Joseph’s Hopeful Word of Providence| The Rev. Brandon Ashcraft
Joseph’s Hopeful Word of Providence
As people of faith, the tough question we might ask ourselves is this: Why does God allow these messages to be proclaimed? Why does God permit voices that deny the very personhood of God’s precious creation? Particularly when these messages have real, tragic consequences, including an increase in depression and self-harm among young people? Put another way: If God is control of our lives and the events of human history, why does God – the God of love – allow people to speak oppressive messages in his name?
I don’t have a simple answer for you, but I suggest our reading from Genesis has something to say in response to these questions. I invite you to listen again to the words that Joseph spoke to his brothers in this morning’s passage: “Even though you [my brothers] intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…” With these words, Joseph declares that God has taken the evil actions of his brothers and used them to achieve God’s purposes. To better understand how God has done that, we need to know more about Joseph’s story because this morning’s passage comes at the end of a long, colorful saga.
You may remember, either from the Bible or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, that Joseph was one of the 12 sons of Jacob, the great patriarch of Israel. And many years earlier, Joseph’s brothers, in an act of jealousy and hatred, sold him into slavery. But God rescued Joseph from slavery and made him a prominent official of the Pharoah. And in this position, Joseph used his power to rescue the people of Israel by feeding them during a great famine. And now, all these years later, these brothers have been reunited. And, in a highly emotional, dramatic moment, they have been reconciled to each other.
In today’s passage, Joseph weeps over the sin of his brothers, but he offers them forgiveness, and even promises to care for them and their families. In the end, their flagrant disregard for their brother’s life did not have the final word. Their hateful intention for Joseph’s life could not prevent God from using Joseph to preserve a great nation. “Even though [they] intended to do harm to [him], God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people…”
Joseph’s words point to a concept in theology known as providence. Providence is the belief that God has a grand plan for the world and for each one of our lives. Providence declares that by God’s power and sovereignty, God is actively at work in human affairs every day. Providence is the belief that God orders all things and that the events of human history somehow fit together to accomplish God’s glorious purpose. What makes this complicated, of course, is we still must account for the harmful and evil events our world. If God is a loving God, and God is in control, we naturally wonder why these things need to happen at all. If we had more time this morning, we’d now turn our attention to topics such as sin and free will, but suffice it to say, this tension is not easily to resolve. God’s ways are simply beyond our understanding. But Jospeh’s statement – “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good” – suggests that God can and does take the evil perpetuated by sinful humans to achieve good. Scripture’s message to us this morning, quite simply, is that God can always, in the end, wrestle good out of bad. And in that – God’s providence – we can put our hope.
So back to this policy that has Cleveland in the headlines. It would be easy for us to turn this into quarreling between Christians of different dominations. I want to be clear that my point in focusing us on this policy is not to encourage an “us” versus “them” debate. St. Paul warns us in today’s passage from Romans not to “pass judgment on [our] brother or sister,” reminding us that judgment is in the hands of God. I was grateful for the words of our Bishop Anne Jolly this week who, when commenting on the policy, said this: “While this news…has a deep emotional and real impact in our communities, I personally prefer to make statements about who we are and what we believe rather than pitting us AGAINST someone or something." Which is to say that our response, rather than a condemnation of the messenger, should be to love larger and louder. In response to a message that seeks to deny the innate goodness of God’s creation, we should be inspired to preach our message of inclusion, wholehearted embrace, and unconditional love with voices more resounding, as we affirm the diversity of the human family in all its forms.
Bishop Anne went on to say, “Our hearts break when people are hurt by the church, marginalized by the church, and told they are not worthy of God’s love as they are." So let us continue to preach love and put our trust in the God of resurrection. Because it is in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ that we see most clearly and most profoundly that God can indeed transform the evil, death-dealing ways of humanity into a proclamation of good news. Amen.
Sunday Sermon| The Rev. Jeanne Leinbach
The Church has an important mission: working with God to transform the world in the light of Christ. Jesus tells us that all commandments are-summed up in these words: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving our neighbor - friend, colleague, stranger - is vital to a just society, and, yet, loving is not a simple task. You have to watch the news only for a short time to know that we, as a society, have a whole lot of work to do in learning how to love one another. And, we can be real with our selves individually. For our own well being, let’s stop long enough to reflect on our own behaviors and recognize that we come up against disagreement regularly in our everyday lives. Animosity has creeped into our culture. Let’s be aware of our emotions, so that we can be deliberate in listening, and learning and collaborating and caring; so that we are deliberate in loving.
And, so, we come together in this faith community to support one another in deliberate loving, to inspire one another to live the lives we are meant to live, in relationship with one another, in the light of Christ. We are-invited to cast off the yoke of individualism and enter into a profound commitment to others, a discipleship of fellowship. This fellowship will not always be easy. At times, we will disagree. At times, we will be offended. But, our faith does not prioritize right vs. wrong. Our faith prioritizes relationship. So, here, in this faith community, we commit ourselves to forgiveness and reconciliation, so that we keep our hearts open to one another, so we can faithfully collaborate in ministry. Life is challenging for any number of reasons. And, at this point in time, we have an added layer of divisiveness pervading our culture. We are frustrated. We are disappointed. We are tired. The rest you are looking for is in Christ. The hope you are looking for is in Christ. A discipleship of fellowship in the light of Christ is life-giving.
We learn about God’s covenant with God’s people, God’s promise of love, throughout Scripture. We hear in Isaiah (54:10): “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord.” Every Sunday, in Eucharist, we receive the “Blood of the New Covenant.” We enter into Christ’s covenant, who forgives our sins and offers us new life. Covenant is deeply rooted in our faith. As we kick off a new program year, let us enter into covenant with one another to create a discipleship of fellowship.
I offer five elements for our covenantal life together. First, let us worship together, and as much as possible, in person. There is synergy in coming together. Relationships among us deepen as we recognize our common desire to love God, and our dependence on one another. We are supporting and inspiring one another on our faith journeys. Second, let us assume the best in one another and trust that we can be authentically ourselves with each other. Every-one-of-us is-loved by God in our uniqueness. Third, let us forgive one another. We all need forgiveness. God forgives us, and so we forgive. Fourth, let us give ourselves to this community, sharing with each other our talents and resources. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). Fifth, in gratitude for being-nurtured in our faith, let us share Christ’s love in the world. Worshipping, trusting, forgiving, sharing, loving.
Loving is no small matter and not a simple task. Let us remember these words from John’s Gospel (15:11), when Jesus is urging us to abide in his love. Jesus says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Discipleship does ask something of us, being deliberate in loving. Within a discipleship of fellowship, we share the journey, we lighten the load for another, we inspire one another, and come to the joy that is God’s peace. Through a discipleship of fellowship, we bear witness to the world of Christ’s love. What a respite from the divisiveness. What a gift to the world. Amen.
The Rock of True Prosperity| The Rev. Brandon Ashcraft
The Rock of True Prosperity
This past Monday, I went for a long, meditative walk around the grounds of St. Paul’s. I savored each of our gardens in all their splendor. I paused at each memorial tree and read the names of the beloved departed in whose memory they had been planted. I lingered in the memorial garden to honor those who have been laid to rest there. I meditated in the courtyard, at the statue of St. Francis, also erected in loving memory of a parishioner. I perused the exhibit in the South Wing that tells the story of our 175-year history. As I came back out onto the lawn, I beheld the majestic stone belltower soaring high above the neighborhood. And in that moment – in a most profound way – I felt the weight of St. Paul’s legacy.
My Monday evening stroll was inspired by these words we just heard from the prophet Isaiah: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” With these words, Isaiah calls us to remember our history. To remember our ancestors. To remember where we have come from. “The rock from which [we] were hewn and the quarry from which [we] were dug.” Isaiah first spoke these words to the Jewish people living in exile. To a people whose present condition made it hard to see their future. To a people most likely convinced that God had forgotten them. Isaiah implored this captive people to hold firm in their faith by looking back at their history. To their ancestors, Abraham, and Sarah: a once-hopeless, elderly, barren couple who miraculously conceived a child, and gave birth to a great nation. Isaiah wanted to remind these weary exiles that their origin story pointed to a promise – a promise that they would one day be numerous and prosperous again.
Against this backdrop, we are taking prudent steps, and there is a campaign well underway to safeguard what our ancestors built. As Jeanne announced weeks ago, when the capital campaign went public, $4 million had already been raised. And now, we’re further along toward our goal of $6 million. You could say we’re taking the words of the prophet Isaiah quite literally! We have looked to the rock from which our community was hewn, and we are working hard to preserve that rock. The very rocks in whose shelter we gather week after week to be nourished by Word and sacrament, so we can participate in God’s mission.
There is a different kind of rock, however, that features prominently in our scriptures today. And this rock comes from our gospel passage. According to Jesus, it is the true rock on which his Church is built. And, in case you missed it, this rock is not a building. As they are walking in the district of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus confronts his disciples with these arresting questions: “Who do people say that I am?” And, more importantly, “Who do you say that I am?” The apostle Peter – always the first to speak – gets the answer correct for once, offering this confident reply: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And this, Jesus reveals, is the rock on which his Church is built. A confession of faith. A personal testimony about Jesus. A declaration of Jesus’ identity. This does not diminish the importance of our buildings. But it clearly suggests that as we shore up our coffers, as we work to preserve our building, as we strive to build a rock-solid financial foundation, we must always keep our focus on the rock of the Gospel: our confession of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of the living God. All the financial capital in the world cannot ensure our future and cannot guarantee our flourishing unless we live daily in the light of this question from the lips of Jesus himself: Who do you say that I am?
We are a community of good students, and many of us might be tempted to answer this question by quoting a creed, or by pointing to a page in the Prayer Book. But as one writer points out, “we cannot build our faith lives on hearsay alone. At some point, the question of who Jesus is, must become personal.” We should each hear Jesus speaking directly to us this morning: “Who do you say that I am?” The truth is, you don’t have to be like Peter and give the perfect answer. We’ll soon discover – next Sunday in fact – that Peter isn’t the A+ student for very long. Answering Jesus’ question is the work of a lifetime. But you do have to be willing to live the question, and to answer it for yourself. To be willing to encounter Jesus in the words of Holy Scripture. To seek him in service to the poor and the oppressed. To take his broken body into your hands, week after week in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Thanks to ministry of those who maintain the St. Paul’s archives, the wisdom of our forebears is now available to all of us. And as I was combing through those archives this past week, I discovered a sermon delivered by a former rector many years ago, on the eve of another capital campaign. To the faithful gathered here on that day, he said this: “Our vision for St. Paul’s is that this will be a parish of seekers…[Seekers] after the truth of God’s love for his creation as perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ. If you are not at that point in your faith, stick around...” May God give to us – the faithful gathered here today – the strength and courage to continue living into this vision. And may God bless us with the willingness to live Jesus’ question. For in seeking to answer it – in seeking to know him – we are sure to find true prosperity. Amen.
Sunday Sermon| Bill Powel
This the first of two Gospel readings about Jesus and a boat in stormy weather. The other one has Jesus on the boat with the disciples and he’s asleep and then wakes up and calms the waters. This is the other one: Jesus is NOT on the boat with the disciples. Why? Because he has just fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes. Our reading today refers to it briefly— “Jesus dismissed the crowds” and went up to pray. He was probably protecting the disciples from the many who may have wanted more miracles. So he “made” the disciples get on a boat and go “on ahead” to the other side.
While Jesus is praying, a storm comes up on the Sea of Galilee, and the disciples are in the boat “battered by the waves,” “far from the land,” and “the wind was against them.” A trifecta of maritime misery—no wonder the disciples are afraid.
My newest son-in-law grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania and Sandra and I had the pleasure last week of spending time in the place where Brandon grew in a family of sailors. I asked his uncle – who’s sailed throughout the Great Lakes -- what’s is like to be on Lake Erie in rough weather. He said that it’s very treacherous because of the relatively shallow water of Lake Erie that creates a higher frequency of waves. When a storm kicks up, the distance between the wave crests is shorter and creates steep troughs--unlike rolling ocean swells, or even the wave action on the deeper Great Lakes. He described a particularly difficult night sail from Buffalo to Erie against the wind during a storm. Lake Erie is 100 times larger than the Sea of Galilee, but has about the same average depth as Lake Erie, so I can imagine what that might be like, and some of you may have had the same experience.
The point is that the disciples were in a tight spot—they were scared and full of doubt. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all experience fishermen, however, and they would probably not have been out on the water when a storm was brewing—especially at night. So no wonder that they thought they saw a ghost when Jesus comes towards them on the water. But when the ghost speaks, the disciples realize that it’s Jesus and he tells them: ”take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” So what is Peter’s reaction? He says “Lord, IF it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Notice the “IF”-- Peter seems to be asking for Jesus’ credentials. He’s still afraid. As we approach the Scripture today, I wonder how we might feel in a similar situation and how might this story speak to us, especially if we find ourselves in a period of chaos and instability.
Peter is indeed the focus of this story—just as he was last week with the Transfiguration. He often seems to be the one who says or does the most human things, as he did on the mountaintop when he said the first thing we need to do is to build three tents. Or here, when he says to Jesus: “Command me to walk across the water to you.” Why does he respond that way?
Consider these observations about Peter from two Luther Seminary professors. Rolf Jacobson suggests that, instead of leaving the boat, why wouldn’t Peter just have asked Jesus to perform another miracle? Like calm the storm? Remember--they had all just seen him with 5,000 dinner guests a few hours earlier. Instead, Peter says “ Command me to walk across the water to you.” Having been sent on the boat by Jesus, and perhaps feeling abandoned by Him, Peter’s first desire; his first response to the crisis, says Jacobson, is to want to be close to Jesus.
Professor Karoline Lewis says that the absence of Jesus from the boat causes the disciples to be terrified because they may be asking: “Is Jesus going to leave them?” We can imagine ourselves on a boat during an actual storm, or being buffeted by another kind of uncertainty from job insecurity or a health challenge. We may be fearful that Jesus is going to abandon us in our time of distress.
So Peter does step off the boat towards Jesus, starts to sink, and cries out “Lord save me!,” and Jesus immediately catches him and calms the waters. “You of little faith,” Jesus says, “why did you doubt?” All the disciples worship Jesus at that point, saying: “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Peter and the others learn that Jesus didn’t abandon them.
Bishop Jake Owensby of the Diocese of Western Louisiana, observes that this experience teaches Peter “that Jesus is with him in the storm” and is also with us “in the midst of things-- even our worst things.” We are not alone in those times.
Let’s turn to the Elijah, who finds himself in a dire situation on dry land. He is very much alone and uncertain about the future because he has just defeated many false prophets who were loyal to Queen Jezebel, and he is on the run, fearing for his life. Queen Jezebel wants to take her revenge on him.
He is by himself, in distress, and is told by the Lord to stand on the mountain “for the Lord is about to pass by.” There follows a great wind, an earthquake, and fire, but the Lord is not there in any of these. It’s only in the “sound of sheer silence” that causes Elijah to cover his face—he is overwhelmed by the presence of God…..”
For those of us at a certain age, it's hard not to hear the phrase “sound of sheer silence” without thinking of Simon and Garfunkel, their iconic song, and the initial lyric: “Hello, darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…” But here, Elijah is in listening mode.
I found it helpful to learn that there are several other less distracting translations to that phrase. In several versions, the scripture reads: “a still small voice” (King James and Revised Standard Versions). Others use the phrase “a sound of a low whisper,” a “gentle whisper,” “a soft breath,” or even “a gentle blowing.”
These other translations help me understand that God is not only in the powerful forces of nature, but also is in the gentle presence of a still small voice or a gentle blowing. Elijah eventually received his instructions from God, but he needed to wait for the wind, earthquake, and fire to pass.
The common thread running through these translations is the presence of God that we can discern when we pray or when we are still. My predecessor as Canon to the Ordinary, the Rev. Alan James, once preached a children’s sermon – which obviously resonated with this adult -- when he said that praying is like using a walkie-talkie. You press the button to talk, but, you have to release the button to hear God’s response. We don’t always get an immediate response when we release the button, but it’s important to listen in order to hear the still small voice.
Dire situations will come again to us in each of our lives. Perhaps you find yourself in one this very day. Our Scripture speaks to these moments.
Wherever we may find ourselves in need, we can realize and take comfort that God is always with us; we are never alone -- whether in the storm or in the still small silence. Amen.
Birth Pangs, End-Times & Glory| The Rev. Brandon Ashcraft
Birth Pangs, End-Times & Glory
Sunday Sermon| Lauren Dockery
Something you may not know about me it's that in my many adventures in different kinds of church work, I was once an intern at the camp and retreat center in the Diocese of Hawaii called Camp Mokuleia. It is very much like Bellwether - they lead nature education programs for locals, offer hermitages for folks on personal retreats, host summer camps, and even have an organic farm that provides fresh produce to the kitchen. The only difference is that the ocean is less than 100 feet from the property. I worked closely with 3 other interns while I was there. We were responsible for running the programs and the summer camp sessions - but our biggest responsibility was the farm. We planted, tended, and harvested bananas, papaya, herbs, lettuce, squash, and tomatoes. I learned about tropical produce, soil pH, permaculture, and so much more. One of my favorite things was learning about compost. (I have horror stories about turning a compost pile and a roach crawling up my pant leg and getting rotten banana goo between my toes because I wore flip-flops to turn the compost.) I was always amazed that stinky rotten, decaying food scraps can mix with brittle, dried-out, lifeless plants to make good soil.
I still love composting so much that my New Year's Resolution this year was to create a compost pile so healthy that it does not freeze this winter. I check my pile every single day. I turn it at least three times a week. I'm obsessively careful about the balance of carbon – or brown dead things, to nitrogen- which is the green (usually rotting) things. I've recruited neighbors and friends to bring lawn clippings to my house when I need extra green and to bring drier lint and brown paper bags (which I have shredded by hand) when I need more brown. I'll let you know how it goes, but all of this is to say- that good soil has been a lot on my mind this year! So, I don't think it was a coincidence that I was assigned to preach today on the Sunday we hear not only the Parable of the Sower from the Gospel of Matthew but also this passage from Isaiah about God using the rhythms of nature to bring abundance and joy. I've got good soil on my mind!This parable is puzzling to me as a former farmer. This so-called sower or farmer is flinging seeds all willy-nilly in the parable. On a path, in the rocks, among the thorns, and finally, in the good soil where plants can eventually take root, sprout, grow strong, and flourish into an abundant harvest; so, why does the sower waste the seeds by flinging them in places where we know they can’t grow?
You’ll notice some verses in this chapter that we skip in the reading today. In this brief section left out of the lectionary, the disciples come to Jesus and ask him, “Why are you teaching these people in confusing parables?”
Jesus replies with a quote from the Book of Isaiah: “Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled today. These people can’t hear, and they can’t see, and they can’t understand. Their hearts have grown dull. And they won’t turn to me to be healed.” This quote comes from an early chapter of The Book of Isaiah, chapter 6 when the prophet is rebuking the People of Israel and Judah for betraying their covenant with God. The leaders are worshipping idols and refusing to support the vulnerable in their community – the orphans, the immigrants, and the widows.
By quoting this chapter from early Isaiah, Jesus compares the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel to the people in front of him some 800 years later. They are incapable of understanding, just like their ancestors.
Please follow me because I want to jump back into the parable. You’ll see that when the lectionary picks up again in the chapter, Jesus is (uncharacteristically) explaining the parable to the disciples. He says, “The people who hear the word and do not understand it have it snatched away by the evil one. The people who rejoice in the word but are still too caught up in the world as it is, are like the seeds planted on the rocks where they cannot take root and the message cannot come into their hearts and grow strong. People enamored by the trappings of the world hear the message, and it is choked out by the things they love.”
In the metaphor of the parable, these seeds are messages of good news and hope. And the 4 places where the seeds are planted - the path, the rocks, the thorns, and the good soil – are like states of mind or ways of living. They are environments that can be hostile or nurturing to the seeds of God’s work in our lives. So, what are we to do if we are not in the good soil state of mind when The Spirit moves, and a good word comes our way? We all have times when we are confused by Jesus and his message. Or when we are excited and inspired by a message on Sunday morning, but by Monday afternoon, we can’t quite remember what we felt and heard so clearly the day before. Sometimes we are in a place where the worries of this world so overcome us – our homework, our retirement funds, the political divisions of our government, our personal safety - that we can’t pay attention or even believe in a message of love from Jesus. So, again, what are we to do if we are not in a good soil state of mind?
This question brings me back to the Book of Isaiah. Not the chapter that Jesus quoted from the beginning of the Book of Isaiah, but the lesson we heard today that Julia/Laurie read from chapter 55. By chapter 55, the prophet Isaiah is finished rebuking the people for their evil actions, and he begins to imagine a glorious reconciliation when the people decide to repent. God says, through Isaiah, “The rain and snowfall from me, and they do not come back until the water has nurtured the seeds that the sower sowed. The waters make grain to make bread and feed the people. Anything I send out does not come back to me empty. … There will be joy and peace! Trees will clap mountains will sing. Thorns will become lovely trees, and briers will become myrtle.”
What a hopeful message of renewed life. It reminds me of a simple quote from Richard Rohr’s book of reflections on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous called Breathing Underwater. Rohr says, “God never shows up without an invitation but always makes a way to be invited.” Implying that even the devastation of addiction can be God’s created invitation to someone dodging a spiritual path. And as troubling as it may be to think about the devastation of addiction as a gift, it is a prime example of how God works with whatever we give. Much like the rotting food scraps and dried-out lifeless plants that become rich nutrient soil, God takes what feels disgusting or abhorrent to us and uses it as an invitation to make something new. God’s love CHASES after us because God longs to gift us new life and a new ability to understand the good news of love and grace in the world. What God sends down will come back just as God intended.
So how do these two passages speak to each other? We know of Jesus’ knowledge and love of scripture, so I can’t imagine that he accidentally made up a parable that so closely resembled Isaiah 55 – where the sower plants seeds and thorns become fruitful. Jesus knows that he may be flinging parables into the ears of people who cannot understand his message, but he also knows that God will not stop moving until all of us are ready to live in the good soil state of mind. God’s power eventually breaks down rocks into minerals that will nourish the soil. God’s love dries out the thorns to balance the rotten thoughts to make good soil. God’s grace blows like the wind and pushes the good soil onto the path until it is covered and ready to nourish a seed.
Jesus knows that our state of mind can and WILL be changed. God is making good soil in you. When you’re ready, you, too will hear the message. Amen.
Sunday Sermon| The Rev. Jeanne Leinbach
Words of Sending, Words of Welcome| The Rev. Jessie Gutgsell Dodson
Words of Sending, Words of Welcome
I was grateful to find a partner in reflection this week when I turned to the words of Jesus in our Gospel from Matthew today. This is the third week in row that we’ve been reading from the 10th chapter of Matthew in what’s known as the “Missionary Discourse.” This chapter includes Jesus’s sending words to his disciples before they go out to pursue their ministries and missions.
So, I thought, what better way to honor the end of this pastoral relationship than to refer to Jesus’s own words of sending? If we review the Missionary Discourse, we can see that Jesus was creating what some have called a kind of “Christian handbook.” He called together his disciples and gave them authority to do the ministry ahead of them: to cast out unclean spirits and cure diseases. He told them, wherever you go, tell the good news (10:7), reminding people that the Kingdom of heaven has come near. He told them to seek out welcome, and if they found a place where they weren’t welcome, to “shake the dust of their feet” and go on to the next (10:14). “Be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves” (10:16), he told them. He made sure they knew that things would get difficult – that relationships would suffer, and they may face danger, but that it would all be worth it in the end. Your reward will be great, he told them.
Then we get to the reading for today, which is the end of his words of sending. Here, Jesus chooses his final words to share with his disciples before they begin their mission work…and what are they? They are words of welcome:
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”In our three-verse reading, Jesus says the word “welcome” 6 times. Welcome, welcome, welcome. As some of you know, one of the main ministry focuses for me these past five years has been on welcoming and incorporating newcomers. As I look at you, I see the faces of the many people who’ve joined this community in recent years. I didn’t really know it when I got here, but that ministry of welcome became the core of my work here. In the conclusion of his discourse, Jesus speaks of the rewards of this kind of ministry. As I’ve shared with some of you, especially some of you who’ve shared in this ministry with me, welcoming newcomers has been an incredibly rewarding part of my work and life.
Sitting down with someone, sharing the stories of our faith and life, welcoming them into this vibrant community, helping them find their place here in their new spiritual home. It’s been a profound privilege to be a face of welcome into a church as wonderful as this one.
So, I’m struck that Jesus emphasizes such welcome as the last bits of wisdom he shares. Now of course welcome looked different in the 1st century Middle East. Practices of hospitality vary widely by culture and place. But Jesus reminds us that, no matter what context we exit or enter, welcome is the first and last thing… Prompting us to reflect on how we welcome, and how ourselves are welcomed, because Jesus ultimately reminds us that whenever we welcome each other, we welcome Jesus.
The past few weeks have been full of reflection on what it has been like and what it’s meant to live in Christian community at St. Paul’s for these past five years. I’ve reflected on the big things: like the unmatched glory of Christmas at St. Paul’s. I remember my first Christmas Eve here when the donkey decided that the moment of his big entrance into the Nave was the exact moment he needed to go the bathroom. There I saw in the back of the sanctuary, a crowd of huddled ushers and parents, scooping up donkey poop as we sang Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.
Or I reflected on the first Sunday after we closed the building for the covid lockdown. Jeanne and I sat here on these steps and recorded a video for you all in an empty sanctuary. I remember the fear, the adrenaline, and how completely unreal it all felt.
Then there were the amazing, transition-marking moments too. The many, many funerals officiated – the lives of beloved saints celebrated and laid to rest. The baptisms administered – like the one where the baby slapped me in the face as I doused her head with holy water. And the weddings too – especially the incredible opportunity to officiate the wedding of our own rector Jeanne to her husband Gary.
This building – this community – has held five years chockful of love, loss, and relationships. It was in this building, right after staff meeting, that my water broke as I went into labor with our second son. Here, where dreams of ministry grew, relationships were planted, and lives changed. Big moments, all of these.
But what strikes me as I reflect on Jesus’s parting words to his disciples is that he focuses not on the big moments. Instead, it’s the small gestures that matter: the cup of water that’s offered to one of “the little ones,” as he calls the disciples in our reading today.
“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward,” he says (10:42).
This is the very last thing Jesus says to his disciples before sending them out to do the “work God gave them to do” in the world. Not a charge to do great, life, or culture-changing things. But a reminder – a last word – to take care with their small gestures of kindness and welcome. Be kind to one another, young and old alike, swift to love. Offer even the smallest gesture of hospitality to one another: a cup of water to someone who needs it.
I take comfort in this reminder from Jesus, not only as I reflect on the past, but as I look forward to what’s next for each of us. As we set out on our separate paths of ministry, we remember the parting words of Jesus: we begin and we end with welcome. Welcoming each other into community. Allowing ourselves to be welcomed. Offering kindness to one another, those who fit in and those who don’t, those who are young and those who are old, those who are like us and those who are different.
So, as we part ways, I thank you for the welcome you gave me, and Joe, and Abe and Bax. And I pray that you will continue to welcome people into the gift of this spiritual community: showing kindness. Offering hospitality, sometimes in grand fashion, and sometimes in small gestures, like a cup of water.
For by doing this – by welcoming each other – we welcome Jesus himself. And we know – because we have already experienced a glimpse of it together – that our reward will be great. Amen.
Sunday Sermon| The Rev. Jeanne Leinbach
I’m going to start with an amusing story about myself – always good to be able to laugh at our own foibles. For more than 40 years, pregnant women have relied on the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which provides both explanation and comfort around the many facets of pregnancy. I still remember words of advice from this book. I remember reading about the importance of letting others help after the baby is born, because, of course, so much time and effort is-needed to take care of a new, precious life. Specifically, one suggestion the book makes is letting others load the dishwasher after a meal AND, most importantly, letting them load the dishwasher the way they choose to load it! Perhaps, some of you are like me….I do have a certain way of loading the dishwasher – in my mind it is logical and efficient. I’m guessing my husband, Gary, is smiling as I tell this story because perhaps he has seen me move around a few dishes after he has loaded the dishwasher. I really did try to let go in those days following the births of my sons, but, old habits are hard to break. I know I need to learn to trust that those dishes will get cleaned just fine however the dishwasher is loaded.
Another example around control that comes to mind is a great episode from the tv show Frasier. I still watch the reruns of this comedy – a great way for me to relax in the evening before I go to bed. For those of you who are not familiar, Frasier is about a psychiatrist, named Frasier, who has a radio show where people call in for advice. Frasier has a brother, Niles, who is a psychiatrist, also, but has a private practice. In this particular episode entitled “Shrink Rap”, Frasier is feeling a desire to going back to seeing patients, and so Frasier and Niles decide to go into private practice together. But, their sibling rivalry, which is quite comical, is so intense that the partnership is a disaster. So, they decide to see a couple’s therapist. The therapy does not go well. So, the therapist decides to try an activity to develop trust. One brother is to stand in front of the other and then fall backwards into his brother’s arms…a tangible example of letting go and trusting. Niles goes first, but he can’t bring himself to fall backwards. Then, Frasier tries, but he can’t bring himself to fall backwards, either. The therapist steps up to demonstrate, hoping he can convince them that they can do it. But, when the therapist falls backwards, Nile and Frasier are so busy glaring at each other in anger, neither of them catch the therapist and, so, he falls to the floor. Ah, but imagine, trusting…letting go…falling back, and being-embraced by loving arms.
I’d like to offer one more example, a timely example. When I arrived at St. Paul’s in the fall of 2015, we had an open Assistant Rector position. In December, I received a resume from a seminarian who would be graduating in May of 2016. That seminarian was Jessie Dodson. I interviewed her when she was in the area over her Christmas break and I thought, huh, I may have just hit the jackpot. I brought her back for a day of interviews with the Search Committee, Vestry and Staff, we heard her preach, and the decision was unanimous – I was delighted to make the call and offer her the position. But, she turned me down. WOW. I was SO disappointed. How to let go? How to let go when you think you have just the right candidate? Well, what happened? The Rev. Dale Grandfield happened. Dale interviewed for the position and joined us in May of that year. We enjoyed three years with Dale. And, in 2018, when the Rev. Rich Israel was retiring, Jessie was once again, looking for a position, and on the second round, we got her and have benefitted from and enjoyed her ministry with us for five years. It’s hard to say good-bye to Jessie. No one will replace her. But, someone new will come along. We will benefit from a new relationship, while being ever grateful for the time we had with Jessie.
Do these examples give some insight into the various ways we control life? Do they help us feel, to experience that letting go – allowing others to help, allowing others to lead, allowing a new path forward? We love the security of being in control, of having the dominion to achieve our wants and desires. We love the security of charting our own path, of controlling our lives to achieve our own measure of importance, or our own measure of success. But what do we lose in tightly controlling our lives?
We lose the ability to let God lead. God is-all-knowing. God knows beyond our wishes and desires. God knows beyond the limits of our sight. When we let go, and let God lead, we see new ways to love, new perspectives, new opportunities, new ways to appreciate life and one another. When we let go, we experience life in its fullness: the immensity, the complexity, the inclusivity, the possibility, the rightness. Christ came to show us this path forward. “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” We are-meant to let go, to be dependent on God – that is how we are-created. As a celebrated preacher writes, “God’s all-encompassing claim on our lives becomes our comfort” (Lance Pape, Feasting on the Word , Year A, Volume 3, p. 169). Let us let go and know that peace which surpasses all understanding. Amen.
Sunday Sermon| The Rev. Nancy Hildebrand
I refer you to Genesis1:26, which is the first Creation story. God says: “Then let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness….and in the summing verse, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God, he created them, male and female he created them. Notice, God says, “let us” and “our likeness” when referring to God’s self. Notice that God “created them, “male and female.” Women are made in God’s image. Adam and Eve are equal in the “our-ness of God.” Fathers and mothers, like Adam and Eve, are each made in God’s image. There is no mention of the color of the male and female, nor the type of hair, eye color…just the word humankind, which reflects God’s wonderful plan of diversity among all living things. There’s no mention of defined roles by sex, color, sexuality…just the powerful description of “our” …we are all in this together. Parenting has changed along with many other things. I give thanks for the equality of sex and parenting roles today, even as I know more progress is required.
Old fashioned Dads gave a lot to us kids. I celebrate my dad in a hundred ways, but, most importantly, I love the way, my dad navigated the burgeoning feminist movement, applied those lessons to his relationship with his wife and daughters. He challenged my mom to go to college when I was in high school, and he employed feminism to his daughters in every phase of their development. My dad had a way of opening a door to our futures while pointing to the figuratively big empty space on the other side while saying, “Go on, you can do it, cross over.” He didn’t tell us what to do or how to do it, but just “go forth into the world in joy and in seeing that of God in every person.” I wish every child had a dad do that for them. I wish that the world was more accepting of every child going through that door as I experienced as a young white woman, despite the archaic challenges we face.
My Mom made me a fighter without pugnaciousness. I wasn’t sure what that meant or how that might be used. My dad saw me as accomplished and spiritual. I always thought he and she over-rated me by a long shot. However, it wasn’t long after I crossed the threshold that I understood where my parents’ appraisal and reality began. The blessing of being over-rated is that you have a benchmark for life that becomes not a specific goal, but a way of life. I pray for all children to have Dads who over-rate them and who will have the faith that when they open the door to adulthood, a society will exist who will welcome them all. I pray that all children have a future of their deepest desire and a passion to unite that quest to the “One” to the “our” who created us and abides with us. Lord, let all children have wonderful Dads and a just society where their lives can be fulfilled.
The Genesis creation story is equally applied to the American family. We Americans are a household which is a place of dreams fulfilled and broken. The tragic favoritism of whites over African Americans is still playing the story over again in masked and unmasked forms. Our American family is still very much a dysfunctional family with many tragedies which demand all our efforts to sort out, correct, and heal. I look forward to the day when all Americans are singing America the Beautiful with the gratitude and soulfulness that the largely gay audience sang when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Juneteenth is a day for the moment to celebrate the great political achievements of the Emancipation Proclamation, The passing of the 13th Amendment, the achievements of the Civil Rights movement and the progress of integration since then. However, we are reminded daily and painfully that the job is not done. The genius of the Civil Rights Movement was to invite white as allies in the cause. It replicated in human terms the fullness of God, God’s name, “our.” It is time now for whites to ask our black sisters and brothers with humility, with courage, and with eagerness, what is needed of us now, teach us what to do. Help us, Lord, to listen without defensiveness, argumentativeness, and, most importantly, with love.
The number of police killings since 2014 of African Americans added up, aroused fear and anger to new levels, and actually frightened many whites as well. We liberal whites who can face the truth are aghast, but we cannot seem to move. We are frozen like deer in the headlights. We cannot forget the names of those killed by the police and vigilantes because it smacks of the Jim Crow era. We cannot go backward. Let us pray for the fathers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice here in Cleveland, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Patrick Lyoya. We are nowhere near the fulfillment of our dreams for a just society for all people. The creation of the world and all the wonders of life, especially with “humankind” and all the animals of the earth, tells us that God’s desire is for a wondrous world filled with a wide variety of beings. Even in the story of the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark, God commanded that representatives of all living things be brought into the Ark so that diversity would be preserved. God’s plan seems to be unity within diversity, with even God self- referring as “Our.” So, we whites need to stop resting in the achievements of the past decades and turn lovingly to our black sisters and brothers and earnestly apologize for our complacency and complicity. We can hope for forgiving for the sins of the generations of the past to the present, but we cannot hope or ask for forgetting. This can only be asked if we do the work to turn towards our black sisters and brothers and ask them what is required of us.
How can we turn this around?
This is the time to say that the Church must take a leading role in helping us to move forward. I highly recommend our Church’s report on repairing the racial breach in church and in the larger society. It is “Realizing Beloved Community, a Report from the House of Bishops Theology Committee.” The report emphatically states that understanding the roots and tentacles of white supremacy is essential for racial progress to occur. Elements of that process includes remorse and confession for the active and substantial role played by Christianity, the Anglican Communion, and The Episcopal Church in constructing, maintaining, defending, and profiting from this monstrous sin and scandal of racism. The report lays out a formal process to address this most pressing of issues. Our church is committing and so should we all. Fathers and Mothers unite in the “our-ness of our God” and lead our children to a new future so all may step through an open door into a society which has open arms. Amen.