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What promises do you keep? How often do you make a promise? Once a day? Once a week? Do you recognize that you are making a promise when you make it? Is showing up at work a promise kept? Is tucking your children into bed at night a promise kept? Is exercising a promise kept? Is voting a promise kept? Is going to church a promise kept?
Today I’d like to talk about promises: the ones we make to ourselves, the ones we make to our neighbors, and the ones we make to future generations by how we act right here, right now. Promises are important for a lot of reasons, but one reason is that they say something about our vision of the future. A promise lived out is an action that creates a future reality.
At Epiphany we are the promise of God being lived out through the lives of all people who say this is their church. At the core of this promise is our connection to the divine. We are God’s people. We are connected to God. We come to this place to honor that fact and to practice being godly people for the sake of the world, for our neighbors, and for future generations.
That may sound grand, and I think it is…. But grand is good. It makes me think of my grandparents. They were the promise of God in their time. Their actions created the future reality that you and I now live. We make the same promise to future generations, and one significant way we do so, as my grandparents did, is through our parish church. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Because all of this starts with the promises God made to us first. I’d like to look at how today’s Gospel points to these promises. What Jesus is getting at in today’s parable is our cultural equivalent to: Don’t give a ten-year old a cookie for tying his shoes. Let me explain.
A ten-year old should be able to tie his shoes. When we create a culture that rewards people for doing what they are able to do, and, in fact, made to do, we inadvertently foster little bundles of self-centered, pampered people who don’t know their place within the life of a community. And, if this is the case broadly applied, then institutions that developed for the well-being and inclusion of all people wither and waste away.
No one should thank me for being here Sunday morning. This is what God made me to do, and I am happy to do it, and I am fulfilled by it. It is my service and my appointed place to be the Rector of Epiphany Parish, and it is a blessing upon me.
To understand this point within the context of the Gospel today we need to hold two things in mind: First, that the word “commanded” Jesus uses when saying:
“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” (Luke 17:9) is better translated as appointed, or ordained, or prescribed (the Greek is diatasso). In this way, I am commanded to be your Rector…also appointed and ordained and prescribed.
Who among you would say to your Rector upon coming to church Sunday morning: “Go sit in the Fireside room, have some coffee, relax. Here, let me get you a cookie.”? No! You say: “Preach me a sermon, and make it is good one! Lead us in giving thanks to God!” Hello?! That is the point Jesus is making. I am a slave to this duty; appointed to this work as priest in your parish.
Which brings me to the second point to be aware of in this Gospel…that we are all slaves to the God most high. It is a problematic word, slave, and it should be, given our nations ugly, evil history with slavery. Jesus uses this word out of a different context, drawing forth from the belief that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. The operative words here are made by God. God is the maker and we are, each one of us, brought into being by God for God’s purposes…to do something; to use our aptitudes and the context of our circumstances to serve within God’s creation; to serve God’s mission…and we don’t get a cookie for that.
In fact, the greater gift is when our aptitudes and circumstances align with God’s mission, we are exposed to the peace which passes all understanding, or, at the very least, a little bit of divine joy. And so, I would rewrite the word slave to better meet our current context by using the word steward. We are all stewards of our aptitudes and circumstances.
And so, I’ll wrap up this Gospel reflection by saying God’s promise to you was to set you in the context, the circumstances, of your life, for the benefit of the neighbors around you; and God’s promise to you was to give you aptitudes and skills that you can share, for the benefit of the neighbors God has set around you. And when both of these gifts are realized our actions come together to create a future reality that is better than the one in which we currently live. When we are realizing the future hope of God through our actions right here, right now; well… that is way better than any cookie we could ever eat.
Where it all breaks down is when we forget we are God’s, made by God, for God’s mission. Where it all breaks down is when my kingdom is battling your kingdom, and we are battling our collective neighbor’s kingdom…you get the point. When we forget that it is all God’s, when we hunker down to carve out our vision of the future, then the Kingdom of God is blurry, and isolation ensues, and fear becomes the power source that drives our action toward the future realities imbued with more fear, and more isolation, and our social fabric tears.
At Epiphany we are organized to do just the opposite. We are designed to be a tapestry of God’s inclusive, all-encompassing love. Here we believe that the spiritual journey, based on the life and teaching and resurrection of Jesus, builds us up in love. We talk a lot of about love here, don’t we? We know love drives out fear. We know love always wins. We know that God never puts an end to anything God loves; and God loves you. But what else does love do?
How do we change the world as love spreading difference makers? Maybe by treating ourselves with love so as to make our personal edges less sharp. Maybe by reaching out to someone with love to let them know they are visible, valuable, and necessary. Or maybe by choosing to love the context in which God set us, the circumstances of our lives, and the neighbors next door. Choosing to love in this time of divided politics and frayed social fabric (choosing to love) is a promise kept. This place, Epiphany, is designed to form us into love-spreading difference- makers.
I remember growing up in the church and seeing the leaders of Rochester, MN there on Sunday with everyone else…mingling and sharing common experiences like: sermons, classes, fundraisers, parties, potlucks, rites of passage, altar guild duties, choir trips…you get the point.
I remember the chairman of the Mayo Clinic being there. I don’t know what he believed, but he came to church. Maybe he came out of a sense of duty and obligation; or maybe it was a promise he made to himself, or his wife, or his children, or to God.
Someday, someone may remember you as that person they saw in church every Sunday. And while they won’t know what you believe, or even why you are here, really; they will see your presence as a promise made, and that will matter to them more than you will ever know.
Today I am asking you in a very material way, to care for this institution, Epiphany Parish. Yes, our capacity to thrive as a church is directly proportionate to your participation in the life of the parish. And, yes, when I say participation, I mean everything from your presence here on Sunday; to seeking your own spiritual growth and development; to helping others on their spiritual journey; to serving the wider community; and also, in supporting this place with your money.
A pledge is a promise, and we will ask you to make a promise to Epiphany in the coming weeks. People often ask me how much should I give-and I say… a lot! Here is the thing, you know how much you have, you know the blessings you were born into, and the aptitudes and skills God has given you.
Ask yourself, how much of what I have was given by God, and how generous can I really be toward the mission of God as it is lived out by my church, Epiphany Parish? Ask yourself that. Only you know the answer. But my hope is that you will be wildly generous, because our collective pledges are a lived-out action that say something about the promises we are making to future generations.
As utterly simple as it may sound, it is our appointed task to be the people who remember that we are God’s own; connected to the divine, right here, right now; inextricably woven into the fabric of God’s world. Remembering this is a promise lived out collectively by all people who call Epiphany their spiritual home. And that promise is secured by our pledges to this parish.
This is our appointed task. It has been commanded unto us (as children of God, made by God) all of us, each one of us, together. For what we do and what we stand for matters to the life of the world as much, if not more so, than ever before.