relatively speaking

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 16.21-28, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017

Our God, whom we address as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as a trinity dwells in eternal ontological, relational union. And we, created in God’s image, are physically formed and psychically, spiritually wired to be in relationship with others.

Relationships are an important, perhaps most important aspect of our lives. To use theologian Paul Tillich’s[1] descriptive phrase for God, I liken our relationships to “the ground of our being.” Our relationships are a lens through which we can perceive and know ourselves; the ground from whence we come, our histories and memories, and the ground on which we stand, our daily experience of thought and feeling, intention and action. Though, as the Apostle Paul says, “we see in a mirror, dimly,”[2] unable to know ourselves fully, it is our willingness to look that matters. And this life-long self-examination in search of ourselves, seeking to know ourselves is for the purpose of giving ourselves away in relationships with others, therefore, imitating how God is with us.

Now, here’s the challenge. Relationships are hard. For, again, it’s hard, truly impossible to know ourselves completely. And, given our self-interest, it’s hard, also impossible to give ourselves completely to others. And it’s hard to see and know clearly what others are showing and giving to us. And even when we do see and know clearly what others are showing and giving to us, it may contradict who we believe they are and conflict with who we believe we are.

All this, the rewards and risks of relationships runs through this intense encounter between Jesus and Peter.

Jesus called disciples to follow him, to be in relationship with him. At a critical moment, he asks, “Who do you say I am?”[3] (Do you see and know me?) Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”[4] Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah![5] (You do see and know me. Now, let me tell you what kind of Messiah I am.) “I must go to Jerusalem, suffer and die…” Peter doesn’t like, hates what he hears. Who Peter thinks Jesus is as Messiah is not who Jesus is. Though using the same language, they mean different things.

In one sterling moment of recognition, they had drawn so close. In the next shattering instant, they fall far apart. For Jesus, Peter, his chief disciple, upon whose confession of his messianic identity he would build his church,[6] becomes “a stumbling block”, so great an impediment to Jesus doing God’s will that he calls him “Satan.” And Peter has to question who Jesus is and why he has given up everything to follow him, and, if Jesus’ predictions of his suffering and death come true, then what will happen to him; must he suffer and die, too?

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan (Rétire-toi, Satan) (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902)

How easy it would have been for them to part company: Jesus casting Peter aside, Peter walking, running away. But they didn’t. They remained in relationship and experienced everything that Jesus prophesied; his suffering, his dying, and (as he also foretold) his rising on the third day (but, I believe, prefaced by the predication of suffering and dying, Peter missed that part!). And all this leading to a relationship, a life without end.

So, too, for us as we continue to follow Jesus in our living and, yes, our suffering and our dying, whenever and however it comes, and then, yes, thank you, Jesus, our rising.

 

Illustration: Get Thee Behind Me, Satan (Rétire-toi, Satan) (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965), German American Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.12

[3] Matthew 16.15

[4] Matthew 16.16

[5] Matthew 16.17a

[6] Matthew 16.18

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

About Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina

On February 1, 2015, I entered my retirement.

Before that date, countless were the times, o’er my over 35 years of full-time active ministry, when I sat at the feet of my revered elder clergy, who, having led large congregations, spoke of the joys in retirement of serving smaller communities where pastoral relationships took on the character of a proximate, transparent intimacy. I oft wondered whether that would be my lot, indeed, whether I’d want it to be my lot! Or would I, in retirement, be ready, even needful of stepping away from exercising any form of clerical ministry?

On December 20, 2015, I entered my “rehirement” as the priest-in-charge, part-time, of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina.[1]

Epiphany, Laurens, SC, facade

A year and a half into this still new ministry, I reflect…

What my elders told me has proven true for me. I love being a part of my Epiphany-community. Every Sunday, I have the exquisite pleasure of looking out at 30 or so souls and saying to myself, “You, each and all, belong to me and I belong to you.” Frequently enough, I say aloud to them, individually and collectively, “I love you.” Equally often, I open my sermons saying, “Once again it is my privilege to preach with[2] you in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” (And they seem, so far, to put up with this Episcopal Church-born-and-bred, but black Baptist-rooted, coming by it honestly on my mama’s side, noisy-preacher!)

Moreover, I sense and receive from my folk a gentle, unconcealed deference for the ordained ministry (I haven’t been called “Father” this often since…since!) that, given much of my remembrances of my prior experiences and my reflections on the testimonies of my colleagues in other places, is a still-treasured characteristic of the South.

Still more, and most especially, I believe that God, who, in a Christian Trinitarian understanding, eternally dwells in the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in creating humankind in the imago Dei, the image of God,  hath hard-wired us, in our bodily, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual being-ness, for relationship. In this, I rejoice to be in relationship with the folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina.

 

Footnotes:

[1] The Doric-columned edifice, built in 1846, listed in the National Register as part of Laurens Historic District, and the oldest actively-used church structure in Laurens County, South Carolina, is the home of a generously, generations-old loving community of people. The warmth of their affectionate care, person to person, permeates and emanates from the very brick and mortar and wood of the place.

[2] Long have I believed that I, as a preacher, do not preach at people, which, in my sense of things, means that I, endowed with especial Spirit-inspired wisdom, have the answers about God and life that I share with those who would not have the benefit and blessing of knowing save that I tell them. Nor do I preach to people, which, in my sense of things, is a kinder-and-gentler (read: more self-effacing, less arrogant) form of preaching at people. Rather, I, seeking alway to be in community, indeed, to be in communion with people, preach with them; the sermon, again, in my sense of things, being a form of ongoing communal conversation among God, people, and priest.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 26, Thursday, March 30, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On my one, mine only one consoling thought: O Blessed Trinity, I take heart in this one, mine only one consoling thought: Your Changeless Faithfulness…

For I am neither changeless nor faithful…

Throughout my days, e’en with the best of my intentions, I find myself failing to do the things that I ought to do and flourishing[1] in doing those things that I ought not to do and, in both, falling prey to manifold temptations. Some new. Most old. This latter, these olden compulsions, I (I must confess) know all too well; for, o’er time and through my experience, well-rehearsed have they been and have become …

In (all!) this, I find myself falling short, well (truly, unwell!) short of progress toward the good, Your Good…

In a word, O Blessed Trinity, if I were to reckon myself changeless, then it is in the faithfulness of my unfaithfulness to You…

Thus, daily, I must sing:

Great is Thy faithfulness…

There is no shadow of turning with Thee;

Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not

As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.[2][3]

To which I alway then say: amen, amen, amen!

Footnotes:

[1] Here, I use the word “flourishing” not in the good sense of prospering or thriving, but rather to connote my accomplishing or succeeding in the doing of those things that I ought not to do.

[2] Words by Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (1866-1960)

[3] When I contemplate God’s unfailing “compassions”, I am led to read and reflect on the Epistle to the Romans. To wit: I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand…Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord…There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words…What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us (Romans 7.21, 24-25a, 8.1, 26, 31-34; my emphases). I marvel at this truth: That when I most condemn myself for my unfaithfulness, the One Who can condemn me unto eternity is the One Who already has saved me!

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 25, Wednesday, March 29, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On audacious joy: O Gracious God, in Your Love, You created me in Your Image…

O Jesus, You came to show, to be in Your flesh the imago Dei of unconditional Love and Justice…

O Spirit of God, You abide within me that I, through Your sanctification, might “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”[1]

Whene’er I contemplate the words, “the knowledge of the Son of God”, I shudder in the audacious joy that I, by the Trifold Grace of You, O Blessed Trinity, am to know more about You, O Jesus, and to know more about what You, O Jesus, know about You, O God!

All to which, in joyous humility, I only can say: amen, amen, amen.

Footnote:

[1] Ephesians 4.13a