Sunday, June 22, 2008

Proper 7A

These characters are so complicated and real, just like us. I preached this sermon at Holy Trinity, Crystal Springs, in the morning and at St. Matthew's, Forest, in the evening. Both churches served a juicy blueberry dessert following the service - Blueberry Crumble (we shall not speak of how much butter is involved here) and Blueberry Poundcake with Blueberry Sauce.

Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

I’m just waiting for the day archaeologists discover that the scriptural story of salvation began not in the ancient near east but, rather, in the American deep south, where one’s faith and one’s family are deep and personal matters. Where you go to church and who your people are can tell a fellow southerner a lot about you – sometimes even more than you know about yourself!

The same was true in bible times. Faith and family mattered more than fingerprints in figuring a person’s identity, and in fact were so intertwined that to belong to one was inherently to belong to the other; to reject one was to reject the other. This was the rub experienced by many in Matthew’s day, as more and more took up the cross and followed the way of Christ. Members of a household, from the eldest son to the youngest servant, were expected to embrace the faith of the household’s head; to abandon that faith for the fledgling church was to abandon the family. Becoming a Christian carried serious social, economic and political consequences that could rip a household apart. After all, Jesus’ followers included outcasts and sinners, not the sort of people usually welcome at the table; believers were apt to give away all their possessions; and the Christian movement, like its leader, aroused the suspicion of the occupying Roman government. Do not be afraid, Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel, and those whose families had already rejected them took comfort. I have come to set a man against his father…and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Jesus was not advocating alienation; he was, however, acknowledging that in choosing him many had become alienated. Jesus knew that his way – the way of forgiveness and grace – would be difficult for the world to accept, that his word – the word of love – would divide communities, friends, even families. I know. Jesus said. Do not be afraid.

It was a refrain repeated time and again throughout scripture. We heard it this morning in the reading from Genesis, when God said to Hagar, rejected by her family, I know. Do not be afraid. It had all started some fifteen years earlier, when her mistress, Sarah, had given up on the laughable notion that she might have a child in her old age. Sarah urged her husband, Abraham, to take Hagar as a wife and have a child with her, so that there might be an heir. When Hagar did become pregnant and, thus, the center of everyone’s attention, Sarah grew jealous of her Egyptian maidservant, and Hagar fled from her into the wilderness.

It was there in the wilderness, beside a spring of water, that an angel first spoke God’s words to Hagar. I know. Do not be afraid. Return to your family. I will so greatly number your children that they cannot be counted. It was the same promise God had made to Abraham and Sarah, the promise that had once made Sarah laugh and that now haunted her. The angel told Hagar that the son she bore to Abraham would be named Ishmael, which means God hears, because God heard Hagar’s cries. And then Hagar named God right back, El-roi, which means God sees, because she marveled that God had seen her and that she had seen God.

Ishmael was nearly fifteen when Sarah, beaming, finally did give birth to her own son, named Isaac, which means Child of laughter. But Sarah’s jealousy returned when she saw the two boys together, and she demanded that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, this time for good. I know. Do not be afraid, God said to Abraham, who loved his first-born son, the first star in his sky. I know. And so Abraham, before daybreak so that his tears might not show, he gave Hagar a waterskin and some food and sent her, with Ishmael, into the wilderness.

When the water was gone and Ishmael, weak from hunger and thirst, was in a fitful sleep, Hagar sat nearby and wept for her son as only a mother can. And, the story goes, playing lightly with its words, God heard the voice of the one named God hears. And God who sees opened the eyes of Hagar, and she saw a well of water. I know. Do not be afraid. Life and hope and a promise and a future were restored as she took Ishmael by the hand and helped him drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up…

The American family is not the first, then, to be as fragile and fractured as it some fear it has become. Indeed, much of Hebrew scripture reads like a southern gothic novel filled with patriarchs and matriarchs and servants and siblings-at-odds over inheritances or land or the family business. The lines that are their families, like the lines that are so many of ours, twist and turn and intertwine and become a tangled mess, strained sometimes to the point of breaking.

Indeed, we know, and perhaps some of us have experienced, that no one can hurt someone else like a member of their family can. Families share such intimate knowledge of one another, such history, such deep memories. And just as the question, “Who are your people?”, can define us, so can we find ourselves defined by – even find our identities consumed by – any rifts or rejections that have occurred between us and our people. Still, despite our own experiences of how complicated families can be, still we find Jesus’ words about family unsettling. One’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

I know, Jesus said to his disciples, whom he called sometimes his children. I know, Jesus says to us. I know. I hear. I see. Do not be afraid. Most of us have not faced rejection by our families for choosing to follow Christ. But, like our sisters and brothers in the earliest churches, we do face rejection by others who see no need for forgiveness in their lives, by others who believe grace is for the weak, by others who insist salvation is earned, by others who would not welcome a sinner at their table. Like our sisters and brothers so long ago, we face rejection by others within the household of God, the church, by those who believe they walk the way, understand the truth, and live the life more faithfully than we do. The gospel continues to divide families, not because it embraces only some, but because it embraces all. I know. I hear. I see. Do not be afraid.

We have an identity deeper than our deepest shared memories, deeper than our DNA, more defining than our people or our hometowns or even where we go to church, deeper than any rift that might ever divide us. Our true identity lies not in any of those things but rather in God’s love for us, a love so deep that it finds us in the wilderness, that it knows the number of hairs on our heads. We are, all of us, first and foremost, members of God’s household. In God’s family, all of our lines converge and God is the thread that binds us, weaves us, pulls us together.

The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this family, and urges us to acknowledge something like this: I am a daughter, a wife, a sister, an aunt, a mother. These define and shape my life, but not one of them contains me. I am Jennifer. I am a Christian. I am a child of God, a member of God’s household. This is my true identity, and all the others grow out of it, are informed by it, and strengthened by it. Being a child of God is not a role we play. It is who we most truly are. I know you, God says to each one of us, mother or father, daughter or son, rich or poor, old or young, Egyptian maidservant or star-gazing patriarch. I know you. I hear you. I see you. I will not abandon you in the wilderness. Do not be afraid.

Who are our people? Our people are right here in this place, where we are reminded of our long history as the household of God, where we are given food for our journey into the wilderness out there. Out there, with Jesus’ disciples in all times and places, we are called to hear and see know those whom the world has rejected, but whom God calls children. Do not be afraid, we will be able to tell them as we reach across the rift and welcome them home. Amen.

Artwork: "Hagar and Ishmael", by Jakob Steinhardt.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Proper 5A

There was going to be a parish picnic today at Episcopal Church of the Advent in Sumner, but instead the food was delivered to Betty's family. Betty died in her sleep a few days ago. She would have delivered a fresh Apple Cake if it had been someone else who had died. Everyone went home from church for lunch, then came back later in the day for her funeral.

Hosea 5:15-6:6; Psalm 50:7-15; Romans 4:13-18; Matthew 9:9-13

Of all the many words we read in Hebrew scriptures, none, I think, are as rich and multivalent as chesed. We heard it read this morning from Hosea, when God says through the prophet, I desire chesed, steadfast love, and not sacrifice. Elsewhere in scripture the same word is translated and read as lovingkindness, mercy, righteousness, faithfulness, and loyalty. Chesed means all these things, and more, for it also describes the very nature of God, who is Steadfast Love, or as Hosea writes, God’s appearing is as sure as the dawn. If we could read the scriptures in Hebrew, we would find the word chesed sprinkled generously as stars across summer’s night sky…

Long before Hosea wrote to a people who had lost their faith in God, Abraham found his faith as he gazed up at the stars sparkling with the light of a hope and a future. God had called him away from his home, from all he had ever known, and promised him more than he had ever imagined. Go to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. The very next line in the story, remarkably, is this: So Abram went, as God had told him…with Sarai, he set forth to go. Never mind that he did not know where he was going. Never mind that he and Sarai were too old to give birth to child, let alone a nation. Abram went, as God had told him. Hoping against hope, Paul writes, Abraham believed what God had promised, and a journey of faith, of which we are heirs, began.

Long before we became stars in Abraham’s sky, Matthew’s star appeared where many in his day would have supposed only darkness could be. Jesus had called Matthew away from his seat near the city gate where, on behalf of the occupying Roman government, he took up taxes and pocketed penalties and fees. The life Jesus offered, though, was worth more than any sum Matthew had ever collected. Follow me, Jesus said. Then the very next line in the story, remarkably, is this: And he got up and followed him. Never mind that Matthew had most likely been removed from the synagogue because of his dishonest profession. Never mind that the only other people he knew were sinners like himself. He got up and followed Jesus. Matthew believed – out of despair or hope, we don’t know – he believed that Jesus would change everything, and a journey of faith, of which we are heirs, began.

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? asks the text of a song from the Iona Community in Scotland. Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know, and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known? Will you let my life be grown in you, and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name? Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare, should your life attract or scare? Will you let me answer prayer in you, and you in me?

No sooner had Matthew gotten up and followed Jesus than they both attracted the hostile stare of the Pharisees, who, one preacher has said, were appalled to see a rabbi eating dinner with people “who fell scandalously short of the exacting standards of religious respectability set by the professionally pious.” For the Pharisees, faith was a matter of maintaining one’s purity through strict observance of Torah, following all the right rules, offering all the right sacrifices, and avoiding those (like tax collectors and sinners) who didn’t measure up.

But there was Jesus at the table surrounded by Matthew and his friends, and indeed, for them the meal was an answered prayer. They lived on the margins of the community of faith, but now found themselves at the center of the kingdom of God. Their uncleanness did not contaminate Jesus; rather, his “gospel medicine,” says another preacher, would set before them a cure. Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. God and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, chesed, not sacrifice.’” I desire lovingkindess, not law. I desire righteousness, not right and wrong. I desire all of you, not just some.

It is important to understand that neither Hosea nor Jesus are condemning the offering of sacrifices before God, a practice by which the faithful in every age have both praised and petitioned God. They are, however, putting the practice in its place. Such sacrifices perhaps help the worshipper mark a vow or seal a commitment or repent of wrongdoing, but God doesn’t need the offerings that are constantly made in the temple courts, for all the beasts of the forest are mine, God says. I know every bird in the sky…the whole world is mine and all that is in it. Instead, urges the psalmist, offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Faithful Jews knew that a sacrifice of thanksgiving made in the temple was eaten and shared all around by those making the sacrifice, rather than by the “professionally pious” who literally thrived off the sinfulness of the people. Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High. God desires of us chesed, mercy, kindness, faithfulness, love that is active, not like our passive sacrifice. God desires of us chesed, love that engages life, that is shared all around.

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name? Will you set the prisoner free and never be the same? Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen? Will you admit to what I mean in you, and you in me?

Both Abraham and Matthew answered the call of God and set out to do what for each seemed impossible – Abraham to become a father of many nations despite his age and settle in a land far away despite the distance, Matthew to become a disciple of Jesus Christ despite his unworthiness and invite others to eat at Christ’s table despite their sins. Both Abraham and Matthew left behind all that they have known, sacrificed all that was familiar and comfortable and easy, and engaged the world for God, for love. Each was offered a new start, a new life, a new purpose, a new hope. And they responded to God’s call not by word but, remarkably, by enacting in their lives and in the lives of those around them the same love and acceptance and hope they had received from God.

A prayer from the Taize Community in France reads, “Jesus our joy, when we realize that you love us, something in us is soothed and even transformed. We ask you: what do you want from me? And by the Holy Spirit you reply: Let nothing trouble you. I am praying in you. Dare to give your life.” Abraham and Matthew dared to give their lives, though it seemed to each impossible God would want them. God, who is chesed, who is “pre-emptive, unilateral, and initiatory love,” who is mercy, who is faithfulness as certain as the dawn, called them, calls everyone who needs a physician, which is to say all of us. Or do we, like the Pharisees, not know that we are sick?

The world is full of sin-sick and soul-sick and heart-sick people, including ourselves. Daily we encounter, in our own lives, in the lives of friends or family, or in the lives of strangers, hunger, thirst, fear, grief, loneliness, pain, doubt, despair, pride, selfishness, hypocrisy, greed, and countless other sorrows or sins that infect our spirits and weaken our faith. And yet, at this table, Jesus gathers us together to share a meal, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving shared all around that prepares us to go out into the world and enact the same love and acceptance and hope that we have received here.

For we are indeed called and have made our vows to the Most High, promising that we would proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, that we would seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and that we would strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. I will, with God’s help, we replied. Do we really dare to give our lives? Or are the vows we have made just words that fall over time like faded stars?

Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around through my sight and touch and sound in you, and you in me?

Even Abraham and Matthew faltered along the way, questioning how they could fulfill the missions to which they were called, wishing things were as easy as sacrificing this pigeon to atone for that sin. But God does not call and then abandon. I will establish a covenant between me and you, God said to Abraham. An everlasting covenant, to be God to you, and to your offspring after you. Remember, Jesus said to Matthew and the rest of the disciples, remember, Jesus says to us, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

God is calling. What will the very next line in our stories be? Let us dare to give our lives. Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you and never be the same. In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show, then I’ll move and live and grow in you, and you in me. Amen.
Artwork: "Night Sky", by Roger Hutchison; "Energy of Unity", by Kristy K. Smith.