Delivered at Ames UCC on June 11, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays
(except in July when we have a different schedule—see our website).
Who knows what this is? Yes, it is a calendar of the liturgical church year. Liturgy means “work of the people” so this is a calendar of the seasons of our work as people of faith.
Last week was Pentecost, with all its red excitement. Now we go into Ordinary Time, which is a season to reflect broadly on Creation and Church, so it is a cool green. We will stay green until Advent, way off in November.
I love this calendar, for several reasons. First, the design. I just think it is neat. Second, the lack of dates.
While the rest of our calendars are numbered and the years just keep going up, going up into digits that still feel impossibly futuristic to me, this calendar is eternal. This calendar has no concern for what year we are in or even what month we are in, since sometimes Easter (the white square with cross) can be in March or April. This calendar does mark the passage of time but it has no beginning or end, only cycles of preparation, transformation, celebration, and application.
Our scripture is the same: Although time does progress within it, marked by the rise and fall of human nations, it has endured because what it has to teach transcends all such specificity. And so it allows us to transcend our specific time.
IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA
A few weeks ago, I took a retreat to a Jesuit center a couple of hours west of here. The Jesuits are a Roman Catholic order of priests, formally called the Society of Jesus (thus, Jesuit) founded by Ignatius of Loyola in France in the mid-1500s. I’d heard for years about “Ignatian spiritual exercises” but all I knew was that, when done in full, they take 30 days. I don’t have that time, but I do well with structure, so I asked for a four-day version.
I learned many things during those days, about myself and God. But what I want to share with you today is Ignatius’ use of imagination within prayer and with scripture. Ignatius believed our imaginations, our ability to mentally place ourselves someplace we physically are not, is a gift from God.
His idea, now codified in the exercises, is that we need not simply hear the good news, but we can intentionally place ourselves within it. We can cease to simply observe Jesus’ birth, and become one of the shepherds feeling the night air, hearing the angels, then on our own feet walk to the barn and in. We can see, smell, hear, and feel the crowds around Jesus, including the rumbling of tummies before the bread and fish get to us. We can taste that yeast and salt as we look on the one who gifted it to us. We can, with all of the faith and audacity of the bleeding woman, grab hold of Jesus’ rough cloak and demand healing, right to his face.
And through that imaginative, scriptural prayer we find our finite selves in conversation with our eternal God.
I invite you to try it with me with Psalm 100 right now. Please close your eyes, if you are comfortable doing so.
The format begins with a prayer of dependence and request for grace: Merciful God, we come to you this day and into this space knowing that we are dependent on you, even if we know not how. We ask for the grace to hear your good news and walk in your way.
Then we turn to the scripture.
Shout out to the Lord, all the earth,
worship the Lord in rejoicing
come before God in glad song.
Imagine the whole earth: her savannahs, her forests, her cornfields, her snow. How do the tundras and steppes shout for joy? What expression of love for God comes from the rainforest and the ocean’s atolls? What song do you sing to God as part of Creation? “Joyful, Joyful,” “Praise to the Living God,” something else?
Know that the Lord is God.
God has made us, and we are all God’s.
The Lord’s people and the flock God tends.
Who wants to be your lord, who claims to be the ruler of your life? Do politics, commerce, an individual demand the fealty we should give to God?
Psalm 139 says that God knew us when we were yet in the depths of the Earth, mere carbon and energy, not yet blood and sinew. Imagine being crafted from clay by chemical reactions that are like hands. Imagine seeing that same fingerprint on all people, all insects, all fish of the abyss. Though viruses be our natural enemy, imagine us together on this divine pasture Earth, made equal in God’s sight.
How does that feel? How does it feel to be seen specifically for who you have been, who you are, who you are yet becoming at the same time as every other part of creation? What does that direct attention from God feel like? Do you run toward it or shrink away? What question do you want to ask God now that you find yourself in direct conversation?
Come into God’s gates in thanksgiving,
the Lord’s courts in praise.
Where do you find yourself now? For you, God’s gates could be the green doors to this haven in downtown Ames. Or are you in a celestial palace? Or is it a court of law?
Listen to what your imagination is telling you about your concept of God and your relationship with holiness. Are you, without even knowing it, minimizing your own importance to God? Or, the opposite: Are you making God tangential to life and unworthy of this universal thanks and praise? Our imaginations can bring us into conversation with God but also with the depths of our own subconscious.
Bless God’s name.
For the Lord is good,
and for all generations faithful.
Build God’s court in a way that has room for all of creation. In your mind’s eye, picture yourself there. How do you experience God’s goodness and kindness and faithfulness? Is God’s goodness and kindness and faithfulness a radiant warmth? A presence too big to even look at?
This portion of the prayer would normally take 45 minutes. We would spend the last 15 minutes writing about the experience and to God.
You may open your eyes now, if you are ready.
Our church calendar is very busy. Between now and September, now and Rally Day, we will worship at Hobbit’s Hill, at Brookside Park, and at First Christian Church. We will hear good news from our conference minister, another minister in the conference, our lead organizer, a member of First Christian and a member of this church. We will study the Psalms, Paul’s letters, and Revelation. Our last service before the program year begins will be made up entirely of hymns. And that’s just the worship schedule.
Outside of worship, we will also go to a concert, host a sale, donate blood, participate in house meetings, work on a multi-year budget, and move ahead with some level of renovation to our campus (surveys are due tomorrow!).
There is a risk in being so busy. As I described last week during the commissioning of our Walking Together, Talking Together leaders, churches can, given all of our activities and the sheer number of social and ecological crises we have to respond to, become do-gooder social clubs that are church in name only.
We can just as easily, having become completely overwhelmed by those needs and embittered by the challenge of change, become so “spiritual” that the troubles of the world and our relationship with God do not intersect.
The Jesus Way is somewhere in between. The Jesus Way is the wilderness road or the baptismal river way that moves both through the time our calendars mark and within the time the church calendar describes.
This psalm, Psalm 100, is nearly 3,000 years old. It has been heard and spoken more times and in more places than I think we can truly conceive. Yet when we use God’s gift of imagination to enter into prayerful conversation with its words and God, we realize that the time and place that we are in is all time and all places.
So whatever anxiety we have around getting things done, we know there is yet time. And whatever desire we have to retreat, we know that we will eventually be drawn back by the whole heavenly host.
Preparation, transformation, celebration, and application. The work of people of faith happens in real time because we work to remain connected to God’s eternal time.