Sarah’s Story – Be a Blessing

Preached on 18 June 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Snohomish, Washington
The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 6)

We are now in the long season after Pentecost.  Ordinary time – the Green Season; a time for growing.  For the next 23 weeks, our lectionary will walk us through much of the books of Genesis and Exodus.  We will hear foundational stories for our faith and we will find that one of those foundations is Covenant.

We talk a lot about covenants in the church, but what does it really mean?  A covenant is kind of like an agreement or a contract, but not really.  It is about promises – but more than that.  It is about relationship, but deeper.  Even when one party fails to fulfill their part, the covenant remains in place; the other party isn’t released from their part.  Often, as humans, our promises to God are more what we aspire to than what we can actually be.  We fall short and then we pick ourselves up – or more likely, reach out our hand and God helps us up – and we renew our commitment and our efforts.

So, a covenant is a deep relationship, based on mutual commitment and promises.

Now our God is a God of Covenants.  We see them in several key places in the Bible.

So, back to the lectionary.  Last week, we heard the story of Creation.  Today, because Easter was late this year, we jump right into the middle of the story of Sarah and Abraham.
So, I want to do a little catching up.

The story of Abraham and Sarah begins when God calls them to uproot their whole household and leave their country, their kindred, and the house of their father and go to the land that God would show them and promises to give to their heirs.  God promises, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… and in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  And so, they do.

Now, you should be aware, they are already kind of old and Sarah is barren.

Between their call and the part of the story that we hear today, lots of things happen, but I’ll only tell you a few.  Abraham complains to God that the promise of land means nothing when it appears that his heir will be one of his servants.  God reassures him that he will indeed father an heir and his descendants will be as numerous as the stars.  God renews the three-fold covenant of land, progeny, and blessing and gives him a sign.

When Sarah still doesn’t conceive, they take matters into their own hands.  Sarah gives her servant, Hagar, to Abraham and she bears him a son, Ishmael.
Once again, God renews the covenant and makes it clear that the covenant is also with Sarah.  This covenant will be with her son, not Hagar’s, although God also promises great things for Ishmael.  And Abraham laughs.

In today’s episode of the story, it’s been 25 years since God called them to leave their home, and yet again, God assures Abraham and Sarah of the covenant, promising that Sarah will bear a son in a year’s time.  This time, Sarah laughs.  How preposterous!  She is old, well past child-bearing age.  And so is Abraham; in our old age, “Shall I know pleasure?” she asks.
As we shall see, she does, indeed, bear him a son, Isaac which means laughter.

It is through Sarah and Abraham that God’s covenant extends through the generations and is the foundation for today’s gospel story.  God promises that their descendants will be the source of blessing for all nations.  This same promise is repeated in later covenants when God says, “I will make you a holy people, a nation of priests.  All the world will be blessed through you.”

Jesus sends the disciples out to be a blessing.  Now this is a first time.  It’s sort of like the first time you get behind the wheel of a car; it’s probably in a large empty parking lot, not a crowded city street during rush hour. So, this first time, Jesus sends them only to the lost sheep of Israel. By the end of the gospel, Jesus will send them to all nations; to the ends of the earth.
“Proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons,” he instructs them.

The heart of their mission is healing and liberation.  Its source is in the covenant – “I will make you a holy people that you will be a blessing to all nations.”

You will be a blessing.

God always calls people to reach beyond themselves to benefit, to bless, someone else.  We find our identity in understanding that our mission is not for ourselves; it is to be a priestly people to bless others.

The heart of the mission of the disciples in today’s gospel is healing and liberation.  What would you say is at the heart of our discipleship?  Can we articulate it in a couple of Christian principles like that?

How is God calling St. John’s to be a holy congregation that exists for the healing of the nations; that exists to be a blessing to Snohomish?
How will we articulate it and embody it?

We are People of the Covenant.
God has made you holy that the world may be blessed through you.

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Promises, Possibilities, and Redwood Trees

Preached on 11 June 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Snohomish, Washington
Trinity Sunday, Year A

Anne Lamott writes, “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity, I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with the redwood trees.”

What makes you feel that way?  Maybe for you it’s not redwood trees, but Mt. Rainier or the ocean or the Grand Canyon or even the incredible power unleashed when Mt. St. Helens erupted.  Or maybe it’s whales or bees or the unconditional love of a dog.
Or the birth of a baby.

I think that for many of us, when we see the majesty, the grandeur of the world around us, we have an innate desire to connect with whatever or whoever it was that brought it into being; we have a sense of something greater than ourselves, outside ourselves, a creative power that is worthy of our attention and even our devotion – to be our God.

It is that same God who creates us in God’s own image, as we hear in the story from Genesis.  The one who instills in us a sense of right and wrong, the ability to recognize injustice and to forgive when we are wronged.  Who gives us the capacity for empathy, compassion, love, awe, and outrage.

Did you notice that in today’s gospel reading, it ends with a promise?

This is what David Lose has to say about promises.  “Promises bind us together, offer hope, and create courage to live with each other, support each other, forgive each other, and encourage each other.  Promises create relationships and possibilities.”

When I read those words, my mind immediately went to the promises of marriage.  When we make those promises, the relationship changes.  That’s not to say there wasn’t a relationship or even promises before, but it changes.  A new relationship is formed and out of that a world of possibilities is created.

And then I thought about the whispered promises of first best friends or of a parent to their newborn baby.  And I couldn’t help but think of the promises we make and the promises God makes to us, in baptism.  Promises we renewed just last week.

“Promises create relationships and possibilities.”  “Promises bind us together, offer hope, and create courage so that we can live with each other, forgive each other, support and encourage each other.”

The very last thing that Matthew writes in his gospel is Jesus’ promise, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Now I remember someone telling me about what councilors call “doorknob” comments or questions.  Those are the things that the client says just as they’re about to leave; they’re on their feet and their hand is already on the doorknob. It’s often the most important thing they say the whole session.  The same thing can be said when someone starts with an off-hand “oh, by the way.”  When you hear that, pay close attention to what comes next – it’s probably from the heart.

Well, the very last thing that Matthew writes may very well be the most important; in fact it sums up the Good News of Jesus Christ quite well.

Jesus is with us.  Always.  Everywhere.
Emmanuel – God with us.

That promise creates relationship and possibilities.  Think of the possibilities!

What if we truly believed the promise?

Jesus makes this promise in the context of the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.”

It’s helpful to remember that God has a mission and the church participates in that mission.  Making disciples and baptizing and living the gospel is how the kingdom of God, the commonwealth of God comes into being.

God is inherently communal and loving.
To quote David Lose again, “the heart of the Trinity is the belief that God is inherently and irreducibly both communal and loving. One God in three persons whose shared, mutual, and sacrificial love spills out into the world and all its inhabitants. And, ultimately, we are called to be church in a similar way. Loving, respecting, and caring for each other in a way that spills out – into our neighborhoods and communities in tangible, beneficial, and attractive ways.”

That’s the God who promises, “I am with you.  Always.  To the end of the age.”

What if we truly believe the promise?  Indeed, if we are willing to stake our life on it?

What will we do and say?
How will we treat one another, our neighbor, our adversary?
How will we care for the earth, our island home, as the Eucharistic prayer puts it?
What might we dare to undertake – to participate in the Mission of God – knowing God is already there, Jesus is with us, the Spirit empowers us?

What if we were to truly turn our lives over to whoever came up with redwood trees?

Bidden or Not Bidden

Preached on 4 June, 2107 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
The Day of Pentecost, Year A

Bidden or not bidden, God is present.
That’s what it says on Carl Jung’s gravestone.

My sponsor gave me a plaque with this saying on the day I was confirmed; the day the bishop laid his hands firmly on my head and prayed, “Strengthen, O Lord, your servant Mary, with your Holy Spirit; empower her for your service; and sustain her all the days of her life.”  It hangs in the hallway right outside my kitchen where I walk past it many times every day.

Bidden or not bidden, God is present.

Whether or not we understand God or even believe in God, God is as God is and is present.
Just like whether or not we know or understand Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity or Newton’s Law of Gravity – gravity works and if we step off a cliff, we’re gonna fall.
Whether or not we’ve even seen an ocean or understand the tides, still, it ebbs and flows, twice a day, every day.  Whether or not we believe or understand about tectonic plates, the earth shakes when they shift.  The earth will turn and we will say that the sun rises and sets and we trust that the sun is up there, even when it’s obscured by clouds.

That which is true is true regardless of what we think or say about it; regardless of our personal opinion or our understanding of the scientific principles involved.

We don’t talk much about the Holy Spirit in the Episcopal Church.  I wonder if it’s because we tend to stay in our head, trying to understand and explain doctrines.  But of the three persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit may be the most difficult to understand.

Today is Pentecost, though, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Barbara Brown Taylor has said that the Holy Spirit is not so much for us to understand, as someone we trust.

The Holy Spirit is someone we trust.  But what do we trust the Holy Spirit to do?  We can start by looking to the Scriptures for what the Holy Spirit does.  And then we can reflect on our own experiences of the Spirit.

In Acts, the Spirit draws people together into community and in John, the Spirit sends the people of the community out to spread the new of Jesus Christ.  In the church in Corinth, the Spirit activates the gifts present in the community to serve the common good; gifts for nurturing, sustaining, and building up the community.

We see the Spirit creating – in the Psalm, God sends forth the Spirit to create and renew the earth.  And in John, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples before sending them forth.  It is reminiscent of God breathing into the first human, Adam, in the Creation story in Genesis 2 ; and of Ezekiel calling the breath from the four directions, to breathe into the dry bones and give them life.

The Holy Spirit is for everybody.  Peter quotes the prophet, Joel, saying the Spirit is for everyone: young and old, sons and daughters, men and women.  And Paul writes that in the one Spirit we are all baptized into one body: Jews and Greeks, slaves and free.

We see the Holy Spirit acting in a variety of ways.  So, I think we can say that the underlying promise is this:  the Holy Spirit will, indeed, act – to affirm, invigorate, surprise, and even challenge our faith.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that while we trust the Holy Spirit to act, we can’t count on the Spirit to do our bidding.  The Holy Spirit’s activity is not necessarily what we desire or want or even like.

We trust the Holy Spirit to act, yes, to come alongside us, to empower us for ministry, to sustain, comfort, and guide us.  That doesn’t mean that the Spirit will eliminate all danger and difficulty from our lives – even from what God calls us to do.

What does it all mean for our lives?  How do you trust the Holy Spirit to act?  Some ways spring to my mind from my own experience.

  • Peace in my soul – even when it’s not going to be all right. The peace that passes understanding, that allows me to do what I need to do.
  • Provide the words I need for a person who is worried or anxious or afraid, facing some kind of crisis or difficulty.
  • Or the courage to simply be present with them in their pain when there are no words.
  • Open our eyes and ears and hearts to see and hear and love our neighbor. And the same to see and hear and love God.
  • Inspire our prayer, not only in our speaking, but in our listening.
  • Inspire the creativity of a group.

We can trust the Holy Spirit to

  • Bring peace to Manchester and Minya and London
  • Empower us to speak up and act to protect the vulnerable and to change the systems of injustice.
  • Guide our path, opening paths before us or closing doors behind us.
  • Guide the search committee and the candidates for Rector to discern whom God is calling to serve with the people of St. John’s to continue Christ’s mission.
  • Draw people together and send people out.
  • Inspire each one of us to live into and embody our Spirit-given gifts.

The Holy Spirit is present in our loving and our forgiving, in our praying and discerning, in our proclaiming and healing and creating.

The Spirit is present and acting whether or not we recognize it, or agree with it or like it or accept it.

Bidden or not bidden; believed or not believed, God is present; the Spirit is active.

Thanks be to God.

What Are We Waiting For?

Preached on 28 May, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
The seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A

I remember when I knew that I had launched my first child.  It wasn’t a milestone that’s in the baby book or one that I had anticipated or even really thought about.  It was when we took her off of our insurance.  She had a job with health insurance benefits, her own apartment, her own car, and her own car insurance.

It was that day that I knew that this child had become an adult.  She was launched and my job at that point was to kind of get out of the way; to love her forever, of course and to be available for advice or help at times, but to let go.

There are many different milestones in our lives.  The ones that are significant to each of us is different.

Of course, to arrive at that day, that milestone, takes a certain amount of preparation.  It’s the child’s achievement, of course, but also the preparation offered by many people along the way, especially mothers and fathers.

It seems fitting that in the season of graduations, celebrating an important milestone in the lives of children, that we also honor the people who play an important part in getting them to that day.  I use a very broad understanding of mother and father – to include biological parents, of course, but also all those men and women in our lives who have loved us, nurtured us, challenged us, encouraged us, taught us, seen in us our potential and most of all loved us even when (and perhaps especially when) we weren’t very lovable; those who have been there for us for the long haul.

We remember them and thank them and honor them.

When we find ourselves at one of those graduations or milestones, we may discover a certain reluctance to leave when the ceremonies are over, the dignitaries have left the stage, and the auditorium (or the stadium) is clearing out.

We pause, perhaps to savor the moment or perhaps to remember all the work, the sweat, the tears, maybe the worry, and certainly the love that have brought us to this point.  But the thing is, it’s done.  There’s nothing more to see or do here.  It’s time to move forward.  If your family is like mine, there’s someone growing impatient, saying, “Come on! Let’s go!”

By now you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all this.  What’s it got to do with the Ascension?

A few things stood out to me from our readings today.  And they all point to the same question,
“What are we waiting for?”

First, there’s the gospel.  The disciples (and we) are listening in while Jesus prays.  This is right before they leave the house to go to the Garden of Gethsemane where just hours later, he will be arrested.

He prays for his disciples, those that God has drawn to him, to Jesus.  And in his prayer, he says, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  What was that again?  Eternal life is to know God.

Usually we think of eternity to be about the quantity or length of time.  And we think of time as linear so that eternity is endless time; maybe from now forward or often people think of it as beginning with death and never ending.

But Jesus’ prayer indicates that eternal life is about relationship; relationship with God.  Our prayer of absolution says, “…and by the power of the Holy Spirit, keep you in eternal life.”  In other words, you’re already there.  Eternal life is now.  Relationship with God is now.

In anticipation of what is to come, Jesus prays to God, “I am no longer in the world, but they are.  Protect them in your name.”  For the disciples, there is more to come after Jesus is no longer with them.

Finally, there are the two men in the reading from Acts who ask, “Why are you standing there looking up into heaven?”  It’s like they’re saying, it’s over, this step is finished, it’s time to move on.  What are you waiting for?

It reminds me of the Resurrection story from the same writer, Luke.  When the women arrive at the tomb, two men in dazzling white garments ask, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive?  He is not here, he is risen.”

In a way, with the Ascension, they are launched from disciple to apostle; from one who follows and learns from a teacher and mentor to one who is sent with a mission and a message.  They have Good News for all nations, to spread to the ends of the earth.

Jesus prepares disciples and sends them out to the world as apostles.  And then he gets out of the way, returning to the Father, and sends the Holy Spirit to empower and guide his apostles in all Truth.

Eternal life is now.  Our Mission is now.

What are we waiting for?

Hang Your Heart on Jesus

Preached on 14 May 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A

“Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says.  These comforting words begin a passage we often hear at funerals.  This passage has brought comfort and reassurance to countless people grieving loved ones who have gone ahead.

How might we hear it differently in this context, reading it when we are well into the Easter season?  We have rejoiced at the empty tomb and wondered at the resurrection appearances.  Now we get to the nitty-gritty of life after the Resurrection; of discipleship after the Resurrection.  No wonder Jesus addresses their troubled hearts.

It feels like a bit of a time-warp here.  John is writing long after all of these things occurred, but he writes about what happened before.  He is writing down what he remembers from that night.  The night before everything changed; the night before their world seemed to turn upside down; the night before Jesus was crucified.

This is the story John tells of that night.  It’s commonly called Jesus’ farewell discourse and it goes on for pages and pages, four chapters worth.  Jesus is preparing his disciples for life without him.  He has washed their feet and told them they must be servants to one another.  He has told them that one of them will betray him and another will deny him.  And he has told them that he will leave them – he is going where they cannot follow.

Now he tells his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God; believe also in me.”  In the days and years to come, there will be much to trouble their hearts.  So, Jesus is preparing them.  He gives them words of comfort and encouragement and instruction to carry with them the rest of their lives.

That night, of course, Judas betrays Jesus and he is arrested.  He is brought before the priests and then Pilate for judgement and Peter disowns him.  Then Jesus is crucified and buried.  The disciples scatter.
I imagine their hearts are very troubled.

But that’s just the beginning.

We see in our reading from Acts a community so divided that they are willing to kill and die.  Luke tells of Stephen’s death, drawing parallels with that of Jesus:  After proclaiming God’s word, teaching with great wisdom, and working miracles, he is arrested on the testimony of false witnesses.  He is tried and driven outside of the city where he is put to death.  While they are stoning him, he commends his spirit to the Lord and asks forgiveness for those who stone him.

In the second reading, Peter writes to communities suffering Roman persecution.  Following the Way of Jesus is dangerous.  Whose heart wouldn’t be troubled?
Peter offers words of encouragement and reminds them who they are and how they are to live.  “You are a chosen race,” he writes, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

So, in light of all that, let’s listen again to the message of Jesus in this familiar passage.

The long arc in John’s gospel goes from Jesus with God in Creation: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
It continues through the Incarnation when “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
and it ends with Jesus returning to God, “Jesus said to Mary, ‘… go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”  The Ascension is more important than the Resurrection.

Jesus’ mission is to make the Father known; to reveal God.  That is the “work” he does and the “work” he is sending his disciples to do.  The “works” they will do have to do with revealing God and restoring relationships with God rather than signs or miracles.

In John, eternal life and the kingdom of God are about a kind or quality of life in the present, not so much about some future after we die.  John writes a lot about abiding or dwelling not as in a location but as in a deep, close connection with the other.  Jesus abides in the Father and the Father abides in him.  He prays that the disciples abide in him and he in them.

Jesus goes before us preparing the way and abides with us and in us enabling and empowering us to do his works to continue his mission of establishing and restoring relationship; of revealing God; revealing God’s love for the world; revealing God’s dream of the kingdom.

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled, Jesus says, “You already believe in God” – you trust God, you set your heart on God.  “Believe also in me,” Jesus says.  Trust Jesus in the same way, set your heart on him.

In times of trouble, in times of divisiveness, in times when it feels risky or dangerous to follow the way of Jesus, to challenge the Powers in defense of the lowly, the voiceless, may we remember Jesus words to his disciples:

He abides in us.
He goes before us to prepare the way.
Do not let your hearts be troubled.

May we set our hearts on Jesus.