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Turn and Walk In
By Jacob Fergus
May 12, 2013
Senior Sermon, Youth Sunday
John 13: 1-17
Revelation 22: 12-17
Jesus Christ, Savior of the World, affirms his role on earth: “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.” This attitude is rare for Jesus, who, when facing Pilot and certain death, did not confirm his stature. Following the washing of feet Jesus chooses to take this momentous step in order to make a stern point: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you…no servant is greater than his master.”
This abrupt lesson is a common occurrence in the Gospels. It seems to be one of Jesus’ favorite teaching styles. He often stops in the middle of a fishing trip or mountain walk just to teach his Disciples a lesson. Rather like a museum usher or tactful mother. A clever mom will take any opportunity and make it a life lesson. “Well sweetie, what are you going to do about that?” If only I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard that one.
Jesus uses this sudden lesson to make a very direct point with great emphasis: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” This lesson is among many in the Gospels, even continuing into the stories of discipleship after Jesus’ departure, along the same theme: simply serve.
Paul and Silas are case-in examples of this. A female slave on the streets is possessed by a spirit which has granted her the powers of fortune-telling. She comes to understand that Paul and Silas are servants of the Most High God and proclaims this to the streets and crowds. Paul becomes so annoyed by this that he turns and casts the spirit out of her.
Her owners become outraged that she no longer can make them any money by way of fortune telling. They insist that Paul and Silas be sent to prison. While in jail Paul and Silas occupy themselves by praying and singing hymns, much to the interest of many other prisoners. One night, at midnight, an earthquake shook the prison and all the door flew open.
The guard is distraught, thinking that all the prisoners have escaped. He draws his sword in preparation to kill himself, but Paul intervenes. “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The guard falls trembling at the feet of Paul and Silas and asks “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Their answer is simple. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
What more could be required of us than to just believe? “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
From the very moment we set foot on this earth we are showered by the grace of God. I have seen that blessing in my church, my school, my friends, and my family:
So. Growing up at St Stephen. Here goes. My first memory of this church is of a candlelight service, probably Advent Lessons and Carols. I was just a kid, 6 or 7 years old. I remember being transfixed by the beauty of this sanctuary, and that continues till today. This space for me epitomizes the word “Sanctuary”. I have had friends come for one performance, to sing one piece or concert years ago and they still remember this space. That sort of influence is powerful. St Stephen leaves its impression on everyone who has ever walked under these magnificent gothic ceilings. From one time visitors to high school graduates, if nothing else, this sanctuary has inspired God’s majesty in the hearts of its visitors in a way that is not easily forgotten.
Throughout the Old and New Testament the Israelites build and rebuild theHolyTemple, which was said to be the resting place for God Himself. While an omnipresence God surely rests in every church and heart around the world it is safe to say that this sacred chancel, the acoustic ambulatories, intricate stained glass, and commanding organ are nothing short of worthy to house the Lord of all Creation.
My education has been far from customary. I was homeschooled for the first 14 years, spending hours trying to absorb all the information my parents could throw at me. Whether it be shadowing my mom in the kitchen while she makes the most delicious chocolate chip cookies or pleading with my dad over why on earth he won’t see understand my logic as to WHY rectangles and parallelograms should have the same area. I’d to like to note that it took me years to figure out why I was wrong in both of those categories.
Starting with my sophomore year I was taking all my classes, from arts to academics, at Travis Academy of Fine Arts; a program originally developed to provide more advanced classes for homeschoolers than could be done in the average kitchen. Studying under mentors like the teachers at TAFA has been, by far, one of the most influential elements in my 18 years so far. A passionate math teacher who taught me as much about being a dedicated student and young member of society as she did advanced mathematics, a former NASA engineer who nigh-on failed me, my class, and those of the year after because she drove us so hard and expected so much more than we ever thought we could give. Those and a handful of others whose names I will never forget, have instilled an attitude of learning and maturity that I will carry with me every day and which I hope to pass on to whoever I can meet.
Beyond a fantastic education the most important aspect of my life has been my friends. Not just those with me every week from class to class, but those I’ve met here in this building and all over the country or world. Nothing on this earth compares to the adrenaline that comes from conversing with people. Sharing knowledge face to face. Whether it be a Thursday night choir rehearsal where we can switch between gorgeous music one second to BS-ing each other in the tenor section, or a Mission Trip toMexico, people remain more interesting than iPhones or Xbox’s. At least until the next version comes out.
But despite these 18 years, I look forward and am daunted by the sheer amount of things that have yet to be done. Despite human advancement over the last however-many years, we still wake up in the morning to a world engulfed in war, conflict, bigotry, and anger. And who are we to think that with our measly 90 years and these ten fingers we can change that? Nations, men, and women much greater than ourselves have tried and all that we have to boast is a famous name and maybe some good quotes. Despite Gandhi’s efforts, an eye for an eye continues to blind the world.
The reality is, we can’t. Not alone. Only by walking hand in hand with our friends, enemies, and all-powerful God can we truly make a difference. In the words of two legends in pop culture: “Wanta change the world? There’s nothing to it… If you wanna make the world a better place take a look at yourself, and then make a change.” Honestly I believe that Gene Wilder and Michael Jackson have really hit this on the head.
What more could ever be asked of us than to make a difference first and foremost in ourselves? We have these hopes and dreams of leaving our childhood lives and changing other people, making a difference in THEIR lives. But this ideology is really not about other people at all. It seems to stem from this desire for everyone else to be just like us. In our Acts reading it is not Paul and Silas’ persistent evangelism that inspires the jailer but their honesty and moral compass.
When Jesus washes the feet of his disciples he instructs them to do the same. But Jesus is very clear. “Now that you know these things, YOU will be blessed if you do them.” Jesus is the nice math teacher who gives you credit for trying, using the right procedure, even if you don’t get the answer completely right.
What more could ever be asked of us than to simply try? Following Jesus and walking in the light of God isn’t about keeping score. It’s not about some numbers game of converts and missionaries. It’s about how can we better ourselves through a closer relationship with our Savior and what He wants for our lives.
It has been said that when God closes a door, he opens a window. Well I don’t know if that’s really true. I’d prefer to think that there are a lot of doors, all standing wide open. When we walk towards them we start to see what’s on the other side and maybe we walk through it. Maybe we close the door ourselves. What really matters is that no matter which we choose the one certainty is that on the other side God will be waiting with open arms.
I think most people making any major step in their life, be they graduates choosing colleges or careers, a married couple buying their first house, or a parent’s daily struggle with making the right and best decisions for their children, can relate to that sort of situation. In any given place its naïve to think of answers as simply right and wrong. We live in a world that is painted shades of gray.
In all truth the only roadmap we have is our human moral law and a sense of responsibility. Certain biblical concepts are quite primal. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. But overarching all of this is, call it evolutionary or Biblical, I’d say it’s both, the fundamental duty to act on behalf of others. Is what we’re doing to the benefit of just ourselves, or are we making a change for the greater good?
For the first 18 years of a child’s life, we spend hours and hours trying to discover what we truly want to do with the next 60 years. What am I good at? What inspires me? What am I passionate about? Every answer is different for different people but I am good at learning. There have been few things I couldn’t learn to do. With that kind of ability I honestly could do anything. And frankly, so could anyone. I’m not unique in this.
So what then? How does anyone make the most momentous decision of, possibly, their entire life? You seek the most important goal of all. Essentially it boils down to this. In the end our human actions on this planet should have one objective: to glorify God through servitude to others. Simply standing and yelling on the streets of Fort Worth or the dirt paths in Africa achieves nothing. It only serves to misrepresent the true message of Scripture: to simply serve.
But in the end, why do we do this? To any extent nothing is worth doing if it doesn’t achieve some sort of greater goal. One of humanity’s many shortcomings is that we are mortal. One way or another, today, tomorrow, or one hundred years from now we will all die. And what then? On earth we leave a legacy. Maybe some heirlooms, and a handful of memories. Memories which in all likelihood will only last a generation or two.
So in the end our only hope in to have the honor of walking through the pearly gates of Heaven and into the triumphant arms of our loving Savior. Heaven. The realm of glory, the residence of God almighty, and the gathering place of all the saints. But how does one get into heaven? There are countless examples and lessons throughout the Bible that outline a decent map to the celestial city. But Jesus provides for us the simplest of all. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these.”
Jewish actress Natalie Portman once said in an interview: “The only honest thing I can say about heaven is that I don’t know whether it exists or not, and I think that it’s a bad concept to have because then you want to do good things to get into heaven and everything becomes a selfish act.” And she is absolutely accurate. Our entrance into Heaven isn’t like every form you fill out at the DMV with all the blanks and check boxes. It is so much simpler than that. In the end we will be welcomed into the true sanctuary of God only if our intentions are pure.
To that extent why wait? Why do we have to die to serve hand in hand with Jesus Christ? The good answer is that we don’t.
Time and time again in the Bible we read about God’s “Kingdom”. And more and more these days the intersection evangelists like to remind us that God will take us from this earth and bring us to Him, while at the same time banishing sinners into a fiery pit. But in reality the Biblical description of the Rapture is much more extravagant then that:
Jesus prays “…thy Kingdom come…thy will be done…on Earth as it is in Heaven.” And again in Revelation: “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel…”
The next two chapters following this in Revelation detail the New Jerusalem down to the gemstones embedded in the foundation. The word picture is of a city painted in purity and light. Our reading today comes from the very end of the book, and epitomizes the very essence of salvation: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city…The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”
One of my friends described this scene for me a while ago, an image of God himself in human form standing over the gate with arms extended, pleading for the crowds outside the gates to turn and walk into the Kingdom of God that is already in existence on this Earth.
God’s Kingdom lives today through the good works of everyday people. Through the kind offers and gentle conversations. Through the first responders on 9/11 and after the Boston bombings. Through the retired warriors and the young men taking their places. Through the passionate and caring mothers we celebrate and appreciate today and every day.
God’s Kingdom is a living and breathing embodiment of God himself. Forgiving and omnipotent it lives inside of each and every one of us from the day we accept its existence until we die and become a part of it fully, for all eternity.
God’s Kingdom isn’t some exclusive club that only admits those who meet the standards at the end of their lives because we could never live up to that. Instead a great and merciful God sees our pure intention and reaches out His hand and says “Come, take the free gift of the water of life.”
God doesn’t start sifting through the population picking out believers and non-believers. There is no lake of fire. No limit to the number of people who can come in. There is no gay or straight, no rich or poor, no young or old, Baptist or Presbyterian, there is simply one law. Love God, and love neighbor just as much as you love yourself.
All that God asks is for us to set aside our petty differences, our earthly attachments, turn, and walk in. And if we don’t that’s a very simple choice. The only denial those entering the city may find is if what they want, cannot be found there. If your intentions are those of division and hate, those of addiction and bigotry, intentions of murder, idolatry, and lies, you will not find them in New Jerusalem. But the eternal grace and love of God is such that whenever you choose to turn and walk in, God will be there as our Father, welcoming home His prodigal son.
So as I turn and walk away from this church, this life I have been living, it is to begin my journey towards those gates, hoping to achieve what is the most important: servitude to man, country, and God. And I leave with you a challenge. A challenge to St Stephen as a congregation following the same pathway as myself and so many others:
Continue in dutiful service. Let us put aside our disputes, walk away from drama, mend relationships, and improve ourselves as a church, a people, and hopefully through that, improve humanity. Because life is good now. We live in an incredible world full of brilliant and loving people. But there is still so much to be done.
Let us live on so that we may die as Erma Bombeck said: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’.”