Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Proper 17A. 28 August 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select the 11th Sunday after Pentecost.



          If God wanted to speak with you, what do you think he would do?  Maybe I should back up and ask how you feel God speaks with you now.  Is it the still, small voice, as we like to say?  Or maybe you don't feel like you have heard from God in awhile, or perhaps…ever. 


          I know what it is like to feel that there is silence on the end of the telephone, or like it never even picks up.  You open up the Prayer Book and dial the number, "O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth eternal life, and whose service is perfect freedom."  And it rings, and rings…  "through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost"  Ringing, ringing…  "Amen." 


          And you come to the part where your standard prayers have ended.  The "Our Father" has been said, the names on the list of those who are sick have been read dutifully and lovingly, and the phone still seems to be ringing.




          I have never gotten a busy signal, but I have known the phone to ring for long periods of time.  Sometimes I have wondered if St. Peter or Blessed Mary would just pick up the phone and take a message.  Some folks find it easier to ask the saints to pray than to try to get God directly.  Have you ever found that to be true?  I have.  I have asked people to pray for me at times of personal struggle—times when I didn't feel that I could pray for myself.  It's too hard to settle down to it…too much is going on.  "Will you just please pray for me," and I leave off the rest of the sentence, "because I can't do it right now."


          But that's us trying to get God's attention.  What if God wanted to get your attention and speak with you.  Just think with me about this for a minute.  How would God go about it? 


          I remember listening to Br. Curtis Almquist, who was, for a long time, the Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist—one of our Episcopal monasteries—and he was asking us to remember how we felt God has spoken with us in the past, saying that we all have different ways of hearing from God.  Maybe when God was trying to communicate he was abrupt—someone close to us marches up and says, "Why don't you just do….blank."  And it hit us over the head, and we were taken aback.  Maybe even spent a few days in shock, and then slapped our foreheads and said, "Of course!  That's what I should do."




          For me, God seems to work through my initial refusal.  I have to say no first in order to say yes.  I have said "absolutely no," to so many things that I have ended up being very blessed in doing.  I could list them for you.  I said no to getting involved with Karin.  I said no—at first, in my heart—to every parish I have ended up serving—including this one!  When I was growing up, though I knew in my heart that I would probably end up pursuing ordination, I tried to say no to it many times. 


          When I was first attracted to the Episcopal Church, at first I thought, it was a spiritual affair.  I was cheating on my Anabaptist upbringing.  The Episcopal Church was like the other woman.  She had beautiful vestments and a gorgeous liturgy.  At times she had bells and incense.  Sometimes she was plain; sometimes she was pretty. 

And I found myself thinking, "No.  This is not for you."  And I prayed to God that if the Episcopal Church was just a spiritual version of sowing my wild oats that God would remove all the desire from my heart to be part of it.  …And I'm still waiting for God to let me know…!            


          But let us suppose for a minute that God needed to communicate with you, and be sure that a.) you would not be too scared to listen, and b.) that you would know beyond the shadow of a doubt—in a way that you couldn't shake from your mind—that this was God.


          That's what I finally came to about the burning bush.  I have known the story of Moses since Sunday school, and the burning bush has always bothered me a little, because I couldn't understand why it was necessary or what it meant.


          I have been looking for symbolism ever since I was old enough to consider symbolism.  Is the bush a metaphor, like the vine and the branches?  Is the fire like the fire that came upon the disciples at Pentecost?  And are we meant to carry that symbolism forward or backward from the bush to Pentecost or Pentecost back to the bush?  What do we make of the voice? 


          I have looked in commentaries; I have thought about it on long car rides; I have even spent time trying to imagine the scene as if I was part of the action.  And it has made no sense at all.


          But the light went on.  It is a paradox.  It is the coming together of natural and supernatural.  A natural bush and fire, and supernaturally, not consumed.  The bush is common and uncommon.  Something that is not strictly speaking alive or dead.  It appears to Moses as a mystery—something that has yet to be fully revealed.  Something that cannot be fully revealed except by God.


          It is at the same time appealing and scary; dangerous, yet inviting; beautiful and grotesque.  In short, the burning bush does not fit into any categories of existence, except that it exists.  Kind of like….God!


          Through this appealing, confusing, disarming combination of factors Moses is attracted to the bush.  Perhaps he is even entranced by it.  What does this mean?  His curiosity is aroused, but he is not too alarmed, because the bush is not consumed.  He's off balance. 

          He's just enough off balance to be ready to hear something new and wonderful and to consider something that would otherwise be improbable—because a bush that burns and doesn't burn is improbable, if not impossible.


          Do you see that?  God almost has to do this in order to say, "Hey, Moses…I'm about to ask you to do something that you are going to say, `This is not possible.'  And before you can say that, you are going to see what happens when I am involved.  What is possible and impossible is not up to you to determine.  With me, all things are possible."


          I have been around many people who are looking for a sign.  A bush that burns and is not consumed—but what they're really looking for is a miracle.  The big showy thing that can serve as some indication of God's blessing over a choice or a way of thinking, because they want direction. 


          I have begun to wonder if it is appropriate to spiritualize the paradox of the burning bush even further out.  Let's suppose that this is a metaphor.  The burning is aggression, or something disturbing, but the lack of consumption is like mercy.  Bear with me here.


          Have you ever had someone or some situation come up that was very aggressive or disturbing, and yet, for reasons you could not understand, your feelings weren't hurt, and you could actually embrace it?  Something or some comment that might seem on the surface painful or destructive, but it didn't do that.  In fact, it made sense.  Could it be that that was God doing the impossible to show us what is possible?  I don't know. 


          I do know that this encounter with God is the story of Moses' call to be the one to lead the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt.  And if you want to talk about probable and improbable, it was very improbable that that would ever happen.  Yet through the combination of Moses' faith, and God's faithfulness, it did happen.


          You and I will likely never see a burning bush, but there are so many other signs like it.  So many other times when what seems dangerous or improbable does not destroy as we believed it might. 


          Do you remember Isaiah's call?  It's in the sixth chapter of Isaiah:


In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.' The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: 'Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!'

 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: 'Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.' Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' And I said, 'Here am I; send me!'"

          Did you notice the fire?  The fire that burns, but does not destroy?

          These are stories of call.  God's call to a human being to do something wonderful for God's purposes.  So often the stories are read as history, and so often the sermons preached about God calling you or me to something fall on deaf ears, because we're so ready to count the ways that they are dissimilar from our common experience.  A burning bush, an angelic visitation, an audible voice in the Temple… 

          I don't know how to break through the disbelief that God, who called Moses, would ever call me; but I do think that that is the implicit message.  God, who called and sent Moses, can call and send you.  God, who called and blessed Mary, can call and bless you.  Call doesn't have to me priesthood, or diaconate, or missionary.   Sometimes call can just mean "this task" that I think maybe I should do or pray about.

          The indication of God's presence seems to come from the ironic, paradoxical combination of that which burns and is not consumed.  Something that burns within us, like the words of Jesus to Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus.

          Maybe you have been walking around with a fire inside you.  Something that you can't let go...  Some impulse for action or devotion that defies all of your most dearly held assumptions about what you should be doing, or what is most authentic to you… And God continues to stoke that fire, which never destroys, but still burns.


          When I was a child, on Christmas Eve, my parents and I went to the Christmas Eve service at our church.  It has always been my favourite service of the Christian year.  We sat in the balcony of our church, because I liked to watch all hand candles being lit at the very end.  To watch all these little flickering flames dancing below, like a sea of fire that doesn't consume. 

          The ushers lit the candles of the people on the aisle and the flame was passed to each person with the words, "Christ is born."  The ushers finally came up to the balcony, and my mother received the light, and as she lit my candle she said, "Alexander, Christ is born."  And when she said that…  It seemed to me that fire of faith which has always burned in her jumped from her heart onto the tiny wick of mine, and I knew…  I knew… 

          I knew that I could run from it as hard as I could, but I would never really get away.  Like Psalm 139,

1 Lord, you have searched me and known me. 
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up…

3 You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways. 
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me. 
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence? 
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in the grave, you are there. 
9 If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
11 If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night', 
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day…

          This is the fire that does not consume—the call of the eternal God to the eternal Church.  This is the Holy Faith. 

          May this fire burn within you.  It will never destroy.  May God continue to push his fire deeper and deeper, until all that is left is the light of his love.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.






Monday, August 1, 2011

Proper 13A. 31 July 2011

For the audio version, click here and select 7th Sunday after Pentecost.

Proper 13A.  31 July 2011.[1]

The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail

This sermon is dedicated to my beloved father, Ralph MacPhail, Jr., on his birthday.  He is the most honorable man I know.


          Today we read a very small part of the very long story of Jacob's life.  In many respects, reading just the part we read today is like tuning in to a television series halfway through the season.  If we don't know what Jacob has been through, or what happens next in the story, we can still enjoy what we have to see, but we don't fully understand why things are happening.


          Sometime you might sit down and pick up the Bible and just read the whole book of Genesis.  I can guarantee you that there is more action and suspense, more political intrigue, more tender love stories than anything you will see on television.  And if someone calls you up on the telephone and asks you what you are doing, you can respond truthfully and piously, "I am reading the Bible."  Honestly, read Genesis in one of the recent translations—you won't believe how much fun can be.


          The part we read today is the famous story of Jacob wrestling with God.  People often think Jacob wrestled with an angel, but if you read the text, it just says, "Jacob wrestled with a man."  And at the end of the chapter Jacob interacts with the man, and becomes convinced that the man was God.


          In the story Jacob is literally wrestling with God, because he afraid of meeting up with his brother Esau, who you might remember sold his birthright to Jacob for bowl of soup.  (We read that story on July 10th.)

          Jacob is wrestling with God, out of guilt, out of fear of what to do if Esau wants revenge.  The end of the story is really quite wonderful, but I don't want to spoil it for you.


          Have you ever wrestled with God?  I know I have.  Maybe not in the same way that Jacob did, but there have been many sleepless nights I've spent wrestling with what to do, and not feeling entirely sure in the morning whether I was any closer to an answer. 


I remember when I was a little boy in Sunday school and learned from the teacher that God always answers prayer.  She read the part in John's Gospel where Jesus says, "Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and a door shall be opened to you."  And I remember wondering what the difference was between that and the Disney song, "When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, when you wish upon a star your dreams come true."  How is Christian prayer different from that? 


And I wrestled with that question when I was about eight years old.  We wrestle with those questions when we are growing up, and moving from childhood to adulthood, and wondering if God really is as good as the Sunday School teachers told us.


Think of the men who went off to fight World Wars I and II.  There had not been armed conflict at on that scale in recent memory.  And these men went off with the blessing of a grateful nation, and discovered that even if they weren't going to be killed, that something was going to die inside them.  You can't witness the things they saw, and not be changed. 


Some of you may have seen the Ken Burns documentary that's been on public television lately, called simply, "The War."  I was talking with a parishioner who had watched part of it, and he quoted a man who was being interviewed who had looked around to see his friends massacred and then looked up to heaven and prayed, "God you have to come down here to stop this.  Don't send Jesus—this is no place for children."


          These wars took bright-eyed optimistic young men, and changed them forever.  People who had not seen what they had seen could not really understand what they had been through.  They came back to a weary nation and filled civic clubs, churches, and bowling leagues.  They came back to start businesses, and build infrastructure, and get degrees, and teach, and get ordained, and have children.  But they could not come back as they had been.  They had been changed.  They had no language to talk about what they had seen.  No desire to talk about it.  "Let's put this behind us and move on."  And who could blame them?


For those men there was always a little tinge of sadness, a little edge in their voice.  They came back to their churches and looked around at the people, who had not been through what they had been through, and they looked around at the stained-glass windows, and at the Altar, and listened to young clergymen preaching sermons about the goodness of God, and they wrestled with that.  Deep down inside, without words they wrestled with how this could be true, when they had seen that.  How can God be here, when it was clear to them that God had not been there?


          They didn't stop coming to church.  Many of them found God in the midst of the struggle.  Some of our greatest modern theologians and preachers emerged from that generation.  Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Niebuhr, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Han Urs von Balthasar, Reginald Fuller, Karl Rahner, and they all wrote prolifically about the struggle of finding God in the mess.


Existentialism, as a philosophical movement, actually began with the Christian theologian SΓΈren Kierkegaard, who wrote profoundly about the loneliness of faith—the struggle to find God in the silence, and in the disillusionment of chaos.  Whether you are a priest or an atheist you still stand where you are trying to relate to the world as one, solitary, individual. 


          Kierkegaard points to Abraham as the Knight of Faith, the man who listened for the voice of God, and obeyed it.  Despite the fact that no one else believed that there was only one God, and even if there were only one God, why would he talk to Abraham and no one else? 


Abraham sets off with is family to find the place that God wanted for them, all because he followed the voice of God within him, and ignored the naysayers.  Could you do that?  Could I do that? 


          The people who came back from war were wrestling with God.  The sun is coming up tomorrow.  There is only so much change a man can take in his life, so let's support our government, let's support our churches, let's support our families and friends, and let's get on with it.  Maybe God will show up, maybe he won't, but we'll keep on wrestling!  We'll keep going. 


A couple years ago Mother Teresa died and we found out through her memoirs that for most of her life and ministry she wrestled with God.  She describes in her journals and letters that she found no solace in the Eucharist, and went for long stretches of time without any sense of God's presence.  Mother Teresa probably did more for God and for humanity in one day that most of us will do over many years.  And yet the anguish she faced was that though she was doing it all for love of God, she felt no love from God in return.


Anti-religious commentators were quick to jump on this story as proof positive that God could not exist.  If God was real, then surely Mother Teresa would have a direct line, and that she and God would have been as close as anyone could be.  Roman Catholic theologians were also quick to jump on the story to give historical and theological perspective.  They cited St. John of the Cross's notion of the "dark night of the soul," and of purgative contemplation. 


That what was really going on in Mother Teresa was such transcendent peace that it was probably difficult for her to know where she ended and where God began.  She had achieved a level of such faithfulness that she couldn't even gauge it. 





I don't think they got it.  My guess is that she was wrestling.  How could God not be there in her emotions, when God is clearly at work though her fingertips?  How could God allow her to be praised by famous and influential people for her great faith, when she felt nothing but darkness inside?  She was wrestling with God. 


We all can understand that.  Our faith when we were little boys and girls was a different faith than it is now.  We've seen things that have taken our innocence away.  Some of us are veterans, and have seen things that have changed us forever.  We've seen car crashes, been lied to a couple times, made some decisions that have not gone well.  We don't have many illusions about humanity.  We've seen things you can't pretend were nothing.


And it's likely that on more than one occasion we have come into this church, knelt down to pray, and felt absolutely nothing.  Absolutely nothing. And we have asked ourselves the question: how can this be true, when I have been through that?  How can God be here, when we don't believe that he gave us an ounce of help there?


But do you remember in the story of Jacob wrestling, where in the midst of the struggle, the man puts Jacob's thigh out of joint?  The man did it because he could not prevail in the struggle with Jacob.  Jacob is so tenacious in his wrestling that he simply won't give up.  The thigh being out of joint was a wound that Jacob would have as a sign of his struggle.


And as the sun is coming up the man asks Jacob to let go and Jacob says, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me"?  "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."  So the man asks, "What is your name?"  "Jacob," he says.  "Your name shall no more be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and humankind and have prevailed."  "Tell me your name," Jacob says.  And the man replies.  (Are you listening?)  The man replies, "Why do you have to ask?  You know who I am."  It's God!


          Of pivotal importance is Jacob's refusal to let God go.  "I will not let you go until you bless me."  Mother Teresa could not let go.  The veterans could not let go. There is a profundity of faith in the wrestling that would be easy for us to overlook.  Just because we are wrestling with God, doesn't mean we have given up.  There is a difference between someone who says, "I feel nothing from God," but still comes to go to church every Sunday, and the person who says, "God is dead" and walks away. 


The veterans know that.  Mother Teresa knew that.  And you and I know that.


There is a difference between wrestling with God and refusing to stop until we receive the blessing—and just closing the book and walking away.  There is a difference.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.





[1] Originally preached as Proper 24C.  21 October 2007.