Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 20, 2014
Every Monday afternoon, I host a Meetup at a local Starbucks. Meetup is an online tool that gathers strangers who have similar interests. Our Meetup is designed for any and all people who want to discuss any and all things spiritual. And let me tell you, it’s been wonderful. Perfect strangers have wrestled together with some very difficult questions.
And the best conversation we’ve had was on that age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” Simple, right? I’ll tell you it was fascinating to watch all sorts of people from all walks of life grapple with that question. You could see the level of existential angst ratchet up during the course of the conversation. Because then we got into other questions: “What am I supposed to do with my life? What is the meaning of death? Does life even have meaning?” Unfortunately, in just an hour over a cup of coffee, our group of perfect strangers did not find the answer. Sorry.
But what’s really key to that conversation is the level of angst. See, those questions make us ponder the very essence of life. And with that, we become anxious. And I sincerely believe that God can use that angst and anxiety, when we are in our most precarious places in life, to give us a glimpse into the meaning of our lives.
That’s precisely what happens with Jacob in this Old Testament. Just before our reading for today, Jacob has cheated his brother out of their father’s inheritance. His brother, Esau, is not too happy with him. In fact, Esau is planning to kill Jacob. So Jacob skips town and heads out to a different land hoping that the dust will settle. And maybe to find a wife in the meantime. So that’s where our story picks up. Jacob’s very life is threatened by his brother. Jacob finds himself out in the wilderness all alone. In the midst of all his anxiety, in this very precarious position, God gives Jacob exactly what he’s looking for. God gives Jacob the meaning for his life.
God tells Jacob, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” That’s the point. The point is that through Jacob and his family, God will bless all people. So in the midst of his crisis, God gives Jacob his purpose. Right smack dab in the middle of his precarious position, God provides an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of Jacob’s life?” The meaning of Jacob’s life is to continue living so that his family may be a blessing for all people.
This refrain is then taken up by all of Israel, the people of God. Through their witness and their presence, all the people of the world will come to know God. This refrain is taken up again by Jesus. Through his life and ministry, all people will be blessed and come to know God. This refrain is taken up by the Church. Through our ministry and witness all people of the world can come to know the love of Jesus and be blessed by God. That is the point.
And our church, our parish, finds itself in the midst of angst and anxiety. At this time, our parish is asking itself, “What is the meaning of our life? What is our purpose? What do we want to be when we grow up?” See, I think Holy Comforter is living through a stressful time, a good stress, but stress nonetheless. Here are some of the things going on: our Sunday attendance has grown by 50% in two years. We have gone from a one priest parish, to a parish with a priest and a deacon. Our Vacation Bible School attendance almost doubled from last year. Our children’s chapel is full. Due to a positive cash flow, we are debt free, and empowered to begin our Master Plan process without financial hesitation. But it’s not just numbers. I sense a true generosity of spirit, a sense of change in this church. New energy and enthusiasm has led to the creation of a group specifically for parents with young children. This summer we hosted the Interfaith Hospitality Network twice. We collected two thousand pounds of peanut butter and jelly for seniors on fixed incomes. I see courageous leaders making hard decisions. And I see a surrounding area booming with new growth and potential.
We stand on a precarious ledge. This is a vulnerable moment in the life of our church, when we can decide that what we are doing now is good enough, or we can dream of a more vibrant future. This is a vulnerable moment. We are having to decide on settling, and saying that what we have is good enough. Or making the hard decisions to continue our work. We have to choose between doing it the way things have always been done, or taking a risk and trying some new things. This is a vulnerable moment. But God comes to us in the vulnerable moments. God came to Jacob when he was fleeing his brother’s wrath. God came to Jesus while he was tempted in the wilderness. And I believe that God is calling and coming to us in our most precarious moment, when we stand on the precipice of becoming a new church.
Because I believe that what is going on now is not good enough. I believe that things will change, because change means growth.
So what is the point? What is the purpose? What is the meaning of the life of this church? The stated mission of this church is to know Christ and to make Christ known. I believe that everything we do, every decision we make, must be made through that lens.
Now, back to Jacob. Even though God reveals the purpose of Jacob’s life at this point in the story, things don’t just end there. Jacob works for fourteen years before he returns home with his wives. Then his children are born. Then his descendants are held in slavery in Egypt for four hundred years. Then they wander through the wilderness for another forty. Then they struggle to regain the land given to them. Then they go into exile for seventy years, and return, and are defeated by foreign empires not once, not twice, but three times. The purpose of Jacob’s life does not bear immediate fruit. In fact, that promise, of God blessing the world through Jacob’s line, is still being worked out.
The purpose of our church is to know Christ and to make Christ known. And we may not see the fullness of that vision. The dreams and desires we express on our survey this morning may only be realized until after we are gone. This is true for us personally too. The love we share with our families, the care we give to the needy, our prayers may not bear fruit until we are no more. That’s because God’s time is a lot longer than our time.
I know that we all want to be safe and secure. There are whole books and magazines about living without stress. The trouble is that God shows up precisely when we are stressed and disturbed and vulnerable. So when you find yourself in a stressful moment, when things are shaky and changing, when you are at your most vulnerable – be thankful. And be ready. Because that’s when God shows up. Do not despair. But rejoice. God is near.