Thursday, August 21, 2014

Robin Williams

Robin Williams’ death ought to put two things front and center for us.  With all the talk in the media about 
ending the stigma of mental illness, it is time for us to get real about it.

First of all, we need to be clear that first and foremost, the human brain is an organ of the body, and is as subject to physical ailment as any other organ.  It may actually be more so because the brain is such a complex network of neurons and chemicals that control every aspect of our lives.  Underlying what we call mental or behavioral illness is the very physical function or dysfunction of this vast network.  Those of us with a functional disorder in our brains can no more “snap out of it” than someone with diabetes can do so without a combination of medication and lifestyle changes.

Second, those of us suffering from mental illness are everywhere doing just about anything.  We are your neighbors, your teachers, the guy who plows your street in the winter, even, as in my case, your priest or pastor.  Creativity, imagination and, yes, humor are not only possible for people suffering from either unipolar or bipolar depression, they are often enhanced by it.  Yet these things, like Williams’ comic genius, come at a great cost:  a daily struggle to keep ahead of the negative, hopeless messages that are firing off in our brains.  Most of us do this fairly successfully most of the time.  But it is inevitable that from time to time the hopelessness gets ahead of us.


So many people needlessly suffer because they do not have the tools to cope.  If you are suffering from unrelenting depression, talk to your doctor about it.  If you know someone who suffers from mental illness, let your compassion be known and help the person to talk about it openly as much as they are comfortable.  We all have to do our part to humanize these diseases of the brain.  If we do not, the body count will continue to rise.

One last thing:  Was it me or did the revelation that Robin had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease give us an excuse to stop thinking and talking about this?  It is as if we said, "Oh, of course, that's why he did it. That we can understand."  Interestingly enough, Parkinson's itself is a brain disease, but because it has physical manifestations we put it in a different category.  Yet, as I understand it, Parkinson's is really both a physical and a mental illness.  Which brings us back around to the bottom line.  This artificial divide between physical and mental illness has got to go.  It is extraordinarily unhelpful, and even dangerous.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Here Comes This Dreamer

The brothers saw Joseph from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.  They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer.  Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.  (Genesis 37:18-20)

Over the years, I long lost count of the number of times I was told
in relationship to my sexual orientation that I "would not see _______ in your lifetime."  The blank could be openly gay and lesbian people ordained, or being called to lead a congregation, or have our relationships known and honored in public, blessed, and even married.  All of these things I would not see in my lifetime.

Off and on I succumbed to those predictions and tried to tow the party line.  Occasionally I was seen as colluding with the system that these predictions served.  And I was colluding because a very slow gradualism seemed to be the best way forward.

I never stopped having the dream of full equality both in the church and in society,  but I was willing to play my part in inching our way forward, knowing that we were claiming ground inch by inch.

God, however, graciously, seemed to have another timetable.  It turns out that God is a bigger dreamer than any of us can be.  As I said, I often succumbed to gradualism, but God has never let me stay in that safe place, just as God has not allowed the Church to stay in that safe place.

Generally speaking, we do not much like dreamers, we do not trust them, and, when their dreaming sounds like it will result in a diminishment of our power or a re-direction of societal (or theological) norms, we can, like Joseph's brothers become murderous.

Sometimes that murderous intent, and the actions it inspires (like selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites), ends up working for good, as it did eventually in the story of Joseph.  It is certainly true as I look back at the gay and lesbian movement toward equality in church and society, we were helped along by our detractors as much as anything else.  A moderate person who has been unsure about full equality has been shown the results of inequality:  quick and pompous moral judgment, and a level of invective that can inspire only the extreme of the "orthodox," etc.

The advice of Gamaliel in the Acts of the Apostles (5:38-39) becomes apropos:  "So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!"

Or struggling to put down God's dream when you think you are putting down the dangerous dream of some other who seems a threat.

By the way, every one of those predictions that "you will not see_______ in your lifetime," have proven to be untrue.  God's dreaming, and God's inspiring, and God's timing are rarely, thanks be to God, our own.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

God is Always Running Toward Us

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on Saturday, August 2, 2014, the Celebration of Ten Years of Ministry Together and the Ending of Our Pastoral Relationship:  Philippians 4:1, 4-9 and Luke 15:1, 11b-32


          Grief, Grace and Gratitude.  I chose those words to describe this Service for selfish reasons:  They describe how I feel as we have come to this moment.  But I have the strong suspicion that the words capture much of what you are feeling also.

          I said from the beginning that I wanted this to be a celebration and in the last newsletter I compared it to the joyful dance our Jewish sisters and brothers make on their feast of Simchat Torah.  I want that celebratory spirit here this evening.

          So why trouble the waters with the word grief?  Because it is real.  Because it is like unto the valley of the shadow of death of which the psalmist speaks, what we must walk through before we can grasp the other reality that our “cup runneth over.”

          We grieve especially when we lose something and the loss is outside of our control.  We feel like something unfair or even wrong is happening to us and we are not being given the chance to make it better.  It is outside our control.

          That feeling, noticed and accepted, prepares us for grace, the unmerited favor of God toward us that is also, like grief, outside of our control.  We notice it when, again like the psalmist, we notice that our walk through the valley of the shadow of death is not alone.  We are never alone.  That is the promise of grace.  God is with us, for us.

          Then if we notice that presence and accept it, our response is gratitude, thanks.  And that is all God really wants from us.  But it is a very large thing.  God wants gratitude to be our primary response to the world, day by day.  It is so much at the center of our true spirituality that week by week we enact it, practice it, if you will, in what we call Eucharist.

          Grief, grace, and gratitude.  Unfortunately it is not a linear process.  The truth is that we hold these things in tension all our days.  It is what we call “the paschal mystery.”  Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.  Paul instructs us to “rejoice always.”  He does not mean never to mourn or experience sadness or anger or despair.  But he does mean that we not allow ourselves to get stuck there.  He says elsewhere, “Grieve, but do not grieve as if you have no hope.”

          There we are.  Grief, grace and gratitude.  It is a package deal.  On an occasion such as this we can both grieve and be grateful.  We are not fooled that it is an either/or proposition, it is, as it almost always is, both/and.

          Now, take a deep breath, and let me out of my own grief, grace and gratitude, tell you the Gospel, the good news, one more time.

          It is why I chose the parable of the prodigal son, my favorite of all the parables, because I believe it is the Gospel in miniature.

          It is a story we think we know.  We call it “the prodigal son” because we believe the prodigal son is the main character and the parable’s primary purpose is to warn us not to make the choices the prodigal son made.  But that would be a mistake, because the parable is not about us.  Jesus’ parables are not the morality tales that we often think they are.  They are primarily stories about God.

          This story is not primarily about the son.  It is primarily about the father.  The son’s choices are important.  They are the set-up.  Here we have a son who exhibits many of our worst tendencies:  impatience, self-centeredness, and an addiction to “loose living,” which is any attempt on our part to do life solely as we want it to be done, attempting to be in control of our own destiny.

          But sooner or later we discover that it is all an illusion.  It gets us somewhere for a while, but sooner or later the bottom drops out and we find ourselves in some equivalent of feeding the pigs.  Perhaps that causes us, as it did the younger son, to “come to our senses.”  That is good, but we have a tendency, like the son, to think that what we must do when we have bottomed out is to do something to haul ourselves out of the hole we have dug, to earn our way back into the good life.

          But if that is what we think God wants from us, then we are quite wrong.  Yes, God demands repentance, but all that word really means is to turn ourselves in a new direction with at least a little humility.

          So the son returns home with a speech in his pocket.  I want to come home, but I know I do not deserve to, so I offer to earn my way back into your good graces.

          And what does the father do?  He sees the son coming in his direction from “far off.”  That says to me that he has been waiting.  All the father knows is that the son has turned to walk toward home.  And what does the father do?  Well, perhaps it is important to see clearly what the father does not do.

          He does not wait until the son comes crawling to him, so that he can point the finger of judgment and say, “Your sin against me was great.  There is so much you have to make up for.  Yes, be my slave and perhaps you can prove to me that you deserve to be my son again.”  But the father does not do that.

          Neither does the father turn his back on the boy, and with resentment that has built up during his absence, declare, “I do not recognize you.  You treated me as if you wished I was dead.  Well, you are dead to me.”  Go.  You are on your own.  You are only getting what you asked for.  But the father does not do that.

          The father neither turns away in disgust nor points the finger in judgment.  He does not even wait for the son to come to him, preserving his dignity as the wronged party.  No, completely out of character for a middle eastern head of household, he hikes up his skirts and runs to meet the son.  Dignity be damned, my son is home.

          The son begins his speech, but the father is not even listening and the son never gets it all out.  Welcome him back as if he has returned from some adventure in triumph, a son to be proud of, whose life deserves celebration.  And that is what the father does.

          My beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, I want to leave you with that image.  God is always running toward us.  God is always running toward us, and not so that he can announce his disgust or point the finger of judgment.  God is always running toward us to welcome us home.


          Most of the world believes that we worship the God of disgust and judgment.  Tell them differently.  Tell them this story, tell them of the God we know who is our companion on the journey, and, whenever we find ourselves feeding the pigs is eager to welcome us home.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Fear is the True Enemy of Justice

Sermon preached on July 27, 2014 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, my last Sunday as rector.  Proper 12A:  Romans 8:26-39

          On these last three Sundays with you I have reminded us of the three images that have guided us since our time of dreaming in 2005.  A Welcome Table for All.  A Healing Place for Souls.  And now, finally, a School for Justice.

          As I recall, it was clear to “the Dream Team” that one of those images had to concern the doing of justice.  The quest for social justice had deep roots in this parish.  It also had deep roots in my own ministry to that point, although the reality of life in the city—and especially this city—was new to me.

          I recall saying at one point, that I had so much to learn.  I cannot remember who replied to me, “Even if you’ve been here a long time you have a lot to learn.”  And I remembered what one of my mentors, Verna Dozier, had said to me several times.  “You cannot do justice without listening intently for injustice.”  And learning to see the signs of God’s justice breaking through.

          Through all this talk on the Dream Team I also recalled words from the end of the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict, that ancient rule of monastic life that many are finding in our own day to have much to do with the daily following of Jesus.

          After a fairly long introduction, Benedict gets to his purpose.  He writes,

And so we are going to establish a school for the Lord’s service… For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.[1]

          And so the image for us of a “School for Justice” was born.

          This image of a school tells us that the first step in doing justice is to learn to discern where it is lacking, and that we need to do that more with our ears than with our eyes.  The other side of the coin is that we have faith that God is already at work in the world and we, again, need to learn how to discern where that is happening and then join it.

          I’ve had more than one conversation with colleagues about our use of the word “justice,” and not understanding what “a school for justice” means.  Doesn’t a commitment to justice mean a commitment to doing the specific ministries born of this parish?

          My answer is, “No.”  Our primary job is to equip people for listening, seeing, and joining God’s work of justice in the world.  I fervently hope and pray that the doing of justice is something the people of this parish primarily do in their daily lives.  If some of that daily living of justice forms into a group ministry, that’s great.  We want that to happen.  But we do not want it to happen before we are formed in the ways of justice day by day.

          Another conversation that occurs occasionally is the observation by some that we seem to be all about justice and little about the Gospel.  Aren’t we supposed to be primarily in the business of “saving souls”?

          I look at our Mission Statement, these three images that have guided us, and I see the Gospel:  Welcome, Healing, Justice.  Those are the manifestations of the Gospel among us; they are the work of what Jesus called “the kingdom” which he taught us to pray would “come on earth as in heaven.”

          The living of Justice and the living of the Gospel are one in the same thing.  There is no good news that is truly good without the living of justice.  There is no worship that is pleasing to God that does not send us out to be God’s compassionate, mercy loving, justice doing, humbly walking people in the world.[2]

          What stands in our way of being this kind of people, of doing this kind of justice?  Mark Hare hit the nail on the head in the City Paper this week in his article about the Rochester Rebellion 50 years ago.

The life-changing consequence of the riots was not property damage or physical injury, or the four tragic deaths, but the fear the city sucked deep into its lungs—a fear that has shaped the community Rochester has become.[3]

          Of course, fear was not only the result of the rebellion, it was the cause of it as well.  Jesus identified fear as the great enemy of the Gospel, the true opposite of faith, and thus it is also the great enemy of Justice.  It is true, I believe, that if there is such a thing as “original sin,” it is the fear of the other.

          The Gospel begins with these words, “Do not be afraid.”  We are told this 27 times in the New Testament.  “Do not doubt,” by the way is said only three times.  Fear is the true enemy of the Gospel.  Fear is the true enemy of justice.  Instead of “a school for justice,” we could have just as easily said, “A school for letting go of fear.”  Not an easy task; it is easy to fall short; but we keep on keeping on together.

          Now I turn just a bit to some “valedictory” remarks.  But they are apropos of my message today.  I eagerly came here to join you on your journey, but I will admit, I came with some fear.  Some of you had that fear as well.  For most of you I was an “other:” A gay white boy who grew up with cows and spent 14 years building a suburban parish.

          Together we learned not to be afraid.  We listened to each other.  You told me your story and I told you mine, and it felt right that our stories should merge.  We have certainly had moments when the old fear surfaced among us, but, as Benedict said, our hearts were already expanding and we have had the courage to keep running in the way of God’s vision, a way of almost unspeakable love.

          As a priest I have been blessed twice, with two parishes in which our love for one another overcame obstacles too many to number.  In neither place have I felt this was a job to do until the next job came along.  They were places—this was a place—to love and be loved and, therefore, grow more deeply into the reality that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

          People outside the parish keep saying to me, “It must be so hard.”  And they are right, it is, and I admit it.  “But,” I say, with absolute conviction, “we love one another enough to want the best for each other.”

          I thank you for the privilege of the last ten years.  I wish it could be ten more.  I have learned so much, grown so much as a priest and as a Christian and as a human being in this school for justice.  Despite the illness that haunts me, this has been a healing place for my soul in your acceptance of me with all my flaws.  And to have been Welcome at this Table will always be one of the greatest privileges of my life.



[1] An English translation of the Rule of St. Benedict can be found at http://www.osb.org/rb/text/rbejms1.html#pro
[2] See Micah 6:8.
[3] Mark Hare, “Riots Still Haunt Rochester,” City Paper, July 16-22, page 6.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Healing Place for Souls: Saved By Hope

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 20, 2014, at The Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene.  Proper 11A: Romans 8:12-25.

          In 2005 what we called “the Dream Team” was wrestling with images that would describe the kind of church we were and wanted to be.  Allan Cuseo, a member of the Team, gave us one that instantly resonated:  “A Healing Place for the Soul.”  This was the inscription over the entrance to the ancient library at Thebes in Egypt.

          To use the word “healing,” is to tread on somewhat dangerous territory.  We do not want to take it to mean that we have somehow figured out exactly how God works, as if God were our possession and simply did whatever we asked of him.  There are Christians who seem to talk this way—and it is easy enough for us to get caught up in this way of thinking and praying.  But none of that is what we mean by healing.

          There are three phrases in the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans today which open up what we mean by saying “we are a healing place for souls.”  Those phrases are “the spirit of adoption,” “the freedom of the glory of the children of God,” and “in hope we were saved.”

          I would submit to you that when we are fulfilling our mission, then all of us, and the next person who walks through the door for the first time, are experiencing these things as a reality, and not just any reality, but a transformative one.

          Let us start with “the spirit of adoption.”  Paul contrasts this not with “a spirit of natural birth.”  He contrasts this with “a spirit of slavery,” a slavery to fear.  How many of us struggle with our relationship with God, bouncing back and forth between these two poles?  Is our relationship with God fundamentally formed by fear?  Or is our relationship with God fundamentally formed by grace, which is another word for this phrase “spirit of adoption”?

          Adoption in human terms is a matter of grace.  You call one your child who is not your child.  The fact that she or he is not your child becomes meaningless.  And the child has done little or nothing to be treated as such.

          So it is with God, with God’s acceptance of us.  It is adoption.  It is based on nothing we have done.  It is simply God’s gracious desire.  We put it this way when we baptize someone, “We receive you into the household of God…”  And this reception can never be undone, as we also say, ”You are sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”[1]

          Now the Bible also speaks occasionally of something called “the fear of the Lord.”  I suspect Paul would not want to say that we should not fear the Lord.  But what he is saying here is that any fear of the Lord comes after the spirit of adoption has taken hold of us, and it is not a kind of slavery or bondage.  The fear of God and the love of God are two sides of the same coin.

          A lot of us were taught differently, and a lot of people out there in the world assume that fear comes first for us.  The story they think we tell is that God is first of all very angry with us and we should fear God’s wrath, God’s hatred of sin.  We have to do something to change God’s mind about us.  We have to “accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior,” or some other way of “getting right with God,” and once we have done that God adopts us as his children.

          That is not our story, and I do not think we could tell the opposite story—that is our story—that God loves us, adopts us, first often enough.  Jesus himself told this story quite plainly in John’s Gospel,

You did not choose me, but I chose you. (John 15:16)

          And John in his first letter writes even more clearly

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:18-19)

          To know you are an adopted child of God no matter what the circumstances of your life, is the beginning of what we call healing.

          Once we accept our own gracious acceptance, we can embrace “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”  But here is the tricky part.  This freedom and glory is ours today and we wait with patience for it to be revealed fully to us, sometimes with suffering, sometimes with groaning too deep for words, in which the whole creation and God’s own Spirit dwelling in us joins us and even prays on our behalf if necessary.

          Paul goes so far as to say that we are not saved by some present act of God, we are saved by hope.  We are saved by what we cannot yet fully see or experience, but we nevertheless believe to be true.

          This is a very hard thing.  Waiting.  Patience.  How can this be a healing place for souls if there is not an active witnessing of healing?  Because of three things:  faith in what God has done, love as our way of life in the present, and hope that, as Dame Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well.”

          How can we believe that?  How can it be that this quote from Dame Julian was my mantra over the past four months, that “all shall be well,” and here I am today and “all” is decidedly not well.  My illness has not gone away despite the prayers of many, and it has resulted in a great suffering, our separation from one another as priest and people.

          The answer is the gift of seeing the world sacramentally, that there is more going on here than meets the eye, and although that more remains a mystery to me, I believe the mystery ultimately loves me and loves you, and, in fact, has the ultimate purpose of all being well.

          And for me at least, and I think for everyone, how I learn to see this way and believe this way and accept this way is in community.  Your prayers for me did not result in my Physical or mental healing, but they very much helped drag me out of the abyss.  And my experience of being back with you for these short weeks has buoyed me up even more.

          This is a healing place for souls, because it is a place where, together, we discover again and again that we cannot be separated from God, despite all signs to the contrary.  And in this hope we begin to discover the freedom that is the glory of the children of God.



[1] Both quotes from The Book of Common Prayer, page 308.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Welcome Table for All: Today is the Day

Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, July 13, 2014, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene. Proper 10A:  Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


          Three Sundays and three sermons left, and it seems to me my last opportunity to preach the Good News of God proclaimed by Jesus and at work among us by the Holy Spirit, in the images we have held up most of these ten years we have been together.  I’m talking about the three images from our Mission Statement:  We are

A healing place for souls
A school for justice
A welcome table for all

          Just a reminder, and for the record, these images arose out of a visioning process in which the whole parish participated in 2005.  Those of you who were here then, do you remember the “Dream Team” who led the process?[1]

I am going to start with the image of the Welcome Table.  It came from a hymn that is on our regular “play list,” “I’m going to eat at the Welcome Table (LEVAS II #).  The parable of the sower will help me get there, along with two sermons on this parable by two of the great preachers of our time, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Fred Craddock.

          It may not seem so obvious how the parable of the sower leads to the inclusive image of the welcome table.  In fact, Jesus’ interpretation of it seems to head in the opposite direction—an exclusiveness based on whether or not the seed of the Word will grow in you or not.

          Another great preacher of our day, Barbara Brown Taylor, points this problem out.  She recalls seeing this parable enacted in the musical Godspell and says

Watching all of that, I had the same response I always do to this parable:  I start worrying about what kind of ground I was on with God.  I started worrying about how many birds were in my field, how many rocks, how many thorns.  I started worrying about how I could clean them all up, how I could turn myself into a well-tilled, well-weeded, well-fertilized field for the sowing of God’s word.  I started worrying about how the odds were three to one against me—those are the odds of the parable, after all—and I began thinking how I could beat the odds, or at least improve on them, by cleaning up my act.[2]

          Of course, this anxiety is caused mostly by Jesus’ interpretation of the parable rather than the parable itself.  But this exclusivist anxiety is common both in the Bible and in the church.  There seem to be two different paths, an exclusive path in which the world is divided into saints and sinners, worthy and unworthy, a path that has dominated much of the church’s history, or an inclusive path which many would say is foreign to Scripture, but many of us are now saying is the real golden thread of the Scriptures from beginning to end, often hidden and subversive, however.

          When Fred Craddock preaches this parable he admits that the interpretation of the parable does indeed head in the direction of those who seem to be good, fertile Christians and those in whom the Word just does not seem to grow.  But then he has this say:

If this parable did not have an interpretation and all I had was the parable itself, this is what I would say:  First of all, please do not ever give up on anybody.  Please.  The plain fact is that I do not know and you do not know whether there will be any growth.  So let us not be selective, saying, “Oh, I think I will put a seed here.  This looks like a good one, but I won’t put a seed there—no use fooling with him.”  No, spread the seed.  Let it go on the path and the weeds and the thin soil.  Randomly scatter the good Word of God and do not try to predict what the result will be, because you do not know….This is God’s business.  This is Christ sowing the seed for goodness sake.  And what do we know?  We don’t know anything.[3]

          That is one of the great keys to the truly inclusive church.  The humility to say, “This is God’s business.  We don’t know anything.”  And because we acknowledge that we do not know anything, we assume that God is working with all of us, “us” being whoever walks in the door and gathers here on any given day, whoever they are, whatever their circumstances today, yesterday or tomorrow.

          Everyone who walks in the door (and whether they have walked in the door thousands of times or just once does not matter at all—that is true hospitality), everyone who walks in the door we assume, because we do not know any better and never will, everyone who walks in the door we assume is a child of God with a story to tell (and to be listened to) that is part of God’s story, a wound that needs our compassion or a cause for joy and gratitude that needs to be joined to our joy and gratitude, and gifts to give that are different from anybody else’s.

          And what we say when we are at our best is not, come and be like us because it doesn’t matter how different you are from us.  That is not what we say.  Thinking that is the message of the inclusive church—that we are really all the same—is a fatal flaw.  No, we say bring your difference, join it to ours, the more difference among us the better.

          Bring your devilish birds, your thin soil, and your weeds.  We have all brought our own version of these things, but we have discovered that together we are fertile soil.  Together we make this table welcome, and the only criteria for remaining among us is that you do not try to tear the Table down, which is to say, you do not try to separate anyone from the love of God we know in Jesus, in whom there is now no condemnation.

          The song we sing about the Welcome Table dreams that we will eat at it one of these days.  What we proclaim is, today is the day.




[1] Again for the record, the members were Chris Cleveland, Bruce Colburn, Allan Cuseo, Donna Davis, Madeline Gamble, Aaron Kane, Sylvia Kannapel, Ebo Ocran, Chuck Smith and Carter Williams
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (2004), pp. 25-26.
[3] Fred Craddock, The Cherry Log Sermons (2001), p. 23.

Friday, July 04, 2014

God is a Giver Not a Taker

Sermon preached on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 29, 2014, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY.  Proper 8A:  Genesis 22:1-14; Matthew 10:40-42

          The Bible is the record of a people’s struggle with their relationship with God, so it never should come as a surprise when the struggle that is portrayed is difficult, causing us to enter into our own struggle if we are to grow in relationship with God as our ancestors did.  We would prefer that the Bible was a clear set of guidelines, filled with direct answers to life’s questions, and in one sense it is these things, but only in very round-about ways that cause us to question, “What is really going on here?” and “How does this relate to my own relationship with God and how I live out that relationship in the world?”

          Although it may be one of the most difficult stories in the Bible, the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his own son, is a case in point.  We are tempted to think that the point of this story is that we should have as much faith as Abraham, such willingness to follow God that we would obey God at whatever cost.

          But I am not sure that is the point at all.  The clue to the real point of the story, as it frequently is, especially in the Torah, is found in the name of the place where the action occurs.  The place name is often the answer to the question posed by the story.

          In this case, Abraham calls the place, “The Lord provides,” “Yahweh yireh,” or, what may ring a bell for you, using an anglicized form of Yahweh, “Jehovah jireh.”  I learned a little song in college based on this text that has stuck with me all these years.

Jehovah jireh, my provider,
whose grace is sufficient for me, for me, for me
Jehovah jireh, my provider,
whose grace is sufficient for me
My God cares for me
According to his riches in glory
Jehovah jireh, my provider,
whose grace is sufficient for me

          The question posed by this horrific story is a simple one about the nature of God.  Is God a giver or a taker?

          The answer is a subtle one, but very important.  The story wants us to understand that everything belongs to God.  As much as anything else, that is the fundamental, bottom-line message of the whole book of Genesis.  Everything was created by God and therefore everything belongs to God.  Because of that, God could demand anything from us, even something as dear to us as our own life or the life of one we love.

          Having made that crystal clear, this story and the entirety of the biblical story, wants to also make it clear that it is not the nature of God to take from us, as if God needed constant, tangible proof of our obedience or even the sacrifice of human life to appease him.  No. The nature of God is to create, not destroy, to give, not to take.  “Yahweh yireh,” “Jehovah jireh,” “The Lord provides.”

          That means that the question this story poses to us is not whether or not we are willing to prove our faith in God by meeting impossible demands.  The question posed by the story is both, “Will you accept my provision?” and “Will you share in my provision to the world?”  Will you be a people who provides?

          Which brings us to this morning’s brief Gospel reading, in which Jesus poses essentially the same question, in the form of a very pragmatic statement, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…will not lose their reward.”

          For those of us who live in a land of abundant water, and modern refrigeration, this may seem like no big deal.  But Jesus is speaking in a cultural context where water was a very precious commodity, fresh water even more precious, and cold water most precious of all.  Jesus is asking us to give not out of our abundance, but out of our scarcity.

          What are some ways in our own context might we express what Jesus is asking of us?  One example, I think, would be in terms of time, something that often feels scarce to us.  “Whoever gives even a moment of time to listen to one of these little ones will not lose their reward.”  Whoever takes the time to share in my providing for the well-being of the world will not lose their reward.

          Who are these “little ones” of whom Jesus speaks?  Scholars have long debated the issue, but I think this saying links directly to the Gospel writer Matthew’s most remembered story.  “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”  And the reply is, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[1]

          The Gospel is not an abstract idea, or a particular philosophy of life, or the particularities of how you get into heaven.  The Gospel is something as simple as a cup of cold water to one who thirsts, an ear and a moment of time to one who needs to be heard, any gesture of giving that is in itself a gesture of God, the God who provides, who is a giver and not a taker.



[1] See Matthew 25:31-46.