Read Sermons Author: Adam Whitfield

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Youth Sunday

May 14, 2017

Hello everyone. My name is Adam Whitfield, and I am graduating from Little Rock Central High School in less than two short weeks. As my high school career comes to a close and I start preparing to go off to college, I have been thinking about how I got where I am today. In my short 18 years a lot of things have changed, but one thing that’s been a constant in my life is Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. As everything around me is changing so fast it is important to realize that there’s one true place that I can find peace and happiness. As many of you can tell, my family is very involved in the church. My brother and I are both acolytes, my father and I are both bell ringers, everyone except me is a lay reader, my mom is a children’s Sunday school teacher and a member of the needlepoint guild and those are all the things we are CURRENTLY in. I’ve been coming to Trinity since birth. I was baptized right back over there. Almost every baptism we witness now my dad has to tap me on the shoulder saying something like, “been there before.”

I always found the church to be a place of adventure. When I was a little kid, I would stare at the big kids in awe as they went down the aisle carrying the crosses and banners. I really wanted to be one of them. Come to find out they won’t just let any 7-year-old walk down the aisle carrying a flaming torch. So I would literally practice in the backyard with a rake until it came my time. I found out that you have to be at least in the 6th grade to join the acolytes and I could not wait. I still remember every time I got to “upgrade” to a new position. I don’t know if anyone’s noticed but if you look at the acolytes go by its very serious. We take pride in looking as serious as possible and to just look all around professional. I fell in love with acolyting and no one could stop me. I took great pride in the first time I got to carry the first cross. It makes you feel as though you’re a leader, calling everyone’s attention to the true reason we’re here and that’s to worship God.  We owe our skills to John Stanley and all the other adults that help the new and incoming acolytes. I would like to personally thank you for everything you do. It is something that we will all remember for the rest of our lives, and I am going to miss it.

Another great program that I have fallen in love with here is the great group of people back in the bell tower. The musical man my father is, he became very interested in the bells and got in contact with Porter Brownlee asking about how he could get into ringing the bells. They graciously accepted him in and taught him the ropes. As I was just entering into middle school as this was going on, I was very interested in where my dad would go every Wednesday night and early Sunday mornings. My dad decided it would be suitable for me to give it a try when I was a little bit bigger. So when I was about thirteen he brought me along for a practice and I was truly amazed by the bells. It’s one thing to hear them on a Sunday and watch people ring them, but it’s a totally new experience to actually get a pull at the rope. The great thing about the tower though is not just the bells, but the people who ring them. I have truly come to love every single person that’s helped me and taught me through the years that I have been ringing now. There’s nothing I think I could ever do to repay you all for all the great memories and experiences you all have given me.

All of these people in my life have shaped who I am today and I know I am not the only one that’s grown up with great role models in their lives. Every single person in here I guarantee can think back on those people who were always there for them or were always there to give guidance. It’s human nature and it’s truly a blessing to have a mentor. I know this is true because today in the gospel John is talking about how Phillip is not satisfied with just following Jesus that he needs to see God to truly believe. Jesus, in turn, explains that the father is in him and if he will just follow Jesus that if you know him you will also know his father. God is showing himself through Jesus and if Phillip will just follow Jesus he will truly see the blessings of God in him.

Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” In this Jesus is saying that we all need to follow him to get to God himself. Just as Jesus was put in place to show the way to God, so are our mentors in life. God has put them in place to show us the way. I know deep down that if I follow those that have gone before me, I will see the light of God. All of you adults sitting here today have gone through so many life experiences including happy times, sad times, struggles and big wins. You are sitting in a position that you can take someone under your wing and guide them through life so that they might not go through the same struggles you have. God has put you in a position to make the future even brighter. There are always going to be people that look up to you. The best thing you can do is acknowledge this and teach them what you know so society can continue to evolve. I believe it to be God’s plan that put you all into place to help teach the youth just like God sent Jesus to us to show us the way.

We are all gathered here today for youth Sunday. We are here to honor the youth in our congregation. Every generation looks to its youth to make a better future. Without guidance from many people here in the Cathedral, I would not be the person I am today. There’s one person that’s not with us today in person, but here with us in spirit. I know he would be proud of the person I have become, and that’s my grandfather Floyd Thomas. By the time I knew my grandfather I thought of him as a sweet old man but I’m told in his heyday, not that many people would have described him as sweet. At his funeral, he was described as the man even Chuck Norris wouldn’t mess with. To give you some back story, in my mind, Floyd Thomas is the prime example of an American hero. As a member of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas, in 1943 he was sent to Europe to fight in the world war as an infantry soldier. There are a few things we still have that were his from that time, his dog tags, a few pictures and most important was the pocket Bible he carried with him throughout the whole war. I believe this to be one of the most prized possessions because it shows what type of man you can become with the help of faith.  He returned home to use the G.I. bill and finish his education. After graduation, he taught for a few years but when he was approached by the FBI he started a new career. My grandfather was a great investigator but believed his best work was done when his gun was locked up in the truck of his car; he had witnessed enough evil himself that he did not want to continue it. Probably his proudest professional achievement was his part in the investigation of the 3 missing civil rights workers in Mississippi, during the summer of 1964. If you remember that time in our history, or if you’ve seen the movie, Mississippi Burning, you know that three civil rights workers were murdered and buried in an earthen dam. They were in Mississippi to help black people register to vote. My grandfather was there when they found their burned out car and later when the three bodies were found. He continued to work on civil rights cases for the rest of his career.

It is very scary for me to think that the sweet old man that I saw as my grandfather saw so much death and destruction during the years before I knew him. His work in civil rights was guided by his belief that every human being deserves respect. He sacrificed so much to help others. This continued all the way to the end of his life. The fifteen years I had with him were filled with peace and happiness. The man I came to know and love took great enjoyment in being with his family and spending time in the outdoors. As a young kid I remember riding with him in his truck out to the family deer camp in Mount Holly, Arkansas. That property I think is what brought him true happiness. It wasn’t the importance of the hunt or how much stuff he had it was all about the time he got to spend with family and friends. It was a place of happiness that he could share with others. Being a kid I always wanted to go with my grandfather and do the things he enjoyed. So we spent a lot of time in Mount Holly. He’s the man that taught me how to hunt, how to fish and many other things I hold very near to my heart. My dad explained it best one time by saying, “the legacy that Papa left in you was the love of the outdoors.” And over the years I have found this fact to be more and more true. Every big decision I make I do to make him proud and to continue his legacy.

I would much rather be outdoors and uncomfortable than inside sitting comfy in the A/C. I feel confined when I’m inside and I always look for the next opportunity to get outside. Truly the first time I came to realize my passion for the outdoors was on a Boy Scouting trip to Cimarron, New Mexico, to backpack for 10 days. We were each given a pocket size Bible that I keep in the top drawer of my dresser today. The trip was filled with ups and downs, but I specifically remember one day we stopped for lunch on top of a hill and we could see land for miles all around us. We had a quick little prayer but in the middle of that prayer I took a look around us, a deep breath and thought to myself, “This is God’s country.” The great outdoors is a true blessing to us and in that moment I’ve never felt closer to God. Since that moment on I’ve become more faithful but not always in the traditional setting. I love this Cathedral, but there’s nothing like the feelings of worship and awe that I experience in nature. I truly feel closest to God when I am in the outdoors and this blessing is thanks to my grandfather. I truly believe that.

Someone else who also has been a mentor in my life but has also paved the road ahead for my future is Otis Howe. Otis you mean more to me than I know how to express. Otis took me on my first duck hunt many years ago and now it has become a passion of my own. He saw my love for the outdoors and my potential and he showed me to the world of agriculture. For the longest time I had not a clue in the world of what I wanted to do for a career and when we were riding back to town from a duck hunt he told me about what he does as a job. How he gets to travel the state working side by side with farmers. This piqued my interest and a little over a year ago he introduced me to one of his hunting buddies who actually offered me a job to work for him over the summer at the U of A cooperative extension office in Lonoke doing entomology research. I have no prior agricultural experience and without Otis I would not have the life goal I have today. This past summer was so successful in Lonoke that I start again on June 1st and cannot wait to get back into the fields of Arkansas. And my major will be crop and environmental sciences when I go to Fayetteville this fall.

So in closing, I would like everyone to take some time out of their day to think about what they could do for the future generation. It doesn’t have to be anything major or mind blowing but something as simple as volunteering a little of your time with someone young could possibly impact that person’s life for the better. As a representative of the youth community within our church, I thank you all.

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.