Monday, June 26, 2017

Pentecost 3A, 2017: Seamless uninterrupted loving kindness

Preached as supply at All Saints Episcopal Church, Gastonia, NC... a wonderful, welcoming, open church.

Lectionary: Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen. (Sorry, I hit record after I'd said this...)

When I was a kid, I loved to make flip-book cartoons. Remember those? Each page in the book had the same picture with a slight change to create movement as you flipped the pages. It was an early form of animation – and how Mickey Mouse got his start!

When I hear our Collect for today, I imagine our request for perpetual love as a flip book of our lives – each page showing how we lived love into being and action, each page slightly different than the page before, creating a visual of the movement of love through the course of our life. I imagine the cover and binding of our life-book as the lovingkindness of God.

I believe that God is the source and structure of our love for one another, for ourselves, for the world, and even for God. And our readings today give us a few ways to understand that structure, as well as the character of God, so let’s take a look…

Our Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah shows us how God moves to restore love when it has been lost to human foibles. Abraham and Sara, desperate for an heir, move outside of God’s plan for them resulting in Sara’s slave, Hagar, being raped (which is the only name for it – being “given” is nothing more than a patriarchal euphemism).

Hagar bears Abraham’s son and only heir, Ishmael. As the story goes, Hagar becomes proud and boastful once she has Abraham’s heir and she lords it over her mistress, Sara, who is shamed and disgraced by her childlessness. Then, by God’s grace, Sarah births a son, Isaac. This moves Sarah from the margins of her community to the center of respect and prominence. In her restored status Sarah asks Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael – serious payback for Hagar’s taunting during Sara’s shame.

Each woman in this story illustrates so well the foible of human preoccupation with status, and the destructive outcomes that can result.

Thankfully, also in this story, God demonstrates how to stand on the foundation of loving kindness in the midst of human frailty. God doesn’t punish Abraham or Sarah for getting Hagar involved against her will or for setting their own plan in motion instead of waiting on God’s plan to unfold. Instead, God gives them what they deeply long for – a son and heir, the first of their descendants which God has promised would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Furthermore, in order to clean up the mess Abraham and Sarah made by involving Hagar, God goes to Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness where they have been banished and promises to make of Ishmael a great nation as well. God delivered Hagar and Ishmael from certain death in the wilderness to abundant life. Like Sarah, Hagar now would be the matriarch of a great nation.

Then in our gospel reading, Jesus is getting real with his followers. You may remember that last week, Jesus gave them authority to proclaim that the royal dominion of God, which is overarching, all embracing, and includes everything that is, has joined heaven and earth into one, right here, right now – which meant they, the disciples, were being sent out to restore the helpless and harassed to wholeness of life, wholeness of spirit, and wholeness of purpose, in Jesus’ name. They were being sent as co-creators of God’s redemption for the world.

Today’s gospel story picks up with Jesus giving them the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say. It isn’t going to be easy, Jesus tells them. People won’t hold you up as icons of anything good. In fact, the opposite will happen – just as it did for Jesus himself.

The keepers of the status quo will hate you and fight against you – including even those closest to you. Your father, your mother, members of your church and community – will become like enemies. But stand firm in your faith and fear not, Jesus tells them, for God will always act to redeem.

Every truth that humans have covered up in their foibles will be uncovered by God’s love. When you need guidance, God will whisper it to you and that you must proclaim from the housetops! And whatever happens in the world, remember that God loves you so much and so thoroughly, that even the hairs on your heads are counted!

Think about that: every single aspect of who we are, even those aspects we don’t know about ourselves, are known and matters to God. That’s why we can stand firm on the foundation of God’s loving kindness. God’s got it. The reality of this new age, ushered in by Jesus, is this: earth and heaven, the temporal and the eternal, have been made one in Jesus, the Christ. As Jesus explains to his disciples: what happens on earth, happens in heaven. If you acknowledge me or deny me on earth – in the temporal – that is also what happens in heaven – in the eternal. So fear not and let love live through you.

One would think that sharing the good news of redemption would be work that brings honor and praise, but if human systems are to be transformed, they first msut be dismantled, and that rarely happens without a fight – Even in the church. We can look at our world’s history and see that change and cultural transformation, for example, feudalism in the West and caste systems in the East didn’t happen peacefully.

Those with power, wealth, and influence wouldn’t (or couldn’t) let go, and those without were unwilling to be exploited and disrespected any longer. It was usually rebellion or a rising up of the oppressed that brought about change. Think about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s and 70’s, or the Pride movement happening now.

This is something we need to be cognizant of right now as we see the chasm between the rich and the poor in our own society widening to what appears to be a not too distant breaking point.

How wonderful, then to have this Scripture lesson brought up for us today. The Good News of redemption through God in Christ is that God redeems every human foible and everybody wins! Remember, God’s covenant to Abraham and Sarah was fulfilled, and then some, redeeming the mess they made for Hagar, the slave, making a great nation of her son Ishmael too.

If we are to be co-creators of God’s redemption, we must learn to approach the world differently. Jesus says, if we are to be worthy, we must love him, and not cling to our earthly relationships and safety net systems.

Another way to hear Jesus’ final teaching in this story is like this: Whoever seeks earthly sources of protection or affection or relationship instead of finding that in me, is not congruent with me. Whoever does not bear the burdens of the world with loving kindness and forgiveness, as I did from the cross, is not in harmony with me. Anyone who tries to live apart from me will find themselves in utter ruin, and anyone who loves in my name despite their very real fear of the personal ruin the world will inflict upon them, will discover that I am pleased to dwell in them and redeem them, and through them, the world.

Now that’s good news!

Like Abraham and Sara, we may find that God’s promised redemption is taking so long that it seems it might not happen at all. Sara was, after, all, in her 80’s when she got pregnant. Most of us would have believed that either God didn’t come through or that we misunderstood the promise - by the time we’re maybe 70. Being resourceful, we would work to resolve the problem on our own, like Abraham and Sarah did.

So, I’m here to tell you, whenever this temptation rises up, and it will, I commend to you the wise words of my spiritual director, Sr. Elizabeth: Don’t feed it. Don’t fight it. Don’t fix it.

God’s got it. God has promised redemption of the whole world in Jesus Christ, and as my Old Testament professor used to say, “God always keeps God’s promises.”

We are worthy, that is, in harmony with Christ when the flip-books of our lives contain page after page of kind and loving responses to every situation the world presents to us. Loving kindness repeated so frequently as to seem seamless, uninterrupted when we watch it played back. There will be glitches in there – we are, after all human. But God redeems those too because such is the love of God.

Sisters and brothers, we are the means by which the loving kindness of heaven happens on earth. It’s us. It’s Christ in us. How awesome is that? I admit, it’s scary, too – but awesome!

Let’s pray and let the Spirit enter: Thank you, most gracious God, for your loving kindness, which is the foundation upon which we stand here on our earthly pilgrimage. We pray that as we write the pages of our life books, we will reflect your love and make it as real on earth as it is in heaven. May we be as reverent of one another and of you as you are of us, recognizing that in Jesus, the Christ, we have been made one. We pray this in the name of the Trinity, who is Unity.

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