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Monday, June 30, 2014

Here I Am

Pr 8, Yr A
Genesis 22:1-14, Matthew 10:40-42
The Rev. Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook

     As a young child, my godmother regularly gave me Arch Books, short bible story books written in verse. I still have most of them, from King Solomon's Dream to The Lame Man Who Walked Again. Among these are such child-friendly favorites as "Stephen, the First Martyr," who as you'll remember was stoned to death, "Jeremiah and the Fall of Jerusalem," and "Two Cities that Burned"...a re-telling of Sodom and Gomorrah. So it's saying a lot when I tell you that even Arch Books didn't try to tackle today's story of Abraham and Isaac, which truly is one of the most disturbing in the whole bible. What on earth is it doing in Holy Scripture?
     Abraham—who who has been promised by God that he'll be the father of a great nation—seems to have issues with endangering the very sons who will promote that future. Last week we heard the story of his sending his servant Hagar and Ishmael, the son he fathered with her, out into the wilderness to die after the birth of Isaac to his wife Sarah. Bam!...his chances at that great nation seemingly cut in half, although there's ultimately a promising outcome to that story. And here he is today, acquiescing to what seems to be the final blow to that promise: the command to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. The author of the passage really drives it home, too, with all those "your son, your only son," "his son," "my son" refrains. Abraham has shown his proclivity for arguing with God—he was the one who fought tooth and nail trying to save Sodom and Gomorrah, for example—so why doesn't he fight this time? Why doesn't he refuse? Instead, he struggles onward, side by side with his son, each step drawing him closer to a horrible conclusion.
     One interpretation of this story is to frame it as a "just so" story to explain the transition from child sacrifice to animals—a prohibition indicated in several other places in the Hebrew Scriptures—in contrast to the tradition of surrounding cultures. But while that may be part of the reason it's here, and there's no doubt that the God of Abraham and Sarah abhors the death of any precious child, that seems too easy; it fails to weigh the troubling theological implications of the passage.
     Another way to view this is as a story of faithfulness: Abraham's to God and, ultimately, God's to Abraham. Given that when God has called, Abraham's life has generally been turned upside down--you're going to a new land, you're going to be the father of a great nation, your elderly wife is going to have a baby--given that, Abraham might be excused for not answering enthusiastically when he hears God's voice. We really have nothing to tell us whether this was an all in "Here I am!" or a reluctant "Here I am...," but he does speak up. Despite it all, he continues to be in relationship with God, which really is what faithfulness is about. You don't have to like it or be submissive; it's simply that you don't turn away...and Abraham doesn't. Somehow, from somewhere deep inside himself, he trusts that God has his back. It's interesting that when Isaac calls out to query his dad about where the lamb is, Abraham also responds to him with "Here I am," though we can imagine with far more pain and panic in his voice. The connection between his relationship with God and his relationship with his son, his future, is solidified in that common answer. And finally, the deepest sense of relief flooding over him at the very. last. minute. when the angel of the Lord calls out his name again, not just once but twice to make sure he hears, and Abraham, his heart pounding and stomach churning and body shaking cries out in desperate hope, "Here I am."
     It's the culmination of an entire lifetime of faithfulness, turning on the highest stakes possible for Abraham and for God. Abraham, obviously, wants Isaac alive...because he is the love of his life. God wants Isaac alive too...because Isaac is the life of his love for the people of Israel for generations yet to come. When God stops Abraham  from sacrificing Isaac, God says, "Now I know." God has placed all hope, all trust, all the future in the hands of Abraham, and now God knows that confidence wasn't misplaced. God's trust isn't that Abraham will blindly obey or that God can coerce Abraham into an unthinkable action; God is confirming the solidity of the very foundation of the relationship upon which the future relies. There is not one iota of doubt about their mutual faithfulness.
     That's about the best I can do with this passage. Even with that generous interpretation, I'm still troubled by the idea of God even asking Abraham, whom God loves, to be willing to sacrifice everything, though full disclosure requires I admit that I'm more matter of fact about it when God does the same with God's own son. Maybe because I think it's not too much to ask of God but I'm pretty certain that it would be impossible for me, so I'm left to wonder if there's any hope for me if I can't be as faithful as Abraham. Perhaps that's another aspect of the discomfort of this story: is it meant to be the measure by which the rest of us are judged?
     Thanks be to God, then, for the good news in the gospel reading. Where the first reading seems to ask of me far, far more than I can imagine myself capable of, the gospel gives me hope again: "Jesus said...'Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won't lose out on a thing.'" [The Message]  I can do that! I can get a drink, offer a bite, share a seat, give a hug, lend an ear, send a note, bring a can, make a call, say a word. It turns out that in God's longing for our faithfulness, our smallest acts and our biggest sacrifices are equally significant when done with love and trust. In our struggles and confusion, in our hurts and disappointments, in our joys and contentment, give us faith, O God, always to answer, "Here I am, Lord."

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Staying Connected

Trinity Sunday, Yr. A
Genesis 1
The Rev. Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook

Both my sisters from out of town were visiting my mom last week, so I slept at her house on Tuesday night, on the sofa in the living room. When I awoke the next morning, I was looking up the wall beside me into a piece of artwork with a large swarm of butterflies seemingly captured in mid-flight. In the moment between sleeping and waking, that dreamy state in which the mind is set free from the constraints of reason, I envisioned myself in their midst, not a butterfly myself but floating through the air right along with them. This might sound a little weird, but it was a lovely way to start the day, to feel myself fully part of creation, rather than an observer looking at it from a step back.

Since then, I've been mulling over what our lives and our spirituality would be like if we could more often live that way, immersing ourselves in creation as was, I think, God's intention from the beginning, one of the truths reflected in the story of the Garden of Eden. How would our perspective and behaviors change, and how would we see our relationship with God in a broader way? How much more expansively would we see God? Setting ourselves within creation re-connects everything.

If we understand ourselves to be connected, we perceive the world from within. When I do the opposite, distinguishing myself from all that's around me, I'm aware mostly of it's otherness, and as soon as I do that, I start judging: good/bad, beautiful/ugly, worthwhile/useless. But God says again and again that the world is good, so not only is categorizing like that pointless, but it blinds us to that intrinsic beauty. We make a quick evaluation, rather than taking time to find what's already been declared precious and amazing. Perhaps you've seen some of the astounding photographs, taken through high powered microscopes, of seemingly ordinary objects, both living and inanimate; they turn out to be breathtaking and often surprisingly familiar in their composition and structure. I'm pretty sure it's much the same when we take time to see one another up close too, and to allow ourselves to be seen that's so much harder to dismiss each other when we see beyond our behaviors and outward appearances to our breathtaking inner loveliness.

If we understand ourselves to be connected, we're less likely to insulate ourselves from the consequences of our actions. When we acknowledge our inter-relatedness to the world around us, then that piece of litter on the ground, that bottle carelessly tossed in the garbage, that light left on, that wasted food all become our concern. Such little things individually, but our response to each gives us a chance to accept the responsibility of stepping more lightly and wisely. Think what you will about the ban on plastic grocery bags, but for me, it tipped the scales to get me to carry more permanent bags and to open my eyes to all the bread and cereal bags, previously thrown away, that now I'm re-using. Trace that back in the chain, and I'm leaving behind less trash and using less of everything that's required to get that plastic grocery bag into my hands...both of which I believe are good for the earth. God has set us as stewards of creation, not from outside the system but as part of it, and every one of us has many chances and choices to participate productively in the renewal and restoration of creation.

If we understand ourselves to be connected, we immerse ourselves in the joy of the Spirit permeating the world. You know that feeling when a piece of music, a painting or photograph or sculpture, a poem or a novel, an architectural design or an elegant piece of math or computer code--to each his own!--delights and transports you beyond yourself? That's a moment of entering into the dance of the Spirit who gives each of us creative gifts to share and to be appreciated. We can't force those experiences, but we can open ourselves to their possibility and rejoice in our discoveries.

Most especially, if we understand ourselves to be connected to God revealing Godself in creation, then we're deepening our relationship of love with the Creator.  In opening our eyes to all that's around us, we more fully open our eyes to God; as we value all that God treasures, we allow ourselves to be part of that wondrous embrace.

That creating Love, continuously expressed by the Spirit, and perfectly revealed in the Son, is not something or someone we can confine to reason or wholly describe. We have 66 books of the Bible, three creeds, and hundreds of thousands of scholarly pages which try to communicate the essence and nature of God, as well as a long list of heresies sorting out what God isn't...and all those words still only provide glimpses of One who is so much more. They help, because we want to be able to share our experience of God, but they only partially express the fullness of God. God is magnificently larger and intricately more detailed, fabulously fluid and yet absolutely permanent, existing before all time and throughout all time. Believing in God isn't an intellectual exercise; it's our act of connectedness, of trust, of wholeheartedly taking flight with God who loves us.

On this Trinity Sunday, as we celebrate God known to us as the Creator, Restorer, and Sustainer of all life, as the One who invites us into life as full and passionate participants, may we join the song of creation in proclaiming with all love, with all trust, with all joy, "That's good!"

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What Were You Expecting?

Easter 7, Yr. A
Acts 1:6-14
The Rev. Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook

"While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?'" (Acts 1:10) …Well, gosh, let's think:
     Because they've never seen anyone be lifted up into a cloud and out of sight before?
     Because the man they loved and who loved them was brutally killed, then showed up alive (something else they'd never seen before!), and now was slipping beyond their grasp again?
     Because up toward heaven was the last place they'd seen him and it seemed as good a place as any to be watching in the hope that he'd return once more?
     The Ascension is a tricky story. Taking it at absolute face value--perhaps you've seen some of the multitude of artworks that depict a cloud with just a pair of feet hanging down below--stretches the imagination but does provide a tidy explanation for what happened to Jesus, who was already in a resurrection body. On the other hand, dismissing the description as simply a classical literary technique for noting the exaltation of a hero fails to acknowledge the profound transformation into the Church that took place among the believers once Jesus was no longer bodily present.
     A number of years ago, in one of those discussions that suddenly seems far more challenging than when it innocently starts, I found myself trying to explain the Ascension to a class of kindergarten students. They, reasonably enough, wanted to know what happened to Jesus after he was alive again. And where we ended up, with the gift of 6 year old creativity and a bit of Star Trek, was that he had been transported from this earth and even though how it happened was a mystery, what mattered was that now we would look for God anywhere, not just in Jesus. That works for me!
     So back to those disciples staring up into the sky. This isn't the first time an angel has shown up in Luke's writings asking people what they're doing; when the women go to Jesus's tomb early in the morning, two men in dazzling clothes ask them why they're looking for the living among the dead. In both cases, those who loved Jesus are looking back to where they last saw him and are challenged by angels to move beyond what's past.
     A week ago, Bob Honeychurch and I were talking about preaching today, and he mentioned he'd discovered it's sometimes called Expectation Sunday. That was news to me--and it's only a 36 word entry in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church!--but I really like the idea. "Expectation Sunday" holds forth the promise Jesus made to the apostles that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit had come upon them. Once they got past looking up toward heaven, between what we in retrospect call Ascension and Pentecost, they waited in expectation and prayer for this Spirit who would empower them to bear witness to all the world of God's love in Jesus Christ.
It's hard to uproot our feet and heads and hearts, to move away from the past. We know the past, whether we liked it or not; the future and even the present can seem fearful. Oftentimes we're still trying to recollect and make sense of what's behind us, sorting through and adding to our memories. You can imagine the conversations among the apostles in the upper room: "Remember the time..." "And how he then..." and "Did you see...?" and "What if we had...?" I'd guess all that was even flashing through their minds as they stared upward. And often staying put simply takes less energy than moving on.
     THAT is why we wait in expectation for the Holy Spirit, each day, each year. Going forth as God's witnesses is more than we can do on our own, and God doesn't ask us to. I think that what God does ask of us is that we shift our gaze from up or down or those were the days or the way it used to be, and start looking around us with expectancy. Where is the Holy Spirit going to meet me today? Through whom will God send the Spirit's power? What will I do today, not on my own but with the help of the Spirit? How, in a time when it seems like I'm not able to do anything, is the Spirit's presence growing in me to empower me for the future?
     The cool thing about expectation is that it doesn't presume already having the answers. It doesn't assume that how life worked out in the past is how it will turn out in the future. Expectation allows hope and vision and creativity and excitement. Sure, it can carry with it some anxiety or fear or dread...usually if we're anticipating the past negatively repeating itself...but we can hold that side by side with the positive feelings, offering them all to God as part of ourselves, as the package that makes each one of us in a wonderful way uniquely suited to be a witness to God's love.
     I offer you a challenge for this week: wait with an attitude of intentional expectation. When you wake up in the morning, take time to ask God to open your heart and mind to receive the Spirit, and your eyes and ears to see and hear the Spirit in others. Invite the power of the Spirit to come into your life to strengthen and embolden you as a witness. Instead of standing still looking up, move forward looking around, even if only a step or two. In all of this, don't worry about results, about feeling like something's happening; simply wait with the expectation that in God's time the power of the Holy Spirit will come upon us, will continue to come upon us, and in ways big and small, we will change the world with our witness to God's mercy, justice, and love.

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