Saturday, September 6, 2008

Fourth after Pentecost, 2008

June 8, 2008 4 Pentecost (RCL Proper 5A) Genesis 12: 1-9; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

A Sunday like this is torture for the preacher. (And don’t tell me that every Sunday is torture for those who listen to the preacher!) I’m serious. Like one of those St. Andrew’s covered-dish suppers where you walk up to the table with a 10-inch paper plate in your hand and see spread out before you such a glorious abundance that you don’t know how or where to begin. And even worse, for the preacher this morning there are no second trips to the table.

The Call of Abraham: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” In some sense the foundational moment of vocation in the great unfolding of all our Salvation History. And the dedication of the Holy Land, a moment from the edge of historical memory that plays itself out in such critical ways on the front pages of our newspapers just about every day of our 21st century lives: “To your offspring I will give this land.” Just so much to go to there. And then to turn the page to St. Matthew, and this rich 9th chapter. The encounter with the Pharisees. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Plenty of sermons to preach on that one. And the President of the local synagogue, who comes in desperation, seeking some kind of impossible rescue from the deepest moment of every parent’s most horrible nightmare: “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And then, as Jesus sets off in response to this deep prayer of faith, there is in the midst of it all set in a kind of parenthesis yet another wonderful story, the hemorrhagic woman who falls into the following crowd and without any fanfare seeks her healing by touching the hem of his robe.

What is a preacher to do? Not even sailing into the waters of the appointed reading from Romans 4, as Paul preaches his own sermon on the Call of Abraham, with his extended meditation on the great fact that it is by faith that Abraham is brought into relationship with God, not by his works, but by the transformation of his heart. And then even the text of Psalm 33, this wonderful blessing of the name of the LORD, the creator and sustainer of all live, the loving father of all righteousness.

So, what? A tiny smidgen of each, or a generous helping from one covered dish, and the pleasure that follows to be shadowed ever so slightly by a sense of regret over the road not taken. That spinach lasagna did look really good, after all. Can’t believe I passed it up . . . .

So all these great stories, and I guess if I had one hope, one recommendation, it would be to invite all of us in the week ahead to share the experience I’ve had in these past days of preparation—and to take this morning’s lectionary insert home, and to read these stories again, and slowly, and to notice the deeper themes that emerge in them, to invite them to speak to us, and to use them day by day as starting points for a meditation of our own hearts and lives.

I’ll tell you, not to speak of any of the stories in particular, but to take a step or two back and to look at them all together in a bigger picture, where I think they take us, may take us, in that time of meditation, and that’s to a place suggested in the words of this morning’s Collect, this particular phrase in which we talk about God’s “merciful guiding” of our lives, affirming that, praying for it with all our hearts. Not just that he will reveal to us the way forward, but that in that revelation, there be a profound mercy. “By thy merciful guiding.”

Or as expanded in our Psalm this morning, Ps. 33: 5 -- He loves righeousness and justice; the Loving-kindness of the LORD fills the whole earth." The Hebrew word chesed, God's loving-kindness, his blessing, his peace, his abundant goodness and mercy. Fills the whole earth.

As I would mention what is for me one of the most powerful moments in our service of Holy Communion, the Prayer of Humble Access, immediately before we come forward to receive the holy gifts. We confess that we are not worthy by our own efforts. But then we say, “but thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” Always to have mercy. To think of that. Not just occasionally, but generally and consistently and reliably. Always to have mercy.

About which I would say only that the older I get, the more profoundly I become, more and more, aware of my need of the kindness and loving-kindness of God, of his mercy. And the mercy of my family, especially of my wife, and my children, my friends and neighbors, my congregation, my colleagues. On and on. The day moves forward, and perhaps some of the bright idealism of youth, some of the heady self-confidence and assurance, begins to be seen in a different light of life experience. The accumulation of things done and left undone, the many hurts that can never be repaired, bridges crossed, sometimes bridges burned. Words spoken that I would give anything to call back. Or words not spoken when the opportunity was there. The Greek word that gets translated as “sin” in our English Bible is ‘amartia, which is actually a word that comes from the context of archery, and it means “missing the mark.” Which I could write a book about, anyway. Missing the bulls-eye, missing the target, missing the boat altogether sometimes. So much of my life not even in the ballpark.

Childless Abraham was already Medicare-eligible and more when his new life began. That’s such a great story. And the father of that little girl, in his grief, his torment, what could he expect? If he only could have one more hour with her, what he would tell her, how he would embrace her, cover her with his tears. And the unnamed woman of the crowd, ashamed of, isolated by, her continual impurity, without a hope in the world. What was in her mind when she reached out her hand, as he passed by?

“But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” Not to skip by those words too quickly ever again. When we talk about the life we have in Jesus, the character of his love for us, the meaning of his Cross and resurrection. More than anything else, it’s what we need. From him, and from each other. What the world needs, and what we become in him. That our homes, our church, our lives would be places where mercy might happen. Even in abundance. Not measured out in tea spoons, but overflowing. Undeserved grace, unearned grace, forgiveness, blessing, hope for something more. In spite of everything.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Bruce Robison

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