A Sermon Delivered by
The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 15, 2019
As I said last week, and will say again this morning - The task of the preacher on any occasion is to proclaim the Good News of God as understood in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. I intend to continue doing just that in the foreseeable future, given whatever time is allotted to me, by using the setting of this ornately-carved wooden-paneled pulpit to preach the Gospel. This elevated podium, towering over the congregation in the nave, commands the highest spot in this architecturally-designed Cathedral-like church, and deserves respect. I recognize that in many ways preaching is a privilege, and this pulpit gives me an opportunity to convey the church’s message of love and justice; at the same time that it grants me authorization, as it were, from the top-down for being here as priest-in-charge. I am committed to honoring God’s purposes as long as needed, and as long as the Holy Spirit permits.
It’s interesting that more than two thousand years ago, the prominent Greek philosopher, Aristotle, said some very useful and compelling things about speeches, and by implication for my own purposes here this morning, about sermons. He looked at content and context. He observed how they began, and how they ended. Aristotle was shrewd enough to recognize you had to capture the attention of your audience within just a few minutes of the speech’s beginning if you wanted to be persuasive and succeed in projecting your message. That, of course, required practice, finesse, dexterity, delivery, elocution, and yes even clever gimmicks. But once the speech was underway, its importance shifted to still another segment of the talk that had even greater impact on its relevance – the ending. Indeed, Aristotle is quoted as saying “the end of any speech should 1) leave the listener on friendly terms, 2) move the listener emotionally, and 3) recapitulate, but not necessarily summarize, the overall theme.
So with all that as a practical and worthwhile guide, offered-up by a venerable expert of high-repute after two millennia, I would like to venture forth and attempt to proclaim the Good News of God as it has come down to us through the ages. By the way, that’s my opening teaser to get your attention … so here we go!
This past week here at Trinity there was a small service of baptism for a family that represents so much of what is happening and going on in the world today. An infant less than a year-old, managed to bring together a grandparent from another country who only understood a foreign language that needed to be translated, a mother who was a professional woman pursuing advanced training at WVU’s renowned medical center, an academic father who was beginning his teaching career specializing in historical studies, along with relatives who traveled considerable distances from out of state, simply to be here at Church in order to sponsor and support an infant who had no idea of what was happening, yet was marked as Christ’s own forever. It was a joyous occasion. Why? Because Jesus Christ enshrines the only sure and certain truth in an age of uncertainty; marked by skepticism, shifting values, and gross materialism.
It’s no big surprise, the Baptismal Covenant is highlighted as an integral part of any specific or individual baptism. The Covenant provides an opportunity for all Christians to renew their own commitment to Christ, and here at church you’ve heard that renewal formulated many times as the Prayerbook presents it in Q & A format.
The Baptismal Covenant
Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God's help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God's help.
The Celebrant then concludes:
May Almighty God, who has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, keep us in eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (I repeat) keep us in eternal life.
What is at stake here is how we might become more fully authentic Disciples of Jesus Christ; incorporating the rigorous demands of God by following his Commandments, and honoring what all that entails. It means that we seek to know Jesus on a more personal level in a vital way; know him, love him, and then strive to conform our lives to His high standards in order to experience his redemptive love forever.
And to develop this theme further, let me cite another worthy figure from the past; Thomas a Kempis, who was a German-Dutch theologian aligned with a movement called the Modern-Devotional school of thought. He wrote numerous concise, poetic couplets that captured the spirit of his era in the 1400’s. For example:
Without the Way, there is no going,
Without the Truth, there is no knowing,
Without the Life, there is no living.
In the year 1420 he also wrote his renowned spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, where he said: quote…
‘Anyone who follows me shall not walk in darkness,' says the Lord. (Thomas then continued) These are the words of Christ, and by them we are reminded that we must imitate his life and his ways if we are to be truly enlightened and set free from the darkness of our own hearts. Let it be the most important thing we do then, to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ.
Though these words of Thomas a Kempis were written for a specific purpose - to guide novices under his supervision in the monastery he founded along a path of righteousness - and though they were written in a specific context of time (the 15th century) ‘The-Imitation-of-Christ’ is considered a treasured work that continues to offer wise counsel to followers of Jesus Christ today, even those who are not monks, nuns, priests, or bishops…. but simply ordinary people leading extraordinary lives.
‘Imitating Christ,’ I realize sounds a bit pretentious, if not audacious. How can we possibly do this? And how does that spiritual quest connect with our baptismal vows that continually need to be reaffirmed? Thomas a Kempis points the way, and says by way of reorienting and amending our lives: ‘Let that be the most important thing we do to reflect on the life of Jesus.’ In fact, Thomas declares; that goal lies at the very core, and is the basis, of our baptismal theology.
So let me now summarize, or as Aristotle would say, “recapitulate” this sermon’s main theme.
In order to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, we must know Jesus intimately. We begin doing this through prayerful, daily reflection on Scripture, especially Jesus’ teachings in the gospels. We sit at Jesus' feet, as the crowd did when Jesus preached the Beatitudes in ‘The Sermon-on-the-Mount,’ described fully in Matthew 5:7. We listen carefully to his teaching and then, by his grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, strive to put these principles into practice in our daily lives.
We learn to live like Jesus by gathering regularly in his name, worshiping him in the company of others, being one with him in the Eucharist, and being sent out in to the world to serve. This represents a new way of life, and requires discipline, a word that has the same root as "disciple." Being a follower of Jesus Christ takes devotion and love for the one who is the ‘very image of the invisible God.’ For more on all this, see Colossians 1:15.
Meanwhile back here at Trinity Church, Morgantown, I like to think all these religious maxims are obvious signs that the Holy Spirit is alive and well, and that in our life together we are making a difference for our community at-large, especially in the civic realm by simply learning to let go, and love God.
We ask all this … mindful that Aristotle urged speakers at the end of their talk to…
1) Leave the listener on friendly terms,
2) Move the listener emotionally, and
3) Recapitulate the overall theme…
best summed up traditionally by the Church when it’s done…
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request.
Thomas a Kempis: Imitation of Christ
The Rt. Rev Chip Stokes, Bishop of New Jersey
Famous Conversions (Kerr & Mulder)