This sermon was preached for the Commemoration of the Rev. Samuel Shoemaker on January 31, 2017 by third-year Marguerite Judson. The texts for this day were: Isaiah 51:17-52:1a, Psalm 130, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, and Luke 4:40-44.
Today we remember Sam Shoemaker. As a Princeton student teaching Business courses in China and trying to start a branch of the YMCA, Sam discovered just how inept he was at conveying his faith. He then became deeply involved in the Oxford Group, trained at General Seminary, and was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1921. He began serving as the Rector of Calvary Church in Manhattan soon after, then at Calvary Church in Pittsburgh starting in 1952. As Holy Women, Holy Men encapsulates his ministry as priest and evangelist, they note that Sam is “remembered for his empowerment of the laity.”
Yes, he learned to communicate his faith! And he helped hundreds of people equip themselves for lives of service. He nurtured an explosive growth in membership at Calvary Church in New York, where his church was the headquarters of the Oxford Group in the US in the 1930’s. He published 30 books and tons more essays and sermons; he preached weekly on the radio after moving to Pittsburgh.
Another ministry, Faith at Work, grew out of Shoemaker’s passion for personal witness and the ways he transformed the church newsletter. The group began in 1926 at Calvary in NY and helped a number of normally reticent Anglicans talk publicly about their faith. On Thursday evenings through about 1936, lay persons both presented their witness of their life as Christians and were trained to witness in the work world.
What has touched me more deeply has been the way in which Shoemaker’s leadership of the Oxford Group, with its emphasis on Confidence, Confession, Conviction, Conversion, and Continuance, bore such amazing fruit. How a couple of their small Bible study groups for drunks in the early 1930s – one at Calvary Episcopal in NY, the other in Akron, Ohio – quietly morphed into the powerhouse of Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon and dozens of other 12-Step programs which today help millions of people of any faith – or none – step free of addiction to substances and processes.
Sam Shoemaker was the pastor of and a lifelong friend to Bill Wilson, AA’s co-founder, over the decades in which those early gatherings started shifting from Oxford meetings just with other drunks to freestanding meetings in what became Alcoholics Anonymous.
It is fascinating to me, to see how deeply the 12 steps are rooted in the Christian principles Shoemaker highlighted: surrendering to God, asking for help, facing our failings, making amends for wrongdoing, and the practice of daily prayer and meditation.
And, most profoundly, putting the needs of the other ahead of one’s own needs. What we aspire to in mutual service in the body of Christ is blazingly clear in the fact that the most important person in any 12 Step meeting is the newcomer.
One of the crucial things that Bill Wilson and those early members discovered was that they could stay sober only by helping other people; other drunks who were hurting as badly, or maybe worse, than they did with their few hours, or days or weeks of sobriety.
People who said, with the psalmist: Out of the depths, I cry to God for help; none of us can face your judgement. But I wait for you, God, my soul waits for you in the midst of endless longing and desperate hope for an end to my anguish.
And that’s what those in today’s Gospel reading were saying; those who were sick with every imaginable and unimaginable ailment, what they must have said as their friends brought them to Jesus.
This Gospel reading is from very early in Jesus’ ministry. He has come out of the wilderness; he returned with authority and started healing people in Galilee. He pissed off his hometown of Nazareth, then went 40 miles (about 2 day’s journey away) to Capernaum, a fishing village on the north of the Sea of Galilee.
Luke quickly draws our attention to Jesus’ healing ministry. In Capernaum, Jesus made more trouble by healing during the Sabbath service, and then privately healing Simon’s mother in law (also during the Sabbath). Finally, as our lesson starts, the sun sets, the Sabbath is over and more and more people flood to Jesus for healing.
The thing I noticed about today’s Gospel lesson is how freely Jesus heals everyone. He does not ask for confessions of wrongdoing, or promises of good behavior, or public statements of faith – in fact he wants all those unruly demons to keep silent about who he is.
There is a wonderfully absurd generosity in how Jesus heals! Willy nilly, without hesitation, restriction or bargaining. He just heals people. He pours out God’s transforming love on everyone who asks for it.
And in 12-step meetings, people ask for help from “God as you understand God.” In meetings, at any hour of the day, in almost any country in the world, God is there, being anonymous, not asking for public statements of faith. But loving, and healing, and healing, and healing those who cry out for help.
Pouring out love through doors opened by the faithful service of Sam Shoemaker who, among other things, was part of the healing of those first few drunks who experienced just how generous God can be as they learned to surrender, ask for help, and serve others in need.
May we ask freely and joyfully for our own healing! Amen.