Sunday, June 26, 2016
A sermon preached at St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton
Note: After I preached this sermon, after the Creed and the Prayers, the Confession and Absolution, came the Passing of the Peace and the Announcements, at the end of which the young girl who had been crucifer asked if she could make an announcement. I'm guessing she's around 14, maybe 15. She looked very nervous but absolutely determined.
She took hold of my hand and, in a faltering voice said, "Can I ask you all something? Can I ask you all to pray for the people of Orlando. I mean, everyone who got hurt. Everyone who got killed. They need our prayers. No one should die - no one should get HURT - just because of someone they love." She would look at me every now and again for reassurance. I squeezed her hand and nodded affirmation. "Look," she said, "I know your generation thinks differently about this. Mine doesn't. So, well, at least you can pray. Okay?"
You know what? With determined kids like this, I think the world is going to be okay.
This is a sermon about determination, which is its own form of inspiration. And, inspiration is a gift of the Spirit, which brings much fruit.
I remember a time, early in my years of ordination, when I felt called to preach on a particularly difficult topic in the church and in the world: domestic violence. Not too many churches were preaching on it – at that time, or since. A woman in our neighborhood had been shot to death in her home – in her own bed - by her husband from whom she had gotten a restraining order. This was just two months after the city council had turned down a permit to open a shelter for women and children affected by domestic violence. The issue generated no small amount of controversy.
As it happened, the Epistle that Sunday was from Ephesians 5:22-33 which begins – just begins: “Wives submit to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” Well, you know, the preaching door just doesn’t get opened much wider than that.
What I remember about that sermon was what people – men and women – said to me afterward. “I knew we were in for a barn-burner because you could see it in your face. Your jaw was set and you got into the pulpit with authority.”
Well, that wasn’t my memory. At all. What I remembered was being really anxious and thinking, “Well, here goes. I just may get run out of town after this sermon.”
That’s because the sermon not only went headlong after the sin of domestic violence but how the church is complicit in that sin by offering passages like the one to the ancient church in Ephesis – and, offering it out of its historical and complete context, leading people to believe that the bible sanctions the subjugation and mistreatment of women.
Scripture doesn’t do that any more than it sanctions slavery for the modern Christian.
So, I set my face toward the pulpit and preached a sermon that made a few people uncomfortable, yes, but it also got a few people to rethink the issue of domestic violence and what we, as Christians are called to do about that.
What I learned is something I’ve heard Bishop Jack Spong say that is absolutely true: The church will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy.
And, I learned this: Determination is its own form of inspiration.
I have a new granddaughter – the youngest of six - who is just about ready to turn the corner on 15 months old. As I watch her gaining more and more physical ability to walk and gain control over the use of her body, I delight in her ability to risk and dare to explore more and more of her world.
I especially love it when she is trying to learn a new skill – or perfect an old one like opening up a box or a door. Her face is absolutely fixed with determination. I don’t think she’s aware of it. She is just fully focused on the task at hand. And, without that sense of determination, that energy, that focus, she’s less likely to achieve her goal.
Sometimes, when I watch her – as I have watched my other grandchildren and their parents before them – I wonder just how much technology has helped us and how much it has hurt us.
I know I risk sounding like an old foggie here so I want to be clear: I’m not saying that technology is bad. Indeed, I think the technological advances we’ve made and have available to us are, well, downright miraculous. I’m saying that these advances have improved our lives in innumerable ways.
I’m saying that I am deeply grateful for cell phones and bluetooths and texting (but not while driving, of course) and lap tops Apple Watches and iPod Nanos and yes, even FaceBook.
What I’m saying is that I fear we’ve allowed it to become the tail that wags the dog. What I’m saying is that maybe, just maybe, what will “make America great again” – whatever that means, really – is not someone or something to do more things for us.
Rather, I’m saying that we need to rediscover – as individuals and a nation and yes, as a church – the kind of determination which allows us to focus our energies and stand firm in what it is we say we believe and take the risks involved to achieve what we’ve been called to do.
What I’m saying is that determination and focus is a force of energy which carries with it its own energy which attracts more energy. I’m saying that that kind of determination is inspiring to others. Determination is what makes people and nations and churches great.
There are people for whom just getting out of bed in the morning requires them to “set their face” into the day. People with disabilities. People who struggle with depression. People who struggle with various addictions to alcohol or drugs or gambling or food. People who are filled with paralyzing anxiety. People who are struggling with jobs that do not pay enough to pay the bills. People who battle every day to make a better life for themselves and their families, sometimes against all odds.
We don’t hear much about those struggles – especially in church – but they are real. You and I know that to be true. They may not be aware of it, but their determination to overcome obstacles and challenges is inspiring. Indeed, some people require as much determination and focus as we see in Jesus as he sets his face on the task he’s been called to do.
I believe that the gospel can inspire us to stand firm in our beliefs and values and principles and find the determination we need to meet the challenges of this life. That’s because I believe the Bible is not a rule book but a guidebook. Let me say that again: The Bible is not a rule book but a guidebook. St. Paul reminds us that we are no longer slaves, bound by the law, but rather called to live by the Spirit.
Determination is its own form of inspiration. And, inspiration is a gift of the Spirit.
There is so much in the world that is deeply troubling – gun violence, war, poverty, fires, floods, mudslides, and disease. At times – especially of late – the world seems to have gone mad with massacres and economic instability and a kind of political rhetoric that makes your hair stand on end. It can shake you to your very soul.
In times such as these, we need inspiration. We need determination. We need to set our faces toward the challenges life brings to us and stay focused on that which calls us to our better selves. Now, more than ever, we need determination to stand firm in what we say it is we believe and trust the Spirit to guide us to all truth.
St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds us that the Spirit bears much fruit. I don’t know about you, but now, more than ever, I need that fruit.
I suspect we all could use more love. More joy. More peace. More kindness. More generosity. More faithfulness. More gentleness. More self-control.
The only way I know how to achieve these is through determination to live in the Spirit and by the Spirit and with the Spirit. Because the alternative is, well, no alternative at all. Not for those who profess to follow Jesus.
Come. Let us set our faces toward the Spirit. Because, determination is its own form of inspiration. And, inspiration is a gift of the Spirit. And, in the midst of all of the challenges and struggles of this life, there is a bounty of the fruit of the Spirit, a banquet to which God has invited us to feast.
Let us determine not to eat the bread of anxiety but, rather, to feast on the fruit of the Spirit.