Growing with God

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

A while back, I went to dinner with a priest from another church. We had been meaning to do something, and our schedules finally caught up. When I got to the restaurant, I realized that the priest had also brought his organist and the organist’s wife.  Though I my colleague a little and had met the musician, his wife and I seemed to hit it off best of all. What we had in common was something that the other two did not share with us– this young woman had grown up in Kansas, valued her upbringing and deeply loves her family, but had also fallen in love with NYC and was making her home here.  She and I had a lot in common in terms of “leaving home,” and how that journey of leave-taking continues in some ways, as we grow and change, yet hold on to much of what makes us who we are. 

The complications of leaving home run throughout today’s scriptures.

In today’s Gospel we see the tension caused by Jesus’ willingness to leave home and then try to return again. Jesus grew up partly in Nazareth, but he traveled. He was baptized by John. He struggled with demons in the wilderness. He taught in synagogues and Luke tells us that Jesus “was glorified by all.” But then he came back to Nazareth, his home town. He read liberating words from Isaiah in the synagogue and then he added his own, saying that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Away from home, momentum had been building around Jesus. People spoke well of him. They wondered at his wisdom, but back in Nazareth, they were confused – after all, they knew him, or at least they thought they knew him. Was this not, after all, just Joseph’s son?

In today’s first reading, also, we see the complications of growing, of deepening, of figuring out who one is—and that is a deeply spiritual exercise.  In Jeremiah’s case, he wrestles with a sense of his own calling from God. God makes it clear to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;” and, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations,” Jeremiah tries to wiggle out. “But I’m too young,” he says. “I’m inexperienced. I’m not trained. I’m not fit for service.” But God calls him anyway.

And yet, Jeremiah’s worries seem to come true when later, he’s ignored, laughed at, and rejected. He feels a long way from home and away from almost everything that is familiar and comfortable. He also feels cut off from God. “O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; every one mocks me.” (Jer. 20)

But slowly and somehow, Jeremiah later realizes that he has, indeed, grown up. The scenery has changed, HE has changed, but God has been with him the whole time.

Spiritual growth comes so often when we are willing to leave what is familiar. We grow with God often by leaving home, though home can be many different things. We’re sometimes called to move to a new job, with new expectations and challenges. We’re sometimes called to move into new relationships where patterns and behaviors are different. We’re sometimes taken to new cities or perhaps even new countries, and we find ourselves needing to make new friends, to develop new social networks and to re-define family away from home. The move away from home is not always physical.

I had a friend of our parish in New Jersey who had never lived more than ten miles away from where she was born. She traveled out of the United States twice, but she grew in place. She read and remained interested in people, and even in her 80s, she was the most popular teacher in the youth confirmation class. The young people recognized in her a kindred spirit that was always willing to grow, to learn, to change, and to be surprised, to be hurt (even), and to continue on in the way God leads.

In the lovely words from Paul that we hear in today’s Epistle, we often focus on the poetry and hold on to the reminder that “faith, hope, and love” abide. But Paul assures us of their abiding because he knows we will experience our own growing pangs, if we are alive to God’s Spirit.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” It’s because spiritual growth can be disorienting and unsettling that Paul assures us of the abiding of faith, hope, and love– the greatest, being love.

Especially when times are confusing, it’s tempting to reach backward and hold on to a familiar image of God, an old way of being with God.  But these are often just the times when God is stirring things up around us and inviting us to grow in some new way.  For us to accept the challenge, we just need to remember that God is with us and God is also in the way forward.

For me, W.H. Auden captures this sense of God’s movement and how we are invited to follow. It’s from Auden’s “For the Time Being” (A Christmas Oratorio). Auden, I think, understood this leaving the familiar and venturing out into unknown places—the whole adventure of faith. He helps us locate God in change, writing:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety.
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

We can be confident in the adventure of faith because we know that God is with us. God never left Jeremiah. God never left Sarah, or Hannah, or Jesus, or Paul, or Mary Magdalene, or Mary his Mother. As with Jeremiah and all the rest, God knew us the womb, before we were born, God has consecrated US, and chosen US. God knows our fears and our limitations, but God also knows our potential and all that we are made for.

As we learn to grow in the faith and courage to leave the familiar, may we always grow in God and God’s love.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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