Saturday, June 28, 2008

7 Pentecost Yr A

I often wonder how the story about God and Jesus would be different if women had the opportunity to tell it. The story of Abraham and Isaac might go something like this had Sarah told the story.

In the privacy of their bedroom, Sarah and her husband were exchanging words. Sarah said, "God told you what! God told you to take Isaac up on the mountain and make him the sacrifice! No way, God would never say that. It's God who gave Isaac to us when we were already too old to have children. And even if God did say it, you'll do it over my dead body!"

Abraham, because he was so pigheaded and stubborn, took Isaac against his wife's better judgment, loaded him up with wood for the fire, and led him up the mountain. Sarah followed secretly. While Abraham built the altar and laid the wood on it, Sarah hid in the bushes. She was so angry with God and with her pigheaded husband for listening to whoever told him to do this. She waited for the moment she would jump out of the bushes to prevent this from happening. But then she saw a ram not far from her, caught in the thicket by its horns. She got near enough to it so she could wave a stick in it's face and it thrashed and made enough noise that Abraham turned and looked, and realized he could use the ram for his sacrifice. Silently and separately, Abraham and Sarah heaved a sigh of relief, and whispered to themselves, "The Lord does provide."

Either way, the story is about God, not about Abraham or Sarah or Isaac. The story is about God providing for the people God loves so very much, and that Abraham and Sarah were faithful to that love.

And remember, when the tellers of the stories about Jesus tell the stories, they assume that the hearers, the original hearers as well as us, know the Hebrew Scriptures very very well. They assume that we know about the God of creation, who blesses the creation, who loves the creation, and who provides for the creation. So, it stands to reason, that when we hear the stories about Jesus, we already know that the nature of God is to love and provide for the creation.

So in Matthew’s gospel today we hear Jesus say to the disciples as part of their sending out instructions, “Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts my Father, who sent me. Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God's messenger. Accepting someone's help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I've called you into, but don't be overwhelmed by it. It's best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won't lose out on a thing."

Matthew’s gospel and the story of Abraham and Sarah remind me of one of those email stories that gets forwarded. I’m going to tell you this one today, because it makes me think, well that could never happen, at the same time as I think well of course it could never happen if I never think about the smallest act of giving or receiving.

A young man had been to Tuesday night Bible Study. They had talked about how God loves and provides. The young man couldn't help but wonder, "Does God still provide, like God provided for Abraham and Sarah and Isaac?"

It was about ten o'clock when the young man started driving home. Sitting in his car, he just began to pray, "God. I will do my best to serve your wishes." As he drove down the main street of his town, he had the strangest thought, to stop and buy a gallon of milk. He shook his head and said out loud, "God is that you?" He didn't get a reply and started on toward home.

But again, the thought was there, "Buy a gallon of milk." The young man thought about how he'd heard that not all those spoken to recognized God's quiet voice inside of one's mind. Then he said, "Okay, God, in case that is you, I will buy the milk." It didn't seem like too hard a request to fulfill. He could always use the milk himself if nothing else. So he stopped and purchased the gallon of milk and started off toward home.

As he passed Seventh Street, he again felt the urge, "Turn down that street." "This is crazy," he thought and drove on pass the intersection. Again, he felt that he should turn down Seventh Street. At the next intersection, he turned back and headed down Seventh. Half jokingly, he said out loud, "Okay, God, I will."

He drove several blocks, when suddenly, he felt like he should stop. He pulled over to the curb and looked around. He was in a semi-commercial area of town. It wasn't the best but it wasn't the worst of neighborhoods either. The businesses were closed and most of the houses looked dark like the people were already in bed. Again, he sensed something, "Go and give the milk to the people in the house across the street." The young man looked at the house. It was dark and it looked like the people were either gone or they were already asleep.

He started to open the door and then sat back in the car seat. "God, this is insane. Those people are asleep and if I wake them up, they are going to be mad and I will look stupid." Again, he felt like he should go and give the milk. Finally, he opened the car door, "Okay God, if this is you, I will go to the door and I will give them the milk. If you want me to look like a crazy person, okay. I want to do as I wish. I guess that will count for something, but if they don't answer right away, I am out of here."

He walked across the street and rang the bell. He could hear some noise inside. A man's voice yelled out, "Who is it? What do you want?" Then the door opened before the young man could get away. The man was standing there in his jeans and t-shirt. He looked like he'd just gotten out of bed. He had a strange look on his face and he didn't seem too happy to have some stranger standing on his doorstep.

"What is it?"

The young man thrust out the gallon of milk. "Here, I brought this to you," he said nervously. The man took the milk and rushed down a hallway. Then from down the hall came a woman carrying the milk toward the kitchen. The man was following her holding a baby. The baby was crying. The man had tears streaming down his face.

The man began speaking and half crying, "We were just praying. We had some big bills this month and we ran out of money. We didn't have any milk for our baby. I was just praying and asking God to show me how to get some milk." His wife in the kitchen yelled out, "I asked Him to send an Angel with some milk. Are you an Angel?"

In response to hearing this, the young man reached into his wallet and pulled out all the money he had on him and put in the man's hand. He turned and walked back toward his car. He knew that God still answers prayers and that God loves and provides.

Now there are all sorts of theological holes in this story, and all sorts of reasons why this could never happen. The biggest reason it could never happen is because we don’t often let ourselves give a cool cup of water when it is needed, or even harder, to receive the help that we need. But the point is that God loves us, God gives us all we need to be disciples, and we find ourselves in places all the time where we can be God’s hands and God’s heart.

We need to act on God’s love for us; we need to not be afraid of the dark, or of the stranger. Instead we need to act boldly as agents of God’s new creation. We need to bring to all we meet the hope of new life, the hope that life always springs out of death. We need to receive that hope from others, as they remind us that we are God’s beloved, the delight of God’s life.

Matthew’s gospel today tells us that whether we give or receive, and even whether we believe or not, God loves and God provides, and we will be transformed by the work of service that we do. We will be changed by the people whose paths we cross, and we will show forth God’s love alive and well in the world.

Alleluia. The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth:
Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

4 Pentecost Yr A

About a year after we were settled in Rapid City, I got a phone call from a woman I graduated from high school with. She married a man who calls Rapid City home and they are missionaries near Hong Kong, home on furlough. I hadn’t seen her or spoken with her since the day we graduated, but we share a common friend. She and this friend had been talking and she learned that I was here in Rapid City, so she called. We had lunch, and she wanted to know how I got to this place doing this work. Thirty years was a lot to catch up on, but I found it fascinating that our conversation was about call, her call to missionary work, and my call to the priesthood.

Her story and my story are very different. She had a conversion experience, a coming to Christ moment, and shortly thereafter she knew she wanted to be a missionary. I, on the other hand, spent many years saying no to a call that was quite clear to others in my life. The call we hear about in the gospel of Matthew is a call much like my friend’s. Quick and decisive. Jesus said, “follow me” and Matthew got up and went. Jesus said, “follow me” to my friend, and she got up and went, all the way to Hong Kong no less.

So today I thought I’d talk a little about call. I have already said that it took quite some time for me say yes to this call in this way. I finally said yes to a particular call, this call to ordained ministry. But I do think that all that led up to finally saying yes to ordained ministry, was a calling as well.

I was baptized into and I have always been a part of a community of faith. Baptism is the foundation of call. As a child, I attended the Catholic Church with my mother and with my siblings. When we all went together, which was most of the time, we took up a couple of pews, but that wasn’t out of the ordinary in those days in the Catholic Church. Because I attended public school, not catholic school, I went to religious instruction classes on Saturday mornings when I was really young, and on Wednesday afternoons as I got older. When I was in high school, we were in small groups that met in the homes of our adult mentors. These were very healthy, formational experiences for me. I suppose I was rather odd, I really enjoyed the learning, and when I was in high school I looked forward to our Sunday night gatherings. During college I continued to attend my home church, and when I lived at the University of Minnesota, I attended the Newman Center there, it was specifically for college kids.

Shortly after that time I joined the volunteer staff at the Minneapolis Catholic Youth Center. I was part of the youth ministry staff there for about six years. My time at the Minneapolis Catholic Youth Center was also very formational. I learned and experienced intentional Christian Community.

All of this is important to call, because during these years I was able to talk with others about ministry, about how you live in the world as a Christian. As I look back on these years, I realize that I was always discerning this call, at the time I would not have used those words, but in fact that is what was happening.

Rick will tell you that when he met me, and when we decided to marry, that he knew I would eventually be an ordained minister, it was a matter of when, not if. We got busy with our lives together. I attended the College of St. Catherine and earned a Masters Degree in Theology, we had Tom and Willie, and I was busy being a wife, mother, and working at various jobs, teaching some, it was clear I was not meant for the classroom, and I sewed for an interior designer for a time.

In the midst of all this Rick and I were called, in a way, to the Episcopal Church. I was in my friend’s wedding at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and the priest at St. Luke’s ministered to us in a way that we found inviting and nurturing. I’m not sure that I’ve heard anyone describe being in a friend’s wedding like that. So when we decided that it was time for us to find a church home for ourselves, we went right back to St. Luke’s. When we got there, George Martin, the priest, said to us, “I’ve been waiting for you to come back here.” We never went anywhere else. Shortly after returning to St. Luke’s, George approached me about considering the priesthood. I knew it was inevitable, but I was too busy doing other stuff to pay much attention then. George left St. Luke’s and another rector came and went.

We were happily participating in everything at St. Luke’s, and the Christian Education director left to take a job at the Cathedral. I was hired then to be the Christian Education director. And with the rector’s support, encouragement, nourishment, the ministry I undertook grew and flourished. I was in a place where all my skills, experience, and leadership really grew up. The priest at St. Luke’s, Frank, said to me one day, it’s time for you to seriously consider ordained ministry, you can’t say no any more.” And I finally said yes, it was time.

We spent a year in formal discernment, I had a committee that met with me, and with Rick, and over time with Tom and Willie and even my mom. In the midst of that we decided that we would move to Austin Texas and I would attend seminary full time, and then return to Minnesota to be ordained a priest.

After returning to Minnesota, ordination, and working on the staff for a time at a couple churches, we got a mailing from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Rapid City South Dakota. We were not at all sure when we first heard from St. Andrew’s that we were interested in moving to Rapid City, but we responded, just to see where it would go. And you know the rest of the story.

As you all know, responding to God’s call is not easy, and at the same time doing the work God calls each of us to do is the path that reveals the meaning and the purpose to each of our lives. And I think that is what each of us is looking for today, that is what brings each of us here, meaning and purpose.

I tell you this story because it illustrates one way that call works, one way to live out a baptismal promise, but also to tell you that is only one way that call works.

When we ask questions of meaning, when we ask questions about our purpose in this life, these in fact are questions about call, and to what do we get called. The answers are many and varied. I think we all have a calling, and it is important for each of us to consider how we live that out. I lived out my call before I was ordained, as daughter, sister, wife, mother, teacher, friend, in the church and in the secular world. All that has changed is that I live out all of that as a priest, I continue to be all the rest as well.

Each of us has a calling. Each of us has a ministry. The foundation of our call is our baptism. We are called at our baptism to be a follower of Christ in the world and in the church. Ministry is what we all do. Sometimes I think we think that only special people can be ministers, but that is not true. The case in point is Matthew, tax collector, sinner, saint.

Matthew, not one of the chief tax collectors, but a lowly employee of someone else. Matthew, someone who took a really lousy job in which he handled everybody’s stuff looking for what ought to be taxed, someone who took a position that shut him out of respectability because he knew that nobody would ever let him in anyway. Matthew is so much like so many of us, working in a job in which we do yearn for, hope for, meaning and purpose.

And then Jesus invited him to his table, to his companionship, to his friendship, to his vocation, to come with him as a disciple. God’s perfection is shown most fully not in perfect people or perfect disciples, but in his extravagant embrace of flawed people, in his extravagant embrace of people just like you and me. Jesus invites us today to this table, to companionship, to friendship. Jesus calls us today into discipleship, into ministry. Jesus who is Lord, calls us into a life of meaning and purpose, a life that reveals the God who creates, the God who has called us, and marked us as God’s own forever, delight of God’s life.

Alleluia. The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth:
Come let us adore him. Alleluia.