Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Of nadirs and failures and God's redeeming power . . .

     I shared with 8am folks that I was worried I was preaching more against bad preachers this week than really speaking to the congregation at Advent.  It will come as no surprise to you all that have attended the last couple years that some of my colleagues were teasing me this week about me having my own Elijah moment.  Colleagues were discussing their insights into the passages, as we are often wont to do, but they were driving me nuts.  One colleague is preaching on this passage from 1 Kings as a moralistic sermon: Don’t be like Elijah!  Ugh.  I tried to remind him that Elijah was on the mountain with a transfigured Christ last week.  I don’t know that God wants us to think of Elijah as a failure.  But it fell on deaf ears.  Here’s hoping that sermon does, too.  I had another colleague “discover” that God really only cares about His competition with Ba’al.  God does not condemn the worship of Asherah.  Really?  That whole first commandment thing doesn’t give you pause?  That whole shemah thing we read in Rite 1 worship doesn’t suggest that God hates all forms of idolatry?  I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts! 
     Things were further jumbled after the events of Friday night and Saturday in Charlottesville.  Most of us believe that we preach best with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper (or the internet nowadays) in the other.  Charlottesville looms large over our national context this week, but the events did not happen until yesterday.  Most of my colleagues wrote their sermons on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.  Thursday and Friday were days of editing or fine-tuning.  How can one ever preach on such an event with no preparation?  What was worse was that some complained our readings did not lend themselves to the events of the weekend!  The sense of failure expressed by Elijah or the chaos of the wind and waves were somehow disconnected to those events.  And, because I was busy for several hours with June’s funeral, I had missed most of the events.  Unlike my brother and sister clergy, I was unable to watch events unfold on television.  This was, to their understanding, going to make me ineffectual discussing the tragedy with you.
     Of course, 8 o’clockers decided God showed up powerfully this morning in the sermon.  Somehow, 1 Kings made sense to everyone in light of our context here at Advent, here in Middle Tennessee, and as an American.  And, although it was not the sermon I had in mind at the beginning of the week, I have to admit I found it encouraging as well.  So, if you are following along, turn in your Bibles to chapter 19 or turn to the first page in your Order of Worship. . .
     Before I speak to the despair of Elijah, I need to speak to the work and deeds of the man.  Last week, we read that he appeared on the mountain with Moses and Jesus.  In the Jewish tradition, Elijah was the prophet, and Moses was the law-giver.  Elijah, it was thought in some circles, might return to rule for God.  It makes sense, right?  He was carried off to heaven by the chariots of fire before the cohort of prophets and Elisha, his successor.  Since he was not dead, he just might return to rule for God, or to advise the Messiah who ruled for God.  When people describe Jesus as Elijah in the Gospels, it is with this kind of cultural understanding they have in mind.  It’s a compliment.
     Elijah, of course, accomplished incredible things for God.  Elijah, in the lead up to our passage today, was the prophet of God in the so-called battle of the prophets.  Acting on instructions from God, Elijah challenges the priests of Ba’al to a worship contest.  He and they will construct an altar, sacrifice a bull, and call down fire upon the sacrifice.  Whoever’s god answers will be the god of Israel.  Such a competition is possible only because Ahab and Jezebel have led Israel astray from God.  They have introduced the worship of idols to Israel.
      In a battle worthy of a Hollywood movie, the priests of Ba’al construct their altar, sacrifice their animal, and then call down Ba’al’s fire.  Unfortunately for them, Ba’al does not answer.  The Hebrew is rather amusing.  Elijah mocks them for their god’s inability to answer.  He laughs that Ba’al is busy on his throne, as many men like to do in the bathroom, and so incapacitated and kept from answering their prayers.  He wonders at another point whether Ba’al is asleep.  Again and again he teases the enemy priests.  Eventually, they all pass out from exhaustion.
     Elijah builds his altar, sacrifices his animal, pours water all over the wood (they are in a three year drought and he wants no one to accuse this of being spontaneous combustion), and calls down Yahweh’s flame.  God consumes not only Elijah’s sacrifice but that of the sacrifice to Ba’al.  Everyone is stunned.  And Elijah uses that stunned time to order the priests of God to kill all the priests of Ba’al.  Can you imagine anything more glorious?  Elijah certainly could not.  Scripture does not tell us what he expected.  Maybe he expected all Israel to turn and worship Yahweh after such an answer?  Maybe he just expected Ahab and Jezebel to return to the Lord?  Maybe he expected idolatry to go the way of the dodo bird after such an impressive display.  Whatever he expected, he got something completely different.
     And, lest we think this is Elijah’s only supernatural encounter with God, he has all kinds of reasons to know what to expect from God.  God has shut the rains at Elijah’s prayer.  This is the same Elijah who is sent to the widow in Sidon.  It is from her never-ending jar of oil and jar of flour that she, he, and her son are fed during this extreme drought.  It is that same son that is raised from the dead at Elijah’s intercession.  There are more events in his relationship with God, but you get the idea.  Elijah has had quite the walk with our Lord.  And it is that same Elijah whom we find groaning, complaining, and giving up today.
     Whatever response Elijah expected as a result of that battle of the prophets, he gets a death threat as well.  Ahab is blind to the events described in that battle.  When he recounts the events to his wife, he claims that Elijah did all of that, not God.  In response to her husband’s testimony, Jezebel sends a messenger to tell Elijah that she is going to do to him what he did to her priests of Ba’al.  Those of us who are rational might well wonder at the threat and Elijah’s response.  If he killed all the Ba’al priests, who is alive to kill him?  More to the point, why send a messenger to threaten the prophet of God?  Just send the killers.
     Whatever Elijah expected, that was not the response.  And so he flees south.  He flees to the very southern edge of the kingdom.  Still, that’s not far enough!  He tells his servant to remain at a place while he travels a day into the wilderness, further away.  It is there that Elijah finds a bushy tree, collapses, and basically asks God to take his life.  If the battle with the prophets or the raising of the widow’s son, or the transfiguration appearance represent the pinnacle of Elijah’s walk with God, this scene represents the nadir, his own Jonah-fleeing moment.
     It is at this point in the story that we need to remind ourselves of the character of our Father in heaven.  I often have a different parenting outlook.  When my kids come whining to me about a booboo or cat scratch, I am the dad that offers to cut off the finger or leg to make that pain go away.  It’s ok to laugh.  None of them have ever let me do it.  It’s terrible parenting, isn’t it?  But who has not had it done to them?  Who has not offered to do it?
     Thankfully, God does not respond like us.  Does Elijah get beaten for running away in the “this is gonna hurt me more than it hurt you sense?”  Does God ignore Elijah for his lack of faith?  Does God condemn or punish Elijah for Elijah’s wrong expectations?  Look at what He does to Elijah.  He feeds Elijah.  He lets Elijah rest.  He asks Elijah why he is where he is.  And God listens.  Think of how petulant Elijah’s answer must sound in God’s ears.  “I have done everything you have asked and still they seek to kill me.  None have turned to You, Lord!  I have wasted my time, my energy, my care, and my concern for them.  Take my life, please.”  Pathetic, is it not?  It’s at these points in our conversations with our kids that we mouth that eternal wisdom, “you think you are hurting?  I’ll give you hurt” right?  Is that how our Father in heaven tends to Elijah?  No!
     After feeding and allowing Elijah rest, God sends Elijah to Mount Sinai.  There Elijah finds a cave.  Some rabbinical scholars claim this is the very same cleft or cave where God hid Moses when His glory passed by.  While in that cave, God speaks to Elijah.  The miraculous or supernatural happens again.  A wind with the strength to split boulders happens.  But God is not in that wind.  Next an earthquake rumbles.  But God is not in the earthquake.  A consuming fire falls to earth, and still God is not in the fire.  Where does Elijah finally encounter God again?  Our translators say the sheer silence.  Others have described it as the small whisper.  We might as well think of it as the personal, the ordinary, the common.
     What Elijah experiences is common to people in their walk with God.  Think of the stories of your favorite prophet, or your favorite matriarch , your favorite patriarch, or your favorite Adventer.  Is everything they do laudable or praiseworthy?  Of course not!  And God responds to each as a loving Father.  Almost all complain; many are dejected at some point.  Some flee Him; some beg Him to punish the enemies.  Many take things into their own hands to “fix them” and wind up making an even bigger mess.  And each time God is loving and merciful.  God knows what each needs and provides it, be it a kick in the pants or a softer life lesson.  Elijah needs to know that God is the One rejected.  Elijah, and we, need to be reminded that God not only gives meaning to our work, our ministries, but He is the sole arbiter of our success.  For American Christians like us, this is a heck of a spiritual wedgie, right?
     As I was watching CNN before the funeral yesterday, I watched a modern Elijah.  The crew was following a small group of white supremacists after the police had dispersed the crowds from the park.  They would try to capture every confrontation on camera and in an interview.  They came upon an older, bearded black man with sad face and shaking head.  The reporter asked him what had happened to him.  In an obviously pained voice, the man expressed failure.  Nothing, it turned out, had happened to him.  Why was he so sad?  “This is not who we are.  I don’t know any of these people—on either side!  Are we perfect?  No.  But we aren’t this.  Now, it’s our city’s reputation that is getting ruined.  Our businesses are being hurt.  Our property is being ruined.  This is not us.”  As he was shaking his head, the crew moved on because there was another verbal confrontation up the street.  But I was struck by this man’s sense of failure.  He was of an age where I am sure he remembered worse times.  He was likely of an age where he thought the worst was behind us.  I don’t know how long he has lived in Charlottesville, but it does not have the reputation or feel of a racist divide.  It’s a university town snuggled in the foothills of the Appalachians.  Their big riots generally involve drunken college students being stupid, wielding kegs or fifths of liquor.  Not racist protesters bearing semi-automatic weapons or their counterparts carrying clubs or pepper spray.  And had he been a worker for racial equality and justice much of his life, I can only imagine the sense of his futility.
      It is a futility that no doubt touches us.  I am loathe to put words in their mouth, so you should ask them and thank them afterwards, but think how Billy and George must feel doing the work of the anti-racism taskforce.  We are trying to do the right things, I think, as a diocese.  If we screw up, it’s well meant intentions.  Heck, we began with a corporate, public repentance, just as many experts suggest.  We acknowledged that our churches did not stand up with the innocent for justice when it mattered most.  Our silence led to their deaths.  It was a powerful service, a powerful beginning, Naomi was able to speak to racism as a South African who finds herself for a season planted firmly in Nashville . . . and very few showed up.  Was it the timing, a weekday morning?  Was it the location?  Rush hour makes Fisk a longer trip than normal for those of us living on the south side of Nashville.  But where were the people from north Nashville, or East Nashville, or West Nashville?  Where was the press?  Never mind the CNN’s or Fox News or major outlets of the nation, where were our press members?  Why weren’t the cameras following everyone as we processed to St. Anselm’s to reveal the new marker?  And for all the good beginning that our task force has done, how quickly would it all had been unraveled if those protesters and counter-protesters had chosen to duke it out in Nashville rather than a small university town in Virginia?  For those who have fought racism, today is likely an emotionally exhausting day.  Sometimes we like to think we have made such a difference.  Then the world kicks us in the teeth and reminds us that our life’s work was a failure or worthless.  Is it any wonder we, like Elijah, rail at God, flee from God, or wonder whether He really cares?
     Such a feeling likely hangs over two more Adventers this morning.  I hear it was shared in Bible Study, so I will share it as well.  Unbeknownst to many of you, Tina and Robert have been teaching English as a Second Language classes as one of our nearby churches.  Tina and Robert have taken it upon themselves to welcome immigrants and refugees in Christ’s name.  Their chief contribution is a willingness to teach English to any who come to the classes.  It is hard work, exhausting work.  Through translators they get to hear first hand the accounts of lives in other countries.  Through translators they get to hear first hand the accounts of incredible journeys to get to the United States.  Through translators they get to hear first hand the accounts and stories of living in this land as a foreigner, an alien.  Many in power try to wrap themselves in the mantle of Christ claiming this is a Christian nation.  Tina and Robert can tell you we sure don’t seem that way to “those people.”
     Up until this point, of course, Tina and Robert could claim a distinction between the country and the Church.  The country may get things wrong and only say what is necessary to remain in power, but the Church knows better—the Church follows Jesus.  Their eyes will water as they share the story, but that distinction ended this week.  The church that was hosting the classes stopped them this week with no warning, with no hint of any problem.  It turns out that the idea of teaching foreigners how to read and write English was divisive in the church.  Let me say that again: the idea of hosting adult foreigners to teach them our language was divisive in a church.  People were threatening to leave the church of those people, and take their pledges with them, so the pastor stopped the classes.  Somehow, I doubt the Jesus who supported Peter on the waves today was proud of His disciples.  Could we blame Tina and Robert if they gave up?  Could we blame them if they gave up on the Church and on God in the midst of such hardened hearts and stiff necks?  Would we be surprised if they found themselves, like Elijah, ready to throw in the towel?
     I have already spoken of a couple pastors’ failure this morning, but it is worth reminding you I think that we are human.  I’m sure by the time today is over I will have heard of many more.  Heck, some of you may lump me in with that group.  But I was reminded of clergy failures earlier this week by a visitor.  I won’t share all the details as I invited her to church, but she recounted how a priest had really screwed up in her past.  The result was that she and her family walked out of this church and the Church for many years.  When she dropped in this week, she said she had attended the irregular wedding or funeral, but had not been to weekly services in decades now.
     On one hand, we might be tempted to dismiss her claims.  Why give up on God because a priest is human?  But we clergy understand it.  Our mistakes, we quickly learn, have far-reaching consequences.  We are stewards of God’s holy mysteries.  Our mis-stewarding has far-reaching and eternal consequences.  Was the priest trying to do what he thought was best?  I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Was what he was doing unquestionably wrong?  Yes.  As I talked with her this week, Elijah was, naturally, on my mind, but I had also had a few conversations with less experienced clergy on my mind.  Somebody had suggested that each reach out to me.  I learned again that I am a rare sighting in our beloved church.  I’m not yet fifty years of age and I have double digit years’ worth of ordained experience.  We laughed as I shared that with her, but hers was the nervous laugh of “why is he telling me this?”  I told her that clergy make a lot of mistakes right out of seminary.  It’s no wonder.  We have people and clergy at our sending parish telling us we should be ordained.  We have imposing figures we call bishops concurring.  We go through committees of strangers called Commissions on Ministry and Standing Committees with the same result.  Once through all them, we find ourselves at seminary, surrounded by ordained professors whose jobs depend upon them preparing us and encouraging us for the days that lay ahead.  Is it any wonder our expectations get out of whack?  Who does not want to be the next great thing?  Who does not want to be the one who grows the next super church?  Who begins the next revival?  Who earns that “saint” title in the next iteration of Holy Women Holy Men?
     Like Elijah, our expectations get out of whack.  God needs us to further His kingdom is the lie we tell ourselves.  And then the honeymoon at the first parish ends.  We screw up.  We offend rather than scandalize.  We discover that people do not like us.  Every decision costs the parish income which, in turn, increases the stress on the Vestry?  Some clergy run away to another parish, and some parishes go looking for another clergy.  Some clergy go looking for that perfect parish, and some parishes go looking for that perfect clergy.  Somewhere along the way, bishops hope that the new clergy and the vestries learn to work with each other.  If the call is mutually discerned, bishops hope clergy and parishes look for God in the ordinary, the mundane, the boring, and each other.  My ministry with this woman this week was rather boring.  I don’t think she walked out of the office thinking “that guy is brilliant.”  She may have been scandalized by a couple of my questions or statements.  Time will tell.  She had been wrestling with God for a few months.  She found herself on Franklin Pike and noticing the sign rather than flying past us on the interstate yet again.  We talked.  I apologized for my predecessor’s failure.  We spoke of some of you; she threatened to give us a try.  Miraculous?  Yes.  Supernatural?  By no means.
     How this all relates to us individually, I hope, is obvious.  It is understandable if our individual ministries to which He has called us result in disappointment and sense of failure.  How it relates to us corporately, I think, is less obvious.  When Bishop John visited with us in June, he made a point of encouraging me to thank the vestry members repeatedly for their work of adaptive change or discernment or whatever we want to call it.  What God and the bishop and Holly and I are asking them and you to do is hard work.  There is a temptation, a strong temptation, to want to give up, to quit working, to quit doing the hard stuff.  Heck, in this day and age of consumer Christianity in America, it is easy to want to give up and run away and hide, just like Elijah!  Those feelings that we sense or understand in our individual efforts can even be magnified in corporate settings.  That’s why I find it more than comforting that on a day when our country is struggling with the institutional sin of racism and when members are struggling with their own sense of failure or inadequacy and when we as members of a parish may be experiencing similar feelings of failure and wasted effort, we are reminded the week after the Transfiguration of Elijah.
     Like us, Elijah was called to walk in the path of God, the path of righteousness.  Like us, Elijah was called to draw others into God’s saving embrace.  Like us, Elijah was given incredible power and incredible signs that he was doing what God asked of him.  And like us, Elijah found himself in a world full of people who had no idea they were in darkness, who had no idea they were walking in valleys that led to death, who had no idea they were blind.  And like us, Elijah took their rejection of God as a rejection of himself and as an evidence of his failure.
     Like us, Elijah had a Christ like ministry.  His ministry was not of his own doing.  He went and did where and what God commanded.  Like God’s Son who came centuries later, Elijah’s ministry seemed a failure.  Like Jesus, Elijah’s ministry seemed to be pointless and leading to death.
     It would have been within God’s right to smite Elijah or yell at him for his pity party; it would not, however, been within His character.  Like He does so often for each of us, God needed to remind Elijah where He was to be found.  Like us, Elijah needed to be reminded that God only requires obedience.  Like us, Elijah needed only to be reminded that nothing God does is without purpose.  We may not understand the purpose, but He always has at least one!  And like us, Elijah needed to be reminded that God is the judge of our efforts.  He is the determiner of the success of our labors.  Not us.  Not the world.  To us and to those in the world we can appear as abject failures, as impotent human beings not up to the grand tasks assigned us by Him.  Nevertheless, He determines the success.  He has the power to redeem all things, even our seeming failures.  Elijah felt a complete failure, yet God reminds him that 7000 heard his words!  7000 were rescued out of Elijah’s self-evaluated disappointment or failure!  How successful would we view ourselves if we each rescued 7000?  You and I share in that promise and that hope—that He will give meaning to our lives, that He will redeem our failures, that He will give us a share of His glory for all eternity.  Just as He redeemed this nadir of faith of His prophet Elijah, He will redeem our nadirs, both individually and collectively.  Heck, just as He redeemed the death of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, He will redeem us, even if our seeming failure seems to lead to our own deaths!  And, because He is a Father who loves us more deeply than we can ever understand or appreciate, He has even more than redemption in store for us!  Just as He demonstrated in His Son’s Ascension and Transfiguration, you and I, like Elijah, will one day share in His glory!  What a promise!  What a hope!  What an incredible God and Father!
     Why are you here, Adventers?  Let’s eat and get back out there, toiling in the mundane and the ordinary, reminded of that wonderful promise and reward He has in store for all those who call upon Him!

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Oases of the Kingdom of God . . . Mustard seeds and yeast!

     Before I begin today, let me first apologize to all the strict sermon evaluators among us this morning.  I recognize what I am about to do is neither expository nor faithful to the text, at least in an important sense.  In another, though, I am quite certain I am being quite faithful in addressing a pastoral need that really came to the fore this week, just as we were scheduled by the lectionary editors to encounter these readings.  I suppose this is my long-winded way of saying that I hope I am like Jesus’ master of a household who has truly brings out of God’s treasure what is new and what is old.
     And while I am at it, you all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 8 o’clocker’s.  I have shared how they often interact with us to shape our 10:30am sermons.  As I was preaching earlier today, I had the distinct feeling that this was the worst sermon I had preached at Advent.  Maybe it was?  Thankfully, it is not recorded, so we will never know for sure.  More thankfully, though, people heard what they needed to hear in light of what I preached.  Holly† and I are sometimes brutal to one another.  We agreed this sermon was bad.  Yet, those at 8 o’clock were excited by the sermon, were full of more illustrations I could use, and seemed amazingly comforted by what pained the two of us.  If this ends up speaking to you, empowering you, reminding you of God’s call on your life, thank those that come early when you see them at the picnic.  Let them know you appreciate their work!  With that all said, let’s get started.
     We have spent some significant time in this, the green or growing season of the Church that we call “Ordinary Time” in Jesus’ teachings from Matthew.  Unfortunately for the initial audiences and for us, Jesus delighted in teaching through the use of parables.  I say unfortunately because, more often than not, if we are faithful attenders and faithful responders to His parables, we find ourselves relating to the parables in different ways as we walk through life with God.  A great recent example would be the parable of the wheat and the tares.  All of us love to believe that the other, whoever we think the others are, is the noxious weed and we are the fruit bearing wheat.  If we faithfully engaged Jesus in that teaching though, I think some of us came to the realization that we may, in fact, sometimes be weeds.  It can be a fearful thing to be sitting in your favorite pew, dressed just so, convinced of your own piety and righteousness, only to be provoked by reason of conscience and by the Holy Spirit that, perhaps we are lucky this minute is not the Day of the Lord, that we are lucky He is not sending the angels to harvest this minute.  We might find ourselves rounded up with the weeds.
     Those conversations, of course, allow me to remind us of the simplicity of the Gospel.  There is nothing in us that saves us.  Every one of us, each and every single person we encounter, is only saved through the work and person of Jesus Christ.  It’s humbling news, perhaps, to learn that He was willing to die for our own sins.  It’s humbling in a completely different way, though, to hear that He died for everyone, that He has patience for everyone, that He loves and desires all to come to Him.  Realizing that makes us realize that we are not as unique, not as special as we might like to think, at least in how the world would like us to believe.  But it is also good for us to be reflective about Jesus’ teachings, to remind ourselves how difficult it is to be fruit bearing all the time, how dependent we are upon God’s grace and mercy.
     Often those parables are challenging.  More often than not, the disciples have to ask Jesus about their meanings.  Given the cultural and time distances between us, it is no small wonder that many of us have difficulty had understanding some of them today.  Given the complexity of those parables, it’s no small wonder that we read them differently at different times in our life.  Heck, given our ebbs and flows in relating to God, it’s no wonder we find ourselves comforted at one time and challenged at another by the exact same parable.
     This week’s parables from Matthew are dangerous.  You laugh nervously a bit, and I get that.  But this week’s parables are truly dangerous.  You know you are in trouble when the disciples understand Jesus.  How can they not understand the wheat and the tares but get the good and stinky fish?  How can they struggle with the parable of the sower and get the treasure in a field?  In particular, I felt called to concentrate on the first two parables of our reading from Matthew this morning.  But rather than focus on them in a regular fashion, I wanted to look at how they speak to our lives, individually, as disciples of Jesus Christ.
     The two parables are well known.  In the first parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to the mustard seed.  Most of us know the background of what Jesus intends.  The mustard seed is originally rather small.  There is no indication from the seed that the resulting plant will be the oasis of life described by Jesus.  With proper amounts of good soil, water, fertilizer, and sunlight, that little seed will become a source of food and shelter for any number of living things.  For the planter, the resulting tree shrub will become a source of herbs or mustard seeds.  Meals will be improved.  The seeds can even be sold for money used to buy other necessities.  But that same tree will be a source of shade for those travelling in its vicinity.  For some birds and animals it will become a home and a place for shelter.  For those that prey on such animals, it will become a source for food.  I’m intentionally being quick, but you all have heard lots of stories about the mustard seed turning into a tree.
     The same can be said about the leaven and the flour.  It may be too simple a thing to claim that the Jews were not overly fond of leavened bread.  Certainly, an argument can be made that they should be suspicious of fermentation as signs of implied corruption and disintegration from the days of their Exodus.  But were they?  How often were the Jews like us?  How often did they miss God’s teaching , or ignore it altogether?  And, let’s not forget experience.  How bad does baked bread from leavened dough smell?
     Jesus’ parable points out that bakers had to keep an acidic piece of dough that had been set aside during a prior baking.  That piece of dough could be mixed with flour and water and set aside.  The resulting fermentation would cause the dough to rise.  A good baker would pinch off a piece for the next time, but the rest of the dough was used to bake bread or crusts or whatever recipes call for dough that has been allowed to rise. 
     No doubt we have all heard stories and sermons of how Jesus intends to illustrate the surprising growth of the kingdom of God in our midst.  The reign of God starts off insignificantly.  We might say it starts in a manger in an out of the way city in an out of the way province.  Heck, those hearing or witnessing the beginning of that reign likely thought it ended abruptly, if it was beginning at all, that fateful Good Friday afternoon.  It’s bursting forth, of course, became evident, not just on Easter, but on His Ascension and on Pentecost!  We get the big story.  We understand the big picture.  But do we miss the trees for the forest?  Do we miss how we are mustard seeds, how we are pieces of leaven in Jesus’ parable?
     Looking at your faces, I see some confusion.  Let me explain a bit differently using modern illustrations.  Two Advent group meetings will help us all to understand how these parables are applicable to our lives of faith.  The first was the Bible Project on Wednesday.  For seven of the last eight weeks, driven mostly by the vision and energy of Tina, and the support of Nancy and Holly†, we have engaged in some food, some fellowship, some games, some learning, and some worship.  Different people enjoyed different aspects of those gatherings at different times.  For our last gathering, we looked at the illustrated version of what Carola† taught you was the tension between the already and the not yet.  Good, I see the nods.
     One of the questions with which Christians have struggled is the end times.  It makes sense that we have struggled.  If we can’t get history right, how can we ever expect to get the future correct?  The authors of the Bible Project illustrated what they think is going to happen by the use of two overlapping circles.  One circle is the kingdom of heaven; the other is the kingdom of the world.  The overlap was, in the Old Testament, the Temple.  That was the sacred space where God’s people were supposed to be made righteous and holy and empowered to evidence His mercy in grace in the world around them.  The same is true for us.  Except that Temple is now the Cross and Empty Tomb of Jesus.  It is through His work on the Cross that you and I are made sons and daughters.  It is through His intercession that you and I are empowered by the Holy Spirit to do those things He has given us to do.
     Looking at those circles, of course, I was drawn to the fact that we do not stay “in the Temple.”  God’s people are always sent back into the world.  In our Episcopal parlance, we are sent into the world to do those things He has given us to do!  We may not be of the world, but He sure has a lot of work for you and I to accomplish in that world for Hs honor and His glory.  Had I illustrated their message, I would have sent lots of little crosses back into the dark circle of the kingdom of earth signifying the ministry to which each one of Christ’s disciples is called.  By virtue of our baptism, each of us has put our fleshy selves to death on that Cross.  Now we work for Him!  To use the illustration of the parables today, you and I are those pieces of dough that ferment all the flour.  You and I are the seeds that give rise to that lively oasis described as a mustard tree this morning.  Does it seem crazy?  Think about ministries of Adventers.
     Naturally, we have already spoken of the impact of Tina, Nancy, and Holly in this Bible Project effort.  Those who came were fed, engaged in conversation, played with, educated a bit, and led in worship.  From three little seeds came an enormous abundance of life, an abundance whose impact we cannot adequately judge right now.  Look at our “biscuit ministry.”  I still don’t know who the mustard seed or leavened piece of bread was.  Somebody, though, planted an idea.  Now, several Adventers help giving away dozens of biscuits every month.  People are being fed here and there and not with leftovers, but with the very best biscuits most of us could buy!  Consider Barbara’s work in the Parenting Adult Children group.  It was her vision, her passion, and her study that helped make that group work.  She provided the yeast, as it were, to cause the rest of the flour rise, giving evidence of the kingdom of God in the midst of the lives of those who attend.  Heck, many individual ministries at Advent reflect beautifully the teaching espoused by Jesus this morning.  Larry and Dale drive Room in the Inn.  Ron and Ellen and Jerry and Janice and a few others drive our work with St. Luke’s.  Frank hosts fellowship events with great care and vision, even in the midst of terrible pain.  Candida has taken up the cause of Human Trafficking and is impacting Rotary and the world around in ways that stun her.  No doubt you, like 8 o’clockers, can think of more!
     Sometimes we clergy need the reminder, too.  Speaking of human trafficking, as most of you know, I have been far too consumed with Advent to do more than dabble in the fight against Human Trafficking.  It drives me nuts sometimes.  I had done next to nothing since January—you may have heard that the Vestry and clergy have been a little swamped with budgetary issues.  But I received a call a couple weeks ago from a staffer of one of our Senators.  He wanted to know if I was willing to support the Senator’s effort to make a Tennessee organization a warehouse for human trafficking information.  Mostly they wanted to make sure that Congress is getting the best bang for their buck.  The Senator wanted Tennessee to retain its leadership role in this fight.  I answered without thinking.  Why wouldn’t I?
     He needed us to do some professional printing for an organization in Knoxville that works on a string budget.  Hmmm.  Who do I know that prints professionally?  Where will I ever find that kind of specific help?  Heck, we were so well-suited to this work that we have a retired lobbyist in our midst who can speak to the expectations of the members of Congress.  I won’t say Ron’s and my conversation was edifying in the traditional sense—it really only served to confirm my suspicions about their forgetfulness that they are supposed to serve us--, but it does allow me to approach that work with some confidence that we will get the best bang for our buck!  And, if we are not careful and God does not come again before then, we are that much closer to that wonderful stadium Eucharist with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope serving as a kickoff for creating a network of shelters around the world!  Talk about leavening the flour!
     The second big parish conversation that helped me bring these parables into focus was the Wrestling with Faith group on Thursday.  I’m not sure who is more disappointed in the lack of growth in that group, Robert and Jim who convene it, or the Advent clergy who recognize its need.  We have our suspicions why it does not really catch support among those Adventers who struggle with their faith, but it is a group that simply intends to consider those aspects of our faith with which both the Church and the outside world have struggled over the centuries.  Sometimes, the participants border on the verge of eloquently espousing heresy . . . again and again.  Sometimes, the participants come to realize that their struggles are reflective of the struggles that have existed in God’s people since the beginning.  All our conversations this week, though, led us back to why the questioning was important.  As smart as Robert and Jim are, they ask no question with which the Church has not struggled before.  There are those in the wider Church who would no doubt condemn them for such questions, but would our Lord?  These struggles are real.  The struggles shape us.  How we live these struggles, more important, testifies to the world the redeeming power of God.  How we live these struggles, individually and collectively, molds and shapes and waters and nourishes us to become those kingdom of God outposts in the world out there!  And that, after all, is where and how the kingdom appears in this world.
     You and I speak often of being ambassadors and sons and daughters of the King.  Should we be at all surprised that our King sends us into the world as seeds that die to self or leaven that can “infect” more flour?  Should we be surprised that our Lord can use such tiny initial faith on our part to accomplish glorious works in our midst?  Given His teachings and parables, I do not think so.  Lord, help my unbelief ought to be ringing in our ears today even as our focus is on the growth of the kingdom of God in the world around us.  Yes, we can never mistake the fact that He provides the growth; He provides all that is really necessary to grow His kingdom.  But for reasons known only to Him, He seems quite content to use you and me and anyone else who comes to Him in faith the salt, the seed, and even the yeast that causes the kingdom to burst forth around us in ways we could never ask or imagine.  And maybe, maybe such stories remind us that no matter our own inconspicuous beginnings, you and are called by our Creator and Redeemer to a glorious fulfillment that none of us, no Adventer, begins to grasp.

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Conflict management . . .

     Conflict.  I had an easy decision this week when it came to discerning the text for my sermon.  Let’s face it, our lives, our parish, our church, the Church, and our country are in the midst of a great deal of conflict.  It was almost too easy for me on Monday when I peeked at the readings.  The Gospel lesson was pretty self-explanatory, or at least explained by Jesus.  There’s not much I can add to that.  And Romans is more suited to a series, I think, that simply dropping in for a “one off.”  Still, it might have been too easy, at least until the week got going.
     The confirming detail, I suppose, was a conversation I had with a pastor on my bike at the gym.  As many of you know, particularly those who use that conflict-fosterer we call Facebook, I’ve been riding a mock Tour in honor of The Tour at the Y with David and a few thousand idiots from around the world.  I say idiots while in the midst of the pain and suffering.  When I finish next week, we will be brave, competitive souls who were seeking to improve our fitness, or some other such nonsense.  Now, I am just convinced we all lost our minds.  But as I was riding Friday, I noticed the guy next to me reading a commentary on Second Peter.  So I took a shot and asked him if he was preparing a sermon.  Naturally, he was not thinking and asked me how I knew.  Now, I used to be able to say that no one else but clergy preparing for sermons and seminary students writing papers ever bothered to read commentaries.  For most people, the Bible is thick enough.  They don’t want to read a 300-400 page book on a couple page letter by Peter that discusses context and grammar and theological concepts.  Then I met Larry and Tom, but that’s another sermon!
     After realizing his reading material was a bit obvious, he said he was.  And we began a relationship based in conflict.  I should be fair here and confess that I was giving as well as I got.  He had his preconceptions, and I had mine.  Plus, I was in the midst of a climb of 1900 feet, so I was in some pain.  My filters and shields were in an off position to conserve energy!  He knew all about the Episcopal Church and our love of Scripture, so he felt the need to explain to me a bit of the history of 2 Peter.  I knew all about the Baptist Church, and so I expressed some wonder at his likely ability to stretch a short letter into hours of sermons that would be long on law and short on grace while complimenting him for being daring and not preaching on money this week.
     Obviously impressed with my knowledge of Baptist sermons, he wanted to know what new book I would be preaching on instead of Scripture.  When I told him I was leaning towards a conversation on conflict from Genesis 25, he told me he was surprised.  The way I said it made him think I thought there were more than one sermon on that small piece of Scripture.  When I allowed that I did but that I felt the conflict it raised was more important to my flock, our conversation turned serious.  He was preaching on 2 Peter and the call to cast out the wolves in sheep’s clothing.  In particular, he was upset about a stalwart’s betrayal.  He was consumed by the revelation that Eugene Peterson supported Same Sex Marriage.  He was not the only one on Friday.  My Facebook feed blew up a bit over that revelation as well.  I see some faces wondering who this Peterson guy is.  Those of you who are familiar with The Message translation of the Bible will know the name.  Peterson is usually given all the credit or all the blame for that translation made famous around here by Anne Williams.  Most of those posting about it on Facebook were pastors who loved Peterson’s work or those trying to convince Christendom that gay marriage is something that can be blessed by God.  Not a single Adventer posted about it, and I wondered how many in his flock were consumed by it, especially since Eugene Peterson is a Presbyterian.
     That led us into all kinds of fun discussion.  We talked a bit about Peterson, and he was suitably impressed that I had broken bread and had conversations with the man.  We debated how we should respond in light of mistakes made by those we admire.  Do we toss out all their works, or do we treat them as human beings?  We talked about sermons and their purposes.  We laughed how people seem to hear what they need to hear, even when we think our sermons were less than stellar.  We both laughed at how our great sermons never seem to be heard with the fervor with which we give them.  We debated a bit about the blessing of the lectionary, the fact that you and I are pushed along week in and week out and forced to deal with a significant portion of Scripture, rather than free to read only about subjects that interest the pastor.  And, of course, we talked a bit about bad leaders and about conflict in the church.  By the time Friday ended, we were not friends.  But we had passed beyond the eye rolls and assumptions.
     If I had any doubts about our relationship, they were removed Saturday.  While I was riding Saturday, he came in, plopped down on the bike next to me, and started chatting.  Peterson had issued a clarification.  The reporter had issued a rebuttal.  That whole story was turning into a mess.  He wished he was preaching on conflict in Genesis 25 now.  Really, it was not that bad.  He had to speak in general terms about bad leaders.  I just reminded him that he needed to be careful.  Someone in the audience might hear and evaluate him.  Isn’t that one way that congregations split?  We laughed and talked and grunted our way through our respective rides before wishing each other well for today.
     And while his and my early grenade lobbing was the confirming piece of conflict in my life, it was by no means the most influential or most significant.  I had some marriage counselling to do this week.  Boy, talk about conflict.  You know, there’s a reason we are only supposed to have only four meetings or less with couples.  By the time they make it to us, positions are often entrenched.  And the desire is for the clergy to decide in favor of one or the other.  We really should be mediators, but people want us so often to act as judges, the secret desire being that we long to believe that God is on our side in those marital disputes.  What, you think I don’t know?  You do know I have been married almost 26 years now?
     And usually people are not nearly so blunt as I am this morning.  They couch their desires in all kinds of euphemisms, but the rueful laughter of a moment ago simply tells me I am right.  And gentlemen, just to be clear, if you ask for a judgment I will side with your wife.  Remember that 26 year marriage thing I just mentioned.  What’s the first lesson of Fight Club—I mean marriage?  The wife is always right!  If I side with you, the sisterhood of all wives goes to work on my wife!  Whoa!  I meant that as a funny but the silence makes me think I hit closer to the truth than I knew!  Now you laugh.  But think about it, how important is conflict in a marriage?  How often do we as married couples deal with conflict?
     Heck, let’s extend that understanding to most of our relationships.  Barbara Jones herds the cats known around here as Parenting Adult Children.  That is all about conflict management.  Young adults who think they know everything vs. mature adults who are certain they know what’s best for all involved!
     If we experience conflict in families, should we really be surprised that we experience conflict elsewhere?  Part of interpersonal relationships in the workplace is learning to deal with conflict in a manner that does not impact productivity or the ability to do one’s job.  Disputes happen in the workplace all the time, right?  Every boss or manager knows that.  When are they forced to take action or get involved?  When the bottom line or morale is impacted.
     The same is true of school or clubs or service organizations.  The same is certainly true regarding parish life.  It makes sense on one level.  We seem to have conflict in interpersonal relationships.  We have a lot of interpersonal relationships at church.  Ergo, Holly’s transitive property sermon a couple weeks ago, we have conflict in the parish.  Can you believe it?  Mathematical principles you thought you would never need have come back to haunt you in sermons not once, but twice in three weeks!
     Look wider.  As most of you all know, I am a co-chair of the diocese’s task force on Same Sex Marriage.  Talk about conflict.  Sometimes we are so conflicted, I’m not sure we know what we are conflicted about.  This week I found myself in our conversations arguing that we should go and meet with a group that feels particularly injured by the bishop’s decision while many of those who disagree with the bishop’s decision wanted to avoid the meeting!
     Our conflict on that issue is merely representative of the conflict in the wider national church.  We are still dealing with lawsuits from actions and decisions that are a decade old.  Along the way, some of our brothers and sisters in LA found themselves in another conflict with their bishop.  And, as crazy as this sounds to my ears, some out there decided we needed a little more conflict in our church life so they are getting serious about revising the Prayer Book again!  Looking at your expressions, I get the sense you have enough conflict for now.
     And, lest anyone think we are the only ones in conflict, look at our Communion.  That relationship is like Shrek the Ogre with its layers of conflict.  That reminds me of another theme blowing up my feed a bit.  All my UK friends are up in arms over the recent decision to allow clergy not to wear a cassock, this black robe under my white surplice, while at work.  Some are mad at the decision; others are mad the church is even fighting about it in the first place!  But it is a thing that is causing huge conflict.
    Our country is in the midst of a couple decade long conflict.  I know my theory is that we in the Episcopal church forgot how to fight well and quit teaching our leaders and so the country suffers, but really our politicians take conflict to a whole other level.  Growing up in this country the legislative process was called sausage making.  I can remember President Reagan and Speaker O’Neil sitting down for drinks (like Episcopal priests had probably taught them in DC) and trying to figure out compromises on various issues.  Does anyone here think President Trump has that relationship with Schumer or Pelosi or even Ryan for that matter?  Do we recall fondly the friendships of President Obama and McConnell or Boehner, despite their differences?  Now you belly laugh?
     Given all the conflict in our lives, from close personal relationships to friendships to work to politics, is it any wonder God might have something to say on the matter?  Our story today and Genesis picks up on the transition from the second generation to the third generation of the Covenant family with God.  Notice again the time involved.  Twenty years have passed since Rebekah returned with the servant and met Isaac.  Twenty years!  These few chapters in Scripture, beginning with God’s call on Abraham, cover 45 years of history!  And out of all that life over a 45 year period, God spends a significant chunk of time teaching us about conflict.  Why?  Partly because I think we are stupid.  Or stubborn.  Take your pick.
     Look at Isaac.  Poor stupid Isaac.  Think of the predicament he is in.  For 20 years he has lived with a wife unable to conceive.  Granted, their biology understanding was limited, but they viewed reproduction in an agrarian way.  The man was the seed; the woman was the fertile soil.  So long as a guy could do his duty, infertility was seen as a woman’s issue.  Of course, Isaac sat at the feet of Sarah and Abraham.  Just to remind you, Isaac was the baby conceived in their late 90’s.  Yes.  This kid had parents in their hundreds changing his diapers, wiping his nose, and all that fun stuff.  I can only imagine the stories he heard as he grew up.  But it takes him 20 years to pray to God on behalf of his wife?  For 20 years she has born the whispers, the shame, the indignity of being unable to conceive.  She is the one who has had the secret sin that kept her from getting pregnant, just like his mother Sarah.  And now, after 20 years he prays?!  Ladies, for those of you who wonder why you cannot teach him to put the seat down when he is finished, just remember it could be way worse.  You could be married to Isaac.
     Now, I think I have been picking on us men for a bit much this morning, so let’s poke a little fun at the heroine of the story.  God blesses Rebekah and causes her to conceive twins.  Again, that’s one of those warning about being careful what we pray for.  Ladies who have had active babies in the womb can probably relate a bit to Rebekah.  When babies are active they poke ribs or organs, they host dance parties in the womb, and they train for the Olympic gymnastics team.  The two in Rebekah seem to be wrestling a good bit.  It gets to the point where Rebekah is sorry that she is pregnant.  In fact, she would rather die than continue to live pregnant.
     God speaks into her discomfort.  He tells her that two nations are within her womb and that they will always be contending with each other.  He also tells Rebekah that the older will serve the younger.  Many commentators like to soften Rebekah’s favoritism for Jacob because of this prophesy.  Since God told her that the younger will rule the older, she works to see that such happens in Jacob and Esau’s lives.  I suppose we can debate that during coffee hour.  Part of what is going on here is a teaching to Israel about their enemies.  Those who have studied Genesis can certainly answer questions in the Parish Hall, but Israel is taught that their enemies are really brothers or cousins or whatever family connection you want to name them.  Who are the Edomites?  They are the descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob.  How should Israel treat them?  Like family.  Why do they contest with each other so much?  Because they are family.
     It’s an interesting dynamic in Scripture, the family.  I suppose most of us like to picture the Holy Family as a Silent Night manger scene—peaceful, serene, confident, expectant.  That scene is simply the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.  From Abraham’s seed will come the Seed that will save the world.  But before we get to the Seed, we have to go through a lot of family life.  That means we have to go through a lot of contention and conflict.  While Scripture sometimes tells us why the Covenant passed through the generations the way that it did, it does not seem to spend much time propagandizing or making excuses for the way things work out.  Is Israel ever taught by God that it is superior to anyone?  No!  What gives Israel its distinction is the One who chose them.  In all other aspects they are unremarkable.  God chooses Jacob over Esau because Esau despised his birthright.  But just because God chose Jacob does not mean His care for Esau, or the descendants of Esau, is any less.  Think of Ishmael or any of Abraham’s later sons—they are all blessed, too.  They are not the line through which the Savior will be born, but they each become nations.  And what is Israel’s purpose?  To be a light to the world, a nation of priests.  Who benefits from their work if they are obedient?  The long lost family members.  Who suffers from their work if they are disobedient?  The long lost family members.  Does God care about the conflict and suffering that they impose on one another?  Of course He does.  Not only did He create all of them, but He made a great covenant with the father of all of them—Abraham.
     Which leads us back to this question of conflict.  Is conflict normal?  It seems to be.  The Silent Night episodes of Scripture are remarkably few and far between.  Scripture spends a great deal of ink teaching us about family squabbles, beginning with Cain and Abel and working its way through the New Testament.  Conflict is simply a natural consequence of sin, a natural reminder that we are not turned or attuned to God and His ways.  We fight in our own families, we are not usually being evil or mean—mostly, it seems to me we are acting selfishly or without consideration for anyone else.  The same is true in the parish.  Is anyone serving Satan here, or are we simply convinced God has anointed our own plans, our own desires, our own way?  And if we can’t all just get along in our families and parishes, how much more difficult is it for us to get along in the wider church, the Church, or the world?  At least within the Church we are claiming to be seeking the lordship, the reign, of Christ.  The outside secular world makes no such claim.
     And how do we do seeking the lordship of Christ?  Many Adventers have commented to me how the Palm Sunday liturgy with the crowd shouting, “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!” causes them to realize we each had a role in the conflict with Jesus.  We were of the world and caused Him to be put to death for our sakes, so blind were we to doing things our own way.  Thankfully, God had a better way.  More gloriously, God reminds us that even in the midst of conflict, He hears, He sees, He cares, and He is working out His plan of salvation.  And no conflict, not even conflict that ends in death, can thwart His will.
     What’s the solution?  In the end, it is the recreation of all things, including us, so that we have the heart and mind of God.  Of course, assuming His return is not imminent, there are a couple actions we can all take.  First, we are engaging in perhaps the most important antidote to conflict—worship of God!  Each time we gather here to remind ourselves what God has done for us and for those around us, we are participating in an act that intentionally works to lower conflict.  We pray for each other and the world, we repent of our sins, and we ask God to give us strength to do the things He has given us to do in our life and work.  If we are serious in our worship, our conflicts cannot help but begin to lessen or even dissipate some.
     The second big antidote to conflict, I think, is prayer.  I know, I mentioned it as part of our corporate worship, but you and I are commanded to pray for one another always.  Sometimes we do that in corporate worship; often we should be doing it in our personal prayers or during the offices.  Ask our Lectio Devina group about prayer.  We may pray that God fix someone else in our lives, but more often than not, it is us, the ones praying, who are really changed.
     Another effective antidote against conflict is fellowship.  Spending time together and rejoicing in one another, learning about one another.  All our time spent together does not have to be in worship or prayer or teaching or theological speaking.  There’s a tremendous benefit in getting to know one another, in beginning to understand what motivates one another, and in celebrating and mourning life with one another.  Here at Advent, I should add there is nothing wrong with eating and drinking as we fellowship.  Think of how well supper clubs have done around here.  Heck, TGIF is better attended than some Sunday’s worship services.  Our picnics and barbecues do well.  Why?  Because we understand fellowship is important for strengthening those bonds that unite us.
     All of this, of course, is dependent upon whether we truly have contrite hearts.  One of the best parts of the Gospel is that God is able to overcome all our sins, all our mistakes, and all our misguided efforts to help Him.  But how much consideration do we really give to the biblical teaching that He thought each one of us was even worth saving, to begin with?  Often, I think we assume that we just simply the kinds of men or women that God would want to have serving Him.  A few have even mouthed the belief to me that God is lucky they are willing to serve Him.  In reality, though, He valued each of us the same.  In the end, He went to that Cross to redeem and to empower each and every one of us gathered here and even those not with us today, be they self-identified Adventers or simply unchurched.  If we believe that, if we have truly inwardly digested that understanding, then we should realize that all who are gathered here are gathered by Him.  And each and every person here gathered has something to offer the Body of Christ.  They may not be as handsome or pretty as we think we are, they may not wax poetically as we think we do, they may not be as strong or smart or whatever other trait we value in ourselves, but God values them every bit as much as He values us.  And this part of the Body of Christ needs them every bit as much as it needs us!  Perhaps if we spent a bit more time trying to see others through those loving eyes and hearts of Christ the conflict around us would die down just a bit.  Perhaps if more of us who claimed Christ as Lord professed such in deed as well as with our lips, we would become the peace-bearers He would have us be.  Who knows?  In a world full of conflict and bickering and shrill name-calling, how much more needed is it for those who have been saved by grace and offered a peace that passes all understanding to live what He has taught?  It almost as if He wants to work through us just as He did through the families of Sarah and Abraham, Isaac and Rebekah, and all those who came after that the world around us will be blessed, even as it has been blessed by Abraham and Sarah’s initial faith!

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Thursday, June 29, 2017

God hears!

     Early in the week, I had landed on Matthew and the divisions that Jesus names as a result of faith in Him.  It’s a difficult passage for many Christians, and so it is worth us spending some time discussing His words.  But, I found myself in an interesting conversation yesterday with a couple other clergy about the passage from Genesis.  The conversation began with a deacon asking us if we ever preach on anything other than the Gospel.  Me, being typical smart-alecky me, said of course not.  The other clergy was a bit more pastoral and asked what she meant.  She went on to state that she had been taught in her deacon class that they should always preach on the Gospel.  Such was fine, at least the first time or two through the lectionary, but after a while, you know, it sort of . . .   I think the words she was looking for was “gets boring,” but she realized what she was saying and did not want to say it.  Then I got a bit more serious and reminded her that the Gospel is in every book from Genesis to Revelation.  After a reminder of Jesus’ words about Him being the focus of everything written in the torah, the prophets, and the psalms, I shared how I get a little disappointed that I don’t hit the Old Testament enough.  She asked what I meant.  I told her that if 60-65% of God’s word is in the Old Testament, shouldn’t our percentage of sermons on the Old Testament near that 60% figure?  After all, Jesus preached exclusively on what you and I call the Old Testament, right?
     After some further conversation, the deacon asked me if I was preaching on the Old Testament this week.  I told her no, I was preaching on division this week from Matthew.  She laughed at me and my earlier enthusiasm.  So I told her I did preach last week on the Genesis passage and the accompanying excitement and my children’s lack of enthusiasm regarding that sermon.  “So,” she asked, “if you were preaching on it this week, how would you preach on it and bring it back to Jesus?”  I did.  And all our responses was that it was the start of a decent sermon.  The other priest joked that he wished we had had this conversation on Monday or Tuesday so he could flesh it out for his own sermon.  The deacon joked that it was better than hers for today.  And the more I thought and prayed about it, the more I liked it.  So, if you were expecting me to preach on division, which is apropos to our life at Advent right now, you are apt to be disappointed.
     So, a bit of background for those of you who missed last week.  We are in the end stages of a 25 year unfolding of God’s covenant with Abraham.  Those of us who cruise through the lectionary or never hear sermons or teachings on Genesis miss that important detail.  We like to think that Sarah and Abraham are paragons of faith.  We sometimes like to think that they are superheroes of faith.  We like to think that they made no mistakes in their walk with God.  And, yet, the Bible points out the successes and failures of our matriarchs and patriarchs and saints to give us hope and encouragement.  Just as God can overcome their failings or mistakes, He can overcome our own.  The people about whom we read in the stories are normal, everyday people like you and me.  And because we only get these high and low parts of their faith walk with God, we sometimes forget that we do not get the mundane details of 25 years.
     It’s made worse, I think, by the fact that our lesson today comes between the final unveiling that Sarah and Abraham will give birth to an heir the old fashioned way last week and next week’s reading which tells us of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice the result of that covenant, Isaac, on the altar at the request of the Lord.
     Today’s reading deals with the consequences of a couple of those big mistakes.  Looking on this side of the covenant with Abraham, you and I know that God intended for Sarah and Abraham to give birth to a son.  Isaac’s birth is, seemingly, the big goal of chapters 12-21.  Of course, when Isaac is born, there’s not too much fanfare in Scripture regarding his birth.  It’s almost as if Isaac’s birth is no big deal.  We even skip it in our lectionary reading.  Last week we read that God promised them a son within a year; this week we read that the promised child is weaned.  As many of us know, there’s a bit of life that happens between trying to have a child and getting to a point that the child is weaned!
     Early in our reading, though, we read that Sarah was annoyed by the presence of the son of Hagar.  If we do not know the story, such an annoyance may seem like no big deal.  But Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to bear a child.  That’s right.  Sarah made Hagar sleep with Abraham in the hopes she would conceive.  Hagar does conceive.  And their relationship deteriorates from the moment of that realization to this point.  Sarah is not being very saintly; heck, Sarah is not being very understanding.  Hagar had no say in the matter.  Her mistress gave her to Abraham for the purpose of producing an heir.  One of my colleagues on the Rome Consultation thinks of Sarah as the first pimp in Scripture.  And now, because Hagar did what Sarah demanded, Sarah is mad.  Several chapters earlier, we learn that Sarah abuses Hagar when Hagar is pregnant.  Hagar eventually responds by fleeing.  While in the wilderness, though, she encounters God, who tells Hagar to return and suffer Sarah’s abuse.  God promises Hagar that her son will grow up strong and the father of a great nation.
     Now, Sarah has finally given birth to a child.  She sees this son of Hagar playing with her son Isaac and demands of Abraham to cast out the son and the mother.  Abraham is understandably distressed and rather weak.  He was dubious when Sarah came up with this plan originally.  He is the father of this child whom Sarah hates.  Yet he is only distressed greatly.  God speaks to Abraham in his distressed moment and instructs Abraham to do as Sarah asks.  God promises to bless the boy because he is Abraham’s son, too.
     Sarah’s desire is basically a death sentence for Hagar and her young son.  Remember the desire of Abraham last week to get the angels to turn aside for a break.  It is a dry hot land for as far as the eye can see.  All Hagar is given is a skin of water and some food.  Add to that the possibility of any bandits, and this is a situation ripe for a bad ending.  Not unsurprising, the food and water run out.  Hagar is devastated at what this means for her son.  If you have ever had a child suffering in a hospital or killed in a car wreck or diagnosed with cancer, you can well understand the emotions plaguing Hagar.  Rather than listen to the whimpering and suffering of her son, she places him beyond her ears but still stands watch.
     It is at this most desperate of times that a truly unique thing happens.  God speaks to Hagar . . . for a second time!  That’s right.  God speaks to this woman outside the covenant for the second time.  We who like to think that God is predictable and cares only for His people and usually only speaks with men speaks to the woman who will become the matriarch of the people we know as Muslim.  If you have ever read Jesus’ encounters with women in Scripture and wondered what caused the God incarnate to speak with them, it has always happened since the beginning!  But that’s another sermon.  In today’s God speaks to a woman who is outside the covenant family for the second time!  It seems to me we get a couple of important lessons in today’s readings.
     The first lesson is made more obvious by its absence.  If you are reading this passage or paying close attention to my sermon, you might notice that the name of Hagar’s son is only mentioned once in this passage.  Ishmael.  God hears.  Part of Hagar’s struggle, and our own, is the question of whether God knows or cares what is happening to us.  Hagar lives on the other side of the Cross and Resurrection, so we should not be too surprised by her questioning or doubt.  Or to be fairer, you and I know that the ultimate sign of God’s care and concern for us was the life and ministry and death and Resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Yet even though we live on this side of His incarnate ministry, how often do we find ourselves despondent at life’s circumstances?  In that way we are very much like Hagar.  Remember her first encounter?  It is there that she names God the God who sees.  Now, however, she renames Him as God hears.
     The application to our modern lives and modern work in His name is rather obvious, but I think it bears repeating.  How often do we wonder whether God hears our prayers?  How often do we wonder if He is paying attention to those issues that keep us up late at night?  How often do we think God must not be really paying close attention to us?  Or too distracted by weightier matters than to worry about our own issues?  Or simply disappointed with us and our behavior?  How many of us Adventers have been praying to God for some kind of provision, some kind of sign, some kind of acknowledgement that He has not forgotten us in His grand plan of salvation?  How many have asked me if I worry that He is deaf to what we are going through?
     Ishmael!  God hears!  God hears and sees everything!  Even more amazing, God cares!  Those of us in the Church, the modern people of God, like to think we have God all figured out.  He loves His favorites, which always includes us, and He hates our enemies.  The truth is, of course, that the covenant He swore with Abraham and Sarah was for the purpose of Abraham’s and Sarah’s people and ultimate seed of being a nation of priests, a light unto the world!  God did not make this covenant with Abraham and Sarah because they were special or remarkable; God made Abraham and Sarah remarkable and special because He chose them.  In spite of them.  All of this choosing and covenant swearing and oath making was for the purpose of redeeming the world.  Think John 3:16, just not as eloquently.  God engages in this selecting so that He might better woo us all, even slave women outside the covenant!  But if He is concerned with those outside the covenant, just how more attentive must He be to those with whom He has sworn a covenant?
     Think of it this way, though we are always treading dangerous ground when speaking of God anthropomorphically.  If God hears the cries of a slave woman outside the covenant, how much more attuned must His ears be to the cries of you and me, to whom He has bound Himself through baptism?  How much more attuned must His ears be to the cries of His sons and daughters, who are in His Son Christ, than the “stranger?”  Just because He does not answer us the way would like Him to does not mean He does not hear or care.  We know of His loving are for each of us because He sent His Son to us. 
     The other important lesson for us today involves a bit of politics.  I have already alluded to this lesson in my discussion of enemies.  We on the inside of the Church and Church politics are so sure that our desires and wants and wishes align with God’s that we are sometimes deaf to the truth claims of those on the margins.  Now, hear me clearly, I am not claiming that those outside the Church will gain the salvation of their souls through a means other than Christ.  Quite the contrary.  I am saying, though, that some outside the inner cadre of the Church or even outside the Church may well have some special revelation or truth to share.  When setting missions and casting visions for a church, we like to turn to those who are like us for their ideas.  Too often, politics being politics, we like to think that we, and people like us, are the favorites of our Father in heaven.  Yet time and time again God ignores the normal human way of doing things.  In Genesis alone, how many times does God pass over the firstborn son when swearing the covenant with the next generation?  You and I, therefore, should be more attuned to those on the margins when we are really working for God.
     How does this play out at Advent?  Do we given equal weight to discernment?  Or do we listen to the “special” voices that we think are most like us?  Do we recognize that God cares as much and can speak as easily through a teenage boy?  A widow?  A young child?  A middle aged middle manager?  A non-Adventer?  When trying to serve other’s in Christ’s name, do we ask how we can best serve them?  Or do we tell them what we think they need or should want?  I see the squirming.  It makes us uncomfortable to think that God chooses people not like us.  Yet that is the beauty of all His work, right?  God swore this covenant with Abraham not because He wanted to squash all of Abraham’s enemies, but because He wanted to use Abraham to woo the world.  Similarly, He sent His Son Jesus Christ our Lord not to condemn the world, but to redeem it.  He sent His Son so that we would realize that He is wooing each and every person we might encounter in our daily life and work.
     The truth is, brothers and sisters, in reality, you and I have far more in common with Hagar than we do with God.  We have nothing which merits Him paying attention to us, except our love and thanksgiving for His work in and through us.  And it’s that desire for Him which causes Him to see, to hear, and to reach for us always.  It’s that same tender care for all the children of the earth that causes Him to send you and to send me in His name, that all might be drawn into His fatherly embrace.

Peace,

Brian†

Monday, June 19, 2017

What is your answer . . . What is our answer?

     Happy Father’s Day.  Those looking at the readings probably thought I would preach on the Old Testament today.  After all, it has been almost three months since I was able to give an Old Testament sermon and Genesis 18 is the only reading about fatherhood today, right?
     As background to our passage, let me remind you of some of the setting and some of the significant details.  Those who suffered through the Genesis Bible study can read the catechesis in the back of the BCP.  What?  You don’t think I have not done that during boring or repeated sermons myself?
     The first thing we need to remember is that this story takes place in about the 24th year of a 25 year unveiling of the covenant.  24 years prior to this reading, Sarah and Abraham responded to God’s call on their lives by leaving Ur and heading southwest some 500 miles—on foot.  In that time, God has continued to unfold His covenant plans for them.  First, there was the promise of an heir.  Then it was the promise of an heir that was of Abraham’s issue.  Now they both learn, in their late 90’s, that the heir will be a child who belongs to both of them.  Spread amongst that unveiling are lots of little stories.  Despite her age, Sarah seems to be a hottie.  Kings want her for their harems.  There is a risk about the land with Lot, and then further risk when Abraham leads his men into battle against five kings in order to free Lot.  Sometimes, because Sarah and Abraham do not have all the information, they make decisions which seem reasonable but actually prove to be an obstacle to God’s planned covenant.  They adopt a son, as was the cultural practice.  Sarah gives her handmaid to her husband to have a child.  In short, there are lots and lots of obstacles to God’s plan for this couple and their family, some of which are self-inflicted.  And we get only the highlights and lowlights.
     Imagine if I asked you to write a narrative about your life the last couple decades and confine it to only 6-8 chapters.  What would you include?  What would you exclude?  Now pretend that I wanted you only writing about your faith walk with the Lord.  How would that change what you shared?  Would you focus only on the blessings?  Would you maybe share how you believed and acted in one way only to learn that God had a better plan for you?  How would you choose what to share?  And what of your day to day “ordinary” life?  Would you expect us to think you had no ordinary days over a 24 year period?  Of course not!  That’s what we have from the life of Sarah and Abraham.  Of course, they had help.  God caused the important parts of their walk with Him to be recorded and preserved for our benefit.
     Because last week was Trinity Sunday, we did not get to read what happened right before our story today.  The prior section was all about circumcision.  I’m sorry, gentlemen.  I know it’s Father’s Day.  I know the last thing you wanted to think about today was adult circumcision.  But that lets us understand why Abraham and his retinue are reclining under the tree.  God has used circumcision as an outward sign of the inward and invisible grace present in Abraham and his family.  The outward mark is the circumcision.  The inward grace is that this family has been chosen by God to be a blessing to the world!  One insignificant family will be the means by which God’s redeeming love will be made known to all.  The seed of that covenant will be our Lord Christ, but there will be lots to do in the interim.  Abraham and the fellas do not really want to be working.  Things hurt.  And in that warm climate in the sun, sweat is a bit too common.  How many of us like getting salt in our paper cuts or hangnails?  Just think of sweating after circumcision!
     Look at the location.  It is a place called Mamre.  You probably know nothing about Mamre.  Mamre was important for at least three reasons.  Josephus, the famous Jewish-Roman historian, records that some thought the tree at Mamre was as old as the world.  The tree was really a terebinth—more of a big branchy shrub than what you and I consider a tree in Middle Tennessee.  This was the biggest anyone had ever seen, so they assumed it was the oldest.  That caused some sacred value to be assigned to the place.  Mamre is also the place where Abraham built the altar to the Lord after the renewal of the covenant.  Not only was Abraham given a renewed and further revealed covenant in this place; he built an altar of thanksgiving for that renewal and the outward mark of that inner grace that cause us men to squirm!  It is that history that caused some Jews to want the Temple of the Lord to be built in Mamre rather than Jerusalem.  Obviously, Jerusalem won.  David and Solomon, however, had to contend with this “secular” and historical significance when building the Temple in Jerusalem rather than this location.  We don’t hear lots about those fights, but you can imagine them in your minds.  And Mamre will become the burial location for Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.  Imagine the cultural draw to build the Temple in this place!  I share all this with you this morning to give you some sense of the background the Jews would have known when they encountered this story.  In some ways, the terebinth of Mamre was a precursor to the burning bush!
     Now to our story.  In the middle of the heat of the day, we are told, three strangers appear travelling.  Those of us who have travelled understand that cultures in warm environments often task a break during the noonday sun.  Going back three thousand years or so, we can easily understand why some people would not risk the heat of the day to travel.  It was simply too dangerous, especially when one lacked the caravan goods like water!  Yet three men come strolling by Abraham in the heat of the day.  Abraham, still recovering from his circumcision, jumps up from under the big bush and runs to greet the men on the road.
     We are not told who the men are.  Much hay has been made over the years interpreting the passage.  Are they angels?  Are they somehow the Triune God walking the earth?  Are they just common men given the voice of the Lord?  We do not know, and Scripture seems not to think that detail important.  What we do know is that despite his physical discomfort, Abraham runs to the men and enjoins them to rest with him during the heat of the day.  It is at this point that we often hear long sermons on the obligation of hospitality.  I will not be taking that path as I do not believe it is the lesson we are called to consider here at Advent.  But notice the details.  Abraham offers water to drink and to clean themselves, a morsel of bread, and a place in the shade.  What he gives them is bread made from the “king’s flour,” the best flour he has available, curds and milk – dare we think butter--, and meat.  Abraham offers a small repast and escape and provides a feast.
     Then begins the part that should interest us this day at Advent.  One of the strangers asks Abraham where his wife Sarah is.  Hmmm.  How do they know her name?  Has a servant let her name slip?  Has Abraham called her name out loud in giving instructions?  We just don’t know.  What we do know is that she is inside the tent.  You have probably heard it told to you over and over and over again that Jewish women were simply property of their husbands.  You have probably heard it so many times that you accept that idea as a foundational truth.  It is not.  I will not go into all the details this morning, as it is not the focus of this sermon for today, but the Jews in particular were weird in the Ancient Near East because they elevated women.  Oh, to be sure, by modern standards, there was no exact equality.  But it is the Jews who make the revealed claim to the world that women and men both are created in the image of God.  For a Jewish male to be able to sit at the gate and make decisions for a village, a wife had to be running the household well.  They had different jobs, but no faithful Jewish male would have ever thought of his wife as property.  And if he did, she would likely disabuse him of that stupid notion quickly and loudly.  The first Jewish audience would have likely thought it weird that Sarah was not playing the proper role of hostess with respect to these three strangers, just as her husband was playing the role of host.  What details we have remind us of that, right?  While Abraham is choosing the calf, Sarah is making the loaves of bread.  She is as active in hospitality as her husband except for this one detail: she stays in the tent.  Why?
     I think the reason is told us in the passage.  Our translators render her condition in such wonderful euphemism.  She was advanced in age and it had ceased to be with her in the manner of women.  LOL  I wish I had been videoing you all as I said that sentence.  I thought there was a lot of squirming when I spoke of the circumcision of Abraham’s retinue.  Yes.  Sarah is post-menopausal.  Big shock, I know.  A ninety year old woman no longer menstruates.  That is a significant detail on two accounts, though.  Given the upcoming revelation, how can she and Abraham have a child together?  Not to be crass, but they are of an age when one need not worry about birth control.  In fact, our society spends a small fortune annually trying to reverse the effects of such aging on our libidos and on our ability to enjoy sex.
     Just as significantly, though, I think it provides us with the reason why Sarah stays in the tent and avoids hosting the strangers with her husband.  Your squirming a few moments ago, when I pointed out she was post-menopausal, hints at the discomfort we feel about menstruating women.  It’s culturally ingrained in us.  Many cultures freak at the idea of menstruating women.  We have texts from the ANE, in particular, which forbid menstruating women coming into the presence of a king or his retinue.  Heck, the Jews will received God’s holy instruction, the torah, which will tell them that menstruating women cannot go to the Temple while on their periods and that ritual purification will be required after the bleeding stops in order to worship God.  Blood “down there” is a subject to be avoided at all costs.
     Now, place yourself in Sarah’s tent.  Culturally, you are likely expected to absent yourself from others while menstruating.  You have been feted by kings.  You were courageous enough to follow your husband on a crazy journey.  You have been left in charge while he went after Lot.  You are not known for your timidity or lack of confidence.  Yet now you stay in a tent?  When hospitality demands your presence, you absent yourself?  I think the likely happening here was that she started bleeding while making the bread.  Being a woman of a certain age and wisdom, she understands what this means.  Today we would recognize it as a sign of cervical or other internal cancers.  For women of her day, it was a sign of death.  Old women bleeding down there was never a good sign.
     Is this explicit in the text?  No.  But it does answer a couple important questions.  Why does she stay in the tent?  What prompts the stranger to make the weird prophesy?  To our ears, the prophesy sounds out of place.  Why not wait until they are both there?  The stranger knows Sarah’s name.  Now that we learn it is the Lord, we know He knows everything about her.  What prompts Him to make that promise in this way?  Imagine the timing.  She thinks she has received a death sentence, and the Lord tells her and Abraham that He will return in a year to see her son.  That might cause any of us to laugh, to scoff at the Lord’s promise, and to do so determinedly.
     Laughter, of course, figures prominently into this section of the life of the holy family.  Much is made of her laughing and Abraham’s laughing.  Abraham will stop laughing, and Sarah will deny that she laughed.  The child born as a result of this prophesy will be named, Isaac, which means “he laughs.”  The split between Ishmael and Isaac will be over what?  Laughter.  Sarah will see Ishmael making young Isaac laugh, and she decides to cast Hagar and the young man out.  The cultural root of the Arab-Israeli conflict is laughter.
     What would cause Sarah to scoff so much?  What would cause her not to believe the Lord, once she knew His identity?  Given their shared experiences and multiple redemptive events, what would cause Sarah to be a bit harder of heart than Abraham?  It fits, does it not?  That’s not to say something else might fit, but maybe it helps us understand Sarah’s fear.  She and her husband have had 24 years of experience the presence and provision of the Lord.  What could cause her to fear but death itself?
     Into that scoffing and reflection, the Lord hurls another question.  Is anything too wonderful / too hard for the Lord?  Clearly the question is rhetorical.  He expects a “no” answer.  And His question carries a range of meaning.  The word our translators chose to render as wonderful can also mean hard or difficult.  A fairer translation for us might be, Ís anything beyond the Lord?  He can do anything.  It does not matter how hard it seems to us, how wonderful it seems to us, how out of place it may seem to us, God can do whatever He pleases.  He can even cause a woman almost a hundred years of age to become pregnant for the first time and bear a son, even when her experience and the world’s wisdom proclaims something else!  And such knowledge, such faith, ought to inspire in us a joyful laughter.  Why do we gather here this morning?  What is the meaning of Eucharist?  It is good thanks.  It is joyful thanks.  We gather here each week to remind ourselves of the saving work God has done through the birth of another Babe, and we gather to thank Him joyfully for all that He has done is our lives.
     How does such a narrative apply to us at Church of the Advent in Nashville Tennessee some three thousand years later?  The connection, it seems to me, is easy to see.  Do we reflect a community, a Christian community, that is joyfully confident in the promises and power of God?  Certainly the events of the last couple months would testify against us.  In many ways, we have been a community of scoffers like Sarah, rather than a community of joyful believers.  What’s the impact?  Place yourself in the role of a visitor, either someone who believes in the promises and power of God already or one who is seeking this person we call God.  How would you the visitor respond to us?  If the people you encountered lived fearful or angry or scoffing lives, would you be drawn in?  Or would you continue to look elsewhere?  Would you wonder whether such a community of so-called faith knew God?
     And please do not hear me condemning you this morning.  This is an “us” thing.  I am often the chief scoffer among you.  After eight o’clock I was asked when I scoff.  An easy one was during the search process.  At that time I knew very few Adventers, maybe Dale and Dick.  I had met Tina in the office and talked to Hunter on the phone and by e-mail.  The rest of you were pictures or blank spaces in a directory.  That first morning I get the e-mail and then the phone call from Justin’s secretary about Rome.  Talk about a scoffer.  I am the guy who hangs up the phone because stuff like that does not happen!  I have laid hands on a dying person and watched God heal them.  I have experienced provision in the most incredible ways.  And I thought something as unremarkable as a secretary calling for an Archbishop of Canterbury was unbelievable.  Not once did it occur to me that she had tracked me down to a Holiday Inn Express in Cool Springs.  I can certainly relate to Sarah’s scoffing.
     Most of you all know that in a prior life I was a broker.  Prior to that I had studied Classics.  One of Karen’s and my dreams or grand plans was that, after we made our fortune and the four kids had grown, we would go to Rome and Athens.  We would do it right.  When I finally accepted a call to seminary, that was just one of the dreams that Karen and I had to accept was never going to happen.  In my finite wisdom, I knew churches could not support priests with four kids.  It was too hard; it was too expensive.  And I found myself in a hotel in Cool Springs listening to the Archbishop’s secretary asking me to work for him and the Holy Father, at the Holy Father’s request!  What I got out of that was a bit of a tour of Rome that I would never have gotten otherwise.  I could have been as rich as our current President, and it would have done me no good.  And yes, there is more that I wish I could have seen and done, and all of it with my wife, but it was beyond my wildest dreams.  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  My laughter changed from scoffing to something far more joyful.
     I was reminded of that question again this week when James Harvey came into my office.  Due to our schedules, I don’t think we had connected since Lent.  We chuckle at how we met, sometimes, but James came in this week to touch base and share a couple stories.  For those of you wondering why the name is tickling your ears, you pray for him and his family every week in the Prayer of the People and you have supported them through discretionary funds. 
     James recently returned from a mission trip to Siberia.  James and his team had gone with the intention of planting a church in an unchurched valley in Siberia.  When they arrived in this valley, they found that God had gone ahead of them.  Though the world thought this valley unchurched, there was a man functioning as a bi-vocational clergy there.  Well, bi-vocational in the sense that he was paid for his secular work and able to do the pastoring stuff for free.  As they spent time with this man, the team realized they had misheard their call.  They were helping water and nurture a church that had already formed before their arrival.  They had to set aside their plans and do the work God had given them to do.
     Unknown to them at the beginning was the redemptive role they were playing in this pastor’s life.  You see, when he first felt this urge or call to start a home church, he went to the next valley over and spoke to the mainline missionaries over there.  They were encouraging in that they were excited he had been called.  But they were discouraging in that there was a lot he needed to do before they would sign off on him being a pastor in their traditions.  This group of missionaries simply accepted the man and began working with him to teach him what he kind of already knew.  They let him ask lots of questions and steer the conversation where he wanted, no doubt with sharing bits of their wisdom.  When the man was too busy with work, the missionary team even dug him a new mechanic’s bay, so he could work on more cars—or hire others to do the work for him, freeing him up for more of the work of a church.  By the end of their time there, the team and the pastor were sharing their personal stories of redemption in their lives—how God had provided in the midst of privation, how God had healed bodies that were broken, and how God is always to be glorified for that amazing grace in their lives.  A pastor, who had been rejected for lack of learning and a lack of not doing this planting thing the right way by some, found himself encouraged by others, others who were rejoicing that in this pastor, yet another of God’s promises had been fulfilled!  He runs ahead of us and with us!  He uses the uneducated to His wise purposes!
     And, lest you think that these are special stories, that God rewards priests and missionaries because they are special, think of our collective history at Advent.  Our spiritual forebears fought poverty in the early and mid 1800’s.  Think of the absurdity of that notion.  Our Episcopal forebears, the rich and power Episcopalians of the cathedral in Nashville, TN, decided that the poor should be free to worship God with the rich and powerful.  How do you think other Episcopalians took to that odd notion?  Today it seems rather passé, but in those days it was revolutionary!  And they were the shakers and movers of this community!  They were the politicians, the doctors, the accountants.  We are not known for our work with blue collar folks today.  We tend to attract white collar or entrepreneurial individuals to our worship.  Yet our forebears held so tightly to the idea that God loves the poor that they split from that congregation and founded a church that rejected pew taxes.  Can you imagine!  And yet that scoffing turned to joy years later in the Church, when the Church finally lived up to the reminder that God loves the widow, the orphan, the outcast, and the poor.
     And then, some three decades later, another later generation of our spiritual forebears found themselves in the middle of the race wars of the 1870’s.  As crazy as suggesting that God loves poor people might sound, can you imagine yourself with the courage and conviction to tell your recently defeated brothers and sisters that God loved the freed slave as much as he loved the wealthy white folk?  Who among us would have that kind of courage?  Yet Adventers did.  Adventers helped lead the effort to incorporate the freed slaves in the life of worship in the Southern Church, especially in and around Nashville.  Can you imagine the scoffing they faced?  Can you imagine the resistance?  When George and Billy stepped into the anti-racism leadership role in the diocese, I know they wondered the use.  I’m sure some of you wondered what good it would do.  But in God’s eyes, it seems rather normal for Adventers to be taking on incredible evil, such as slavery, poverty, or racism, confident in His promises and His ability to redeem.  While the work may be daunting and oppressive, we can face it with joyful laughter, expectant that He will use our faithful labors to His redemptive purposes, and bring true joy.  Such has been His work since the days of Abraham and Sarah, such as been His work during the first generations of this parish, and such will be His work in this day and in this place, if we but seek out His will and His purposes.
     Brothers and sisters, fellow Adventers, I realize that these last few months have been challenging.  I recognize that there is a level of anxiety as we have been working to figure out our Lord’s plan for us in this community and in our age.  I get all that.  There is much about which we can be concerned and some things which could easily distract us.  But we are the inheritors of those promises made to Abraham and Sarah so long ago in Mamre.  We are the inheritors of that courage and perseverance imparted to Adventers in ages past.  We are, each of us, by virtue of our baptism into our Lord’s death and Resurrection, promised that He is with us in whatever journey we take, even when we take detours or choose routes that seemingly make things tougher for Him to redeem.  And we are promised that, so long as we seek to glorify Him in our lives, both collectively and individually, He will bless us and glorify Himself in us.  That is His promise to us as sons and daughters; that is His promise to us as His covenantal Bride.  The real question for us, the question that others likely have for us when they visit, is whether we are scoffers or joyful believers.  How we act, how we speak, how we love, even how we dispute testifies to them our answer to that question, Is anything too wonderful or too hard for the Lord?

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†