Sermon preached by Alex Riffee, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 13, 2010
Good morning. Today I come to you somewhat conflicted. Today I have been given the opportunity and privilege to preach on God’s Word and how we as a congregation can find meaning in our lives with regard to the Bible, our faith, and the world around us. Still, even though I have had many opportunities to preach at my home parish in West Virginia as well as my previous internship at St. Thomas Episcopal in New Haven, every experience at preaching seems to be unique and requires a lot or risk and trust in God to help along the way.
This opportunity to stand before you and share God’s great message was supposed to be just another Sunday where I could trust in God to give me the words, so that I could offer them up to all those who would listen. On Thursday I had finished the sermon I was going to give, but as I read and reread what I had written, there seemed to be something amiss. I believed what was written to be right and good, but the spark I usually felt when I knew that the Spirit had more to do with the sermon than my own interests and theological beliefs did not come. Rather, I felt very little as if what was written could offer some good advice, but lacked the divine spark.
I was going to preach on the idea of the examined life, expressing that in God we must be willing to take a look at the hard stuff, but also see the beauty that lies inside all of us, as we are, at this place in time, in order to answer God’s radical call of love to usher in the Kingdom. However, the problem with that idea was that I failed to examine myself first or listen to the outside voices around me before I started to write.
So, I threw it out. I deleted the file from my computer and started fresh.
And, I must confess, I only gained the courage to start from scratch only after I went to see a movie with my fiancé before she went back home to West Virginia. That movie was The Karate Kid. Now, I know, one might ask how a children’s action movie, a remake even, could influence someone enough to throw out a perfectly good and theologically sound manuscript at the click of a button.
I am still asking myself that question. Yet, I tell you, it wasn’t the buttered popcorn, the flashy effects, or the oversized soft drink that did it…but I felt that divine spark during the movie and could not stop thinking about the readings for today and what I could learn from the movie to help me examine my own life. Yes, in the Karate Kid, there were many corny lines as found in the 1980’s version of the film. There was an overzealous angry teacher who took the sport so seriously that it would make Mike Ditka of the 1986 Chicago Bears cringe. There was preteen puppy love. There was even a brilliant fast paced montage, which showed a child mastering Kung Fu at the blink of an eye, in what would probably take a lifetime to do and only with the help of many professionals and personal trainers.
Yet, amid the action packed scenes, amid the hokeyness and corniness, at the base of the story lay something much deeper and profound. It offered many lessons to live by. In the movie there was a boy who had a rough past, confused and scared of his new surroundings. There was very little in his life that seemed familiar and during the point when he had begun his training in Kung Fu, you could see a slow approach to everything that took place.
Every action he made, every place he visited had meaning and offered a new vantage point when looking at a seemingly ordinary situation. Among the most profound lessons hidden within the movie, I felt, was the desire to seek out balance in a world filled with chaos and discord, while the other lesson expressed the great difference between being still and doing nothing. It is often in times of great quiet and stillness when I find that my mind actually begins to work and can open up to what is really going on around me and it was good to be reminded of this need in my life in this fun little film.
Yet, that’s the amazing thing really. It doesn’t have to be a word offered by a great writer like Dostoevsky or a memorable quotation from a famous politician or celebrity that offers some life changing advice or words to live by. Transformative ideas and calls to be self-reflective can come from the simplest thing, stories. Stories, which at first may seem to offer nothing more than an entertaining tale, but in the thick of it all, they contain within them the possibility to see oneself as any one of the many characters that lie within, thereby taking on the important ideas shared within the story and applying them to our own experiences.
I needed to be reminded of the great impact stories can have on a person’s life, my life in particular.
This is one reason why the Bible has stood the test of time. The Bible is constantly being made anew for us as people of faith, by the graces and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Yet, its relevance in our day also comes from the fact that the Bible contains within it a myriad of stories that vary greatly from one another. This seems to fit well with the needs of a society that is so fast paced and barraged by unceasing sources of external stimuli. Within the Bible, there are stories of trial and tribulation, stories of injustice, prejudice, and even war. However, there are also stories of great love, mercy, hope, and advice to bring about cause for self-reflection, a reorientation of one’s priorities toward God.
The stories offered in today’s readings of Second Samuel and Luke are just that, one’s that allow for self-reflection and for reorientation. They offer a way to live out an examined life. When we look at 2nd Samuel we see the prophet Nathan confronting King David after he had killed Uriah, the partner of Bethsheba. David wanted Bethsheba for his own and now they were having a child. Throughout this time, David tried to find ways to cover up his misdeed, while failing to fully acknowledge the grave injustice he had committed. It took a story, a simple one at that, for David to truly see himself in the mirror. He took a life, he divided a family, and he failed to acknowledge the freedom and humanity of Bethsheba before he used her for his own selfish purposes.
With a story, he could see his fault, which provided him with the desire for repentance and to realign his priorities toward serving God and God’s Kingdom, even in light of his awful crime. When I reflect on this passage, when I am still, I see much about my own life that I am not too proud of, but has nonetheless aided in the formation of who I am and what I believe and fight for. When reflecting on my childhood, I often remember trying so hard to be accepted by the main group that I often joined in on the ridicule of my actual friends. I made fun of their appearance and their interests. Almost immediately, I regretted my actions, because I hurt those who loved me for me.
There is not a moment that goes by when I remember these past experiences that I do not feel remorse or shame, but it is in admitting and recognizing this wrongdoing that I am able to look forward and live with greater integrity. By so doing, I attempt to give others the full attention, love, and recognition needed to realize their full humanity today. This realization came from examining the things about myself that are less than stellar and although it is hard, recognition of this is needed to find true balance for an examined life.
Yet, this is merely one piece of the puzzle. The other aspect lies within giving full authority to the side of us that wants to contribute, the side that wants to love, and the side that gives full awareness to the God given gifts we have, even when others may try to silence them. This piece is best viewed in today’s Gospel reading.
As Jesus stays to eat at the house of a Pharisee, who is an educated, upper-class, male, religious figure, a woman who remains nameless enters unannounced into the house and begins to do something so unorthodox that, in doing so, she showed radical love and a call to action. This woman washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and when the men in the room tried to stop her and point out her unworthiness to serve, Jesus told a story. He told a story to reorient the thinking of the men who were not ready to accept her as a lovely person who had something to share. Yet, he also told a story to encourage the great gift she had inside her, bringing forth balance to her life. When I reflect on my past, I see something quite similar.
I remember wanting to be a priest basically from high school, but when I entered college that desire hit the back burner for some time. I joined a fraternity, I had a great time, and I remain friends with many of my brothers. Although, it is true, during that time, I lived into many of the fraternity guy stereotypes such as partying late into the next morning. As a senior in college, however, my priorities began to change.
For brevities sake, I will only say that things began to wake up in me and I felt that God was calling me to serve. I did not want to listen because I felt unworthy. Still, I mentioned this desire to many of my fraternity brothers, while sitting on a porch one hot spring day in Kentucky. Many of my brothers laughed at the idea and made some off color jokes. At that time, I felt vulnerable, like the woman being ridiculed for washing Jesus’ feet.
However, when I almost dropped the subject completely, one brother that I did not expect to hear from said, “Alex, I never thought about you as a priest, but it seems right. If you feel you have a call, then you need to go for it.” There was silence and then others who were formerly joking also started to affirm my call. That night when looking in the mirror I did not just see the things about myself that needed to be worked on, but I saw the good in me and the call God desired of me.
It is at this point that I gained the ability to look introspectively, to look fully into myself. Had it not been for the tale I saw on the movie screen, I would have been unable to see my story within the Biblical narratives today before offering any type of advice, and that would have been wrong. So I offer my story alongside those that have provided meaning to my own in order to share with you the vulnerability it takes to truly be self-examining.
I guarantee that everyone in this room has their own stories where they can remember feeling inadequate, no matter how hard we try to forget. However, there must also be stories where you were proud of yourselves or gained the encouragement needed to go the extra mile, rather than giving into discouraging voices. We all have our stories and in this fast paced world it is hard to take time and be still enough in order to replay them within our hearts and minds. This takes great effort. This takes time.
Above all, it requires that we open ourselves to the world around us. We must be open enough to give credence to constructive criticism that may be offered by a dear friend as well as being open to the voices that say you are special, you are unique, you have something to offer no matter what. These voices are all around. They are in the Bible as we read the stories of the past and the timeless parables within. They are in prayer. These voices are in our friendships, our memories, the sounds and sights of nature. They are even in the pop-culture world when watching the action packed film, The Karate Kid.
Stories are all around us. So, when you leave this place, I ask you to notice the end of your bulletin. It says something to the point of “The worship is over. Let the service begin.” Service means a lot of things and today I want it to be an attempt for you to serve your innermost self and search for the stories that lie within. Whatever it takes, whether it is a walk in the park, silence, or reading and rereading a particular text. I want you to ponder on your life and become self-reflective.
Be open to those things that need to be worked on for there is no shame in it, but seek out the beauty that lies within you. It is there, because you are God’s own. By taking this stride, seeing both extremes, you will have the ability to take on a truly examined life, thereby, taking one step closer to the God who loves you and the mysteries that God has in store for all of us in our lives to come.