Unity of Spirit

Genesis 22:1-14 | Psalm 13 | Romans 6:12-23 | Matthew 10:40-42

A month or so ago, Krista Mays contacted me, politely asking if I wanted to use Track 1 or Track 2 for our lectionary. Wisely on her part, she mentioned that Track 1 does include the bit about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. I grimaced. No one likes that story. What kind of first sermon would it be that mentions human sacrifice at the command of God? (Even though it doesn’t happen.) These are my first split-second thoughts. Then I remembered what I asked Rachel Held Evans at the Insight Lecture at Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock just days before Krista called, something like: “What stories do you find you have to lean into when you really want to ignore them altogether?” So I paused, sort of girded up my loins, and said for this new beginning, we would start with Track 1. I wouldn’t shy away from the difficult. And so we begin our relationship with the lectionary we have today.

Our collect this week asks God to join us “in unity of spirit” by the teaching of the prophets and apostles but chiefly of Jesus Christ. We will spend every Sunday, if not every day we spend in Scripture, gleaning the teachings of our ancestors in the faith. But today, how fortunate we are to have some foundational principles that will guide us in our life together individually and as part of the body of Christ. Especially as we look forward to and imagine the future of All Saints’ . . . we have to know who we are and whose we are. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess what this means. We have a tradition already firmly established in the teachings of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles.

In a church whose tagline is “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”, we get the Gospel message today. Our Good News is that whoever you are, wherever you are, you are welcome in this place, you are welcome at God’s table. Given the number of times I think we will have to extend hospitality to each other and the commitments we have made to reach out to others, I know All Saints’ understands the imperative of this teaching to extend welcome to all, to receive one another in the name of Christ, whether we are devout children of God or wandering seekers yearning for something we just can’t wrap our mind around. The graciousness of Spirit that Jesus showed us in his life with all the people he came across, especially the marginalized, that is the graciousness of Spirit we are to embody in our daily lives in whatever way we can.

That’s where the apostles and disciples come in: they show us that the most ordinary folks are acceptable in the eyes of God and that we’re meant to be a motley crew. Last week we got a list of the twelve apostles, but we know there was an even larger band of misfits with them, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, though mostly poor. The apostles teach us that it’s okay to doubt and ask questions. It’s normal to get uncomfortable, especially when Jesus gets excited and breaks yet another social norm, let alone when he starts flipping tables. And they show us that it’s okay to be completely surprised when we do something remarkable in the power of the Spirit. The apostles and disciples show us that if we are full of ourselves, how does that leave room for Jesus to shine through? Only when we’ve given ourselves over to God, become slaves to righteousness, only then can God fully work in our midst, only then is the kingdom of heaven at hand. All of this sums up to living a life in faith and righteousness to the best of our human ability (because we know none of us is perfect).

So we have what we often call the radical hospitality of Jesus and the faith and righteousness of the apostles and disciples. That leaves us with the prophets, and I promised I wouldn’t neglect Abraham.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally think of Abraham as a prophet. Father Abraham, yes. Prophet? Of course he is. He gets a remarkable call from God from the beginning to leave his people, and he goes. He’s told he will be the father of nations, though his wife is barren. And when he does finally have sons, one he is told to send away, which he does, and the other he is told to make a sacrifice, which he sets out to do.

Now, if you want to read a remarkable book on Abraham, I commend to you David Rosenberg’s book Abraham: The First Historical Biography. After I told Krista I would do Track 1, in my conversations with the Rabbi in Hot Springs, I asked him nonchalantly, “So, anything in particular I should be mindful of about Abraham if I were, hypothetically, to be preaching on the sacrifice of Isaac?” “Let me think about it,” he said, and the next time we met, he gave me a 300-page book on Abraham, being the good rabbi and Hebrew studies scholar that he is.

The obedience of Abraham, as with all the prophets who eventually accept their calls, is the main teaching that stands out to me today. (Maybe it’s because I’m so close to this most recent transition in my ministry.) But Abrahams’s obedience–particularly related to the near-sacrifice of Isaac–bears particular significance in lessons for our lives in faith. The translation Rosenberg includes in his book has Abraham responding to God not with “Here I am” but with “I am listening.” Not only is Abraham present, but he is actively receiving the Word of God. And Rosenberg describes Abraham’s actions, as the text does, as very physical, very tangible, yet in a dream-like state. There is something at work here beyond the natural realm, but very much in the natural order. For Judaism, God cannot cross to interfere in the natural world because then He would not be trusted ever again. But the boundaries have to be tested. Boundaries like between life, the affirmation of continued existence, and death or the fear of extinction. Isaac is the one upon whom the continued identity of a nation depends. This situation, Rosenberg says, is a “biblical nightmare” because God is testing Abraham with threat of cultural extinction. We realize how incredibly vulnerable this young nation is, a small family in the midst of strangers.

We might think God interfered directly, but Abraham awakes from his trance-like state from the voice of heaven, not entirely unlike the voice of our conscience. Probably with tears streaming down his face as he holds the blade above his son, both of them showing their devout obedience to God above all else, Abraham hears the voice and says, “I am listening.” And he’s told to stop, for Abraham is shown to have “an integrity dedicated to God,” not just fear of God. I love the translation that shows a father of nations to be filled with humility and integrity dedicated to God. That is the kind of obedience we are to show. Not false humility or empty martyrdom, but a complete devotion in knowledge of our strengths and of our faults that we will do nothing but our best to live into the commandment of our LORD. Every day we are listening, we hear the command to love one another as Christ loved us.

Hospitality. Faith and righteousness. Obedience.

The teachings are spelled out for us, but it is up to us to figure out what they look like in practice, what the process of becoming a holy temple will be like. What makes us worthy of the name Christian in the eyes of God?

So I have my sermon prepared by yesterday afternoon when I checked my email and saw the letter from the Bishop about the Little Rock mass shooting early Saturday morning. I had read about it not long after I woke up and thought, as I’m sure many of you did, “How horrible. How senseless.” Like our state leaders, we probably sent up our prayers to the victims and their families. And I went about my day and wasn’t even going to mention it in my sermon . . . except I read the bishop’s letter that challenged us to think about how we can be life-giving when so much of society condones violence as a solution. How hospitable is it for me to look away shaking my head just because the Power Ultra Lounge isn’t my scene and I’d never heard of Finese 2Tymes before Saturday? The victims at the concert were people’s children; the youngest wounded was 16 years old. If it was gang violence, these are individuals looking for belonging in the only places they think they can find it. How faithful and righteous is it for me to ignore or look away from that which is not pleasant and painful? How obedient is it for me to pretend that this doesn’t affect me or us? Because we are all connected. If I’m going to say my prayers matter, then another person’s pain also matters. We can’t turn away or pretend the situation didn’t take place any more than we can pretend that there aren’t some deep-seated issues in our society that need to be addressed for what they are . . . issues that make a place especially susceptible to fatal violence. I don’t expect us to come up with a response for the bishop right away, but he poses questions worth asking ourselves. Keeping our foundation firm in our teaching, we can engage the questions and embark on the arduous journey together.

It will take time, but I aim to meet with everyone here. Don’t be alarmed when I call you . . . consider this your advanced notice, and please let others know who aren’t here. I’ll not show up unexpected, though you are welcome to surprise me. (I’m a big fan of scruffy hospitality, so be at ease.) I want to know how live into your baptismal vows, what keeps you curious about a faithful life, how you see Christ at work in our midst. Together we will discern how we live into these teachings that give us a sure foundation in all we do because no one of us is at the head, save Jesus Christ. When we serve meals, it is the light of Christ we share first. When we visit jails, it is the presence of Christ we bring first. When we pray, it is the voice of God we listen for, surrounded in the presence of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit.

In everything we do, how and who are we welcoming?

Are we doing it in good faith and righteously?

Are we being obedient to God’s will, or has our own will obscured our way?

The rewards of our practice, of our being Christian grounded in these teachings, is not spelled out in our Gospel today. But allowing the creativity of Spirit to craft our rewards accordingly encourages us to be aware, to keep looking for the glory that awaits us. It won’t necessarily be gold stars or even stars in our crowns, but it will be something like the glory of God manifest in the world around us. Something like that taste of joy when we are aligned with God’s will. Something like the smile of a loving father or mother who tells their child, “Well done, good and faithful one.”

I know we have hard work before us, for Jesus assures us that living as disciples isn’t easy. But our foundation is sure, and our prayers are set for the glory of God. I am blessed to share this journey with you, in unity of spirit, as we fill our community with the light and love of Christ.

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On Hospitality: Of Grandmothers, Friends, & Jesus

(*something akin to the sermon preached for The Second Sunday after Pentecost)

Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-17) | Psalm 116:1, 10-17 | Romans 5:1-8 | Matthew 9:35-10:23

While I went to a traditional church camp once in my childhood, my sleep-away camps during the summer mostly alternated between my sets of grandparents, fortunate as we were to live close to them. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many times I dusted furniture for my grandmothers or how many times I dried and put away the dishes after the endless stream of meals. With the patience of saints, my grandmas would let me watch them closely as they baked and cooked. While one grandmother tended toward silence, the other chatted away, filling me with her wisdom. It would usually be early afternoon as she prepared a dessert that she would sagely tell me the proportions of everything for the cobbler filling, remind me to cool the shortbread crusts first, or tell me that a toaster strudel cut in half would work for a crust in a pinch. She preferred to have a cake or a cobbler at the table, but she said for the unexpected guests, she kept cookie dough (homemade, of course) in the freezer. Unexpected guests meant they called the day of to let you know they were coming, I guess, because she had time to bake, but I promise you, if you stopped by completely unannounced, there were at least some Little Debbie snack cakes still in their wrappers but tastefully arranged on a cake plate or platter on the table.

It’s not a far stretch for me to think about Abraham welcoming his three visitors to his tent, humbly offering a little bread and a little water, only to go tell Sarah to bake cakes and the servant to prepare the meat while he surely goes for the curds and milk. How many of us have sat down to feasts where our hostess has told us it’s “just a little something (she) threw together”? Abraham, full of duty and obedience, has followed through on his generous welcome to these strangers, and I can imagine Sarah listening from the other side of the tent to listen for their praise of her cakes, utterly surprised when she hears that she’s going to have a child in her and Abraham’s old age. Very much not laughing, Abraham is asked by one of the three: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

With kids of my own, I find I’m not nearly as patient with my kids in the kitchen as my grandmother was with me. I’m not nearly as diligent about keeping my house clean (though there was a phase early in my motherhood that about made me crazy; I let the house be messy and preserved what was left of my sanity). Between storytimes, gymnastics, and park dates, along with keeping the kids relatively clean and fed, I was doing good to do dishes and laundry. Fortunately, there were other mamas like me whose husbands were working outside the home while we were holding down the fort. We scheduled weekly playdates for the kids when in all actuality they were mama dates. Whoever’s house we met at, we would let the kids loose while we gathered in the living room or around the kitchen table to vent or brag and always to laugh. There might be a couch full of laundry, a sink full of dirty dishes, and spots of God only knows what on the floors, but we greeted one another in solidarity and friendship and non-judgment. When snacktime or lunchtime rolled around, we’d bake some sweet potatoes and throw together a salad, putting everything in the middle of the table, and there would always be plenty. Eventually naptime would send everyone on our separate ways. We’d try to make sure the kids cleaned up behind themselves, but the hosts were always gracious (or eager) enough to let everyone get fussy kids home to bed. It would be a morning well-spent, leaving us all full and tired as good work does.

My older kids tell me this was part of our hippie phase, but maybe it was just another aspect of being hipster, of doing something before it was cool. In 2014, a priest circulated an article about what he called “scruffy hospitality,” and a follow-up article by another writer has been circulating this month. The point of these articles is that too often today we let our expectations of entertaining with excellence prohibit us from actually having anyone over, that we’ve actually prioritized  lawn maintenance and bathroom cleanliness over genuine friendship and fellowship. So, introduce “scruffy hospitality,” entertaining with open doors and hearts while leaving the judgment out of the picture.

Then there’s the hospitality of Jesus. I imagine Jesus looking out over the crowds, seeing with the eyes of God all the needs of the whole world. Jesus didn’t have his own house to worry about. Wherever he was, there was the hospitality. The New Testament version of hospitality isn’t just about offering room and board. It’s based on φιλόξενος (philoxenos). Philos, brotherly love, and xenos, stranger or immigrant or even enemy. In 2016, “xenophobia” was the #1 looked-up word on dictionary.com. It means fear of the stranger/others. Jesus’ hospitality is exactly the opposite, and it doesn’t require a fancy dinner or even a house: Jesus’ hospitality is in his very being, in his very presence. True love of others is “radical hospitality”–a catchphrase used often these days but not always with a matching sentiment. We can say we have “radical hospitality” and offer excellent food and open doors and fake smiles and broken, judging hearts . . . and newcomers to the church will not feel welcome. But in the midst of our gatherings when we acknowledge how good it is, how surely this is something like the kingdom of heaven, this heavenly banquet of love and laughter and song and silence, we know this is good news worth sharing with others, and others will know they are already part of the goodness and want to stay or come back for more.

As curate here at St. Luke’s, I have felt the generosity of Spirit from everyone here, whether we’ve shared stories or just smiles and handshakes. I know the importance of the obedience of Abraham–the hospitality of our grandmothers–and the significance of sharing wholly who we are where we are among friends. And I have seen with a sense of the Christ-mind and the eyes of compassion the work that is done and still needs to be done in our community. We have much work to do, but I know full well there is abundance of Spirit to do it. The same hospitality that has been shown to me needs to be shown to everyone we meet, with and for the love of God.

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Day 2

Gracious God.  You know my heart.  You know my ways, and yet you continue to bless me.  I continue to ask forgiveness and humbly receive your blessings.

I know my faith will be tested — some big ways, some small.  My prayers don’t have to be typed and published the same moment I’m thinking them.  I can write.  Isn’t that part of what I’m supposed to be doing anyway?  You know my heart.

What I didn’t expect was to have so many prayers answered in one day.  My husband had a relatively pain-free day, and he received word that he got the job, with other work in store.  A friend received hopeful words from a tech running a test.  I received a call from a friend who’s been on my heart; I’ve been on hers, too.  Coincidences all in one day?  That was Day 1.

Today is Day 2 (typed into the computer and post-published due to network disruption), and I have a confession.  I’m afraid of prayer, God.  I’m afraid to fully tap into the divine connection with you because I don’t kow if I’m asking the right thing.  I know I’m not good enough, and I don’t know if I can do all you ask me to do.  I guess I’m afraid of the power of ultimate love.

Yet I believe in it.  Yet I show up.  And I ask for strength.

This evening we’re opening our home to an Afghani woman through the University’s international program.  Tomorrow we open our home to host a dinner for a friend’s family.  Sunday we take a child to church camp.  Thank you for the gift of hospitality, for us and for others.

All honor and glory and praise to You, now and forever.  Amen.

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