Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Sunday Sermon: How Do We Interpret the Present Time?

Proper 15/Year C 
Jeremiah 23:23-29 
 Hebrews 11:29-12:2 
Luke 12:49-56 

Over the last week I listened to a podcast from professors at Luther Seminary about the readings this week aimed at preachers, and one of them somewhat facetiously said if the preacher had not already scheduled his or her summer vacation, this might be a good Sunday to be away. To say, this week’s readings have an edge, is putting it mildly. From the prophet Jeremiah, we hear the Lord rail against false prophets and remind the people how God’s word has power, power to break through our defenses and pretty dreams. “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

Then in the letter to the Hebrews the author speaks of significant forbears in faith, along with the prophets, many of whom suffered great hardship, and while commended, did not receive what was promised. Even Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of joy that was set before him,” had to endure “the cross, disregarding the shame” before he could take “his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Finally in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus himself, not sounding so joyful, says “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled . . . Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No . . .” Then later, “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Torn down defenses. No pretty dreams. Hardship. Torture. The need for endurance. No peace. Strife. Ignorant, willful, blindness to what is right in front of us. Yeah, there are other things I’d rather talk about other things. Lots of things.

But, be that as it may, these readings compel me, compel us, to keep things real. Faith and being faithful often takes us places, physically, emotionally, and spiritually we would rather not go to. Ask things of us that are not only hard to imagine but feel impossible. To stand up, say and do things which may if not necessarily put us in harm’s way, certainly not win us any friends or even alienate us from people we care about.

Resurrection is real. But it is not cheap grace. To get there we have to go by way of the cross, be it through repentance, refinement of ego, difficult action, telling the truth, going outside our comfort zones, disregarding our “shoulds” and preconceived notions when they keep us from seeing the sacred in our midst. Having the blinders pulled from our eyes.

And by and large I think we know this. But it still doesn’t stop us from trying to at least make it a little easier. Soften its impact. However to do so is to deny the fullness of what is required of us if we chose this path.

Jesus’ question goes to the heart of this denial. “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but you do not know to interpret the present time?” Yet how do we do that? There are undoubtedly many ways, but one is to simply look at what is, versus, what we want or even hope for. And do so from a place of loving honesty—suspend our judgment and face things head on.

Because once we do face something head on, it becomes real. And then we can, with God’s help, do something about it.

Which, while hardly on the scale of cataclysmic events, brings me to the announcement this week of my leaving the Cathedral at the end of October and joining the bishop’s staff in November. A little background:

The first ordained person I spoke with when I thought I might be called to ordained ministry was Jim Carroll, our dean at the time. He was very patient with me—it feels rather audacious to say, I feel God is calling me to ordained ministry. But Jim gave me the space and encouragement to get those words out. However, one of the things he said was be prepared to leave the Cathedral because once ordained I wouldn’t be able to come back. And yet this little voice in the back of my head said, “no, you will be back.”

And after being away for 4 years, I did come back. To my great joy, John Chane, when he was dean, hired me. Something I will be grateful for the rest of my life because serving here has been wonderful beyond my wildest dreams. I have happily thought I would be here the rest of my ordained life.

But over the last year, the Spirit began to stir something up within me. A kind of restlessness I knew I needed to pay attention to, even though it could result in leaving this beloved place.

And because I am a faithful person, I ignored it, pushed it aside. Even as the restlessness grew, I refrained from interpreting the present time.

But then Bishop Mathes came to see me a couple of months ago and broached the subject of my coming to work for him. And from my restless place, a quiet voice once again spoke and said “listen.”

Lord knows I tried not to. I had many good reasons not to, not the least of which are the Cathedral is amazing, and the work I would be asked to do in the bishops office, while exciting, is really quite challenging. I was concerned I couldn’t continue to be a strong voice for inclusion. However, when I told the Bishop of my concern he said in essence “I know that’s important to you. That’s who you are and I expect you to you follow your conscience.”

What this showed me was rather than listen to what the Spirit was saying, I was throwing up roadblocks so as to not hear. My restlessness lay in knowing it was time for me to use whatever gifts God has given me, in a new way.

God was calling me to interpret the present time. Leaving here is one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. And it feels right. Not easy. But right.

Today’s passages from scripture highlight the tension we all have between what it is we are doing and what it is we are called to do if we’re to be faithful followers of Jesus. They call us to stop the excuses, to put away the blinders, and as the author from Hebrews says, “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

The Rev. James Liggett puts it this way:
We cannot simply ignore or overlook the fact that God offers us a vision of what human life can be, of what it should be. We pretty much know what that visi

on is. It has to do with shaping ourselves as people by living faithfully, by keeping God at the absolute center of our lives. It has to do with telling the truth and with living not for ourselves alone but also for others. It has to do with holiness of life and with a passionate concern for the poor and oppressed. It has to do with the way we take care of the stuff and the people God places in front of us. It has to do with how we behave, but even more, it has to do with who we become.
What it all really comes down to is the imitation of Christ; Jesus living his life in us and through us. Now, God is very serious about this. God expects us seriously to try to conform our lives to it.

Obviously things will be different when I leave the Cathedral staff. Which by the way, is not bad—different but not bad. But the God of our creation, mysterious yet ever present, in us and around us, binding all that has been with what is, and will be, connects us always.

And what that means in concrete terms is together we will help each other, pray for each other, work with each other, and hold each other up so we may not only interpret the present time, but indeed be the great cloud of witnesses this world so desperately needs.

The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas 
18 August 2013

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