Forever and Always
Rev. Dr. Marlene Kropf
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Acts 17: 22-31; Psalm 66: 8-20; I Peter 3:13-22; John 14: 15-21
It will be five years ago this fall when we moved from northern Indiana to Port Townsend. Stanley drove a 26’ foot truck, in which all our belongings were packed, and we towed our car behind us on a trailer. On the fifth day – after traveling across prairies and mountains on I-80, I-84, I-82 and I-90, we crossed the Hood Canal Bridge.
I will never forget the expansive scene before us as we entered the Olympic Peninsula – the wide, wide view: sunlight dancing on sparkling waters, framed by evergreen forests, and behind them, the jagged peaks of the snow-capped Olympic Mountains. It was stunning, astounding, breath-taking! And this place would become our new home – amazing!
That may have been a little like what the Israelites experienced as they entered the Promised Land. Today’s psalm, Psalm 66, is a song of thanksgiving that re-tells the story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt — through the waters of the Red Sea, across the wilderness, and then crossing the River Jordan into Canaan. Along the way there had been many trials, mostly of their own making. But in the psalm God gets the credit for their troubles:
For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried …
you laid burdens on our backs …
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
A spacious place has room to breathe. It’s expansive, roomy, broad, wide open, far-reaching. It’s the opposite of bound, restrained, cramped, confined, restricted, hemmed in. Spaciousness is freedom – unfettered freedom.
I can’t imagine a more constricted place than a tomb – can you? And so the image of this psalm is especially fitting for Easter season. From the bondage of the tomb, God raised Jesus to new life, brought him out to a spacious place – freeing him from the narrow confines of walls and time and space, releasing the Risen Christ to be present everywhere – in all times and places.
But spacious is not only what God does. It is who God is.
In our reading from Acts, Paul is preaching in Athens in front of the Areopagus, the seat of the ancient supreme court of Athens. In his tour of the city Paul has been impressed by the enormous variety of religious statues and altars and notes that one altar bears an inscription: “To an unknown God.”
“So let me tell you about the unknown God,” Paul begins, and goes on to summarize the deepest theological convictions of the Hebrew tradition as well as the good news of God’s presence in Jesus Christ.
What interests me today is how Paul describes who God is: God is the Maker of all who doesn’t dwell in shrines or temples made by human hands. This God is not confined by human structures or by human understandings. This is a spacious God!
Last Monday in the Women’s Spiritual Growth Group we discussed an interview by Krista Tippett with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, known as the Chief Rabbi of the UK.
The rabbi was talking about a Jewish understanding of God and explained:
When Moses at the burning bush says to God, “Who are you?” God says to him three words: Hayah asher hayah. Those words are mistranslated in English as
“I am that which I am.” But in Hebrew, it means “I will be who or how or where I will be,” meaning, Don’t think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you …This God is bigger than religion, the rabbi says. (Becoming Wise, 189)
A God bigger than religion is indeed a spacious God!
And, according to the Apostle Paul, this is the One in whom we live and move and have our being.
What that statement tells me is that God’s intentions for us are also spacious.
We are called to the same open possibilities as God. If the Resurrection means anything, it means that we are also meant for freedom and for LIFE in capital letters. As the psalm says, “God holds our souls in life.”
Yet we often find ourselves “cabined, cribbed, confined” – in the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. We may be bound by our fears, our habits, our preconceptions, jobs, relationships, life circumstances, or our religion. So take
a moment to consider: Where, in my life, do I feel constricted? Where am I not free?
Some of us live with messages still playing from our childhoods: You are not lovable or competent or attractive or good enough. Some of us have checkered histories. We haven’t always made good choices. We have failed – in our relationships or our vocation or our faith commitments. We haven’t been true to ourselves or to promises we have made.
Some of us feel hemmed in by things outside us, things we didn’t choose: our families, geography, education (or lack of it), declining health, or lack of opportunities.
And some of us feel imprisoned by the values of the world around us: by consumerism or neglect of the environment, shabby treatment of foreigners or warehousing of prisoners, racism, poverty, violence, inadequate medical care or skimpy funding for our children’s schools. We despair that our world will ever be whole.
Sometimes we feel trapped by our experience of God – or lack of experience.
It seems like other people know a God we don’t know. Other people are able to trust God’s good purposes while we doubt. The Bible doesn’t seem relevant to our lives. Our prayers ascend no further than the ceiling above us.
Many tombs seem to confine us. We can’t roll away the stone.
Yet that isn’t our job. Jesus doesn’t roll away the stone from his grave. God does.
It is God who raises us from the dead, who destroys our bondage, who sets us free.
And what does God set us free for?
In John’s Gospel, some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples give us clues. We read these words from John 14, 15, 16 and 17 each year during Easter season because the compilers of the lectionary recognized our need to hear them in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Paying attention to last words is an understandable impulse, I think. When someone dear to us dies, we often try to remember the last conversation we had with them. At funerals and memorial gatherings, we tell stories about their last words because they strike us with poignance and fresh significance in the midst of our grief and help us remain connected to the one we love.
So what does Jesus want his friends to remember? And what texture might these last words add to our own understanding of God today?
In the intimate conversation recorded in John 14, Jesus has been telling his friends that he will be going away — not words they want to hear. But Jesus also reassures them: “I won’t leave you orphaned. I am sending the Holy Spirit to be your constant companion.”
Then he explains:
You already know the Holy Spirit
because you know me.
The Holy Spirit will be my presence with you forever
because the Spirit is within you.
Now there’s a spacious word: forever. For always. Without ending. Can’t be stopped. Will always be.
And so, the Mighty Maker of the universe, in whom all things hold together, in whom we live and move and have our being, also comes close beside each of us, eager to be our constant and intimate companion, always ready to stir us to new life.
Today the Spirit of the Risen Christ stands among us and invites us – each of us, by name: “Join me in the Resurrection! Don’t wait till you’re dead. Come out of the small, dark confining places of life into the broad and bright places – stand up, rise to your full height. I am with you always. I won’t ever leave you.”
Thanks be to God!
(Last paragraph inspired by words of Mark Brown, Society of Saint John the Evangelist)