Sermons on commitment
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church The Rev. Barbara Hutchinson Seven years ago, when I was interviewing here at St. Andrew’s, the Search Committee had written a marvelous Parish Profile for all perspective applicants, outlining a lively commitment to outreach, a devotion to worship, and ongoing opportunities for both children’s and adult formation. I pored over the material, absorbing it like it was the very air I was breathing, circling the phrases and sections I was most drawn toward, and writing in…
Because I know that Episcopalians find truth and strength in knowing when and how to take the high road, making the hard choices and seeking God’s truth expressing God’s love to all people, and working toward healing and reconciliation. This was the emphasis at our recent General Convention — addressing the problem of gun violence in our country; standing with and praying alongside the people in the border detention centers; addressing God’s call for racial reconciliation; witnessing to the #Metoo movement and calling the church to own the damage done in her name. These are hard, politicized issues that our church is grappling with and responding to – and yet, we also find truth and strength in claiming and living into the broadness of God’s love, which means we meet people wherever they are, and have the ability to hold two opposite points of view in communion. In some cases, we use such odd phrases as “both/and” meaning we don’t need to choose one or the other, but can see the truth in each position. One of the most helpful things I learned in seminary was in our pastoral theology course. Our instructor taught us to practice replacing the word “but” with “and”. For instance, instead of saying, “I hear what you’re saying, and I know you believe you’re right, BUT …” We say, “I hear what you’re saying, and I know you believe you’re right, AND, … I have a differing point of view”. It’s amazing how that word shift changes the dynamic of a conversation, equalizing the power, so people can listen to each other, without the defensiveness charging in.
We are grains of wheat. That is what we are. We can stay by ourselves, alone and rigid, encased in a hard shell, holding the embryo of what could be, of what God could be through us and deep within us, imprisoned by our unwillingness to let go of those things we hold to be safe and true through our understanding of ourselves, each other, or God. Or, we can die to ourselves and we can become the bread of life, giving life and nourishment to others and bearing much fruit for the Kingdom. “Come and die”, Jesus says.
This rhythm of release then embrace is the deep pattern of our spiritual lives. In our baptism, we release ourselves from the draw and claim of culture and convention upon our lives and souls, by renouncing the evil forces in this world first, and then we reach for and embrace the draw and claim of God upon our lives and souls, adhering ourselves to Jesus as our Lord and Savior. It is the rhythm that biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman speaks of in the cycle of disorientation of our lives, when the prevalent culture doesn’t fit us anymore, which when we release it, opens up that place of granting permission to God to shape us through love, or as I so often speak of, the deconstruction of our world as we know it, for the reconstruction to emerge. There’s often barely a pause, hardly the space of a breath, most likely a shared motion of the release and the embrace that moves us along the track of God’s Kingdom. God is always asking us to let go of something, a stuck way of thinking, a habit which no longer fits, a hardness in our heart, a worry about something that will never come to be, so that we can grab onto that baton of the Kingdom of God and run with it, move into whatever will come our way, with a trust and faith in God that Andrew and Peter and James and John had in our story today. In these call stories, there were no sidebar conversations recorded, nor detailed deliberations offered as to the wisdom of becoming fishers of men. There was no hand-wringing action reported, no endless lists of the pros and cons of staying or leaving. Maybe that happened in real life. But the story is written the way it is because Mark doesn’t want us to go there, doesn’t want us to be distracted with the practical implications of the ask. Pick up that baton and go! “Follow me. Grab that baton and go!” says Jesus and they do.
Finally, Mary’s “yes”, her uniting her purpose with God’s, without crying, “I cannot” or “I am not worthy” or “I don’t have the time”. Mary did not submit to God’s request with gritted teeth or through coercion or with an unwilling heart. It was her consent that opened her up to bear the glory of God into this world. It is our consent, and only our consent to God, which will bring us to that place of fulfillment and peace,…
In Matthew’s gospel, today’s story is Jesus’ last teaching opportunity before he is crucified, so we have to imagine Jesus has saved the most important for last. Jesus is saying to us that our actions matter. We are to be accountable to what Jesus has asked us to do. This really is non-negotiable. You may notice that Jesus’ last teaching has nothing to do with orthodoxy, right belief, or how the church is to be structured, but rather, it’s all about orthopraxy – walking the walk, being authentic, making a difference in the world, being accountable for our choices or the choices others make on our behalf. We are living an authentic Christian life when we receive the bread on Sunday and on Sunday afternoon, as we plan our week ahead, we orient our lives to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and welcoming the stranger. Jesus did all of these things, which is why, when we do them, these moments are sacramental. Take, eat, this is my body, which is given for you. In receiving the broken bread, we become Christ’s body, so that we can see, be, and do for Jesus, so we can be sent out into the world to move it toward justice, where wrongs will be set right, and only God’s love will pour from all hearts.
It is a courageous act of civil disobedience that helps change the tide of history. They are the first two links in a chain of many people who will eventually be lead out of slavery and oppression in Egypt by Moses. Liberation starts here, with two women willing to say “no” to an act of cruelty and injustice.
The lesson we learn from these phenomena is a vital one. We mustn’t try to hold on to these mountaintop experiences. Whenever we see glimpses of the kingdom of God and reach these mountaintops we must let them shape us, our actions, our faith. How was Peter different as he journeyed down that treacherous trail? By letting our intimate encounters with God shape us, however brief or fleeting they may be, we afford ourselves the opportunity to live as servants of the Lord. The transfiguration allowed Peter and the others an understanding of the future of Christ– no not just his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection, but this our worship and modelling of the values he so tried to teach. My parish family, this the future of Christ!
The story of God asking Abraham to offer his only and beloved son, Isaac, to be sacrificed as a test of his faith reveals the hard truth that salvation is going to be a costly endeavor. It sets the story of God and our salvation on a trajectory we often resist, namely that there are costs to being faithful. It is more comfortable to believe in a God who is predictable, tame and safe, than to believe in a God who actually demands something of us, who asks us to offer back to God that which is most precious to us, who promises us resurrection, but holds up the way of the cross to get there.
It is noteworthy that Jesus does not come back looking as he did before death. Mary didn’t recognize him until he called her name. Coming back to what we were before is called resuscitation, or being restored to a previous state. That’s not what Jesus was or is about. Jesus is about that continual process of being made anew. This means not changing for the sake of change alone, not changing only to circle around and return to a previous state, but to continually allow to die that which is not of God within us. A spiritual death that leads to spiritual resurrection. For Peter that might have been the shame, or guilt, or anger at himself, which is so easy to hold onto. Peter needed that to die in order to see the new path Jesus was placing him on, of meeting him again, and being filled with a renewed sense of purpose. He wasn’t ready to see or embrace this when he ran into the tomb, but the story didn’t end there.
Within this action is a statement which says that following Jesus is not an onlooker sport, but one which calls us to participate. We must know it and live it. We can’t just be happy that Jesus presented a different kingdom, one of God, one of love, without dedicating ourselves to presenting that same different kingdom to our world today. We must be servants to each other. This is how oppression and systems of injustice are torn down, not through violence, but through service and love. This is Jesus’ message. This is why he died on the cross, to invite us to go there too, into the death of the world as we know it and the resurrection of the world as God dreams.
We too hit walls in our lives that the message of Jeremiah speaks to, when the hardness of life seems all-consuming, when the trauma and drama of life overwhelm us, when what we’ve worked for is destroyed, when anxiety around our job security settles around us as an icy fog settles among the evergreen trees along the coast of Maine, when we ourselves, or our loved ones, walk into the emergency room and we’re not sure what the outcome will be. There are times when we crave the reassurance of anyone who may tell us the falsehood that “all will be okay”, or we push the hardness away because we don’t have the energy, the courage, or the mental health to look it squarely in the eye, but Jeremiah reminds us that there is redemption in the hardness.