Saturday, May 24, 2014

"If you love me..." A Sermon

This is my sermon for Sunday, May 25, our outdoor service with our Church Picnic following.

“If You Love Me...”
Year A Easter 6
St. Thomas’s Episcopal, Richmond, VA

Some of you are so excited about being outside today.  Some people may have stayed home, because they did not like being outside today.  That is fine, too.  Even with the promise of fried chicken, some people do not like things different.

We have come to expect things the way they are, and we often do what we can to avoid change.  Change can be good, and it can be blessed, but still we do not want things to be different.  We embrace the status quo, often to our detriment.

The phrase, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” screams of this aversion to change.  Not everyone is like this.  There are some early adapters.  But even then, the hopes of the different have to outweigh that inertia of keeping things the way they are.

I have heard it said that the equation for change is CHANGE is EQUAL TO when the DISSATISFACTION with the way things are PLUS a compelling VISION of what could be PLUS concrete FIRST practical STEPS, the three things DISSATISFACTION, VISION and FIRST STEPS have to be greater the the pull to keep things the way that they are, the DISSATISFACTION, VISION and FIRST STEPS must be GREATER THAN the RESISTANCE TO CHANGE.  That is how you have change.

Change = (Dissatisfaction with the way things are +
  Vision of what is possible + 
First practical steps) > Resistance to Change

This formula works well when we are planning and encouraging change.  People hate change, but Jesus knew that his time was over, and that change was inevitable and coming within hours.  He knows of our tendency to memorialize, and live in the past.  But he cast a vision and a promise to his disciples who would soon be distraught and scattered.

On the night he was betrayed, and the day before he was killed, Jesus spoke to those closest to him, letting them know that things were going to change.  Things were not going to stay this way, but he let them know they would be okay.

From John 14, 18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”  Here is the straight scoop friends, it will no longer be the way it was, but it will be better.  A Vision with a Promise.

Jesus knew what it was to his disciples, and to us, how hard it is when things change.  He needed to leave so the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, could come and be with us.  And not just with us, but in us.   

Jesus is very clear how different it will be.  “17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

I love the emphasis we have on the Spirit.  Really.  Growing up in an evangelical setting, the Trinity seemed more Father, Son, and Holy Bible, instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  One of the many gifts Jesus gave his disciples was the promise of the One who was to come when he was gone.  “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”  

One of the prophesied names of Jesus was Emmanuel, God-with-Us.  But this is something more, God-in-Us.  I love that we can take seriously the indwelling of the Holy Spirit without ecstatic utterances, but with no less seriousness or lack of any devotion to that indwelling Spirit.  Devotion need not be loud to be exuberant.  Still waters, it is said, run deep.

This indwelling Spirit changes us from the inside out.  It draws us closer to God.  It makes us love God all the more.  It makes us obey Christ all the more.  His words, his commands, become dear to us, and we begin to see with new eyes.  Differences become not gaps between us, but celebrations of God’s creative genius.  As we cling closer to Christ’s teaching, we receive those promptings from the Holy Spirit drawing us further down the path of Christlikeness, enabling us to do more and more of what would have seemed impossible before Christ was in us.  “21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

From an outside perspective, this sounds so controlling.  “I know you love me because you do whatever it is I command you to do!”  But it is not like that.  Devotion begs obedience.  Think about it.  If I did not cheat on Stephanie my wife because she asked me not to, what kind of husband would I be?  I do not, have not, and would not cheat on Stephanie because of my love for her, and the honor I have in our relationship.  Cheating is not a “Thou-Shalt-Not,” but rather a “Why-Would-I?”  When we are in relationship, submitting, serving, avoiding destructive actions becomes a part of who we are and more so as we get deeper and deeper into it.

One of the most amazing and wonderful transformations of this love relationship with Christ was the change in Paul, the one we used to call Saul.  I do not expect you to remember, but last week, one of the readings was the Stoning of Stephen, the first martyr.  The one who had held the coats and helped organize the stoning was Saul.  He had been a “Pharisee’s Pharisee,” his own description of himself.  Yet, this stoning-prone Pharisee, finds himself a few years later standing in Athens, the center of Greek culture and learning, renowned home of the Academy and the Parthenon.

Now stay with me here, you may remember some of the Ten Commandments.  “You Shall Not Murder.”  “You Shall Not Commit Adultery.”  “Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep It Holy.”  

These would have been engraved on Saul-come-Paul’s mind since his earliest days.  And the one that jumps out at me is “You Shall Make No Graven Images.”  They say when the Roman General that conquered Jerusalem strode into the Temple was shocked that there was no statue in the Holy of Holies.  First he had the audacity to go in, which only the High Priest was allowed to do once a year.  It was a big room, with just a few items inside.  Nothing humongous.  Nothing spectacular.  They would never have something devoted to their wild desert God because no image or statue could encompass who he was.

Yet, here we see this Pharisee’s Pharisee standing in Athens, and he makes this UNBELIEVABLE claim, when you think that a former leader of the Jewish people would say this.  He is standing in the area of debate, where intellectuals and philosophers would gather and argue and debate the ideas of the days.  Paul had the chutzpah to stand up in their midst, and say the following:

22b “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,  25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

Now remember, this very Jewish guy, who knows the Ten Commandments and probably all 613 commandments in the Hebrew Scripture, is standing in a city surrounded by statues to the Pantheon of gods, and the Parthenon to Athena, and he finds an altar to “the unknown god.”  “This god you are speaking of when you talk about this unknown God,” Paul is implying, “is who I am talking about today.”  
Are you getting what is happening here?  Someone who was willing to stone Stephen for being heretical, has gotten to the point where he can stand in the midst of heathen, point at an idol and say, see that altar over there, that is the God I want to tell you about.  Now, he says that an idol cannot do him justice, but this is a MIND-BLOWING transformation!

For Saul the persecutor of the Church to get to the point where he can point at an idol and and say that is his God, the one and only God, some radical, crazy, transformative stuff has to be going on.  Saul-come-Paul has been infested with this Advocate, this indwelling God, this Holy Spirit.  He is being changed, deeply, radically, profoundly.  His story has been changed by THE Story.

Some more from Paul’s argument:

26 From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him--though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

28 For 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'  29 Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

So Paul brings it full circle.  God is reaching out to any and all, wherever they are so that they all can come home to God.  Just like he, Paul, did.  This same Jesus that he persecuted, this same Jesus that confronted him on the road to Damascus, this same Jesus that spoke to his disciples and promised then something greater than his presence with them, this same Jesus teaches us across the ages, and invites us today.  

Paul learned that the 613 commandments he was willing to kill for were trumped by Jesus’ commandments.  And Jesus was not willing to kill for what he believed, but he was willing to die.

John 14:15 "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

And what are Jesus’ commandments?  In the next chapter of John, Jesus makes it clear and plain.

15:12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 
Today, as we are outside in God’s beauty, let us think about changing things up.  Some big changes are coming soon.  We have already had a year of change.  10 months ago, I had no idea I would be here short-term, and I certainly had no idea that I would be here long-term.  God is preparing us all.  God is preparing our new rector.  The Holy Spirit is prompting us, preparing us, priming us for bigger and better and different things.  And through it all, through the ups and downs and confusion of transition, let it be said that we stayed true and did it all out of love of Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit.

If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments.  Amen.

Monday, May 19, 2014

"And I alone have survived to tell you..."

Misquoting the servants of Job here, I am the last ordained staff member at St. Thomas'.  No pressure,  no pressure.  Yesterday our interim left, after a successful year, and for the foreseeable future (hopefully about two months or so), I will be the ordained clergy on staff.  And for the next four weeks I still have my day job as a teacher.  As stated, no pressure, no pressure.

Of all my work, the behavior of the kids make teaching the job that is more like Job, but alas, too often I feel, "And I alone have survived to tell you..."  It will be a haul, a long haul through the summer.  And then, I will be able to take some well-deserved time off.  So, for those that see me.  If I look rushed, hurried, or tired, I am.  And, I ask forgiveness in advance.

This too shall pass, just hopefully not like a kidney stone.  Amen.