Walking in Integrity: A Father’s Day Sermon from the Depths

This is adapted from a Father’s Day sermon I preached today in the hospital chapels.

A few moments ago, we heard some of the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs speaking to fathers and children about their relationships. Proverbs also has a word of advice for us preachers in chapter 17 and verse 28: “Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his mouth is esteemed a man of understanding.” Preachers often share little tidbits about their own lives to help us connect with our congregations and build a bridge between the biblical themes we’re exploring and the nitty gritty of everyday life. But there’s a temptation that we have to resist, a temptation to overshare, to turn the focus onto ourselves and make it all about us. In those moments, the figure of Solomon calls out to us from the mists of time and legend: “Shutteth thy mouth, preacher!”

Today is one of those times that I’m in danger of focusing too much on my own stuff. It’s an especially difficult and challenging day for me, difficult and challenging to find a word of inspiration. Today, we celebrate Father’s Day. My own dad passed away less than a month ago, at only 61 years of age. We gathered together back in my hometown of Joliet, Illinois. Gathered as a family, with loved ones coming from Florida, from West Virginia, from Mississippi. We gathered and were supported by our friends and by his friends, from various times of his life. When the time came to lay him to rest, we gathered for a memorial at the same church with whom both he and I grew up, the church where he was baptized and married to my mom, the church where I was baptized and first preached the gospel and presided at the Lord’s Table. Standing where I first preached over 25 years ago, I offered a eulogy, celebrating him as a man whose love for his family was his major driving force, a champion who bravely faced the dragons of this life in the hopes that we wouldn’t have to.

fathersdayaltar

Altar prepared for Father’s Day worship services in the chapel.

In his sermon during the memorial, Matt Bassford, the church’s preacher, made a statement that my dad’s life story was in large part the story of his struggles with his flaws. That wasn’t an insult. It wasn’t insensitive. The challenges of this life left my dad with many deep wounds, many of the same kinds of destructive patterns that we treat here in this facility. Victories, moments of peace seemed for him always temporary, and then the battles would begin again. Though in his final months the toll his struggles had taken on his body was making itself deeply felt, his final months, I celebrated at the memorial and celebrate again today, were also a time of great emotional healing, a time of reconnection with loved ones, a time of reflection on his life story and the attainment of a real sense of peace and completion.

Even in those times in his life when his struggles were at their greatest, when it was all he could do to keep going on, his love for us was never in question. Being our dad was at the very center, the very heart and soul of who he considered himself to be. Flawed? Definitely. The moment growing up when we recognize that our parents aren’t perfect may be tough, but it’s essential to growing up. Perfection is not in the mother or father’s job description. Perfection is not, but integrity is.

“The just man walketh in his integrity: his children are blessed after him” (Proverbs 19:26). To walk in integrity is to move toward knowing who we really are and toward acting with authenticity. Notice, I don’t speak of it as arriving at a destination, but rather as setting our sights forward and moving in that direction. Walking in integrity does not require that all of our convictions are true and that all of our actions are in line with those convictions. Rather, it requires that we be open to truths wherever they come from, no matter how challenging, that we form our convictions accordingly, and that each day we move closer to bringing them to fruition. Sometimes we may find ourselves feeling stuck, feeling as though the life we’re in doesn’t match who we know ourselves to be. We may not be able to snap our fingers and instantly transform. Instead, we commit to transitioning ever closer. It’s a lifelong project, and it helps to have supportive people around us, and to be those supportive people for those we encounter along the walk.

To walk in integrity is to recognize both our gifts and our wounds, our strengths and our flaws. It is to use the gifts we have in service of one another, to leave behind a world with just a little bit more kindness, a little bit more compassion, a little bit more cooperation, a world where we’ve cast our nets just a little bit wider. A world in which our children are blessed after us. To walk in integrity is to know our woundedness, and to seek healing, to know our weaknesses and seek recovery. A life spent struggling with our flaws is a life lived walking in integrity. It is the example we should hope every father sets for his children.

On this Father’s Day, while I continue to mourn his loss, still searing, still fresh, I am grateful that I had a dad who walked in integrity, even when he could only limp. My heart is with others for whom this day is difficult, because they, too, are grieving, or because their relationships call to mind hurtful memories. I’m grateful for all the fathers out there pouring themselves out in loving service for their children. We’re all in this life together, friends, and the work of forming and shaping the lives of the next generation, the work of fathers and mothers, is the holiest work of all.

A New Vision of Greatness

Audio of a sermon I was privileged to preach this morning for Antioch Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Lexington, Kentucky. In it, I said “the disciples were first called ‘Christians'” backwards at a congregation named “Antioch,” and they were kind enough not to lynch me!

 

I Haven’t Blogged on the Election…

…or its fallout, and, on a totally unrelated note, this is a sermon I had occasion to preach last year in a graduate course in Homiletics. The sermon envisions as a fictive audience a rural, blue collar congregation in southern Indiana.

(I hope to begin regularly posting new material after the New Year. I, you know, probably won’t, but I hope to. Until then, I’ll be dumping more old stuff here.)

Old Stuff: Fake Wedding Sermon on Ephesians 5

Or, more accurately, a real sermon for a fake wedding. This sermon was composed as an assignment for a grad school course in the Sacrament of Marriage, earlier in 2016.

wedding

What’s everybody smiling about? Right about now, you’re thinking, “Preacher, that’s the dumbest thing you’ve asked in this sermon yet.” We’re smiling because we’re thrilled to be here with Tim and Genae, joyful to witness the culmination of their relationship and privileged to walk with them as they begin this new, exciting, and truly sacred stage of their lives together. We’re smiling, we’re crying, we’re shaking off goosebumps because we have an intuition, a hint, that we’re getting a glimpse into something that transcends the ordinary, something bigger than ourselves or any two people, something that tells us that, in a real yet still mysterious way, this is what it’s all about.

From Romeo and Juliet down to Sam and Diane or Jim and Pam, the love story has a power to it, something about it that compels us to watch, to root for a couple we don’t really know, even a fictitious one. Even if we’re not given to spend our time with paperback romance novels, there’s something about romantic love which is both deeply private and intimate between the lovers and yet reaches outside itself and calls the rest of us along for the journey. How much more so when it is our own dear friends, our own family, our own brother or sister, our own son or daughter? Tim and Genae, this is your day, your holy moment, and yet all of us are here with this buzzing suspicion that we all have a stake in this.

And in your hearts, you may well feel this, too: the world seems to stop and focus on you, as if to say this is a great day not only for you and for your families about to be joined and for your friends and for this church, but for all humankind and for the very earth and sun and moon and stars.

“This is a great mystery.” That’s what our scripture reading said, and we feel it. We call this moment “magical” as we bumble through our language trying to find a way to put this mystery into words, and that’s fine, but a better word than even that is “sacramental.”

Yes, we’re gathered to support Tim and Genae as they celebrate together one of the great sacraments of our Christian faith. And what is a sacrament, but a symbol, a ritually acted-out sign that is so pregnant with divine potential that it actually makes present what it signifies? As you exchange your consent in a moment and as we witness, be aware that you are God’s designated co-workers, cooperating with the God of Love who is Love to bring something new and wonderful into being. This is a moment of profound grace, grace pouring forth directly from the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ through this moment and into your lives, a grace that tells us that God looks on in favor on what we’re doing today. This grace tells us that the very God who spoke this universe into being from nothingness out of the sheer abundance of his love, the God whose Word became flesh and dwelt among us as our Redeemer, this same God is speaking still, and today, he is speaking your names.

“This is a great mystery,” indeed. “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” These are the words of the Genesis account of creation, words that confirm through faith what we already know in our hearts, by our very nature as human beings. St. John Paul spoke of a spousal or nuptial meaning of the body. In order to truly flourish, we can’t remain trapped in our own skin, isolated little islands in an ocean of strangers, but we must reach beyond ourselves in love, uniting with others and together creating newness around us, in a way fitting with whatever our vocation may be. Yes, we find love stories so compelling because in our inmost beings we are made for them. We are all characters in the great love story between God and humanity. All of creation is a love story, written by Love, written with Love. Love alone satisfies, love alone is worth dying for–or, even more powerfully, living for–, love alone is real.

“This is a great mystery,” the inspired writer says and then goes on: “I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.” In their Christian marriage, enlivened and empowered by the grace of this sacrament, Tim and Genae stand before us and before the world as living symbols of Christ and the Church, of their unbreakable and fruitful covenant union. What a gift! What an honor! What a tremendous thing you have been called to this day!

In Christ, the ultimate boundary, the separation of God and creation, is shown to be fluid. The great chasm is crossed, the walls of Jericho fall down, and in one divine person, a marriage is made between God and humanity. In the one-flesh union between the divine and the human that is Jesus Christ, we find our salvation, and are elevated beyond the limits of a fallen and often painful existence into new life, a life which does not rip us from our bodies but brings healing and wholeness to our bodies, to our whole selves.

This healing and wholeness in Christ is ours because, in his human nature, Christ is not alone but the first of many brothers and sisters, called into a covenant of adoption by his Father and wedded to him as his people, his Church. In this one-flesh union between Christ and his Church–Christ and his people, Christ and us–is the source of all faith, all hope, all love.

Tim and Genae, today you become living, breathing, walking signs of that great union, of that great love. Today you commit to a life of total self-gift to one another, subordinating your own wills to the will of the other. With open hearts and minds, with the support of this community gathered here, and by the grace of this sacrament, you will live that union well. You’ll live it well and it will blossom. We pray not only for you but for the children we ask our God to bless you with, children you’ll love in ways you never dreamed possible, children who will be your legacy and the harbingers of your love, who will ensure that the great mystery of your unbreakable love will echo through the ages, and the world will never be the same.

There’s more to the story than that, of course. We know that there are great challenges in marriage, just as there are in anything worth doing. We know families often fall short of their sacred calling. When those darker moments threaten, don’t let them have the last word. Look back to this moment, to the divine source of grace who brought you here, and to us gathered in support of you, and know that God’s grace is inexhaustible. Christ’s union with his family can never be broken, and will remain a source to empower your own union and strengthen your own family as long as you both shall live.