Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 8, 2013
Philemon 1-21

I do not get any thrills out of preaching after tragedies, yet I feel that I must. What happened in Spring High School on Wednesday morning is heart-wrenching. One student is dead, three are injured, and one is in jail. For the four that are still living, life will never be the same.

On Wednesday morning, I felt that it was my duty to go to Spring High School. As the parish priest, I believe in the old sense of the word “parish.” A parish is a geographical distinction, so I believe that Spring High School is part of my parish; that it is under my spiritual responsibility.

I know that we all saw images from that morning. We saw parents lining Cypresswood, anxiously waiting to be reunited with their children. We saw armed police officers guarding the school. We might have seen rolling footage from the three or four helicopters that were circling Spring High School. What you saw on TV and read online was bad news. You saw angry parents. You saw a superintendent and police officials scrambling for words. You heard about racial divisions and gang violence. You got the bad news.

But the helicopters and the news cameras did not capture everything. They were only doing what newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst said a century ago, “If it bleeds, it leads.” What I saw on Wednesday morning was a different story.

I saw Starbucks employees freely handing out water to those hot, anxious parents. I spoke with a group of three mothers, one black, one white, one Hispanic; and believe me, they were not divided. I saw other parents freely borrowing and lending cell phones, so that they could text or call their children inside the school. One woman that I spoke with was nicely dressed for work. Her hair was done perfectly. She had on stylish sunglasses and high heels. She did not have a student at Spring High, yet she was going around to groups of parents and picking up their trash from the side of the road.

You did not see those things on TV or read about them online. Because those stories don’t sell. I want each one of you to hear this. Yes, a great tragedy happened on Wednesday morning. The death of children is always a tragedy. Yet in spite of that, people of great faith showed incredible love. Do not allow the actions of one person to conquer the goodness of so many more.

I also realize that in the face of such agony, and feelings of dread for our children and families, we may feel helpless. We might be overwhelmed by the nonsense and tragedy of it all. We could become paralyzed, and retreat into our little shells, as if we could really protect ourselves from the horrors of this world.

In times like this, the work of Jesus Christ is not to retreat. Hiding from the world’s problems, retreating into our own little spheres, will do no good. It will not help the world we live in. It will not help us. No. It is days like Wednesday that are stark reminders of how much work the Church of God still has to do in this world. Rather than calling the retreat, I challenge you to step out in ministry. To stand for the right thing, to do what you know God is calling you to do. Yes, pray. But don’t use prayer as a cop-out, as a way of sheltering yourself from the world. Pray that God gives you a gift of courage and strength to work and serve the Church, so that the Church can serve the world.

In this short letter from Paul to Philemon, Paul appeals to Philemon to look kindly after the slave Onesimus. Paul says, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”

Believe me, I am bold enough to command all of you to do your duty. I am not afraid to tell you what to do. But on this day, that would exploitation of this teenager’s death. I appeal to you on the basis of love to work, labor, and serve.

And I know the next question. What then, can I do? The answer – a lot. There are a whole slew of ministries in the Parish Hall that can help you answer that question. They can help you work, labor, and serve on the basis of love.

Now, it may not seem like much. Cleaning candlesticks and linens for the Altar Guild may not seem like you are helping the world. Standing on the front porch and holding the door open for parishioners may seem like a small act in light of such overwhelming tragedies. Singing a few songs in the choir might not seem like you’re changing the world.

But those are excuses, and those are ways of selling yourself, the church, and the world, short. If you take your Altar Guild ministry seriously, then every meal you have will become holy. If you open the door and welcome parishioners with a warm smile, you might just be the face of Jesus that someone so desperately needs to see. The song you sing for the choir might just be the song that captures an imagination, or changes a life.

Or on an even more relevant level, the work you do with and for the children of our church could help set somebody on the right path. Your mentoring, your love, your gracious generosity to one of our kids in the church, might be infectious enough to change the heart of a school. You could work with the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, as they prepare for their annual retreat at Camp Allen with young boys from Houston. Young boys who might not otherwise have a good role model, who might not otherwise ever spend a night in the outdoors.

I am bold enough to command you, but coercion is not part of the good news of Jesus Christ. Rather, I appeal to you on the basis of love. Whatever ministry you do in the Church has the potential for changing the world. For if you even change one person, if you have shown love to one person, even if you it’s only you that has been changed – then you have changed the world. Then you have done your duty for Jesus Christ.

On days like Wednesday, we are reminded of how badly the world needs our Church. The people of Spring needs to see our love, our service, our joy. In light of such sorrow, the people of Spring need to see a community of Christians undivided by race or ideology. As minor or as major as your part may be, the people of Spring need to see the Church acting like the Church. Because the only hope for the world, is the faith of Jesus Christ.

And just as the world needs the Church, the Church needs you. I am not commanding you, I am appealing to you on the basis of love. The love that you know in Jesus Christ. I appeal to you, do not retreat into your shells. Do not run scared into your hiding places. Do not hunker down in fear. Stand up. Take up your ministry with courage. In the face of such tragedy or heartache, do the one the thing that God has always called you to do; do the one thing that gives hope for the world: be the Church.