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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It’s All in the Breath

We do everything with a breath. Even if we are holding it, the breath is with us.

When we’re first born, we inspire, we breathe or inhale our first breaths in this world, and we spend the rest of our days living into this inspiration, motivated to make something–if not something material, then something of ourselves.

We perspire, breathing through this creative process because it’s hard. Anyone who says life is easy hasn’t truly made anything. The most gifted people in the world would probably tell you that the process isn’t a cake walk.

If we’re lucky, we get to conspire. “Conspire” has a negative connotation, associated with joining forces to do something evil, immoral. Literally, it means to breathe with. That implies being of one breath, united in the creative process. What you do together may well be something evil, but when we conspire to do something good, beautiful things happen.

At our end, we expire, breathe our last. Those of us who have attended the bed of the dying know that there is a palpable finality in that last exhale; you know that there is no more. We often say that the dead person’s work is done, but not fully understanding what her greatest achievement was, maybe it’s more accurate to say that she will not be creating anything else except through the ripples of her influence.

For a Christian, the breath is synonymous with Spirit. Maybe it’s the only way we can get a handle on something so beyond our comprehension. In pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit), Spirit is sometimes explained in “spirations.” (Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff was my introduction to the spiration concept, though he’s not alone.) This gift of life is made possible only through our breath.

I wonder about those who struggle with breathing disorders. In any struggle, our awareness heightens, and we wrestle more audibly and visibly and obviously, even if we are the only ones to notice. That we struggle with or defy doesn’t negate that which is.

If the breath isn’t with us, we are dead. If we ignore that the breath is with us, pay no attention to the gift of breath or our struggle with it, we may be the living dead, contributing nothing life-giving if there is creation happening at all.

I imagine that this is why so many traditions fundamentally pay attention to the breath. A breath prayer is simply giving focused attenention, intention, to the inhale and exhale. Each breath is a moment in which a decision is made, a decision to create something life-giving, life-affirming. We have to opportunity to conspire with Spirit. This positive, creative conspiration threatens a death-dealing culture, threatens the status quo, but this is the kind of conspirator I hope to be.

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Day 21 . . .

Right.  I know.  There are not enough posts between my last and current to count to 21, but I do have several prayers penned in my moleskine.  When I get more than 10 minutes, I’ll enter them on my blog.  For now, tonight was too momentous not to mention right away.  So let this count for Day 21.

Dear God,

Keep teaching me.  Keep infusing me with your Spirit.  Keep surrounding me with those who share wisdom, just enough so that they don’t even know they’re doing it.  This life is amazing, and I give my humblest thanks.

I am trying to walk the path to best serve your will.  I am trying, discerning, and I know I could not do it alone.  My path has converged with so many wonderful people; I have been blessed with a tremendous family and unimaginably compassionate friends.  Of course, each of us has a flaw or two, and from them we learn the most about ourselves.  I can’t imagine it any other way.

As I’m continuing along, help me to be mindful.  Help me not waste a dozen or more waffles because I forgot about them keeping warm in the oven.  I have enough, but there are so many without.  Help me be present to recognize the needs of others and to pay attention to what is at the heart of the matter.  Help me to hear the truth in my own heart.

And always, dear God, help me be grateful – for your love, for the gifts you’ve given me, for my friends, and for the gifts of others.  Help me remember how sweet these tender moments are with the children and how wonderfully supportive my husband is.  May they know my love for them is unconditional and greater than I will ever show.  Help me at least try to embody unconditional love.  I think I’d like to try.

Grant me the strength to do the work set before me, and may all the glory be yours.

Amen.

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Day 12

God bless Brenda Ueland; may her soul rest in peace.  Her words from decades ago resonate loudly to me, reminding me why I do what I do, putting in print the cries of my soul.  Sit a while, Sara.  Dream.  Write.  Gaze into the distance and feel.  That’s what my soul says, and I think Brenda would nod approvingly, maybe even give a sly little wink.

Every blessed moment when plans change or tragedy strikes or life seems all off-kilter, we still have a choice.  Thank you for providing us with this choice.  Sometimes I do just want to be a hedonistic sloth or wallow in self-pity.  Thankfully, I don’t prefer this for long.  What it does provide me with is a broader perspective and a greater appreciation for when those other holy, enlightened moments of peace and contentment come.  These aren’t the same as the moment of ecstatic joy (though those are lovely, too).  Moments of peace are like when you realize you’re floating on the water and relax into the flow.  Life is good.  All is well, and I feel it in the core of my being.

I’m convinced this peace does dwell within and through us all.  Our awareness of it is what changes, blinding us with ignorance of its presence.  Help us to know and to feel.  Help us to show this peace to others . . . and to see it in them, too.  Awaken us to the Peace that surpasses all understanding.

Thank you for the rain.  Thanks for protecting my children and animals (yes, even the chickens).

Continually guide us all onto the path that lives into the greatest compassion for everyone, however great or small that may be.  Hear us, O God, in our time of need.

Thanks and glory to You, now and forever.  Amen.

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Day 11

Wow.

This life is so full.

I fill a page with a schedule for the children for the day to come.  Nearly every minute is occupied, even if with the designation of “free time.”  Every moment of my day is occupied, too, from early morning to late at night.  Even then the unexpected tasks get wedged in between the standing commitments.

I’m reminded of the demonstration of the jar being filled with rocks (the obvious priorities), then smaller pebbles (the commitments and responsibilities), then sand (the everyday stuff), and just when it looks like it’s full and can hold no more, then you add water (I think of this as Spirit).  There was still room for water, a necessity of life.

Somehow in my daily life I still have room for prayer.  I need it.  I need to take the calls from friends.  I need to do the healing work, the holy listening.  I need to play a supporting or even a leading role in various ministries.  These nurture me and in some delightful way, it can help others.  It helps keep me balanced.

Today I felt out of whack.  It could be because I didn’t get up when I should.  I didn’t start the day with prayer.  It could be the whacky weather.  It could be our family routine being turned upside down.  It could be stress.  It could be the striking images I saw in the magazine of the most significant photos of the past 100 years – space, science, society (the Challenger, a growing baby en utero, starving children, a lynching).  It could be any combination of these things or of other things I have yet to consider.

There is so much in this life.  Dear God, I know you don’t expect me to hold it all, to understand it all, so help me to let it go, all of it.  Cleanse the thoughts of my heart . . .

And I give thanks for the rich life I lead.

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Day 10 . . . Again

Day 10 I honestly didn’t do anything.  I rested the whole day, and for that I truly give thanks.

But if I take into consideration what I have done this day, may I remember that today is a feast day.  The Transfiguration.  Today I watched seven women become baptized members of the church.  I felt the Spirit move between and among us.  We got to wait in quiet contemplation and in a little uncomfortable silence.

Lord, bless these women.  Help them in the paths that lie before them.  I don’t know what choices they’ll have to make, what obstacles they have to overcome, but I give them love, though this love I extend compares naught to the infinite power of Yours.

Our community is so small, but I hope the impact of all the little acts of kindness, the abundance of tender mercies, and the radical hospitalities that appear when we least expect it radiate a greater power than the sum of all that is done outside of Love.  May goodness overcome all evil.

Thank you for all my blessings.  Bless my family and my home.  Bless all those I love dearly and those I love whom I shall never meet.  The glory is Yours.

Amen.

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Days 8 & 9

This feels like it might be pushing it a bit, but I’ll count it anyway.  🙂

Thursday, Holy Eucharist at the noon-thirty service at St. Martin’s, the UA Episcopal campus ministry.  I enjoyed my lunch in silence, staring out at the ivy.  Prayer is mostly listening.

Friday, I retrieved a child from camp.  In so-doing, I got to attend the mountain-top chapel service at Camp Mitchell, our diocesan camp grounds.  Yes, it was already over 90 degrees F at 10 am, but it was lovely to be with all the youth and witness all the sweet reunions.

Many petitions for rain, for safe travel, and for enough.  Our wants are many, but may our needs provide enough through Your abundance.

Amen.

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Day 7

A prayer for the mothers, to the young just learning the maternal ways and to the elders surrendering the responsibilities to their children.  To those who birthed and lost.  To those who birthed so that others might share in motherhood.  To those in the thick of it like I am, trying to hold the invisible and ever-wavering balance.  To those of us who slip and fall, may we know that we never fall away from Your Love.  To those who continue to radiate your Grace and Love, may they be an example to us all.

Wherever we are and whomever we are, our work is never done.  May our works and our lives be blessed.

A house burned today, yet the family survived.  Your mercy be upon them.  They are dear and have suffered so much even before this day.  Be with them.

I seem to have misplaced my written prayer list.  I thought I saw it yesterday.  It apparently has disappeared with my phone, and I’m beginning to wonder if there are, indeed, house elves.  Perhaps it’s time for a new list.

Bless all our families.  Protect all families.  Be with us, your children, for we are quick to whine, clumsy, and selfish . . . yet so full of potential.  May we all grow into the image of our Creator.

Amen.

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Day 3

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

You’ve given me to be one of those people who get headaches, and I’ve had all kinds.  Dull, ice-pick, tension, stress, heat, sinus, barometric, migraine.

You’ve also given me a gift of healing.  Now, I know how that works.  The truth is, I don’t do anything.  I just call upon you.  I tend to practice this gift with others.  I’m not very good at using it for myself.  That seems to take extra energy, extra effort.  How quickly I forget that you are ever-present and that strength through you knows no bounds.

I’m reminded of your love and compassion in the faces of those who are guests in our country this weekend, especially in the one who is our guest in our home.  Their people have known suffering I cannot imagine, and she practices and lives in her faith and beliefs in a way I can only admire.  Somehow in her journey she has found part of Your Mystery, has reached a point of not understanding, and yet the trust in You is called upon and overrides any slightest hint of doubt, if, indeed, there ever was any.   She doesn’t falter; she does blossom.

I was asked questions, too, about my beliefs.  What it boils down to is that I have more to learn about the Bible, about our history and creeds, but I have a solid grasp on the core of my faith.  I truly believe it’s the core of any faith, that God is about Love — love to God, love to self and others through, for, and as God.  This is practiced and appears as compassion, and it is Good.

Thank you for showing us the way of compassion through the great Teachers, Christ and Muhammed be praised.

Bless our home with radical hospitality.  Bless me with strength and healing.  Bless us all who strive to walk in your way, whichever path we take.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.

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21 Days of Prayer

Does it still take 21 days to create a habit?  If so, I need to make one.  It almost worked from Lent a few years ago, but the only thing that remained from making prayer my Lenten practice was my prayer list.  It’s time to get serious now.  Let’s see what I can do in 21 days.  I trust you to help hold me accountable.

Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you; for the community I live in, for the children who love me unconditionally, for the husband who upholds me, and for the home we share.  Thank you for your Grace.

Thank you for giving me the faith to ride through all that which I don’t understand.  I don’t know why some people get sick, get diagnosed with stage 3 or 4 cancer, their life turned upside down and those they love thrown into the ensuing chaos.  I don’t understand mental illness and why it’s so hard for our society to allow these people a place.  I don’t understand why some have so much and others nearly nothing at all.

What I know of Life and Love, though, are that nothing is so sure except these.  The world around me teems with life.  In this comfortable morning hour, when the sun promises us a scorching day; the birds are busy, the butterflies about, and the children, cat, and dog waking.  Even the trees and plants seem more at ease, and we are all alive, save for the scorched plants that couldn’t survive the summer heat.  Death is as sure as life — part of the cycle.

So Love, then, is the foundation of my being, the rock of my faith.  Why does it take so long to get there?  Love sees us through the impossible, takes us through the darkness.  Even when it seems like we don’t succeed, if we have walked in the way of Love, at least no one else was harmed and Christ’s example upheld.  Thank you for giving us such an example, showing us our full potential.

Help us, O God, to walk in the way of Love.  Help me to continue to trust, even when Life doesn’t make sense.  And thank you, again, for the beautiful people you have surrounded me with to share in my journey and I in theirs.

Give me strength to delight in your will and walk in your way, to the glory of your name.

Amen

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