Rewards

Lk : 10:1-11,16-20
7/4/10

Last Sunday’s sermon was about “Plowing”, or moving forward in our Christian faith. This Sunday’s sermon is about “Rewards”.

St. Luke gives us a picture of the development of Jesus’ ministry and that of the early Church. Seventy were appointed and sent out in pairs to preach the Gospel of repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God, ushered in by the presence of Jesus, who is to become the Messiah. These early Christians are filled with the Holy Spirit and heal the sick and cast out demons (heal the tormented). The seventy feel pretty good about themselves, but Jesus cautions them not to rejoice in their power over the power of the enemy (the demons) but that their names will be written in heaven.

In short, Jesus is pointing to a reward beyond this immediate life for those who believe in Him and are faithful in carrying out His ministry. What I find interesting here is that Jesus speaks of a reward. The Episcopal Church in my experience, is loathe to mention rewards and concentrates on Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, to the shunning of other parts of Paul’s theology. Through out his ministry Jesus speaks of rewards, but they are usually called blessings (see The Beatitudes) or affirmations. His ministry is not one of all condemnation and suffering but also or rewards. Indeed, human nature craves rewards.

For years my family has had a picnic around the Fourth of July and we have often included our church friends. Present for fourteen-years was Ben, my Black Lab. He was the official greeter. I would tell him to sit, stay or lie down and he would do so happily. “How did you get him to do that?” people would ask. “I give him a dog biscuit. You look at the Westminster Dog show and after each action the trainer gives the dog a reward. Human beings are much the same. Its just part of nature.” So I guess Jesus knew a little something about how things work.

Now I want to tell you two stories. As you know, I think we make sense of our lives by telling stories. I also believe that we see God’s hand in the here-and-now experiences of everyday life. As Christians, we see with eyes of faith.

Many of you have dealt with exceedingly difficult and painful experiences. Some of you have been blessed to have an unexpected reward given out of a bad situation. My first story is one that you partially know. As I mentioned last week, it was the first birthday of my granddaughter. She was born by cesarean section and the epidural didn’t go right with the result that my daughter-in-law was paralyzed by a four inch blood clot. She also went blind from a tumor on her pituitary gland. We were distraught and frightened. For three days all I could pray was Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison. Out of the blue a former girl friend of my son was passing through NYC with her two daughters from having attended the funeral of the girl friend’s mother. The woman and her daughters stayed and took care of the new born. A surgeon operated and removed the spinal blood clot and then operated and removed most of the tumor. Kelly is now about ninety per cent recovered, but still has back problems and some sight problems. Out of that experience, I came to have a much deeper sense of the values, which I already espouse: faith, love, courage and devotion.

My son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter were here last weekend, and rather than futzing about things, I slowed down and allowed myself to enjoy the presence of those three and watched my wife show her delight and love for the new family. I was given the reward of a greatly deepened Christian appreciation for my family and the preciousness of our shared life together.

My second story is a Fourth of July Story. Unbeknownst to me, I have a cousin who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is a retired librarian, with the Grand Rapids Symphony. She was Googling around and discovered that I was a minister. She wrote, “I had no idea that you had followed in the footsteps of Uncle Charles, (my Methodist minister grandfather), and of the heaps of old New England preachers (some of them pretty radical, I might add!) I checked out your homilies and one of them jumped off the page at me. It was titled, “You Gotta Have a Parade”, Here’s why:

“A year ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so I was going through chemotherapy during the summer. I have the most amazing friends and a completely awesome support system and I felt quite blessed and well cared-for during the whole process. Chemotherapy pretty much wiped me out after the 2nd round, so I was kind of slow motion…. My friends made sure I got just the right amount of attention and didn’t expect me to be up and around…. But they were also pretty darned gifted at figuring out special ways to help keep my spirits up.

“On July 4, Lisa suggested that I make an appearance on my front porch at 2 p.m. No reason, just better be there! Okay – so here I am on my front porch along with Lisa, Jeanie, Karen and Katherine, who just seemed to pop up out of nowhere, chatting away, and suddenly I think “ ‘Is that music I hear?”’ I realized I was hearing not any old music in the distance, but live music – not a band, it’s STRINGS! Then I caught a glimpse of what was to become a bright red 1949 flatbed truck, festooned with red, white and blue balloons and streamers – on its flatbed were five members of the Grand Rapids Symphony cello section, followed on foot) by two violists and a violinist, (with their music taped to the back of the truck! They were furiously playing Sousa’s The Thunderer – a brilliant rendition, fantastically played! When the truck stopped in front of my house, the upper strings ran onto my lawn and played a stirring version of The Star Spangled Banner!

“I could go on and on about this – my very first, very own 4th of July Parade – but suffice it to say I was totally surprised, delighted and touched. Here it was a terribly hot day and a holiday to boot, and these guys gave it up to make a parade for me … wow!! The parade included (countless names). The guy with the truck is a friend of Karen’s – I don’t know him at all, and yet he was willing to give up a holiday afternoon for me….You can imagine —this is one of the most lovely things that has ever been done for me. It was totally outrageous, unexpected, fun, elaborate, professional … and it took much planning and sacrifice on the part of the participants. I have been humbled so many times in the past year by acts of kindness…that is another whole story.

“I shall sign off for now. I’m mighty pleased to meet you, Cousin Bart. Thank you for having your homilies on-line – a very fine blessing indeed.”

Out of our pain, difficulties, frustrations, failures, disappointments and hurts, as you and I struggle on our pilgrimage of faith, often times we are given a totally unexpected expression of affirmation, a reward from another person, another Christian, or the Holy Spirit. We see it with our eyes of faith.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this that the spirits (our hardships and pain) submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” This July Fourth my prayer for you, is that you “have a parade” and that when all is said and done, our names are written in heaven. Amen. Fr. Gage