Saturday, June 25, 2011

2nd Sunday after 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.

The story goes like this. 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 past 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 you wish. I guess that will count for something, but if they don't answer right away, I'm outta 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. "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, and we find ourselves in places all the time where we can be God’s hands and God’s heart.

There have been about 1500 young Episcopalians gathered in St. Paul for the last week at the Episcopal Youth Event. The theme of EYE this year has been all about mission. They built a Habitat for Humanity House, our kids served a meal at First Nations Kitchen in Minneapolis. I've been watching the tweets and I've been seeing such excitement about being Episcopalians, and about the work that many young people are being called to do. I'm also seeing that that looks very different
from what those of us who have been around church block a few times are used to.

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. As they remind us that Love wins.

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.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Day of Pentecost Yr A

We tell each other stories all the time. We tell stories that are funny and that are sad, we tell stories to entertain and to inform. Some of our stories are great and some are pathetic. By telling our stories we come to understand ourselves better, and we come to know each other better. And although some can tell a mighty fine story, none of our stories are as good as the one we share together. That is the story that Love wins. And that story goes like this. God, who is love, who is creator of all that is seen and unseen, who promised to be in relationship with creation, who became human, who lived and loved and suffered and died, who rose from the dead and gives you and me the gift of new life and the spirit, that God, loves us absolutely and abundantly. And God wants us to love God back by loving each other, by loving ourselves even when we believe we are unlovable, and by loving those who seem outside the possibility of our love.

This is a story that is in process. It is a story that began with the dawning of time and will continue until the fulfillment of all time. It is a story that lives deep within our hearts and our minds. It is the story that gives you and me our identity, it tells us who we are and to whom we are related. Your story, my story, our story, belong within the story that Love wins. It is a story in which we are brought out of fear into confidence. It is a story that brings us from old creation to new creation. We move from a self-centered story to God-centered story. It is the story that transforms us. It is indeed the greatest story ever told.

The Day of Pentecost is an important event in this story. The setting of the story is The Festival of Weeks, a joyous celebration of the spring harvest. Jewish people from all over Israel and many foreign lands came to Jerusalem. Peter and the rest of the disciples were at the Temple bright and early. The day was probably very still, since Jerusalem summers are not windy. The huge crowd at the Temple by 8 or 9 a.m. expected nothing unusual. But . . . suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting! Then divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. As the story is told, this event happened on the fiftieth day after the resurrection of Jesus, therefore we have Pentecost, meaning the fiftieth day.

The Holy Spirit is God's gift of presence, and that gift of presence happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. The Holy Spirit is God's gift of assurance, that God is with us and always will be with us. The Holy Spirit is God's gift of wisdom, of knowledge, of faith, of healing, of discernment, God's gift of the Holy Spirit is wide and broad and diverse. As the story is told, the Holy Spirit can be seen and heard.

It is said that Pentecost is the birth of the church. It is a new chapter in this sacred story of which we are a part. Today we observe Pentecost as all of that, we observe Pentecost as we give thanks for God's gift of spirit, in and through and among us, we give thanks for God's gift of the church, which is one way we express our relationship with God, and God expresses relationship with us. I think the challenge of Pentecost is to not let it get caught in a one day observance and to not make it about individual gifts. The Holy Spirit is clearly about the story we share together.

The challenge of Pentecost is to let it, along with incarnation, resurrection, and ascension, narrate our life, change our life, transform our life. The challenge is to find ourselves in the story of God's abundant and amazing love for all people at all times and in all places.

How does God's love, God's life, God's spirit include each and every one of us? If indeed Love wins, and I believe with all my heart, my soul, and my life, that it does, how does that transform my story, and your story? Abbi Van Vliet has wondered out loud with me what it would be like if we, all of us here at St. Andrew's would tell our stories about what we believe. I think we would be transformed, I think we are being transformed. What is your story that brings you here today, to this place of spirit, of love, of bread and wine, of communion, of brokeness and of healing and forgiveness? What is your story that brings you to faith and to doubt? Your story is part of the story that Love wins, your story is part of the story of Pentecost, your story is part of the story of the church, in all it's glory and with all it's warts. What is your story? It is part of God's story.

You see, all of it is about God's story that has the power to change our lives, and is changing our lives. God's story of Love, and life and suffering and pain and joy, and wandering in the wilderness erecting idols, tearing down those idols and loving one another and loving God back in the midst of our very imperfect lives, that is all happening here now, through the power of the spirit.

And now I am going to tell some of your stories, even though they are not my stories to tell.

You are a young married couple, this chapter of your life is just beginning to be told, you know God's love in your lives, and you want to be able to express that with each other and especially with the new lives you have brought into this world. You come to this place, because you see joy on the faces of those who love God back, and you want to be a part of that.

You are in the middle of your life, your story is already well into the middle chapters, you have raised your children, sent them out into the world loved and cared for, and you are excited and anxious to discover what all of that means for you. You come here, because here you know that there are people who love God back.

You find yourself single in the middle of your life, your story too is in the middle chapters, but nothing like the way you thought it would go when you were in the early chapters. You continue to search for meaning, you continue to find your way among the missteps and mistakes you have made. You know that you must return to others the kind of help you received along the way. You come to this place, searching for something, and what you find here is people who love God back.

You are seeing the fulfillment of your life, the end chapters are being written. You look back to the early chapters with love and longing, you look to the middle chapters with nostalgia, you live in the loneliness of life without your partner, you wonder where the time went. You give of your time and your talent as a volunteer at the hospital, or building houses, or through the schools. You come to this place for comfort, belonging, stability, and what you find here is people who love God back.

This is Pentecost, this is church, this is Holy Spirit, people who love God back.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

7 Easter Yr A

I have a very fond memory of teaching at Ascension School in North Minneapolis, on the Feast of the Ascension, which is 40 days after Easter, and usually fell near the last Thursday of the school year. We celebrated the Ascension just this past Thursday. We would spend the whole day playing games inside and outside, concluding the day with mass, and then releasing piles of red balloons. It was a glorious day for everyone, and although it was a day free from the rigors of school, we pointed the children to the glory of God seen and experienced in play and in one another. It was an opportunity to look through the ordinary to see the extraordinary.

Looking through the ordinary to the extraordinary, to the glory of God, is what an icon is. An icon is a picture, image, or representation through which we may gain a glimpse of the holy, the glory of God. However, icon is used is popular parlance in ways that defy this traditional meaning of the word. Sports figures are called icons, I remember Princess Diana being called an icon, and the word is thrown around in the world of advertising quite a bit. Ronald McDonald, The Green Giant, Betty Crocker, The Energizer Bunny, Aunt Jemima, Tony the Tiger, and my favorite, The Pillsbury Doughboy are all icons in the advertising world. Although they may be memorable, even cute and fun, I'm not convinced they are that through which we may see a glimpse of the holy. However, I suppose that depends on your take on the holy.

The story of the ascension, this story we have before us today, help us to glimpse the glory of God, like icons help us to glimpse the holy. And these stories bring the Incarnation full circle. God gave up all power and came into this world in the flesh, as one of us, fully human. That is the incarnation. That is God with us. Jesus lived, and loved, as you and I live and love. Jesus died, as you and I die, however the circumstances of Jesus’ death are certainly different than the circumstances of our deaths, most of us are not put to death because of the way we live our lives. The stories we have heard this Eastertide are stories that attest to the resurrection of Jesus, the absolutely new life that God accomplished and continues to accomplish in Jesus. This story of the ascension tells us that Jesus returned to God to glorify God, and so that we may know God, and in knowing God, we may have eternal life, life right here and right now that is absolutely new and different and life with God that is new and different than the life that we experience now.

This is the reality of what God did, and continues to do in Jesus. God came to us to be known, and to know God transforms us and introduces us to a different quality of living. It is this that our gospel in John shows us today.

In a wonderful little book called Plan B, Further thoughts on faith, by Anne Lamott is a series of essays, reflections really, on faith and family and politics. There is one essay in it called holding on, in which Anne tells the story about insisting that her teenage son attend church with her. She writes, “why do I make him go? Because I want him to… We live in bewildering, drastic times, and a little spiritual guidance never killed anyone. I want him to see the people who love me when I felt most unlovable… I want him to see their faces…” She continues, “there are worse things for kids than to have to spend time with people who love God. Teenagers who do not go to church are adored by God, but they don’t get to meet some of the people who love God back. Learning to love back is the hardest part of being alive.”

God came to us to be known, and to know God transforms us. See, God loves us whether or not we love God back. God adores us whether or not we care. But God wants us to know about that, God wants us to know how much we are loved, so God came to show us, that we may be transformed by that love. How do we know God? How are we transformed? How is God glorified? By learning to love back.

In the midst of our own disappointments, we are transformed by loving back. In the midst of our own pain, we are transformed by loving back. In the midst of our own stubbornness, we are transformed by loving back. When we hurt others, we are transformed by loving back. When we overuse, when we overconsume, we are transformed by loving back.

When it feels like we are defeated, when it feels like we have nothing left, God continues to love us, and we are transformed by loving back. When it feels like no one likes us, when it feels like we don’t fit in, when it feels like everyone else is going a different direction, God continues to love us, and we are transformed by loving back.

When we love God back, we witness to the fact that it isn’t about any one of us anyway. It’s about God, and it is about God’s relationship with us, and our relationship with one another. That’s the point that Anne Lamott makes in her essay about making her son go to church, she wants him to be a part of a group of people who love God back, who show that in their worship, in their music, in their Sunday school, and in the way they treat each other and in the way they treat people who are not members of their church. In how they feed the hungry, how they clothe the naked, how they put the last first, and the first last.

Loving God back is not necessarily about any one of us individually, although we can love God back as individuals. Loving God back is really a community endeavor. The God who loves and adores each and every one of us is a very personal God, we know that because God came to be one of us. But our response to God is not private, it is communal and therefore public. Contributing money to feeding the hungry is very important, and yet when we work together to eliminate poverty we are able to transform our lives together. Giving our second and third jackets to Coats for Kids is very important, and yet working together protect the most vulnerable among us will transform our lives and the system we live within.

The gospel of John not only is about this circle of incarnation, life, death and resurrection, and ascension, it is also about unity. Jesus’ desire is that we may be one as Jesus and God are one. Living a life in Christ is not an individual endeavor. Responding to God’s amazing love for us is not an individual endeavor. It is a community project, in it we are one body, and by it we are made one body. Unity is not the same as agreement, unity is about the body of Christ. As people of the body of Christ, we come from diverse backgrounds we come from different places, we arrive together with a whole different plate from which to eat, and, we are transformed into a living breathing organism that takes care of the least of these, that works for justice, that works for peace.

We are transformed into a living breathing organism that is greater than any one of us by ourselves, and capable of living out God’s love for this world. God came to be one of us to show us the way, Jesus lived and died, rose into new life and joined his father to show us the way. Jesus left with us a gift …. Ah but that’s next week.

God loves and adores you, Thanks be to God. Amen