Sunday Sermon

5 Pentecost 2017

Sunday Closest to July 6, Proper 9, Year A, RCL

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45: 11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also” —let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’ Gen. 24 “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Rom. 7 “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Mt. 11

 The Collect

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


     Abraham sent a God-fearing servant to find a wife for his son from among Abraham’s kindred.  It’s not unusual to want a mate from a similar background.  I heard a comment in a movie once that a woman made to a man, “You have a rich, useless look about you.”  I always avoided that type, so I knew immediately what she meant.  I can tell from the way the servant framed his prayer that he was looking for a strong girl who could put in a mornings’ work watering thirsty camels, one bucket at a time.  “A pint’s a pound the world round.” A three-gallon bucket weighs 24lbs.  The servant was not looking for a delicate flower.  He was looking for a hard worker who was polite and well-brought up enough to offer to help.  It’s a great, wise prayer that I am sure God was pleased to answer.  

     Jesus said in the gospel that “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”.  I understand that to mean that the proof is in the pudding.  The results speak for themselves.  There are so many alternatives for this metaphor in our language that it must be expressing a truth of our experience that gets updated every generation or so.  Talk is cheap.  Argue a good idea to death and nothing changes.  Action speaks louder than words.  Need I go on?

     Have you ever been put in an impossible situation?  You are my good servant and life-long pal. Go find a wife for my son.  Great.  This servant must know the family very well--which puts him in a double bind because he wants to please them AND do a good job.  His position makes this prayer especially effective.  He is aware that he can’t be successful finding a mate for the heir of the family without the help of God, so he lets go and places the matter in the hands of God.  Letting go in prayer opens him to a solution from outside the box.  This servant might have gone around knocking on tent flaps and taking a good, long look at all the local girls.  Maybe he would make a decent list of qualifications for the job.  He might have thrown a party to interview the girls and their families.  After all, he’s got to find a girl pleasing to both family and son.  Instead, he frames what he is looking for in prayer and asks God’s help in finding her.  Rebekah walks right up to him and offers to water his camels.  Hello.  Even the servant was amazed by this speedy answer to prayer.  

     I understand this servant’s story because I deal with every day impossible situations in the Church in pretty much the same way.  When I am talking about an impossible situation, I mean problems like a flat roof.  The problem will not go away no matter how often you fix it.  Ministry is loaded with impossible situations. Don’t even get me started on “faith budgets”. The idea gives the manager in me the heebie-jeebies.  I am so relieved not to have a problem building and staffing Sunday school at St. Peter’s.  I had about 15 years of that problem every week of every year.  Both parents are working full time, the grandparents have already done their stint in Sunday school.  There’s only a couple kids.  I have encountered problems in every direction with Sunday school.  It was exhausting.  Then there is the music program which is an on-going struggle to maintain with any kind of consistency.  And what about the problem of keeping the doors open in these times when the budget is always tight.  Then there are the endless repair issues in physical plants that are old and cranky.  So, I have at least major 5 problems that resist solutions that I have faced every day of my life for 19 years. When I get the occasional break from these problems, I rejoice at God’s blessing and our good fortune.

     If I had to control these problem areas and develop the perfect program to solve these problems, this Church would be full of ruffled feathers and angry members.  All of them would be griping about what a witch with an attitude they have for a priest.  I learned to let go, pray, watch the horizon for signs of a possible solution.  I am not a laid-back person.  I gave up on final solutions altogether, and learned to go with the best partial ones.  When the partial ones run out, I start the search process over again.  I push where and when it might possibly do some good.  Otherwise, I must let go.  Ministry required me to change my management style from top to bottom.  I can visualize how to take on almost any task you care to name, organize it and carry it out successfully.  I’ve been the point person and organizer for both diocesan and professional conventions, as well as the Missioner of a 4 pt. Charge.  Haven’t really needed middle management skills that often in the Church, except for the most basic.  I had larger budgets when I was managing lab projects for a living.  Having a vision is no use in the Church unless you have the personal skills to get people behind it.  Personal skills have always been my growing edge.  I am learning as fast as I can.  I believe the life-long learning requirement is a bonus of the job.

     I have moved from being a take-charge organizer, with vision and good skills for finding and building what’s required, with a generous budget to accomplish my goals, to being a person who is always managing people and resources in short supply.  God must have been looking for a strong girl who was hard-headed enough not to give up.  I have been learning as I faced each obstacle that God was willing and able to help, just as Abraham’s servant discovered to his surprise.  I have euphemistically “watered herds of thirsty camels” to keep doing what I am today.  I have found what I needed just as this servant did by framing his needs in a prayer and then letting go.  I don’t know why it should surprise us when God answers prayer, but it always surprises me.  I believe I should be beneath God’s notice, so when God surprises me with immediate aid I tend to flop around a bit in amazement.  I applied to Rice because my advisor at the local Catholic college told me that my grades in the courses I was taking to test my ability in religion indicated that I should be applying for the best training available in my area.  At each turning I took the next step and the next, building my ability to acquire what I needed to take the next step along the way.  God didn’t make it easy for me, just opened doors.

     I learned about parenting the hard way.  Both my parents were controlling types who regimented us.  God did something else entirely.  If I found in myself the courage to take the next step, God opened a door.  I had to be willing to water that herd of thirsty camels.  I love this metaphor because it is so apt.  If I had been easily discouraged or afraid of a little work that would have been the end of it. I have been that girl born into a small pond but gifted with a big dream.  Rebekah sees a man obviously well-off and is curious.  He asks for water, and she sees a way to get on his good side.  I can draw water for all those thirsty camels.  Maybe he’ll tell me about other people, other places.  Maybe a door will open.  

     That is exactly the way I think about the Blessing Box.  It is an open door to the neighborhood that we may use to learn how to do ministry in this place.  I am not going to tell you how to do it.  God will show you.  I know that as surely as I am sitting here.  When you want to do it, you will develop the relationship that will lead you.  Jesus is your most effective teacher.  What did Jesus do?  It’s always a good question to ask yourself.  I haven’t a clue what he would do, but the gospels are clear about what he did do.  I have never been freed by reading Scripture from the necessity of making a decision.  What Jesus would have done two millennia ago might not prove very helpful now.  I can’t know what Jesus would do.  I can formulate a really-good prayer, let go and give God some room to move.  Expect to be flustered by the response you get.  I always am.  It’s gotten to be part of the fun. I think God gets a kick out of answering prayer in a way that pins my ears back.         

     I was ordained in 1998, a full twenty years after I first heard the call.  I have never done anything especially great or spectacularly awful since then.  I have learned to be a woman who is called to be a priest which is rather new and has been quite the challenge.  Rebekah is starting out on a journey of her own.  She has energy and strength, intelligence and good will.  She probably knew exactly what she could expect if she stayed at home, and it must not have been too attractive.  Whatever it was she gave it up when presented with a likely alternative.  I looked around my home town, decided there was little or nothing there for me, and never came back to stay.  I can easily imagine what was going through Rebekah’s mind. 

      Meanwhile, St. Paul is still trudging through the argument for getting people to live together in peace.  They will never be able to do that unless and until they become careful to keep the commandments which are dedicated to the maintenance of good boundaries.  If I am unwilling to negotiate what is mine and what is yours carefully and without greed, I won’t find peace with any of you.  I accept that a few won’t want peace with me, but I can’t let down my end of our relationship without repenting it and taking up the commandments afresh.  I also accept the phenomenon that Jesus mentions in the gospel for today.  Critics will find plenty of grist for the mill.  Griping is what they do.  They are not our concern.  Our concern is to be good, willing servants.

    Jesus danced to the tune God played in his heart.  He didn’t allow the popular tunes he heard played in the market places, the Temple and the Synagogue to cause him to deviate from his calling.  He couldn’t be persuaded to take up popular themes like the promised Messiah.  God had sent him to save sinners.  He also was not divided against himself, wanting the good but unable to do it, as in today’s lesson from Romans.  St. Paul gives one of the best descriptions of the perplexing problem of falling victim to one’s own desires that I have ever read anywhere.  Jesus has purchased the pearl of great price and is not willing to trade it for anything.  The contrast with the content of the Romans lesson is instructive.  St. Paul is trying to bring the Roman Church from the moral place in which most of us begin a spiritual journey to a life of discipleship following Jesus.  I have taken 30 years to make the trip and will not be done before I die.  What Paul is writing about is a life-long learning for most of us.  Jesus was so much more focused than most that we refer to him as the Son of God.

     John the Baptist’s calling took him into a new direction as well. We always understand God’s intentions imperfectly.  Jesus and John followed the calls that came to them.  I have always thought it was cruel to try to press people into a mold that doesn’t fit them.  My choices for a career when I graduated college in 1970 were nurse, teacher or librarian.  I wanted to be a doctor in those days; priest was not an option.  Families and Church groups use griping and shaming to try to bring the big dreamers among us into line.  Not all big dreamers are also men of action, but some of us are.  Jesus and John certainly were, and they ran into their fair share of people trying to move them in other directions.  Not only will people gripe to get us to change what we are doing, they will wish out loud in public for things that we don’t have and aren’t likely to get at this present time.  They spread their unhappiness around liberally.  The people I know and love are the real wealth of my life, and I don’t guilt people because I don’t like it and never have.  I am cheerfully one of the infants that Jesus mentioned, and if being an idiot would help me get my foot in Kingdom’s door I’d be that too.  That is what St. Paul is driving at.  When we want the Kingdom of God more than we want anything else, we are on our way home.  Wisdom will be vindicated.

Sermon for 5 Pentecost, 2017 by the Rev. Deborah T. Rankin