Sep 222017
 

Several years ago now I had a conversation with a parishioner from one of the other three parishes I have served over the years.  In that conversation she told me that she wanted to let me know that she was sorry for not having done enough to support me during my time of ministry in that parish, and that she had felt badly about it for years.  I was shocked. I saw it very differently.  I had always felt very supported by her during my time in that parish.  I told her just that and said I hoped she would lay her burden down then and there.  We parted renewed in our sense of appreciation for each other and the time in ministry we had shared, and that blessed interaction has stuck with me ever since.

I was reminded of it again this week as I read our first lesson, from the book of Genesis.  At the outset of the reading Joseph’s brothers are worried, because they are in dire straits.  Nearly starving due to the famine in their homeland, and having come down to Egypt where there is food aplenty, they find that the one Egyptian official who can give them relief is none other than their brother Joseph, whom they sold into slavery years before.  So they begin worrying among themselves, saying, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”

It is a difficult thing to come face to face with someone you fear may bear a grudge against you, whether your wrongdoing was real, as in the case of Joseph’s brothers, or imagined as in the case of my former parishioner who made amends to me.

In Joseph’s life story we can see the transformation that needs to take place for each of us if we are going to embody the forgiveness God calls us to throughout our scriptures this morning. A journey that includes coming to an expanded view of ourselves and others.  If we read back into this story of Joseph and his brothers we will see that his brothers’ actions in selling him into slavery and telling their father he was dead were unquestionably wrong.  While their actions may have been indefensible, their frustration with their prideful younger brother, which led to those actions is understandable.  To say the least, Joseph, as a young man did not show finesse when telling his brothers about the future he was perceiving in his dreams.  What sibling likes to hear that one day in the future they are going to be bowing at the feet of their brother?  

If we did not know the outcome of this story, the prevailing tone of the present day world might lead us to expect this story of Joseph and his brothers will end with Joseph exacting revenge and triumphing over his brothers who indeed were now required to bow before him.

But that is not the way this story ends.  Joseph who once was a proud young man has grown into a much humbler older man.  His response to his brothers’ fear that he will take retribution is to say, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”  

This story can encourage us to reflect back on our lives a bit to earlier chapters.  As I think carefully about my younger self I can see with the clarity of hindsight how both my strengths and shortcoming were woven into the fabric of my life and relationships.  Maybe you have had similar moments of self awareness.  Seeing our strengths is edifying, while recognizing our shortcomings can be very humbling.  Thankfully, the good news of the Gospel of Christ is that God loves us fully and unconditionally and has already forgiven us for all our wrongs and shortcomings.  Yet so often it seems we have a hard time accepting and trusting that radical love and forgiveness.  

In a book of meditations I read daily, this entry came up this week – it begins with the well-known quote from Alexander Pope:

“To err is human; to forgive divine.

-Alexander Pope

If I am unable to accept the fact that people make mistakes, am I not rejecting them as human beings? Even more to the point: does my inability to accept my own failings cause me to see myself as not measuring up?

For my own peace of mind, I need to forgive even the most damaging transgressions; but forgiveness of others can only come when I have learned to forgive myself.

For Today: I pray for a forgiving heart and the willingness to let go bitterness.”

If any of that rings true, there are prayerful actions we can take to move us toward greater forgiveness of ourselves and others.  First we can put pen to paper and list anything we feel guilty about or ashamed of, things which we do not feel fully forgiven for. Second, we can be greatly helped by finding a trustworthy person to share this list with, because sometimes, like my friend I spoke of earlier, we are carrying burdens that are not really ours.  A trusted and wise friend can help us tease out what our responsibility is in various complicated situations.  Third, once we have discerned the things on our list that we are truly responsible for, we can intentionally take them to God in prayer, asking God to hold them and help us to experience and relax into the full and absolute divine forgiveness that Jesus assures us of.  Fourth we are ready to make amends for anything that we are responsible for – and there is wonderful wisdom out there about how to pursue such amend making – if you want direction, I would be willing to share what I know.

These are simple, but not easy actions to take, and of course this is an ongoing process.  The more we practice this process the more we will discover about ourselves and about God. As we reach for self-forgiveness, we become more able to be ministers of that same forgiveness for others. Then we are woven more fully into the tapestry of grace and love which God is weaving for nothing less than the redemption of this world. It begins with the personal but can powerfully ripple into our corporate and societal interactions.  What could our world look like if our governing policies were rooted in a sense of forgiveness?  I believe God holds that vision for our world!   May God bless us with all we need to be partners in bringing it to pass!  In Christ’s name.  Amen+

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Sep 222017
 

                          

…for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy…

          Those are apt words for me this week! In the midst of gearing up for another school year with our kids, and program year here at church, the many tasks, details and calls on my time and energy pile up and can feel overwhelming.  But that lasts only as long as I am confiding in my own strength.  When I reach the limit of that strength, I remember that God is the director, not me, and things begin to turn around.  As I depend less on myself, and as the collect so eloquently puts it, make my boast of God’s mercy,   I begin to breathe again.  Then refreshed I again see this ministry we share in this wonderful parish with fresh eyes, and feel excitement for another year starting up. 

It was God who brought each one of us through these doors for the first time and it is God who gathers us back in here together on this our annual homecoming Sunday.  As I stepped back from the frenzy this week, I was once again dazzled by how God brings us each here for God’s own good and grace filled purposes.  And once we are here, when we are willing God partners us with each other in ways that accomplish those  purposes as we become woven together in community.  Not perfectly  – we are still a work in progress – but we are a community woven together with threads of grace. 

Can you remember what was happening in your life when you walked through the doors St. Paul’s for the first time?  Maybe it was 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60 or more years ago.  Or maybe it was 10 years ago, or 5 years ago, or 2 years ago, or just last week, or maybe even today.  Take a moment and think back to that first time you entered here.  When you think about it, do you have a sense of having been led here?  It may be only in hindsight that some of us may be able to detect God’s imprint in our arrival to this holy ground.  Others of us may have had the strong sense at the time we came of literally having been pushed through these doors by an unseen, insistent hand.  Others still where brought by parents or other family members, or we came at the invitation of a friend.  Each of us has our own arrival story – each as individual as we are.  

Through my 20+ years in ordained ministry, I have heard countless such stories from people in the 4 very different parishes I have served.  What strikes me as a common thread running through all those stories of how people come to be part of a worshiping community is the feeling that each person expresses that there was something important they needed in their life that they could not find alone.  

I have found it also true in my own life.  There is a real grace that flows in my life as a result of being part of Christ’s body in the church.  Week after week, as I am fed on the mystery of the sacraments, and exposed time and again to the words of scripture, and blessed by the bonds of fellowship that grow up among us in the body of Christ,  I receive something that helps me live my life with a  palpable strength and hope.  And though I cannot exactly explain how that works, I can say that in those few chapters of my life where I absented myself from the community of Christ’s body, I found that sense of strength and hope to be absent too.  

I know that I need spiritual community, and your presence here today tells me you do too.  And I believe that healthy spiritual communities remain open and ready to receive new life and health continually through the graceful way God guides new members into their midst.

In the 12 step fellowships which have all sprung from the original AA, there is a saying:

“The newcomer is the most important person in the room, because to keep our recovery from addiction, we have to be constantly giving it away.” 

I find these words to be very wise and I have recently translated for myself for use in church:

“The newcomer is the most important person in church, because to keep our faith in Christ we have to constantly be giving it away.”

I have shared this translation with our newly formed newcomer welcome committee, as a slogan we can use to direct our approach to welcoming and incorporating visitors and new members whom God in Christ draws in among us.  And we all have a part in embodying these words.  The amazing thing about living into this slogan is that as we turn our focus to the newcomer and engage our curiosity about who they are and how they have come to be among us, we are reminded of our own first coming into this community – of those moments when God’s grace moved us not to confide in our strength, but rather to enter into a community that makes a boast of God’s mercy.

In our Gospel passage from Matthew this morning, Jesus says, ”Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  This homecoming Sunday, let’s celebrate that amazing truth once again!  Let’s take some time at the passing of the peace, to pause to see Christ looking back at us through the eyes of those we greet in his name.  And let’s joyfully trust that they will meet Christ in us as well.  And after our worship together is complete and we gather for our homecoming picnic, let’s seek out those we don’t know well and get acquainted.  Let’s take some time to share a bit about what brought us here to St. Paul’s, and how it makes a difference in our lives.  Let’s each dare ourselves to greet and get to know someone we don’t know well – someone who is a newcomer to us, even if we have seen them around here for years, but have just never had the chance, or the nerve (speaking for those of us who are on the shy side) to get to know them.  When we reach out to each other in community this way – even when it feels awkward – we literally weave the threads of our community closer and strengthen the pathways of light through which the love of Christ can flow!

Of course none of this begins today – hospitality is a charism of this parish- but it is a charism that needs constant refreshing, and deepening, so that we don’t just welcome, we welcome and weave in all who have been brought here to find spiritual abode – whether for the short term or the long run!  And may this curiosity about, and care for each other go viral among us whenever we meet!

I want to close with some words I read this week in a commentary about this Gospel passage – the commentator writes this:

Two or three met with Christ, are not merely added: they multiply each other’s faith, and are multiplied in power by him who is most surely in their midst.” (From The Interpreter’s Bible (1951) vol.7, p. 474)

May Christ powerful presence among us multiply our faith and our ability to serve him in whose name we are gathered!  Amen+

 

 

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