Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Dios.


Sermon for the Celebration of Mary, Mother of Our Lord
for St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle

Almighty God, in choosing the virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son, you made known your gracious regard for the poor, the lowly, and the despised. Grant us grace to receive your word in humility, and so to be made one with your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
+ + +

I woke up early one morning last week and took a walk to Sunset Hill in Ballard. I did not plan to go that far when I started out, but at some point I got it in my head that I wanted to see the water before I turned back… and then there was no turning back, I had to walk all the way to the bluff. But you’d think I’d have learned by now about Seattle weather.

When I reached the edge of land, I couldn’t see anything beyond the blackberry brambles. It was all shrouded in a thick fog, gray nothingness as far or as near as the eye could see. There really was no line on the horizon. The Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, the ferries in between, had vanished. I stood there for a moment in disbelief.

And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw them, slowly coming into view: the ships at Shilshole Bay, just visible in the early morning light. There they were, floating in the grey mist, proof of the water beneath them, and witnesses to a reality that existed far beyond what I could see from my solitary perch, high on the bluff.

Dear friends in Christ, the fullness of time has come. At least, it has come again for Chris and I, as we prepare to move for the sixth time in four years. Call us tired. But call us blessed, too. This week, as we have prepared to leave, I have been thinking a lot about all the blessings I’ve received this year, blessings showered from God through you. And as I thought about those blessings, my heart was glad that today we are celebrating Mary, the Mother of Our Lord.

I’ve known Mary for a long time, but I didn’t really get to know her until I went to Mexico. Our digital banner this morning is the image of Mary called the Virgin of Guadalupe. It’s an amazing thing to see Guadalupe up there next to Thorvaldsen’s statue of Christ, because what this image of Christ is for Danes, that image of Mary is for our brothers and sisters from Mexico.

Anyway, when I was in Mexico City, I went to see the original image of la virgen one day, and when I was there, I picked up a little card with this image on it. On the other side of the card is La Magnifica, the Magnificat, the song of Mary. The words of the song on this little card are in Spanish, so at first I needed some help in the translation. I had to read it slowly. And as I did, I started to realize just what it was Mary was singing about.

My soul proclaims your greatness, O God
And my spirit rejoices in you

You have looked with love on your servant here

And blessed me all my life through.

Great and mighty are you O faithful one

Strong is your justice strong your love

How you favor the weak and lowly one

Humbling the proud of heart

You have cast the mighty down from their thrones

And uplifted the humble of heart

You have filled the hungry with wondrous things

And left the wealthy no part.

I remember when I first read those words, really read them, as if for the first time. Does it really say that God favors the weak and the lowly one? Does it really say that God casts the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble? Does it really say that God fills the hungry with wondrous things? These are words that proclaim God’s good news for the poor and the powerless, for the sick and the dying, for the lonely and the left out.

I was amazed… and then immediately skeptical.

Could it really be true? Mary speaks not of some far off future but as if these things have already begun to happen. But that was all rather hard to believe when I picked up the newspaper.

Violence in the neighborhoods of Chicago. Poverty in the shadows of the Gold Coast. Bickering politicians who seemed to care more about scoring points than doing justice and loving kindness. I wanted to preach the good news, but nothing I came up with seemed quite enough to counter the troubles of the world. Like the day last week when I went looking for a view and found only fog, I struggled to see how God could really be at work in this world.

But God was at work, even in a heavy fog, calling me to new places and new faces. From the hills of Southern Indiana to the corners of the Chicago’s South Side to the barrios of Mexico City to the ranchos of Jalisco, I caught glimpses of Christ, present in the people of God. But they were only glimpses, just enough to keep me going, nothing more… or less. And then I came here.

Here I found God gathering God’s people, at breakfast on Saturday morning with the other amateur men, in the delicious desserts of women’s fellowship, and, yes, finally, at Hale’s Ales where we’d talk God stuff over a few pints on cask night.

Here I found God speaking to God’s people, through the kids as they made order out of chaos at the Sunday School Christmas Pageant, through different generations sharing their experiences with each other at adult forum, and through a people willing to proclaim the gospel in a new way through a U2 Sunday and an organist with the grace and the chutzpah to lead us.

Here I found God feeding God’s people, through a parkway somehow transformed into a flourishing garden in part through the donated dung of elephants. (The Lord works in mysterious ways.) The gardeners in this garden were patient enough to teach an intern the difference between a rose and a weed, and the fruits of their labor flowed into a soup kitchen, where faithful women and men served the hungry in a room where the homeless slept.

And here, finally, I found God sending God’s people out into the world, to love and serve their neighbors. They were sent into a myriad of vocations, teachers and researchers, nurses and engineers, lawyers and bankers, volunteers and, of course, the creatively retired. They were sent to homeless shelters and recovery centers, to soup kitchens and food pantries. And they were sent further upriver, too, to dig out the roots of structural sin. On Interfaith Advocacy Day they were sent to advocate in the halls of power where important decisions were being made, and here they spoke up for peace in the face of violence, justice in the face of injustice. They sang Mary’s song in word and deed. And through them, God made her song begin to come true.

Dear people of God, you have taught me so much. But you have done more than that, too. You have restored my hope and my courage. You have been as Mary to me, singing a vision into life and bringing it to birth. You have been as Christ to me, truly. My sisters and brothers, I have seen the body of Christ at work in you. Thanks be to God. And thanks be to you.

As I met with Pastor Carol for the last time week, I told her how hard I was finding it to say goodbye. She smiled. “Yes,” she said, “but we’re all part of the same body.” Throughout the year, my supervisors, Carol and Paul, have taught me how to put passion into practice, how to live the baptized life. And now here they were again, with a final truth to carry with me, here at the end of things. As the gospel hymn goes, we’re all a part of God’s body, a cloud of witnesses throughout space and time, a holy communion of sinner-saints sent out for the life of the whole world, from Seattle to Chicago and far, far beyond, the body of Christ gathering, speaking, feeding, sending.

You see, dear sisters and brothers, there is a neighborhood out there, a city, a planet yearning for the vision of this table, hungry for a world where there is manna and mercy for all. God has work to do, and our hands to do it with. God has a song to sing, and our voices to sing it with.

So let us be gathered, once again, at this table, that God might feed us and make us one, that we might see the vision and live it, that we might, once again, be set free for the life of the world.


Friday, August 13, 2010

On the Road Again

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
for St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle

Prayer of the Day:

Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

+ + +

Hear again, sisters and brothers in Christ, the words of today’s reading from the book of Hebrews. This is a slightly different translation, but it is the same reading. It begins like this:

The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd. By faith, we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see.

By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by k
eeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations – the City designed and built by God.

By faith, barren Sarah was able to become pregnant, old woman as she was at the time, because she believed the One who made a promise would do what he said. That’s how it happened that from one man’s dead and shriveled loins there are now people numbering into the millions.

Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing. How did they do it?

They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that – heaven country. You can see why God is so proud of them, and has a City waiting for them.

That is our reading from the Hebrews, as translated by Pastor Eugene Peterson. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t hear those stories of Abraham and Sarah without thinking of other stories, of forebears in the faith who are not so far removed from us as these Biblical characters. For me, it’s the separate stories of my father and grandfather that come to mind.

When my mother was very young, my grandfather decided that he could no longer make a living farming his little plot of land in the northwest corner of Iowa. And so he and my grandmother sold the farm, packed up their daughter and two sons, and headed West. My grandfather had never been to California, but he had a distant relative there who thought he might be able to secure him a job. It was only a possibility, really – hardly the promise that Abraham had. But it was enough. By an act of faith, he set out with his family for a distant land.

Some years later, on the other side of the country, my father graduated from high school in a small town in the mountains of West Virginia. But there was no work in his little hometown. And so, at the age of 18, he packed his things and moved some 300 miles east from Appalachia to Washington, D.C., the closest city, where he hoped he might find a decent job. It was only a possibility, really – hardly the promise that Abraham had. But it was enough. By an act of faith, he set out and traveled to an unknown place.

Eventually, my father found a job working for the airlines as a flight dispatcher. After a few years, his office was transferred to San Francisco, where he met my mother. A few years later, I was born.

It has not escaped me if these two men had not set out in faith I would not be here. My very existence is the result of these journeys made on faith – not only those of my father and grandfather, of course, but those of my parents, who celebrated their thirty-first wedding anniversary last week. “By faith,” the writer of Hebrews says, “we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see.”

Well. You probably know some stories like this yourself. Maybe they are the stories of your own parents and grandparents, moving across the ocean or across the country. Maybe they are your own stories; maybe you have lived them yourself. And if so, then maybe you know that it is helpful, from time to time, to remember these stories for the anatomy of faith they reveal.

Always faith begins with a promise. We often think of a promise as having something to do with certainty and a clear commitment, but it is not always that. God does not begin by telling Abram exactly what will happen at 11am on Sunday the 8th. No, God simply calls Abram outside and draws his gaze toward the stars. “The life I intend for you and for those who come after you,” God tells Abram, “is as full as the sky is full of stars.” That is all the promise amounts to. That kind of promise is long on possibility and rather short on details. The promises of God are often more vision than clear visibility; they are less like photographs of the future and more like looking at the stars and finding constellations.

Abram tells God as much; he’s not thrilled about the lack of detail. But in the end, the promise of possibility, the promise of abundant life for himself, for his family, for all nations, is enough. Hope is kindled, and as its fire grows, faith is forged.

“By an act of faith,” the writer of Hebrews says, “Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place.”
I am not sure where God is calling you, dear people of St John United. But I do know this: You don’t have to travel as far as Abraham did to show extraordinary faith.

Perhaps you are considering a move to a new home, not across the country but across town. Perhaps you are already in the midst of one. Or perhaps you are preparing for a long road trip to see the sights or to visit family, a temporary move for a few weeks, an exercise in wayfaring. Or perhaps you are simply planning a walk around the neighborhood, which can be its own sort of adventure. Whatever the reasons for your movement, dear friends, hear again the words of Christ: Do not be afraid. The God of Abraham goes with you, and has promised you a world of possibility.

You might be a member of this congregation, trying to discern the direction this church ought to set sail for. Into what uncharted territory are the winds of the Holy Spirit blowing this place? What role will this congregation play in this community five years, ten years down the line? What new needs will arise? What new gifts will come to the fore? Where can we already see it happening? Whatever your ideas, wherever you are in discerning the answers to these questions, dear friends, hear again the words of Christ: Do not be afraid. The God of Abraham goes with you, and has promised you a world of possibility.

Or you might be picking up one of these little buttons, and you might be deciding that today is the day you get involved by writing a letter or making a phone call to speak up for ecological justice. The earth is in a state of brokenness, and we are the ones who are responsible. The word on the button says Converted? But to convert in the Biblical sense is to repent, to make a complete life change, to quite literally turn around. The call to give up our addiction to the things that warm this planet, given the state of our politics, given the state of our economy, seems at this point to be harder than anything Abraham had to do. And yet even Abraham’s journey began with a single step, a foot set forward in faith. If you think the situation is hopeless and there is nothing more we can do, hear again the words of Christ: Do not be afraid. The God of Abraham goes with you, and has promised you a world of possibility.

Near the end of Jesus’ exhortation in our gospel reading, he describes a scene in which the master sits the servants down at the master’s own table, and serves them up a meal, a feast akin to a wedding banquet. It is like what God does in our lives, serving up countless graces, day by day, each one ripe with possibility, our Lord showing up in places we least expect him to be. Step forward in faith, God says. Step forward to the table of all creation. Come and eat, come share the feast I have prepared for you and for all the creatures of the earth. Come, taste and see. Amen.