Read Sermons Author: The Rev. Canon Paul K. McLain III

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Farewell Sermon

August 30, 2015

Proper 17(B)
Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9

“Every exit is an entrance somewhere else.” In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of my hobbies was acting in community theatre plays. I learned there are 2 important things for an actor to know – when it is time to go on stage, and when it is time to get off stage. What I discovered is that often what is happening off-stage behind the scenes is more fascinating than what is happening on stage.

Tom Stoppard wrote a play about this. It is entitled Rosencranz and Guilderstern Are Dead. It is the story of two supporting characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Stoppard’s play, Rosencranz and Guilderstern encounter a theatrical troupe. Rosencranz asks, ‘What exactly do you do?’

And the Leading Player answers, ‘We keep to our usual stuff, more or less, only inside out. We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off.

Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.’[i] Conversely, we can say that every entrance is an exit somewhere else.

Today is marked by exits and entrances. At the 9:00 service, we will celebrate the entrance of an adult and a child into the land of light and rebirth through baptism. We also mark the entrance of children, parents, and teachers into the land of learning through our Early Childhood Education Program. And you are sending Ruthie and me off for our entrance into the land of blues, barbeque, and Elvis.

Over these five years, we have gone through a lot together. We have grown together in the Spirit, and Ruthie and I are forever grateful for the many ways you have loved and embraced us. It is hard to say goodbye, but we genuinely sense the call of God to this next chapter of ministry in our lives.

While difficult, a key part of being a child of God is to be attune to the time to exit and the time to enter.

Our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy also marks exits and entrances. The children of Israel have exited slavery in Egypt,have spent forty years in the wilderness, and will at long last enter the land of milk and honey. But there is another exit and entrance that is occurring. Moses, who has shepherded them for many years, is now in his final days. He is about to exit this earthly life and enter the land of heavenly reward – sweet Beulah land. Moses is giving his farewell address. In it, he reminds the people of who they are. He tells them that they are the people of the book. They are to keep and observe the commandments. He reminds them, that in the midst of all their hardships, God has always remained near to them.

In the play, Rosencranz and Guilderstern do not become the passive audience to the theatrical troupe’s play. Instead, they enter into the play as characters themselves. They exit the notion that they are separate from the story. Likewise, we are invited to enter God’s story because God has first entered our story. We are now modern-day disciples, following God’s son Jesus to and from the cross. Our entry into this story is a triumphal one. It is not a triumph filled with riches or fame. Instead, it is a triumph of experiencing Christ’s humility and love. It is a triumph of experiencing his willingness to submit himself to betrayal, to torture, to a most excruciatingly painful death to give us life, to give us meaning, and to give us hope. The story itself exits from lines in a book to enter us – to enter our minds and hearts.

Ultimately, Jesus not only makes a triumphal entry into and a triumphal exit from death, he also makes a triumphal entry into us. He changes us into players in this ongoing story by giving us his mind and heart filled with humility, courage, service, passion, and love. As he enters us, he also exits us through the loving acts in which his love radiates out from us toward others.

When we exit one way of being and enter another one, we move into what is called a liminal, or ‘in-between’ state. Liminal comes from the Latin word ‘limina’ which means threshold. One writer says that it is when we are in these liminal states that our given expectations break down, giving room for newness to happen.[ii] This is such a liminal time for us. It is the threshold of a new school year, the threshold of new life through baptism, and the threshold of the coming of a new Dean for Trinity. We cross these thresholds with excitement, knowing that God is bringing us into the Promised Land.

But much more than that is happening. In the gospel of John, Jesus says ‘I am the door.’ Jesus is this very liminal state himself. He is the mystery of entrance and exit. Rather than being a hard-and-fast boundary of time and space, the entryway Jesus provides is a permeable, organic one.

It is a threshold in which he breathes life into us, shines light into us, and changes our very essence. He turns us into thresholds, making us doorways of offering his hospitality and his life-changing light to others. He turns us inside out, such that his inside is reflected on our outside which then changes the inside of us and others.

Instead of being times of anxiety,transitions are times to watch and listen for the entrances and exits of Jesus. For his exit is an entrance somewhere else. Amen.

[i] Tom Stoppard, Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

[ii] Rosemary Luling Haughton, Images for Change: The Transformation of Society (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1997), 104.

My cup runneth over

July 19, 2015

Proper 11(B)
Psalm 23
During a winter awhile back, I joined some of our members and others who serve a hot lunch on Mondays to anyone who shows up at the Stewpot Ministry. My assignment was to be the server of turnip greens. After we served everyone, anyone who wished was invited to come back for seconds.

One man came up to me with a plastic bowl that looked like an old Cool Whip container. He gave it to me and I put in the usual serving I had been giving out – two spoonfuls of turnip greens. He paused and looked at me and said, “It’s gonna be cold tonight. Could you fill up my bowl to help me get through the night?” As I filled up his bowl, he said, “Oh, and if you could get a little of that juice in there. That’s what I’m talking about. Now if I just had a piece of cornbread to go with it, then I could really make it through the night.”

A few moments ago, as we said the 23rd Psalm, we proclaimed, “My cup runneth over.” When we really look at our lives, at all our blessings from God, our cups do truly runneth over. That day at Stewpot, even after serving 184 people, we were blessed with an abundance of second helpings, thanks to your generosity and that of other churches. In that big pan, there were still plenty of turnip greens. Thanks be to God!

Why then, was my initial instinct to serve this man only two spoonfuls? What I am really asking is, why do we withhold God’s abundance? Part of it was habit. That was the amount I usually served. But part of it was fear. What if we run out?

As stewards in God’s Church, we can fall into these and other stumbling blocks such as – a misplaced sense of priorities in which we don’t give God the first fruits of our blessings; or a misplaced withholding of our gifts from God as a tool to impose our personal agendas on the Church. Such withholding robs us of the great gift of giving thanks for and sharing God’s abundance. When we say, ‘my cup runneth over,’ we acknowledge that God has given us an abundant life – a life in which blessings overflow. We then give thanks for these blessings by giving the first portion back to God to share in his work of ministering to and serving one another and our neighbors.

In the Twenty-Third Psalm, God is both a shepherd and a host. The Lord is our shepherd who provides our needs – not just our physical and financial needs, but the deepest needs of our hearts and our souls. Each day, he gives us the gift of renewal. When we stumble and when we hurt, he brings us to green pastures and still waters. He restoreth our souls. And we are called to use this overflow of refreshment in our hearts to bear one another’s burdens, to be his instruments of restoring one another’s souls.

Our shepherd is with us even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Years ago, shortly after my father died, the pastor at the church where I was a member began a series of sermons on the Twenty-Third Psalm. I remember how his drawing deeper into the well of this Psalm helped carry me through my grief. We all experience the valley of the shadow of death in one way or another at various times of our lives. On Friday, we experienced the shock and sadness of the death of Carleton McMullin, a beloved parishioner, and our hearts pour out in love to Jane and their family. In times such as these, it means everything to know that the Lord is with us, and that his rod and staff comfort us. We are called to share this comfort with one another, to wipe away one another’s tears.

The Lord is not only our shepherd, but is our host. He spreads a table before us in the presence of our enemies. He anoints our heads with oil. He touches us with a balm that soothes and heals us, and he gives us each a little touch of both his authority and the high responsibility that goes with it. He calls us into being hosts like him – hosts who feed, who heal, who share with all our guests,and who even challenge our guests to discover their overflowing gifts from him.

Like all great poetry, any line can have layers of meaning. There is a darker side to ‘my cup runneth over.’ It also means this is a cup filled with sorrows.

Before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed, ‘Let this cup pass from me.’ Yet, he obediently drank from the cup of sorrows to take the burden of sin from us.

Through his gift of mystery, he takes our sorrowful cup filled with the burdens of this world, and somehow turns it into a cup overflowing with blessings.

The Psalm closes with a promise of blessing- ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.’ And our response is one of thanksgiving for this gift – ‘And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’ That is what faith is all about. It is about expressing thanks that God takes us into his home and heart, and fills our cups to overflowing. We offer a toast of these cups back to our gracious host. We serve him as hosts that offer overflowing cups to his Church, to one another, to our neighbors in this community and state, and to people throughout the world.

Through God’s love and gracious provision, my cup does runneth over.

Even if my cup happens to be an old Cool Whip container filled with turnip greens. Amen.

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.