Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon: Ladders and Grace

Sermon for July 20, 2014
Proper 11, Year A, 6th Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
For readings click here
Lord, Open our lips
That our mouth shall proclaim your praise.  Amen
Years ago, at the small Episcopal church I attended,
the priest invited parishioners
to share their experience of God
during their recent “pilgrimage.”
That was, for these pilgrims in Colorado,
a 7-day, 400 mile bike ride called “Ride the Rockies.” 

One woman said that she saw the face of God
in the columbine flower at the top of Monarch Pass. 
A man told how he experienced divine kindness
in the generous free food at the rest stops. 
Another stood with tears in his eyes with gratitude
for the angel EMT who helped him after his fall
on the back side of Trail Ridge Road. 

These remarks, surprisingly,
touched my heart and connected
my childhood experience of earthy grace
to the wonders of divine heaven.

These remarks were a ladder that appeared to me
when I thought God was not part of my life.

At that time, I was a “none” –
one who checked the “no religious affiliation” box
on the census.
But that day, these remarks were my ladder. 
Like Jacob, I thought, “Surely, God is in this place!”

We hear about Jacob in today’s OT reading.
That no-good younger brother of Esau & son of Isaac.
The one who bilked his brother out of the birthright
and tricked him out of his father’s blessing.
Who named God from a distance,
like when his father asked,
“…How is it that you have found [this savory food and game] so quickly?”
Jacob answered,
“Because the Lord your God granted me success.”

Jacob, a “none,”
had been sent north by his mom
to find a wife from his uncle’s side of the family.

“Don’t pick a Canaanite wife,” his father yelled.
And “don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out!” could have been his parting good-byes. 

Jacob gladly left, running away
from his brother’s rage and his father’s dismay.  
Jacob left so quickly that he didn’t even take a bedroll. 

At sunset, sensing that no one followed him,
he finally “arrived at a certain place” & rested. 
Pulling up a stone for a pillow
(since he didn’t have one),
he fell into that kind of sleep with which
some people are gifted: deep exhaustive sleep.
Oblivious-to-the-elements kind of sleep.
Drooling on the pillow kind of sleep.

He must have twitched
when the ladder appeared in the screen of his mind, with the bottom rungs on earth
and the top rungs in heaven. 
Perhaps his closed eyes moved quickly
as he watched the divine messengers
going up from earth to heaven
and coming down again. 
Jacob watched as from a balcony,
which is how he had lived his life. Distant, judging.
As far as Jacob was concerned,
it was survival of the fittest.

He didn’t know of God’s faithfulness. 
He didn’t concern himself with religious matters. 
He didn’t know God. He was a “none.” 
The ladder was just a dream, at the time.

I wonder… if
Sometimes, we too don’t know of God’s presence. 
We, too, have been known
to forget about God’s faithfulness. 
We, sometimes, believe it is survival of the fittest. 

Maybe our health is declining
and we feel bereft of any relief from God. 
Our loved one’s loss brings tears to our eyes
at the strangest times for the smallest reasons. 
Our recent fight with a friend
has left us feeling isolated and alone. 
How can we find God in the midst of waging wars,
plane crashes and suffering neighbors? 
How does God find us when there are
so many who are in need? 

Our own city has a suffering population of teens
who seek a better life,
living couch-to-couch and friend-to-friend,
with little assistance from government.
One local teen said,
“Looking back, basically all my life was a struggle.
          …that was all I ever knew.
Most of these [struggles] were due to
my mother’s drug and alcohol addiction.
[So] I was focused on surviving
and not much else.” 

Our country’s borders have migrant children
who seek a better life:
fleeing violence and instability in their family
and communities.
The book Enrique’s Journey
recounts the unforgettable quest
of a 16-year old Honduran boy
looking for his mother,
after she is forced to leave her starving family
to find work in the United States.
Braving unimaginable peril,
often clinging to the sides and tops of freight trains,
Enrique travels through hostile worlds full of
thugs, bandits, and corrupt cops.
Like Enrique, these children at the borders
are scared and alone.

They are desperate for someone
to accompany them and care for them
as they seek a future that will be brighter
than their past. 
At a Diocesan meeting yesterday, a priest shared
he visited a group of these children
– sang songs, visited with them –
including 32 infants with their teen mothers.
Some have been sent by their parents;
some have chosen to leave. 
These children are leaving their homelands,
not out of a desire for wealth, but for life.

Jacob, too, left his homeland,
not out of a desire for wealth but for life. 
Jacob, who didn’t know God or God’s faithfulness,
suddenly, in that certain place,
got a full dose of God’s own, unconditional self. 
Jacob realized,
as he watched the ladder in his dream,
that The Lord stood beside him.  *pause*

Not in the background.
Not in the “heavens.”
Beside him.  *pause*

Jacob knew God’s presence in that place.

God spoke to him. 
And Jacob was afraid,
for he was expecting to be chewed out. *pause*

But God said something altogether different. 
God promised land to Jacob and his offspring.
God promised that his offspring
would be like the dust,
spread throughout the land
(and don’t we know about dust, in Tucson?)
God promised that Jacob’s descendants
would become a great nation
and a blessing to all other nations on earth.
But, wait, there’s more! 
God promised to be with him
and to keep him wherever he went.


As theologian Frederick Buechner so eloquently said,
It wasn't holy hell that God gave him, …,
but holy heaven,
not to mention the marvelous lesson
thrown in for good measure.
The lesson was, needless to say,
that even for a dyed-in-the-wool,
double-barreled con artist like Jacob
there are
a few things in this world you can't get
but can only be given,
and one of these things is love in general,
and another is the love of God in particular.”[1]

When Jacob woke up, he realized the dream’s import. 
The ladder was the bridge between
Jacob’s earthly existence and God’s divine realm. 

Now, Jacob’s life changed. 
For in that moment, in that certain place,  
God bound God’s own self, unconditionally,
to Jacob and his offspring –
both personally and forever. 

“Surely,” Jacob responded,
“the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!”

So we, who sometimes don’t know God
or don’t remember God’s faithfulness,
we are assured and encouraged through this universal story.

Every day,
God binds God’s own self, unconditionally, to us. 

Every day, God pours out what
we can’t get in the world
but can only be given… 

And that is love in general
and the love of God in particular. 

Regardless of our remembering or not knowing – whether we are a “none” or a religious or a just a regular Jacob.

See, God doesn't love people because of who they are,
but because of who God is.

God invites us to dream –
to dream of a world that has never been seen
but has always been promised.[2] 

God invites us
to open our arms and eyes and hearts
to the blessings we have been given
and to pass those blessings on
to our neighbors in need
to make God’s dream come true.

God invites us
to respond to all the children –
by helping to find shelter,
by advocating for them with congress,
by seeking out local service opportunities
such as Casa Mariposa or
Youth On Their Own,
or by donating to Episcopal Relief & Development.

God binds God’s own self, unconditionally,
 in love, in faithfulness, in promise, in blessing,
          with grace.
Free grace.
It was by grace that it was Jacob of all people,
who became not only the father
of the twelve tribes of Israel, [3]
but the great-great-etc…
grandfather of Jesus of Nazareth,
The Ladder who bridged earth to heaven. 

It was by grace
that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world at all. 

And that is good news, indeed.
Can you see the ladder set up on earth,
reaching to heaven?
Can you see the angels
ascending and descending?
Can you feel God standing beside you?

Surely God is in this place! Now we know it.


[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1979), p.57
[2] Inspired by The Rt. Rev. G. Porter Taylor, To Dream as God Dreams, (The Green Berry Press, Athens GA, 2000), p.100
[3] Portions inspired by Beuchner, p.58

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Sermon: St. Barnabas (Obs)

Sermon for July 1, 2014 ~ 10:00 Healing Service
Feast Day of St. Barnabas (Observed)
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
For online access to the readings click here
I speak to you in the name of One God:
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Today we observe the feast day of St. Barnabas,
whose actual feast day is June 11,
but transferred the observance to today.

Barnabas appears largely in the history of the church;
we commemorate his feast day normally every June.
My guess is that most of you have read of him or know about him.  What do you all know about Barnabas?

Short Bio bits:
·        Born in Cyprus, was a Jew of the Dispersion (like Paul)
·        Not one of the “twelve” but likely one of the 70 sent by Jesus
·        Named in Acts as having “sold land and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet”
·        Barnabas took Paul by the hand to the the faithful and introduced him, guaranteeing his good faith.
·        Apostles called B to leave Jerusalem and go to Antioch.  He went to Tarsus to find Paul and they worked together in Antioch for over a year.  Antioch – where disciples were first called Christians. (~12 miles from Syria on far Eastern border of Turkey).
·        Part of his mission was to collect money for the poor; this was then taken to Jerusalem (w Paul), returning to Antioch.
·        Much travel: Seleucia, Cyprus, Salamis, Phos, Perga, Iconium, Lystra, returning to Antioch; as we heard in the reading from Acts today.
·        Name: Originally called Joseph but they changed his name to B, meaning “son of encouragement.”

Now that is a legacy – to be called son of encouragement. 

So for today, perhaps we can reflect on encouragement in our own lives.
How can we know Barnabas, through the Holy Spirit,
in the many people who encourage us.

Take a moment *pause*
and close your eyes if you like.
Think of a time recently when you needed encouragement.  *pause*
Think of what was on your mind and heart at the time.    Bring to mind the circumstances, the situation, the people involved, your feelings about it.
Now pull into focus that person
who said just the right thing to you,
who may not even have noticed
that was *just* what you needed to hear.

Think about what that person said.
Think about how the person said it.
Think about how it landed in your heart and
like a pebble in the water,
resonated rings of healing salve into your whole being,
filling you up with love and compassion.
What an amazing gift you received.

Does anyone want to share their story of receiving encouragement?

Perhaps today is one of those days, when you come to the Healing service needing encouragement for
·        Finding healing in the midst of yours, or another’s, illness,
·        Navigating reconciliation for yours, or another’s broken relationship
·        Knowing liberation from yours, or another’s dis-ease of addictions
·        Hope and healing from yours, or another’s recent death of a loved one
·        Empowerment to move out of yours, or another’s apathy or depression

We all need encouragement from time to time.
The root of the word is, of course,
“courage” which comes from the heart,
or “Coeur” in latin. 

To “en” courage is to “lift up your hearts”
as we say in the Eucharistic prayer.
We lift them up to God,
knowing that it was God who put those hearts in us.
 We received that gift and
we give it up to the Lord in return. 
This is the flow of the Holy Spirit. 
We received freely, so we give freely.

In turning to the Gospel message today,
these are the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples
as he sent them out,
“As you go, proclaim the good news…
Cure the sick
Raise the dead,
Cleanse the lepers,
Cast out demons…
You received without payment; give without payment.”

As Teresa of Avila once said,

“Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

In the Gospel teaching, as in this quote,
we receive the empowerment,
from God to be like Barnabas,
a son or daughter of en-couragement to others,
just as we have received encouragement.

With that promise of God’s faithful love,
we are encouraged to “proclaim the good news” –
to share with those who are in need of
‘healing’ touch
that God is with them,
that the Lord is healing them, that they are not alone…

We are encouraged today by God’s gift of grace
to be generous as the Lord has been generous with us. 

And so I ask you today, if you are willing,
to practice encouraging others,
to heal each other with the prayer of healing,
for it is in healing others
that we may recognize healing for ourselves.

Here are short prayer cards
that you can use to say prayers for each other. 
I invite you to turn to one another
and find one person to say this prayer. 
I lay my hands upon you in the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, beseeching  him to uphold you and fill you with grace, that you may know the healing power of his love.

Today’s good news is that we are encouraged,
by Barnabas and through the same Holy Spirit of God,
to be encouragers of each other.