Before and After and After

Sermon preached October 23, 2011

Text: Genesis 32:13-31

“Before and After” Power Point.

Sara Miles was the granddaughter of ministers and missionaries, daughter of parents who wanted nothing to do with church. She had an active disinterest in religion. Like wearing ironed white shirts or rescuing waxed paper to wrap sandwiches, religion just seemed another thing that old people did (Take This Bread, 8). Then something happened. One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine….This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. (xi)
This fall some of us have been reading Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread. Some of us have been getting together to discuss it, and will be doing so again on November 6 at 9 am. The First and Ten men’s group is discussing the book tomorrow night, along with moving some pews in the balcony. We have more books, and would love to have you read along, discuss it, or even start your own discussion group.
A story like Sara Miles may seem far removed from our experience, especially if you grew up in the church. For many of us, we may not remember a time when we were not part of a church community. Our parents brought us for baptism as infants, then to Sunday School and confirmation. We may have been married in the church, brought our own children for baptism, said good-bye to parents and friends through the ministry of the church. All that is good.
Even if we have been in the church our whole lives, perhaps we have had Sara Miles’ moments, times when God or Jesus was tremendously real for us, times when our faith burned hot within, times when we were touched, moved, changed. Sara Miles has some things to teach us about such times, and about our faith which seems to invite such experiences. She also has to teach us about so many in our wider community who have never, perhaps, been a part of a church, whose only images of Christians are pastors burning Korans or saying ugly things about homosexuals.
Even if we have been in the church a long time, we may remember profound moments of personal transformation. Reading Sara Miles book, I thought of some in my life – eighth grade Sunday School, seminary, Dallas – being a youth pastor and working on my Ph.D., moments as a husband and father, crucial conversations I have had with people who willingly shared some of their own pains or struggles or joys, holding children in baptism, placing my hands on young people being confirmed, celebrating weddings, marking death – sometimes being present in the room with family when a loved one dies. There are moments in my life that have changed me, and continue to change me – moments where God’s love breaks in profoundly, where Jesus becomes a part of me like bread eaten at communion.
For Sara Miles, self-described blue-state, secular intellectual; lesbian; left-wing journalist with a habit of skepticism, eating Jesus changed everything. Here’s what she found in Christianity: At the heart of Christianity is a power that continues to speak to and transform us… not in the sappy, Jesus-and-cookies tone of mild-mannered liberal Christianity, or the blustering, blaming hellfire of the religious right (xv). She discovered a radically inclusive love that accompanied people in the most ordinary of actions – eating, drinking, walking – and stayed with them, through fear, even past death. That love meant giving yourself away, embracing outsiders as family, emptying yourself to feed and live for others (93).
Christianity, Christian faith as a radically inclusive love, a love that continues to speak to our lives, a powerful love that transforms lives. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”… And there he blessed him…. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32) Christianity is a power that continues to speak to and transform us.
We who have grown up in the church or spent much time with Christian faith are in danger of forgetting the power of our faith, the power of God’s love in Jesus. We have heard the stories so often, they have a harder time getting through. We become so used to the church as a good and safe place, we forget how powerful it is for many to find a good and safe place. Prayer can become all our talk, and we forget to let God respond. The life of faith is a journey, sometimes being cradled like a lamb in the loving arms of Jesus the good shepherd, but sometimes wrestling with God and being forever changed by that. It is both, and we need to remember both – a love that embraces and changes and challenges.
And this life of faith is a journey, not just a before and after – but a before and after and after and after. I like it when Sara Miles writes – “Then, as conversion continued…” (xiv). Conversion continues. God’s work in our lives is an on-going process of conversion – before and after and after and after. Sara Miles: Conversion isn’t, after all, a moment: It’s a process, and it keeps happening, with cycles of acceptance and resistance, epiphany and doubt (97). I appreciate Sara Miles story for reminding us of this, for reaffirming this truth for us. Eating Jesus was only the beginning for Sara Miles, and we are going to explore even more about that next week as we think about her food ministry together. But eating Jesus was only a beginning for her. Saying “yes” to God is only the first step – whether that yes is accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, or saying you will be loyal to the church and support if by your prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness, or pledging at baptism to help your child grow in God’s love, or even asking “could this church be a place for me?” There are lots of beginning points, and they are important. And they are beginnings. Conversion continues – sometimes with more dramatic moments, often quietly and gently and slowly.
From her first time eating Jesus, Sara Miles feels a call to feed others. As her food pantry continues to flourish – though there are problems along the way – other kinds of conversions happen for her. The atmosphere of St. Gregory’s drew people in: They came in looking for something to eat, but often, like the woman seeking peace, or like me, they wanted far more. I’d be lifting a box, in the noise and bustle, and someone would come up to me – a grieving mom, a lonely immigrant, a sick man, or any of the many varieties of crazy people who hovered around the pantry. “Will you pray for me?” they’d ask…. I felt awkward…. It was more than I had bargained for…. I took a deep breath and began praying with anyone who asked. I didn’t know then that I was also praying for my own conversion, to reach the next level of conversation with God (130-131). Praying for others, Sara Miles conversion process continues, and our journeys of faith continue, too It is always an appropriate question to ask in prayer, “Where next, God? Where next Jesus?”
Listening to Sara Miles’s story we are reminded that Christian faith is powerful, because God’s love is powerful, reminded that conversion is on-going a journey, and one other thing I want to mention this morning – know that when you seriously pray “Where next, God? Where next, Jesus?” there will be times the place you go is uncomfortable.
For Jacob, Peniel was a good place, a place of blessing. It was also a place where he wrestled with God and human beings (Genesis 32:28) and where he knew life as a bit out of joint. For Sara Miles, eating Jesus, becoming Christian, finding Christian community at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church was all “terribly inconvenient” (xii). She shares something she discovered along the way in an interview printed in the back of her book Take This Bread. You don’t get to practice Christianity by hanging out with people who are like you and believe what you believe. You have to rub up against strangers and people who frighten you and people you think are misguided, dangerous, or just plain wrong (289). These are the words of a person who knows that sometimes God’s Spirit leads us to uncomfortable places, that it is only in such places that our faith grows as it can, that we share the love of Jesus widely.
Sometimes we confront the uncomfortable and inconvenient close to home – even in our homes. I really appreciated Sara sharing in her book some of her struggle balancing family with her sense of ministry. These were the moments when I wished I had a different kind of Jesus, one who could reveal clear rules for how to be good, evaporate all conflicts with the wave of his holy hand. I wish I could say a prayer and make everything better. Instead I was stuck with myself and the people I loved: frustrating, disappointing, jealous, sorry, wounded (264). For Sara Miles, being a follower of Jesus thrust her into “the wildness of faith” (264), and sometimes our wild faith takes us to inconvenient and uncomfortable places.
Earlier this week at church council, we discussed a couple of hot button issues. It felt a bit uncomfortable at times, but I was delighted with how well we did. All this stuff about faith taking us to inconvenient and uncomfortable places was on my mind, and I reflected on that just a bit – a sermon sneak preview. I said, “There are days when I don’t want to be a pastor.” I think I raised everybody’s discomfort level a bit. Here is what I meant and mean by that. There are days when being a pastor is uncomfortable, when situations feel awkward and difficult – more often outside the church than inside the church. Being a pastor you are aware that in some ways you always represent the church and Christian faith. There’s some pressure with that. Tell someone you are a pastor on a plane and you typically get one of three responses: Here’s why I haven’t been in church for awhile, here’s how active I am in my church, or dead silence. As a pastor I get the guy at the wedding reception drinking whisky from a coffee cup hoping we can fellowship for awhile and discuss the end times. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if it were different. Yet this is where God has called me. This is where following Jesus brings me. I have learned and grown as a person of faith only because I followed this call of God in my life. It is not always easy or convenient. I know those struggles of balancing ministry with family and I know what it is like to disappoint family. Still, I want this wild faith for my life.
And those inconvenient places are there for you, too. It is not easy claiming Christian faith today in many ways. People may assume things about you that are not true – narrow, judgmental, anti-science, anti-gay. It is challenging to be part of a mainline church. We are kind of passé these days. Yet here we are, and we are here because God has brought us here to learn and grow and touch the world with God’s love.
Toward the end of her book Sara Miles writes, Christianity wasn’t an argument I could win, or even resolve. It wasn’t a thesis. It was a mystery that I was finally willing to swallow (274). We are here because we have taken Jesus in, one way or another, and are on the before and after and after and after wild journey of faith. Or maybe you are here just because you want to know a bit more about what it means to be a Christian in this day and time. This journey with Jesus puts us in touch with the power of God’s love, a power that changes and transforms and makes new. This journey is on-going, with times of ease and times of deep wrestling with God and humans. The journey may take us into some uncomfortable places, but we know we don’t go alone, and often find that these inconvenient spots are places of blessing. We have swallowed Jesus and are living out this wild mystery. And we trust that this is the way of life. Amen.