A Sermon about Being Like an Apostle

There is a lot going on out there in the world this week.  The chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary was destroyed by fire, as was the office of the Bishop of Northern California in Sacramento, a building which also housed the River City Food Bank.  People are dying in Haiti again, this time because of an outbreak of cholera.  Our Presiding Bishop participated in an interfaith forum on happiness over at Emory University’s Center for Law and Religion. Millions of dollars were raised for breast cancer through the Susan G. Komen 3-Day walk in Atlanta.  Political ads and commentary go on and on, important baseball games have been played, and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has written a book about his life, which he apparently remembers after all.  
And of course, in here, we are celebrating our patronal feast day, wearing red clothing and using our red vestments and apparently eating red food after church - which I hope means red velvet cake - red being the color for martyrs, which St Simon may (or may not) have been.  
We really don’t know much about Simon, other than that he was an apostle, one who was faithful and zealous in his mission to make known the love and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Still, we don’t really know his story.  But we are called to model ourselves after this apostle as we live out our own calling to not only be disciples - those who follow, who learn from, our teacher, Jesus - but also apostles, ones who go out into the world as messengers, ambassadors, carrying with us the gospel message of love, mercy, peace and salvation.
There are, of course, many ways to be apostles, messengers, ambassadors, evangelists.   I am particularly drawn to what St Francis of Assisi was reported to have said: “Preach the gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”  We are to embody the message, we are to witness through our actions (which is where the word martyr comes from anyway - a martyr is a witness to the faith through an action, an action most of us hope not to emulate), whether or not we tell people about Jesus using words.  And our actions have to have something to do with being zealous about making love and mercy known in the community - both this community in here and that community out there in Conyers and Rockdale County and Georgia and the United States and beyond.
If you’ve been listening to or reading on our website my sermons in these last weeks, you know that I’ve been talking a lot about mission, about loving our neighbors as ourselves through outreach, through making the world a better place for all of God’s beloved people, through being a lifeline for those who are trapped in their own suffering and lack of resources of all kinds.  There are many ways to witness to the world through friendship and assistance.  With our presence and with our expertise and with our hard earned dollars put toward lessening the burdens of those who are heavily laden.  We witness by being Christ’s hands and feet in the world, loving one another as Jesus has loved us.
You’ve also heard me say that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the need we see and become numbed or paralyzed by it.  We know that the poor will always be with us, and yet we have to remember that this was not one of Jesus’ commandments.  It’s really not easy to live out one’s faith at times.  Categories like “the poor” or “the needy” are huge and impersonal, and one finds it daunting to even imagine ways in which we might make a difference in the lives of “the poor” and “the downtrodden.”  
One of the things I did this week, in addition to reading about the Presiding Bishop’s speech and Keith Richards’ book, was to watch a video presentation on the website called “TED: Ideas Worth Spreading” by a young woman named Jessica Jackley, who founded an organization called Kiva.  Quoting their website, “Kiva’s mission is to connect people, through lending, for the sake of alleviating poverty.  Kiva empowers individuals to lend to an entrepreneur across the globe.  By combining microfinance with the internet, Kiva is creating a global community of people connected through lending.”  Basically, Kiva facilitates micro loans - loans of amounts like $150 or $400 - to poor people who want to start their own businesses so that they can improve their own and their families’ lives.  A woman in Kenya may need a loan to buy a sewing machine so that she can start a business as a seamstress; a man may need a loan to buy portable kitchen equipment to start an outdoor eatery in New Orleans.  
During the eighteen-minute presentation, Ms. Jackley talked about many things, but two things seemed to have a profound impact on her decision to start Kiva.  First, was her childhood Sunday School classes, in which she learned that Jesus wants us to help the poor, that Jesus said that whatever we do for the least among us we do for Jesus himself.  And second, was her experience of hearing the stories of the people who lived in poverty but had ideas about how to lift themselves out of poverty.  
Her Christian upbringing and faith may have been the foundation, but the stories were what gave her the impetus to do something concrete.  Upon learning about the concept of micro loans - these very small loans that made a world of difference to people, particularly women, who are trying to improve their own and their families’ lives, loans that they would never be able to get from a bank or other financial institution - she became so interested in the idea of these people who had a story to tell about their dreams that she quit her job and spent three months in Africa interviewing people who were applying for micro loans.  Actually meeting them and hearing their stories about buying a loom to weave rugs, buying a goat to produce cheese, buying seeds to plant crops, starting a restaurant.
It was their stories that got her.  The stories helped her make a connection between her desire to help the poor and the poor themselves.  She didn’t just want to give money to someone, she wanted to be in relationship with someone, by hearing their story and by becoming part of their story through helping them finance their dreams of bringing themselves out of poverty.  She wanted to be part of the stories of real people.
So, what does this have to do with St Simon, or St Simon’s Episcopal Church? you may well ask.
Well, your vestry has been talking about ministry in the community, about outreach, about addressing the needs of the least of these.  They are considering some ideas and thinking about how this church community might be a player in the wider community in terms of alleviating suffering.  Some of this involves money or food or expertise.  
But at its heart, our outreach, our mission, is about relationship.  We are a people in relationship with God and with one another.  Our mission is about our proclaiming the gospel - our story - through relationship with others - by becoming part of their story and making them part of our story.  By listening to their stories and learning how we can practice love and mercy and faithful generosity among our neighbors far and near.  
St Simon the apostle didn’t sit in an office and write checks.  He walked among the people, bringing good news not only by proclamation but by loving neighbor as Jesus commanded all the apostles.  By healing the sick, befriending the lonely, lifting up the needy, visiting the imprisoned.  We want to do that, too, but sometimes we don’t know how.  We want to be generous but we don’t know whether or not we are going to be taken advantage of.
And so as this community thinks about ways to be united around mission, Jessica Jackley’s story suggests how to do that by finding ways not just to send a check or a toy or a bag of groceries (although of course those are needed things) but to look for opportunities to be in relationship with those around us.  
Many of you are already doing that through Meals on Wheels, which is a growing concern here at St Simon’s.  A number of you also visit the homebound.  These are both ways in which we are in relationship, not just delivering a product but being the hands and feet of Christ: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, befriending the lonely.  And also learning about the people we feed and bringing their needs and concerns into this room.  You have made their stories part of our story.  We are in relationship with those you visit and those you feed.
So on this feast day of St Simon the Apostle, I urge you to think about other and more ways in which you can, both individually and as a parish, be in relationship with not just “the poor” but actual poor people; how you can hear the stories of real people who are suffering and bring their stories into this room as well as bring our story of healing and love and justice and mercy into their lives.  I urge you to think about the community out there - the community both near and far - and wonder, who is poor, who is suffering, who is lonely, who is trapped, who has been abused or abandoned?  And wonder how can we be in relationship with them, how we can make a connection with them, how can we hear their stories, how can we be part of their stories, how can we bring our story to them and bring their story here to this altar?  How can we help alleviate the suffering of real people whose stories we know, through our friendship, our expertise, our time and our money?

For we are all one in Christ Jesus, near and far, strangers and aliens, apostles and prophets; those inside and those outside.  He is our peace and he has broken down the dividing walls between us, citizens all of the household of God.