Keep It Simple

Keep It Simple


A Sermon by J. Michael Povey

Sermon for Epiphany Four, January 31st 1999

The Rector at St. Stephen's, Pittsfield, Mass.



I was visiting at Berkshire Medical Center yesterday and as often happens, I had a series of those encounters which makes any minister's life richly rewarding and challenging. There was the older woman with a serious cancer whose family hovers closely, and who will talk about anything but how alone and scared the woman feels. Then an English woman whose seven day 'bus tour of the United States and Canada brought her to the Crown Plaza hotel last Wednesday. There she was stricken with an illness which called for surgery, and now she is at BMC so far from home and her daughters who worry so much.

Another woman, this time with a brain tumour which is robbing her of the power to speak clearly. Her words speak of hope, but her eyes betray despair. Finally to the maternity unit to visit Nichole, wife of our good acolyte of former years, David Michalski. I began to speak through the curtain which was drawn over the door. No, this was not a convenient time to visit, but I heard a nurse suggest something to David, then out through the curtain he came, carrying the new-born. "When was she born?" I asked. "Ten minutes ago" replied David, "and I am so nervous!". And so I blessed God for David and Nicole and blessed their ten minute old daughter.

And as I made these rounds in the hospital with one joy and three sorrows I thought of the need to keep the message simple and uncomplicated. For, to be sure, we have a way of making the message of Jesus and the life of the Church so very complicated. Annual meetings, elections, budgets, capital fund campaigns are all well and good in their way, but we must always ask ourselves "but what the heck does this have to do with the gospel?"

The people of faith of Micah's day had managed to complicate the word of God "quite nicely thank you". They had complicated it so much as to pervert it, and God is more than a little ticked off with them. "I have a controversy with you" are the mild words with which God announces his anger. "Look what I did for you in delivering you from Egypt. Look how my hand has guided you all the way. And what response do I get? Stinking sacrifices of one year old calves, the offering of thousands of rams, the constant pouring out of gallons of olive oil to placate me, I HATE THESE THINGS". I am not some puny god who can be satisfied with your religious posturing, with the complications of your liturgy, and with words of piety which mask deeds of evil".

"O my people, KEEP IT SIMPLE, do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God".

And down through the ages comes the voice of Jesus, the one whose simple words have been greatly complicated by generations of bishops and priests, and kept simple by deacons and nuns. What a great and mighty edifice is the Church. Many of the hymns we sing speak so much of a triumphalistic God of power and pomp, and little of a God of mercy. The ugly tower of St. Stephen's looks likes the tower of a castle, a place of power and authority. What a shadow this great edifice casts over the face of Jesus. I must "fess up" and say that as a paid priest I often find it easier to be part of the edifice than to reflect the love of Jesus. Bishops and priests often fall into the temptation of believing the lies of the centuries, lies which speak of our "authority", our "position", our "status". We secretly long for the days in which our word was unquestioned. We secretly long for the days in which the Church was at the apex of society.

And like the people of God in the Micah reading, we religious leaders can begin to believe that preserving our position and the institution is our most worthwhile task.

So the gospel passage from Matthew troubles and disturbs us. Its very simplicity contrasts sharply with the complications of theology, liturgy and religion which the clergy, and not a few of the laity, espouse as "essential truth".

KEEP IT SIMPLE says the wandering preacher of Galilee, keep it simple so that even the simplest of people may know that they are loved by God. "Blessed are the poor in spirit", "blessed are those who mourn", "blessed are the meek", "blessed are the merciful" "blessed are the peacemakers". Do you know that when Matthew says that these people are "blessed" he is saying that God's favour rests upon them. That's what blessing means, it is the bestowal of God's favour.

And as I wander the corridors of the hospital wondering what words of marvelous wisdom and insight I am supposed to deliver, I pause and remember that all I need to say has already been said: "blessed are you". And as I blessed the woman from England and later the ten minute old baby I knew that I had done the right thing in keeping it simple. Earlier in the week as I visited the woman with the tumour I asked if she had a pastor. She replied "no, I always wanted to become an Episcopalian but never got round to it". "Well", I said "I declare that you are now an Episcopalian and I will be your pastor". Of course our complicated canon law says that I had no right to make her an Episcopalian, after all she should really attend classes, get confused, and then have the Bishops' hands laid upon her. But I kept it simple, and who here would doubt that I did the right thing. I blessed her.

KEEP IT SIMPLE cries God through Micah "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God".

KEEP IT SIMPLE says Jesus to the crowds "be blessed, be blessed, be blessed".

"Do justice, be blessed."

"Love mercy, be blessed".

" Walk humbly with God, be blessed".


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