The Kingdom is Now

One of the problems with being a lectionary-based preacher who doesn’t preach every week is that the appointed passages can begin to take on a life of their own, independent of the larger story.  They become bite-sized morsels, almost as if they are proverbs that you can just dust off for a week, only to eventually place them back into their slot in a compendium of vaguely spiritual ideas.  One week, it’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Another week, we read about Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary.  Next, we get the Lord’s Prayer or the Rich Fool.  Taken separately, each of these short passages offers us a lesson.  Love your neighbor.  Focus on the Kingdom.  Prayer deepens our relationships.  Be rich toward God.  None of these are bad things, but taken in isolation, we learn only in part what it means to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I really struggled this week with what seemed like the most isolated of all the lessons we’ve had lately.  On Wednesday, I was in the car, driving to make a hospital visit, when I heard a quote from one of my favorite modern philosophers, Nicholas Lou Saban that put it all together.  Nick Saban is, for those who don’t know, the head football coach at the University of Alabama.  Coach Saban is one of the most fluent coach-speakers in the history of coach speak.  He can spend 20 minutes talking and say nothing at all.  Yet somehow, in this case, as I listened, I began to realize that, put back together, the last five weeks of Gospel lessons have had a consistent theme running through.  With the ubiquitous bottle of Coca-Cola Classic placed in the sight of the camera, Coach Saban spoke to reporters about the importance of his players focusing only on today.

UA Coaches Press Conference

“It’s really important that they focus on what they control today.  We have so many players here who get frustrated about what happened yesterday, or they get a little complacent because they had success yesterday.  And then we get some players who get worried about what is going to happen in the future.  Really, what you do today, correctly, making the right choices and decisions… that’s what really prepares you for the future… You know, all of us are a little bit addicted to tomorrow. I’ll quit smoking tomorrow. I’ll go on a diet tomorrow… I’ll start studying tomorrow, but really making it happen today is the way you improve. That’s the way we’ll get better. That’s the way you’ll create more value for yourself and that’ll really help our team get a lot better as well.”

Dan and Stu, the sports-talk guys I was listening to, unpacked what Coach Saban was saying, noting that he was actually tapping into something that is taught in many of the world’s religions.  “It’s not just great coaching.  You will find… there is great wisdom in that that you will find in a spiritual quest.  Eckhart Tolle [who, by the way, changed his name due to the influence of the 13th century Christian Mystic, Meister Eckhart] has written about the power of now.  The two things that happen in life that contaminate a human… are regret, which is yesterday, and fear, which is tomorrow.”[1]  As I listened, I realized that over the last five weeks, as we’ve walked with Jesus all around the Galilean countryside, the larger lesson that Luke is trying to convey to his readers is to focus on the now in order to be present to what God has given you and to what God is calling you in this moment.

It began two chapters ago with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  A lawyer, who was fearful about the future, asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life.  The response, that the law is summed up simply in “love God and love your neighbor,” is totally dependent on the now.  True love, the sort of love of which Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection serves as an example, can only exist in the now.  As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “true love keeps no record of wrongs” – it is not worried about the past, and “true love does not envy” – it is not focused on what I can get next.  Real love exists in this moment as you choose, minute by minute, to seek what is best for the person God has placed right in front of you.  In the parable, the priest and the Levite live in fear and worry, focused only on the future, and so, they pass by the injured traveler.  The Good Samaritan, however, was present to the need that God had placed right in front of him and thereby loved his neighbor.

Again, in the story of Jesus being welcomed into Martha’s home, we learn about the power of now.  In the hustle and bustle of the day, Martha was distracted by so many things that her worries were actively pulling her away from the gift that was sitting right in front of her.  When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he stressed the importance of hoping for the Kingdom to come, and that they should seek forgiveness for the sins of the past, but that their prayer should be focused on what God has set before each of us today, “give us this day our daily bread.”  Even last week, in the parable of the rich fool, we hear about the importance of being thankful in the present moment.  There is no wisdom in storing up treasures for tomorrow, but instead, we are called to share what we have right now with those whom God has set before us.

That theme continues into this week’s Gospel lesson with Jesus encouraging his disciples using the words that the spokespeople of God have used since the very beginning, “Do not be afraid.”  The Lectionary skipped us over similar teachings about worry, and Jesus’ famous line about the lilies of the field, “how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  During the long journey toward the cross, I have no doubt that the disciples were wracked with fear and filled with worry.  Where would they sleep?  How would they find food?  Had they hitched their wagon to the wrong leader as it seemed clear that Jesus wasn’t interested in political leadership or military power.

In the midst of it all, Jesus looked at them and said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  There is nothing that can be done about the sins of the past, but to seek forgiveness.  You have no power of the future, other than what you can do right now to make it better.  So, be present to the possibility of today.  Sell your possessions in order to meet the needs of your neighbor.  Put your trust in the Lord who will supply all your needs.  The Kingdom of God is available to you right now, if you will only be present to it.

As Coach Saban so wisely observed, the world is addicted to tomorrow.  The 24-hour news cycle, which blares at us in every waiting room, dining room, and gas pump, is dependent upon our fear of what tomorrow might bring.  Advertisers and lobbyists make their obscenely comfortable livelihoods by getting us addicted to the regrets of the past and the fear of the future, and then selling us on their particular solution to it.  Fear is the foundation of all the -isms which plague our nation: racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and xenophobia, to name a few.  Fear is the root cause and the goal of the proliferation of violent acts that terrorize us on an almost daily basis.  The Kingdom of God, into which Jesus invites each of us, offers something completely different.  In the Kingdom of God, peace surpasses fear, love outweighs anger, and forgiveness overcomes regret.  It truly is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom, but you have to be present to win.  Your eyes must be open to the needs of your neighbor and to the gifts God has given you.  It is what each of us chooses to do with the now that will help bring the Kingdom just a little bit closer to earth as it is in heaven.  Do not be afraid, my friends, for it is God’s desire to bring forth the Kingdom through you: right here, right now.  Amen.

[1] The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, August 6, 2019, Podcast “Hour 3: Ron Magill”

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“Jesus Christ, Would you do something about her!”

The first time I told you this story[1], I promised that you’d one day get tired of hearing it, but it’s been two years, so you’ve probably forgotten it by now anyway.  It comes from a book called Dakota, the spiritual memoir of American poet, Kathleen Norris.  At one point, Norris begins to reflect on the tradition of hospitality that Christian monasticism has inherited from our ancient Jewish siblings.  It is seemingly written into the DNA of the monastic tradition that a wayward traveler can always find safe lodging and a meal with monks who are trained to welcome every stranger as if it were Jesus himself knocking on the gate.  Even in the monastery, however, true hospitality is challenging to maintain.  Norris tells the story of an older monk sharing with a younger monk how difficult it is to always be ready to welcome a stranger as if they were Jesus.  “I have finally learned to accept people as they are,” the older monk said.  “Whatever they are in the world – a prostitute or a prime minister – it is all the same to me. But sometimes, I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, “Oh Jesus Christ, is that you again?”

Offering hospitality is difficult, no matter who it is we are welcoming.  Whether it is a new faculty member from up the hill, a new employee at one of our may industrial plants here in town, or a neighbor experiencing homelessness, at Christ Episcopal Church we believe that we too are called to welcome each new person who enters our midst as if they were Jesus, but in our Gospel lesson this morning, we learn that actually welcoming Jesus can be challenging.  As I mentioned several weeks ago, offering hospitality to travelers was a given for people in the ancient world.  Life was still very nomadic in those days and the Hyatt hotel chain had yet to be created.  Whether you were travelling for religious, economic, or political reasons, travelers were often dependent upon the kindness of strangers for a place to rest and find nourishment.  It was just a few verses ago when Jesus sent seventy disciples ahead of him to prepare the way with instruction to take nothing extra with them, and to rely on the hospitality of others everywhere they went.  As his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem unfolded, Jesus practiced what he preached; spending a couple of days in many small villages along the way, eating what was served to him, and sleeping where he could find a place to lie down for the night.

On this particular day, Jesus arrived at the home of Martha who welcomed him and his disciples with open arms and a flurry of activity.  Luke doesn’t tell us what all her many tasks were, but we can take some educated guesses.  First, she likely prepared a bowl of clean water, in which the travelers could wash their feet from the dusty road.  Next, she stoked the fire in order to bake fresh bread and prepare the evening meal.  She likely got to work grinding up the chickpeas for hummus, while maybe a servant went to the market to get fresh olives.  Following the Law, the rituals for hand and vessel washing while preparing dinner kept Martha busy enough as she also refreshed the wine and made sure her guests were comfortable.  As the rare single woman who owned her own home in first century Palestine, Martha was most likely used to doing things all on her own, but given the celebrity of her guest this day, surely, she was working harder than usual to make everything extra special.  As she worked, occasionally she glanced at the crowd gathered around Jesus, which was probably a bad idea.  Could nobody see how hard she was working?  Did nobody care?  Who did Mary thinks she was, just sitting there, listening to Jesus as he taught?  As Martha’s resentment grew, she became increasingly distracted, literally in the Greek, dragged about, by her many tasks.

Eventually, Martha became so frustrated with being pulled around by her chores that she lashed out at both Jesus and her sister, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work?  Tell her then to help me.”  Her spirit of hospitality had long-since faded, but it is in this moment that any remaining façade of Martha welcoming Jesus into her home disappeared.  It’s not very hospitable to blame your guest for your sibling’s bad behavior.  It might be even worse to try to drag your guest into the middle of a family dispute.  “Jesus Christ, would you do something about her,” is not the sort of hospitality the Son of God would expect.

It is worth noting that what happens next is not Jesus rebuking Martha for her work.  As I’ve already mentioned, hospitality was an ethical cornerstone in the ancient world.  Unfortunately, this story has long been used to pit women in the church against each other.  If we read Jesus’ words to Martha as an admonition against her busyness, we tend to hear it as Jesus lifting up “the Marys,” those who quietly listen and obey.  While Jesus does say that Mary has chosen the better part, what the issue really seems to be about isn’t pitting those who work against those who pray, as both are required in the Kingdom of God.  Rather, the issue is about where our hearts are focused.

Do you remember back when this journey to Jerusalem first started?  Three different disciples tried to follow Jesus and were sent away.  “There was no time to rest; no time to bury the dead, even a parent; no time to say goodbye to family; no looking back.”[2]  This journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to death and resurrection, isn’t a trip that can be taken half-heartedly.  It isn’t a journey that can be put on hold.  Jesus requires full commitment from his disciples, and where Martha falls short isn’t in her wanting to serve, but in how her servanthood ultimately distracted her from the bigger mission.  She had originally welcomed Jesus into her home in the hopes that the Good News would be proclaimed in her community, but she lost focus, got dragged about by her many chores, and ended up breaking relationship with her sister and with Jesus.  Mary’s better choice wasn’t that she lived into the role of the silent woman or that she chose to listen to Jesus, but rather, that she decided to focus on the relationship that God had put right in front of her face.  The one thing that Mary found was love, and she lived it out at the feet of Jesus.  Martha may have started out her service in love, but resentment and frustration took over somewhere down line.  I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Martha.  I know that I’ve begun many a project based in the love of God or the love of my neighbor, but at some point, lost focus and ended up frustrated by a lack of help, a lack of affirmation and accolades, or a lack of other people doing what I hadn’t told them I wanted them to do.

Martha is not simply worried or troubled by the many tasks she has to do.  She’s literally out of control, being dragged here and there by social constructs, internal pressure, and maybe, her Enneagram number.  Like Martha, we live in a world that is constantly trying to draw our attention away from Christ.  It isn’t for our own lack of trying that we are drawn away from sitting at the feet of Jesus, but that our minds are attuned to so many things that we end up being pulled away from him, sometimes literally dragged here and there, by our many tasks.  As the hecticness of the fall looms large, as we fill our calendars to overflowing, I pray that God might gift us with the space to slow down, to let our minds rest at the feet of Jesus, so that we might focus solely on the Kingdom of God and its mission of hospitality, reconciliation, grace, and love.  Amen.

[1] https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2017/07/02/true-hospitality-a-sermon/

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=625

Just Do It, With God’s Help

I didn’t grow up going to summer camp, but in the years since I’ve been ordained, I’ve grown to love it.  Summer camp offers kids from various walks of life the opportunity to get away, to set down their electronic devices, and to just be kids.  Summer camp is hot, it is loud, it is messy, and it is a whole lot of fun.  Most importantly, it provides an opportunity for young adults to share the love of Christ with a new crop of kids, just as their counselors did before.  In the Diocese of Kentucky, All Saints’ runs four, week-long sessions for children and youth from rising second graders all the way on up to high school seniors.  You’ll note from the dark circles under my eyes that I’ve spent this last week serving as Chaplain to the New Horizons Camp for fifth and sixth graders.  Our theme this summer was “The Circus is Coming,” and our key verse came from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”

Glory isn’t a word that we use much anymore, so the first thing we had to do was try to work out a definition.  In the world’s eyes, glory is given to those who accomplish notable achievements.  This week, a ticker-tape parade was held in New York City to celebrate the glory of victory for the World Cup Champion, United States Women’s National Team.  Glory can be used as a synonym for magnificence or great beauty, as in, the sun setting behind the trees at camp was glorious, or to describe anything that is distinctive or due extra pride or honor.  It’s not that any of these things are bad, in and of themselves, but the world’s understanding of glory can lead to misunderstandings about to whom glory is rightfully given.  When glory is something that can only earned only by the most elite, the most beautiful, the most athletic, or the rich and the famous, we marginalize all of us who tend to be pretty good at our crafts, and often forget the One from whom all good gifts are given and from whom all blessings flow.

We shared with the campers that as Christians, we give glory first and foremost to God.  God is the single most glorious thing in all the world, and so we offer God all the glory through praise, worship, and by giving thanks in all things.  Each of us who has been created in the image of God share in that glory.  As disciples of Jesus Christ, we all share in the responsibility of reflecting, albeit imperfectly, the glory of God into the world, by letting our light so shine before others that they might see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.

Which brings us to the final definition of the word glory.  If you’re doing a Google search of the word, you’ll have to expand the box and scroll a bit, but way down there, the fourth definition of the noun form of glory is “a luminous ring or halo, especially as depicted around the head of Jesus Christ or a saint.”  The way in which Jesus and the saints were able to shine their light into the world was so obvious, that over time, when people made artwork about them, they showed that glory shining brightly round about them.  What we discovered, however, was that, like glory, sainthood isn’t just for those deemed most special.  All Saints’ Camp is named All Saints’ in honor of every disciple of Jesus who has ever set foot on that property, each of whom are saints of God.  All of us are called to reflect the light of Christ into the world.  All of us are called to reflect the glory of God in our spheres of influence.  All of us carry our own halos around with us as we make the love of God known.

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”  Luke tells us that the lawyer who brought this question to Jesus had come to test him.  He had heard of the glorious works done by this new Rabbi on the scene and wanted to see if he passed the right tests.  Jesus can be frustratingly enigmatic in these cases.  He rarely answers a question like this directly, and Luke 10:25-37 is no exception.  Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with one of his own, turning the work of revelation back on the one who was seeking.  “You’re the expert in the Law, how do you read its requirements?” Jesus asks the man.  In Luke’s account, the abundantly clear and truly challenging requirements of the Kingdom of God don’t come from the lips of Jesus, but rather, from this lawyer who came to challenge him.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus, in perhaps his most transparent moment in all the Gospels, simply replies, “Do this, and you will live,” or as a famous shoe company has put it for years, “Just do it.”

Would that it was so easy just to love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  The Law of Christ is so very straightforward and yet, it seems to be almost impossibly simple.  Loving God is the easier of the two requirements, so we’ll start there.  The expert in the Law notes that loving God is not just something we that we feel, but it requires our whole humanity to do properly.  We are called to love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our strength, and with all of our mind.  Loving God in this way means putting God first on the priority list in our lives.  It means giving God thanks in all things.  It means offering God praise in all circumstances.  It means showing God our admiration and respect no matter what is happening around us.  In short, as we learned at summer camp this week, loving God with our whole lives means giving God all the glory.

Loving our neighbors is by far the tougher bit.  As halo carrying members of the glory of God club, we are called, through stories like the Good Samaritan, to reflect the light of Christ to everyone we meet.  Unlike the priest and the Levite who are so worried about protecting their own glory; trying to keep their halos from becoming tarnished by the man who had been robbed, it is the Samaritan, who had no illusion of an unblemished halo, who took the risk to reach out and be a true neighbor to one who was in need along the side of the road.

“Just do it” has been a pretty good slogan for Nike over the years, and it would behoove us as Christians to follow it in our daily attempts at loving God and loving our neighbor, however, the ability to “just do it” requires one other component.  For Episcopalians, that piece is found in the Baptismal Covenant, a series of eight questions that define the basics of the Christian faith.  Five of the questions deal directly with how we will live as followers of Jesus, and they are answered in the same way, “I will with God’s help.”  Shining with the light of Christ, bringing the glory of God into the world, living into the Great Commandments; these are not things any of us can do on our own.  So, if I might be so bold as to add something to the words of Jesus, we might be better off hearing him tell the lawyer not simply, “just do it,” but “just do it, love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, love your neighbor as yourself, and let the glory of God shine through you; do it all, with God’s help.”  Amen.

The Reconciling Work of Baptism

A man was once rescued off a desert island after 20 years all alone.  As the rescuers came ashore, he ran out to meet them, so very excited to see another human being for the first time in two decades.  “Come, come!” he shouted with joy, “You must see the civilization I’ve built during my isolation.”  He brought them to a row of three buildings.  The first building, he pointed to proudly and said, “This is my home.  It isn’t much, but I built is with my own two hands.”  At the next building, he brought them inside to show them all around.  “This is my church.  In 20 years of being lost on this island, I’ve found my faith in God brought me hope when it was easy to feel hopeless.”  Finally, they stopped out front of the third building.  The man pointed over his shoulder and said, with a bit of a scoff, “This is the church I used to go to.”

On the night before he died, Jesus prayed over his disciples.  He prayed that they might be protected by the Father.  He prayed that they might be guided by the Spirit.  And, he prayed that they might be one as Jesus and the Father were one.  Despite the prayers of Jesus himself, somehow, from almost the very beginning, the Church that tries to follow the Way of Jesus has been broken.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church were written to address, among other things, disputes over who was worthy to receive communion that threatened to tear it apart.  The letters of John were sent to deal with a group of Christians who claimed to be the only true believers and were willing to cast all other followers of Jesus into outer darkness.  By the early fourth century, Christians were killing one another, each claiming to understand the nature of Jesus better than everyone else.  Fast forward to the 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia and the number of different Christian denominations in the world was counted at a whopping 33,830 (thirty-three thousand eight hundred thirty).  I know of a few new Anglican denominations that were founded in the United States since then, so that number only continues to grow.  We are so very far from the dream Jesus articulated in that prayer at the Last Supper, it is lamentable.

As William Reed Huntington, my spiritual mentor from the turn of the 20th century, would ask, what kind of damage have we done to the Kingdom of God when we spend our time and energy fighting amongst ourselves over things that the world sees as frivolous like music, vestments, candles, debts versus trespasses, or the age of baptism?  How can the Church possibly be an agent of blessing in our communities when we are so caught up in being right that we are willing to walk away from those whom Christ would have us call sisters and brothers?  As we heard in the prayer Jesus prayed, our unity as Christians is meant to be a symbol for the world of just how deep and wide God’s love is for the whole creation.  Our disunity keeps the world from knowing that out of love, God sent Jesus, the very Son of God, to live and die as one of us, thereby saving us all from death in sin.  I’m pretty sure that all those who live outside of the Christian faith can see is yet another group of human beings who have totally lost the ability to live together in our differences.

Even as our disunity may feel disheartening, there are glimmers of hope on days like today.  As we welcome into the Body of Christ Turner Hawkins this morning, we do so hopeful of a future in which all Christians are able to work together toward the building up of the Kingdom of God.  [At 10 o’clock,] In just a few moments, we will act out that hope of unity by making a lifelong commitment to young Turner.  Mother Becca will ask us, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?”[1] In the split second between that question and the answer “We will,” I hope we can ponder for a moment about what that promise really means.  As a child in a military family, young Turner will likely know several different congregations in his lifetime.  His family may worship in an Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama, but he’ll spend plenty of time at his Presbyterian pre-school.  He’ll be raised alongside children whose families are Baptists, non-denominational, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, you name it. The promise we make today is not merely on behalf of the 10 o’clock crowd who will bear witness to this joyous event, but we commit alongside godparents, alongside grandparents, Vicki and David Cole, and their usual 8am crew, alongside Episcopalians and Anglicans, and alongside Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians around the globe who may one day be called upon to support Turner’s growth in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

I am under no illusion that this simple promise is going to fix the shredded fabric of the Body of Christ that is denominationalism.  Today’s baptism will, I hope, have a profound impact on Turner and his family, but it can’t bring all of Christianity back under one roof.  It can, however, have an impact on us as individual disciples of Jesus.  What if supporting Turner in his life in Christ means modeling behavior that can lead us back toward unity?  We can model unity by holding our identity as Episcopalians with humility.  We can change the way we talk about those who live out their Christianity differently than us.  Rather than looking down our noses at “those evangelicals” or “those Baptists” or “those Roman Catholics,” perhaps we can show Turner what it means to work toward unity.  We can seek ways to work alongside our siblings in Christ in tackling larger issues in our community like poverty, hunger, racism, addiction, and income inequality.  We can show Turner what it means to be one in Christ by loving our neighbors, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

In baptism, each of us given the gift of the Holy Spirit whose mission is to lead us into all truth.  On this day, as we rejoice in Turner receiving that same gift, may we strive toward unity and work to make the church that Turner inherits something closer to the dream Jesus had for it as he prayed for his disciples on that most holy night.  Lord Jesus Christ, help us to be one as you and the Father are one so that we might be models of your love in a world that desperately needs it.  Amen.

[1] Book of Common Prayer, 1979, 303.

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.

 

John’s Epilogue

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John’s Gospel is, for all intents and purposes, over already.  Last week, we heard the author tie the whole thing up with a nice bow, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  We were told to look and listen for other stories.  We were told why this book was written.  We were offered the means to gain eternal life.  The End.  Or maybe not.  Our Gospel lesson this morning somehow comes after the greatest story ever told is over.  Chapter 21 serves as something of an epilogue. It is very clearly a story “added to the end of the book that serves to comment on what has [already] happened.”[1] Scholars have spilled all manner of ink trying to decide who actually wrote John 21.  They’ve argued over why it is included when it is so obviously an addition.  They’ve dug into the nuances of the original Greek to seek any number of answers to questions about why it matters that there were exactly 153 fish in the miraculous catch.

It is a puzzling story, to be sure, but if we take as our basic assumption that the purpose of this chapter is to “comment on what has already happened,” then we might begin to get a richer understanding of why it has been passed down for nearly two thousand years.  See, what has happened, at least how it gets told in John’s Gospel is that the eternal Word of God entered time and space and moved into the neighborhood of our common humanity in order to show us what eternal life looks like.  Through signs and teachings, through relationship building and intentional discipleship, Jesus developed a significant and devoted following that ultimately put enough fear in the hearts of the powers-that-be, that he was killed as a revolutionary, but in so doing, by lifting Jesus up on the cross, they lifted Jesus up upon his throne to reign as King of kings.  In God’s great victory, Jesus was resurrected from the dead, breathed new life into his disciples, and sent them out as apostles to follow in his footsteps by loving, teaching, and discipling the nations.

So, that’s what happened.  As the epilogue on that story, we find the disciples back where Jesus had initially found many of them, in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee.  Just like before, they’ve fished all night, and caught nothing.  Likely, this all serves as a metaphor for the early stages of their new ministry.  Jesus gave them all the tools they needed for success, but it takes time to learn new things.  There is no doubt in my mind that Peter had tried to perform some miracle and failed.  Philip had tried to preach the good news and got all tangled up in his words.  Thomas has tried to make a rational argument for the resurrection of Jesus, and got lost in his own logic web.  They had been fishing for people on their own for a little while and thus far, had caught nothing.

Back on shore, a football field away, Jesus appears and calls out to them.  “Hey y’all try the other side.”  It’s interesting that shortly after this, John tells us that Jesus already had fish cooking over a charcoal fire.  He could have called out and said, “breakfast is ready,” but having completed his work on earth, Jesus’ last mission is that of an encourager, an empowerer, a cheerleader.  Give a person a fish and they eat for a day… yada yada yada.  As the nets came up from the right side of the boat, the catch was so big they couldn’t even begin to haul it in.  This seems to again be a good metaphor for what happens when we try to do ministry on our own.  We get a good idea, we gather a group of interested people, we start to work on it, and we see no fruit because we forgot to invite God along for the ride.  Jesus had promised that he would not leave his disciples abandoned.  The Holy Spirit would come and serve as their advocate and guide.  The Spirit would help them find the mission of their ministry, but it seems as though they couldn’t wait.  Rather, they seem to have been dead set on doing it their way.  John 21 reminds us that it is only when we listen for the Spirit, look for Jesus, and follow the will of the Father that our own good works will be met with success.

Back to what had already happened.  Holy Week started with Jesus and his disciples getting into trouble for eating with sinners and tax collectors.  As I said back then, the act of eating together was a symbol of relationship, an act of true intimacy.  Clean and unclean didn’t share the common cup.  They didn’t pass the broken bread around.  They weren’t supposed to smear it in the same bowl of hummus.  Yet, in the kingdom Jesus’ came to proclaim, those food laws weren’t as important as the community he was sent to establish.  Clean and unclean were invited to share a meal because in the Kingdom of Heaven, clean and unclean are all made whole by God’s never-failing love.  When Jesus invites Peter and the other disciples to join him for breakfast, it becomes an opportunity for reconciliation for them all.  While Peter seems to be the focus of the story, and he might have needed reconciliation the most, none of the disciples except for the one whom Jesus loved were anywhere near Jesus when he was crucified.  By sharing breakfast with them, breaking biscuits and picking from the same freshly caught fish, Jesus showed the remaining disciples that they were loved, forgiven, and restored to right relationship.  John 21 reminds us that it is in something as simple as the sharing of a meal that we can be reconciled to God and one another.

As breakfast was wrapping up, Jesus took a moment to have a special conversation with Peter.  As the spokesman of the group for three years, a member of Jesus’ inner circle, and the rock upon whom the community would be built, Jesus knew that Peter likely needed a little extra dose of forgiveness and encouragement after what had happened.  Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus meant it would be helpful if maybe Jesus offered Peter a three-fold moment of redemption.  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my lambs.”  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Tend my sheep.”  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my sheep.”  Having been fully reconciled to Jesus over breakfast, what this becomes for Peter is something of an ordination into the next phase of his ministry.  This three-fold invitation to service seems to serve as Peter’s anointing for ministry.  As baptized followers of Jesus, we too are reconciled into the Kingdom of God.  Through water, the Holy Spirit, and in our tradition, a good smear of chrism across our foreheads, every baptized follower of Jesus has been anointed for ministry, and specially gifted to serve.  Just like Peter, all of us have fallen short from time to time, but thankfully, God is in the forgiveness business.

As an epilogue, John 21 helps us see what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus might mean for us as modern-day followers.  We learn that faithful ministry starts with listening for the call of God.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit for the work of reconciliation, we are nourished routinely at this table and then we are sent forth, out into the world, as anointed ministers of Christ, to help bring about the restoration of all of humanity to God and to each other.  It isn’t work that we can do on our own or even as a faithful community apart from God, but with God’s help, success has already been secured for all who have come to believe and through believing, have found their way to the resurrection life.  Amen.

[1] https://www.google.com/search?q=epilogue

It’s fixin’ to be a week – a sermon

Sermon begins at 28:30

 


On Thursday, Mother Becca, Deacon Kellie, and I joined many of our sisters and brothers in ordained ministry at All Saint’s for the annual service commonly called the Chrism Mass, in which we renew our ordination vows and receive the specially blessed oil used at baptisms.  Kellie has a real job, so she had to drive herself back and forth from Leitchfield, but Becca and I rode together and enjoyed a couple of hours to touch base on life and our collective ministry here at Christ Episcopal Church.  One of the topics of our conversation was how the lives of associates and rectors are similar and different.  There are certain freedoms that are unique to each position, and there are certain limitations that come with each title as well.  That conversation got me thinking about how my life has changed in the two-plus years that I’ve been your rector.

One thing that quickly came to mind is how often I’ve uttered the phrase, “It’s been a week,” since leaving Alabama.  Sometimes, on only mildly crazy weeks, I’ll say it on Thursday.  Sometimes, like the week before Holy Week, it is quite possible to hear me say, “It’s been a week” at our Monday afternoon staff meeting. It’s a feeling I think we can all understand.  Whether you are a first-grade student, a tenth-grade teacher, lawyer, nurse, mechanic, priest, or full-time volunteer, some weeks just feel full – as if you’ll never stop running from one thing to the next.  Sometimes, the only way to describe what you’ve experienced is “It’s been a week.”

It’s been a week since we began the liturgy for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday fifteen minutes ago.  As we started this service, we recreated liturgically the experience of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon.  Over on the west side of the city, Pilate entered riding a war horse, surrounded by chariots and heavily armed soldiers, hearing shouts of “Hail Caesar, the son of god, the king of kings, and the source of peace”  Meanwhile, Jesus entered through the eastern gate, riding a donkey as a rag-tag group of disciples pulled palm branches out of the trees, laid their cloaks on the ground, and cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  In that story, we heard clues that this is going to be a week; especially when Luke mentions that some Pharisees had come to see what all the commotion was about.  When the Pharisees realized that Jesus’ disciples were putting him on par with Caesar, and calling him the Son of God, they got really, really nervous.  “Tell them to hush,” they begged of Jesus.  “If these were silent, even the stones would cry out,” Jesus replied.  As they say in Lower Alabama, “It’s fixin’ to be a week.”

During the course of the next five days, Jesus went to the Temple and turned over the tables of the money changers.  He called out the injustice of the Temple system that was built on the backs of the faithful poor.  He answered repeated attempts to challenge his authority.  He taught lessons and told parables that directly contradicted with what the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes were trying to accomplish.  He lifted up the lowly widow and her two copper coins, while calling into question the large gifts given by those for whom it was less than a drop in the bucket.  As each day unfolded, the tension between Jesus and the powers-that-be grew, until finally, they conspired with Judas, one of the twelve, to betray him.  With all kinds of false accusations, they attempted to convince Pilate that Jesus needed to be killed, and when the crowd just wouldn’t relent, they finally succeeded in having Jesus put to death on a cross as a disgraced revolutionary.

It’s been a week.  Or, rather, we know it is about to be a week.  A full week.  A difficult week.  A Holy Week.  Every day this week, you will have the opportunity to walk the way of the cross with Jesus and one another.  It begins at noon, Monday through Thursday, where we will hear from different preachers in different contexts of how the pressure-filled relationship between Jesus and the powers-that-be bubbled and boiled, until it finally came to a head.  On Thursday evening, we will hear Jesus once again offer us the new mandate of the Kingdom of God, that we love one another.  Through the washing of feet, an act of profoundly humble service, we will re-enact the symbol of the self-sacrificial love that Jesus offered to his disciples, while we also remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper as the central act of our devotion.  Overnight, members of the congregation will keep watch, like Peter at the charcoal fire, as we wait for Friday, when we will remember the deepest act of love anyone can offer – the laying down of one’s life for a friend.

As the lessons for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday show us, it’ll be a week – a long and challenging week, and yet, it is a week that we ought not skip through just to get to the joy of Easter.  There is no Easter without Good Friday.  There is no Resurrection without the challenges of Holy Week.  And so, we pray that in walking the way of the sorrow, we might find it to be the way of life; that through walking with Jesus toward the cross, we might also share in the resurrection life.  It’ll be a week, dear friends, but I can’t wait to walk it with you.  Amen.