Proper 8, Year C, 2007

What a year of transitions!

Perhaps over time I will learn that every year is full of change, that we don’t really stand on solid ground, but on sediment that is constantly shifting.  However, this year has seemed particularly full of transition.  We elected, and then greeted, a new bishop.  The presidential race is in full swing, with dozens of men and at least one woman gunning for the most powerful office in America. 

And personally, for us at Emmanuel, we have lost many of the Saints that led this church for the last fifty years:  Kate LaRue, Peggy Flannagan, Ned Morris, Mildred Lapsley, Zan McGuire, Kitty Shirley, David Smith, Louise Ellinger, and Theo Earp.  I have listened to one interview conducted by the Heritage committee for their oral history project, and I was so moved to hear stories of the men and women who served this place twenty to thirty years ago on the vestry, through altar guild, singing in the choir, teaching.  Their service was a continuation of the service of those before them, and we carry their work on now. 

The work of the church is never ending, and though we don’t often take time to reflect on it, the work we do is always a direct result of someone else’s hard work.  Our Sunday School and nursery would not be functional if not for the years of service of the Christian Education committee before I came.  Chuck would not be here if Mr. Marston and Mr. LaRue had not poured their hearts into this place. 

In the Christian story, generations are always passing the torch, one to another.  Sometimes that goes smoothly. . . and sometimes there are some bumps in the road!

Today, we’ll look at three such stories-the transition of leadership from King Saul to King David, the transition of leadership from Elijah to Elisha, and finally the transition of leadership from Jesus to the Church.

The transition of leadership from Saul to David is a worst-case scenario.  If you’ll remember from reading the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel, Saul was the first king of Israel.  God did not want the people of Israel to have a king, but they whined because they wanted to be like all the other countries around them.  The whining finally got to God, and he granted them a king.  Saul was a great king.  He was tall and handsome, very smart and had innate leadership skills.  The problem was, he was such a good king, he forgot to rely on God.  He ignored the prophet Nathan’s instructions once and that was IT.  God wanted him out.  For God’s second try as king, he chose David.  David was not anyone’s first choice for king.  He was scrawny, a shepherd, and. . .a musician.  But God knew that David loved God with all his heart. God wanted him as king..

But you know, it’s hard to let go of power.  History books tell us it took years for Nixon to fully understand that he was no longer president.  For a long time, he would sit in his office at home and command his staff as if he were still the leader of the free world.  While some find it easy to retire, others, especially if forced out, have a really difficult time letting someone else take over.  Saul was one of these guys.  He knew David was next in line to be king, but he was not going to go down without a fight.  He fought the transition so hard, it ended up killing him-he died on the battlefield.  Saul did not need to die that way.  He and David did not start out as enemies-in fact, Saul’s son Jonathan, was David’s best friend.  Saul could have resigned his post and then acted as an advisor to David, or taken up gardening, or some form of ancient golf.  Instead, he gripped on to his power, his authority, and it ruined him.

Do we ever cling to power?  Letting go of a position of authority can be very painful.  My father retired two summers ago after being principal of a particular school for five years.  Watching his successor undo much of the good foundation he had laid at the school, was terribly frustrating to my dad.  He had to consciously let go and distance himself so he wouldn’t go crazy worrying about the students and teachers under this new administration.  We cling to power, not just for power’s sake, but because we think we can do a good job, a better job than the next guy, but sometimes God is calling us to let go and to move forward in our own lives. 

The transition of power from Elijah to Elisha is a very different story.  If the story of Saul and David is on the very human and very sad end of the spectrum, the story of Elijah and Elisha is over here on the over the top, almost ridiculously spiritual side of the spectrum.  Elijah was a stormy old prophet.  He ushered in a drought to punish the nation for idolatry.  And he was constantly shouting prophecies of dooooooom.  Nevertheless, Elisha thought Elijah was the bees knees.  In our story today, he is following Elijah around like Elijah’s biggest fan.  Even when Elijah tells him to get lost, that he’s going to be taken up into heaven, Elisha won’t leave.  He admires Elijah so much, that he wants to inherit a doubleshare of his spirit-he wants to be able to carry on Elijah’s prophetic ministry with the same energy and vigor as his mentor.  When Elijah is finally taken up into heaven, Elisha tore his clothes into two pieces and placed Elijah’s fallen mantle on himself-symbolizing the transition of leadership.

Taking over leadership from a successful leader is scary stuff.  It can be tempting to hero worship our predecessor and lose ourselves in their style. And while we can certainly learn from other leaders, it is important to retain a sense of our own identity.  While Elisha did inherit Elijah’s spirit, Elisha was a very different kind of prophet.  Instead of heralding doom, Elisha showed people God’s power by being a wonder worker.  He worked miracles for his nation and for individuals.  (He also killed two kids who made fun of him for being bald-but that is a whole other story.)   Elisha was able to inherit Elijah’s spirit, while remaining true to himself and the gifts God had given him.

Finally, the transition of leadership between Jesus and the church is most like what we experience today in the Church.  Jesus had spent three years leading and teaching his disciples.  He knew his death was going to come, and come soon.  He had changed Simon’s name from Simon to Peter because Jesus knew that Peter-which means rock-would become the rock of the new church.  You and I know how that transition went.  Before Peter could become Peter of the book of Acts, in which he is a wise leader and administrator, he first had to be Peter the impetuous screw up.  Before he could become the Peter who would guide the church, he had to be Peter who would betray Jesus three times.

Peter, James, Paul and the other leaders of the early church had to deal with all sorts of problems as people figured out what it meant to follow Jesus, and they did not handle every situation perfectly.  Like us, sometimes they fought, or hurt each others feelings, or spoke without thinking.  Also like us, they knew they could solve these problems by remembering how Jesus handled situations and by asking the Holy Spirit for guidance. 

I know it is hard to believe, but I have made some SPECTACULARLY stupid decisions as I have ministered here.  You are not so lucky as to get to hear these stories in this sermon, but it is sufficient to say I can relate to Peter’s moment of “Ooooh.  I’ve really screwed up.”  Like Peter, I have had to take a deep breath, ask for forgiveness, and then move on, hoping I have learned something!  I’m sure none of you can relate! 

When we are baptized, we each become a leader in the church.  We each become a minister.  We all will face times in our life when we have to let go of our power to let someone else step up.  We will also face times when we realize that WE are who God wants to step up, no matter how underqualified we think we are!  We will also all make mistakes as we attempt to lead and need to be forgiven.

The good news, is that God will also bless our leadership.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit we will be able to accomplish more than we ever would on our own steam.  The trick is to remember Saul and not be tempted to do everything on our own!

Our great leaders at Emmanuel whom we have lost this year had their leadership blessed by God and all of here in this room enjoy the benefits of their hard work.  As we take over their responsibilities, their areas of leadership, may be also be blessed.

Amen.

Advent 4, Year B, 2005

King David was a manly man.  He slayed giants. He slept with other men’s wives and killed their husbands.  He led the armies that secured Jerusalem.  He established a kingdom.  (He also danced through the streets naked, but that is another sermon.)

Sweet Mary, on the other hand, was by all accounts a nice girl from a good family.  She was open, receptive, non-confrontational.  She was even a virgin.

Somewhere, Gloria Steinem is pulling out her hair.  These descriptions are a feminist’s nightmare, right?  Manly men and wimpy women.  Women of my generation were told we could grow up to do anything, be anyone we want to be.  Women before me had fought for their rights to work alongside men in every field you could imagine, and I certainly reaped the benefits of their hard work.  After all, I was born the year after the first women priests were ordained. What women are not supposed to be is passive, waiting around for some man (or God) to fulfill our destiny.

So, what do we do with these images of David and Mary?  These contrasting images of aggressive and passive behavior.

The good news is, we don’t have to choose just one.  (Though I’d be careful which attributes of David you emulate.)  God uses both David and Mary in Jesus’ conception.  In the Lukan geneaology of Jesus, Joseph, Jesus’ father, was descended from the line of David.  We’ll never know how the genetics of the assumption work, whether Jesus inherited any of Joseph’s traits, but for all legal purposes, Jesus could trace his heritage back to David.  

Throughout Jesus’ life, his incredible faithfulness to his heavenly Father will be a powerful combination of both David’s aggression and Mary’s ability to yield to God.  We see David in Jesus when he stands up to the powers of the day, when Jesus throws over the tables in the Temple.  We see Mary’s quiet faithfulness when Jesus yields to God in prayer over and over again, especially when he must choose to follow the path that he knows will lead to his death.  And in this struggle, we learn that yielding to God, as Mary and Jesus do, can be the most courageous and frightening way of faithfulness possible.  Yielding to God is not wimpy.

Mary was a woman who knew where her life was going.  She was marrying a carpenter, and would have a lovely quiet married life in which she’d take care of her husband and raise their children.  All this is interrupted when the Angel Gabriel comes to her and tells her that she is the favored one of God.

When Mary accepts God’s unexpected plan for her life, she yields to a future she cannot predict.  She does not know whether Joseph will accept or reject her, whether her family will shun her.  She certainly cannot know that she will one day have to watch her son be brutally murdered. 

When Mary yields to God, she surrenders her very understanding of how the world operates.  She surrenders her understanding of how God intervenes in the world.  Mary is open to God behaving in a completely new and unanticipated manner. 

Yielding to God is no small thing.  When we acknowledge that we do not control our destinies, we face the terror that we cannot predict our future.  There is no way to ensure that we or our loved ones will be safe, secure, or happy. 

Still, the Angel Gabriel refers to Mary as “favored one”. This Greek word translated as favored-charitoo– means, “endowed with grace”.  God chooses Mary, not because she is perfect, but because he chooses to endow her with his grace, just as he chooses to endow humanity with grace through the life and death of Jesus.

So, where is the grace in this yielding to God? 

I’d like to think that the grace, for Mary, came from her relationship with her Son.  She had the privilege of watching this incredible man grow from the baby and young boy she had nurtured to the powerful, wise and self-giving man he would become.  She experienced the grace of knowing God first hand, for a longer period of time then anyone before her.  She lived with this incarnate God 24 hours a day for years.  I’d like to think somewhere inside of her was a Jewish mother who got a chuckle out of the thought of disciplining the Lord of the Universe.  Potty training God?

In the same way, the grace when we yield to God, is that we get to learn more about God, we get to sit in his presence for a bit, and get a tiny sense of who he really is.  Yielding to God is not always about doing the will of God, it can also be a emotional or psychological transaction.  For instance, if you have a hard time trusting the father figure in your life, that distrust probably plays out in your prayer life with God.  If your dad abandoned you, why shouldn’t God?  In that case, yielding to God might be a moment of epiphany when you realize that God loves you, that God is not going to abandon you.  In that moment, you feel your body relax, your defenses lower.  That is yielding to God. 

You might believe you don’t need God.  In that case, yielding to God may happen when you get hit with a major crisis.  In a moment, in a flash, you realize that you are finite, that you don’t have all the answers. 

When we yield to God, we become God’s favored ones.  Not because we earn the distinction, but because God longs to bestow his grace upon us. 

And it is only when we yield to God, that it becomes appropriate to have a more confrontational, aggressive faith like David.  When we have yielded in prayer to God and have a sense of God’s call in our lives, we can then live out the “masculine” side of our faith.

Some of us might be called to fight for justice-writing letters to legislators, or organizing protests.  Others of us might be called to bring bible studies into local prisons or to work with the Bread Fund. 

The Christian life is a dance of yielding and responding to call.  The Christian Life is a dance of prayer and action. 

We are called to be both Mary and David.

As Jesus came into life through David and Mary, we are called to bring Jesus to life in this world.

Amen.

Advent 2, Year B, 2005

It is time to come home!

This is the good news the prophet is speaking in the passage from Isaiah we hear today.  You see, Jerusalem was the symbolic and physical home of the Israelites.  They had journeyed for hundreds of years, and finally secured Jerusalem under King David’s leadership.  The Israelites believed their wandering, their suffering was finally over.  Unfortunately, years later, the Babylonians swooped in and took over Jerusalem, exiling all the Jews. 

The Israelites understood this defeat as not only a political and military defeat, but a spiritual defeat as well.  They believed that their sins had caused the loss of Jerusalem.

When the Lord says, “She has served her time and her penalty is paid” in this triumphant passage from Isaiah, he is telling the Israelites the good news that they will no longer be punished by exile, but will be allowed to return home.

It is time to come home!

John the Baptist repeats some of these words from Isaiah when he proclaims the coming of Jesus Christ. 

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,

Why echo this message of homecoming?  Jesus was not going to come in and drive out the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem. 

What is a home, anyway?   I’ve been traveling for a couple weeks, a little vacation, then some continuing education, and each time I drove back to Crozet, and sunk into my big comfy bed at the end of a long day, I could feel myself relaxing into being home.  Some of you have lived in this area since you were tiny and some are as new as I am, but somehow we have all come to associate this place with home.  Home is more than a physical place.  Home is an emotional and spiritual idea, too. 

When John announced Jesus’ coming, he was announcing a whole new idea of a religious home.  No longer would home be a physical place like Jerusalem.  Home would now rest in a person-the person of Jesus. 

It’s time to come home.

To come home to Jerusalem, the exiled Jews would need to a do a lot of work.  They would pack all their tents, hitch their belongings to their donkeys or camels, and begin the long walk back home. 

Coming home to Jesus takes work, too. 

John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance.  He knew that in order to encounter Jesus, the very embodiment of love, the people around him would need to cleanse themselves of their sins.  He knew a life of sin would prevent a homecoming with Jesus.

I read a wonderful book over vacation called A Song I Knew by Heart by Brett Lott.  This novel is a retelling of the Ruth and Naomi story, but with a big twist.  In this story, after years of dealing with the painful issue of infertility, Naomi and her husband have grown distant from each other.  In a fit of anguish, Naomi throws herself at her husband’s best friend and they are intimate together one time.  Naomi goes immediately home where she sits in a cold bath, trying frantically to feel clean and finds herself unable to move, but shivers uncontrollably in her cold and guilt.  Her husband comes home, finds her, lifts her out of the tub, then takes her to their family bed, where he covers her in quilts and lies next to her until she warms again.  Throughout the rest of her life, she is tormented by her guilt and thinks of her sin as a separation from love. . . a separation from love.   Instead of turning toward her husband, who loved her so, she separated herself from that love and clung to another.

Sin as separation from love. . .a powerful image isn’t it?  When we sin, we separate ourselves from love, we separate ourselves from home.  When we repent and are forgiven, we bridge that separation, we experience a profound homecoming.

Naomi feels the weight of her guilt for the rest of her life.  She never tells her husband what happened, and they stay married and eventually have children.  At the end the book, at the end of her life, she finds out that her husband’s best friend told him what happened immediately after the indiscretion. 

So, when Naomi’s husband picked her up out of the frigid tub, and warmed her with blankets and his own flesh, he KNEW what had happened.   He was forgiving her, loving her, despite her betrayal.

For forty years, Naomi carried around a guilt that separated her from her husband, her children.  If she had only spoken of her guilt to her husband, she could have experienced the depth of her husband’s forgiveness, God’s forgiveness, much sooner.  Perhaps she could have even forgiven herself.

Like Naomi’s husband, God is eager to forgive us, eager to wrap us in the blanket of his love, his acceptance.  God is eager to welcome us home. 

As we wait for Jesus’s arrival this Christmas, we can prepare for his arrival by coming clean, coming clean before ourselves, our loved ones, God.  We can examine ourselves for the ways in which we have separated ourselves from love, and turn to welcome love back in our lives. 

(Pause)

It is time to come home.