Core Strength

Owe no one anything, except to love one another.

Even though the church calendar says we’re in the same season that started in June and that runs through November 23, even though the Farmers’ Almanac says it’s still summer until 10:30 pm on September 22. We all know that summer is over and fall has begun, regardless of this ridiculous weather. It is the time for starting new things. It is the time for the end of life as we have known it for the past few months, especially if our lives are such that our rhythm changes in the summertime—not everyone’s does.

It is also the end of a season at St. David’s, a long season. Most of you are aware by now that the season of me—I like that…the season of me!—as your rector is ending. But that season doesn’t end right now; you’re stuck with me until November 23, the end of the Church year.

Transition can be a rich time for a community and I’m excited for you all. A transition like this is a time for you all to articulate and claim your corporate identity as followers of Jesus.

sermon-wordle-2008-09-07Today’s readings from the New Testament, from Romans and from Matthew, have much to teach us about community identity as followers of Jesus.

A few weeks ago I talked about our missional identity as followers—even though a writer whose work I respect a lot says don’t ever use the word “missional” in a sermon—this week I want to talk about how we function within community. This is always important as followers of Jesus—for everyone anywhere, really, but especially during a time of transition. As Jesus traveled from village to village, and taught others to do the same, I’m sure he, and later Paul, and Barnabas, and others, left people who stood there on the edge of town scratching their heads and saying “gee, I wished he’d stayed a little longer. Hm. What do we do now?” How do we live in community without Jesus or James or Timothy to remind us how it’s done?

Jesus and Paul give us the answers in today’s readings.

All of the eighteenth chapter of Matthew is about potential pitfalls of community life. It is in this chapter, a few verses prior to today’s reading, that we hear “if your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.” This is how seriously Jesus takes community life.

Paul describes the building blocks of community life as living in love with one’s neighbor, setting aside quarreling, jealousy, drunkenness, etc. The bottom line is for Paul, as a guide for community life, the ten commandments never go out of style.

The first verses of today’s gospel provide, in very specific steps, a conflict resolution plan for Christian community. If you have a broken relationship with someone in the church, go and talk with them about it. If you feel heard, that’s good. If the person won’t listen, take one or two others along to try again. If that doesn’t help, tell the church—by which I assume the writer means the elders of the church—and if the offender still won’t listen, then that person essentially ceases to function in the community. I’m not talking about this because we have a lot of conflict here at St. David’s, nor am I saying that conflicts resolved according to this—or any—process are always resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. As the longtime Portland Trailblazer announcer Bill Shoneley used to say: “no one ever said it was going to be easy.”

The core of discipleship is this vigilant, reconciling work that begins in our hearts and moves from there out into our own community of disciples. The kingdom of God is a full-service community, serving up not just the good news of healing and economic justice, but also healthy communities equipped from the inside out to proclaim Jesus’ love to the world. This core of community health is kind of like core strength in our own bodies. Ever thought about or begun working out with weights? Most people who start lifting weights do it because they want to get bigger muscles. (I have a theory that this is even true for women who say it isn’t.) People often start lifting weights because they want to have bigger biceps or shoulders or quadriceps, whatever. No one wants to be told that they really need to work on core strength first, and always. No one wants to be told that unless they have a strong core, they will eventually—pretty soon—hit a wall with all their other training. It doesn’t mean that the other stuff like intervals and weights and cardio isn’t important, it means that we need to be strong at the center in order to keep getting stronger in everything else. There are limits to what we can do without this core strength. And this is, of course, true of communities of Jesus-followers.

Our core strength is our own healthy gathered community, and what we do here in this space when we gather. Our ritual meal—like the ritual meal of the people of Israel we heard about in the first lesson—looks backward in time and forward beyond time. In every Eucharist, we look back to the meal where Jesus broke bread with his disciples and asked that they do the same in his name. And we look forward toward the time beyond time, the time that is right now and forever, toward the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God.

As we gather around this table, I hope the holy food and drink you find here will nourish and strengthen you for your discipleship journey, in our community and in the world God loves.

 

Who is he and who are we?

But who do you say that I am?

You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

This is the classic revelation of Jesus’ identity by Peter, the revelation that happens approximately midway through each of the gospel stories told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Jesus’ identity has implications for our identity. Jesus is about starting a movement to restore the world, and every person in it, to the glory God intends for us. As followers, we get to take on that mission, and to proclaim God’s mission of reconciliation and healing. Jesus’ invitation to follow is not like asking someone to follow us on Twitter or Instagram. For some of us everyday humans, the temptation to want followers simply for the sake of having followers is very great. I know.

Jesus gets excited about Peter’s identifying him as the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed one, to bring about the transformation of the world. Jesus gets excited about this because it means that Peter and the others will carry on the saving, reconciling movement he came to proclaim. Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus confers upon him enormous authority. We have such authority conferred upon us by our baptism, and and simply by having a share in a community like this.

I came across a parable recently that illustrates how easily our identity and authority as followers of Jesus can get a little skewed. This is an oldie but goodie, and some of you may have heard it before. It was written during what some still consider to be the “glory days” of the Episcopal Church in the 1950.

lifesaverOn a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little life¬saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for those who were lost. Some of those who were saved and various others in the surrounding area wanted to become associated with the station and gave of their time, money, and effort to support its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew. 

Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building.

Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on life-saving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club’s decorations, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club’s initiations were held. About this time a large ship wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split among the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon life¬saving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life¬saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station. So they did. 

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown. 

Surely we would never say this parable reminds us of St. David’s, but I think we might agree that it’s an accurate designation of the evolution of the institutional church over many centuries. Do you recognize any parts of the story? I recognize the early days as being like the church in the Book of Acts. We have been reading the Book of Acts during the daily office these weeks—story after story of the church growing in amazing ways because people want to join in the church’s life-saving mission, and to give themselves to the movement Jesus founded.

I recognize myself, in how easy it is to get caught up in worries about paying for the heat or caring for linens, or choosing the right color of paint for the kitchen. These things can distract me from God’s mission. And, it is easy to confuse saving lives with saving the church.

I don’t know about you, but my life wasn’t saved because someone needed me to be part of their church so they could grow. Good thing, too, because at the time I started going to church, I had no money, no wonderful husband who loves to find his way around church kitchens, and no cute kid to liven up the Sunday school.

My life was saved by the surprising encounter with the holy that I experienced in the breaking and sharing of bread, and in the people who came to the table to share it with me. In a mysterious way, these things made my unholy life holy.

When we recognize Jesus as the Messiah, we recognize ourselves as disciples, followers committed to saving lives, helping broken people to become whole. This life-saving mission belongs to every single one of us in the same way that the electric bill and our children’s ministry and the music we sing and the bread and wine we are about to share belong to all of us. We are Peter, we are Jesus, we are life-savers.

Only drowning men can see Him

boat

Peter was a fisherman, raised on the shore, every day spent casting nets, every night repairing them; like his father, and his father’s father, hauling catch after catch. He thought he had seen all the fury the sea could summon, he thought he could weather any storm with his strong hand on the tiller.

That night the screams of the others were drowned in the pitch of the wind and the crash of the waves against the hull. The fear on their faces needed no voice. They pleaded with Peter, who stood surer on water than on land, to save them.

He had seen things that day he could not comprehend. He had seen bread and fish, barely enough to fill the bellies of the twelve, satisfy the hunger of thousands. He had seen the rabbi, who had at first sought refuge from the throngs embrace them and feed them one and all. It had been a good day, it had been a miraculous day in a string of miraculous days.

Yet here they were, in the ravages of the storm, the calm and fellowship and comfort of just a few hours before a like a distant dream.

Through the rain stinging his eyes, through the howling of the wind, he can see a figure on the sea. “We must have gone down, we must be dead”, he thinks. Then a flash lights up the sky like 1000 torches and Jesus’ unmistakable face comes into focus.

“How can it be?” Peter screams into the wind, “And how can you ask me to not be afraid? You must show me Rabbi, you show me how!”. And then Jesus beckons to Peter to join him in the storm.

Peter thinks: “Why, oh why must this always be so hard Rabbi? Why must I make this choice again and again and again. Why do you ask me to step from this boat, to ignore all the rules I have known and all the things I have been sure of and leave my boat?

My father built this boat, shaped it with his sure hands. I see you there, doing the impossible, asking me to do the impossible too”.

Peter swings his leg over the side stepping into the blackness and chaos below.

___________________

In last week’s Gospel following Jesus was, literally, a picnic. The loaves and fishes, the giant Eucharist Jesus presided over just last week is now lost in a torrent, drowned out by claps of thunder and the wind howling in our ears.

Today we are reminded that we can not sit on our blankets in the sun and wait for God to come to us, to bring us what we need. Following Jesus means stepping out into the storm, the storm that surrounds us or the storm that rises within us. Following Jesus does not mean waiting for him to calm the seas.

Sometimes to find Jesus we have to wade through a sea of doubt and uncertainty. We have to enter those places that make is anxious and uncomfortable. We have to sit with someone who is grieving. We have to revisit old wounds to find healing. We have to learn the name of the woman on the corner who asks for spare change, those are the places where Jesus lives.

Sometimes following Jesus means leaving the picnic and walking into the hurricane. Sometimes following Jesus means you must keep walking forward even though you can only catch the faintest glimpse of him through the storm. The storm can be fear. The storm can be the kind of envy we heard in the Old Testament today in the story of Jacob and his brothers. The storm can be unexpected change or anxiety of addiction or illness or failure. The storm can happen to us or originate within us. The storm is all those things that make us want to close our eyes and cover our heads and retreat from God and each other.

But today’s Gospel teaches us that we have to resist that impulse, leave behind our fear and be courageous, we must loosen our hands from the gunwales of our boat and lift our head and look out into the fury that faces us.

We must try to leave behind the boat, we must try to resist the urge to hunker down in the face of the storm because otherwise we miss Jesus, who is standing with his hand outstretched ready to help us do the impossible.

Sometimes only when we are drowning can we really find faith, can we really see Jesus. I could not get Leonard Cohen to join us today, and did not want to subject you all to my poor attempts at rendering the song “Suzanne”, so I have asked Matthew to help me out on the audio portion of our program:

“And Jesus was a sailor

When he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching

From his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain

Only drowning men could see him

He said ‘All men will be sailors then

Until the sea shall free them’

But he himself was broken

Long before the sky would open

Forsaken, almost human

He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him

And you want to travel blind

And you think maybe you’ll trust him

For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.”

Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”

And although I love the comfort and peace of the picnic, sometimes the faith that is forged this chaos is deeper and richer. In “Mortify our Wolves” Christian Wiman writes of the faith that we often find at our darkest moments, he says: “It takes a real jolt to get us to change our jobs, our relationships, our daily coffee consumption, for goodness sake—or, if we are wired that way, to change our addiction to change. How much more urgency is needed, how much more primal fear, to startle the heart out of its ruts and ruins. It’s true that God comes to the prophet Elijah not in the whirlwind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire that follows, but in the “still, small voice” that these ravages make plain. But the very wording of that passage makes it clear that the voice, though finally more powerful than the ravages it follows, is not altogether apart from them. That voice is always there, and for everyone. For some of us, unfortunately, it takes terror and pain to make us capable of hearing it”.

God is as much part of the storm as he is part of the picnic, but the God we find in the storm is sometimes harder to see because we have to dive into the chaos to find his hand.

It is love, and deeply profound faith, that gets Simon Peter to take that first step over the side of the vessel that represents all the reality he has ever known. It is faith, and love, that allows him to see the figure in the storm for what he truly is.

And yes Simon Peter falters, the winds of his old beliefs, his old life, rattle the connection to the man across the water. But Jesus is there, extending his hand.

________________________________

The great potluck: Matthew 14:13-21

Jesus said: They need not go away: you give them something to eat.

feeding5thousandThe kingdom of heaven is also like this: On a wide, sandy beach, a crowd of people are hungry for healing and hungry for food. A famous teacher and healer is in the midst of the crowd.

In the evening his students surround him and say: Teacher, send all these people back to the city where they can get something to eat.

The teacher replies: You can feed them right here.

But we barely have enough food for ourselves! (Sounds like some vestries I’ve worked with in the past—not here—when discussing funding outreach projects.)

The teacher takes what bread they have, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it back to them. There is enough for them to share with thousands of people, and no one goes hungry. The kingdom of God is like this.

The miraculous transformation we typically focus on in this story is the transformation of the loaves and fishes, from a small amount of food into an unbelievable amount of food. It has been said that what actually happened was that everyone pitched in the little bit they had, to transform crumbs into a generous meal. A big huge potluck of leftovers. Everyone in the story is transformed by their own simple acts of generosity.

Jesus is not so much performing a miracle as modeling for us God’s abundance that happens every time we share. Jesus does not create bread out of thin air, he takes what has been offered to him and transforms it into more than enough for everyone.

Then there is the transformation of the disciples. In the beginning they are members of Jesus’ inner circle, gathering around him and saying “it’s getting late—send all of this riff-raff away.” I’m guessing we’ve all been in situations where we don’t like a crowd. This scene reminds me, sadly, of so many small churches I know, whose words say they want to grow, but they don’t want their church to grow so much that everyone doesn’t know each other’s name or, heaven forbid, that someone else sits in their seat.

loavesJesus is having none of it, and says: “You give them something to eat.” “We don’t have enough,” they say. “Give it to me,” Jesus says. I picture him rolling his eyes and muttering: “Do I have to do everything?” He takes the bread, blesses it, and gives it to his disciples, so that it is indeed they, not he, who do the feeding.

With the bread Jesus has blessed, the disciples turn outward. They are no longer the inner circle around Jesus, but are sent out to do the work of the kingdom. They are transformed from passive followers to ministers of the gospel.

How do we get transformed from being passive followers of Jesus into ministers of the Gospel? Sometimes our personal attachment to familiar community—a nearly universal human trait, I think—gets in the way of what it means to be a faithful Christian.

Our baptism is our commission to do kingdom work. The five baptismal promises are our “instruction manual” for the Christian life, if we ever need a refresher about doing the work of the kingdom.

But what about our own experience? Think about a time when you have been taken out of yourself, beyond your own understanding of your Christian identity? Jeanne has a story about driving around Portland in the snow with a pot of homemade soup, looking for someone to give it to, and how that experience has formed and shaped her sense of connection with the needs of the world. I remember years ago, long before going to seminary, talking with a rather difficult, unhappy woman on the phone and saying—you know, the way we do—“I’ll keep you in my prayers.” She said “I want you to pray for me right now, out loud!” That was not what I expected to hear, and it was humbling and good. I changed the way I looked at being an emissary of Jesus. James told me about the first preacher he consistently listened to in college, whose words made him feel that he was not doing enough to further the kingdom of God. The preacher pushed him, every week, to go out and connect with the world in deeper ways.

I came across a blog post recently about body image and fitness (because I read that stuff in my spare time J) and the refrain of the post was “You are enough.” We all love to hear this, right? You are enough. And we are. But in this gospel, I think Jesus is saying something different. I think Jesus is saying “It is not enough for you, my inner circle of faithful, beloved disciples, to sit at my feet and be nurtured by me in the holy intimacy you never seem to get enough of. Don’t you get that this is not what this is about? You give them something to eat.”

This conversation is—I hope—a defining moment in the life of each of the disciples. It is also a defining moment in the life of their community, a moment when together they saw their identity as a community in a new way. Some of us had that experience last week when we moved outside for Gospel on the Grass. Because of Linda’s very fine reflection that invited our reflections on the Kingdom of God, some of us began to imagine our calling as a community not just to discover the kingdom around us, but to be the Kingdom of God.

mosaicToday’s gospel story is a story about the Kingdom of God unfolding before the disciples’ very eyes, unfolding before our eyes, and it is also a Eucharistic story. The bread that Jesus shares with his disciples, and that they then share with thousands, becomes this amazing abundance because it is blessed (a holy word for given thanks for), broken, and shared. Jesus doesn’t just give them something to eat, he gives thanks for gathered crumbs, breaks loaves into pieces, and gives them to the disciples, commissioning them to become themselves givers. Small, simple gifts like loaves and fishes turn into extravagant abundance.

Just as scarcity becomes abundance for the disciples in this morning’s gospel, it can become abundance for us. Are we willing to offer to God the only thing we have left? Sometimes this means giving up the crumbs of our crowded days, our broken relationships, or our whole lives. Are we willing to give thanks for those gifts, break them open, and share them? This is what it means to live Eucharistically: to allow our broken selves to be a blessing to others.

As we pray together, and as we share holy food and drink in this intimacy of this holy table, I hope you’ll pray and come to the table with these questions: who needs something to eat? What broken thing can I share with them?

A little slice of earth

Let both grow together until the harvest.

What is your favorite kind of weed? I know there are some that are pretty—I love sweet peas, the wild pink ones that have another name that sounds far more annoying than “sweet pea”…but I must say my favorite weeds are the ones that are easiest to pull. Ralph Waldo Emerson described weeds as plants “whose virtues have yet to be discovered.” We could probably do well to think of some people that way.

wheatToday’s parable is often called “the wheat and the tares.” The tare, known as “false wheat” or “bearded darnel,” sounds like an awful plant. Its roots surround the roots of good plants, sucking out water and nutrients. It is impossible to weed out the tares without prematurely uprooting the wheat. The plant looks a lot like wheat until you try to eat the seeds, which are poisonous. It has been described as the botanical equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

This co-mingling of good and bad, the work of God and the work of God’s enemies, is part of our reality.

We experience this reality of good and evil coexisting even within our own selves. Think of it as the good angel whispering in one ear and the bad angel whispering in the other, arguing about some discipline we are trying to keep or some money we are trying to save or who knows what else. Think of how we distract ourselves from being the hands and heart of Jesus in the world by spending hours on twitter, Facebook. (Not that social media doesn’t have its redeeming virtues, mind you J.) All of us, I’m sure, have had moments when we can relate to St. Paul when he says: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

If we readily admit that we all experience inner conflicts, hidden weeds among the wheat of our best intentions, it should be easy to take that one step further and acknowledge that in any community of Christians, there are individuals who may or may not be living out their best identity as followers of Jesus. Sometimes this surprises us. Sometimes we get hurt.

In the quest for security and self-preservation, Christian institutions, such as churches and dioceses, can lose sight of their Christian identity and purpose as easily as individuals can.

We are a mixed bag. St. Augustine, who knew little about inner conflict, coined the phrase corpus permixtum. Mixed body. We are a mixed body. The times when people get the most hurt are when there is an expectation that life in their parish, or their neighborhood, or even their country, is meant to be a little slice of heaven on earth. Actually, it’s a little slice of earth, on earth. I am in no way excusing behavior that is immoral or illegal, perpetrated in the church or out of the church by clergy or anyone else. But, like the field full of wheat and weeds, our community and our world is made up of people motivated by love and people motivated by greed and fear.

Where is justice in this mixed bag of human community? Are we simply to tolerate a world filled with good and evil, tragedy and joy, abundance and loss? The answer is a good Anglican answer: yes, and no.

At the end of the parable, the reapers sort the wheat from the weeds and burn the weeds. Jesus explains that the good seed are the children of the kingdom, and the weeds are the children of the evil one, and that all evildoers will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. While this might not sound like the cheeriest of Good News, I believe it is intended as a reassuring reminder that God is in charge. We may not like some of the ways Jesus teaches about the end of the age, but the point is that we are not the ones who decide who is good or who is bad, who is in or who is out.

This end-of-the-age sorting reminds us that it is not up to us to do the rooting out and destruction of evil. We need only to look at the world around us, this very week, to see how futile, horrifying even, it is when humans take God’s matters into their own hands. Our friend Kelvin Holdsworth from St. Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, Scotland, posted in Facebook that we should all sing a lament in our services this morning, for Gaza, for the passengers of Malaysian Air flight 87, and for all those whose lives and loves depend upon dangerous border crossings.

But we should not read this gospel as saying that we need do nothing about the injustice and evil that surrounds us. If we are to sing, our song—like our lives—must bear witness to the Kingdom of God that is just within our reach. While weeds will always be weeds, people are always capable of being transformed by love. Right now, weeds or no weeds, we must live as children of the kingdom. When you listen to all the bad news, or when your yourself experience the weeds in your own heart or your own community, look around for who is stepping out to love, to forgive, to reconcile. These are children of the kingdom. The price, on which I pray we will always keep our eyes, is to be won by loving our enemies, welcoming strangers, and seeking and offering forgiveness. If we are to sing in response to this gospel and the world we live in, our song might be “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” When we live as witnesses to the Kingdom, our slice of earth becomes a slice of heaven.

Abraham and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Part II

In the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, the title character is having a bad day. Everything goes wrong. He gets carsick on the way to school. His teacher likes another kid’s picture better than his. She says he sings too loud. The elevator door at the dentist’s office closes on his foot.

The book offers an important lesson that bad things happen, that we all have bad days (and some terrible very bad days), and that we cannot always make everything better or easier, especially for those we love. Sometimes, the best we can do is say to someone “you’re having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” Or say, like Alexander’s mother, who is very wise, “some days are like that.”

blake's_abraham_isaacLast week’s sermon was titled: Abraham and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Part One. Unlike last week’s reading from Genesis, which I chose to preach on, ignoring almost entirely a challenging gospel text, these week’s Old Testament reading is one we cannot choose to preach on or not. The story of Abraham and Isaac demands our attention.

Years before I became a priest I remember saying to my spiritual director: “I hate that story and if I ever get a chance to preach on it, all I’m going to do is stand there and say: ‘This is horrible! I hate this!'”

But what if there is something we should learn from this passage? We won’t learn anything if we just decide it’s awful and we hate it. The questions that abound when we hear about “The Binding of Isaac” are the hardest ones to answer: What kind of God would do such a thing? Why would God put Abraham to the test? How could Abraham obey? Do I really want a God like this?

Perhaps this is a story that simply teaches us that God makes no sense. But it does make sense if we remember that faith—especially the faith of Abraham, early in the life of God’s relationship to God’s people—is a risky business.

There are several things to reflect on in this story of Abraham and Isaac, which is really a story of Abraham and God.

One thing is the historical context. This story begins with the words “After these things, God tested Abraham….” After these things is a tiny phrase that encompasses the original disobedience in the garden of Eden, which God may have interpreted as betrayal, the first murder by Cain of Abel, the escalation of world-wide violence that occasioned the flood, and the Tower of Babel. Ellen Davis, a wonderful Old Testament scholar to whom I owe much of what I’m about to say, says that “the first eleven chapters of Genesis…is predominantly a story of steady alienation from God and human rejection of God.”

One could say that God is trying a new strategy, focusing on one relationship with one man and his descendants, creating a great nation, a covenant community to receive the blessing that God is all about. So this is a story about the solidifying of that blessing-giving relationship. Like I said, faith is a risky business. And it is a give-and-take business. Yes, God is always there. But our experience of God is determined by how we receive that presence.

So the first thing I want to is that this story must be read in the context of God’s whole relationship with humanity that has contributed to his relationship to Abraham. The second thing I want to say is that it is a story not about obedience, but about trust. If it is a story about obedience alone, then it is a scary story about abuse of power. If it is about trust, then it is a story about a relationship that will last to eternity.

abraham-and-isaac_modernAbraham and God’s relationship got off to a rocky start. Abraham didn’t always trust God the way he does in today’s story. But by the time we get to today, Abraham never wavers. He does everything God tells him to do. If you remember my sermon from last week, you remember the code phrase which is a clue to Abraham’s unswerving faith. Anyone remember? Abraham rose early in the morning…. Abraham trusts God. His response is not blind obedience, but active faith. And faith is a risky business.

Think about other kinds of covenanted relationships. Baptism is one. We make a covenant with God and with a community, and we promise to act as Jesus in the world. When asked if we will do these things, we say I will, with God’s help. We will. Not we will try, not we will think about whether it makes sense, but we will act. Marriage is another kind of covenanted relationship. Marriage is not about proving yourself to the other person, but about being together through thick and thin, even when one’s beloved does hurtful, incomprehensible things. Loving relationships—between spouses, parents and children, good friends—are not based upon what we think about the other person, but about the trust we have for one another. Abraham and God have this kind of trust. It is as if—and again, I credit Ellen Davis for this thought—God and Abraham have a long and complicated marriage. Isaac, the miracle child, is their offspring, the bearer of Abraham’s genes and God’s promise. Therefore, Abraham can forgive God, Isaac can forgive Abraham, and the descendants of Abraham and Isaac will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.

There is no tidy way to end a sermon on this reading. Or if there is, I don’t know what it is. I want to leave you instead with an image. Or several images. If you search google for images of this passage, through the ages, almost all of them share several common features. Abraham has the knife in his hand, and Isaac is looking up at him with curiosity, almost as a detached observer. Perhaps because Isaac has deep faith in Abraham. In some of the paintings, we see the ram in the thicket. But Abraham is always looking up, as if he, like the plsamist in Psalm 121, knows from whence his help is to come. He may not know for sure what is going to happen, but he is relying upon God to show him.

I hope that God will never set before us the task given to Abraham. But I pray that we might all have Abraham’s faith.

Abraham and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Part One

In our church calendar, this Sunday marks our return to what is often called “Ordinary Time.” I don’t think there’s anything ordinary about gathering to read scripture, sing praises, and share bread and wine in the name of Jesus, so I prefer to call this season by its proper name: The Season After Pentecost. Also know, at least in my mind, as The Long Green Season.

churchyearWhen we move into this Long Green Season, our schedule of readings shifts. We no longer hear readings that point toward themes of Advent or Christmas—the Incarnation cycle—or Lent and Easter—the Paschal cycle—but return to the Sunday lectionary for this season after Pentecost.

If you follow the Sunday lectionary, or if you are a reader and have ever tried to find your reading for the day, you know that in this long, green season you have some choices for the Old Testament readings, Track One or Track Two. This drives the altar guild nuts and I don’t blame them! Does anyone know the difference between Track 1 and Track 2?

This year, and for the next three years, we’ll be on Track 1. So on this Sunday, we enter into the Book of Genesis, already in progress. We’ll be in Genesis through the middle of August. In Track 1, the Old Testament readings tend to be longer, and we get to hear stories we wouldn’t otherwise hear on a Sunday (and didn’t hear, until the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary by the Episcopal Church in 2006).

I’m titling this sermon: Abraham and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Part One. Anyone remember that children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? It was written in 1972 by Judith Viorst, who is also a novelist and a psychotherapist. It was a classic in our house and is one of my very favorite children’s books.

Everything is going wrong for Alexander. He falls asleep with gum in his mouth and wakes up with gum in his hair. His brothers get the prizes in the cereal boxes. His mother forgets to pack dessert in his lunch. He went to the dentist and had multiple cavities. And on and on.

hagarAbraham’s problems are far more significant than Alexander’s. His wife, Sarah, in spite of the miracle of bearing a son, Isaac, in her old age, is jealous of the servant girl Hagar. Hagar had earlier borne a son to Abraham, in case no other offspring would be forthcoming. Hagar’s son, Ishmael, is several years older than Isaac, but the two boys play together. This is a constant reminder to Sarah of her old age, painful years of infertility, and her desire for Isaac to be the sole heir of Abraham’s fortunes, which are considerable.

Abraham loves the two boys equally. Ishmael is his son as much as Isaac. Ishmael is considered to be the forebear of the Arab nations and the spiritual ancestor of Islam—it is from this morning’s story that we get the phrase “Abrahamic religion.”

Sarah wants Hagar and her boy to be cast out, and the scripture tells us that this is distressing to Abraham on account of his son. Can you imagine? Those of you with experience with blended families—or family of any kind, really—know how distressing it can be to be the one responsible for holding it all together.

God reassures Abraham that he doesn’t have to be the one to hold it all together. In God’s scheme of things, it is all together, even as Hagar and her son are sent away. God will continue to care for them.

The scripture goes on to tell us that Abraham “rose early in the morning.” This is a code phrase in the Hebrew Bible. Usually when someone rises early in the morning, it is an act of faithful obedience. This is a poignant scene, heart-breaking and difficult to imagine. Abraham gives Hagar food and water for a few days’ journey and sends her away to wander about in the wilderness.

What are we to make of this story? God saves Hagar—God hears her cries of despair and the suffering of her son. Like the psalms, Hagar cries out to God, God hears her and Ishmael, like Isaac, becomes the father of a great nation. The story reminds us that God is not only with God’s chosen people, but with exiles in the wilderness.

Who are the Hagars in the world around us? How will we respond?

Phyllis Trible, in her book Texts of Terror about the tragic experiences of many women in the bible, writes:

All sorts of rejected women find their stories in [Hagar]. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structure, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.

This story has obvious implications to our lives as Christians; it is one of the foundational stories that would have influenced Jesus’ teachings about God’s love for the foreigner and the outcast. And—even though there are no intentional thematic connections between the Old Testament readings and the gospel—this story has lessons for us about how we follow Jesus and whom we consider family. The hard sayings about family in today’s gospel, about families divided, challenges our notions of family, and loyalty, just as Abraham is challenged. We are to look outward, beyond our family and beyond our familiars, to find Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness and to celebrate God’s saving action in their lives, as in ours.