Monday, July 17, 2006

6th Sunday in Pentecost: Of Plumb Lines, Stepping Out and Closets

The following is today's sermon for Pentecost 6 2006, preached by the Rev. Anne K. Bartlett, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, Oregon.

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In the name of the Holy One, who is ever sending us out and bringing us back Home. Amen.

I hear the Gospel words – “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two.” and my heart sinks. Oh no, not the “sending out” story. It’s one thing to hear about Jesus going about the countryside, preaching and teaching, healing, giving hope,turning lives around, casting out the occasional demon. It’s quite another to hear he sent out his disciples to do the very same things, because then the story might have implications for us.

Of course the whole Biblical saga is about being sent out – or thrown out, as the case may be–from the Garden of Eden on. We children of God are always being told to pack up and move on. Think of Abraham and Sarah, asked at their advanced age to leave friends and family and all that was familiar, on the assurance only of God’s wild word of promise. Think of Moses and the Israelites who were told to leave Egypt in the middle of the night with hardly the clothes on their backs. They were sent through the Red Sea waters only to wander around the desert for forty years to learn what it meant to live in the present moment, by faith, relying solely upon the providence of their God.

Consider the prophets. Talk about being sent out with a message nobody wanted to hear! Crazy old Ezekiel last week was instructed to speak the Word of the Lord to a rebellious and resisting folk, “whether they hear or refuse to hear.” And this morning we got a snippet of the story about Amos, who had neither the family background nor the vocational training to be the bearer of God’s word of judgment on the crooked generation of his day. “I am not a prophet nor a prophet’s son,” he told Amaziah, the priest in charge of the King’s Chapel, the staff person coordinating the President’s prayer breakfast, who was not at all pleased to hear what Amos had to say. “I am a herdsman, for heaven’s sake, and I know how to prune sycamore trees. But God told me to tell you this, about the plumb line and the divine judgment coming upon the religious and political institutions of this land. Hey, this wasn’t my idea, but I have no choice, you see, but to go where God has sent me and do what I have been told to do.”

Sometimes in our biblical story, the “being sent forth” is coupled with a promise: of land, or children, or new and abundant life. But often there is no specific promise attached to the mission, other than it’s what God wants us to do; quite the opposite, in fact. Woven through Scripture like a red thread is the rejection by the world of those whom God has sent to it. Consider Jesus, the Son who was sent. Consider the Cross.

This journeying, this being asked to leave one place and go to another, this “being sent” syndrome is a major theme in our Judeo-Christian faith. We’re always being told to “Go. Go and tell the others.”

Think of Mary Magdalene in the garden that first Easter morning. When she got over mistaking Jesus for the gardener and fell into his arms, he gently set her back on her own two feet and said, “Do not cling to me, Mary. Go, tell the others.”

Nowhere in the bible is it promised that when we are obedient to the command to “go and tell the others” that we will be well received or listened to with respect or even fare well, much less be “successful,” whatever that means in this context. Rather, we are explicitly forewarned that we will likely encounter trials, tribulations, outright rejections. Consider Paul.

Though the rejection these days in our North American culture may be of the mild variety – being ignored, dismissed as irrelevant or na├»ve, listened to with condescension or even mild hostility, I still don’t want to hear these stories about “being sent.” I want to stay in church where it’s safe and secure, with my parish family and friends. I want to nestle in close to the altar. I don’t want anything to ever change (including the words of the Prayer Book). I want to cling to Jesus right here, forever. I don’t want to go out there into the world to speak unbelievable Good News that few want to hear or to do my tiny part in trying to heal this broken world. I’d much rather work on our hospitality skills, when the strangers show up at our door. It’s much less threatening that way,isn’t it?

Besides, it’s not our style, as Episcopalians, to even imagine ourselves going out
two by two, like fresh-faced Mormons in their clean white shirts and ties, or the Jehovah Witnesses, sweet-faced middle-aged women dressed in brown, holding out The Watchtower for me to take, gently probing to ascertain whether I’ve been saved. I think I’ve told you about the Saturday morning some years ago when I simply couldn’t face another discussion about my salvation, so I hid in the hall closet until they gave up waiting and walked away. I didn’t see them shake the dust off their sandals at the sidewalk’s edge, but I would not have blamed them if they had.

Episcopalians get very anxious when we hear the word evangelism spoken right out loud in public. So I’m not going to talk about evangelism but rather about – listen up – reconciliation. Let’s stop worrying for a moment about being sent out, two by two, to knock on doors. Instead, let’s use our spiritual imaginations and wonder what Jesus might have had in mind when he sent out those first disciples. It wasn’t because his followers were spiritual adepts, you know. They were as frightened, as clueless, as clumsy as we are no doubt. That’s the reassuring thing about the disciples; they really are just like us.

But early on in his ministry with them, Jesus said, “Okay, it’s time for you to practice. I want you to go out and do what you’ve seen me do. I want you to talk to others about God, how the Kingdom is all around, for those with eyes to see. I want you to help others voice their deepest longings to change their lives, get back on track,find “true north” again and live lives congruent with the men and women whom their Father created them to be. Not everyone will be interested in what you have to say; not everyone will be ready to share their souls with you. Travel light --just take yourselves, you don’t need any books, DVDs, brochures. I’m giving to each other so that you can encourage one another and keep on track. You just need to show up, wherever you go,with whomever you may be. Be fully present when you do show up. Speak your truth, the truth you have learned from me. Then let go of the outcome. That’s up to God, not you.

“Do acts of healing, wherever you are. Feed the hungry, heal the sick, include the outsiders and those on the margins, confront evil in all forms, be mediators of reconciliation at all times. Show in your actions, and in your own being, that you already live in God’s Kingdom of love and grace.”

You know, we are talking a lot right now about the mission of the church. It’s too easy to hear that phrase and have our eyes glaze over. It’s very tempting to think that the church exists primarily as a community of belonging, where we come weekly to feel connected to one another and to God. And that’s right and good, but it’s not enough. Because ultimately the church is not supposed to be a comfortable community of belonging but a community of transformation, a place where we allow ourselves to be known, to be healed, to be changed, to be surrendered, and then to be sent. Oh, there’s that word again: to be sent.

The most exciting thing that happened at the recent General Convention of our
Episcopal Church was the renewed focus on the mission of the church. I daresay it was just as if someone had held up a plumb line and pointed out, “I think we’re out of kilter here. We’re spending most of our energy on arguing with one another instead of going out and doing the work Christ has given us to do.” At convention, whenever we stopped obsessing inwards and refocused on our mission, as expressed in the Milennial Development Goals of addressing the root causes of global poverty, energy poured out, especially from the younger members there. It was infectious, and we became united again – over mission.

Question: What is the mission of the Church?
Answer: The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with
God and each other in Christ.

Question: How does the Church pursue its mission?
Answer: The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships,
proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace and love.

Question: Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
Answer: The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its
members.

St. Paul wrote that God has given us “the ministry of reconciliation. …we are
ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” The practical implication of the ministry of reconciliation, restoring all things to unity with God; the practical implication of being ambassadors for Christ, individually and corporately, is that we have work to do, beyond these doors, At the end of each Eucharist we pray God to “send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” Our work is the same work that Jesus did, the same tasks he sent out his disciples to do in his name, way back then and right here now.

What does it look like, when we’re out and about, doing the work we have been
given to do? Well, here’s what I think: it looks like taking our turn staffing the local food bank, it means transporting children to foster care homes, it means be present with a friend in grief, holding hope for her until she can find her own hope again. It means serving on boards who are help the marginalized, it means researching agencies you wish to donate 0.7% of your income to addressing the issues of global poverty, health, education, clean water in the most distressed areas of our global village, it means organizing practical help for an overwhelmed young mother.

It means finding the specific work that Jesus is calling you to do, to be his ambassador, his disciple out there, beyond our doors, in the small acts of everyday kindness, in learning how to speak truth to power, in acquiring the skills you need to be a chaplain to those who are dying, or those in prison, or those who suffer from addiction, or those whose lives seem hopeless and without any purpose. The list is endless, but that does not excuse any one of us from finding our own work to do in the world in Christ’s name.

Because that is our ministry. That is the mission of the Church. That is what
Jesus has sent us out to do. And here is what I have come to understand: that as soon as we refocus on our Christian mission, we find our souls – and the soul of the Church --once again in proper re-alignment with Christ. As soon as we get out of our own way, we find God at work in us, transforming us, changing us, making us clearer channels of God’s power and grace.

Then whatever it is that we do in Jesus’ name, well, it’s no longer about us, don’t you see; it’s about our turning ourselves over to God to do with us as God will. Thus we find ourselves freed from anxiety, from fear, from concern even about the outcome of our ministry. In the process of being sent out, we find ourselves being transformed and sanctified.

Then, and only then, can we go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, unafraid and undeterred by the scope and the complexity of the problems of this world because we have come to know that God’s power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Amen.

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