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The Love of Christ Urges Us On

Updated: Jun 29

June 16, 2024 - The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

My friends, I speak to you today in the name of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Please be seated.


Well good morning, Church of the Epiphany. I can’t explain how good it is for our family to be here with you this morning. It feels like it has been five and a half years since we accepted the call here and it was just five and a half months ago. You were patient with us as I finished my time at the School of Theology in Sewanee, Tennessee, and as our girls finished elementary school there, and you have supported us the entire time. Prayers, messages, weekly Zoom calls, use of a cottage house on the lake, a custom Deacon stole, and even flights to my ordination in Charlotte. It has been genuinely overwhelming. I, and we, cannot thank you enough. And I know that many of you have been waiting for this day... not for me necessarily... but for a new full-time rector, and for a long time too.

But of course, the sermon is not a time for introductions nor local church history lessons, nor even for thank yous to the pilgrim/interim rector who has served you so well over the last few years... maybe we’ll get into those things during the announcements or at brunch or when our Spain walking pilgrims return.

Instead... the sermon is a brief time near the middle of our Episcopal liturgy when the priest or deacon or lay preacher opens and examines scripture in the context of a community. That context includes a wide range of settings and perspectives... literally, for us here this morning, the community gathered in this room is our most obvious context. How do this week’s lectionary passages speak to us? What are they calling us to do?

We also examine the scriptures in the context of the community of South Haven: how does the gospel play out on our streets, with our next-door neighbors and in our neighborhoods, on our beaches, and at our festivals. (I can’t believe I get to say “our” there, it feels pretty great.) What does the good news of Jesus Christ have to say to us in those places?

And then we also examine scripture in the context of what it is to be Michiganders, recent transplants and life-long residents alike... and as Americans... in this election year, we will undoubtedly be exploring and examining scripture and what it means to be a Christian in an incredibly divisive and dangerous time.

American theologian Ellen Davis, who works back in North Carolina at Duke Divinity School, put another important aspect of a sermon in focus when she famously wrote “The preacher is simply called to love the scriptures in public.” I have loved scripture since the late 1900’s if you can believe it, since I was about my oldest daughter’s age. I remember sitting in my bedroom in suburban St. Louis memorizing Bible verses with my dad, who was our church musician growing up. I hope that my love of scripture will come through in my sermons as your rector, but that love is especially strong today.

As some of you might have noticed, all three of our lectionary readings this morning covered well-known passages of scripture, which is almost too-kind-to-be-true for a new preacher looking to write a sermon in his busy first weekend. Our Old Testament passage from First Samuel saw Jesse’s young son David anointed to be the new king of Israel... and that seemed a little too specific to a new young-ish rector’s first day on the job (ha). I don’t want any King David comparisons, ever! But that passage does have some Father’s Day tie-ins (Happy Father’s Day everyone), so I’m sure many priests will choose to preach from it this morning. 

Our Gospel passage from Mark chapter 4 was pretty short, again a grace for a first-time reading with Marty holding the book out among you all. And it’s one of the most famous parables there is: the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a small seed that turns into a huge shrub. That’s a great metaphor, of course, especially for small churches looking to grow and make a big impact, and so it could fit here at Epiphany too... we’re not a cathedral or anything. But, I really do feel like Epiphany is closer to the shrub stage than the small seed stage already, and that’s thanks to the strong lay leadership and community that you all have cultivated here over the past few years, especially over your welcoming weekly brunch. We’ll save the mustard seed parable and its many applications for another day, if that’s alright. 

Instead, then, I want to turn to 2 Corinthians and to a somewhat long passage that ends on some especially familiar notes. You can open to it in your bulletin if you like, I believe it’s on page 7. The lectionary stays in 2 Corinthians for a few weeks this summer, and I might spend some time in 2 Corinthians in my sermons over the next few weeks because I feel like this letter from Paul is particularly interesting. Why? 

Well, most of us call this book Second Corinthians, which would then lead us to assume that this is Paul’s... second letter to the Corinthians, the Church in Corinth. Well, scholars and recent seminarians would happily tell you that that is likely not correct, that it might have been Paul’s fourth or fifth letter, and that Paul had a really close relationship with this church in Corinth. Not only did he write them letters, he made several visits there.

We know of at least two visits thanks to other passages of scripture: the first comes in Acts 18 where we meet his friends Aquila and Priscilla, and then there’s another, foreshadowed in 1 Corinthians 4 and referred back to later in this letter, in 2 Corinthians 13. There were likely more visits too, but that particular visit, sandwiched between the letters of first and second Corinthians, was a visit which Paul himself describes as painful. The people at the church in Corinth weren’t happy with Paul at this point in our long-running Christian story that ranges from Genesis to Revelation, and the Corinthians’ frustration with him likely came from a clash in relationships... strong personalities, strong opinions, questions about authority, questions about traditions... you know, those are the sorts of things new rectors expect to encounter when they come to a new parish too (ha).

With that sort of context in mind for Paul, you can maybe understand why he spends so much time in this passage explaining himself to the Corinthians... he was living differently than they might have expected, different from what they may have been used to, because he and his "brother in Christ" Timothy were doing their best to follow Jesus. “We are always confident for we walk by faith,” he writes, “we make it our aim to please the Lord,” “I hope we are well known to your consciences,” “this is for God,” “this is for you.” Paul throughout this text is trying to bridge a broken relationship with the Corinthians by explaining, I think masterfully, what it actually means to be part of the church, and that is as relevant for us today as it was for them 2,000 years ago. 

2 Corinthians 5 verses 14 through 17 could be a mission statement for any church... for any Christian... for this church... for all of us here today. It’s the part that begins with “for the love of Christ urges us on” about halfway down that second paragraph, so if you can find this on the page and then circle it with a pen or something, please do. “For the love of Christ urges us on,” Paul writes... this love is what makes us do what we do. It causes a family of five to uproot and move to serve a church in Michigan, the love of Christ. It’s what leads Chuck and Shari Ippel to open their doors and let us stay in their home as if we were family, the love of Christ. The love of Christ urges us all on; it urges Ellen and Henry to lead us in worship, it urges Lisa and Marti to give of their time to serve as senior wardens over these last few years, it urges Michelle and others to serve those in Ward One and Tom and others to serve in Pullman, and it urges countless others here in this room to live differently from those who have not yet met Christ and had their lives turned upside down.

I think I might ask here what the love of Christ is urging us each to do today.

But Paul then continues, answering the unspoken but perhaps common question, “Why did this Christ die for all?” Well, “Christ died for all so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” Christ died not to grant us a ticket to heaven... or to stop an angry God from punishing us... but to change our lives in the here and now, to help usher us into a new kingdom where we no longer regard others from a human point of view with judgment or disgust or frustration, but to regard our neighbor as Christ sees them, as an image bearer of God, beloved just as we are, no matter what

This passage, of course, ends with probably the most well-known part, at least in the world of Christian slogans: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away, and everything has become new.” 

My prayer for Epiphany and for you this Sunday morning, and probably for every Sunday morning while I am your rector, is and will be this... that by being grounded in the love of Christ, we are urged forward as new creations to regard others from God’s point of view, loving without ceasing, confidently walking in our faith, and aiming to please the Lord. Amen.

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