4 Pentecost: “The end is different than the beginning…”

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Sermons

I have to warn you,
this is one of those strange, abstract
highly metaphoric sermons.

You will either get it
or you won’t.
It has a punch line —
a “so what?” as someone likes to say.
But it is a punch line
not a prescription,
so do not expect
a “How To” instruction sheet at the end.
You’ll have to figure it out for yourself.

“Every butterfly knows that the end

is different from the beginning

and that it is always a part

of a longer story…”

You see, this is a sermon in three parts
striated by that Stuart Kestenbaum poem
that, if you forget the title,
seems to be about how to live.

And then you remember the title, “Joy”
and say, “oh yeah. Joy.”
(But also, it is how to live.)

We are perhaps
someplace between
butterflies and geese
when it comes to graceful flight
or graceful living,
since in our case
we are mud creatures
who have only learned to fly inside machines.

Otherwise we are rooted to the earth,
unable to even live underwater
without a thick hull
surrounding us
and pumping in air.

So I take it as a poetic metaphor,
these joyful
winged subjects
who just know how to live
the way they were designed to live.
But we, without wings
have not yet figured out
who or what we were designed to do —
and so we try to do everything.

But now that gospel reading —
the one from Luke
where Jesus gives his team
a pep-talk before the game.
John Dominic Crossan,
theologian and cultural anthropologist,
that the reason Jesus turned into a movement
after he was crucified,
and John the Baptist became a mere memory
once he was beheaded,
is hidden in this very story.

John the Baptist was more popular than Jesus
when they were both alive,
and well into the decades after.

But the followers of Jesus
turned him into a movement
that spread across the world
while John’s disciples did not.

Crossan thinks it is because
Jesus, a charismatic figure himself,
focused on equipping his followers
to do what he did,
while John
became the object of veneration
by his followers.
One group was told to
”go out and do”
while the other group
went about proclaiming
the personality of their dead leader.

Every butterfly knows that the end

is different from the beginning

and that it is always a part

of a longer story…

…in which we are always

transformed. When it’s time to fly,

you know how, just the way you knew

how to breathe…

One of the mistakes
I think Christian preachers and teachers make
is parroting Jesus’ supposed words
from stories like the one we had today.
Take for example,
that whole bit about “eat what they set before you”
and “shake the dust”
and “carry no purse,” etc.
That is not the pep-talk
Jesus would need to give you and me today.
I don’t pretend to know
what that pep-talk would be
but I’m pretty sure it would be vastly different
from a first century, agrarian peasant speech.

Even so, modern Christians
still seem to hang onto the peculiar
first century peasant’s context
and hang on every ancient word,
which is about like our trying
to use butterfly wings to soar.
Instead, I think we need
to focus on what Jesus did:
he sent his students and followers out
two by two — in other words,|
no heroes
no solo practices
no superstars
just partners —
to do the work they could do
where they could do it.

To do the work they could do
where they could do it.

They were not going out to be Jesus
they were going out
to be themselves
among others
and practice what they had learned to do.

They went out
to be themselves
among others
to practice what they had learned to do.

In other words,
over time
they were

“…transformed. When it was time to fly,

they knew how, just the way they knew

how to breathe…”

I’m sure some of them
flew like a butterfly
and stung like a bee. (Muhammad Ali)

Some soared high…”Whoever they were
calling like wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing their place
in the family of things.” (paraphrase of Mary Oliver)

There were eighty-two of them —
forty-one partners —
and without a doubt
there was a mixture of grace and awkwardness,
successes and miserable failures,
starts and stops
and everything in between.
There is no reason to imagine
there was anything but the human condition
at work in those pairs:
the good, the bad, and the ugly,
going out and being themselves
among others
and doing what they were able to do.

So let’s not romanticize this story.
Let’s not pretend there wasn’t a lot of
trial and error,
joy and sorrow,
cooperation and conflict,
rejection and embrace.
And this is part three, where the story now turns
toward us.

…the way the geese know when to depart,

the way their wings know how to

speak to the wind, a partnership of feather

and glide, lifting into the blue dream.

What is a church?
It certainly isn’t a building.
It is not an institution
with a constitution and canons.
A church is not a bungalow
built by doctrines and laws
for an ordained few to live in.
A church is not an organ
and choir
performing for their own enjoyment
and whoever else happens to be there.

What is a church?
It is a spiritual community
sent with partners
to be themselves
and do what they can do
in the places
and among the people
they find themselves.

Let me repeat that:
It is a spiritual community
sent with partners
to be themselves
and do what they can do
in the places
and among the people
they find themselves.

If you are hearing or reading this sermon online
and you are by yourself
and do not have a spiritual community,
then get a partner.
Two by two is fine.
Just remember, you can’t do it alone.
Get a partner,
however you can,
and go be yourself
and do what you can do
among the people
you find yourselves among.

It is not rocket science.
It need not be complicated.
It doesn’t even have to cost money.
It doesn’t have to be a big program.
It doesn’t have to be recognized.

It needs to be with a partner
or partnerS,
doing what you can do
where you are
with people who you and your partners
are among.

That is a church.

A church does not require worship.
Please hear that,
because in my not-so-humble opinion,
our Episcopal Church
has screwed that up so much.
Worship is not the core of the community.
It may be what the community does
to nurture itself
so it can go

do what it can do.
Worship may be the thing we really like
to do together, but it is not the core practice.
It is the grease,
the glue,
the lotion
that helps us stay supple
but not the thing itself.

And as for the thing we go to do
we should not assume
it is feeding people
or building houses for people
or lobbying school boards, legislators, or Congress
with our impassioned voices.
It could be those things
but it might be quieter
and more subtle
and unnoticed.
It might be reading to somebody
or visiting
or eating with someone
who usually eats alone.

It can be anything
so long as it allows us
to be ourselves
among others
and we do not do it alone.

What is a church?
It is just two or three gathered together,
perhaps with a bunch of other partners
networked and woven together in community,
figuring out
what it means to be themselves
among others
wherever they are
and with whomever
they have been given
to be with.

“…Every butterfly knows that the end
is different from the beginning

and that it is always a part

of a longer story, which is always


Well, we are certainly
part of a longer story
and we have been transformed
many times —
whether we are talking about
the historic church
or our own little community.
And it is safe to say
we are being transformed now,
probably already shaped
and changed
more than we know.

We should be like the butterfly
and know that his thing we do,
this thing we are a part of
that we call, “Church”
has a different ending
than beginning,
and that we are part of a longer story
which is always about transformation.

We read the ancient stories
and sayings,
and we know about the historic
chapters we’ve been told about along the way,
and we know about
what the people just before us did
and how they did it.
What we don’t know,
what we haven’t heard yet,
is about our transformation and how
our story ends.
But “when it is time to fly…we will know how…”