Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
March 30, 2001


Branching Out Toward God
The Rev. Dr. Daniel P. Matthews
Rector, Trinity Church, Wall Street
New York, New York

(This sermon is also available in audio.)

Take our minds and think through them.
Take my lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee,
through Christ our Lord, Amen.

It’s a joy to have been with you this week. I thank my good friend, Doug Bailey, for inviting me back. It is always a joy to be home where, as some of you may know, two of our three children were born. We always drive out to see the old house we lived in; the trees we planted there are now bigger than the house. It is something of a homecoming.

The story goes like this: Moses was fed up, he’d had it. He’d been working with those people all this time, and they were just complaining endlessly; nothing was right for them. He finally threw up his hands and said, "God, I’ve had it, I’d rather be dead. I don’t want to do this anymore." God said to Moses, "Get seventy tribal leaders (probably seventy men who represented a clan, a group, a family, whatever) and bring them to the tent. I’ll fill those seventy people with My Presence and My Spirit." Moses brought them all together and, lo and behold, they were filled with the presence of Yahweh, right there. Two people, however, didn’t get there, so there were technically only sixty-eight leaders in the tent. The two that didn’t get to the tent were off in the wilderness with the other folk, but the Spirit visited them just as much as it did the people in the tent. Those two were prophesying and all those kinds of things, out in the wilderness. Joshua rushed up to Moses and said, "Oh, my goodness, Moses, guess what’s happened? Two of the folks who were not in the tent are prophesying there way off in the wilderness with the other folks. Stop them, stop them, stop them. They’re not in the tent." Doesn’t that sound like you and me? He didn’t pass his Boards. He’s not certified—and they weren’t certified, but they still got the Spirit way off in the wilderness. Moses said, "No, no, let the prophecy bloom and flourish; let it happen."

Now, that’s theology. That’s a real Biblical understanding of the nature of the way God works. You and I live in a world where we all have to have the credentials to do whatever we do. The State Boards, all those things. We clergy have to pass all kinds of things in order for us to offer a blessing. The blessing doesn’t count unless you’ve been certified. It’s very true, and it’s true in the religion world as well. It’s very interesting.

The same thing happened in the New Testament. While in Capernaum, Jesus had sent out his disciples and told them to heal and bless, and they did. John came back and said, "There’s healing taking place, there’s blessing taking place; people are changed, it’s wonderful. However," said John to Jesus, "there’s some folks out there who don’t have our credentials. You haven’t certified them, and they are using your name without copyright. They are actually changing people’s lives by using your name. Can you imagine?" Jesus replied, "Those who are not against us are for us." Just like Moses.

We are in an interesting time, maybe one of the most interesting times in the history of the religions of the world. You see, we are beginning to have to deal with those folks who don’t have the same credentials we have. We are having to kind of handle it, work with them, face up to the fact that maybe the Spirit of God exists some place outside our own set of credentials. It was announced just a moment ago, can you believe it? The Rev. Dr. Bill J. Leonard, the Dean of a Baptist Seminary, will preach here next Monday and Tuesday. Right here. Can you believe that next Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, Johnny Ray Youngblood from Brooklyn is going to be here?

This thing we are doing right here is a very weird thing for the world today. Think about it. Think of the number of you here who are not Episcopalians. We couldn’t even fill the place if you didn’t come. And part of this is being forced by a very, very strange reality that is brand new for all of us. For today, right into your home, right onto your desks, can come all of the information about spiritual journeys that are absolutely alien to every one of us in this room. They come right there, right there on our desks. This strange phenomenon, brand new to all of us, just a few years old, found the whole world over is called the World Wide Web.

There it is, confronting you and me, traditions and different ways of expressing the spirit of the holy, all sorts of different things, and they are right there before us. Oh, they’ve been in the library, but we would have never gone to the library and checked out a book that tells us something about one of these strange and unique and different kinds of expressions of faith. Now they are right there in front of us. We just go click, click, and there they are.

You and I are in a real time of challenge to face up to the Eldads and the Medads of our world. It means a time when you and I need to center down and know what we really believe. This way when we begin to go out on that limb, if you will, and click, click, and open up that web site and see and hear some traditions that differ from our own, we’ll realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may, in fact, be speaking to us.

In New York I am a part of a small group of about fifteen that meet once a month for breakfast. There are three imams from Islam in that breakfast group, three rabbis from Jewish tradition, two Roman Catholic priests, and then an assortment of others from the more traditional Protestant groups. I never miss that breakfast. Nothing stands in the way of getting there. I learn more, grow more, hear more, develop more in that context than anywhere else all week, because I am listening to different voices about how God works. Part of the reason you’ve come today, I know, is a chance to hear a different voice about how God might be working in my life and in your life. That’s what happens when we all come together with different sorts of traditions.

Yet today, there is much fear about what is going on—not just on the Web, but in the whole world, as strange and different religions begin to move into our space. The fear gets so great that we begin to build walls higher and higher. You know the folks I am talking about. There’s just one way—our way or the highway, no other way. Those walls begin to be built up, and pretty soon the possibility of God working in the lives of those people in any unique and new and different way is prevented. It is a scary time. I don’t blame them. It’s a lot more comforting, isn’t it, to say, "They’re just wrong, that’s all. They’re just wrong. God is just not using them. They are part of the devil’s work shop." It’s very easy to do that.

I imagine there are some of you sitting right here today that when you go back and talk to your friend, "So I went to Calvary Church." "Calvary Church?" they’ll respond, "Isn’t that where that man, Marcus Borg, who doesn’t believe in the scriptures, preached the other day? Why, he doesn’t even believe Jesus hardly lived." It’s very important for God’s people, who are as rooted and as grounded as you are in the faith, to listen and to be sensitive to what is happening in our world today. We do that by putting ourselves in touch with those people who have always been strange and different and unacceptable to the likes of you and of me. I don’t always like what I hear from my Islamic friends at that breakfast group. There’s often some real genuine conflict over what they believe and what I believe, but in the spirit of acceptance of each other, magical things are happening to each of us.

Oh, it’s an exciting time for us to understand the Eldads and Medads. It is a challenging time, because those we know who wouldn’t be in this church because it is different are in deep need of opening up to the possibility that the Spirit of God might be dwelling in a place we have, up to this point in our lives, rejected. I commend you for coming. I commend you to recommend to other people to come.

God is doing things in God’s world today that we’ve never seen before. There is nothing more exciting in America today than the spiritual awakening that is taking place, and the Web is full of it. You can sit there and find out all kinds of weird expressions of spiritual journeys—some of them pretty healthy, some of them not healthy at all. But they are coming into your world and they are coming into our world, now. The fastest growing churches are the churches that don’t look anything like what you and I call church. Trinity Church in New York is a very traditional place. Everything is exactly right. The acolytes are perfect. The incense smells perfect. The hymns are sung perfectly by a choir that is all paid. There are two organs—one in the back and one in the front. It is a magnificent place. We’re not full on Sunday morning.

Look at this place today. Look at what it is today—it’s full, and it is raining outside. It is because those of us here are seeking what God is calling each one of us to do, and that’s open, open. Open a little more and a little more to how the Spirit is working. Bill Moyer said that the most exciting event of the last part of the twentieth century was the spiritual awakening in America. There is no question about it.

Because Trinity Church in New York is so staid and formal, and because everything we do is so proper and fits into tradition, guess what we’re doing? We’re going to open the museum a few blocks from us where George Washington went to church, it’s called St. Paul’s Chapel. We’re bringing in a priest who is not going to wear the sorts of things I have on today or the priests in this place wear. This priest will wear casual clothes. We’re going to have a service, and it’s going to be for New Yorkers who are spiritual seekers who don’t seem to connect with the tradition that I’m in and, perhaps, even you are in.

Oh, it’s an exciting time. I hope you sense that. I trust you do, or you wouldn’t be here. It’s a thrilling time to be a believer and to so ground yourself in scripture and tradition that you are able to accept and be open to what other people are believing and where they are growing. To be open to what matters to them without the threat of the fact that you need to stop them or to destroy them, as Joshua and John wanted to do to the Spirit of the Lord. I think you are a part of that today in this Lenten Service. It’s one of the most unusual movements that I know of in any downtown in America—an inter-faith, ecumenical series of services, pulling together people who speak different languages about their faith.

No, this isn’t a scary time; it is an exciting time. This isn’t a time to be afraid, this is a time to ground yourself more deeply in scripture and tradition so that you might hear how God might be using new voices, new ways of expressing spiritual realities to you and to me and to this nation. It’s a time to be alive and excited about the presence of God. Test the Web; test your neighbor’s faith. Test what God might be calling you to become. It is God’s world. It is God’s spirit. Rejoice and be thankful that you are living in such a time that you, too, might give thanks for the power of the Spirit of God in a time of genuine awakening. Amen.

Copyright 2001 The Rev. Dr. Daniel P. Matthews

(Return to Top)

Copyright ©1999-2005 explorefaith.org