Sunday, August 19, 2007

God's Shattering Brings Good News

Proper 15, Year C
Isaiah 5: 1 – 7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11: 29 – 12:2; Luke 12: 49 – 56
“God’s Shattering Brings Good News”
The Rev. Linda Campbell

When I moved in to my home, I inherited a dwarf peach tree that looked very healthy. No leaf curl. Brilliant green leaves. Beautiful strong healthy trunk. My family looked forward to the summer peaches with great expectation! When they ripened they were perfectly formed, perfectly golden pink. Organically grown, they had no worms. Birds had not pecked tiny bites in these peaches. But when we bit into them, they were mealy and tasteless. We didn’t give up with the first peach. We kept checking each peach on that tree for the perfect moment of ripeness. When it was perfect, we tried eating it. Not a one of those peaches was good. Still we were not ready to give up. We consulted farm advisers. We followed all their expert advice. The next harvest season, we had great expectations. And as you might guess, the same thing happened. Not one peach worth eating. OK. We do not give up easily. A third year, we devoted attention to these three beautiful dwarf peach trees. After that year, we finally gave up, took out the trees and bricked that area in to use for something else.

Isaiah took this experience that most gardeners have had, at one time or another, and carved a brilliant parable from it – Instead of peach trees or grape vines, God plants a people. He frees them from slavery, nurtures their unfolding sense of themselves as people of God, shares his hopes and dreams with them of hospitality to the stranger, of care for the widowed and orphaned, of land that is distributed fairly and an economics that does not hold people hostage to debt. Everything good and gracious and fine is offered on behalf of this people – a way through the wilderness, manna from heaven to eat and sweet water in the desert to drink and laws to govern themselves by, and prophets to remind them of the ways that lead to life – and yet instead of yielding a rich harvest of justice and mercy, the people are vengeful and bloodthirsty. Instead of honor and integrity and truthfulness, the people harm others and create misery for the poor and destitute.

I almost asked the reader to read this first reading with sobs – which I didn’t do because it would have taken you so by surprise – but I invite you to read Isaiah to yourself sometime this week. Hear God’s passion and love, God's forlornness and disappointment. Share God’s heartbreak.

“What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? These people are my pleasant planting – I expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! What more was there to do that I have not done?” *from Isaiah 5

My father and I talk on the phone every Saturday. I am incredibly grateful that we can share what is in our hearts. Yesterday, I asked his prayers for my daughter, his granddaughter Ella, who is serving with the Peace Corps in Ecuador, right next door to Peru. We agreed to deepen our prayers for the people in Peru, particularly those who have been affected so horrifically from the earthquake that shook southern Peru a few days ago. My dad said that we in this country cannot really fathom the depths of suffering that wracks so much of the rest of the world – from earthquake to famine to war to grinding poverty. Now, he is of a different branch of the Christian family – Adventists expect that the end of the world is coming sooner rather than later. On this as on many other theological points, we agree to disagree and to simply hold to the core of the gospel, which is the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. But yesterday on the phone, he said, “Honey, I don’t believe this world is long to last.” And he said it with such poignancy, such love for this world, such heartbreak over people’s inhumanity to each other; - I could hear the same tenor in his voice, as we read in this portion of Isaiah. Behind that heartbreak, I could also hear the same kind of judgment that would follow as a natural consequence of humanity’s unwillingness to consistently practice kindness and humility and justice – the judgment of destruction, of trampling down, of drought and the infertility of the land.

This morning's passages are difficult to listen to. “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t especially like it when Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! They will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.” It gets really personal. This isn’t just about nations. This is right within the heart of families.

I met with someone from another parish this past week whose marriage was in trouble. Divisions within her own psyche caused by childhood trauma had surfaced and she has spent a lot of time working on healing. As she heals, her prayer life has deepened and become profoundly meaningful. She glows with health. She is emotionally and spiritually changed as the sourness of trauma has turned into the sweetness of health. Change is difficult though – and her partner is threatened by this newfound joy – and uncomfortably challenged by her renewed Christian faith. There is every hope that their marriage will recover and in fact become better – but the truth is that as wounds and conflicts surface – whether they are within us, within our families, or within our church communities – the immediate experience can be one of fire and not of peace, of greater division rather than of greater unity. The ultimate truth however is that this very experience of uncovering what has remained hidden and bringing into the light what has been in darkness, brings tremendous opportunity for real health and vitality – with a hefty price tag of real labor, of persevering hope, and of commitment to love beyond reason.

St. Alban’s is in an Interim time – a times of transition in which much that has been assumed and under cover is being questioned and brought to light – and that is a real source of new life and new opportunities but there is also real labor involved in taking the hopes and dreams of what turns out to be a very diverse community, in which there are some hopes and dreams that clash – that are not easily unified - and finding the place of deeper unity and purpose that will guide the parish and the new rector into the future.

A part of this future involves celebrating what has been brought to light – again, brought to light with a real price tag of labor, and hope and love. This coming Saturday, the Gulf Coast Mission Project will prepare an excellent New Orlean’s style supper, and show a professionally produced video (by our own Jeff Peterson) of what we saw and did in New Orleans. I can testify from seeing New Orleans with my own eyes that truth is shattering. It was gut wrenching to see the devastation that continues in the Lower 9th Ward where we ran a children’s camp. But while Katrina wrecked havoc, that destruction also uncovered the ugliness of entrenched racism and injustice. And bringing those wounds to the light is the first step towards healing them, particularly when Christians and people of faith become involved in moving systems towards health rather than towards apathy and cynicism.

The prophet Isaiah and our Savior Jesus charge you and me to taste the fruits of our lives, to see what sets our teeth on edge, and what brings satisfaction. By the power of the Holy Spirit, know that it is good news that shatters systems that do not bring life and flourishing – It is good news that Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith does not allow us to remain in the sour grapes mode – but calls us, cajoles us, points us, directs us, leads us, and our families, our churches, our nation, towards health, and fruitfulness, and abundance of life.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Faith With Skin

Proper 14, Year C

Isaiah 1: 1, 10 – 2; Psalm 33: 12 – 22; Hebrews 11: 1- 3, 8 – 16; Luke 12¨32 – 40

“Faith with Skin”

The Rev. Linda Campbell

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

She is also a young member of St. Alban’s and one of our acolytes this morning! Her mom, Susan, says that she gave Faith this name because her very presence, her birth itself, is such a gift. When a cousin asked Susan if there was a time when she ever gave up hope of being a mother – and Susan said, no. I knew. I knew I would be a mom. Sounds to me like the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen! It’s a blessing for all of us to have Faith here as a living, breathing reminder of God’s gracious gifts. So now I’m done embarrassing you, dear – but since your name and the theme of this morning’s readings are identical, you’ll hear Faith called out quite a bit!

Faith is the Assurance of things hoped for. What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “Assurance?” I think of confidence and certainty. Susan was confident that what she hoped for would be, or already was, in some sense, her reality. In her mind, she was certain of her motherhood.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to second generation church members. They had undergone persecution, and were deeply disappointed that Jesus hadn’t returned, as the early Christians had expected. Some of them were giving up and leaving the Jesus way. Others remained, absolutely confident that the heavenly homeland they desired was certain to be, or already was, in some sense, their reality. They followed in the footsteps of other giants of faith – Abraham, who set out for a place that he didn’t know, not knowing where he was going, but obeying his yearning to follow God. The letter to the Hebrews encourages them to be like previous giants of faith who “died without having received the promises, but from a distance still saw and greeted them.”

When I think of giants of faith, many names come to mind such as our own American giant of faith, Martin Luther King, Jr. who saw the promised land of justice and peace among people of all races and economic classes – but who died before that had become an evident reality. It’s a promised land we have yet to reach, and yet it is homeland for which many of us continue to yearn.

What do you hope for? What do you desire so deeply that it is in your bones and blood, that you would stake your life on it? One of the marks of a Christian is the hope for and the confidence in the reality of God’s kingdom – the ultimate reality of reconciliation between all peoples, and indeed, among all beings.

We can’t create that confidence all on our own. But we can cooperate with God’s creation of confidence within us. How? By acting in faith. By acting as citizens of the kingdom. Jesus simply spoke truth when he said “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If you want your heart to be in the kingdom, don’t wait until you have a warm fuzzy feeling of being in the kingdom. Put a check in the basket. Sponsor a child. Buy groceries for someone else. Forgive your spouse. Give thanks in all places and at all times and under all circumstances. All of these things are costly – AND they build confidence. They strengthen the spiritual muscles and bones of faith. If you want to be a long distance runner, you have to put on your running shoes every morning, and run. If you and I want to be a people of faith, we have to practice making day to day decisions with confidence in the unseen reality of God’s kingdom.

Jesus was the ultimate in confidence! He was certain of his Father’s good will and confident in their relationship. He didn’t get his authority from university degrees or from being ordained by the chief High Priest. His authority and confidence in himself came directly from his intimate relationship with God. He was confident in God because he knew God. And he inspired confidence in others. When Jesus told Zaccheus, “your sins are forgiven” Zaccheus rested absolutely assured that Jesus was trustworthy, that what he said was truth, and that if he said, you are healed. You are forgiven, that he was, in truth, healed and forgiven. Zaccheus was so happy in this assurance that he made thorough amends for his sins, returning all the gold he had taken from others unjustly.

It isn’t quite so easy for Jesus to inspire confidence in us – because we are citizens of the 21st century – and we haven’t physically seen or touched or heard Jesus. Without the reassurance of his actual voice, we are kind of like the little girl who awoke one night frightened, convinced that in the darkness around her there were all kinds of spooks and monsters. Alone, she ran to her parents' bedroom. Her mother calmed her down and, taking her by the hand, led her back to her own room, where she put on a light and reassured her daughter: 'You needn't be afraid, you are not alone here. God is in the room with you.' The little girl replied: 'I know that God is here, but I need someone in this room who has some skin!' "

Someone with skin is good. And that’s, I think, one of the reasons Jesus insisted that his followers form communities of faith. We’re the people who can be God’s skin for each other. The author of the letter to the Hebrews, definitely intended to assure that community that God’s communication of good will and favor towards them through his Son, Jesus, was absolutely trustworthy. In our own tradition, when I lift my hand in absolution of your sins after the confession – it isn’t that I myself am forgiving you. God and God alone does that. But I’m someone with skin, who has been set aside by the authority of the church, to enact God’s voice of assurance that in truth, your sins are forgiven. You are free. You are healed. You are not enslaved to the past. You can rest assured in God’s grace and good purposes for your future. As Jesus said, and as I, your pastor, now repeat, “it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” You’re in. You’re free. You’re a child of God. Amen!

The final way that I think of assurance is as a pledge or a warranty. Remember the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval? That warranty meant a product was well made, that it would hold up under use, and that it would do what it was advertised to do. Genesis tells us that you and I and every other human being carry a warranty! We’re made in God’s Image and stamped with God’s seal of original blessing. Each and every one of us, boy, girl, gay, straight, deaf, hearing, blind, seeing, black, brown, and white – carry the warranty of God’s image. As an assurance, a pledge of his faithfulness, God sent his only son Jesus, to become one of us, to enjoy the pleasures of friendship and beauty, to suffer violence and vengeance, and to die as one burdened by sin and despair. How is that a pledge of God’s faithfulness? Because through Jesus’ deep and utterly faithful obedience, even when he could not see through the darkness of the cross, God was able to set once and for all time in human terms, the pledge of abundant and everlasting life that would outsmart, outlast, and outshine all darkness. Give a shout people! The goodness of God wins! Resurrection is the pledge of that.

Alexander Solzenitzen tells a resurrection story from his time as a prisoner in the Siberian camp to which he was sentenced. The prisoners were fed a starvation diet and forced into hard labor twelve to fourteen hours a day. One day, Alexander simply gave up. All his strength was gone. Physically weakened and sick, morally despairing and spiritually dead, he ceased to care about the beating he knew would come any minute that would end his life. But a fellow Christian saw him falter and give up. This fellow risked his own life to step out of the line long enough to draw a cross in the sand with his cane, and then quickly erase it again. But that was enough. Solzenitzen was embraced by that cross, and began to draw out of thin air the sustenance he needed to survive. He writes that he never again gave up hope.

Faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen. Meanwhile, it’s good to be around some Godly people with skin!