By the Very Rev. Frank Alton
Isaiah 58; I Cor. 2:1-12; Matt. 5:13-20
Today the Vestry wanted us to focus the sermon on our new mission statement. Some will remember the small group meetings we had in 2015 and the ministry review we did last summer. From these processes a new mission statement has emerged for St. Athanasius. You can see it on the cover of your newsletter: God loves us - without exception. We love God. We welcome all. We serve the world.
I have to start by making two clarifications about what a mission statement is and is not. First, a mission is an intention, not a description. These words do not describe us 100%. It is what we want to be and do, but not what we are and do all the time. They don’t cease to be important for that reason. We must note that many churches would not affirm those words. They believe that there are exceptions to the love of God. They label some people as abominations. Our mission statement states that we believe there are no exceptions. That is radical.
We also have to say that believing God loves everyone without exception doesn’t mean that we are always convinced that God loves us with all our faults. Sometimes we doubt that God could love us because we don’t feel worthy of that love.
Nor does it mean that at some point one thinks that another person is not worthy of the love of God. We are hypocrites - we don’t always live what we say we believe.
That leads us to a second clarification: these words serve as a norm so we can return to our values when we move away from them. So, if I say that God loves everyone without exception, and I’m facing a person whom I do not like, or that I look down on, those words pull me toward my strongest convictions. So, the mission statement can serve as an anchor for our behavior.
Now, let's examine each sentence in the light of today's readings. The first is: God loves us - without exception. Some would say that this is not our mission but God’s. But if we don’t root our mission in that truth we will not fulfill our part. The life of faith begins with our baptism. God says, "You are my beloved child." Today's Gospel says we are the salt of the earth. God not only loves us; God considers us important - necessary for creation to have taste. Do you believe that about yourself? That's what God sees in you. And it’s what God sees in the person who bothers you; that you cannot stand - without exception. Then, when you fall into a depression; or when you cannot imagine something positive about a person whom you don’t like, remember this phrase: God loves us - without exception. It is radical because it changes our way of thinking down to the roots.
Then the statement says: We love God. It's the first commandment, right? If we’re honest, we don’t always obey the commandments; nor are we always thinking about them. We live our days without thinking much about God. At best, we dedicate our lives to God as we wake up each morning. But how do we love God all day? It’s the first commandment because it’s what we need in order to have abundant life. It’s not because God won’t give us abundant life if we don’t love God, but because God is love and truth, and love is what we seek most and truth is what sets us free. God commands us to love God because only in this way do we love life. As adults we don’t love God because it’s a commandment. We do it because we’ve recognized that it’s the path to life. How sad that many reject God because they misconceive of God as a judge who keeps a record of every sin. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that our mission is not only to love God, but to live in such a way that others see that loving God means loving life. Paul says: God has prepared, for those who love God, things that no one has seen or heard, and not even thought about. We can’t even imagine what God has for us when we love God. That’s good news.
We welcome all. In these days few actions can distinguish us more than this. At a time when many want to reject large segments of humanity for fear of terrorism, or because they will demand too much from us, or because they will make us sick or dirty, or for other reasons, welcoming all is radical and risky. Isaiah tells us: break the chains of injustice and untie the knots that squeeze the yoke; let the oppressed go free and finally bring an end to all tyranny; share your bread with the hungry and receive in your house the homeless poor; provide clothing for the one who has no clothes; and do not cease to assist others. Then your light will shine like the dawn and your wounds will heal very soon. The actions we fear to take are precisely the actions that result in our lives blossoming and healing. Seeing life like this requires maturity, according to Paul: among those who have reached maturity we do use words of the wisdom of God. It is something that the rulers of the present world have not understood, for if they had understood it they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of glory. In San Atanasio we want to mature to welcome everyone, and so flourish and heal.
Finally, we serve the world. Again, this goes against what we think we want when we don’t think maturely. We think life is more enjoyable when others serve us. We arrive at Mass and sit down to listen, without thinking that others are serving to create the atmosphere for us. We eat breakfast without realizing that a team has worked to be able to serve breakfast. And we think that's better. Better them than me. But what anyone who has served voluntarily knows is that an event or an action is more satisfying if one participates in serving than if one only comes as a spectator.
During the past year this congregation has started several new ways of serving our part of the world in Echo Park. We offer free laundry. We feed needy people in the park. We continue to open a food bank every Friday, and we’re starting to serve a hot breakfast to those who come. We participate in marches and trainings to protest the damage that our government is doing. It takes time and sometimes money to serve the world in those ways. I understand that many have jobs and lives that do not allow them to serve in these ministries. But none of us is so poor that we cannot find a way to serve others. I imagine most of you serve in some capacity. We are the salt of the earth; So we serve the world.
God loves us - without exception. We love God. We welcome everyone. We serve the world. AMEN