Guest Sermon – With God’s Help

Today was Senior Sunday at Christ Church in Bowling Green.  One of our high school seniors, Braxton, offered the homily at 10am.  Here’s the text.


First I want to thank Father Steve and Ms Karen for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the youth and graduating seniors today. It is truly an honor-it doesn’t mean I didn’t procrastinate on it, but it truly is an honor.

As I think about the lessons for today I am reminded that the disciples had to wait for Gods instruction on what to do and where to go. Can you imagine having to wait for information?!?  How lucky are we today that we have Google for any answer. You can Google for a career path , but you can’t Google to find what’s in your heart. Our faith and our church teaches us to care for ourselves and our salvation, to care for others, and to care for our land and nation.  But how do we do that? What is our purpose? Our passion? Steve Jobs says “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice”. We have to listen to that inner voice. The voice that guides us  that tells us the The will of God. Whatever you do, it always helps to have a plan. If you are going to build a business, one of the first things you need to do is to get together a business plan.  You lay out your strategy you intend to follow. You find that plan and then you follow that plan if you want to be a success. I can relate to this with my years of football at SWHS. A coach has a game plan. In fact, they get very intricate with that. They have all of the plays laid out. They know exactly where they are going. They know what the offense is going to do. What the defense is going to do. A large degree of success by an athletic team can be determined by the coach’s game plan.

This is the same for life. whatever path you choose , it always helps to have a plan. God has a wonderful plan for your life, The will of God”. When you see that phrase in the Bible it is talking about God’s plan. God’s purpose. God’s plan. What God has intended for you. The very greatest life you could ever live is a life lived according to the plan of God. If you can find the plan of God, His will, and if you will follow His will in your life, then indeed you will have a successful life.

We are a success-oriented society. Some people think that if they can ever get to the point that they can be the CEO of a successful company they will have succeeded . Others view success as having financial stability. Or perhaps success is excelling in your particular field. If you try to be THE best or one of the best of all of the people in your field, then you’re going to be a success.

In recent weeks after Easter we leaned that Jesus had recently physically left the disciples after the resurrection, departing to heaven with the promise of the Spirit’s coming and a mission of witness to be fulfilled. They had been charged to remain in Jerusalem for this day and they would be covered in power of God. They would  be called to witness to Jesus. This was their mission-the purpose of their calling. They were to witness to Christ Jesus before the nations far and near.

They were hardly prepared for such a grand task. They certainly did not feel prepared but their faith in God gave them what they needed to go places and do things they never could have imagined. That is were we are today. Are we ready to go into the word on our own merits? Leaning on the faith we have grown up knowing, What Father Steve, Ms Karen, Deacon Kellie have taught us and what we practice in EYC God will help us to become the successful people were meant to be.

Today is a day of celebration. We are celebrating the success of graduates and their achievements. We have studied, and completed coursework to arrive at this time of recognition of our efforts and achievements. We pause to celebrate our preparation and beginning to  a new phase of life. Graduation is not an endpoint. It is a beginning. it is a launching pad-commencement into the new stage of life beyond the one we just completed.  It is hard for me to associate our graduation with a beginning. It seems much more natural to consider it the closing of a chapter in life. Graduation is a celebration of the threshold-the turning of a page into our new lives. I pray that you continually hear, listen, and follow Gods will in your life. I wish you all success on each of your journeys and may you always be successful. Amen.

 

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Discipleship 101

On May 1, 2019, this blog became a teenager.  If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, there are more than 2,400 posts for you to go back and read.  You’ll note as you do so that I’ve changed a lot in the last 13 years.  My theology has evolved, ever being re-drafted through study, prayer, and interaction with other disciples.  Several posts from back in the mid-aughts were spent complaining about seminary classmates who in our homiletics classes preached all about love, but didn’t seem to having a working definition of what love really looks like.

Now, to be fair, it was a time of great strife within my denomination.  Sides were taken, lines drawn, and many on the left and the right spent their time deciding who was in and who was out.  At our worst, we became a church of two factions that were caricatures of themselves. One could easily define love as “I’m ok, you’re ok,” the other who would define love as “spare the rod, spoil the child.”  Neither side actually believed those things entirely, but in the religio-political climate of the mid-2000s, no one was really interested in nuance.

Fast forward more than a decade, and we have a Presiding Bishop who became famous a year ago for preaching about love at a Royal Wedding.  Now, I can be critical of how The Episcopal Church and her congregations have tried to capitalize on that fame, but what I’ve most appreciated is seeing how the working definition of love that we are using has grown in depth since those challenging days of yore.  Rather than a concept of divine love which would source love within ourselves, we are now more able and open to seeing that the kind of love that changes the world comes only through the saving power of Jesus Christ.  That kind of love is our Discipleship 101.

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At dinner with his disciples, Jesus invited them, and by extension all of us, to take that love of neighbor out in word and deed. This love isn’t getting everyone around a campfire to agree on some kind of lowest common denominator feelings while singing Kumbaya, but the self-giving love that Jesus modeled in his life, death, and resurrection.  It is a kind of love that is only possible through the grace of God.  In and of ourselves, love can never be fully unselfish, but with God’s help, the kind of love that Jesus commands of us, the kind of love that will show our status as disciples, is a love that is always seeking the good of the other, caring for the poor, the outcast, and the afraid, sharing the love that we’ve come to know in Christ Jesus in word and action.  Episcopalians haven’t always been good at the word bit, and maybe that’s where some of my frustration was found those many years ago, but I know for sure that we’re getting a whole lot better at it.  So much so, that I might even be willing to say by now that we are known as disciples of Jesus because of the love that we share in our communities.

Without a Doubt

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The story of Peter and the sheet from Acts 11 is an odd one, even by Biblical standards.  It has so many supernatural elements as to almost be absurd.  In fact, it seems to read more like a hagiography than a historical account.  There’s the vision Peter has while in a trance.  There’s the exact timing of the arrival of the men from Caesarea.  There’s the Holy Spirit descending upon Gentiles just as it had upon the first believers at the beginning.  If you were trying to write a story that would carry spiritual gravitas, you couldn’t have scripted one better.

Lost in all of the supernatural events, however, is the deeper truth which Peter is trying to articulate to the Apostles in Jerusalem – the radically inclusive nature of the Gospel message even for the Gentiles.  Mired about halfway through the fantastic story, just after the three men arrive at Joppa, Peter, now removed from his trance, receives another word from the Holy Spirit, “to go with them and not make distinction between them and us.”

That phrase has always caught my attention.  In digging into it a bit, I’ve realized that it is another example of English trying to convey in a lot of words what the original Greek handled with simple eloquence.  Other translations say “The Holy Spirit told me to go and not worry” (CEV).  “The Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting” (KJV). “The Spirit said to me: Go with them, without hesitation” (PNT).  The original Greek word means “to evaluate, consider, doubt.”

While the NRSV’s take, “make no distinction between them and us” works, I think it missed the mark on what Peter is really saying the Spirit said to him.  What seems to be happening here is an opportunity for Peter to trust God.  Not unlike that experience with Jesus walking across the water, through this vision and the call to Cornelius’ house, Peter is being invited to step way outside of his comfort zone.  As the story is relayed to us, it appears as though Peter’s actions have raised a lot of questions within the rest of the leadership of the Way.  He certainly knew, based on his faithful Jewish upbringing, that stepping into Cornelius’ house would forever change the game.

When the Spirit speaks to Peter as his stares, probably dumbfounded, into the faces of the three men from Caesarea, what I hear the Spirit saying is, “Without a doubt, go.”  “Go and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Go and fling open the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Go and let the whole world know what God is up to.  Go and don’t doubt.  It isn’t for you to decide who is in and who is out.  Step out of the relative safety of this Jewish sect and watch what God has in store.”

Yes, it put Peter in an uncomfortable spot for a while, but because of his ability to trust, a skill that we know was hard earned in Peter, the Kingdom of God was opened to all and God was glorified.  I can’t help but wonder, what doubts are holding me back?  What is God calling us to do that will fling open the gates of the Kingdom?

The Problem with John’s Revelation

Easter season in Year C of the lectionary brings with it a six week jaunt through John’s Revelation.  Since we are coming up on the fifth Sunday of Easter, I’m a bit late in bringing this to your attention, but maybe set a reminder for Lent 2019 with the note, “prayerfully consider a preaching series on Revelation during Eastertide.”  I suspect you won’t follow through on it, but you might.  Our people hear so much garbage about Revelation(s) in the popular religious culture, that it might behoove us to give them some decent eschatological theology once every three years or so.  I might consider such a preaching series the next time Year C rolls around, but I’ll have to spend some serious time working through a fundamental flaw in John’s Revelation that we will hear this Sunday.

As John describes the new heaven and the new earth that God will establish after Satan is finally defeated, he notes only one key characteristic:

the sea was no more

I am not a big fan of sand.  I don’t particularly enjoy spending a day sitting on the beach, but even I can appreciate the beauty of the waves crashing against the shoreline.  My children have grown up with the Gulf of Mexico coursing through their veins.

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A new heaven and a new earth that doesn’t have a beach is not a place that I’m keen to go.  Now let’s be clear.  I’ve got my tongue planted firmly in my cheek here.  I’m not suggesting that these images from John’s Gospel are to be taken literally.  Instead, I am taking umbrage with John’s projection of a pre-modern mythology of water onto God’s desire for the new creation.  Water was, for the majority of human history, a symbol of chaos.  This is why the first thing God does in creation is to send his Spirit to hover over the water.  The choas of the deep must first be overcome by order, and so a dome is established to push back the water creating the sky.  The waters that were left over had to be brought into order by being walled off by land.  The great flood of Noah was an undoing of creation: chaos once again reigned as the ark floated perilously over the earth.

The pre-modern world was very much afraid of the power of water, and so it is only logical that as John envisioned what God’s perfect new creation might look like, he couldn’t imagine the sea being a part of it.  In some ways, I think we can understand that.  We see the power that water can have when the flood waters rise.  We know that large bodies of warm water hold within them the potential energy for hurricanes of great magnitude.  We’ve seen the movies with great ships been tossed around like paper boats.  Yet, in our age, we have come to also understand the benefits of the sea.  The currents help create weather patterns.  There is increasing awareness of the possibility of tidal forces being used to create electric power.  And let’s not forget the great bounty of the sea that I so much enjoy about living life at sea level.  Perhaps a 21st century John of Patmos would have seen the new heaven and new earth in a much different way.

There is a lot of teaching potential in John’s Revelation. As you think about preaching a series on it three years from now, you might want to carefully consider how this  great socio-political apocalyptic vision of John intersects with our life today.  What did John see that was impacted by his time and place, and how might our vision of God’s dream be different today?  First and foremost, I’m sure that the new earth will have some sugar sand beaches and a sea as clear as crystal.

Making all things new

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I know what you are thinking.  The whole butterfly metaphor for new lift is so cliche’ and rife with the possibility of heresy.  I totally get that initial reaction.  I probably would have had it too had FBC not received this live butterfly garden kit for her seventh birthday.  The cool thing about this insectarium in a box is that it doesn’t come with freeze dried butterflies (I’m not sure how you’d make them travel-worthy).  Instead, it comes with baby caterpillars.  You get to watch them gain nutrition from the biological sludge in the bottom of their cup and grow into their full stature.  Most recently, they’ve moved from larva to pupa, each one forming a chrysalis which is now ready for the terrifying-to-me move from the safety of their plastic cup to the new world of their butterfly garden.  Watching the wonder in my two girls as they notice each change along the way has given new meaning to the word from the one sitting on the throne in John’s Revelation:

“See, I am making all things new.”

Even before the chrysalises had formed, every morning my daughters could see that something new was happening in that tiny plastic cup.  As I think about the promise of God in John’s Revelation, I can’t help but realized that I have stopped being able to see the world with the same sort of wonder.  I don’t wake up looking for the new things God is doing in the world, but if I believe the Scriptures, and take seriously the words Jesus taught me to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” then every day, little by little, God must be doing something new in the world.  Perhaps I should add to my prayers that God might “open my eyes to see his hand at work in the world about me.”

What about you, dear reader?  Are you able to see the new things that God is doing in your world?  Where is God calling you to meet him?  What blessing has God prepared for you that maybe you just can’t recognize yet?  Where is the spring of the water of life bursting forth in your little corner of the Kingdom?  Last week, I prayed that our ears might be open to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Today, my prayer is that our eyes might be open to see with joy and wonder the new thing God is doing in our midst.

With whom do you eat?

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There is a lot to love about Pirates Cove in Josephine, Alabama. Legend has it that the hamburger served as the muse for Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”  The Bushwackers are legendary and poured with a strong hand by just friendly enough barkeeps.  The beach is littered with boats of all shapes, sizes, and seaworthiness.  But my favorite part of Pirates  Cove is the eclectic clientele.  On any given afternoon, you can find yourself enjoying a cheeseburger and a cold beer next a penniless alcoholic, a college student looking for a bit too much fun, a family of four trying to keep it all together, and a multi-millionaire.  It is the sort of crowd that would have made the circumcised believers in Jerusalem pretty uncomfortable.

In the culture of first century Palestine, eating with someone was the sign of an intimate friendship.  With elaborate washing rituals, a general lack of understanding around food born illnesses, reclining on the floor next to each other, and eating without silverware, you can imagine that one might be careful when deciding on what and with whom you are going eat.  When the leadership in Jerusalem hears that Peter has been eating foods considered unclean with people who are considered unclean, we can imagine that they get pretty nervous, pretty quickly.

“Why do you eat with them?”

Peter’s response is a risky one, both in his era and in ours: “The Spirit told me to make no distinction between them and us.”  The tendency to overindulge in frosty cold alcoholic beverages notwithstanding, it seems to me that Peter is suggesting that the Kingdom of God is like Pirates Cove.  It is a place where the only distinction that gets made is between those who choose fries over the delicious onion rings.  People of all socioeconomic stripes gather together and eat with one another, sharing the commonality of our shared status as children of God, enjoying the fruit of God’s good creation on a beautiful piece of sandy back bay beachfront property.  Does your community have a place like Pirates Cove?  A place like Cornelius’ house?  A place where all can come together with the potential energy of the Holy Spirit to change a people and build the kingdom?

Maundy Sunday

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Maundy Sunday, or the Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year C, might be my favorite lectionary day of the year.  You get all the Mandatum, with none of the pedilavium, which suits me just fine.  Now granted, the Gospel lesson is weak on details, so a sermon on John 13:31-35 is going to require a good bit of contextualization.  We’re back at the Last Supper, which in John’s Gospel takes place on the day before the day before the Feast of Pentecost.  Jesus is offering his disciples a final set of instructions: preparing them for life without him.  He’s washed their feet.  Judas has realized that things aren’t going to end the way he hopes they would, and has gone off to broker a final deal with the Jewish leadership.  Peter’s has denied that he will thrice deny Jesus, and it is here, in the midst of confusion, frustratoin, anxiety, and not a little bit of dread that Jesus says:

A new commandment I give you.  That you love one another.

Here again, the preacher has the opportunity to expand on this bare bones story a bit, by explaining that, in fact, there is nothing new about this commandment from Jesus. In the midst of a long list of sexual, ritual, and moral holiness codes, God is very clear in Leviticus 19.18 that our underlying motivation for all of these we should love our neighbors as ourselves.

Given that we will hear this story outside of its usual context on Maundy Thursday, the preacher has a real opportunity to dig deep into what it looks like to follow this mandate from Jesus.  How, in real life, in 2016, in an increasingly polarized America, do we really love one another?  Is it possible to accept this commandment?  New or not, it seems to be as simple as it is impossible to achieve.  What will it take in order to offer the world the sort of love that Jesus gave in his life, death, and resurrection?  Looking back at this Maundy Thursday passage through the lens of the empty tomb will offer our congregations insight into what real agape love looks like.  How does the overwhelming grace of God fit into it all?  What role does the Spirit play in following this commandment.

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a short passage that seems chock full of heady etherealism, but with some intentionality, a strongly practical sermon on love can be found.  Who knows, it might even be what our people need to hear.