[This sermon was preached in New Haven, CT in January, 2012, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, a historically black church with an illustrious history of discipleship and ministry.]
In 2006, I ran my first marathon, the California International Marathon in Sacramento. I took a marathon training class at the community college where I taught, and so I got coaching on building up my miles, keeping enough sugar in me during the race, and pacing myself. My coach said she’d be jogging around the racers at the last few miles to see how we were doing. Well, by the time I saw her, it was mile 23. That meant I had only 3.2 miles to go, but I was tired. Really tired. And everything hurt. I had already tried slowing down to a walk, but that hurt just as much. Who wanted to hurt longer?
When I saw Linda, I waved her over, and she started running beside me. She asked, “How ya doin’?”
“I said, ‘Not good. Running–out—of—energy.”
“Did you take in enough sugar?”
I was so addled at the point, I couldn’t remember. So I said, “I don’t know.”
She looked me up and down, and she said, “You’re looking good!”
“What? I’m dying here.”
And she said, “No you’re not.” And then she said, “Run faster.”
“Run faster?” That seemed counterintuitive. Shouldn’t I rest? Slow down? Walk?
But I tried what she said: I sped up a little bit, and to my amazement, I was able to sustain the faster pace without any more discomfort than I would have experienced if I had slowed down. And I finished the race faster!
That advice to run faster when I was running out of energy seemed counterintuitive. But then, so does the text that Paul writes in First Corinthians, when he tells the Corinthians that those who are married should act like they’re not married. Those who mourn should act as if they are not mourning. Those who rejoice should act like they are not rejoicing.
Why would he say such things? Paul writes that the appointed time has grown short, and we have to change the way we are living. Paul is anticipating the end of the world and is telling people to reset their expectations of what their priorities should be. The sky is about to fall! Get your act together!
But now, in the twenty-first century, the world as we know it hasn’t really ended yet. It looks like God wants this world to stick around for a while. So why live counter to expectations? Why run faster?
I think we need to run faster because there’s a sense of urgency to the work of the kingdom, and some sense of urgency to God’s call to us.
If you have been at church the last three Sundays, you know that this Epiphany has been the season of being called: three weeks ago, John was baptizing people and telling them to repent and turn to the kingdom of God. Last week, we heard the stories of the call of the prophet Samuel and the call of the disciple Nathanael. This week, we have the Gospel story of Jesus calling four disciples: Simon, Andrew, James and John. And of course, we have the story of God’s second call of Jonah, the second time that God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. The first time, Jonah refuses, and he ends up in the belly of a whale. The second time, he obeys at once, and has to walk a very long distance across Nineveh—longer than a marathon—to deliver his warning to the Ninevites. He has to move quickly.
In all of these stories, the response of the ones who are called is immediate. There doesn’t seem to be any time to waste. The Gospel says that immediately Jesus calls four apostles, and immediately they leave their boats and their nets. Jonah immediately sets off to Nineveh. They don’t wait to do a feasibility study or to consider the political ramifications of what they’re going to do. They simply follow with the speed of people who live with the kind of end-of-the-world urgency that Paul conveys in his letter to the Corinthians.
And the people they are called to minister to apparently respond quickly too. The kingdom of Nineveh repents immediately when they hear that God will destroy them in forty days. They don’t discuss it for thirty days and then turn their lives around. They don’t discuss it for twenty days or ten days, or even one day. They do it immediately.
What is the rush? What is the urgency about responding to God’s call? Aren’t we supposed to be patient and prudent? Maybe slow down and take it easy?
I think you people of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church know the answer to this question better than I do. I think you at St. Luke’s could write a whole new book of the Bible—the Book of Acts II: the Sequel. That book would tell the story of this church’s long history of serving the needs of this community and of the greater world.
This church doesn’t need anyone to preach to you about how you need to turn to God and Jesus and to respond to the call immediately. You people of St. Luke’s have answering the call of God since 1844, before the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. As I studied the history of this church, I was impressed by the usual sorts of facts captured in history books:
- That the grandfather of W.E.B. DuBois attended this church here.
- That this church provided assistance to escaped and freed slaves in the 19th century.
- That your second rector, James Holly, was the first African-American bishop in the Episcopal Church, the first bishop of Haiti and a major factor in the tremendous growth of the Episcopal Church there.
- That Constance Baker Motley, the civil rights advocate and the first African-American woman on the Federal bench, worshipped here.
These are the sorts of details that history textbooks cover. And in fact, in a history course I took last semester at Yale Divinity School, we did read about Bishop Holly and St. Luke’s Church. But the Book of Acts in the Bible describes very different types of action—small, immediate works of healing and ministry and justice: the feeding of the widows and orphans in Jerusalem; Peter preaching to the household of Cornelius; Paul baptizing new believers. The work of the Church is the accretion of small act by small act without a work stoppage. It occurs one step at a time, one deep breath at a time, in immediate response to a pressing need.
What inspired me about your history is all the works of ministry and social justice you have been doing since 1844. You were a safe haven in New Haven for escaped and freed slaves. You provided services and a church home to Caribbean immigrants. In the 50’s and 60’s, you provided a center for teenaged unwed mothers. You established the Community Healing Ministry in 2006 to address the ongoing dehumanization and subjugation of African Americans in a racist society and to foster the healing of old, old wounds. You have provided housing for seniors. You have provided musical instruction and delight with your renowned Steel Band. You have been mentors to young students and encouraged them to go on to college.
You didn’t wait 30 days. You didn’t wait 20 days. You didn’t wait 10 days. You responded to whatever needs presented themselves in the community because you know that the work of the kingdom can’t wait. Here on the ground level, the hungry need food now; the lonely need companionship now; teen mothers need diapers for their babies now; our young people need protection and education now.
You probably don’t need me to tell you your history. But I wonder: When you hear this long litany of accomplishments, can you embrace how amazing, how Biblical in proportion your contributions have been? And not because someone famous worshipped here, but because you as a church have reached out in act after act, one step at a time.
Imagine how frightened a teen mother can be, and what a healing oasis this place was to her: a place where people would love her and her child without judgment and help her become independent.
Imagine what a place of comfort and assistance this church has been to immigrants who are trying to figure out their new life in New Haven and the United States. Imagine how bewildered they must have been and what a safe place this has been for them.
You have been a shelter to the poor, the stranger, the single parent, the young, and the oppressed. In other churches that I have belonged to, just one of these ministries would be considered ample evidence of that church’s commitment to outreach. The fact that you have done all these things, in an unending stream from 1844 to 2012, is a strong testament to the powerful presence of the Spirit in this congregation.
Like the disciples in the Book of Acts, you have built a church that has become a rock in this community–not just for yourselves, but for the community members around you. You are an example to the rest of the Church as well, the one who shows the rest of us how it should be done.
I understand that you are in a transition period, that your beloved rector, Father Rogers, retired in 2010. Perhaps you are discerning your next steps as a church. Sometimes, during a transition period like this, especially when a group has covered so much ground already, there might be a temptation to slow down. I don’t know about your church, but I have seen other churches that start to slow down. It’s because the hard-working members get tired! It’s been a long road since 1844, and it might look like mile 23 of the marathon to some of you at this point. The thing is, I can’t find a place in the Bible where the disciples slow down. Sometimes, Jesus tells them to come away and rest for a while, but then he sends them back out there.
The sad fact is, there is more work to do in New Haven and in the wider world. Our job is not done yet. I think, if you could see Jesus running beside you in this marathon of ministry, he would look back at all the ground you have covered. And then he would say, “Well done. You’re looking good. Run faster.”
Run faster. Because God’s call to us is ongoing and immediate. The people of this community need you to be their rock and their salvation from a culture that tells them lies about their abilities and their prospects.
Run faster. Because you are a haven of safety and love and nurturing for youth in a city struggling with violence—the violence that so often strikes our young people.
Run faster. Because you are this city’s Jonah–except that you’re not prophesying to the Ninevites. You are prophesying to the New Havenites, showing them and the other churches around you a powerful example of how church is supposed to be.
Run faster. Because there is a Gatorade table just around the next turn where God is going to bless you and feed you and empower you with the energy you need to keep going.
My brothers and sisters, never forget this wonderful legacy you have been given. And never doubt that you are an inspiration to the other runners in this race. Never doubt that you are an inspiration to those onlookers on the sidelines, too—the onlookers who wonder if maybe they, too, are called to get off the sidelines and run this race with Jesus.
May God bless you richly as you take your next steps.