“What We Know Now”
July 16, 2023 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Rev. Mary Beth Blinn
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
This summer has been a big one for me. I attended my 50th High School Reunion in Winchester, KY. If any of you have gone back home after a long time, or visited with long-lost friends, you know what I mean. How could this many years have passed and we all still feel like we’re 18?
I also had the privilege of preaching at First United Methodist in Winchester that same weekend. Winchester First isn’t just any church to me. My Dad was the pastor there for 11 years, through my elementary and high school years. I call it my home. I have many happy memories from my years growing up there and the people who loved me. And as far as I was concerned, there was no downside to being a PK, which stands for preacher’s kid.
Every Sunday I listened to my Dad preach and I thought he was the best preacher in the world.
I was in Sunday School with my friends, children’s choirs and the youth bell choir. I got to watch weddings from the balcony. I learned how to play shuffleboard and ping pong in the fellowship hall. Our church built a camp called Wesley Woods where we could swing on grapevines, swim in the lake, learn the J stroke canoeing and play volleyball, tether ball and foursquare. I had my first job there as a youth camp counselor.
What I know now is that while I was growing up, and doing all these things, the Lord was in that place. Especially there was that time when I sat around a campfire at Wesley Woods with other people who cared about me. And gazing up at the night sky, I was moved to believe even more deeply in the God of those swirling stars.
And when I knelt at the altar rail of that church, confirming my faith and saying to God and everyone there that, yes, I knew God’s grace was for me and that I wanted to follow Jesus my whole life long. I might not have been able to articulate what I know now back then as an 8, or 12 or even an 18 year old, but I can look back and clearly see that God was in that place and in those people.
What I know now, in what some might call the third act of my life, is that God has been with me all along the way. In my calling as a reluctant 20- something woman into pastoral ministry trying to fill some mighty big shoes. God has been with me in all the places I called home, and in all of the churches who called me Pastor Mary Beth. And in all the times that were filled with joy and hope and the times filled with hurt and sadness.
Maybe you’ve had that experience too, Looking back and seeing evidence of God. That “footprints in the sand” revelation when you realized you had not been alone.
The Bible is full of stories of people and places that hold this kind of memory. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, what we Christians often call the Old Testament, we come to know God through these particular people and places. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God, who through exodus and exile, led the people home. Bernard Anderson, in one of my favorite college textbooks, Understanding the Old Testament, says that Biblical faith is fundamentally historical in character. It is concerned with events and historical relationships, not simply abstract values and ideas existing in a timeless realm. He also writes, “The God of Israel is known in history–a particular history– at a time and place, through his relationships with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
You have been reading some of these patriarchs’ stories this summer here at Cobleskill from the book of Genesis. Last week, Pastor Anna talked about Isaac and Rebecca and their imperfect family. From the very beginning, when Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, came into the world, each one struggled to be born first.. Jacob came in second so when he was encouraged by his mother to trick his father, he went along with the deceit. To get the first born’s privilege, he pretended to his blind father, Isaac, that he was Esau, and stole the blessing. Then, afraid for his life, he ran away. Which brings us today’s reading from Genesis 28.
It was in that running away from Esau, looking over his shoulder, that Jacob had an experience that turned his attention to God. He stopped for the night, at what seemed a nondescript place along the way, gathered up a stone for a pillow and settled in. Now, I’ve slept on many pillows that were not that comfortable. Maybe you have, too. All I can say is that Jacob must have been really tired. And on top of that, during the night he has one of those dreams that you remember vividly when you wake up.
It was of a ladder-like structure stretching from earth to the heavens, with angels going up and down. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, your grandfather, the God of Isaac, your father. The land on which you lie I will give to you and your children, and their children and their children. Know that I am with you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.
The dream woke him up. The place he had just stopped for the night, the place he had just laid down to get some rest, was a place where God was and he hadn’t noticed. “Surely the Lord is in this place–and I did not know it.” He marked the place by turning that stone pillow up on its end and making an altar, and calling the place “Beth El– which means House of God.” He also promised to come back to that spot, to fulfill the promise made to his ancestors: This would be home, finally. No longer would the descendants of Abraham and Isaac be migrants, sojourners in a strange land. And, most importantly, he would honor God with his life.
In our own journey toward home, How do we learn to pay attention to where we are? Barbara Brown Taylor has written a geography of faith called An Altar in the World. She writes: “I can set a little altar, in the world or in my heart. I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is.” She continues: “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”
Last summer I was cleaning out my car and came across a key tag, you know one of those things that gets you the deals at Price Chopper or CVS you attach to your keyring? Except that it was from church. At the last church that I served before retirement we decided to mark the baptism of the Lord Sunday by providing water where each person could remember their baptism and be renewed in faith. We had read the scripture from Jesus’ baptism where he heard God’s voice say, “You are my son, the Beloved.” And so after a time of touching the water at the front of the sanctuary, each person could pick up a plastic key tag, that said, “I am Beloved.” You could hang it in your shower where the water could remind you of your baptism. Or on your key ring. Or wherever.
But on that day in my driveway, three years after my retirement, after the end of a marriage, and a move to a new state, I found that key tag in my car. “I am Beloved.” It caught my attention, I stopped to look, tears came to my eyes and the truth of that reality washed over me. I was God’s beloved. There was an altar in my world, in my car. The Lord was in that place.
It’s been important for me to reflect on the past as I have done this summer, just as you can from time to time. What is your story? Even if you do not have a background in the church, as I did, what is your story? Take a few minutes to think about these things: How have you navigated the life you actually have, which turned out not to be the perfect life you expected? When did something beyond the ordinary catch your attention? Where were you when you glimpsed the God of the swirling stars? Who has helped you as a child, or a teenager or as an adult, to know that you are beloved ?
But here’s another thing: How can we also learn the practice of paying attention to the present moment. So that less and less often we will find ourselves saying: The Lord was in this place or that place and I didn’t know it. I missed the moment that may have inspired me, taught me, changed me.
On June 25, Pastor Anna spoke about how we stay in love with God by paying attention to God. How is that going? To help us on our way, here are three practices that we can add to our tool box for paying attention:
Wake up every morning and say this verse from Psalm 118:24 before you even get out of bed, “THIS is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it!”
Pray the words of this song that we just sang, write them, or ones like them, on a sticky note for your bathroom mirror: Open my eyes, Lord, so that I can see you today.
Go outside and look up, look down, notice the beautiful things God has put in your way. I have a friend who sees more rainbows in a month than most people see in a lifetime. Why? Because she is looking for them.
I want to close by saying that now, in this third act of my life, I have the privilege of paying attention to what’s going on right now, in this time and space, in 2023 at Cobleskill UMC. I’m watching my daughter, Anna, Pastor Anna, serve this congregation. I am so thankful for her and proud of her. I see you together, as pastor and congregation, paying attention to where God is already working in this church, in this community, and in the world. Keep up the good work. The Lord truly is in this place.