Lent 2C. 24 February 2013.
Genesis 15:1-12, 17,18
I was, very recently, having a conversation with Bishop Ted Gulick, and the essence of what he said in part of our conversation really stirred my heart. I want to share it with you.
Bishops have a view of the Church that is unique, because they travel so much, and know so many people, both lay and ordained, and they get a sense of where we are, and where we are headed. Anyone who has held a leadership position knows what this is like. You see trends of behavior, or recurring stories, and you sense movement—even it you can't put your finger exactly on what might happen next.
Well, in this conversation, the bishop said that he and his colleagues were sensing that the Episcopal Church is moving towards something wonderful. He drew examples of meeting with high school and college aged people who are earnestly devout and utterly dedicated to the mission and ministry of Christ within—and this is very important—within the Episcopal Church.
The reason I say that that's important is not out of some institutional loyalty, but because I am always hearing of this movement within our culture of people saying they are spiritual, but not religious. That they want to have a personal relationship with God, but they don't want to discover what that means within the discipline of traditional Church Faith.
But the bishop said that these confirmands and college students, camp counselors at Shrine Mont, and young-ish folks all over the Diocese feel in their bones a connection with the Episcopal Church, and want to live that out either in ordained life, or in dedicated lay service. He said they are thoughtful, wise beyond their years, intelligent, grounded, and not at all like many of us have worried the future generation would be like.
I have to tell you that I was immensely encouraged by his comments. And I hope you are, too, because there is a richness and an expansiveness to traditional Anglican Faith that is too precious to be lost. We represent the fullness of Catholic liturgy and practice, and at the same time, a strong biblical Faith that uses tradition and reason—practical piety—as a grounding principle.
On top of that, we strive to be a big tent, where people of various backgrounds feel welcome and at home. People can disagree with each other and remain in communion with each other; and that has always been a hallmark of Anglicanism.
But perhaps you look around from time to time and wonder where these young people may be hiding. Like most small churches, we have a smattering of children and young adults, and we always wish for more.
There are times in the ebbs and flows of parish life that it seems like most are combing grey or white hair, and the sounds of children are painfully absent.
Today, we read the story of God making a covenant with Abram. God made several promises to him. God called him to take his wife and cattle and servants, and leave Ur to travel to the land that God would give him. And Abram did as the Lord had asked.
We pick up the story with God coming to Abram in a vision and saying, "Your reward shall be very great." Abram does not understand how any reward could be great, because he has no children. How can anything be great without others to come after to share the reward and carry forward the relationship that God wishes to have with him?
So Abram pushes back at God a little bit. "Lord, what will you give me? I have no children, and the man who is going to inherit from me when I die is my servant." God says, "No, your servant is not going to be your heir. You are going to have your own child. Abram. Look up at the stars, and count them, if you can. That's how many descendants are going to come from you."
And Abram believed. I don't know how he believed, but he believed. And God said, "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." And Abram asks again, "How?" "How am I to know that you will be faithful? How am I to know that you will do what you have promised me?" So God makes a covenant.
He tells Abram to bring a selection of animals to him, and God passes between the sacrificed animals, saying "To your descendants I give this land. I will be faithful to what I have promised."
And the story continues with the visit of God to Abram and Sarai, where God changes Abram's and Sarai's names to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham meaning the Father of Nations. God tells Abraham that Sarah is going to have a child, and Sarah laughs, because she was advanced in years. And because Sarah laughed, God tells them that they will name their child Isaac, which means laughter.
It's a playful movement in the story. You have all this serious talk about covenants and stars and "I am the Lord thy God," and then, as the promise is being realized, God understands the sensation of the unlikelihood of it all—at least, what seems to them as unlikely—and God has the child, born of his promise, named laughter. (Why more people don't love God for this, I will never know.)
Well, I have some news for you. This story isn't just for Abraham and Sarah. It's for Beckford Parish. Maybe I'm intoxicated with the new wine of what the bishop was saying about young people. But I, too, have a sense about the Episcopal Church.
When I was about 20 years old, the Word of the Lord came to me and said, "Get up, and leave this place, and go to the Church that I will show you."
And I got up and I walked through the front doors of Emmanuel Church in Harrisonburg. It was a Thursday evening Holy Eucharist. No music.
There was no one at the door. No one welcomed me. I walked down the center aisle of the church, and looked up at the Altar where the candles and the Sanctuary light were lit, and it felt to me as if there were arms around my body, and a voice inside said, "You are home. You have come home. This is where you belong."
Before I had ever met the priest. Before I had interacted with a single person, I knew this was my church. And as I watched the priest celebrating the Holy Eucharist, I knew that this was my future. And that living out my baptism would be from that side of the Altar rail. I had nothing to go on. I wasn't even a regular newcomer yet; but I believed.
And I continue to believe in a God who calls people. Calls them to churches, calls them to jobs that make mission and ministry possible. God calls parish rectors, and senior wardens, evangelists, teachers, people who are inspired to start ministries to the poor, food pantries, homeless shelters, anything and everything to make the Word flesh again. To put skin and bone on what the Risen Lord preached.
God calls people to do things. God calls churches to do things. I think God is calling this church to renewed mission and ministry. I don't know how. I promise you, I don't have a set idea in my back pocket for what this would look like, but I believe it. I think it will be authentic to who we are, and what we believe, and that the sign of its "rightness" will be in gifts the Holy Spirit provides and the sense of joy we feel in its unfolding.
And I believe that when we discern that, that we will have children, as it were. Actual children, youth; and metaphorical children, in the form of new people and energy and ideas. And I believe that that will be a good thing, and blessing for us who are here now, and for the future of this parish.
I think we need to be open to where the Holy Spirit may be leading, and aware that it must begin as an act of God's love, who sends, and inspires, and leads. So I am asking for your prayers, and I mean your earnest prayers. And if an idea or a vision comes to your mind, share it with me, or a vestry member, or anyone else.
Don't beat it down with silly things like not having the money, or not having the people, or whatever. Pray, and imagine what God could do with this church.
God told Abram that he would have a child. He believed. Sarah laughed. I think God is saying we can have child? I believe, and I'm starting to laugh.
Will you laugh with me?