Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sermon: Blessed Assurance

 James And Deanna Kahler -- Blessed Assurance
Sermon for February 16, 2014
Frances Jane (Fanny) Van Alstyne Crosby (Obs)
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
For online access to the readings click here.
I speak to you in the name of one God+, loving Creator,
redeeming Christ, and sustaining Spirit. Amen.

Today we recognize Frances “Fanny” Crosby.
We know Crosby as a prolific writer of hymn texts and
gospel songs in the American evangelical tradition
of late 19th and early 20th centuries. 
Crosby wrote more than 8,000 sacred texts,
over 1,000 secular poems, four published books of poetry
and two autobiographies.  

Crosby’s contributions to the genre of
American gospel music was unequaled.
For most hymn writing, the words come first.
Then the composer sets the text to music.
Crosby’s giftedness meant that composers
could take her their tunes and
she would immediately shape the words to fit the music. 
This is the process that led to her most well-known hymn,
Blessed Assurance. 

Born in 1820, Crosby became blind
from an illness at six weeks old. 
Her father died shortly after she was born,
so her mother and grandmother raised her. 
She attended and later taught in the NY Institute for the Blind
and married at the age of 23. 
They had one daughter who died soon after birth.
While she had many difficulties, her competence fueled her
to compose six or seven hymns a day,
working on as many as twelve at once before dictating them.

In spite of being blind,
or perhaps because of her blindness,
Fanny Crosby saw the glory of the living God
with great clarity in her mind’s eye. 
She modeled how to praise God and
to sing of God’s love, as noted in the Collect for today.

Today we also celebrate other female musicians
who in their own right have overcome great odds
to offer their gifts to us:
Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine Winkworth, Elizabeth Poston, Eleanor Daley, Dorothy Papadakos, and Pamela Decker.(p.15)

Through these musicians and their gifts, we hope to
open up expansive ways of knowing the sacred and
naming God other than “God the Father.” 
“God the Father” is a powerful image and
holds great promise and hope for many people. 

And, there are many other names of God that might be used;
for images from human experience and nature
tell of a God who is indeed beyond our naming. 

Within scripture, God is imaged as
judge, midwife, dew, gardener, bearer and protector,
rock, fortress, deliverer, comforting mother,
“I am,” good shepherd, lion, leopard”[1]
A few years ago, we traveled to
Denali National Park in Alaska. 
On the road into the park, the driver of our tour bus remarked
how uniquely clear it was that day and said that
at the next stop we might be able to see “The Mountain.”
By this she meant, North America’s tallest peak,
Mt. McKinley, (aka Denali) at 20,000 feet. 

As we disembarked the coach, I looked and looked –
it was clear but hazy. There was no mountain in sight.
Someone offered to take our photo with the mountain
in the background,
and while it was not in view, we agreed. 

Embarrassed, I asked if they would point out where
The Mountain was. 
That person showed me what I had missed. 
I had been staring right at it;
it filled the sky from horizon to sun rays
and yet I had not seen it. 
It was gigantic –
so big that it was beyond my comprehension. 
Once I saw The Mountain I could not NOT see it. 

Perhaps, this is a bit like our experience of the Sacred. 
We need each other to point out
the hugeness of God that is standing right in front of us. 
If we always envision God as Father,
perhaps we miss, or are blind to, other aspects of God.

Jesus refers to this blindness in our Gospel reading.  
This passage allows us to “eaves drop”
on the conversation
between the one born blind and later healed by Jesus. 
And that is where grace happens –
in that intimate Love relationship between us and God,
in that experience of surrender and of transformation. 

Jesus learns that the person he had healed was expelled
from the Temple. 
Jesus finds the healed one and asks,
"Do you believe in the Chosen One?"
To which that person replies,
"Who is this One, that I may believe?"
"You're looking at him," Jesus offers.
"The Chosen One is speaking to you now."

There, right in front of that person, was Jesus. 
The Chosen One, the Divine, was right there. 
It was so gigantic –
so big that it was beyond the person’s comprehension. 
The healed one said, "Yes, I believe,"
and then could not NOT see the Divine.

I wonder if that is what happens when we unconsciously have
God in a box and only look for the sacred in one category. 
Sight and blindness are not defined by one’s physical sight
but by one’s openness to the revelation of God. 

One of the “boxes” informing our grasp of the Divine
is the Nicene Creed. 
In her book “Gender and The Nicene Creed,”
author Elizabeth Geitz tells that
“Throughout tradition… God has been referred to…
as Father because Jesus addressed God as abba,
which literally translated means “daddy.”[2]

Through the name abba,
Jesus expressed the extremely personal and intimate nature
of his relationship with God…
And, while Jesus’ naming of God as abba is clearly important…
it does not stand alone but with other images.

For example, in Jesus’ parables,
God is a woman searching for her lost money,
a shepherd looking for his lost sheep,
a bakerwoman kneading dough,
the birth experience delivering persons into new life…

so if we take Jesus’ revelations about God seriously,
Geitz asks,
shouldn’t we take all of his revelations into account? 

Geitz invites us to be cautious about using one name
to the exclusion of others. 
Doesn’t that distort the image of the one God
who is beyond our naming…?”

The hazard of using only “Father” for God,
is that it conveys the message that God is male,
which is theologically inaccurate.
It is appropriate, then, to use female and male imagery
for God
in light of the many revelations of Jesus.

In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple,
Celie, the protagonist,
writes letters to God and to her sister.
Celie is a fourteen year old black girl living in the South
who has been abused…
One day she says to her friend, Shug Avery,
“Ain’t no way to read the bible and
not think God is white. 
When I found out I thought God was white,
I lost interest.” 
Her friend Shug responds,
“My first step from the old white man was the trees.
Then air. Then birds. Then other people. 
But one day when I was sitting quiet and
feeling like a motherless child, which I was,
it come to me:
that feeling of being part of everything and not separate at all.”

Being part of everything and not separate at all
is surely a gift of the living God!

When we say the Creed, “We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,” we can be aware that
God as Father was only one revelation of Jesus
regarding the nature of God. 
God as Father does not stand alone in revelations of God
throughout scripture and the history of the church. 
God as Father is only a partial picture.

We can expand our vocabulary of prayer and
the ways in which we name the Holy One. 
When we do, we bear witness to the fact that
the mystery of God transcends all categories of knowing,

So, when you feel expelled from God’s presence,
Jesus will find you and ask,
Do you believe in the Chosen One?”
You might reply,
"Who is this One, that I may believe?"
Don’t be surprised if Jesus responds,
"You're looking at him…the Chosen One is speaking to you now." There, right in front of you, will be Jesus, the living God.

The experience of the living God exceeds our hope and surpasses our memory. 
The experience of the living God is more than the signs that point toward the sacred,
more than the sacraments that share in it,
more than the stained glass that depicts it,
more than the music that celebrates it. 
The experience of the living God is beyond masculine or feminine. 

To paraphrase The Rev. Frank Wade,
the experience of the living God is the
“Holy-cow, what-was-that, where-did-that-come-from and how-did-that-happen experience.
It is feeling the wind of the Spirit whip around us. 
It is drawing on the invigorating results of spiritual discipline. 
It is seeing doors open where there had only been walls before.
It is finding still water in a shadowed valley
of illness or grief or loss and then
feeling the rod that comforts, the staff that guides. 
It is being drained by intercessory prayer and
rejuvenated by praise.
It is the recurring miracle of loaves and fishes
seen over and over by the generous and the vulnerable. 

It is in the unfocused eyes of the newly born and
the about to die
who know that the unknown at either end of life
is held in common cause and common embrace. ”[3]

Today, may we experience the living God,
the God that loves beyond all categories,
with great clarity in a sacred, holy, healing way that is
bigger than you can imagine...

That is blessed assurance, indeed! 


[1] Portions inspired by Elizabeth Rankin Geitz, Gender and The Nicene Creed, (New York, Church Publishing, 1995) p. 15-24

[2] Portions inspired by Elizabeth Rankin Geitz, Gender and The Nicene Creed, (New York, Church Publishing, 1995) p. 15-24

[3] The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade, former interim dean of the Washington National Cathedral, offered at the 190th Commencement at Virginia Theological Seminar, Alexandria VA, May 22, 2013. VTS Journal, p. 41-43.

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