"For God is at Work in You..." - A Sermon for St. Timothy's Church on Episcopal Schools' Sunday 2019

Today kicks off Episcopal Schools’ Celebration, a week designated each year by the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES) when we celebrate the work, ministry, and—especially—all of the people.... students, alumni, parents, teachers, staff, priests, parish members….everyone… involved in, and responsible for, the education offered by Episcopal Schools around the country. 

Every single person here today falls into one, or more, of those categories; you are not simply an observer of this celebration, but rather part of the celebration—and a reason for the celebration.  And our community is not alone—according to NAES, there are approximately 160,000 students in Episcopal Schools, with 28,500 faculty and staff, and 1,138 Episcopal day schools—of which 1,042, like ours, are connected to a specific parish or congregation.  We at St. Timothy’s Raleigh are in very good company!

So as I offer my perspective on why we ought to celebrate, and what it means to be a part of this St. Timothy’s School community this morning, will you please join me in prayer?

Heavenly Father, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and redeemer. Amen.

This year’s Episcopal Schools’ Celebration theme is “For God is at work in you.”  It comes from St. Paul’s letters to the Church of Philippi, where he says to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, wrote about this passage in a letter to Episcopal School leaders.  He invited us to pay close attention to the preposition “in.”  Bishop Curry wrote, “Though the following may still be true, in this case it is not that God is at work for us, with us, or even through us.”  Not just for, with, or through.  But in.

There’s another key word in the verse that I noticed, too: God is “enabling” us to do His will.  To enable something is to point someone towards something…to give someone the means to do something…but not necessarily to guarantee it will happen.  Giving you the keys to my car enables you to drive my car, but that doesn’t mean that you will drive it.  Paul is telling the Christians of Philippi, and—by extension, us, as well—that God’s work in us gives us the means to do His will, but whether we actually do it depends on if we have the will and/or do the work required to make it happen.  We have a choice.

This idea that perhaps God is at work in us, predisposing us towards things He would like, immediately reminded me of what C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity.  If you have not read Mere Christianity, or have not read it recently, I cannot commend it to you strongly enough.  It is one of the most compelling, most thought-provoking and convicting works I’ve ever read.  Relevant for us this morning: in the first few pages, Lewis observes that across all times, across all cultures and nationalities, humans show evidence of what he calls a “Moral Law” hardwired into our hearts.  We just inherently seem to know and be drawn to appreciate beauty, honesty, selflessness and sacrifice, courage, generosity, justice, and goodness.  

He goes on to show how this “Moral Law” cannot be explained as a result of culture, or education, or evolutionary herd instincts.  No, the only conclusion is that this Moral Law is placed within us by a Creator.  But, he notes: “The Moral Law does not give us any grounds for thinking that God is ‘good’ in the sense of being indulgent, or soft, or sympathetic.  There is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law.  It is as hard as nails.  It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do.” 

That last part is critical to our understanding, I believe.  Because we might be tempted to read Paul’s words in Philippians that “God is at work in you,” and start to conclude that whatever we do must be God’s work.  If God is working in us, then everything we want and do must be His will, right?

Wouldn’t that be nice… or would it?  If everything we did was what God wanted us to do anyway, it would mean we’d actually have a life without choices, without freedom—we’d just be pre-programed robots, with God operating us with some divine joy stick.  Or, again quoting Lewis, we’d be living in “a toy world which only moves when God pulls the strings.”

But we know from our own experiences that’s not the case.  We have freedom, which means we have choice.  And if we have choice, it means that within us is not just God’s work, but also other forces, other impulses and instincts that aren’t part of His Moral Law.  Which means we need help to discern which of our thoughts and instincts are good and which are not.  We need knowledge.  We need wisdom.  We need to discern the right meaning and purpose for our lives that God would intend.  We must seek truth.

And here is what motivates all of us who are part of the Episcopal Schools community.  We see education as an opportunity for students to find God at work within them, and to discern how they, to use Paul’s words, might will and work in the ways that God desires.  We see education as the ultimate enabler… in a very good way.

Education is not meant exclusively as something that equips our students for academic success at the next level, or something that just instills skills for the workforce.  It’s not a vocational education in the contemporary, secular meaning.  But the education we offer IS vocational in its more crucial, historical meaning. “Vocation” comes from the same root word as “vocal,” or “vocalize”—a callingGod’s calling.  We strive to offer an education that enables students to seek and to discern God’s calling.

And there’s that word “enable” again.  Because that’s very important in our Episcopal Schools’ context, too.  We aim to equip our students with the knowledge, skills, and values so that they may seek meaning, purpose, and truth.  We want them at the earliest ages to start thinking beyond themselves, to start contemplating big, existential questions.  And in chapel, and elsewhere, we offer them the answers that we believe God gives to these questions through the example and teachings of Jesus.   But we stop short of demanding that they must agree.  St. Timothy’s School is a place where we try to inspire everyone to always be seeking greater understanding, but we do not demand agreement.

There are lots of reasons why we don’t demand agreement. We don’t believe God wants us to be robots.  We believe God has given all of us critical faculties and minds to discover, to explore, to question, as Paul puts it: to “work out our own salvation.”  In a universe that is beyond full comprehension by any human mind, how much more complex must the Creator of that universe be?  We can—and, I’d argue, we should—spend all of our lives seeking to know and to understand God better.  Demanding agreement stifles questions, which, in turn, stifles both the intellectual and spiritual growth that God intends for us.  Demanding agreement, stifling questions... history has shown this can be just a stone's throw away from banning books... which is just a stone's throw away from burning books. And rarely are the people who do this treated kindly by the generations that follow. 

Sarah Culton gave a wonderful chapel talk a few weeks ago, where she said we ought to read the parables of Jesus over and over throughout our lives… because if we do, we’ll likely discover a new key takeaway, a new lesson, some new truth that applies now in ways that we never considered when we read that parable before.  Lifelong growth, lifelong learning, and lifelong questions—that’s what we try to instill in a St. Timothy’s education.

Another key reason why Paul’s words to the Philippians are so relevant for us was offered by the Reverend Dan Heischman, Executive Director for NAES, when he wrote:

How natural it can be, in our contemporary world, to interpret “God is at work in you” in individualistic terms, within a “you and me, God” framework.  Paul would have nothing of that interpretation.  God works within each of us for the purposes of building up the common life, of establishing a redemptive community of grace and reconciliation. 

As natural as it can be, in our contemporary world, to view education in individualistic terms, Episcopal schools stand for something more.  The best education comes within a community … be it the coming together of our community on a regular basis in chapel, the communities and groups that we are called to serve beyond our walls, the encounter with difference that makes learning truly complete, or the daily life lessons we teach through the interaction that takes place between self and others.

Just as much as God places that Moral Law within us, I believe He also places within us a calling to… a yearning for… community.  Modern science even confirms this.  Consider two different stories that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in the last year.  In one, called “The Loneliest Generation,” they note that loneliness “is as closely linked to early mortality as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day or consuming more than six alcoholic drinks a day.  Loneliness is even worse for longevity than being obese or physically inactive.” 

In another article, called “The Surprising Boost You Get From Strangers,” they reported:   “Multiple studies show that people who interact regularly with passing acquaintances, or who engage with others through community groups, religious gatherings or volunteer opportunities, have better emotional and physical health and live longer than people who do not.”  

God has placed in us a yearning for connection and community that is so fundamental to our existence that it impacts our very health and longevity.

But, I’d argue, not all communities are created equal.  Not surprisingly, I found words by C.S. Lewis quite helpful to me on this point, too.  He wrote that very often, “wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way … badness is only spoiled goodness.”  Things like pleasure and joy are good; they’re things God wants us to experience.  However, there are good ways we might seek pleasure and joy, and there are bad ways we might seek them.  Similarly, God may hardwire us for community, but there are both right and wrong ways we might choose to seek it or understand its importance. 

The great irony of our modern age is that we adults are more connected than we’ve ever been before, thanks to our ever-present devices and Internet access.  And yet, the World Health Organization says we are suffering from a literal epidemic of loneliness.  We are simultaneously more connected AND more lonely than ever before in human history.  Maybe all of the selfie-swapping, meme sharing, and vitriol of our political echo chambers on social media aren’t the kind of communities that God intends.

Which brings me back to our St. Timothy’s School community.  You see, plenty of schools value connectedness and community. Plenty value kindness and generosity.  But we want to inspire our students to understand why these things are so important, to help them seek these things in the right ways and for the right reasons.

In many schools, a student may learn that being kind is important because the teacher says so, because you’ll get in trouble if you’re not kind, because if you want people to be kind to you, then you should be kind to them.  At St. Timothy’s School, we want our students to see that we are called to an action-oriented, sacrificial love for everyone—friends, strangers, even enemies, not because the teacher says so or even because the headmaster says so.  We want our children to know that we believe we are all creations of a loving God, made in His image, and we therefore should treat every person—no matter how different they may be—with dignity, respect, and compassion.  We do this because God wants us to do it, and he’s shown it to us in the example and teachings of Jesus.

We strive to offer students a community with lots of differences in backgrounds, stories, and perspectives not because it’ll prepare them to collaborate better someday when they’re in college or the workforce, or because studies published in the Wall Street Journal show they will live longer as a result.  No, we seek a diverse community because only through such a community can the greatest growth happen for everyone, and the greatest good be achieved in changing and positively impacting our world.  We do this because God wants to change and positively impact the world, as he’s shown in the example and teachings of Jesus.

Knowledge is not for yourself.  Love is not for yourself.  Community is not for yourself.  These are gifts of God, yearnings placed in our hearts by God, who is at work within each of us.  We want our children to know this.

As I conclude, I want to share with you the St. Timothy’s School Portrait of a Graduate.  It tries to capture in about five sentences what I’ve tried to articulate for the last 12 minutes.  Lots of schools have a “Portrait of a Graduate” statement, but while theirs are generally put together by expensive marketing firms, ours was put together by only our teachers and our trustees.  No marketing firms.  No consultants.  Just asking the folks who know us best to articulate the essence of what we do at St. Timothy’s and why we do it.  It only reaffirms to me at this time of Episcopal Schools Celebration why we ought to be celebratory about our parish school here at St. Timothy’s.

St. Timothy’s Graduates build upon an excellent academic foundation to…

Solve problems with diligence and creativity.

Embrace both faith and reason in the pursuit of truth and meaning.

Strive to lead healthy, honorable, and joyful lives.

Treat all people with dignity, respect, and compassion.

Love and serve God and one another.

Every teacher, of every child, in every grade, in every classroom, and well beyond the classrooms to recess fields, athletic contests, chapel, and beyond—hopes that in every way, every day, the work we do will help our children grow into that vision of the graduate we aim for them to be.

We want them to know that God is at work in them.  And as our whole community of parishioners, teachers, parents, alumni, and friends support this endeavor, it’s clearly evident to me that God is at work in each of us, too.

I offer this reflection on Episcopal Schools Sunday in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
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