Good morning, St. Matthew!
We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.
And so we pray.
Holy Loving Lord – we don’t often know where our choices will take us. And it seems the times that we try to balance all the possible outcomes are exactly the times that we make the biggest mistakes, because we are trying to take on YOUR job and play at being in control. The sin that threw us out of Eden is the sin that haunts us still – we want to run the show. We want to name who we should love, we want to name who we should welcome, we want to choose who is condemned and who is saved. This morning as we are called once again to proclaim the unearned, undeserved, graceful love that floods our lives from your heart – remind us that we are called not only to receive that love but to declare and live that love to all that we encounter.
As we gather today, I want to let you all know how well filling the last 10 days have been; I was able to see old friends and visit my beloved Ocean City, as well attend the DEMD Synod Assembly, the Festival of Homiletics and my friend’s Nancy Wichmann’s graduation from seminary – each of which gave me fresh insights and announced new challenges for my ministry in the world. It has been a joyous, blessed time of reflection and discovery for me – and I guess for Harry too, although he was less enthusiastic about the required driving it took!
During these past ten days, I have been privileged to recall how wide and deep God’s love is – the amount and the number of expressions of the Lord’s kingdom have just been amazing. And additionally for this Rogation Sunday when we announce the boundaries – an understanding of those boundaries – an understanding of the balance between God’s boundless, limitless action and our own bounded and limited view. So perhaps when I came across the quote from the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I was ready to respond to it. She writes, “Earth’s crammed with Heaven, and every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” Now there is nothing wrong with plucking blackberries – enjoying the sweetness of life is pretty wonderful, but the experience becomes so much deeper and richer when we come to see how that sweetness is connected to love of God for all their creation.
There are many theological approaches put forward about how God operates, and the reality is they are probably all foolish. As Paul tells the Corinthians, “For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror.” When I was at seminary, we had a professor who said “a scholar is someone who is looking for black cat in a dark room. A philosopher is looking for the same cat in the same room, but the cat doesn’t exist. A theologian is looking for the same cat in the same room, it still doesn’t exist and they say they have found it!” Smile. So when I quote these theological theories, please know they are spoken in a mirrored sort of way, and that you are free to disagree. But for me, one of the best ways comes from Luther – yeah our Luther! – who felt that creation didn’t happen outside of God, but rather took place within God! So when the psalmist declares in Psalm 139:
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 Sheol, 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 night wraps itself around me,”[a]
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
We are hearing the same affirmation of God’s supremacy and power that Peter proclaimed when Jesus asked the disciples to affirm if they are still willing to be his disciples after so many turn back when they hear of the coming crucifixion in John 6:68: 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Paul echoes this in Romans, 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than victorious through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Do you hear all the love in these verses? What knits us into God’s very being is not our lawfulness, our codes, in fact the action doesn’t start in us at all! Because we are already in God’s heart, we are already surrounded by God’s love. So when we accept that reality, when we accept the love – the sweetness of the blackberries transform in our understanding to be evidence of the love of God. We may as Paul tells the Corinthians only be dimly aware of the totality of that love, but he again affirms that when we ARE able to see from God’s perspective “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love remain, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”
Alright so – love is the basis on which the table of faith is set. Being made within God’s being, we cannot escape the love of God, cannot create a hell that God cannot penetrate. Hang on to that – that means that no matter ow badly we screwup – God’s love is ALWAYS available to us – ALWAYS. And since there is nothing that exists outside of God – then that same love is available to all people – all expressions of creation and humanity bear the fingerprints of God. So if I look at someone as being outside the love of God, I am wrong.
That leads to the twisty puzzle that Jesus puts in front of us in today’s Gospel. Because if we are all already within God’s being, then there really cannot be anything that will interfere with that, except our own wilful blindfulness. So when Jesus names the person of God’s loving action as theHoly Spirit, which is translated as Advocate, it is less God’s reaching out to bring us into God than an acknowledgement that we are already bound up with God. Again, having encountered Jesus, we have not come to God, but have recognised God as already being present. We aren’t just accepting the blackberries; we are realising the relationship that brought the blackberries to us has always existed. Our eyes have been opened to see the burning bush that has always been there.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for choosing not to see that bush, or to encounter God’s love. When we close our eyes to the holy, and blindly eat the blackberries as if they just popped into existence to share their sweetness with us – we are living heedless lives that are disconnected from the very source of our being. And the becomes the definition of sin – we are choosing to deny God’s presence, we are separating ourselves from the body of Christ and the love of God and the action of the Holy Spirit. Now we are given that choice in the gift of free will but if we choose to seek our will, our prejudice, our limited mirror view – refusing to even acknowledge that we are making that choice – then within God, there is pain and there is brokenness – a brokenness that is NOT caused by God but by ourselves.
If God only wanted there to be a limited and limiting love – then God would have not come in a brown, celibate, poor man incarnation as God did in Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, God would have come in the Schwarzenegger blue eyed conqueror that so many impose on God’s image. But God’s love, as shown to us in Jesus, the poor, obscure, disregarded Nazarene, comes for ALL because God is already present in ALL. So if we walk around pretending that we are the gatekeepers, the ones who decide who can come in, proclaiming a love that is exclusionary rather than acknowledging that we are ALL already deep in the heart of God just as we are, we miss not just the grace of the Gospel, but the testimony of the entire Bible that announces the love of God in which we all live and move and have our being.
Nothing that happens in God’s love is limited to just you or I; everything God does is for us. In his commentary on the Psalm, James Howell, Senior Pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina writes:
Our culture asks “Be gracious to me.” To get out of the idolatry of me, to care enough for the other, we move to “Be gracious to you.” Even better then is to join hands and together ask “Be gracious to us.” But it’s not us versus them in this Psalm! The Psalmist, and those who sang it, and sing it, may well hear echoes of God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12. God promises to bless Abraham, and then to use him to bless others, all nations in fact. …
The Israelites believed some very real divine energy was passed from person to person, simply by speaking. Words have power; they package love across space and time. … Since this blessing is something we share, with others and God, it could be worth noticing that the Hebrew preposition in verse 2, “shine upon us,” literally means “shine with us.” We shine. Together. And the light spreads. Such joy!
We are not a people for whom God is an outside source of power – bestowing on us the occasional sweet blackberry. Rather we are planted deep within God’s own heart, part and parcel of the blazing love that if we open our eyes, transforms all the bushes into burning testimonies of God’s grace. In that grace, we do not need to search for God; instead, we discover God has always been with us. So we can take off our shoes and leave off the sinful deceit of being gatekeepers, worrying about who is doing what is right and who is doing what is wrong, embracing the words of Jesus, that no matter what, God’s love will never let go of us. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” If the earth is crammed with heaven – is in fact made of the Divine – then right here, right now is God filled and God blessed – if we just have eyes to see it.