Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany - January 29, 2023
When I was a girl, my parents would sometimes invite me to offer the blessing at our family dinner table. I think I had absorbed even at my young age that the main point of saying grace was to ask God to bless the food and to be grateful for our family.
So, when my opportunities to pray came, I would begin in the usual way--bless the food—bless the hands that made it, bless our family. But then, I would keep going… bless my big sister Ann’s new chalkboard (of which I was greatly envious), bless the salt, bless the pepper…bless Puff (my dog), bless Pepe, (Ann’s dog—whom I didn’t really want to bless). And on I would go in this blessing of mine, holding forth while everyone’s eyes were necessarily closed for as long as I was moved to pray. As the youngest at the table, it was really quite a fine moment for me.
Invariably, when I finished, my mother would say one thing: “What a lovely blessing!” No matter how wandering, how lingering, how nonsensical it had been. I always anticipated her words with joy. With that one exclamation, my mother blessed me. Blessed my place as a person of equal importance to all the other bigger people at the table.
And in that moment, I felt fully, completely, unreservedly home.
Today, three of our lessons speak in complementary and compelling ways about what makes us feel fully, completely, unreservedly home with God. In other words, what is the home God makes for us—the place we call kingdom—really like?
In one of the most beloved and best known portions of the Old Testament from the prophet Micah, Israel has become alienated from God’s kingdom. As a nation, she has sinned with disregard for all God has done for her. And so, as Micah tells the story—Israel seeks to make it right. Micah knows the people are losing their footing in their own home. Soon, his prophecies come true and the people of Israel are cast out of their home by foreign nations. In this poetic portion of his writing, Micah imagines a scene in which the people ask—how can we return to that experience of being at home with God?
What do you want? Israel asks…Better worship, burnt offerings? Thousands of rams, tens of thousands of rivers of oil? The litany sounds like the over promising we do when we know we’ve messed up. “I’ll never do it again—I’ll buy you whatever you want”…or—remember this one as a kid—“I’ll clean my room every day”…or “I’ll pay you double.” All of our grandstanding in the face of our own sin is an attempt to restore the feeling that all is well as it used to be—that we are at home again with each other.
But, what Yahweh says is this— “I don’t want all that. I don’t want your over reaction. All I require is that you do justice, act with loving kindness and walk humbly with your God.”
The Psalmist echoes a similar theme, asking, “Who may dwell in your tabernacle, who may abide upon your holy hill?” In other words, “Whom will you welcome to be at home with you, O Lord?”
The answer involves no elaborate effort—but rather, the simplest offerings—to do what is right, to speak truth from one’s heart. These are the things that make one at home in God’s tent.
And, Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, lays out for the first time his vision of the kingdom of God—the home God builds. He describes not aspirational goals for how to earn God’s favor—but rather, he paints a picture of what God’s household is like when one is inside. It is a place, he says, where the poor in spirit are nearest to its essence, a place where those who mourn find comfort, a place where those who are meek inherit the earth…a place, in other words, where many of the worst the qualities of this world are inverted.
All three of these beautiful texts tell us about our truest home. The place God means for us to abide. It is not a place where we are expected to be perfect or to offer elaborate worship or excessive gifts. No, all three texts written in very distinct contexts, describe the simplest things that bring us home to the dwelling place God has prepared for us. Mercy, loving kindness, justice, truth, peace, pure hearts. These are the lovely blessings of our God. These are the blessings we are meant to be in the lives of others. When these blessings are present, we are inside the kingdom. We are home.
And the best part is that none of these things happen absent the messiness of life. None of them require as a precondition perfection or nice neat tidy caricatures of real life. Each quality shines brightest, in fact, in the midst of the full catastrophe of human existence—mourning, meekness, hunger, thirst, our work for justice, our loving kindness—all of these qualities, when you think about it—occur in the very center of our feeble human condition. Just as I received my mother’s blessing in the midst of my wandering, messy prayer, so we receive the deepest blessings of our God right in the center of our wandering and our messes.
Dear friends, I am so deeply glad to be here with you in this beautiful historic church—a place you have cherished and tended for so long. A place generations before you have also tended. You know, when I first heard from members here, it took me a moment to understand what was happening. Victor and Keith can tell you that those first couple of phone calls had me a bit confused. Because they were asking—very politely—“Where’re you been, Bishop? We’d like to see you!” And I couldn’t understand because I thought the the folks calling me were from the other diocese. So, I was like, “I can’t exactly come see you without the blessing of your bishop.” And what I heard was, “You are our bishop—we are Episcopalians!” Now, I had not understood this. And I’m not saying this to disparage ACNA folks.
What I learned when I had my first meeting with some of you in leadership here, is that you have always experienced this place as your home—and you have simply carried on, regardless of the world, or in this case, the church around you. You have carried on, I have learned as I listened to you in the early days, not because of any hierarchy or particular dogma. No, you have carried on because this is home. In the terms of our scriptures for today, this is a place where you have done justice, practiced loving kindness and walked humbly with your God. This is a place where you have done what is right, where you have spoken the truth from your heart. And because of these practices, this is a place where you have been able to mourn to make peace, to stand firm when persecuted. This holy tent called St. Bartholomew’s is your home.
It hasn’t really mattered to you, I’ve learned, who was your bishop—not that you don’t care about us bishops—but it’s not the thing, really. Nor has it mattered who was running things beyond the parish or what politics they had. I’m not being naivé. There are differences that are real and that do matter to you—I understand that.
But I think what has mattered most to you are the simple things—the things that have blessed you and by which you have blessed others—mercy, love, forgiveness, justice, vulnerability, truth. When we give and receive these gifts, we bless one another. And where we are blessed, there we are home. Home is where we are blessed.
Imagine a world marked by the character of home Micah, David, and Jesus describe in our texts today—a world marked by justice, by loving kindness and mercy—a world marked by true hearts and right actions—a world marked by vulnerable spirits unafraid to mourn, honest about their poverty—a world marked by courageous souls willing to feel their ache for righteousness, willing to make peace and stand with the oppressed even when doing so means they will be attacked. Imagine how different this world would be.
This world that Jesus, David, and Micah describe—this is the dwelling place of our God. The tent he pitches where we can abide. Ours is the holy, humble work of making that home visible and accessible—here in this community, everywhere God calls us to go. By each faithful step we take together in witness to the Lord of Love, our lives become the prayer that blesses others.
Thank you, St. Bartholomew, for all the ways you have been a blessing to this community for all these years. Thank you for staying true to your calling. I am eager to see how God works through you in the years to come, and I am honored to walk alongside you as your bishop.
And, I understand there will be messes. In fact, I welcome them. I hope you do too. The road ahead may not always be easy. We have much to forgive, much to let go of—so that our arms are free to embrace what is to come.
This is the time for us to take our first, tenuous, beautiful next steps together. With our eyes closed in trust, may we offer the simple prayer that is our lives. Our beautiful, imperfect, messy lives.
For when we offer our lives as blessing—no matter how wandering, how lingering, how nonsensical they may be, invariably, from the one who has always seen our true beauty — will come the response we anticipate with child-like joy: “What a lovely blessing!” And we will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we are home.
May you know, strong, wise, steadfast parish of St. Bartholomew’s, just what a lovely blessing you are.
Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.