asked at Pentecost. And then, after some time of interaction and reflection, she then said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.” Again, this is part of the pattern of the Gospel, a pattern that teaches us how to work with God when He makes His will for us known and available. And the Church teaches not that God might make Himself known and available, but that He will make Himself known and available to those who ask, seek, and knock on the heavenly door through prayer.
I have spent some time reflecting again on this pattern for two reasons. One is that both of our churches here in Tazewell County are discerning how God has given us His gifts through the Holy Spirit, gifts for us to use in our efforts of replanting Tazewell County, part of our Mission, which is Evangelization, or pastoral care outside of the walls of our churches and in the fields of Tazewell County. In our prayerful work, in our loving of our neighbors—a love that recognizes that God is already at work in all of the people we meet, whether they are baptized or not—we have to discern His presence, and discern what His presence at a given moment means, and what it is calling us to do. The pattern of Pentecost and Blessed Mary to Gabriel is the pattern for our interactions with our family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Replanting in the Christian context of Mission means fostering new relationships with those around us, and doing so according to the Gospel pattern, of recognizing how God is already present, what His presence means, and what His presence calls us to do.
The other reason for spending time on this pattern is that this is how we allow God to till the soil which is us and our hearts. Here I am referring to our Gospel Lesson, which Jesus intended as a mirror for each of the disciples to hold up to him or herself, as to whether they were the good soil Jesus described, or whether after looking in the mirror, they had to admit they were closer to thorns, even the rocky ground, or God forbid the mere path. We all perhaps would like to think of ourselves as the good soil. Indeed, each of us has the potential to be good soil, and the with the seed of God embedded in such soil, to bear fruits according to our talents and personalities.
But empirical reality shows that potential is not always realized in Christian people, although I think one of the advantages and gifts of smaller numbers in our pews now verses several decades ago is that we have more of an opportunity to realize higher potential in our members than we did when numbers were high. Perhaps this is why God is putting our churches and many, many others through this test—to see if they will recognize the gifts and opportunity that smaller congregations afford in terms of formation. It is easier, after all, to enrich a smaller plot of ground and make it good soil than it is for a large field. Because in a smaller congregation, everyone has the opportunity to have their questions heard, their reflections pondered whether with their priest or fellow parishioner, and their unique gifts realized in the context of the church family and its needs. I am not too young to have missed the era of American Christianity where simply coming to the church every Sunday was seen as fulfillment of one’s duty to God. That era is over, and while that presents economic challenges to be sure, the gifts of our situation are far greater.
We have the opportunity for soil enrichment like never before—an opportunity to enrich and feed our hearts by Word and Sacraments, that indeed we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also have the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them—in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, and everywhere in Tazewell County. May we go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; that the mountains and hills before us break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field before us clap their hands. Amen.