sermons

God's Unpredictable Power

A sermon given on August 25, 2019 - Jeunée’s First Sunday back after Sabbatical

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

 Our opening prayer this morning, the Collect, expresses a prayer that has been on my heart as I’ve prepared for my return to St. Michael’s.

  “Grant O merciful God that your Church being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name;”

 I know that I am certainly happy to once more be gathered with you all in unity as I have just returned from three and a half months of sabbatical time. And my prayer is that, together, as we begin this new program year, the Holy Spirit will enliven this church – even more than God already has – so that we might show God’s power to the world around us – even more so than we already do. 

 The one thing about God showing God’s power, however, it that God is rather unpredictable. God doesn’t always act according to our scripts, or follow our plans. God doesn’t always show up on our schedule or act even according to the rules we think God made up for himself.

 So that’s what we’re going to talk about today, about how God shows up, even, and perhaps especially, in ways we don’t expect. About How we can find God in the places where things aren’t working according to our expectations.

 [Just as an aside - You know… it’s been so long since I’ve prepared a sermon that when I tried to open the app on my phone that lets me to listen to the lectionary podcast I normally use in sermon preparation, it had to re-download the app because it had been so long since I’d last used it! ]

 Let’s look at the Gospel story we just heard. Jesus is once again getting in trouble with the synagogue leaders because he is healing on the Sabbath. The Ten Commandments are clear… no work on the Sabbath, and healing, at least to the Jewish leaders, seems to them to be “work.” Some rabbis whose teaching was later reflected in the Jerusalem Talmud, believed that healing could be allowed on the Sabbath but only if it were a critical case, not for chronic illnesses, and obviously, this woman’s 18 year malady is a chronic case. (see m. Yoma 8.6)  But Jesus reveals synagogue leader’s hypocrisy and heals the woman who has been crippled and bound up in pain all those years.

 Jesus shows God’s power in an unexpected way, on an unexpected day. This shouldn’t surprise us. God is in the business of bringing freedom, healing, and restoration. And why wouldn’t that happen on the Sabbath, a day set aside to honor God and enjoy God’s presence and the blessings he bestows on us? The people came to the synagogue that day expecting to hear teaching from the words of the Torah, but instead, unexpectedly, they received a tangible lesson from the Word made flesh, Jesus.

 I’ve just returned from a time of Sabbath. My “Sabbathical” was not exactly what I expected it would be when I started planning it over a year and a half ago. In April of 2018 I submitted a Sabbatical grant proposal to the Lilly foundation to fund a Sabbatical that would have been full of travel to Sacred Spaces like hiking a different section on the Camino de Santiago in Spain and visiting Rome with my mother. It would have included time with my family, even visiting my sister in Hawaii with all of my siblings and our adult children. It included not only time to work on my doctoral thesis, but some other courses and conferences in spiritual leadership. Also included in the grant proposal where opportunities for St. Michael’s… the DC pilgrimage to the cathedrals and monastery would have been completely paid for. We would have had guest speakers from local universities come offer talks on our yearly theme of “Sacred Space.”  

 It was a great plan. I had every day’s itinerary lined up. I had spent about sixty hours or more working on the proposal.  But – after waiting four months, I found out that I did not get the $50,000 grant.  

Bummer.

I felt God tell me at that time. “Don’t worry about it. Don’t plan so much. I’ve got a better plan for you.”

 It turned out to be quite an unexpected plan. A lot different than my original proposal! As most of you know, I got married! Meet Marcel, my new husband!

 Marcel and I had been dating for over two years, and we’d started talking about marriage, but I’m in the middle of my doctoral work, and figuring out a wedding seemed way too complicated. We just wanted something simple. We met in our hiking group, so maybe getting our hiking priest friend Dale Custer, our administrator Doris Custer’s husband,  to take us and our kids up on a mountain for a simple ceremony would work… but even that seemed too complicated. What if it rained? At the same time, since my sabbatical grant program was denied, my summer had opened up. Marcel and his boys had come to Shrine Mont with us last year, and they all enjoyed it. So we decided early last spring that we would come to Shrine Mont again just to enjoy the parish retreat together. Since I’d still be on sabbatical and not in charge, it would be sort of a surprise to the parish.  Only a couple of organizers knew we were coming.

 It was something like Palm Sunday that God whispered in our ears, “You could get married at Shrine Mont!” What a perfect plan, God! Except for our families, and a few folk who needed to be in the know for planning, we surprised everyone. And it was a lot of fun sharing that surprise with those of you who were on our Shrine Mont retreat three weeks ago.

 So, God showed up in my plans much differently than I originally expected, but at least I knew going into my sabbatical that we were going to get married. (Which was very exciting!) What we were not clear on was where we were going to live. We thought I’d just keep my apartment as a writing studio for my doctoral thesis while I slowly moved into Marcel’s house. But we soon figured out that his house is too small for my stuff and his stuff and his kids… and so we’d need to find a new home, and sell the house he was living in. Selling and buying a house took on a life of its own. My summer “Sabbath” has not been in rest and spiritual reflection as much as it has been in purging, packing, staging, fixing, cleaning and selling a house. In looking for a new home, We ended up deciding to have a new house built and so have also gone through the process of choosing flooring and cabinets and all those things that go into a new house.

 The only house sold in five days, and it closes this coming Thursday. The new house will be finished, they say, by the end of November. Meanwhile, movers came last Thursday and packed up Marcel’s house into Pods, and he’s moved into my small one-bedroom apartment.

 As some of you have probably already guessed, there’s still quite a lot of work to be done on my doctoral thesis… But I still plan to knock it out to graduate next spring.

 Marcel and I have felt God’s power show up in ways we didn’t expect, bringing us wholeness and joy, even in the midst of turning our lives upside down… or rightside up!

 Let me share another story of how God’s power showed up in unexpected ways this summer, when our plans didn’t work out.

 Some of you know that Marcel and I travelled across country with his boys in July, to visit his parents who live near Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, and take in some of the wonderful sites along the way.  We stopped to see my mom in West Virginia, then hit Chicago and stayed at my son’s apartment there. We drove and camped just outside the Badlands in South Dakota. The next day we visited the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and then drove on to Billings, MT to a campground there.

 The next day we crossed into Canada and headed to Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. From the research Marcel had done, the websites said you couldn’t reserve a campground site. It was first come first serve. As we approached Banff and checked the first two campsites on our list we discovered two things. One – the rules had changed, and people could indeed reserve a campsite. And Two – we were arriving about 8 pm, and so all the “first come, first serve” spots had already been served up, even on a Tuesday night.

 We had just travelled 12 hours in a truck with three teenage boys in the backseat. We were trying to figure out what to do. Do we drop a bundle of money on a resort-priced hotel rooms in the area, if we could find one available? Or do we drive an hour and a half back toward Calgary to find less expensive accommodations… or do we skip seeing Banff National Park and just drive four more hours to Marcel’s parents. This was not going according to plan. 

 But then I thought, - or rather, God inspired the thought – “I wonder if there are any Anglican churches nearby?” Sure enough, just 10 miles away, there was a St. Michael’s Anglican Church in Canmore, Alberta. Just outside the border to the park. It’s now 8:30 at night on a Tuesday. My plan was for us to show up, camp in their yard, and invoke Anglican Communion hospitality, and forgiveness if needed. Marcel thought we should call first. So I did. Lo and behold, someone answered the phone.

 I explained the situation. “Hi, my name is Jeunée Godsey and I’m the priest of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Richmond Virginia. I’m travelling with my family camping and somehow we’ve screwed up and can’t find a camp site. I’m hoping for St. Michael’s sister-church hospitality and hoping you’d let us camp in your church yard tonight.

The woman said, “Have you seen our church yard?” “No” “We don’t really have a yard you can camp in.” I responded, “well, do you have any ideas for us? We’re kind of stuck.” She said, “Would you like to camp IN the church?” “Boys, do you want to camp IN the church?” “Yes!”

 So the secretary waited for us – they had just finished their parish council meeting – and gave us keys to the church. Showed us the bathrooms and the carpeted classrooms, and we set up our sleeping backs in various rooms in the parish house. What a gift! What a display of God’s power.

 The fact that it was a “St. Michael’s” was God just showing off a bit, in case we were to think it was just “good luck.”

 Now, I’ve taken some personal privilege for my first Sunday back to share some stories of how Marcel and I have seen God’s power at work in some fun ways in our lives over the past few months.

 But we know that life isn’t always fun, and that there is much pain in the world and in our personal lives. Nevertheless, God’s power is present - often in unexpected ways - in these difficult times as well.

 This last week we lost two dear saints of St. Michael’s family.  Charlie Wayland died Tuesday, August 20th, after months of slow decline and time in hospice. John Lewis died just this last Friday, after a week in the hospital revealed he had not just heart issues, as his doctor thought, but cancer that had spread throughout his body.

 We know Jesus is a healer, and just as he did with the woman crippled for 18 years, he frees those who are held in bondage by their illness.  In both Charlie’s and John’s case, that freedom came as Jesus released them from the pain in their physical bodies, and brought their spirits and souls to be with God in heaven.

 God’s power was present with Charlie as he prepared for death. Charlie kept his sweet spirit and sense of humor until the very end. He had planned for his funeral. He knew he was loved. He expressed his love to Sandra and his family. He was at peace. God’s power is still with Sandra and the rest of Charlie’s family and friends as they let Charlie go and grieve.

 God’s power was present with John as he quickly declined toward death. Becki was called to do last rites Friday, and John was unresponsive at first. But in the middle of the time of prayer, he opened his eyes and gazed at Inge, who he had just married less than a year ago. He just held his eyes lovingly on her during the prayers. As Becki finished last rites, he simply closed his eyes and died.  Inge told me yesterday that a blanket of peace has enveloped her. A supernatural peace. The Peace that passes all understanding. That’s the power of God.

 We all have in our heads pictures of how life should be… plans we like to make, and expectations of how our lives will go. Sometimes those plans and expectations work out, but often times the world doesn’t operate according to our plans. They key for you and me is to look for how God’s power is present in any given situation.

 How is God leading?

How is God directing your decisions?

How is God bringing you freedom?

Where is God bringing healing and wholeness?

 The key for all of us is to not only begin to recognize God’s power working in our lives, but to share those experiences with others. That is how the prayer we prayed at the beginning of the service can be fulfilled:

“Grant O merciful God that your Church being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name.”

Amen.