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sermon preached on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Celeste McQuarrie, July 19th, 2014.
While they were talking, Jesus himself came near and went with them… And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” … They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people… But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Luke 24: 15, 17a, 19, 21a
It’s palpable, in this moment; in this beautiful narrative from Luke’s Gospel: the grief, the despair of these two otherwise unknown disciples, walking away from Jerusalem. More than that, however, walking away from the life that they had known, that they had committed themselves to leading, that had held such hope and promise. We encounter these two – fresh to the narrative, so unknown that they may as well be us – these two disciples who had remained faithful to the end. They knew the prophecies. They had heard Jesus, and knew that it would be three days after the crucifixion before they would see him again… The three days which, according to custom, meant that a person wasn’t merely mostly dead, but all dead.
Well, these disciples had waited… and… nothing.
After three days, they had nothing to show for their discipleship, nothing to show for their willingness to give up their lives, to leave everything behind to follow the one who had called them. After three days, they are brokenhearted, unmoored from all they had known and trusted and believed. After three days, they are leaving everything behind once again; bereft and uncertain, trying to understand all that had brought them to that point, probably wondering, as they walked down the road, “What will the folks at home say?” What was facing these two, as the ideals and hopes that had carried them into discipleship dissolved before them?
This Emmaus road is consumed, in this moment, byd espair, by hopelessness, by death – by the apparent “no” that sends them off on their travels. And when a stranger arrives in the midst of this grief, the rawness of their pain is breathtaking. “But we had hoped…” Have you ever heard anything so heartbreaking?
Hope is such a terribly human emotion. We do not merely hope, in an abstract way, but we hope for something. In our hope, we maintain certain expectations, we desire certain outcomes. And when these do not come to pass; when what we’re looking for dominates our horizon, then often, we miss what’s been right beside us all along. We tend to put our faith in human understanding, and to refuse all that doesn’t conform to that which is hoped-for, that which is expected.
In part, this is an aspect of the human reliance on pattern; if we can carry certain expectations and internalize certain understandings, then we will not have to reinvent the wheel with everything we see or hear: with every stimulus that touches our senses. Pattern allows us to organize the world, and not be overcome by chaos.
Yet this is also a mark of our reliance on our sense of fairness, of our desire to see some return on any given investment. Would any of us expect less? After following, putting our time and our faith and our energy in following Jesus… the very least he could do is rise in a timely fashion!
Wouldn’t it be nice if God worked on our time, or according to our expectations?
These thoughts have probably crossed Celeste’s mind from time to time, over the years of discernment leading up to this day. For this is not the ordination – not the timing, not the place, not the church, not the denomination – originally envisioned, when she set out to follow her call. This is not the response to the work, the time, or the energy expended that she might have expected from the outset. And there may well have been moments, when in the deepest recesses of her heart, that little voice whispered, “Is this of God?” “But we had hoped…”
Which makes all those years of discernment and discipleship very good preparation for ministry, after all. For that little voice is present in the thought that crosses the preacher’s mind when a worship moment, a sermon, a prayer falls totally flat – and that happens to the best of us, long before the moment when we hear the dreaded, “nice sermon, pastor.”
And that little voice is present in the thoughts that cross a church’s mind, however the church is gathered, as the projects on which we pin so much hope do not come to hoped-for fruition; as we fall down, as humans inevitably do; as we fail each other by not living up to the expectations, the hopes that we put on one another and on ourselves. These are the thoughts that cross our minds when all that we put in – to our church, to our preaching, to our ministry – seems simply to vanish into the tomb, sealed and hopelessly, totally dead. When we wonder at what seems to be a constant “no”; when we wonder, in despair, where God is, if what we’re doing is of God at all.
Still we gather, the church at worship, in hope and in despair.
We gather to be led, as the Emmaus disciples were, to an understanding beyond the human, to an expectation beyond all imagining. We gather to hear the scriptures, ancient but still speaking to our hearts. We gather to hear the word of God proclaimed – whether it is from the pulpit or the pews, whether it is during or after allotted hour. We gather, for all that prepares us to know Christ in the breaking of the bread; in the physical presence of this sacrament of incorporation, this affirmation of Body of Christ present here and now; in the moment when we hear the reassurance that the “no” of our despair has not been from God, but from our own fears of human expectations unmet, human hopes dashed; our blindness to that which was unexpected yet always present. And we find, in that moment when our eyes are opened, that which has always been there.
God’s “yes”, sitting right beside our “no.”
God’s abundant promises, exceeding all that the human heart can hope, all that human thought can envision.
God’s kingdom, erupting for a moment, bursting with resurrection and new life… right before our very eyes.
For this story does not end with the opening of the disciples’ eyes, but with their rising up. Our English translation hides the power of the word; the Greek “anastantes”, “to rise”, the same word used earlier in this very chapter, when the Angel outside the empty tomb told the women that Christ has risen. So, too, the disciples rise, in that roadside inn, who experience in this moment not just the resurrection of the Christ, but their own new life, bursting with the abundance of God’s promised Kingdom.
That is the possibility, as we gather in worship.
That is our call, as pastors: not just celebration of this sacrament to which our ordination gives us the right; for which we prepare, not just those before us but ourselves, with scripture and proclamation… that in the busyness and details of ministry, our eyes as well might be opened; that in the details of preaching and praying, bread and juice, cup and plate, we might not get too caught in our own hopes, our own expectations – even of the breaking open, even of the resurrection moment.
We will all have those moments of darkness, when we turn to one another and confess “but we had hoped.” And not all of those will bring us light, or peace, or vision. For I am sure that the two on the road had said those very words several times already, by the time Jesus joined them, without any particular result. But when the church is gathered; when we stand together with ancient witness and new proclamation, when we take the blessed and broken bread within us and look into one another’s eyes, holding one another as the beloved body of Christ gathered: may we be open to the life that is offered, beyond all we could have hoped. May we begin to grasp, as the apostle Paul prayed in his letter to the Ephesians, the breadth and length and height and depth of all that has been promised us.
And may we rise, as the disciples did, proclaiming God and bearing witness to the Kingdom, which is within our very grasp.
Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff!” … Jacob said, “First, sell me your birthright.” Genesis 25: 29b-30a, 31
I never could quite understand my brother. Right from the beginning, it seems, we’ve been butting heads. Mother said it started before we were even born – she used to tell the story when we were fighting as children, to us or within our earshot. How we fought within her, how when we were born, Jacob was hanging onto my heel. It’s the stuff of family legend, our birth story… the kind of legend that holds within it a nugget of truth.
I never wanted to be constantly fighting. It bothered me, when we were children; Jacob always had to have whatever I had, or something better. He was constantly competing with me. Mother encouraged it, sometimes overtly: whether it was because she had a thing for the underdog, or because Jacob was always so handsome, I’ll never know. I suppose it doesn’t much matter. But it was a relief, finally, to realize that, for all his competitiveness, Jacob never really cared for being outdoors. It made me love it more, when I could escape from the constant tussles, the badgering, the pestering. I would spend hours outside with Father, learning to hunt, to tend our animals and our fields. And we would talk. He told me not to worry about Jacob, but to be myself, to not let myself become infected by my brother’s fears and ambitions.
More importantly, though: my father told me stories, while we worked. He told me about his own story, his father’s story. How my grandfather had been called by God and sent out from his home and his people, and how God had been with him throughout. Father taught me how to be in relationship with God, how to live in faith, and obedience. He taught me what it meant to be a child of the covenant, living in the certain knowledge of God’s power and presence.
Gradually, Jacob’s behavior stopped mattering as much to me. The constant jealousies, the rivalry, the pettiness continued, but I let it all just roll off. I knew who I was – Abraham’s grandson, Isaac’s son, God’s servant. I was a good hunter, a good farmer. It was enough.
Until that fateful day. It’s still a family story, that one: the day I sold my birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. It’s not quite the whole truth, of course – no one mentions, for instance, just what a good cook Jacob really is, and how good that stew smelled! But more than that… that moment didn’t come out of nowhere. The ambition, the competitiveness wasn’t new. Something like this had been brewing for quite a long time, and I had seen it coming, and had plenty of time to think. I wasn’t really expecting such a blatant play, and made a joke of it at first – could he really be expecting me to give everything up for one plate of stew? But he was serious – my greedy, conniving brother. And I pitied him.
So: a birthright for a bowl of stew. Not a bad trade, really. After all, what need had I of a birthright? of an inheritance? I, grandson of Abraham, who had left his life behind to follow God, becoming a stranger in a strange land. What more status did I need than my lineage? What more power did I need than what God would grant me? I was content.
Father understood, but he was the only one. Among the others, the “stupid Esau” jokes abounded, but it didn’t matter. I knew I’d be fine. Jacob took Father’s blessing, as well… as though our father couldn’t tell his hands from mine, even with hairy gloves? As though Jacob had any of the calluses, any of the scars that hunting and farming bring? Father knew which son knelt before him, and I hoped that Jacob would realize that, and realize that Father had loved him for himself all along. That tricks and conniving had never been required to earn Father’s love – or God’s. But Jacob hadn’t learned, as I had, about being in relationship with God. He hadn’t learned about living as a child of the covenant. He had his birthright, he had his blessing, he had his status and power and glory, yet it was never enough.
The “stupid Esau” jokes persisted for a while, after Jacob left, but not for very long. My family grew, and prospered, and the daily concerns of providing for them put old tales of birthrights and stew out of our heads. We did well, and I tried to teach my own household about God, and covenant, and the abiding promises that they would inherit.
The jokes stopped as well as Jacob didn’t return, and we began to worry. Birthright, blessing, status, inheritance… it all meant less when I was present and he was not, when I simply prayed every night that he was safe and happy, wherever he was.
All of this was a long, long time ago. Jacob did return, much as he had been when he left; fearful, concerned with status, worried about power. He returned – scheming, groveling after a forgiveness that was entirely unnecessary. Still: I sensed in him some measure of growth, of responsibility; he, too, had a growing, prosperous family in whom he took great delight. And late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed, we sat by the fire and he told me of his encounter, his wrestling, his struggle. I was pleased that God had not given up on my conniving little brother, and hoped that Jacob might come to know and encounter God in a more humble, loving, daily sort of way. That his experience of being called, and loved, might take from him the hunger for human accolades, and let him be content at last. I pray that for him, still.
The family stories are told now by my grandchildren, told as though they hadn’t happened to me, told as entertainment when the family gathers around the fire in the evening. Yet it is now, finally, in my old age, that those stories make me anxious. For in the rote telling, and the characterization of Jacob as tricky and me as slow, so much gets lost. There is still rivalry between us, and now between our households; as these stories get told – of birth and of stew, of struggle and of birthright – I hear the justification of an animosity that should never have been. I hear the forgetting of our connections: we, who are children of the same mother, heirs together of the covenant, yet doomed by our story to live in a rivalry that would seem preordained and inescapable. If we are, indeed, to become nations, then what? Shall we be forever set against one another, justified by our story while neglecting our common roots? Shall the day come when we give up on the very possibility of living together as God’s people, as covenant people, as one family of our ancestor, Abraham?
The story is funnier, more captivating if the “stupid Esau” jokes abound, I’ve always understood that. But now I worry that Jacob has become the hero. Jacob, who quested after status, wealth, power; Jacob, who was willing to scheme, and plot, and steal – for what? The story would tell you that it was all to assure God’s favor. The story would tell the next generations Jacob’s truth: that there is not enough to go around – not enough blessing, not enough inheritance – and so we need to see to our own needs first. But that is not God’s truth: God, who has provided abundantly for us as for our ancestors. After all, is Jacob any better off now than he would have been? Am I any worse? It’s hard to see how.
I wish, now, that we could change the story. I wish we could talk instead of how all of these petty machinations – all of the ambition and jealousy and scheming – actually distances us from God, until it takes an angel and an injured hip to bring us back into relationship. I wish we could talk about how wealth and status are meaningless when we come face to face with the love of God. I wish we could talk about how even the devious, conniving, bratty younger brothers can be welcomed home. I wish we could talk about how even the selfish, petty cruelties that we inflict upon one another do not exclude us from the promise of God’s grace.
Can’t we change the story, to tell how God’s foolishness – in loving us beyond measure, and with incalculable abundance – trumps all of the human foolishness, all of the human division, all of the human understandings that would keep us apart? Can’t we tell the story of how Jacob was foolish, and I was wise: where birthrights don’t matter and inheritance is useless and God is the only thing that matters?
For that is the story that will heal, if we are willing to tell it. That is the story that will bring peace between our households, peace among the nations. That is the story that will finally bring us back together, we who are children of the same mother, children of the same covenant, servants of the same God.