by Joe Culley
Delivered at Saint Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania
on October 22, 2017
Good morning! My name is Joe Culley and my wife Kelly and I are parishioners here at St. Thomas. It is a pleasure to be standing before you today. I would like to thank Marek for this unique opportunity to deliver a lay sermon. I turned 39 years old on Friday, and no, being up here today was not my birthday wish. But this generous invitation from Marek could not have come at a better time for me, because over the past year I have been on a magnificent spiritual journey, with my amazing wife, that has truly transformed us.
Kelly and I moved to Flourtown in the summer of 2016. Kelly was baptized at St. Thomas, and her family has been coming here for many generations. We loved the idea of leaving the City where we met and moving here to be closer to Kelly’s parents, David and Julie Lawson, and to give our two puppies, Derby and Cricket, more parks and trails to explore.
We joined St. Thomas before joining a country club (I have never seen so many golf courses in one area) and so when friends would ask us what club we were joining, we would say, “We joined St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh.” Kelly is now a member of the Newcomers Commission and needlepoints kneelers. I have joined the Finance Commission, the Endowment Board and recently became a Reader. In addition to regularly attending Sunday 10 am service, I found waiting 6 days between visits to the hill proved too difficult on my quest to nurture my faith, so I started regularly attending the Wednesday morning service here, with my new friends Carol, Casey, Peg, David and Stroud.
Kelly and I are part of the micro, or sandwich generation, between Generation X and Millennials. Australian professor Dan Woodsman gave our tiny generation a name recently, creatively referring to us as “Xennials”, for folks born between 1977 and 1983…or the period of release of the original Star Wars trilogy. (I was a huge Star Wars fan as a child.)
What makes Xennials unique, besides how few of us there are, is that from a technology perspective we experienced an analog childhood and a digital adulthood, as we are the last generation to grow up without cell phones, social media and text messaging. Many of us actually still read the print newspaper and watch the evening news! Professor Woodsman observed that Xennials possess both Gen X cynicism and Millennial optimism and drive. I think my mother-in-law would say that sums me up perfectly. I am not really that sarcastic though…(am I Jule?)
When I was in High School, there was a popular movie out titled Speed, starring the late Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. It won two Academy Awards and grossed over $350 million dollars. The film tells the story of an LAPD cop, who tries to rescue civilians on a city bus, which is rigged with a bomb that is programmed to explode if the bus slows down below 50 mph.
And there is this great line in the movie that has become part of pop culture history. But more on that in a minute…
In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we hear about yet another attempt by the Pharisees to corner Jesus. We can read a similar version of this story in Mark’s Gospel as well. Once again the Pharisees are trying to get at Jesus: “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.” We know from many accounts in the scripture, what the end goal was for the Pharisees. They continually played this “gotcha game” with Jesus, for they wanted so desperately to label him a false prophet, arrest him and ultimately rid themselves of Jesus. Other examples in the Gospel of these attempts made by the Pharisees include: castigating Jesus for performing miracles on the Sabbath, calling Jesus out for not washing before having a meal, or ridiculing him for the types of people Jesus chose to associate with, like the tax collectors and sinners. And so in this reading from Matthew today, it begins with the Pharisees, this time joined by the Herodians, who together come at him with another impromptu test and say to Jesus: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” or as Dennis Hooper says to Keanu Reeves in Speed…”POP QUIZ HOT SHOT!!!”
And at first we are made to feel a bit startled by the response from our savior Jesus Christ, because he replies with: “Why are you putting me to this test, you hypocrites?” Now I do not know about you, but when I hear this initial response from Jesus, my mind immediately goes to, “OK, this is about to get REAL”. Perhaps we are about to witness one of those rare occasions when Jesus appears to let out his frustration, like in all of the Gospels who share the story of Jesus entering the temple and flipping over the moneychanger tables and throwing out the merchants. We assume that because Jesus is “aware of their malice” he may have a fierce response in store for these agitators. But in this instance, Jesus like so often we read in the Bible, chooses to stay above the fray, even though as the Son of God, he is without peer as a counter puncher: for Jesus is playing chess and the Pharisees are playing checkers.
Our lord and savior routinely carries himself throughout the Gospels with this understated elegance and quiet self-confidence. And so rather than get bogged down and distracted, Jesus just asks a few simple questions and keeps the main thing, the main thing. Firmly stating so crisply, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Now this could be an early Judeo-Christian example of the separation between church and state…but the more lasting takeaway for me is this: to know God is to know oneself.
Studies show that there is a direct correlation between helping others and self esteem. We hear it each week in the liturgy, that it is better to give than to receive. Marek talks often about the connection between happiness and regular Sunday worship. The spiritual journey Kelly and I have been on this past year, backs all of that up. By prioritizing faith, Sunday worship and resting on the Sabbath, we have allowed ourselves to be less available, but more vulnerable.
As Xennials, Kelly and I are reasonably comfortable using technology, but we no longer use it as a means to maintain superficial relationships. We have experienced that a deep, lasting relationship with God, does not require owning the latest iPhone or downloading the new must have app.
Instead for us, it is about observing the Sabbath by using Sunday as a day of rest, rejuvenation and attending service. And we couple that weekly routine with daily scripture reading and prayer. More specifically praying for others, as oppose to ourselves, which is a spiritual, selfless exercise that gives back far more in return. By growing closer in our relationship with God, we have been more present for our family, close friends and each other. There have been signs of physical transformation as well, as I have lost 45 pounds through improved diet and increased exercise, and at nearly 40, I am in the best shape of my life. I have been asked to take on more responsibility at my firm, yet my stress level has drastically declined. Kelly and I have also cut down the amount of time we spend zoning out with television and surfing the Internet.
Our burdens are lighter, we have more restful sleeps and we are living each day with more purpose, and a deeper connection to our faith, and one another.
My wife has several witty quips, and she reminds me of them often: “Trim the fat”, “Give good, get good”, “Quality not quantity”. While these are all effective on their own to be sure, they are also colorful reminders of God’s grace. We so often incorporate elements of life to insulate, numb or cope. We react to aggressors with aggression. We use our smarts to outmaneuver. We end up so entrenched in our own complicated garb, that we sometimes miss out on the freedom of feeling vulnerable and faithful. The Pharisees try to provoke Jesus and yet he does not feel threatened. He does not use his omniscience to one-up. Rather he shares what in his heart he knows: The Lord is everlasting and his power undimmed by constraints of earthly values. “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” The Pharisees go unchallenged, yet exposed.
Indeed as we let God in, accept communion, and are guided by faith, we too recognize the ways in which we do not always heed the values of Christ. This past year, my transformation has been an exercise in letting go of the aspects of my life that did not serve a spiritual purpose, or were not grateful of my goodness. In all of our spiritual journeys, we find that our vulnerabilities are not so raw, and that by removing the things that do not hover near the guidelines of our faith, we can live in a grand duality of being more gratefully full, yet lighter in mind, body and spirit.
Attending an Episcopal service every Sunday, Kelly and I completed our own worship challenge this past year.
We visited Episcopal churches all across the country, from Boston to LA and from Seattle to Palm Beach. By participating in other Episcopal services, the common hymns and liturgy would allow us to feel like we were home, even if we were thousands of miles from Fort Washington.
What we have learned most from our worship challenge is that St. Thomas is a special place with great leadership, a national reputation, a beautiful campus, a rich history and a bright future. We have met so many wonderful people here at St. Thomas and are proud to be part of this church family. We encourage all of you to join the worship challenge, prioritize St. Thomas in your charitable giving and take your faith deeper by availing yourself to all that this church, and the Episcopal faith, has to offer and allow yourself to be transformed.
When I sing along each Sunday in the hymnal, I am transported back to my early youth and the time I spent living with my grandparents and going to church nursery school and watching my grandmother sing in the choir.
My mother was working second shift at a hospital and my father was working third shift at a factory, so I stayed with my grandmother most days.
On days when my mother would come to visit me before work, she would ask my grandmother what we did all day, and she would often respond, “I just held him in my arms and sang church hymns.”
Thank you Mom-Mom, I was so blessed to enter this world, be introduced to Jesus Christ and loved by you.