Archive for June, 2013

Baccalaureate Sermon for St. Andrew’s Episcopal School                                                             Thursday, June 6, 2013

Readings:   Psalm 78:1-7                     Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 20-25                  Matthew 11:25-30

 Looking Back and Looking Forward

 “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.”

It is a time to look back and a time to look forward. Your parents and grandparents may be looking at you, but they do not see you just as high school seniors.  They see your face the first time they held you in their arms, or the morning you took your first unsteady step, or the first day of first grade, or maybe the first time you yelled “I hate you!” then slammed your bedroom door.

You are looking back too, but you are remembering different things: you remember vacations at the beach and sleep-overs with your best friends. You remember camping trips with your buddies, your first date, and the pranks played in one of your most boring classes. You may even remember sleeping through some of them. There was the time you almost got caught for doing something wrong, and that time you did get caught.

Now, everyone here stands at a threshold. Seniors, you have learned much in the past twelve years. I hope you will learn more and deep—en your understanding of life in the next four years. One thing you will learn is how much smarter your parents have become in those four years—so much smarter than they are tonight. . .

No doubt you are nervous about the future, even if you don’t want to admit it. You remember the pressures of achieving grades, building a portfolio for college admission, community service hours, late nights and early mornings of study.  Yet despite your confident faces, I know that deep down, some of you are not just nervous, but scared. Will I make it in college? What if I hate it when I get there? I’m kind of shy and there will be a lot of new faces. How will I make friends?  Will people think I’m weird because I don’t like to drink? Then there are questions related to family. I’ve never been on my own before but I want to try now. How can I get my parents to stop hovering? What will I do if I decide that what I want to do in life isn’t what my mom or dad wants me to do? I really love my girlfriend—we’ve been dating for a while—but she’s not going to the same university as I am—how will we make things work?

So you look back and forward. You stand at the crest of a mountain. You know what is behind you—you’ve logged many miles to get here. You can see some things before you, but you cannot see the details. And not until you arrive in the new land of adventures will you see and know more. In the midst of this transition, what centers you? What holds you together?

When you were little kids, your parents centered your world for you and taught you how to behave responsibly: Make your bed. Take out the trash. Mow the lawn. Don’t leave the back door open—were you born in a barn? Stop fighting with your sister back there—don’t make me pull over. Get off the computer—it’s 2:00 in the morning!

Throughout time, human beings have always needed something to center them and to hold them together. Thousands of years ago, a group of people were also at a threshold. Their parents and grandparents used to live in another country. They had been slaves, making bricks and building pyramids for a Pharaoh. For forty years, their families had wandered all over the wilderness, looking for food and water, working out relationships, hoping to find the Promised Land. Of course they finally did find it. But by then, Moses—their leader—had made God mad by putting himself in the place of God, so God told Moses he was not going to be allowed to go into the Promised Land. Now that sounds unfair, I know, but one thing you guys are going to learn—if you haven’t already—is that sometimes life is not fair. You’ll have to deal with it.

Even though Moses couldn’t accompany his people into this new land, he wanted to make sure that they remembered who they were and Whose they were. He wanted them to have something to grab onto when they were scared, or uncertain, or in a tough situation. Moses had once spent a lot of time up on a mountain with God. When he returned, he had a couple of stone tablets with ten commandments written on them. Now truth be told, God’s commandments were not long, complicated sentences. (We’re talking about an oral culture.) The author Thomas Cahill says they “may actually have been Ten Words—utterly primitive, basic injunctions on the order of ‘No-kill,’ ‘No-steal,’ ‘No-lie.’ These Ten Words (which is the term the Bible uses, not ‘Commandments’) would have been memorizable by even the simplest nomad, his ten fingers a constant reminder of their centrality in his life.”[1]

When Moses knew that his people would have to enter the Promised Land without him, he wanted them to remember what was most important. It was not running a spear through every pagan. Not working twenty-four seven. Not hoarding your gold. It was God.  It still is God. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”  Later, Jesus would sum up all the Commandments or Words when he added “And love your neighbor as yourself.”

Had I been preaching this sermon when you guys were six years old, I would have reminded your parents that they must teach you these commandments. I hope and pray they already have. (If you want the list, I can put it on my blog.) While you are intelligent young people, you still may need a guide for how to act after you leave home and go to college. A few things to remember: God is first. Why is God first? Because God created the heavens and the earth—and you. God loved you—long before your parents knew you, before you knew you. Ultimately, when you draw your last breath, God’s love will be the only thing that matters. In that moment, it won’t matter how many initials are in front of or behind your name. It won’t matter how much money you’ve made or what you’ve achieved. It will only be about love—God’s love.

Because that’s true, the second important thing to remember is that if God loves you, then you need to love you. Whoever you are, whatever gifts and talents you have, is just right for you. I want you to look in the mirror every morning and know that God loves you, no matter what. Then love other people the way God loves you.  If you’ll remember that, it will help you make a whole lot of decisions.

Let’s test that out. You party more than you should, and there’s a paper due. So you decide that lifting a few paragraphs here or there from a Google search will be okay. Note: university professors know plagarization and they will kick your butt out of school. No kidding. But is copying someone else’s work honoring God or honoring another person?  No, it doesn’t even honor you. Girls, if you go to a party and drink so much that you pass out, is that honoring God or yourself? No, and it puts you in a vulnerable situation. Guys, if you’re at the party and a girl passes out, is it a good decision to take advantage of her?  No! Remember to love the Lord your God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. Treat women the way you want your mother or your sister or one of your best friends to be treated. Treat people the way YOU want to be treated.

On one level, it isn’t that difficult, but in the moment, sometimes it is. Think. Remember you belong to God. The world is not kind, so be kind to each other.  Love God, because God loves the world and you. Love each other, because God loves your brothers and sisters in humanity. And love yourself. You are amazing, wonderful creatures of God. Live into that truth. Never, ever forget that God loves you as if you were God’s only child.

I would like to close with a quote by Bishop Stephen Charleston: “There are no words to tell you how deeply you are loved. Not poets or priests, sonnets or scriptures, can convey the true nature of the love that enfolds you. It is the love of the One who first saw you, first imagined you, dreamed you out of nothing into everything, believed in who you could be and cared for you no matter what you became. It is an infinite love, warm and devoted, tender and playful, yet as strong as the fire within the sun itself. God loves you. From the first to the last, from now until forever, there are no words to tell you how deeply you are loved.”

As you continue this journey, my young friends, remember who you are and Whose you are. Then live that way, remembering that God loves you. No matter what. Amen. 

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1][1][1][1] Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, (New York: Nan A. Talese/Anchor Books, 1998, 139.


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Power is an interesting commodity. Either one has power or one does not. Here in the Washington, DC area, we know about power. Power won. Power wielded. Power fiercely guarded. Power clutched in tight fists. Of course Washingtonians are not the only people who have had power, or who have had power wielded over them. It’s just that in this particular time in history, power struggles in our legislative and executive branches of government have resulted in paralyzing gridlock. The tug of war and paralysis has made Americans more keenly aware of power and its potential for good or evil. Its potential to shrink souls or expand hearts.

True, deep power—the kind that has integrity—is rare. Yet in today’s gospel, we meet someone who has that kind of power. He lives in  Capernaum. Capernaum is “one of several ancient fishing villages on the Sea of Galilee.”[1] After Jesus leaves his hometown of Nazareth, he uses Capernaum as “home base.” This is not because the town is much different from other fishing villages that dot the Galilean shores. It’s just that Jesus’ first converts—Simon Peter and Andrew—live and work there. In fact, most of Jesus’ teachings occurs within three miles of Capernaum.

Capernaum is a crossroads in the first century, which makes it a “minor trade center and toll station.”[2] In addition, Herod Antipas, the Jewish ruler under the authority of the Romans,  seizes the opportunity to make money with heavy taxes. How? Fishing is the major economy here. “Fishermen [lease] their fishing rights from persons called ‘toll collectors’. . .for a percentage of the catch. Historical evidence indicates that such lease fees could run as high as forty percent.’”[3] (We think 28% is bad!)  With such heavy taxes levied by those in power, the Jewish people struggle to make ends meet. Yet it is important that they build a synagogue, a place to worship. Enter a Gentile man with power: a centurion.

This centurion holds power—either under the authority of Herod or Rome or both. He is in charge of one hundred soldiers, and has authority over them. He gives orders. They take orders. In the words of a fifth century historian: “A centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly, has expert knowledge how to fight with the sword and rotate the shield, and has learned the whole art of armature. He. . .keeps his soldiers in training, makes them practice their arms, and sees that they are well clothed and shod. . .”[4]

In a first century Hellenistic world bound by honor and patronage, this Gentile centurion has power and money. He also seems to be generous. He becomes benefactor of the local Jewish people, building them a synagogue. So when one of his valuable slaves becomes gravely ill, the centurion asks the Jewish elders to go find Jesus. The centurion has been their benefactor. He holds both political and economic power over them. So in some sense, because he has built their synagogue, the people “owe” him.

Two things seem clear. First, this centurion likely knows Jesus because of Jesus’ use of Capernaum as home base. Second, it is clear that the Jewish town fathers respect the centurion, because when they appeal to Jesus, they do so “earnestly.” They tell Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who build out synagogue for us.”[5] Yet Jesus does not get very far down the road before the Gentile centurion sends a second delegation—this time, he sends his friends. Perhaps the centurion has suddenly realized that if Jesus enters a Gentile home, he will be ritually defiled. Yet there seems to be more to the centurion’s sending his friends. The man with power has found another man with power. Somehow, the centurion knows that Jesus holds more power than he does. Jesus is more than a transplanted home boy from Nazareth. Jesus is more than a prophet. The centurion has recognized that Jesus’ power comes from a source beyond him—power from God, Creator of heaven and earth. It is that divine power which the centurion acknowledges. He makes a natural bridge between the kind of power he knows and the kind that Jesus knows: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”

Jesus is amazed at the depth of this Gentile’s faith. He heals the man’s slave without going a step further. One man is willing to yield his own power for that of someone else. Power that has been held for the good of a political and socio-economic world yields to a power that expands the Christian faith.

In our lives today, we hear, see and read about power won. Power wielded. Power fiercely guarded. Power clutched in tight fists. Those who hold power—whether it is in the halls of Congress or in the Church—forget that they do not really have ultimate power. Their power and control are at best illusive, at worst, destructive and evil. Holding power in a tight fist only shrinks the soul.

The best power is, in the preacher’s estimation, that which is held lightly. Power in Christ has nothing to do with rank or ordination or age. Power in Christ has to do with one’s deep, core identity. When someone knows who he or she is in God and is willing to claim the power given through the waters of baptism, the kingdom of God has come very near to us.

Two Sundays ago, then at the later service last Sunday, we reaffirmed our baptismal vows. If you were really paying attention, then you know that in doing this, we don’t just utter empty, powerless words. We claim the power given to us by Jesus Christ through baptism.   Every one of God’s children has power. God give us power to live out our faith every day: in our offices, at the grocery store, in the gym, in rush hour traffic. At Starbucks, on the playground, as we travel with our families. Each one of us has gifts to share: gifts of love, of compassion, of generosity, of hearts willing to open, then expand with God’s love, grace and power. Each one of us has the choice to acknowledge God, through Jesus Christ, as the core of our existence and identity. Out of that core of power, we then shape our lives as Christians, following Jesus. We tell the good news of God’s love to people we meet. We open our hearts. We become willing to speak someone else’s language of life in order to share our language of faith. We teach our children that language of faith by learning to pray, then teaching them how to pray. We feed the poor, shelter the homeless, do outreach in the name of Jesus.

None of us is worthy for the Lord to come under our roofs. Yet amazingly enough, the Lord is always among us: in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. As the Lord nurtures and empowers us, so we are to turn, to go out, to nurture and empower the world.

How will we use such power? Will we recognize it? Will we clutch it tightly in fear? Or will we give it away in love?

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] Marianne Rice & Laurie Brink, In This Place: Reflections on the Land of the Gospels for the Liturgical Cycles, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 81.

[2][2] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX: Luke & John, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995),155.

[3] Idem, Rice & Brink, quoting Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh in Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 44. Rice & Brink reference on 83.

[4] Alyce M. McKenzie, quoting Vegetius in Epitome of Military Science as quoted on Cotter, p. 114, “The Faith of a Soldier: Reflections on Luke 7:1-10”  from http://www.patheos.com//Progressive-Christian/Faith-Soldier-Alyce-McKenzie-05-27-2013.html. Accessed at http://www.textweek.com.

[5] Idem, New Interpreter’s Bible, 154.

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