Sermons on faithfulness
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church The Rev. Barbara Hutchinson 4 Epiphany Year B 2018 January 28, 2018 I was fascinated with the variety of expressions on the faces depicted in various places in the Holy Land of those who had seen Jesus, the living incarnation of the holy, the Son of God, and the source of our salvation. In each of the places where Jesus had been, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, Jericho and of course Jerusalem, there were mosaics, frescos, paintings and…
Just as the river in Ezekiel flows from the Temple and the river in Revelation flows from the throne of God – our Gospel today points us to one of the greatest symbols of God’s love flowing into the world – the empty tomb. Imagine a spiritual river flowing out of the empty tomb filling the whole world. And the first folks to put their toes in that river are Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Thank God for the faithfulness of these women. They went, as Matthew says, to see the tomb, to investigate. Where were the men? Fled to Galilee. And what did the angel tell these two faithful Apostles to do? They were to go tell the others that Jesus was raised and “indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him.” Jesus is going ahead of them into the world – not going away from the world. Like a mighty river rising from a very small source, Jesus’s presence and his love is still spreading from that source – the empty tomb – to fill our entire world. That is the picture that Matthew in his last chapter wants to leave us with. There is no ascension story at the end of Matthew’s gospel. The book ends with our great commissioning to “make disciples of all nations.” Get busy working in the world to make others aware of the love of God! And the final sentence of the Gospel is a final reminder as the love of God flows out to include all people: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Just like the promise in Genesis that cycles would follow on cycles, just as the promise of the river that it would always flow, Jesus is promising to be with us – not remote in some far-off throne room in heaven – but to be as near to us as that river. Surrounding us in God’s love, bringing life to everything that Jesus touches.
“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” A common saying. Perhaps you’ve heard it many times in your life, or have even spoken it yourself. It’s a saying I’ve always pushed back against from a place deep within my gut, not necessarily understanding why, until I studied theology, and then I knew why. My image of God doesn’t include someone sitting upon a throne in heaven, dolling out bad things to people at opportune times, with the purpose of disrupting or destroying their lives, always attentive to the balance of good and evil in their lives at any particular moment, so people can be just on the edge of the good— or worse yet, bringing on the bad thing in life to selected people at the worst possible moments of their lives, just when they are starting to turn things around, or when they are spiraling downward. My image of God is a flow of love, a source of desire for goodness for each part of the created world, a pull deep within each one of us for wholeness, and an inherent life-force reaching toward a rich and abundant life designed for everyone, lived within the healing embrace of Christ. So how would I, how do you, reconcile this image of a God who looks at us through eyes of love, with the God conjured up in this popular saying that seems to imply God is actively involved in bringing bad things into our lives?
There are times when I get exhausted from the constant pull of the Holy Spirit to shape and remake my heart and soul, so that I can be more aligned with the will of God. I imagine you do too. There are times when I wish I could escape for just a moment back into my Sunday school faith and believe it is as simple as believing Jesus loves me. I imagine you do too. There are times when I want my life to be simpler, when I wish I could compartmentalize my life into church on Sunday and the rest. I imagine you do too. But I know that’s not my life as a Christian. Rather it is to be deeply fed by times of silence before God and in spiritual retreats, by receiving the prayers of our healing ministers, by finding a group of spiritual friends with whom I can wrestle with the issues of today set within our three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason, so I can continue the hard work of discernment of God’s new revelation among us that instructs me how to faithfully live in response to the movement of the Spirit.
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 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.
And yet, how can our compassionate hearts not meet these people in the complex layer that lies behind, or beneath, or alongside our rationality in these situations? How do our hearts not break for Hagar, cast out into the wilderness to watch her child die? How could I not have enfolded in my arms that young mother who was allowing a family to be born for others, but not for her. How can we pretend there are children in our societies who go unprotected due to the enslaved condition of their mothers? We can’t and we shouldn’t. We can’t and we shouldn’t dismiss the grief of anyone, whether there were actions or circumstances that should have foretold the impending despair.
Laughter can mask all sorts of hard emotions: shame or embarrassment, and also injury. Maybe the words of the visitor stung her deep inside, broke her heart once again, his words awakening in her the passionate yearning she had for her own baby, and it seemed like the visitor’s words were mocking her, for she was 90 years old and knew that she could no longer bear children. How often do we hear God’s call and almost wish we didn’t, for once awakened, we know we must respond, and sometimes that just doesn’t seem possible? We almost wish the yearning had not been placed in our heart, when we don’t think we can give It birth.