You Really Ought to Meet My Mother

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Washington on November 16th, 2014.
The twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28, Year A.

That’s Harsh!
I mean, Really?  Is Jesus saying that the Kingdom of God is like a greedy slave master; that God is like the ruthless business man in this parable? “Watch out!  If you don’t put the gifts God gives you to good use, you will be condemned for all eternity.”  Really?  Is God so capricious?

The common interpretation of this parable softens it, pointing out how generous the landowner is.  These are massive sums of money he is entrusting to his slaves.  And the two who risk it – and are lucky enough to win – are generously rewarded.  But the one who plays it safe ends up in the outer darkness.

But is that the only way to understand this message?

That rate of return on an investment requires a high level of risk. And it may involve trampling on other people.  What if one of the slaves had risked the money and lost it all?

What if Jesus is describing the world, rather than the Kingdom of God?  Look at what happens to the poor slave who speaks Truth to Power, telling his master that he is a harsh man who reaps what he did not sow – as is often the case for Truth-tellers, he is cast out.  And is is often the case, those who have much get more, and those who have little, lose even that. Maybe Jesus is pointing out what happens when people gain wealth and power over others.  Remember, each slave is given an amount of money according to his ability.  So the landowner knows that the one who buried it is not as able to manage the money.

What if Jesus is warning against ascribing worldly/ business attributes to God?

What if the master is Life and the talents are God?  How does God’s presence allow us to take risks in life?  Do we hide God?

So, let’s look a little deeper.

There are a couple of contexts to consider here.  First, for Jesus and the disciples, this is happening during Holy Week.  They have entered Jerusalem with a lot of fanfare.  In just two days’ time, they will celebrate the Passover, and Jesus will be betrayed.  Since his arrival in the city, Jesus has been teaching in the Temple and in the street, challenging the money changers, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and now he’s speaking privately with his disciples.  He’s talking about the End Times and Judgment Day.  He keeps driving home the point that no one knows when it will come, but there will be signs.  He tells parable after parable about the coming Judgment.

Now, the other context to consider is that of Matthew’s audience.  They have already seen the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem.  Many of the signs Jesus spoke of have occurred.  They expected that Jesus would be returning soon, but it’s been decades.  And many of their number are dying.  When will Jesus come?

Matthew offers some comfort, reminding them that Jesus said he didn’t even know; that no one knows except the Father.  So live as if it would happen tomorrow.

Matthew recounts Jesus’ parables about the end time and about judgment.  If we were to look closely, we would see the stakes escalating.  He starts with a seemingly random, one is taken and one is left.  Then he tells of the ten wedding attendants and apparently each is on their own to save themselves, but they have the ability to do so.

Today, we have the slaves who must risk and earn a ridiculous return on ridiculous sums of money. A talent is 15 years of wages for a laborer.  Even the one who received one talent was entrusted with a very large amount of money!
Next week we’ll hear about the sheep and the goats.  And we’ll realize that every single one of us is a sheep.  And every single one of us is a goat.

Well, if that’s how it is, I might as well pack it in and go home.  There’s no point in even trying.  And maybe that is the point.

Now one of the characteristics of Matthew’s writing is his use of hyperbole to make a point.  What if the point is to let go of fear; to stop trying to win God’s favor. You already have it.  Yes, we will be held to account for our lives.  Mabye Jesus is saying to engage it.  Now.  To fully live, to risk, even.

I read a story this week about a woman sitting for a portrait.  The artist engaged her in conversation to get to know her a little.  He asked her, “What is your greatest fear?”  She gave an “obvious” response.  But he challenged her, “That’s not it.  Something more personal.”
After some thought, it dawned.  “What I fear most is getting to the end of my life and realizing that I had been too fearful – too careful – that I never really used my talents.”  “That’s it,” he said.

Yes.  That’s it.  I can relate.  What if Jesus is offering salvation from that fear?

The Thessalonians are worried too.  When will Jesus come again?  Now, Paul is writing much earlier than Matthew.  This letter is written around the year 50, approximately 20 years before the fall of Jerusalem.  They had expected Jesus to return by now, certainly!  The church is suffering persecution and they, too, are worried about what will happen to their loved ones who have already died.

Paul offers comfort.  He reminds them, ‘you are children of light, of the daytime; destined for salvation.  Even though the world seems dark, encourage one another, build up each other.  Live without fear, but in Hope.

When we dig down into these readings, we find a fullness of Hope.  Hope that can dispel the darkness of the world.

One of my favorite Ted Talks is steeped in Hope.  It’s called “If I Should Have a Daughter…” by Sarah Kay.

She is a spoken word poet and she begins her talk with this poem.  It starts out,

If I should have a daughter, instead of “Mom,” she’s gonna call me “Point B,” because that way she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me.”
The poem goes on to talk about life – the joy and wonder and awe; the pain and heartache and heartbreak.  How her hands are too small to catch all the pain she wants to fix.  That when life knocks the wind out of you, your lungs are reminded how much they love the sweet taste of air. And that
“there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away.”
She says she wants to tell her “that this world is made out of sugar. It can crumble so easily, but don’t be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it.”

And at the end of the poem she says, “And when they finally hand you heartache, when they slip war and hatred under your door and offer you handouts on street-corners of cynicism and defeat, you tell them that they really ought to meet your mother.”

In her poem, I hear the voice of God.

“If I should have a daughter,… she’s gonna call me “Point B” because that way she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me” [and I’ll send Jesus to be her GPS]
“this world is made out of sugar… don’t be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it.”
“when they slip war and hatred under your door and offer you handouts on street-corners of cynicism and defeat, you tell them that they really ought to meet your mother.”

You tell them, that they really ought to meet your family; they really ought to meet your brother, Jesus Christ.

To Whom Do I Give My Life?

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Washington on October 19th, 2014.
The nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, Year A.

‘Tis the Season, isn’t it?

The new TV Season – have you figured out which shows you’re going to watch and how to set up your DVR so you never have to miss a minute of a single episode?  And new Sports Seasons – hockey just started; football is underway; and of course in baseball, it’s World Series season! It’s Year-end Close-out Season – get great bargains on this year’s cars so they can make room for next year’s models.  It’s Fundraising Season for all your favorite charities – your donation will be matched – double or triple your gift or even, in some cases, 5 times.  And with the reminder that Tax Season is coming soon. In case you missed it, it’s Election Season.  Ballots are arriving, the mud has been flying for weeks and months, even and the last-minute fundraising appeals have ramped up to a new high.

I don’t know about you, but I have been inundated with invitations, enticements, urgent requests, and dire warnings.  Through the mail, TV and radio advertising, robo-calls, and everybody’s all-time favorite, my email inbox.  I actually have a separate email address that’s dedicated to receiving just such requests.  I don’t mean to belittle all of this.  In fact it’s easy for the important ones to get lost because there are so many and some are frivolous.

And, of course, it’s Pledge Season, when the church asks us to reflect on the life of this community of faith and how we participate or would like to participate in the life of the parish.  One piece of that reflection is to ask our help in developing a budget for the coming year by indicating how much we each plan to contribute to the income of this community.  Now, sometimes it’s called “Stewardship Season,” but stewardship doesn’t have a season.  Stewardship is our whole lives.

Stewardship addresses the questions:
To What do I give my life?
To Whom do I give my life?

Now let’s think about Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.  Imagine that it’s a letter from the founder of Christ Church to us.

Greetings to the people of Christ Church Parish in Tacoma in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.  My family and I always thank God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our lord Jesus Christ.  You who are beloved by God, who has chosen you, because the message of the gospel came to you not only in word but also in power and in the Holy spirit…  and you became imitators of the Lord.

That’s who you are – Beloved and chosen by God to receive and proclaim and be the good news of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. And if that’s who you are, how do you hear the exchange between Jesus and the Herodians and the Pharisees when they ask him a trick question and Jesus responds, “whose head and whose title is on the coin?  Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Now, what do you think he could mean?  There are many possibilities, but separation of church and state probably is not one of them.  Is it a trick answer to a trick question?  What is God’s and what is the emperor’s?  It’s a question we might ask ourselves several times every day.  You bear the image of God and are marked as Christ’s own.  In fact all of creation reveals God.  Is Jesus suggesting that we are to participate in the world, using our money, resources, and institutions to help us to love God and love our neighbors?  What do you think?

How do we love our neighbors?  I would say that it is to respect the dignity of every person, and all of creation, to be compassionate, to make sure that all are provided with the necessities of life – loving relationships, clean air and water, adequate food, clothing and shelter, access to medical care and education, and the opportunity to contribute their energy and skills meaningfully to the good of the community.

What things are the emperor’s and what things are God’s?  I think it goes back to the questions I asked earlier:  To What do I give my life? To Whom do I give my life?

To what or to whom do I give not only my money, but my attention, my talent, my energy, my voice, my vote, my words, my touch, and the most precious of all, my time?  How do I offer my life to love God and love my neighbor?

Where do I shop and what do I buy?  Maybe I take the “one-stop-shopping” route so I can get everything done quickly and have more time to spend with my family or helping out a friend or simply time to take care of myself, such as getting enough sleep.

Or maybe the best way for me to love my neighbor is to shop at local small businesses.  Do I buy American made? Or do I look for the lowest price so that I can pay my rent?  Perhaps I choose to buy recycled goods at a consignment store or thrift shop.

How do I love my neighbor when I’m filling out my ballot?  Which candidate is more likely to effectively work toward a more just society?  How can I vote to love my neighbor on issues like protecting children from gun violence or providing for all children to receive the best education we can offer?

Where do I spend my energy?  Do I use my hands to pull myself up by my bootstraps?  Or to ask for help, because I can’t do it myself?  Or reach out my hand to lift someone up who has fallen or been knocked down?  Or even to restrain someone’s hand that is about to abuse another?

These are questions we face every day.  They don’t have simple answers that are right for everyone.  The important thing is to ask them.

And it is not just as individuals that we ask them, but also in our families and workplaces, in the public square AND in the church.  We can have these conversations about how this church is to offer its life in love of God and our neighbor.

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.

We are God’s beloved, chosen to receive and proclaim and be the gospel in the world.
You bear God’s image.
You are marked as Christ’s own.

To whom and to what will you give your life today?

To whom and to what will we give our life this year?

Where Do You Stand When Life Gets Challenging?

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Washington on September 21st, 2014.
The fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A

Where do you stand when life gets challenging?

Maybe you saw the video that was making the rounds on the internet this week.  It’s a BBC interview with Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby at Bristol Cathedral.  Well there was another video that went along with that one of  “person on the street” interviews that asked that question, “Where do you stand when life gets challenging?”  Who do you talk to?  Does your faith help you?  Do you pray about it?

Not surprisingly, few people said that they turn to their faith or to prayer or to God.  A few expressed a desire for a faith, for something they could believe.  Some said they talk to friends or to family.  Others that they bottle it up inside and then it comes out in stress.

In the course of the interview, the archbishop shared one of his own challenges.  Early in their marriage, their seven-month-old baby girl died in a car crash.  “No one has the resources within themselves to face something like that,” he said.  He mentioned the signs out in front of the cathedral with that question, “where do you stand when life gets challenging.”  So the interviewer asked him.  He responded, “well you don’t.  You go over; you fall over.  But then you find that Jesus is right there and picks you up and carries you.  Jesus stands with you as you continue to go through it; he doesn’t make it go away, but you find you’re not alone.”

Jesus doesn’t require that we get our lives in order first, or our theology right, or even that we pray “right” – whatever that means.  No, Jesus is there with us all along, standing with us, as we go through our challenges, helping us to get up and move forward.

Life does get challenging sometimes, for everyone.   Physical or health challenges, financial challenges, or challenges in our relationships.  And if we aren’t experiencing challenges in our personal lives, all we have to do is open a newspaper to see that we are living in challenging times – gun violence, the ebola epidemic, frightened, suffering children at our borders, and figuring out how to respond to ISIS.

Archbishop Justin talked about praying about some problem in the world, saying, “this is all very well, but isn’t about time you did something, if you exist?”  Yes, he sometimes doubts.  Doubt is part of a life of faith.

The Israelites in today’s Exodus reading doubted.  And they certainly had their share of challenges.  First it was their slavery in Egypt.  Then they had barely gotten out of town when they were backed up against the Reed Sea with the Egyptians bearing down on them.  Next thing you know, there’s no potable water – the only water source is bitter.

And now, they’re hungry with no food in sight.  And they complain.  They complain to Moses and Aaron, but really, their complaint is against God.

So often we point to their “faithlessness,” but are they?  God hears their complaining and responds, sending them quail and manna for food.  God hears their prayer!  Even though it doesn’t sound much like a “proper” prayer.  God goes with them through the desert.  They don’t have to learn to pray right first; God meets them where they are, as they are, and answers their prayer.  Each has as much as they need to eat.

The parable of the Generous Landowner and the kingdom of heaven that we heard in the gospel this morning speaks to this as well.  All of the laborers receive what they need for life.  All are welcomed fully into the kingdom of heaven.  The kingdom of heaven is now, it’s here.  How do we live it?

God doesn’t pro-rate grace.

It isn’t portioned out based on anything –  not on how much we deserve or how faithful we are or how long we work (or how well we work) or how well we pray.  God meets us where we are, as we are; stands with us and walks with us.  And picks us up and carries us sometimes.

Archbishop Justin recounted how when he turned his life over to Jesus, he thought it was the end of fun in his life.  Forever. He thought that Christians were all about rules – most of which begin with the word, “don’t.”  What he found, was that Christians are all about Jesus and that it usually begins with, “follow me.”

All of the laborers went to the vineyard.  All of them received God’s grace.

The archbishop also confessed that there are times when he’s not a very good Christian.  Sometimes, we’re like the laborers who work all day.  Sometimes, we’re like those who arrive at the eleventh hour.  But the thing is, even when we’re not faithful, God always is.  Jesus always is.

When we’ve gotten ourselves in exactly the wrong place, God doesn’t say, “sort yourself out and then I’ll come find you.  No, God comes alongside us and says, ‘let’s go from here.’”

God does not pro-rate grace.  God meets us where we are, as we are and stands with us as we go through whatever it is life throws at us.

Where do you stand when life get’s challenging?  Maybe a more appropriate question is,

How will you stand when life gets challenging?”

Whatever our answer, God will stand with us.

Thanks be to God.

Love Letter from God

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma Washington on September 7th, 2014.
The thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A

When my son was a senior in high school, like many students before and since, he studied Hamlet, by Shakespeare.  His English teacher, unlike most teachers, gave us, the parents, a homework assignment.  She explained that in the play, Hamlet’s friend, Laertes, was heading off to study in a distant city.  Just as he was about to board the ship, his father, Polonius, sent him off with words of advice.  Some of those words are very familiar to us.  Words like, “To thine own self be true,” and  “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

The teacher invited us to write a letter to our sons and daughters, offering words of blessing or advice as they would soon be finishing high school and heading off on new ventures of their own.  She then passed them out for them to read to themselves, during class.

I heard that many of the students were a bit choked up and there were even a few tears.  They recognized their letter for what it was.  It was not just another lecture about “inappropriate behavior,” telling them what they should or shouldn’t do; how to run their lives.  It was not just more unwanted, unsolicited, old fashioned and out-of-date advice.

No, it was a love letter.  To a dispassionate observer, it may have looked like a set of random instructions.  But to the heart of the beloved it was understood as an expression of love of our deep desire for the well-being of our beloved.  It was sharing our wisdom, although limited, gained through life, through experience, of what well-being means, and how it can be attained.

I don’t remember much of what I wrote, but I do know he saved it.  He still has it, tucked away amongst other treasures and mementos.  In the years that followed, we developed a sort of short-hand love letter.  When he was out, doing who knows what, I would sometimes, okay, often, shoot him a text message, “Be good, be safe, be wise.”  It became something of a ritual.  Now grant you, it probably was met with an eye-roll at the time.  But still, he got the message:  “You matter – you are loved and cared about and are part of someone else’s life.  And I know you are capable of making appropriate choices.”  He still remembers those times and will sometimes say it to us when we’re going out.  Be good, be safe, be wise.

The Christian tradition has some of those short-hand reminders, too:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.   Love your neighbor as yourself.

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Do this in remembrance of me.

What do you think God would say in a love letter to us?  I invite you to hear this morning’s readings as excerpts from a love letter from God.

To a dispassionate observer, they may sound like arbitrary instructions, but to the heart of the beloved, they are expressions of love.  You are God’s beloved and you are part of something bigger than yourself; you’re part of your family, your community, this community of faith, the Body of Christ.

You matter.  What you do and what you say matter.  You belong to God and God’s deepest desire is your well-being.  Out of that deep desire, God writes a love letter to us.

Through Paul, God tells us, “Owe nothing except a debt of love.  Loving another fulfills the Law for love can cause no harm to another.  Live honorably – do no harm to yourself, but love yourself.”  So first and foremost is Love.  Love others, love yourself.

The Gospel lesson continues this letter of love.
Today’s lesson skips ahead a chapter or so from where we left off last week and lands in the middle of Jesus’ discourse on the church.  Jesus begins that discourse with little children.  “If you would be the greatest,” he says, “you must become like a little child.  Be like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  And he goes on to warn, “woe to any who would lead them astray.”

He goes on to tell the parable of the lost sheep.  The shepherd discovers that one of the sheep is missing and leaves the rest of the flock on the hillside while going in search of the one that has gone astray and brings it back, rejoicing because it has returned and the flock is whole again.

And then he comes to today’s passage about reconciliation.  Now, to a dispassionate observer, it may look like instruction about church discipline; what steps we must take before finally kicking someone out of the church.  However, with the heart of the beloved, we can hear that this is ultimately about love and the well-being of the beloved.  It is about the importance of community and God’s desire for the well-being of the beloved community.  And it is about our accountability to the community.

When wounds fester and become grudges, the whole community is harmed.  So Jesus tells them, when you have been harmed, reach out to them first.  Don’t wait for them to come to you to ask forgiveness.  Seek reconciliation.  And if it doesn’t work the first time, try again, and again; and enlist the help of the community if needed. And although Jesus doesn’t say this explicitly, in seeking reconciliation, we may realize that we, too, played a part in the rift.  I may have harmed the other as well.  Jesus acknowledges, though, that we are not yet fully in the kingdom and at times it may be that the well-being of all is best attained by separation.

Jesus continues the discourse by stressing the importance of praying together.  He promises that when we gather together to pray He will be among us.  Next week, we will hear the conclusion of the discourse when Jesus speaks about forgiveness.

Finally, we come to the Old Testament love letter.  Because of God’s love for the people, God is rescuing them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt.  God gives them a ritual, with very explicit instructions to help them remember in generations to come, how God acted on their behalf out of love.  They are to roast a lamb and eat it hurriedly, dressed for the road; ready for their escape from bondage, prepared for a long, difficult journey.  Through this ritual, they remember who they are and whose they are.  They remember that they are beloved of God.  It’s a ritual that has been repeated around the world for thousands of years.

In just a little while, we will participate in the ritual God gave us through Jesus; a ritual that has been repeated around the world for 2,000 years.  We remember how God, out of love, acted on our behalf.  In the bread and wine, the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, we remember who we are.  In the Body of Christ, we are bound to God and to one another – God’s beloved.

Be good, be safe, be wise – it’s our family’s shorthand love letter.

Perhaps God’s shorthand love letter would be:

Love others, seek reconciliation, pray together.
And share the rituals.

Remember, you are God’s beloved.

Anchors and Touchstones

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Washington on August 3rd, 2014
The Feast of the Transfiguration-transferred.  Year A.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s one of the few that we can celebrate on a Sunday.  So it must be a pretty big deal.  But apart from how cool it must have been – terrifyingly cool – what do you think is the big deal?  Why was it important in Jesus’ life?  In the lives of the three disciples who witnessed it?

What does it tell us about God, about Jesus, and about our own life with Christ?

Just a week before this, when Jesus asked his disciples, “what’s the word on the street?  What are people saying about me?”  And then he asked, “What about you?  Who do you think I am?”  At that point, Peter blurted out, “You are the Christ, the chosen one of God.  Then, almost immediately, Jesus tells them, for the first time, that he will suffer and die and be raised up on the third day.

All that happened just a week before what we heard today.  Imagine what that week might have been like for him.  Now here it is just a week later and Jesus asks three of his closest companions to come up the mountain with him to pray – to open themselves to God; to listen for God’s voice and guidance.

And God shows up, big time, along with Moses and Elijah.  Jesus is visibly changed before their eyes and the disciples hear God say almost the same words that were heard at Jesus’ baptism.  The same words that Peter proclaimed just a week earlier.
“This is my Son, my Chosen one.  Listen to him.”

Jesus was Transfigured, yes, but for the disciples, this was a Conversion Experience.  As spectacular as this experience was, their conversion didn’t begin and end on the mountain.  It continues throughout their lives.

In Jesus’ life, the Transfiguration is a turning point. He comes down the mountain and turns to make his final journey to Jerusalem.  It was probably a turning point for the disciples, as well.  While they had been following this itinerant preacher and prophet for some time, now they had some evidence, so to speak.

I’m sure that this experience served as a touchstone and an anchor later on.  In the chaos they must have felt when Jesus was arrested and crucified, they had something to hold onto; an anchor in the storm.  And then, when they were going about their ministry, proclaiming the gospel, it was a touchstone – something to help them remember who Jesus is and who they are.  They had a story to tell.  We heard it in Peter’s letter.

We all experience milestones and turning points in our lives.  Some of them may even become anchors or touchstones for us.  An anchor to help us weather the storms in our lives.  Touchstones to help us remember who we are, whose we are, our place in the world.

Most of us have experienced a certain ebb and flow in our spiritual lives.  Some of us may have had mountaintop experiences of some kind.  But while those are great and can turn our lives around sometimes, conversion is not a singular event, it’s a lifelong process.

There are so many things we can say learn from this gospel. Today I suggest two.

The first is the importance of spending time with God – in worship and prayer, in study, in listening for God’s voice and seeking Christ in others; in noticing and attending to God all around us.

The second is God offers us and calls us to ongoing conversion of life – not only for our own lives, but for the good of others.  God does the converting, but we have to show up, open and willing.  Think about our two mountain top stories this morning.

Moses goes up the mountain to be with God.  When he comes down his face is glowing – the people know that something momentous has happened.  They pay attention, even though they’re frightened.  And then he goes into the tent of meeting and to be with God throughout their journey. Each time, he first removes the veil, he’s open and receptive to what God has to offer.   And each time, he brings God’s message back to the people.

Jesus takes his disciples and goes up the mountain to be with God.  And he is transfigured.  He comes away, knowing what he is to do next and it’s not for himself.  The disciples, too, are changed.  They come down with a surety of their own path and of who Jesus is.  They are strengthened for the journey that lies ahead of them.

What are some of the turning points and milestones in your own life?  From leaving  your parents’ house to retirement, the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child or grandchild.  How have those moments continued to touch your life?  Have they anchored you?  Have they been touch stones for you?  Looking back, can you see God in them?  Maybe you can, maybe not.

What about times when you know God was acting in your life – whether it was a mountaintop experience or something small?  Were you changed?  How could that change have benefited those around you?

We show up, open and willing.
God transforms us.
Thanks be to God.

Can I Worship This God?

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Washington on June 29th, 2014
The third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8, Year A

If the Akedah, the story of the Binding of Isaac, were the only story we had to tell us about God, quite frankly, I wouldn’t be here.  I could not worship that kind of God.  And I have to admit, that this morning, it’s really tempting to just rush right past that story and go straight to the gospel and preach about hospitality.

Fortunately, it’s not the only story we have about God.  In this long season of ordinary time, the season after Pentecost, we will hear the rich foundational stories of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Over the next four months or so, we will spend Sunday after Sunday, hearing the stories from Genesis and Exodus.  The stories about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; of Sarah and Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel; the stories of Joseph and Moses in Egypt, and the long journey of the Hebrews through the desert to the promised land.  These are stories of Call and Promise and Covenant; of Testing and Providence and Fear of the Lord.

It started on Trinity Sunday when we heard, again, the story of Creation, told in the first chapter of Genesis; a creation that God declared was “very good.”  Then, because Easter was so late this year we missed a few episodes and landed in the middle of the story, last week, when Hagar and her son, Ishmael (who is Abraham’s first-born son) are sent out to the wilderness –possibly to die.  But God stepped in and provided water; God gave them life.

Today’s episode begins “After these things…”  which of course raises the question, “which things?”  Well, it’s after God called Abraham to leave his home and his family to take his wife and his household to “a land which I will show you.”

And after God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising land and offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the beach.  And after Abraham is again promised a son in his old age, even though his wife is long past her child-bearing years.  And after he has a son by his wife’s Egyptian slave, Hagar.  And after Sarah finally, when she is 90 years old and Abraham is 100,  bears a son, whom she names Isaac, which means laughter.  And after he sends Hagar and her son away.

That’s the last thing we saw, Abraham lost his first son.  Some time has passed, though. Then, Isaac had just been weaned; now he’s big enough to walk a journey of several days and to carry the wood for a sacrifice, although the text doesn’t say how old he is.

And now, God demands still more of Abraham.  The story raises a lot of questions in my mind.  Was it really God?  Why didn’t Abraham argue?  What did he say to Sarah – anything?

Why was God testing him?  Did he fail?

As with any good story, there are many, many ways to look at it and there may be many messages that we can take away.  The storyteller chooses how to tell the story; what details to include, what to leave to the hearer’s imagination.  And those who hear the story through the ages bring their own experience and values to the story as well.

As horrific as it is, this story is preserved in all three of the Abrahamic faith traditions – with some variation in detail; and variation in interpretation.

Christians often identify Isaac as prefiguring Jesus’ crucifixion.  Muslims often focus on Abraham’s absolute obedience and submission to the will of God.  (In their telling, it is Ishmael who is offered to God.)  Depending on how old and strong and healthy each is relative to the other, one might make the argument that it is the son who demonstrates absolute obedience.  After all, he has the most to lose and may very well be capable of overpowering his father.  In Judaism, the focus is often on God.  God provides – a refrain that is repeated throughout the story.

What we might take away from this story, this time is that whether or not it was God who commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son; whether or not Abraham was crazy or hearing voices; whether or not he should have “discerned in community” as we Anglicans would advise; whether or not it actually even happened…  the story tells us that God averts the disaster and provides another way.

In our vulnerability, God provides.

God’s providence in our vulnerability is central to today’s gospel reading as well.  We come in at the conclusion of Jesus’ sending the twelve out to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven.  They are to take nothing with them – no money, no staff, no sandals, not even a change of clothes.  He warns them that they may face persecution and revilement; they will be like sheep among wolves.  But he also gives them good work to do and good news to proclaim.

They are to go out and be vulnerable.  They are to be dependent upon the hospitality of strangers because their survival will depend on it.  As one commenter put it, they are to go out and learn to be a guest, trusting that in their vulnerability, God will provide.

Hospitality is much deeper than courtesy or good manners.  There is a mutual vulnerability in it – both the host and the guest are vulnerable; there is risk.  Hospitality demands that each be open to the other as Other and to being transformed in the encounter.  And in that open, vulnerable, transforming encounter, the gospel is broken open and proclaimed; the Kingdom of Heaven comes near.

In her book, Take this Bread, Sara Miles writes,

[Christianity] doesn’t promise to solve or erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life.  And it insists that by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy, since, without exception, all people are one body: God’s.

The disciples are sent out not only to proclaim the gospel, but to discover it and be transformed by it.

Imagine what that might look like in our life; in the life of Christ Church.  Not only to welcome the stranger as Other, but to go out and be the stranger, be dependent and vulnerable, open to transformation, trusting that God will provide.  I wonder what we might discover about the gospel; about God.

You see, ultimately, Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, the disciples, you, me, all of us, whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we trust it or not – we are utterly dependent upon God.  The Good News is that in the midst of our vulnerable dependence, God faithfully provides.

Resurrection Life – Alleluia Head to Toe

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Washington on April 27, 2014
Second Sunday of Easter, Year A

“I have seen the Lord!” we heard Mary Magdalene proclaim to the disciples just last week.  “I have seen the Lord!”

And how do they respond?  Do they rejoice, dancing and singing?  Do they immediately run out to see if they can find Jesus?  Apparently not.  In the very next verse, we find them hiding in fear in a locked room.  In fact, we find them exactly as Jesus finds them – all except Thomas.

Now, they have good reasons to be afraid.  What would happen to them?  Would they be next to be crucified?  Not only that, their whole sense of reality is shaken; if Jesus really is alive, if the resurrection is real and death isn’t death, then what could they be sure of? What does all this mean?!  And not only that, but what would Jesus do to them when he finds them?  After all, they had denied him and deserted him.

But Jesus does find them; “Peace be with you,” he says.  Now they can rejoice – all is forgiven, their relationship with him is restored.

Poor Thomas, though. He misses out.  Where do you think he is, anyway?  Maybe he is attending to the needs of the group and has gone to get something for dinner.  OR maybe he does believe Mary and is out looking for Jesus.  We don’t know, of course.  All we know is that he isn’t there; he misses Jesus.

I wonder what that next week is like for him.  Does he think the others are lying to him; that it’s a hoax?  Is he kicking himself for having gone out?  Is he feeling that Jesus loves him less than the others?  That week must have seemed like a lifetime to him.  So when Jesus comes a week later, Thomas’ response is relief and joy magnified by the wait, “My Lord and My God!” he exclaims.  This is personal.  Presence and belief and relationship are all connected.

We have now heard three of the four resurrection stories in John’s gospel.  Throughout Eastertide, we will continue to hear other, similar biblical accounts.  They all point to the truth that God finds us and comes to us through Jesus or the Holy Spirit or other people or in whatever way will have meaning to us.  It’s personal.  You see, the resurrection appearances don’t end at the ascension or with the early church.  God continues to come to us; to seek us out and find us.

How do we respond?  Are we like Mary, proclaiming our experience?  Or are we like the disciples, quietly talking amongst ourselves?  Or are we like Thomas, still waiting for our turn; wondering if it ever will be our turn?  Sometimes we recognize an experience as God or Jesus only in hindsight or only when we hear others tell their own stories.  That’s why it’s so important that we tell our stories; why we continue to tell and retell the stories of our tradition as we do especially during the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter.

In Janet’s homily over those three days, she said that the meaning of it all is love.  Sharing a meal, washing feet, the arrest, the crucifixion, the dying and rising, the empty tomb – the meaning of it all is love.

In the gospel we heard today, John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs… but these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.”

Through believing, through setting your heart on Christ, you may have life – fullness of life, relational life, resurrection life.

The meaning is love; the reason is life.

Let’s look at it a little more closely.  John packs a lot of action into just a few paragraphs.  Jesus begins with giving them his peace.  “Peace be with you,” he says.  And almost immediately, he sends them to continue the work he has begun.  He gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit; the Pentecost story in one line.  The resurrection life is one of companionship with the spirit of God.  And he tells them to forgive – free people for life in relationship with God.

Our other lessons also give us glimpses of what characterizes resurrection life.  We hear a portion of Peter’s Pentecost sermon in the reading from Acts.  He is bearing witness to what they have seen and experienced.  The mission expressed in Acts is “Be my witnesses to all the earth.”

In Peter’s letter to the churches in Asia Minor, he encourages them in their faith as they experience trials and persecution.  God meets us in our suffering.  Even in, perhaps especially in the context of fear, doubt, and adversity we experience resurrection life.

So, to sum up, here are some of the characteristics of resurrection life.
Being sent out into the world in the company of the Holy Spirit to continue Christ’s ministry.
Seeking signs of the risen Christ who dwells within us and others.  The signs are all around us.
Witnessing and recognizing Christ.
Proclaiming as Mary did, I have seen the Lord.
Forgiving, freeing ourselves and others for fullness of life with God.
And remembering always the meaning of it all is love.

The reason is life; life in Christ;
That our lives may be Alleluia! head to toe.

Thanks be to God.