Sermon from the Rev. Joe Hensley, Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | The seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, July 3, 2016
Two weeks ago I stood here getting ready to go on a mission trip to the mountains of North Carolina with a group of youth and young adults. In the Gospel today, Jesus sends out 70 followers on a mission trip. They are to go and proclaim the nearness of God’s kingdom, to heal the sick and cast out demons as signs of that nearness. They are sent to share peace and fellowship with any who are receptive. At the end of today’s lesson, the 70 return with joy reporting that even the demons submitted to them in Jesus’ name. Jesus rejoices with them but ends by saying this, “do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you…rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Your names are written in heaven.
So it seems fitting to stand before you today having returned from the mission trip and to give you something of a report. It’s natural to come back from a mission with a report about results. Mission accomplished! Jesus’ missionaries come back rejoicing that they were able to cast out demons, they were able to perform deeds of power. Results are good. Jesus shares in their joy that they are running the devil out of town. But results are not the whole picture. Rejoice, Jesus says, that your names are written in heaven. It’s not simply that you were able to do good works. What’s even better is that you are part of the heavenly record – you are enrolled in the fellowship of the saints.
Some of us may have an image of that heavenly roll book that is rather grim. There’s an angel standing at a tall desk with an oversized feather quill writing names on a big scroll like some version of Santa Claus making his list of who is naughty and nice. “Oh, you’re a good little girl, your name goes in the book.” “Oh, I’m sorry little boy, you’ll have to do better in order for me to write down your name.” And the Christians who like to paint this image will perhaps quote verses like the one we heard in the Gospel today about how those who reject Jesus reject God, and only the people who believe in Jesus are going to have their names written in heaven. I think when Jesus talks about people rejecting him, he is talking more about people rejecting love itself. I don’t think it’s what you do that gets your name in the book. I think our names are already written there from the beginning. What matters is whether we believe that we are part of God’s family of peace and behave as if it were so. The missionaries in our Gospel reading are not blessed because they perform powerful deeds. They are blessed, period. Their missionary journey helps them to see that more clearly.
Jesus instructs the missionaries to travel lightly so that they will have to receive the hospitality of others. Upon entering a stranger’s house, they are to give a greeting of peace in the hopes that peace can be shared. They are to eat and drink what is set before them. The Gospel writer includes that detail twice. I think it was through their fellowship with those whom they met, moreso than through whatever healings or exorcisms they performed, that the missionaries understood that their names were written in heaven.
So as I reflect on our experience as missionaries at Glory Ridge, it is tempting to report on results. How many people did we help? How many homes were repaired? But I think what Jesus is more interested in is how we shared peace and allowed ourselves to be welcomed by others. One of our work groups was sent to a family of five living in a beat-down single-wide mobile home trailer. The single mother was clearly struggling to manage two teens and two younger children. Their roof was leaking, and our main job was to put on a new roof as well as fix a few other things like a leaking faucet. Of course when the group went to fix the leaking faucet on day one, they ended up causing it to break altogether, and they had to turn off the water overnight until a plumber could come the next morning. The family came back to Glory Ridge with us, and we shared our dinner with them and housed them in the one cottage in the camp with its own bathroom. The next day, the plumbing was fixed, and the group continued work on the roof project.
Over the next few days, the group would be interrupted occasionally by one of the younger children coming around with a box of donuts or a tray of pizza rolls that had been warmed up in the oven. Remember that it was hot, and these weren’t the most appetizing donuts or pizza rolls. The group members politely thanked the kids for their gesture of hospitality but did not accept the gifts at first. As we talked about it back in camp, we all realized that these children were not simply being nice. They were trying to hold on to whatever dignity they had by sharing some of their limited food. Even though it would not be what we would prefer, we realized that to refuse the food was not only rude it was spiritually irresponsible. We were there to do a job, yes, but we were also there to share peace. And sharing peace is a two-way proposition. Sometimes sharing peace means eating a stale donut, just because. It’s like we say downstairs at the Table…the food is just an excuse to get together. And getting together is just an excuse to remember that our names are already written in heaven, that we are part of a holy and wonderful fellowship, we are sons and daughters of God’s peace. Sometimes we need to go on a journey to see more clearly what is in front of us all the time. Our names are written in heaven.
I have another story to share, not about Glory Ridge, but also about going to a mountain top to see things in a new way. I promise it will relate back, just bear with me! In 1893, a professor of English at Wellesley College in New England was teaching a summer course in Colorado and had an opportunity to join a daytrip by wagon and mule to ascend Pike’s Peak. The professor was a woman named Katherine Lee Bates. She had studied at Wellesley and Oxford and specialized in poetry. She was not married but had a longtime female companion named Catherine Comer whom she loved. I don’t know whether the two Katherines were together on that ascent of the peak or if it was only Bates. What is clear is that she was not your typical woman of the time. She got to the top of the mountain and beheld the amazing vista before her. It inspired her to immediately write a poem in her notebook. The poem began with these words, “O Beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. For purple mountain’s majesty above the fruited plain. America. America. God shed his grace on thee and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea. The poem was later published on a July 4, set to music, and became one of the most popular songs in the history of our nation. We will sing it at the end of our service.
So why am I telling this story at the conclusion of this sermon about missionaries and having our names in heaven? For years, I thought that “America the Beautiful” was a song about America, a national song of praise. But as I have pondered Bates’ words and learned her story this past week, I believe that this is a missionary song. Yes, she praises the beauty of the land, but moreso she asks for grace so that we, as a people, might become as beautiful as the vista she beheld in 1893. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea. America may be beautiful, but brotherhood, sisterhood, fellowship in peace and love, is the crowning jewel. If you pay attention to the words of the song, you can see that this woman who faced exclusion in her time, someone on a fringe of society, was writing in the hopes of a day when all could be welcomed. America, America, she writes in the second verse, God mend thine every flaw. And in the third verse, she envisions a dream in the distant future when the cities of the country will gleam bright, undimmed by the tears of suffering of so many.
It’s a missionary song, and while it’s appropriate to sing it on the eve of Independence Day, it’s even more appropriate to sing it as we hear Jesus talk about how our names are written in heaven. It’s appropriate to sing of the brotherhood from sea to shining sea, of the sisterhood that could stretch from shore to shore if we could believe that all our names are written in heaven, that we are all included in the acclamation, O beautiful. O beautiful, for spacious skies. O beautiful for all who have the courage to come together in spite of differences and divisions. O beautiful for every time we reach across a boundary to accept the hand of hospitality. O beautiful for a child’s offering of old donuts and pizza bites. O beautiful! At the end of this service we will be sent out, Go in Peace to Love and serve the Lord. Maybe what that means is that we are to go out and proclaim to the nation and the world, “O Beautiful, for our names are written in heaven!” Not O Beautiful because we are Americans. Not O Beautiful because of the results we have achieved or the rights we have won. O Beautiful, for God loves us all. O Beautiful, for we are God’s beloved. It is sisterhood and brotherhood which makes America most beautiful. It is God’s grace shed upon us which will help us overcome the ugliness that we inflict upon ourselves. God shed your grace upon us that we may know the truth, that our names are written in your book. God shed your grace upon us and crown all our good with the brotherhood and sisterhood of your peace from sea to shining sea.