The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 21, Year B
September 26, 2021
One of the great things about the Episcopal Church is that we are bound together under a big tent. What I mean by that is that while center tends to hold, there are spaces and places for varied expressions of worship, divergent points of view, and worship spaces ranging from large gothic cathedrals to store front start-ups.
For more doctrinal folks, asking what Episcopalians believe meets with a puzzling answer: it depends of the Episcopalian. That said, we are best defined in looking at our Book of Common Prayer. There is a lot there: the three-legged stool of faith supported by scripture, tradition, and reason.
On September 12, one of our particular church characters, The Rt. Rev. Jack Spong, retired Bishop of Newark, well-known author, and provocateur died peacefully and quietly. To put it mildly, Spong was a controversial character who ministered under our tent. He pushed for the ordination of women in the 1970s. He pushed for full inclusion and ordination for LGBTQ folks in the 1980’s. In 1992, he wrote a book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. Biblical literalists went crazy and his perspective riled up the so-called moral majority that was gaining cultural and political influence. His book was bestseller, and gained him even more notice, which he enjoyed for sure. He was so polarizing that he received death threats – Christian death threats – someone needs to explain that oxymoron.
When I was in seminary, Bishop Spong came as a visiting lecturer. Some of my fellow students refused to attend. If you wanted to start a heated theological argument in those days, all you had to do was say “Spong.” In person, Spong was not the fiery heretic many imagined him to be. He was generous, welcoming, and curious. He was human and had an ego for sure. Yet, he applied great scholarly investigation, imagination, and creativity in exploring Biblical texts, which was, sometimes, quite a stretch for many.
Spong served in this diocese as rector of St. Paul’s, Richmond, from 1969-1976. St. Paul’s is a downtown parish right next to our state capitol. When folks used to refer to Virginia Episcopalians as God’s frozen chosen, St. Paul’s would have been the headquarters. Spong shook it up. He started a feeding ministry for the poor and homeless. He challenged Christian complacency. Some fled to other parishes. Richmond rumbled. One might think this was a disaster. It was not. Spong helped folks to disagree, without being disagreeable. Those who took the time to get to know Spong, loved him, even if they muttered “bless his heart”under their breath now and again.
When I read of Jesus saying “Salt is good,” and, the same day, I read Spong’s obituary in the New York Times, a light went on. Spong was salt. For sure he was salty. We might not want a church full of Spongs, but if we are to have salt in ourselves, as Jesus says, we need those who push and prod us even if that is uncomfortable. As the old adage goes: Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Sometimes the lessons for Sunday are like an arrow moving toward a target. Other times, like today, the lessons are more like a big pot of stew. If we dip into the pot, we can draw up nuggets of nourishment, but there is a lot in there and we cannot consume it all at once.
We started with the story of Esther. What was read is chopped up (Veggies?) and if you do not know the story, it would be helpful to have a program with the cast of characters. The legend is the stuff of pageants and feasting in the Jewish faith. Basically, it is a salvation story. The Israelites in exile faced a genocidal plot, and Esther saved the day currying favor with the king. The bottom line is that God works through people to deliver us from destruction.
The lesson from James is a letter to a fragmented and contentious church. He urges them claim their faith in helping the suffering, praying, confessing their sin, and forgiving others. (Broth?) He urges them to do this to bring those wandering away from the faith back under the tent of the church. Again, the bottom line is that God uses people, even sinners like us, to bring people together.
By the time we get to Mark’s gospel, the stew gets even more meaty (Protein?). The disciples are upset that someone is out there casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they tried to stop him because he was not following them. Not following them? So now they make healing and helping about some sort of credentialing, like they own the franchise on ministry? Jesus sets them straight, setting them and all of us free from any illusion that we are not smart enough, good enough, righteous enough, or worthy enough to be the hands and feet of God’s love for the world.
The scriptural stew on the table today is a feast of welcome, nourishment, encouragement, and clarity. Maybe that stew needs a little salt or spice from us. Maybe we need to hear how God has used others and will use us, not just to be nice to people like us, but to be good to people we may not know or understand.
In his analysis of this stew of Holy Scripture, Bishop Spong said many provocative things.
He questioned that which many refuse to question. He pushed the church toward authenticity and honesty – even in disagreement. But then, he wrote:
“Even understanding these things, I am still attracted to this Jesus and I will pursue him both relentlessly and passionately. I will not surrender the truth I believe I find in him either to those who seek to defend the indefensible, or to those who want to be freed finally from ideas that no longer make sense… I prepare for death by living.”
If we are hungry for truth, the church is a good place to be. We are here to provide food for the journey, but we gather as church to point beyond church. We are about Jesus and the seeking, searching, and saving work of giving up our well-worn, self-centered ways and live for God. The psalmist says: “Taste and see that God is good.” Indeed, but sometimes, we need to add salt. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood