Household Divided

We’ve all experienced changes in our circumstances. Perhaps the first you were aware of was your first crush. Maybe that led to other changes, such as marriage and children. Perhaps there have even been changes in jobs, relocations, empty nests, new relationships, retirements, and even deaths. Whatever your change in circumstance, as it changes your life it can also change your perspective and relationships. Some of these changes in circumstance are unforeseen and others are calculated; some are joyful and others are pain-filled.

Our lessons today speak to the impact of such changes in circumstance on our relationships and lives.

Our first story is about the dramatic change in relationship between Sarah and her handmaid Hagar. As you no doubt recall, for the longest time Sarah is unable to have children. Concerned that Abraham will have no heir of his own, Sarah asks Abraham to sleep with Hagar so that he can have a child of his own. Sarah’s plan works and Hagar bears Abraham a son named Ishmael.

Then Sarah’s circumstance changes. As we heard last week, God tells Abraham and the eavesdropping Sarah that they will have a child of their own. They name this child Isaac, which means laughter, to remind them that Sarah laughed at God’s promise. But laughter only masks Sarah’s change in attitude. When Sarah’s circumstance changes, her attitude toward Hagar and Ishmael changes. No longer are they a blessing on Abraham’s household, now they are a threat to Sarah’s desire for Isaac to be Abraham’s only heir. So Sarah insists that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out of the household – mother against mother, son against son – a household divided. We do not know if Sarah is mindful of the peril she is exposing Hagar and Ishmael to, we only know that she is bent on severing the relationship by sending them away.

This story is often thought of as the root of the differentiation between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, one that places them in inevitable conflict with one another. But I see a different story – not so much one of calculation and repudiation – but a story of embrace and blessing.

I could choose to emphasize God’s repudiation of Sarah’s calculated judgment upon Hagar and Ishmael by sending them away, or I could choose to dwell on God’s promise to Hagar to bless Ishmael, “I will make a great nation of him.”[1]

I choose to focus on blessing because I know God’s inclination for us is one of love and redemption. Yes, there will be judgment, but it will be based upon our inclination toward others, not God’s inclination toward us.

In the face of Sarah’s desire to control circumstances to her and Isaac’s advantage, God chooses another outcome. God chooses not either – or, one or the other, but both – and. God chooses the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac. This suggestion may stick in the judgmental craw of some Christians and others, but this notion does clearly differentiate between our own judgments and God’s own judgments.

In the light of this story, even Psalm 86, which we sang this morning, and which was written by a descendant of Isaac could have been written by a descendant of Ishmael as it seems to speak to his and Hagar’s circumstance in the wilderness. In this Psalm there is the telling verse, “All the nations you have made will come and worship you, O Lord.”[2] It’s not up to you and I to differentiate or chose among who can worship, the invitation is open to all of God’s beloved children.

Even Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds us where our attention is to be focused. Paul emphasizes our need to remain upon focused on our individual relationship with Christ by reminding us of our death to sin and our resurrection to new life in Christ. If we are attentive to this relationship there is no room for us to slip into judgment or differentiation.

Indeed, as Jesus reminds us, we as disciples are not to presume we are above our teacher, it is sufficient for us only to strive to be like him. There is peril enough in being disciples of Jesus when it leads to opposition from those who oppose him, but the reward is his claim upon us before God. Nonetheless, as there is division between Sarah and Hagar in Abraham’s household, and indeed even judgment on Sarah’s part, so we will encounter division and judgment among our own. Such division and judgment will challenge us as described in Jesus’ quotation from the prophet Micah, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”[3]

But we need to understand this passage as Jesus understands its setting in Micah [7:6], which describes the unreliability of friends and loved ones, who may judge us as Sarah fecklessly judges her handmaid Hagar, and cautions us instead to look to the Lord God for our salvation, whose judgment is just, and who will hear out our plea just as she heard Hagar’s and Ishmael’s pleas in the face of their peril and division within the household of Abraham.

Where do we turn in our peril? Are we swayed by the judgments of feckless friends, family, and media who are distracted by their own agenda? Or do we turn to the only one who is always prepared to embrace us and prepared to forgive and bless us: our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. In our peril, let us like Hagar, Ishmael, and Jesus choose to cry out to God, who will embrace us, bless us, and redeem our circumstance.

[1] Genesis 21:18

[2] Psalm 86:9a

[3] Matthew 10:35-36

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Can I have this to go?

We human beings like convenience. We want what we want when we want it. When we can’t have it on our terms we tend to get a little testy. At least it appears that way, as we seem to hear more messages about tantrums than we hear stories about grace.

Today we have heard two stories of convenience: one of home delivery and one of carryout. Each of these stories reveals something about us, but more importantly they reveal something about God that we may have forgotten in our tantrums or desire for convenience.

These stories remind us that the Lord makes house calls. The Lord is not remote and detached as we may sometimes imagine from our own experience. Quite the contrary, the Lord is on walkabout among us and creation.

We may have forgotten this because we are distracted by our own desires or cares. Like Peter walking upon the waters of Galilee, we may have started out on the right foot but we soon founder and sink because we are distracted by the busyness, the cares, and the fear that surrounds us. Yet the whole time, Jesus is standing on the water before us with his hands outstretched ready to steady us. Talk about convenience!

Some of us are more aware and open to the presence of the Lord among us. Consider Abraham and Sarah. While it’s possible that Abraham did not recognize his divine guests at first, nonetheless he reveals his openness in his radical hospitality of welcome and provision for his guests. And Sarah does her part in extending this hospitality too, but she also reveals the limits of her openness. Convinced of her circumstance, that “it had ceased to be with [her] after the manor of women,”[1] Sarah laughs when she hears that she and Abraham are to have a son. Like Sarah, where does our conviction or skepticism come between us and God’s abiding presence and grace?

And then there are the disciples that Jesus calls to be Apostles. Like Abraham, these disciples know their Lord to be in their midst on a walkabout through the cities, villages, and countryside bringing good news and defying pragmatic assumptions by healing what is broken. These twelve become Apostles because they, like Abraham, are open to what they are hearing and seeing and willing to accept it. But even in this, because we know their names and the rest of the story, they like Sarah, they have their doubts, their faults, and their failures. They too will lose sight of the Lord at times; each will founder at some point, and one will even perish. But not because Jesus abandons them, but because they fail to reach out to him in their need as they are sinking.

You and I are the Abraham, Sarah, Apostles, and crowds of these stories. And these stories reveal the kingdom of heaven freely available in our very midst. But it is the state of our mind, our heart, and our spirit that determines how open we are to hearing the good news and reaching out to claim what is right before and all around us.

When we reach out, whether it is in faith or desperation, then like Abraham, Sarah, the Apostles, and the crowds we can set aside our doubts and tantrums and embrace the love and compassion that is right before us, sharing it with others, continuing the good work set in motion by our Creator from the beginning.

Therefore take this feast to go, carryout this good news of the kingdom of heaven, and join our Redeemer, and Sanctifier in delivering it in our community and wherever you go. Share the story of the grace you have freely received so others can know the convenience and presence of the kingdom of heaven in their midst.

[1] Genesis 18:11

On the Occasion of Confirmation

Let me begin by saying that I do not presume to put words in the mouth of our Presiding Bishop, but I don’t think Bishop Curry will object if I say, Welcome to the Jesus Movement!

This is where I pause for a moment to see if there are looks of dismay or confusion among our confirmands.

Now if no one warned you about this, and it comes as a surprise, you still have about ten minutes to make a run for it before Bishop Smith lays his hands on you! So ushers, please bar the doors.

But seriously, I am excited for you and for the church because there really is a spirit of energy and enthusiasm stirring in the church as we are awakening from what may have seemed to be a Rip Van Winkle-like slumber.

It’s almost as if Ezekiel, having felt the hand of the Lord upon him, has prophesied to the bones of the church scattered across this land, “hear the word of the Lord.” The same Holy Spirit that you will encounter in a few minutes is breathing new life into the church. As a result, the church, like the bones of the valley, is rediscovering its incarnation and catching its breath. And like those dry bones, we shall live and know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

But enough about the church, let’s talk about what brings you here today. I suspect that for some of you, you’re here because someone said it’s time to be confirmed. This sort of rite of passage approach is certainly my experience. For others of you – and I really hope this is the experience for most of you – you are responding to a vague tug or stirring within you, an awareness that you are being sought out. This experience, this experience of being sought out, is reminiscent of the fifth verse of the 8th Psalm, ‘O Lord what are human beings that you should be mindful of them; that you should seek them out?’

I hope this experience of being sought out is your experience because this is an intimate encounter with God, the lover of souls. This is the Lord God of the 139th Psalm, who has searched us out and known us and discerned our thoughts from afar. This is the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, who presses upon us and lays its hand upon us. Where can we go from the presence of this abiding Spirit?

If this has been your experience, you know the yearning of God for you, and your confirmation is an affirmation of that experience and your response to that experience.  If this has not yet been your experience, don’t worry, God does yearn for you, and you will be drawn nearer and nearer through the graces of the sacraments, the Word, prayer, and open especially your own seeking.

Whatever your experience, keep this in mind: even when we do feel abandoned or forgotten, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier never abandons us. It is we, who like Peter walking on the waters of Galilee, get distracted and fearful, and take our eyes off Jesus, who remains before us with his arms outstretched.

This distracted, doubting, and ‘not yet experience’ is where the disciples find themselves in our Gospel lesson from Matthew. This story takes place very early in Jesus’ ministry, he has just called his first disciples and he is sitting down with them for the first time to begin the “Great Instruction” also known as the Sermon on the Mount.

What we hear today are the Beatitudes, which are quite simply the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount. This preamble sets the tone and the context for the entire sermon, and that context is what the kingdom of heaven looks like. The language of the Beatitudes is uplifting and aspirational because it describes the God-like qualities to which we are to aspire, seek and ultimately achieve as we grow closer and more deeply into relationship with our Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier and one another.

What is set before us today is an aspiration and expectation for something far greater than our individual selves. What is being begun today in our prayers and in Bishop Smith’s laying on of hands is something being set into motion. That something is the “Great Instruction,” that great lifelong experiential and communal learning process is beginning and will continue until such time as all the dry bones are reanimated with us all in this new creation of the kingdom of heaven.

In the years to come you will master much in your life academically, professionally, and personally, but seeking will be the one pursuit that will continue to challenge you, stretch you, and pull you in deeper into something mind-blowingly far greater than you can imagine. This is the one thing that will continue to tickle you, perplex you, amuse you, and astound you your whole life long.

I am so excited for you as you stand on the cusp of this adventure, an opportunity for you continue to discern the answers to the question, what is humankind O God that you are so mindful of us, that you seek us out?

Confirmation is, simply put, our response to God’s desire for us. It is saying ‘Yes’ to the invitation to enter into this lifelong communion with the divine and other seekers, and to share our life changing experiences with others. By your presence here today, you have said, ‘Yes!’ So I bid you, welcome to the Jesus Movement!

Harvest Letter, Summer 2017

My Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

I am so filled with gratitude for the good work that has begun among us as we have embarked upon this process of electing the 10th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas. To paraphrase a wise observation by the Rev. Dr. Ann Hallisey, the election consultant for this process: this person has already been called; it is now our work to discern who this person is.

As you now know the Search and Transition Committees, along with the Council of Trustees, gathered with Ann on May 20th for a daylong orientation and commissioning retreat. I could not be more pleased with how well these committees reflect the diversity, energy, and gifts of our diocese.

During this retreat important work was done around grounding this process in prayer and thanksgiving, setting expectations, emphasizing confidentiality, and scheduling the committees’ work. My sense is that the latter point is perhaps the most charged because inevitably scheduling will reveal calendaring clashes among us. There are three observations I would make to this.

First, there are no perfect dates, there will always be competing demands for our time; as a result, every effort is being made to ensure the widest possible engagement. The second observation is that the timing of election related events is ultimately dependent upon the Presiding Bishop’s availability for consecration. Thus the timeline for the election process, which is the fruit of decades of best practices, is predicated upon the best estimate of the date of consecration.

And finally, just as we need the structure of a rule of life to guide and form our spiritual growth and discernment; the election process needs the disciplined structure of this time line to guide its spiritual growth and discernment of the person who has been called as the 10th Bishop of Kansas. Both of these spiritual practices require flexibility and engagement on all our parts and our best efforts to allow room for the work of the Holy Trinity in our midst.

I am not only grateful for the spiritual and organized work of this process, but I am also grateful for the spontaneous expression of interest and concern that has been shared. These expressions reflect both the care and natural apprehension that surround such transitions. Our ability to give voice to these is a good thing because it reflects interest and a desire to be engaged. Second only to prayer, engagement is the greatest gift we can offer this process.

Yours in prayer and engagement,

Foster+

We, the Council of Trustees, believe in and trust the God-given gifts that abide in the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas. During this season of transition, we will not be fearful. Directed by the Spirit, together we joyfully walk with Jesus the road ahead. [Council of Trustees, February 1, 2017]

“What is man …?”

There is a verse from today’s Scripture that has captured my imagination and won’t let it go. It is the Psalmist’s question, O Lord “What is man that you should be mindful of him? The son of man that you seek him out?”[1]

I love these questions because they remind me of the value and esteem with which we are held by our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. So today I invite you to reflect on this question as we contemplate the nature of the Holy Trinity.

Speaking of contemplation, are there images of the Trinity that today evokes for you? By images I don’t necessarily mean symbols, analogies or metaphors, but perhaps memories you may have accumulated over the years of listening to Trinity Sunday sermons.

A dear friend of mine served for years as an associate rector in a huge church that had a deep bench of clergy. Yet despite an abundance of preaching colleagues, year after year he found himself preaching on Trinity Sunday and struggling with new ways to explain the Trinity – a concept that he was still grasping for himself.

He once confessed that he felt the experience of preaching on the Trinity year after year was a kind of penance. His experience of Trinity Sunday has infected my own experience of preaching on this topic for the past five years. It has sometimes seemed more like a burden than a gift.

In simply acknowledging this fact – confessing it if you will – I find a sense of tangible relief from the abstract burden of the Trinity. I would like to share this sense of relief with you.

Let’s begin by thinking about the timing or placement of Trinity Sunday – this first Sunday after Pentecost. Sometimes Trinity Sunday can be lost in the light of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the beginning of summer as we transition from the crush of activities at the end of the school year to summer activities. In addition to this reality there is another transition taking place; a liturgical transition from the season of Easter to Ordinary Time – that is the season after Pentecost.

It is telling that this transition is marked by two of the Principal Feasts of the Church: the Day of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. This unique occurrence marks this as no ordinary transition. The coming of the Holy Spirit marks Easter’s conclusion; while the beginning of Ordinary Time – a season of growth – is marked by the reminder and example of the Holy Trinity. There is something to be teased out here!

To draw this ‘something’ out, perhaps we need to begin by letting go of our inclination to struggle with the metaphysical reality of the Trinity today, and open another door to see something else going on at the beginning of this season of growth.

The Holy Trinity may be redirecting our attention not to the wonder of its abstract reality but to a concrete truth about ourselves – a place of growth and opportunity for us individually. In a few minutes, before we exchange the peace in preparation for the Great Thanksgiving, we will collectively confess our sins for the first time in more than 50 days. I suspect that by now there is some pent-up demand for penance among us even as we emerge from the season of resurrection and redemption.

Despite these graces of resurrection and redemption we are after all humans who struggle in our relationships with one another and the Holy Trinity. Yet it is the Trinity that provides the perfect model of relationship. Co-equal, cooperative, founded on mutual and reciprocal love and esteem from the beginning of time as encountered in the first creation narrative of Genesis.

Yes, this particular story doesn’t mention Jesus by name, but John the Evangelist reminds us in his own creation narrative that …

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.[2]

Here John reminds us that our Redeemer was present and active with the Creator and Sanctifier in perfect harmony of relationship and creativity from the beginning.

All that the Trinity created – including humanity – was perfectly whole in its beginning, which speaks to the Psalmist’s question, “What is man that you should be mindful of him? The son of man that you seek him out?”

If we pause here before rushing on to our fall in the second creation narrative, we can remember that the Holy Trinity made humankind in its image. We can consider that the Trinity’s aspiration for us was and still is for something greater than our present selves; to resemble the Holy Trinity itself in our relationships. This is why the Trinity is so mindful of us.

That ill-defined and vague tug we feel at our core is the Holy Trinity seeking us out, yearning for us to embrace once again our relationship with the Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, and each other. All that stands between us and the Trinity is our inclination to brokenness.

It is no accident that now, after the Easter season of resurrection and redemption, we are again presented with the opportunity to confess our sins and receive absolution. We need the grace and humility this act provides us to recall that the Holy Trinity is mindful of us and that we are worthy of the redemption we have received.

Nonetheless, we are in constant need of confession and absolution if we hope to approach the insight necessary to remain in relationship with the Trinity and one another.

The key to all of this is forgiveness, whose effectiveness is only fully known and appreciated in its giving as Jesus reminds us, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”[3]

This understanding brings the concluding verse of last week’s Day of Pentecost Gospel into a new light. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”[4]

The ability to offer forgiveness opens the door to ones own ability to be forgiven – that is to re-enter into that life-giving relationship with the Holy Trinity. Whereas to hold on to resentment, to fail to forgive is to bind oneself in restraints that keep us out of communion with our neighbor and the Holy Trinity. The power to forgive or retain is the power to choose either life or death for oneself. Which do you choose for yourself in this season of growth and life?

Were this an easy thing to do we would not find ourselves in such a conflicted state, straining against the nature of the Holy Trinity and its desire and expectation for us. We all need guidance in learning to forgive, and the sacrament of reconciliation is both a starting place and a lifelong way of experiencing that inward grace of forgiveness.

The Holy Trinity: the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier is mindful of each and every one of us, and is seeking us out. Answer its yearning; reconcile that eternal relationship by releasing the sins that bind you and others in separation. Forgive, and choose life in the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

[1] Psalm 8:5

[2] John 1:1-5

[3] Acts 20:35b

[4] John 20:23

Pentecost

This day of Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the church. While I appreciate the desire to define a particular day as the point of origin for the church, I also think this desire reflects some preference for order over ambiguity. In my estimation, this preference overlooks some of the theological connections and biblical ambiguity surrounding the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As for theological connections, the day of Pentecost does not owe its existence to the coming of the Holy Spirit as divided tongues of fire; that is simply the context we associate with it. Rather Pentecost is the Greek name of the Hebrew festival of Shavuot or the Festival of Weeks, which long preceded Pentecost as we observe it. Shavuot celebrates the wheat harvest and marks the giving of the Torah to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. As such Shavuot is a festival of bounty and stewardship of God given gifts and word.

Thus this feast of Pentecost that we celebrate is the appropriation of a festival of gratitude and stewardship from our spiritual ancestors. I, for one, am grateful for this understanding because it reminds me of our heritage – whose we are and where we come from. We did not invent Christianity from whole cloth but inherited it shaped and formed from a pre-existing tapestry of faith. Even the variety within the stories of the New Testament reflects the diversity of that tapestry.

Today, as if to emphasize the hand-me-down origin of our stories of the Holy Spirit, we have two tales of receiving the Holy Spirit presented to us. Neither of these stories is orderly, tidy, or self-contained. The first includes a chaotic and cacophonous appearance of divided tongues, as of fire, and the ability to speak in other languages at Shavuot; and the second, is John’s account of the startling appearance of Jesus to the disciples on Easter Sunday and his breathing upon them.

While it may be the differences between these stories that stick out to us, such as the public havoc of the first in contrast to the private and intimate breath of Jesus in the second, I think it is what they have in common that invites our attention. Both stories invite our consideration of our roots in Torah. The first by the setting of its context in Shavuot; and the second by its subtle reference to the second creation narrative of Genesis. Each story is making its claim on our theological heritage. Acts builds upon a pilgrimage festival tradition, and John builds upon our origin in one of the creation narratives.

One could argue that we have two models to account for our personal disposition or preference; and perhaps one of these does resonate with you more than the other. But I would argue that both invite us to consider the challenge they present, because each requires action and accountability on our part.

In keeping with Acts, which turns into a baptismal story, shortly we will reaffirm our baptismal vows – a conscious reaffirmation of our receipt of the Holy Spirit and our promises to be stewards of that gift in thought, word, and deed.

Whereas John, with his connection of the Holy Spirit to Easter, reminds us of our connection to the Resurrection through our Baptism. But John goes further by including the intimate detail that Jesus breathed on his disciples. The only other instance of such breathing occurs in Genesis, “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”[1] Through this unique reference we are reminded that through the Holy Spirit we are connected to that short-lived, pre-fall, eternal relationship with our Creator, and through the Holy Spirit we are restored to wholeness.

It would seem that these remarkable and disorderly stories of giftedness are enough. Yet John goes on to present us with a confounding scriptural tagline, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”[2] I think in this Jesus is telling us of the awesome stewardship we have by virtue of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is the responsibility to liberate others and ourselves from the tyranny of sin and death rather than condemn them. The outcome depends upon our choice; do we retain the Spirit for our own comfort or do we forgive – that is release the Spirit – by sharing it with those in need of hearing and knowing they are loved and forgiven.

My charge to you is to consider your gift of the Holy Spirit. Whether it was bestowed privately or publicly, whether it descended upon you, was poured over you, immersed you, or was breathed into you, it was a gift freely given. In this light, consider how you will answer Jesus’ charge to set the Holy Spirit free so it can continue wreak pentecostal havoc.

[1] Genesis 2:7

[2] John 20:23