Saturday, October 19, 2013

Blast from the Past: "A Persistent People"

A Persistent People

A sermon preached by 
The Rev. Susan Russell
November 8, 2002 | Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis
Proper 24C: Genesis 32:3-8,22-30; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18: 1-8

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our strength and our sustainer. Amen.

We are a persistent people -- and we belong to a most persistent God. Our mother is the persistent widow who returned to the judge again and again until she received justice. Our father is the patriarch who wrestled the whole night long and declared, as day was breaking "I will not let you go until you bless me." Our brother is Timothy who sends us this morning his words of encouragement down through the centuries: "proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable."

Our God is the one who formed us in our mother's womb -- who knew us before we were born to be fearfully and wonderfully made. This is the God who has persistently called us to return to that wholeness intended for all people in creation: "Again and again you called us to return.

Through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous Law. And in the fullness of time you sent Jesus, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace."

We are here today because we have each and every one of us in some way or the other glimpsed that way of freedom and peace -- have claimed the blessing of belonging to this persistent God -- have experienced the love of the God who loved us enough to become one of us -- and have been changed by it.

Yes, I said "changed." It's a "red flag" word , isn't it? A word being used and abused by those who advocate what they call "Change Therapy." Well, I'm here to tell that I have my own witness in that regard. God's Love Changed Me -- and the Episcopal Church helped. God's love changed and continues to change me in ways most effectively described in this song I learned on a Cursillo weekend:

I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Lonely or Afraid.
I will change your name
Your new name shall be:
Overcoming One
Friend of God
One Who Seeks My Face

Our persistent God does indeed seek to change us -- but the change God desires for us is not our sexual orientation but our theological orientation. It's not our gender identity but our spiritual identity. That is the Good News we gather to celebrate today in St. Louis -- the blessing we claim as members of the Body of Christ. That is the Good News we will take back to our congregations and our dioceses as we go about this work we have been given to do.

To do it we must be a persistent people indeed.

The battle in front of us is over the blessing of unions -- but the war is being waged over nothing less than the inclusive Gospel of our Risen Lord. Our struggle is with those voices, historically louder than ours, who have claimed the prerogative of offering their version of "Christian Values" for all of us. If we're going to respond to the call we've been given, we can no longer let those voices be the ones the culture is hearing as representing Christianity. We must stand up, must speak out, must WITNESS to the work that God is doing in and through us on behalf of the Gospel: the Good News of God in Christ that is meant for all people.

Benedictine Joan Chittister has written: We are each called to go through life reclaiming the planet an inch at a time until the Garden of Eden grows green again. The inch in front of us right now is securing the approval of liturgies for the blessing of same sex unions -- the "Eighth Resolve" which failed by such a narrow margin when we met in Denver for General Convention 2000.

I believe we will be successful in that effort -- and our work together this weekend will go a long way toward securing that goal.

But an inch is not the planet, a battle is not the war and our work cannot and will not be done until every single person knows that they are beloved of God -- until we can turn our attention to that long list of "isms' which separate us from the love of God and each other -- until we live in a world where celebrating diversity isn't a resolution but a reality and gatherings like this are not so predictably and predominately "white" -- until economic and environmental justice are objectives -- not afterthoughts.

And if I'm honest, it makes me tired just thinking about it all -- tempts me to take the inch and give up on the mile. When that temptation looms I remember my son Brian and his struggle in grade school as he tried to conquer the inch in front of him: mastering the mystery of Long Division! I remember the night he proudly announced at the dinner table that he'd finally figured it out. "First you guess, then you multiply, then you subtract until you run out of numbers! [pause for effect] So, now I understand math."

And I remember his older brother, quickly bursting that bubble with the sobering news of algebra, geometry and calculus yet to come. "Oh no" exclaimed Brian in disbelief and horror. "You mean there's MORE?????"

Yes there's more -- for Brian and for us. And just as my mother's heart ached for him that night at the dinner table -- wanting him to celebrate the achievement, yet knowing how much further he has to go -- how many lessons he has yet to learn -- I imagine God who is mother and father to us all feeling much the same about us every time we think we're finished: every time we're tempted to think the inch we've just reclaimed is enough.

I believe the greatest challenge we face is settling for where we've come rather than being open to where God is calling us to go. I'm told that Gandhi once said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world" -- and the blessing we gather to claim today is a church changed and changing -- the challenge we face is an inch reclaimed and miles yet to go.

"God's Love Changed Me: And the Episcopal Church Helped." This is the church of my birth and baptism -- and when I returned to it as a young mother (after what I call my "obligatory young adult lapsed phase") I found a church where the Presiding Bishop said, "There will be no outcasts" -- and I believed him.

I found people who loved me and sent me on that Cursillo weekend, where I also learned to sing "Just As I Am" -- and they told me that meant me and I believed them.

I found a diocese where when I came out I met with my bishop and he asked me two questions: "How can I help?" and "How are your boys?" -- and told me that everything would be OK: and I believed him. In so many ways and in so many places we are being the change we wish to see -- and yet God is not finished with us yet.

God is clearly not finished with us yet, but we stand today on rare and holy ground. That "harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few" part -- that's us: the laborers. And we are few indeed in contrast to the multitudes out there at this very moment having no idea there is a place they could come and sing "Just As I Am" without worrying that if anyone knew who they were, they'd be outcast.

When I hold up a new baby in front of the congregation and ask, "Will you support this person in her life in Christ" the congregation answers, "WE WILL!" And just for the record, I've checked. There's no * there with a qualifier: "Unless she turns out to be a lesbian."

Nowhere is it written, "Certain limitations apply." No disclaimer in the baptismal covenant saying "in the event the candidate is determined to be gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender the above offer is null and void." What we have to offer is the amazing grace of God's love available to all -- the empowerment of Christian community in action -- the sustenance of the holy food and new and unending life -- food for the journey we will soon gather around this altar to share.

That's the Gospel we have to proclaim -- the Good News we have to tell a hungry world starving for it. We have "food enough" in this Church for everyone yearning to be fed. We have love enough and blessings enough and pews enough -- what we need is chutzpah enough to both claim it and proclaim it -- and then to go about the work of inviting others to "come and see." If we can get about that work together, the 20/20 vision of doubling the size of the Episcopal Church in 20 years will be as simple as feeding five thousand (besides women and children) with five loaves and two fish. At least it will "with God's help."

Yes, there are those like the disciples at that famous feeding who say, "Send them away -- we don't have enough" -- but that my brothers and sisters is not the message of the Gospel we claim. The God who gave us food enough in the wilderness has given us blessings enough to share. The Savior who fed the hoards with a handful calls us to follow him and do the same.

And the Spirit who dwells within us will sustain us as we go.

For we belong to a persistent God. And we -- my brothers and sisters -- are a VERY persistent people!

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