Sunday, January 23, 2011

God the Risk-Taker

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
January 23, 2011

Year A: The Third Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

God the Risk-Taker

This Sunday’s gospel is a somewhat different take on the story we heard last week – Jesus’ calling of the first disciples. Last week we heard John’s version of these events. This week we hear Matthew’s account.

The details that Matthew gives us along with the events of the past week have gotten me thinking about risk – the risk that God took in creation; the risk that God took in becoming one of us in Jesus; and the risk that you and I take when we live and love the way we are meant to.

First, I’ve been thinking about the risk God took in creating a physical world.

God didn’t have to create. God could have spent all of eternity, for ever and ever, in the perfect life and love that is God.

Yet, despite knowing fully the risks, God chose to create. God chose to share the love that is God.

I suppose God who is spirit could have been fully in charge of a kind of spiritual creation. Instead God creates a physical world filled with energy and stuff – rocks, water, flesh and blood. God chose to create a physical world in which sometimes things can get broken, things can and do go wrong.

God chose to create a physical world knowing it would bring God and bring all of us great joy and would also bring us great sorrow.

God creates us, knowing fully the risk involved.

Those of you who are parents probably have some insight into God’s desire to create. Every day women and men bring children into the world, having a pretty good idea of the risks involved.

When Sue and I couldn’t get home for Christmas one of my nieces wrote that it was the worst day of her life. I wish that would always be true, but of course, it won’t be. There will be far worse days ahead.

The Adam and Eve story in Genesis captures the truth of the risk God takes in creation. God creates a good creation, but chooses not to be in charge of creation. In the story, God sets a few ground rules, but essentially God puts man and woman in charge. In the story, Adam and Eve are free to mess things up – and they do almost immediately.

By giving us freedom to love or not to love, by giving us the freedom to make bad choices, by allowing for the chance that things may go very wrong in this physical world, God takes a risk – a risk for God, and risk for us.

It’s pretty amazing that God takes a risk on us. But what’s even more amazing is that God never gives up on us when we stumble and when we suffer.

The whole story of salvation is a story of the spiritual God relentlessly reaching out to the physical us, over and over. It’s a story of God pouring grace onto us and into us, giving us the strength we need to live our risky lives in this risky world.

God is always working to turn death into life.

At its heart, the story of salvation is the story of God appearing in Jesus. It’s the story of God taking the great risk of living, walking, laughing, suffering and weeping right beside us in this physical world.

In today’s gospel lesson, Matthew lets us know right from start about risk. Matthew tells us that Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested.

I’m sure this was not unexpected news. After all, then and now, someone who challenges the political establishment and the religious establishment is likely to get into big trouble.

Just like us, the first readers and hearers of this gospel would have known that the arrest of John the Baptist was the beginning of his end. His execution was not far off.

But, the truth is, the beginning of the end of John the Baptist was the day when he first accepted his call, when he first took the risk of speaking truth to power. The beginning of the end of John the Baptist was the first day when he went out into the wilderness and began to preach repentance – the first day when he began to demand that people risk changing their ways, risk changing their hearts.

Matthew tells us that Jesus began his public ministry after the arrest of John the Baptist. So, Jesus would have been fully aware of the risk he took the first day he went out into the world to proclaim the Good News.

To underline the point, Matthew tells us that the beginning of Jesus’ message is exactly what John the Baptist had been proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Jesus knew the risk involved in carrying out his mission. Yet, he did it anyway.

And the first disciples were willing to take the great risk of following Jesus. Apparently, they were willing to leave behind their livelihood, to leave behind the boats and the nets, to leave behind the people they loved.

We have that haunting image of Zebedee sitting in the boat, watching his sons go off and take the risk of their lives.

Peter and Andrew, James and John, they would have had some sense of the risks involved in following Jesus. Yet, they did it anyway.

God took big risks in creating all of this and in joining us in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The first disciples and Christians throughout the ages have taken – and continue to take – big risks in following Jesus.

And now, you and I here today are called to take the risk of following Jesus, the risk of living and loving the way we are meant to.

We’re meant to be a risk-taker like God. We’re meant to take the risk of creating and loving, knowing fully that things can, and often do, go terribly wrong.

If you were here last week, you know I preached about suffering and how you and I are meant to shine the light of Christ into a world shadowed with suffering and pain.

Little did I know that many of us in the chapel community would experience a great deal of suffering and sadness the very next day, when we received the heartbreaking news of the sudden and unexpected death of one of our own, Shayna.

God took the risk of creating a physical world in which things go wrong, things get broken, and all living things eventually die.

Not that it helps with our shock, pain, confusion, anger, and sadness at the death of this young woman who radiated sunshine as she anticipated her life as a nurse, a life of service; a life that was not to be.

Whenever I encounter the death of a young person I’m reminded of a sermon given by William Sloan Coffin after the death of his 24 year-old son Alex, in a car accident. (Some of you may remember that) William Sloan Coffin was chaplain at Yale during the Vietnam War era, and later pastor of Riverside Church in New York.

It was at Riverside Church that he gave this sermon. He reflected on how after his son’s death, people said the usual things like the accident was God’s will. Here’s his response to that idea:

“The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

“God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

I love that. I think that’s exactly right.

The Good News is that for God and for us, our story doesn’t end with heartbreak.

God’s heart was the first to break when Jesus suffered and died on the cross, followed nearly immediately, I’m sure, by the broken heart of his mother, Mary.

Yet, on that first Easter, God the risk-taker showed that our story doesn’t end in heartbreak. God didn’t give up on Jesus and doesn’t give up on any of us. Ever.

God the risk-taker is the God of love, the God who creates and never gives up on creation.

Even when everything seems to have gone wrong, even when everything seems to have been broken, God the risk-taker is at work, turning death into life.

At this very moment and in every moment, God is pouring out love, grace and strength on all of us.

I could feel that powerful grace in the full chapel on Monday night when we gathered to pray, to weep, and, yes, to celebrate.

Shayna has completed her all-too-brief journey from God and to God. Her journey is now completed in the presence of the God who loved her into creation – the God who was with her through all the highs and lows, twists and turns of life – the God who was with her as she took her last breath.

Shayna’s journey is complete.

But, for us, the journey continues.

If we’re open to it, if we’re willing to take the risk, like Peter and Andrew, James and John, we can join God in the great work of creation. By loving God and loving one another, in good times and not so good, we can join God in the great, risky, work of turning death into life.