Arriving at our beginning
September 27, Proper 21:
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
Beginnings are important.
TS Eliot says in Little Gidding
“[That] the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
In a very real sense, we often end up where we begin, or maybe it’s that where we begin has more way more bearing on where we end up than we often like to admit.
Because I’ve moved around a lot in my life, I’m constantly surprised by the studies that show the majority of Americans live quite close to where they were born.
Recent studies have also shown that the social position you’re born into is quite likely to be the one you’ll stay in…Horatio Alger narratives of self-made millionaires are by far the exception not the rule.
Where we begin with God makes a difference too.
Very often when I’m in conversation with someone who declares, “I don’t believe in God,” I’ll ask, “what kind of God don’t you believe in?” Because chances are very good that I don’t believe in that kind of God either—the one that’s either Santa Claus on steroids, powerfully able to make wishes come true, or some kind of “sky-bully” demanding unquestioning obedience.
Years ago I heard a parable about beginnings and endings and how important they are in our relationship with God.
Like all parables it doesn’t really have an author…it’s just some wisdom that was passed on to me, and I want to pass it on to you…
It’s about the day we went walking together, and my job was to lead you to God.
Think about that. That’s a big task!
I was almost completely overwhelmed with that responsibility.
I really, REALLY wanted to get it right. And I was afraid I wasn’t going to.
I was super focused, and talked only about God.
I remembered hearing about how stern God can be, how horrible it is to displease God.
And I said, I’m not even sure you can please God, but we’d better be really good and try not to make God angry.
I outlined all the things I could remember about what was and was not permitted.
We walked by still waters, and I remembered the words of the psalm, about the raging waters, and I said, if God chose God could make that water a torrent to overwhelm us.
We walked through nature. And I spoke of the great—and sometimes terrifying—power of God.
Then—at the end of the day,—we met God.
And you hid behind me—terrified.
You were too scared to look up into God’s loving face.
I remembered all the images of God’s stern face that I had drawn for you and looked at you now unwilling to take God’s hand.
I was between you and God—literally in the way.
But everything I said was correct.
I was so serious, and conscientious about not leading you astray.
And yet, somehow I did.
Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
All of us have elements within ourselves that get in the way of being in relationship with God.
The picture of God that was painted for us in our childhood.
Old hurts, and resentments.
Unresolved anger or grief.
The fear that there is only one right way to do things.
These stumbling blocks are all real, and need to be tended to.
Because the real danger, Jesus warns, is when those things that prevent growth in us become a hinderance to growth in others.
The disciples see someone casting out demons in the name of Jesus and try to stop him because “he’s not one of us.”
They try to impose rules of membership on the exercise of ministry, and Jesus says, “No.”
“Stop getting in the way.”
“Look at the fruits of the ministry, that will tell you where the power and authority really comes from.”
But if the ministry begins in fear…Fear will often cause us to get in someone’s way.
But then so can love.
Listen to the parable again.
One day we were walking along, and I wanted so much to lead you to God.
Because I was so excited about how wonderful God is.
I thought it would be impossible to show you everything, so I was anxious.
We had no time to sit and wonder.
We had to keep moving to take it all in.
We glanced at the still waters, and I pointed at trees.
I tried to teach you quickly about being thankful.
We saw someone who was sick.
You wanted to stop and help.
But there was still so much to see.
We said a quick prayer and hurried on.
I talked, and talked, and talked about God.
I talked as fast as I could and told you every story about God I could think of.
As the day drew to a close there was still so much to cover, and by now we were running.
Running to learn more and more about God, and God’s great love.
And we almost ran right into God.
And you glanced up at God and then ran on seeking even more knowledge about God.
There was God, hand outstretched, and you just ran on.
And kept running until you dropped to the ground, exhausted.
And there I was, again, between you and God.
I was so enthusiastic, and taught you so many things.
We all know that best intentions can often lead us and others astray.
We’ve undoubtedly all had the experience of wanting to do something nice, and kind, and loving, only to find we are doing the opposite.
James today praises those who bring sinners back from wandering, but in our race to bring them back, how often do we trip over ourselves, or worse trip each other?
So what can we do?
If our vision of God is imperfect, and our desire to do God’s will is haphazard at best…
If all ministry begins, proceeds, and ends with the Holy Spirit, (which it does) we might begin with the assumption that wherever we go, whomever we are with, the Holy Spirit is already at work in them.
Our job then is simply to be open, and pay attention to the movement of the Spirit.
One day we went walking.
I wanted to lead you to God, and I wanted to find God myself.
It was such an honor, and my heart was full of gratitude for the privilege of sharing this journey with you.
We walked slowly.
Matching our pace to one another.
We talked about things we noticed.
One time it was one of God’s birds.
We watched it build its nest.
We saw the eggs that were laid.
We were amazed at the care it gave its young.
We sat beside the still waters, and watched the breeze blow ripples across it, without saying a word.
We told stories of God, from the bible and from our lives.
I listened to your stories.
And you listened to mine.
We listened for the ways God was active in our lives, and we told each other what we noticed.
Sometimes something we saw would remind us of a God story, and we would tell the story again, anew, in light of this new revelation.
As the day drew to a close, we met God.
And our eyes shone.
And we looked lovingly, trustingly, eagerly, up into God’s face.
We reached out and took God’s hand.
And we were both gathered into God’s arms.
And I was completely filled with joy, and was at peace.
If Eliot is right and “the end of all our exploring
[is] be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Then the question for all of us who would seek and serve God—the question for all of us who would have salt in ourselves is: where do you want to begin?