Turning Points

Sermon for Sunday, February 25, 2018 || Lent 2B || Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

History is full of turning points – those moments when one event or one decision alters the fabric of the future. The turning points we remember happened on the world’s stage: the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, which contributed to the United States entering World War I; or the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which did the same 26 years later; or more happily, the moon landing on a summer night in July 1969, which spurred the scientific dreams of a generation.

In my 35 years, I have witnessed some world changing turning points. I was six years old when the Berlin Wall fell, too young to appreciate what its destruction symbolized, but old enough to remember just the same. On a Tuesday morning in September of my freshman year of college, I was waiting for an appointment in the admissions office when I heard a tinny voice on the radio announce that a horrible accident had happened at the World Trade Center. This was before the second plane, before we grasped the horrible reality of terrorism. Today’s teenagers do not remember this event, just as I do not remember, say, the Kennedy assassination or the fall of Saigon.

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The Question at the Top of Page 303

The following post appeared Sunday, September 19th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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As the church in which I am blessed to serve God prepares for a new adult Christian formation program, I have found myself thinking about baptism quite a bit lately. And I have also found myself jotting down notes about several pieces of the baptismal services. A few of these notes, I share with you below.

If you were baptized in an Episcopal Church after 1979, either you or your parents and godparents answered a series of six questions. The last of which reads, “Do you promise to follow and obey [Jesus Christ] as your Lord?” Whether or not you were baptized under this particular liturgy, this is the fundamental question at the heart of the Christian faith. The answer, “I do,” is simply two little words, but these two words really aren’t the answer at all. The true answer to this question is the manner in which we choose to lead our lives in the wake of such a powerful promise. Let’s take a moment to break down this question to see what we are really getting ourselves into.

Do you promise…
Girls link pinkies. Guys spit on their hands and shake. Car dealers sell extended warranties. Banks make you sign the mortgage paperwork a dozen times. Each of these signals a promise: the secret is safe, the ex-girlfriend is off-limits, the car will be repaired free of charge, and the loan will be repaid. The act of making the promise itself means little compared to the continuous act of fulfilling the promise. Ex-friendships, fine print wielding salesmen, and foreclosures point to the fact that many promises do not last.

But there happens to be a significant difference between these promises and the one we make at baptism. In most promises, the other entity entering the trust is another human being—another fallible, flawed human being. When we promise to follow and obey Jesus Christ as our Lord, we make our promise to God. And God never breaks trust with us. So our promise to God follows God’s eternal promise to us to be faithful always, to be with us always, just to be…always.

Thus, our fulfillment of the promise always happens in response to God’s steadfastness. When we break the promise, it does not cease to hold sway because God continues to fulfill it. And God invites us to renew the promise again and again and again.

…to follow…
In the Gospel according to Matthew, the first words that Jesus says to Peter and Andrew, his prospective disciples, are “Follow me” (Matt. 4:18). In the Gospel according to John, the last words that Jesus says to Peter are (you guessed it) “Follow me” (John 21:22). Therefore, considering how the compilers of the New Testament chose to lay out the Gospel, the first and last words out of Jesus’ mouth are “Follow me.” What does it mean to follow Jesus? Like the main promise we are discussing, this question takes a lifetime to answer; but here are a few quick observations.

To follow means to come after or travel behind. You do this most often when you don’t know the way to, say, the movie theater, and the friends in the car ahead of you lead you there. Our Christian faith tells us that Jesus walks with us, leading us on right paths through our lives. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). In Greek, the “way” is literally the “road” on which we walk down. So not only is Jesus the guide for our feet; he paved the road on which our feet tread. The Letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus the “pioneer” of our faith: he is the trailblazer. He invites us to walk the difficult path he first walked, a path full of both pain and joy (Hebrew 12:2).

To follow also means to learn by example. To quote a learned man at my parish, we are “apprentices” of Jesus Christ. During the Renaissance, master painters directed their students to copy their works of art in order to learn the craft. More often than not, these apprentice copies couldn’t compare to the master’s, but they still learned how to apply paint to canvas, and they learned well. Likewise, we will never be able to reach the full example of Jesus Christ, but this shouldn’t stop us from following him just the same.

…and obey…
Obedience is a tricky thing because it involves something that many folks aren’t all that good at: listening. To obey means to listen carefully and then to act. Obedience to God begins with our intentional effort to discern God’s will in our lives and continues with our reliance on God to live out that will. The good news is that when we choose to obey God, God has already given us the gifts we need to accomplish that will. (Of course, this doesn’t mean the act of obeying will be easy.)

When Jesus commands the paralyzed man to stand up, take his mat, and walk, the man gets up immediately (John 5:8-9). Jesus speaks no word of healing at all. Rather, the act of healing is subsumed in the command. Jesus gives the man the gift of healing in order that the man can obey his command. Likewise, we discover new gifts when we listen for and obey God’s will in our lives.

[Jesus Christ] as your Lord…
In our Christian parlance, we call Jesus many things: friend, brother, teacher, savior. But in this question, we call Jesus “Lord.” We promise to follow Jesus as our “Lord.” How does “Lord” differ from other titles for Jesus? Leaving aside the masculine nature of the title, a lord is someone in a position of authority and respect. In the Gospel, the Greek word for “lord” (kyrie) can also be translated as “sir.” In the military, a person you call “sir” is someone who has the authority to command you to do something.

Likewise, when we promise to follow and obey Jesus as our Lord, we acknowledge that Jesus has the authority to direct our lives. This authority comes from the fact that God is the author of each of us. God pens each day in the books of our lives; sometimes we are the protagonists and sometimes we are antagonists of our own stories. When we follow Jesus as our author, as our Lord, we consciously take on the protagonist role. To change the metaphor, we resonate with God’s directing creativity in our lives. We are in tune with God.

Of course, these few notes simply scratch the surface of this immense question. I wonder how we each live out this promise in our everyday lives? I wonder how the promises we make with other people reflect the promises we make to God?  I wonder how readily we allow God to fulfill God’s promises, which, in the end, allow us to fulfill ours?

Better wine than before

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I never pass up a chance to talk about the Gospel according to John. This past Sunday’s Gospel text was John 2:1-11, which spurred this article published in the local paper.

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View from the Tor of Glastonbury. See what I mean about the grass?

On my wall, I have a collage of pictures from a college choir trip to England in 2005. In one picture, 15 friends and I are standing in front of the Tor of Glastonbury, a ruined tower on the top of a hill in Southern England. It’s a great picture—the four men and eleven women are all smiles because the late-spring sun is shining and because even the dullest blade of English grass is greener than the greenest blade of American grass. Recently, I looked at the picture and realized that fifty percent of the people in it have gotten married or engaged in the last four years. Whenever I get a new invitation or see wedding pictures on Facebook, a special kind of happiness grips me, a happiness reserved for such outward signs of God’s love as marriage.

In a Christian context, a marriage displays to the world the best attempt human beings can make at emulating the love of God. Marriage unites two people in a commitment (a better word may be “covenant”) to love and cherish one another so that the world is enriched by their love. Indeed, a couple truly meant to commit themselves to each other shows their love for God by loving one another. Because God’s love is so intimately involved, marriage is a calling, just like any other action taken on behalf of God. The celebration of this love, upon which the marriage is founded, is the wedding.

The wedding celebrates the union of two people in the love of God. How wonderfully appropriate, then, is it that Jesus first reveals his glory at a wedding feast. The location of this revelation reminds me that Jesus brings people back into union with God. This is one way to characterize his mission—he reunites me with every good thing I have lost through years of indifference and antipathy. By accepting the love of God in Jesus Christ, I find cause to celebrate the fact that, while I may have broken my relationship with God, God has never broken God’s covenant with me. The commitment God made to Abraham and his descendants finds new life in me when I discover the possibility of reunion with God through the love of Christ. Just like the wedding feast, this discovery necessitates celebration. But just like a marriage, this celebration can last a lifetime.

Imagine the beauty of a life lived in the full knowledge that God is committed to loving you. What would you do in response to that commitment? How would your life change? Jesus changes the water in the jars to wine, and not just any wine, but wine that is superior to what was originally served. In the same way, living into the covenant God has made with you brings change. You will be changed. You will become better wine than before. You will be a sign of the glory of God in the world. If this is not cause for celebration, nothing is.

When I attend the wedding of a friend, I always remember this story of Jesus at the wedding of Cana. His appearance at the wedding and the sign he performs to reveal his glory attune me to feeling the joy that spills over from the celebration in heaven when people on earth find the love of God in one another. When Jesus calls us into union with himself, we can share in the lifelong celebration of being Jesus’ disciples, the lifelong knowledge that we are becoming better wine than we were before, and the lifelong commitment to experience the love of God that continues to be present and active in the world.