02.28.10

2.28.10 sermon notes

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Luke 13:31-35

During seminary, I did a summer internship as a hospital chaplain.  It is a program called Clinical Pastoral Education, and was a required part of my training for ministry.  It was an intense and rewarding experience in which I ministered to patients and their families at the local hospital.  I got to see people in their happiest times as they celebrated a birth or received news of good results from a test.  And I was with people in their moments of great anxiety in the face of a terrible diagnosis or deep sadness as they faced the death of a loved one.  Often, I had the privilege of simply being present with people – getting a brief glimpse into their lives — their fears, their regrets, their hopes.

One of the things that was hardest for me in the beginning of this chaplaincy experience was the limited time I had with patients.  I constantly wanted to know the rest of the story, and I was frustrated with the cliffhangers.  I had only a glimpse into someone’s life, and then they were gone.  Did Terry ever get things straightened out with her insurance company to deal with the tree that fell on her house while she was in the hospital?  How have Elizabeth and Sue dealt with the death of their mother after they were so determined she could still fight to stay alive?  Did Robert continue to grow in his faith the way he seemed to be doing during his long stay at the hospital?  How much of a difference did I make?

I began to at least get used to the routine of the short-term moments I had with patients, but it was not until I read a prayer by Oscar Romero that I gained the kind of perspective I needed.  I have shared it with some of you before, and I think it’s message has much to offer to us today.  Romero writes:

It helps now and then to step back and take the long view.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Which is another way of saying that the Kingdom lies behind us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

No strategic plan addresses every possibility.

That is what we are about.

We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need to further develop.

We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation realizing this.

It enables us to do something and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end result, and that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are the workers, not the master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

While my curiosity may always be there, this prayer helped me have a sense of peace with the momentary role I may play in someone’s life.  This was especially true in the hospital, but I think this philosophy will forever surround my ministry and should inform the way we all look at life.  We never know at what point we am coming into someone’s story.  We may be the one planting the first seeds; we may be watering seeds that were planted by someone else; or we may be experiencing the abundant harvest of labor done by others long before we got there.  Every single one of these is a privilege and an occasion for liberating humility.  We do not have to put the weight of someone’s entire world into our hands alone.  We do not have to get anxious when we do not get to see the resolution of the story.  I am happy to be a minister, not a messiah, and to let God work with me, through me, and if need be, in spite of me.   As Abram experienced in our text from Genesis, I had to learn how to have faith in things not seen.

At this point in the story, Abram has been trusting God a lot.  He got up and left his homeland at God’s command, he went where God instructed him to go and believed God’s promises of abundant descendants.  But here, Abram’s confidence may be waning a bit. He asks: “O Lord God, how am I to know” that these promises will be fulfilled?  He wasn’t seeing a lot of fruits of his labors yet, and he got anxious.  But God did not reject Abram in the face of his doubt and uncertainty. In fact, most biblical scholars believe that in some mysterious way, God answered Abram’s question – perhaps offered him a vision of the future to come.  And perhaps Abram got more than he bargained for here.  Because as he was undoubtedly assured of the great future of his descendants, this vision would have also revealed that this prosperity would not come in Abram’s own lifetime.  In fact, his descendants would struggle for many centuries through slavery and exile before they would reach the Promised Land. But Abram knew that God’s promises would be fulfilled.  But we should all learn along with Abraham that the recipients of the promises of God are clearly not immune to hard times.

As we continue on our Lenten wilderness journey, “like Abram, we have hard questions that will not be silenced as we try to walk in faithfulness to God.  Like Abram, we can question God as part of our faithfulness and trust.  We also live expectantly that God’s promises of life, hope, and future are extended to us in Jesus Christ, who defines faithfulness by the character of his own life and death, who calls us to take the next step and follow him” (Feasting, 54).

So we strive to find comfort in the fact that God’s promises WILL be fulfilled, even if we don’t always see any sign of it.  And I think the Luke passage points to the fact that God’s promises WILL be fulfilled, no matter how many foolish things we do to thwart them.  Jesus will not veer from his mission – despite the threats from Herod, despite Jerusalem’s bloody history of killing prophets, despite Jesus’ own knowledge of his ultimate fate in Jerusalem. God’s mission will not be stopped.  And even Jerusalem, with its brokenness, is not abandoned by God.

I am always moved by the words of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. in his last speech, delivered to support the striking sanitation workers in Memphis.  He speaks of his great faith in the seeds he has planted that one day will bear fruit.  He acknowledges that while things may seem dark right now, he trusts that they will get better.  He even expresses the limitations of his own involvement in the movement toward equality of all people.  He said, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”  These words ring especially prophetic because the very next day, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.  But the seeds he planted continue to grow, as his death did not mark the end of the Civil Rights Movement in this country.  King had faith in that which he could not see, because he was confident that the work he was doing was part of God’s story.

Many of us may never feel that we have achieved the level of influence of someone like Dr. King, but we are all part of God’s story.  We may never know the ways in which God is working through us to influence an individual life, an entire community, or even more.  And we may simply plant seeds that someone else will water later.  We have to allow for God’s grace to work in our lives and trust that it is at work in the lives of others.  As Romero reminds us in his prayer, this fact can be liberating for us.  We do not have to do everything.  But this does not let us off the hook.  We still have to do something.  There is an old Greek proverb that says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”  We are called to get out there – get our hands dirty, take the risk of doing hard work that may not benefit us, but will serve generations to come.  . . . When did you “step out in faith,” as Abraham did, and leap into a new reality, even if that dream seemed far beyond reason or expectation?  How open are you to take a risk on the basis of your faith?

As I have mentioned before, the Lenten season provides us with time for reflection and introspection; it is a preparatory time, moving us toward Passion Week. But is that all? Do we linger in the Lenten season only in the hopes that somehow Easter will be more meaningful this year? Or is it bigger than that?  Perhaps the Lenten season affords us the chance to reflect upon our own lives and in so doing, it allows us to hear the beckoning of God to live a faithful life—one that is leaning forward into the vision of God for the world, knowing full well that such a vision may extend to a horizon far beyond our own lives.  If we as individuals and as a community can live with that kind of faith – with the kind of humility that is needed to work for a better world, knowing we ourselves may not be the beneficiaries of it, then just imagine what we can do.

It helps now and then to step back and take the long view.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Which is another way of saying that the Kingdom lies behind us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

No strategic plan addresses every possibility.

That is what we are about.

We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need to further develop.

We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation realizing this.

It enables us to do something and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end result, and that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are the workers, not the master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.  Amen.

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