Sunday, July 30, 2017

I Can Work With This

Sermon from July 30, 2017
Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39

As you’ve seen in the Messenger and in the bulletin this morning, Kansas City’s most recent 100-year rain brought water into the building again.  You’ll be happy to know the problem wasn’t with the recent fixes to the drainage at the doorways below ground level.  Those fixes held, which is great.  Unfortunately, the water found a new way in, as the 7 inches of rain overwhelmed the drains on two of our flat roofs, causing water to pool and then spill down interior walls.  We’ve been greatly blessed by the quick work of junior warden Morgan Olander, our operations manager Michael Robinette, and our friends from Haren Laughlin construction, who were here anyway for the bathroom project.  We’re also blessed by the decision the Facilities Commission made, after the last water incursion, not to put carpet back in the undercroft.  So, the damage is being fixed, and we’re exploring how to solve the drainage challenge on the flat roofs before the next 100-year rain comes next month.  Just call me Noah.
In the midst of it all, you can’t help but ask the question, “What’s up with all this?”  We’ve wondered if maybe the church is sitting on some ancient burial site, and the spirits of the dead are rebelling against us.  But seriously, when you’re afflicted – whatever the affliction – you look for answers.  Whenever and however hard times come, you can’t help but ask, “Where is God in all this?” 
So – rewind a couple of months to our mission trip to Haiti.  We tried something we’d never tried before, taking youth and their parents to Haiti.  Now, youth mission trips always bring the possibility that things will go south, kids being kids.  But add to that the uncertainties and challenges of being in Haiti, no matter your age, and your mission trip becomes a grand exercise in trust.  Jean Long, our youth formation coordinator, did a stunning job planning and executing the trip – but it’s Haiti.  There’s only so much control you can exercise.  In a place with little infrastructure, where government is presumed to fail, where they’ve had centuries of tension between social classes and precious little opportunity for a better life, where simply disposing of the trash seems to be an obstacle too great to overcome – in a context like that, you’re going to find challenges even when you’re trying to do the right thing, even when you’re sent by God to help build this holy relationship we share with our partners there. 
So, driving through Port-au-Prince in the late afternoon, we had a flat tire.  Or, I should say, we had a flat tire on one of our vehicles – a contraption that looked like something from a Mad Max movie, a vehicle we ended up christening “the Adventure Van.”  And dealing with a flat tire in Port-au-Prince doesn’t look like calling AAA.  Instead, four kids and I waited near the Adventure Van while a guy on the sidewalk fixed the flat with some repurposed rubber and a blow torch.  Remarkably, the patch held. 
There were other dubious moments, too … such as the food poisoning many of us got from the high-end resort where we went swimming.  And our truck got stuck in the river at Maniche, a river swirling not just with mud but with the bacterium causing cholera.  Wading is not advised.  Put it all together, and it’s enough to make you ask, “Where is God in all this?”
Listening to our reading this morning from Genesis, I imagine Jacob might have been asking the same question about his situation.  As we heard last Sunday, Jacob has traveled to Haran, in present-day Turkey, going back to his family’s land to receive a wife from his kinsman, Laban.  Jacob strikes a deal with Laban for one of his daughters – that Jacob will work for Laban seven years in exchange for Laban’s pretty daughter, Rachel, the one Jacob loves.  So Jacob fulfills his obligation, and the time comes for the marriage.  But Laban tricks Jacob and gives him his older daughter, Leah, instead.  Nothing against Leah, but it’s a dirty trick – in fact, the same kind of dirty trick that Jacob played on his older brother, Esau, to steal his birthright and his father’s blessing.  So Jacob the trickster gets the poetic justice that’s coming to him, having to work for Laban another seven years in order to get the girl he loves, as well as Leah, which must have been interesting.  And Jacob is not exactly pleased.  I can imagine a few shouting matches between Jacob and the Lord who had promised, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Genesis 28:15).  “Oh yeah?” says Jacob.  “Where were you when Laban cheated me out of seven years of my life?” 
Well, it turns out God finds a way to use Jacob’s situation to bring new life out of manipulation and deceit.  In a culture where children, especially sons, meant wealth for the family as well as divine blessing, God gives Jacob 12 of them.  And those 12 sons become the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel.  And the last of them, Joseph, becomes the right-hand man to Pharaoh, saving all of Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine.  Now, was God a fan of Laban’s deceitful behavior?  For that matter, was God a fan of Jacob’s deceit of his brother, Esau?  I don’t think so.  But I do see God looking at those situations, like a long-suffering parent watching headstrong children making bad choices; and I imagine God saying, “Well, OK.  We can work with this.”
You know, you can find Bible verses that might lead you to think God scripts situations like this.  We have one of those verses in our reading from Romans this morning.  In the translation we heard, the New Revised Standard Version, it reads, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28).  Well, if “all things work together for good,” many people would make the leap to say God must be setting things up that way.  But I have to tell you, I don’t think that’s what this verse is saying.  I don’t think God is a cosmic puppeteer, pulling the strings to get Jacob to cheat Esau and Laban to cheat Jacob in order to get to the outcome God wants.  I don’t believe God causes deceit or manipulation or suffering or pain.  But I can tell you firsthand that God finds ways to use them, like an artist piecing a mosaic together from bits of broken glass.
On our trip to Haiti, plenty of things went wrong … which meant there were plenty of opportunities for God to use them for good.  We found ourselves in the Adventure Van with a flat tire in a poor section of Port-au-Prince as evening was approaching – not exactly the situation I would have chosen.  And yet, the flat happened literally right next to a guy on the sidewalk whose microbusiness is fixing flat tires.  That’s why he was there.  Later, we found ourselves stuck in the middle of a river full of bacteria, with the van unable to get traction to get to the other side.  And yet, people living around the school came out of nowhere to push and pull the van onto dry land.  Our youth dealt with food poisoning and seasickness and heat, to say nothing of inconvenience like they’d never known.  And yet, they came away from the trip grateful for God’s abundance in their lives, and blessed by the opportunity to play with kids at our partner school, and deeply aware that they are part of a relationship much bigger than themselves, and able to take their trust in God to a whole new level.
And that’s not all.  The reality they saw on the ground in Maniche only underscored the blessing our youth experienced:  Our school has grown from about 180 students with mediocre test scores to more than 300 students with the top scores in the area.  The church in Maniche used to have a priest come every couple of months for Eucharist; they’ll soon be receiving their own priest who will live and serve in that community – the church is growing that much.  So where is God?  God is there, bringing healing from brokenness, hope from despair.
Deep in the muck and mire of life, in all the unfairness and tragedy and sorrow – we can count on God to be there.  Think again about that verse from Romans I mentioned.  Romans 8:28 is one of the defining, truly converting passages of Scripture for me, particularly if you dig into the language a bit.  In the translation we heard, it says that “all things work together for good for those who love God.”  But if you go back to the Revised Standard Version, the translation many say is closer to the original Greek than the version we use, you find the verse given this way: “In everything, God works for good for those who love him….”  It’s not just closer to the Greek; it’s closer to God’s mysterious truth.  In everything, God works for good.  Everything.  God isn’t necessarily causing those things, especially not the things that bring us suffering and pain.  But God excels at working through them, even the things that cause us suffering and pain. 
From division comes healing; from darkness comes light; from death comes life.  That’s our story because that’s God’s story.  Whether it’s a flat tire in Port-au-Prince, or food poisoning, or getting stuck in a river … or whether it’s receiving your own challenging diagnosis, or having to leave the home you’ve loved for decades, or feeling under assault by the water running through the church’s hallways – no matter what, God is there.  And when God is there, God acts for good.  God can do nothing else, because God is love lived in relationship.  God can’t help but bring healing out of brokenness, life out of death.  Even when, like Jacob, we shoot ourselves in the foot and help bring on our own suffering, God looks at us like a loving parent and says, “Ok … I can work with this.” 
When we remember that in everything God is working for good, we can rest in that promise even when we can’t yet see it realized.  For whether it’s a flat tire in Haiti, or a frightening diagnosis, or water pouring in where it’s not supposed to be, or “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword … [nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 8:35,39)  Nothing.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Jesus: Come and Walk With Me

Sermon from July 9, 2017
Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

Today we’re marking a transition even as we see another one just on the horizon.  As you know, Mtr. Ezgi Saribay Perkins is here with us for the first time.  As she makes her transition into St. Andrew’s, she will have a grand total of 10 days to work alongside Mtr. Anne before Mtr. Anne goes off for vacation and sabbatical, returning late in the fall.  Mtr. Anne’s last Sunday with us before that journey will be next week, and she’ll be preaching that day.  So this is my last homiletical shot for a while with Mtr. Ezgi and Mtr. Anne both in the room.
As you know, Mtr. Anne has focused on pastoral care in her 10 years among us.  It’s one of her greatest passions in ministry, and she has blessed us with it richly.  As she’s cared for so many of you over the past decade, she’s come to see a growing need in pastoral ministry, here and elsewhere – the need to help people manage the baffling maze of changes that come with major losses and life transitions.  Mtr. Anne’s sabbatical project will be looking for ways churches can do a better job providing resources to help people understand and cope with what’s next when they find themselves faced with illness, job loss, addiction, or the death of someone they love. 
When she returns late this fall, Mtr. Anne’s role will shift, as you’ve heard before.  She’ll work about 15 hours a week, doing some one-on-one pastoral care but also working on projects here at St. Andrew’s related to her sabbatical study.  So she will be back, but in a different role than what we’ve known.
And speaking of new roles … that’s what Mtr. Ezgi begins today.  I need to be clear that she is not taking Mtr. Anne’s place, no matter how much the timing may look that way.  What Mtr. Ezgi will be responsible for is ministry with younger adults, families, and the community.  In fact, that’s her title:  assistant rector for younger adults, families, and community.  All of us probably should repeat that as a mantra for a while because that specific work is what we need Mtr. Ezgi to focus on.  We’ll have to be intentional about avoiding “mission creep”:  When someone has many talents, it’s easy to let those talents wander in a variety of directions; and we found ourselves plagued by that a bit during Fr. Marcus’ time with us.  Mtr. Ezgi would be very good at overseeing liturgy, and being the clergy liaison with the Altar Guild, and taking the lead on pastoral care … many of the same tasks Mtr. Anne has overseen through the past few years.  But that’s not why we called Mtr. Ezgi here. 
In a nutshell, here is Mtr. Ezgi’s job description.  Roughly half of her work will be building relationships among younger adults and families who are part of the parish now – those we see week in and week out, and those we don’t see very often at all.  She’ll be their primary pastor, and lead opportunities for learning and service, and share in our ministries with children and youth.  The other roughly half of her job will be to build similar kinds of relationships and offer a similar pastoral presence with younger adults and families who aren’t yet part of this parish family – engaging people in the community around us.  As the new HJ’s begins to rise from the rubble of the old building across the street, it’s exciting to imagine new life there: speakers, service opportunities, discussion groups, art displays, community dinners, musical offerings, Scout meetings, and events for kids and parents – ministry rising from the hopes and dreams both of people here and of people not yet here.  Not all of that will be specifically targeted to younger adults and families, but much of it will be.
So, with Mtr. Anne about to leave for four months and Mtr. Ezgi not taking Mtr. Anne’s specific role, you may be wondering how we’ll manage pastoral care.  Well, Deacon Bruce will be coordinating it, with support from Mtr. Ezgi and me.  We’ll be in the hospitals and nursing centers, and we’ll certainly have enough breakfasts, lunches, and coffees to keep us perpetually caffeinated.  But there’s another important pastoral resource we’ll be building over the next few months – members of the first order of ministry, the baptized.  That’s you, by the way.  One of Deacon Bruce’s passions is broadening and deepening the ministry of pastoral care to take greater advantage of the gifts of people in this very room. 
Honestly, even if Mtr. Anne were remaining in her full-time role when she returned from sabbatical, we’d still need to be doing this.  For a long time, we’ve known that a few ordained people simply can’t attend to the needs of this congregation, especially as people age – which is why we have about 25 faithful souls now making pastoral visits or phone calls or writing notes to other members of this family.  We want to build on that foundation and raise up more of you to live into that baptismal vow we make about continuing “in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and the prayers” by taking that promise on the road, so to speak – reaching out to people we often don’t see on Sunday morning.
If you feel like you’ve never been invited to do this work before, I’m sorry.  Although we’ve tried to build up this ministry of pastoral calling and visiting several times over the past 12 years, you may not have heard us calling your name before.  Well, I’m calling your name now.  If you’ve ever felt a bit of a Holy Spirit nudge to find out more about caring for members of this parish family, consider this your Holy Spirit shove.  We need you.
So there’s our moment of transition, in a nutshell.  It’s an exciting time, especially for Mtr. Ezgi and for Mtr. Anne.  But you know, transitions are also a little scary.  As we watch the construction happen across the street, and welcome our new assistant rector, and bid adieu to Mtr. Anne for a few months, we don’t know exactly what the future will hold for us.  It’s an occupational hazard when you’re a follower of Jesus Christ.  Like the apostles of the early Church, we apostles are sent out by Jesus himself to live resurrected life and invite others into it.  New life is our birthright as baptized people.  When we enter that water of baptism, we die to the old life of sin and self-centeredness and stagnation; and we rise to a new life of love and liberation and leadership – bringing others to find the grace that we ourselves are finding.  That’s how we change the world – which, by the way, is our call as followers of Jesus Christ.  Changing the world is why the Church is here.
But the thing is, as we follow Jesus into love and as he sends us to love others, we don’t know exactly what it’s all going to look like.  And transitions bring that uncertainty into bold relief.  God longs for Mtr. Anne to go and rest, and re-create, and learn – and to come back here with new energy and insight to help us care for one another.  And God longs for Mtr. Ezgi to come and learn about St. Andrew’s, and create relationships with people within the parish and beyond our boundaries, and build community that will change people’s lives.  And God longs for you to step into a calling you might be hearing, maybe to love the people around you through cards or phone calls or visits.  But you know, I can’t stand here, in this moment of transition, and tell you exactly what any of that will look like. 
In a moment of holy uncertainty, it’s a good time to drink deeply from the well of wisdom, to return to our roots as God’s people and remind ourselves of some fundamentals.  After all, Jesus didn’t spend much of his time debating theology with the “wise and intelligent” (Matthew 11:25), the scribes and Pharisees and other experts in the Law.  When it came to knowing the mind of God, Jesus regarded human expertise with a healthy dose of skepticism.  So today as well, Jesus isn’t calling us to be experts and get everything right; he’s calling us to be servants – which I can attest is the common wiring that runs through Mtr. Anne, and Mtr. Ezgi, and Deacon Bruce, and our staff, and the people of this good place who lead ministries, and stage events, and clean up, and sing, and serve the chalice, and greet people, and reach out to one another.  We’re called to be a family of servants led by servants, all of us empowered by the Holy Spirit through our baptisms to change the world by inviting one person after another to experience the grace we’re coming to know ourselves. 
As we follow that call, not knowing just how it will look, we may be tempted into fear and maybe even into paralysis, uncertain about stepping forward into a new life whose shape we can’t quite make out.  But we need not fear.  We need not fear because we can let Jesus take that burden of the outcome off our shoulders.  Mtr. Anne, you don’t need to know yet exactly what you’ll bring back from your sabbatical.  Mtr. Ezgi, you don’t need to know yet exactly what a stronger community of younger adults and families here will look like.  Deacon Bruce, we don’t need to know yet exactly how we’ll deploy more people to call or write or visit or pray with each other.  And those of you who might step up to serve, you don’t need to know yet exactly how to do it.  We can give Jesus the burden of the outcome because – despite our folly and even our sin, as St. Paul says, the “law that when [we] want to do good, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21) – despite all our failings and the roadblocks we’ll meet along the way, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as Julian of Norwich heard Jesus whispering to her.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29) 
It’s a good antidote to anxiety.  Jesus doesn’t call us to success on the world’s terms; he calls us to faithfulness on the kingdom’s terms.  And that involves taking our place right next to Jesus and shouldering his yoke alongside him, like workhorses pulling the load together.  It’s the yoke of servant leadership, the yoke of inviting others into the joy of love freely given, the yoke of serving beyond our comfort zones and changing the world one small act at a time.  It is Jesus’ way that we’re called to learn and his burden that we’re called joyfully to bear alongside him. 
           You know, this life of letting the love of God take flesh and dwell in the world through us – it’s not always comfortable, and it’s certainly not predictable.  But that yoke is easy and that burden is light because Jesus is shouldering the load with us, every step of the way.