Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, Tallassee, Alabama
St. Dunstan’s, the Episcopal Church at Auburn University
Sunday, June 26, 2016
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost + Year C
First Lesson: II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
Second Lesson: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Gospel: Luke 9:51-62
✠ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Greetings to you from the Diocese of Northwest Texas; our bishop, the Right Reverend Scott Mayer; and the people of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas, where I serve as curate, which is just a fancy word for “baby priest.” It’s an honor to be with you today, and I’d like to thank Father Wells for inviting me to preach this morning.
I’ve known Father Wells and his family for almost thirteen years now. When we first met, I was a junior at Auburn University, studying to become a choral music teacher. I had never even heard of the Episcopal Church before I was invited to sing in the student choir at St. Dunstan’s, where my girlfriend and future wife, Chelsea, and I were welcomed with open arms and cared for in a way that we had never felt from a community. At St. Dunstan’s, we learned what it felt like to be loved and accepted for who we were, and it’s that same kind of love and acceptance that we try to bring into our own ministries today.
This is an exciting time for us at Heavenly Rest in Abilene. We’re in the process of developing new ministries and revitalizing existing ones. We’re welcoming new people and new families all the time who have discovered a real sense of belonging in the Episcopal Church, and we’re in the middle of a new building project that began almost two years ago. In the Spring of 2017, we will open and dedicate Gerhart Hall, a new parish hall for Heavenly Rest named after Willis Gerhart, perhaps the most influential rector in the history of our parish. In 1949, Parson Gerhart, as he was affectionately known, inspired and led the people of Heavenly Rest to build a new church after it became clear that a new building was desperately needed. The original church had become inadequate and too small for the growing size of the parish. It was an exciting time for Heavenly Rest, but it was not without its moments of doubt and uncertainty. This may be hard to believe coming from a group of Episcopalians, but there were some who were perfectly fine with the way things were. They didn’t want to move from their tiny stone church in downtown Abilene to a new location. So, Parson Gerhart came up with a way to bring some of the old church into the new one. They salvaged as much as they could – the pews, the altar table, the baptismal font, the stained glass – and used them in the chapel of the new church. They even used some of the stone from the old church in the foundation of the new one. All of this is to say that it was important to that group of people in that time for them to remember who they were and where they came from as they moved into a new chapter of their lives as a worshipping community, and it’s with that same sense of tradition that the people of Heavenly Rest are building a new parish hall, one built upon the foundation of generations passed.
It has been fascinating to watch the project unfold over the last several months. Like the parish experienced when it was decided that a new building would replace the old one, there has been excitement but also anxiety. With the exception of some rainy weather, there have been few delays in the construction, but that hasn’t stopped people from expressing their concerns. This past Monday, I overheard a brief conversation with a man and a woman who were sitting near the entrance to the church office. From where they were sitting, they had a clear view of the construction site, and as they were looking through the window, they were talking about the progress of the new building. The woman said to the man, “It doesn’t seem like anything is happening. Why is it taking so long for us to see any progress?” The man responded, “Well, the concrete has to cure for a certain length of time. If it isn’t properly cured, the foundation won’t be able to support the weight of the building, and over time, the walls will start to crack.
Something about what the man said resonated with me and my reading of the Gospel lesson for today. What he said caused me to think about the importance of having a solid foundation in our lives so that, over time, we’ll have the support that we need to keep standing when it feels like we’re about to fall. As followers of Jesus, we know that Christ is our sure foundation, one that we need when faced with the choice to either follow God’s desire for our lives or follow our own. In today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus encounters several potential followers on the road to Jerusalem, several who say to him, “I will follow you.” But, Jesus knows better. He knows that there is something holding them back and that, for whatever reason, they’re not ready to give up their lives to follow him. They’re not ready to make the journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. We all know what happens to Jesus when he gets to Jerusalem. He even says to one of them, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Lord knows, it isn’t easy. To give up our selves, to truly put Christ at the center of our lives rather than our own needs and desires, requires us to be steadfast in our calling, especially in those moments when it feels like following Jesus doesn’t really make that much of a difference. Like the process of preparing the foundation for a new parish hall, it requires commitment, especially in those times when it seems like nothing is happening.
But, something is happening, even if we aren’t able to see it. What is happening is what St. Paul refers to as a “freedom from slavery,” a freedom that comes only when we’re willing to let go of those things that hold us back and live by the Spirit, a Spirit whose fruit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” “If we live by the Spirit,” Paul writes, “let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
What gives me hope and encouragement in my own journey are examples of faithfulness in the midst of tragedy, of love in response to hatred, like the family members of the nine men and women who were brutally shot and killed last June at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Many of you will remember how, in only a matter of hours, the family members of the victims were given the opportunity to speak to the perpetrator, a man who confessed that his sole motivation in the attack was to start a race war. You may also remember how those same family members, with tears in their eyes and anguish in their voices, publically forgave the man for what he had done. They showed mercy to the one who showed none to their loved ones, and I’m convinced that they were only able to do so because of their commitment to the Gospel and their willingness to make Jesus the foundation of their lives. I’m not sure that I could have been so forgiving.
We can’t live the lives that we’ve been called to live on our own, and I find real comfort in knowing that we don’t have to. We need each other. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and we need Jesus at the center of our lives, the chief cornerstone of our faith. May Almighty God give us the strength and courage to love and serve Christ, to follow him, even in those moments when we are tempted to turn away, and like those from every generation in the Church who have been willing to set aside their own fears and uncertainties to follow Jesus, may we also come to know the freedom of Christ in our own day. Amen.