Featured Sermon: The Rev. Canon Elizabeth Easton
The Rev. Canon Elizabeth Easton
Proper 6C – St. Mary’s, Bassett
June 17, 2016
This week, our Diocesan staff has been traveling along the Cowboy Trail—that now abandoned Chicago and Northwestern Railway Corridor stretching from around Chadron all the way to Norfolk.
We started out in Chadron, at beautiful little Grace Church, then visited Gordon, and Valentine, and took a swing up to the Rosebud Reservation to “supervise” our Diocesan youth hard at work on their yearly mission trip.
This annual journey, which we sometimes call the “Western Residency,” is a highlight of the year for us. Here, we get to spend a little more time in and around our churches in this part of the world than we usually do. We get to move at a slightly slower pace, explore a bit more, follow our curiosity down new roads. We eat very, very well. And we get a lot of work done—if you have a liberal definition of “work.”
This is a week for imagining and dreaming, praying and wrestling, with what God might be calling the Episcopal churches of Nebraska to be and do in this moment, and how we can serve our people best in the midst of that holy transformation. It’s incredibly rich and connecting, and we are just so grateful that our congregations along the way humor us and host us with such ridiculous abundance. Thank you.
Having spent the last few days in the Sandhills, there is no better way to mark this journey—for me, at least—than a rogation procession in the midst of such a beautiful place. As the four us have traveled in the truck these last several days, the Sandhills have become a powerful fifth person in our midst. This incredible landscape is unlike anywhere else on earth, and for those of us who don’t get to live within its splendor daily—those of us in the boring east—the vastness and beauty of this place is almost overwhelming.
The other night, we were driving from Gordon to Valentine, just as the sun was setting. It was only the second day of our journey, and already we were feeling the emotional whiplash of this kind of trip—the highs of beautiful liturgies and wholehearted laughter around a parish hall table; the more challenging lows of hard odds and hard truths spoken about towns that are shrinking and churches that are fighting to keep their doors open.
It’s hard work, and it’s humbling, and sometimes it will even break your heart.
So, we were driving to Valentine along Highway 20, and the sun had just set. The outlines of the hills were still glowing red on the horizon, but the sky was getting darker and filling up with stars. The moon was bright, and pretty full, and followed us along the passenger side the whole way. Near it, just to its left, a planet—which I later found out was Saturn—glowed brightly.
I found myself wondering, in the midst of all that vastness—the huge sky, the far away planets, the rolling, expansive hills, and all that water beneath them—what we might look like from God’s perspective. Set within the immensity of creation, where does God place us? What does God see?
The readings for tonight were actually appointed for last Sunday, so you’ve likely encountered them very recently. Most of us heard them in church before we understood exactly what had happened in Orlando that day, maybe before we’d even knew about it at all.
Here, we find a story about Jesus at a dinner party. Invited by a curious and maybe critical Pharisee, Jesus meets a woman there—we don’t know her name—who makes him welcome in a way that no one else would. She weeps at his feet, washing away the dust and grime from the day’s journey with her own tears, the source of which we don’t know exactly, but the abundance of which speaks to a deep well of emotion—of grief, or shame, or maybe gratitude, even joy.
She has with her an expensive jar of perfume, which she anoints him with. She uses her own hair to dry his feet, to soak up her tears and that anointment. She’s a mess, and she’s beautiful, and she’s doing something that no one else would dare do, in a way that is shocking, and strange, and deeply disturbing somehow.
What do we make of this woman? The others around the table are quick to dismiss her—to call her a sinner, and use that to discredit Jesus, who should know better than to let a woman like her touch him at all. Of course, Jesus isn’t buying it. He knows exactly who she is, and he welcomes her gift, as strange and gritty and imperfect as it is.
Sometimes I feel like I’m seated around that Pharisee’s dining table. Jesus is right there, I know it, but I’m not sure exactly how to serve him, welcome him, honor him.
Things around us feel tight these days, I think, like what we’ve come to rely on is scarce or even disappearing. Like there’s not enough to go around. Tension surrounding this political season is especially high, and we’re not sure how to talk about all of it with our neighbors or even our friends. The whole world is changing—who has power and who doesn’t, who has less power than they used to, who has more. The traditions that helped us feel safe, maybe, or at least comfortable, are being challenged, and so our grip gets tighter and tighter.
The story that we heard tonight reminds us that God loves our offerings. That when there is a choice to make, we are called to err on the side of generously loving—even when we are awkward, and imperfect, and aren’t really sure what we’re doing. Even when we’re afraid.
There’s something that Nebraska can tell the world about this particular way of serving Jesus, I think—this erring on the side of abundance that we read about today. Your diocesan staff talks about this all the time—wonders and marvels about it—and we’ve seen a ton of it on this trip. We are a diocese of small churches, for the most part. Small churches in small communities that are changing and shifting at a pace just a step ahead of the rest of the Church. And what we see, over and over again when we visit you, is a profuse, sometimes astounding, outpouring of generosity that I know God takes great delight in:
The feasts where we bring our very best to the potluck table—our cherished family dishes, our first fruits.
The altar that is painstakingly cared for; the worship carefully planned to the last detail so that the seven or ten or fifteen people we see every week will get to worship without distraction and with special reverence, and so that the stranger can join us and be astonished by beauty; just beauty.
The people that we love even though nobody says we have to—the people whose sharp edges can cut us, who can be very hard to love indeed, but are ours, and are cherished, and are known.
The times when we take big risks without counting the cost—trying something new, trying something that seems impossible, meeting and serving the broken and marginalized people all around us because they are Jesus, too.
God loves our offerings.
SO. The glowing hills, and the nearly full moon, and Saturn blazing in the night sky: In the midst of all of that, set so small within it, where does God place us? What does God see?
I think that part of the spirituality of Nebraska has to do with scale. We know how small we are. And we know how important small things are God’s creation. Seeds pushing their way through the earth. Drops of rain. The way that sunlight makes magic out of tiny green leaves. Our small churches, our small selves. Like the woman at Jesus’ feet in tonight’s reading, we bring all of ourselves to God—our tears and our jars of perfume—and we offer them with whole hearts, even when the rest of the world says that’s not worth it, that kind of generosity isn’t worth it. Especially then. We know that we either love abundantly or we do not. So, please know this: God loves your offering.