September 25, 2016
St. Michael’s Church
“Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said,
‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!’” (Gen. 28)
Some have asked me, now that I am beginning my second year as pastor here, how I feel. Well, in a word, I feel overwhelmed.
I feel overwhelmed by the extraordinary commitment and hard work that so many of you put into the myriad ministries of this parish.
I feel overwhelmed by the smell of roasting chilis at the markets.
I feel overwhelmed by the level of need in the state of New Mexico, now ranked as the poorest of all 50 states.
I feel overwhelmed by the variety of talents and abilities that we have as a parish community, and the abundant goodness you all demonstrate day by day in trying to the right thing for your families and your community.
I feel overwhelmed by how much there is to learn about this state: the complexity of its cultures, the richness of its history, and the peculiarities of its politics.
I feel overwhelmed by the seriousness with which this parish takes prayer, and the importance of discerning God’s will, and the enthusiasm you have for the variety of Christian faith—and other faiths.
I feel overwhelmed by the violence that mars our nation, week after week, leaving in its wake some 30,000 gun deaths each year.
I feel overwhelmed by the mendacity of our political leaders, and their inability (or perhaps disinterest) in calling us together rather than driving us apart.
And I feel overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the fall in this land of enchantment: the brilliant September sunsets, the maximilian daisies bursting forth in gardens, the exuberance of the blooming chamisa across the desert.
Life is made up, isn’t it, of a conflicting sequence of feeling overwhelmed by both the good and the bad, such that we are caught between a sense of both the great tragedy of the human experience, but also its great triumph. And if you’re like me, feeling caught like that can threaten us with emotional and spiritual paralysis, because we’re never sure where we stand.
But there is also a third force at work, which is the grace and mercy of God, and while we feel overwhelmed by a steady stream of contradictory emotions, God’s grace is at work steadily, patiently drawing us through both the tragedies and the triumphs, even though we may be unaware of it. We are like Jacob in today’s first reading. Jacob is in one of the moments of tragedy, escaping from the conflict over his father’s inheritance that he has had with his brother Esau. Despondent, he lays down in a lonely and isolated place, with nothing but a stone for a pillow. And then … he dreams there a dream of great beauty and encouragement, as he sees angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. Awaking from his sleep, he realizes that even in this lonely place, God has not abandoned him, but that there is even here a connection between heaven and earth such that he is not truly alone, but in the company of angels.
The irony is that like Jacob, our sense of God’s presence and grace is often only retrospective. Waking from his dream, Jacob exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!” Where he thought he was in the loneliest and most desolate of places, he finds nothing other than a stairway to heaven. Similarly, in the midst of our own trials and tribulations—those times when we feel most overwhelmed by the tragic side—we often cannot detect where God is in the moment. Only later, looking back, are we able to perceive that even when we were in greatest need and doubt, it was God who sustained us through it. We find that we were surrounded by our own cloud of witnesses—like the angels arrayed here today all around the church.
This irony of our retrospective awareness of God puts me in mind of that greatest of all hymns, “Amazing Grace,” whose author, John Newton was (as you may know) a notorious slave trader. Looking back upon those dark days in his life—when he felt overwhelmed by the culpability of his trade—Newton is now able to see that even he was nevertheless surrounded by grace, though he did not know it. And it was this very grace that gradually drew him out of the trap of the evil that had corrupted him. The hymn moves from the past tense (“I once was lost”) to the present (“but now I’m found”). And then in this present state of assurance, Newton looks forward to the future with confidence and hope, aware finally of now being overwhelmed by grace rather than evil (“The Lord has promised good to me, and will my shield and portion be as long as life endures”).
In our lives too, when we look back at our darkest moments, we are often able to see only in retrospect that it was grace that saved us—and then, as in the last verse of Newton’s hymn, this realization of God’s prevenient grace and mercy overwhelms us with a sense of gratitude, of blessing, and of love that gives us hope that it is grace that will also lead us home. (“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun”)
Today we begin our parish’s fall stewardship season, when we focus on the concrete response that each of us will make to being overwhelmed by God’s grace and mercy, even in the midst of our cares and concerns. This stewardship season is a time to pause, like Jacob in his dream, to consider where God is in our lives, though we do not know it, and then to consider how we will choose to respond.
This is, you might say, a season to write our own hymn of grace, as we take stock of how God has sustained us, and has drawn us through “many dangers, toils, and snares” to this day. It is a time to write a hymn of courage, of confidence, and of gratitude, through the tangible act we make of offering back to God a portion of our financial resources, as a sign of the even more abundant grace God has given to us.
That very act of blessing and gratitude is what we sang about in that wonderful 103rd Psalm today: in response to a Lord who is “full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness,” our life is to be lived in return by blessing God, through our own acts of gratitude and praise. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.”
Last night, just out of curiosity, I typed the name “Taizé” into Spotify, to see what popped up. The first song that started to play was the Taizé community singing this very psalm: “Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord my soul, who leads me into life.” Well, if even Spotify has such an excellent theology as that, then shouldn’t we also?
Let this stewardship season be a time when you rediscover how God has blessed you, and then ponder in your soul how you will bless the Lord in return. Or in a word, let this be a time when you are overwhelmed by God’s grace and mercy, rather than the cares and worries of the day, and then consider what is the true measure of your response. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016