Oaks of Righteousness

The Reverend Sandy Webb, rector of Holy Communion, was invited to give the sermon for the installation of Father Patrick Sanders as Priest-in-Charge of St. Peter's by the Sea Episcopal in Gulfport, Mississippi, on February 21, 2016.

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The Second Sunday in Lent (Year C)
Celebration of a New Ministry
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

At the end of their time in exile, the Prophet Isaiah says this of the people Israel: “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.”[1] 

The history of St. Peter’s by the Sea reveals an indomitable faith that has seeded growth and cradled change. You founded a church in a town that your own bishop called “wild and wooly.” You let go of your historic building so that you could be a downtown beacon of hope for both the rich and the poor, the powerful and the marginalized. You rebuilt your beachfront church after the winds and waves tried to steal it away from you. And then, in a true spirit of adventure, you called Fr. Patrick Sanders to be your Priest-in-Charge.

Through all the twists and turns in the journey that has brought us to this place, you have stood firm and your faith has radiated out in every direction. You have been blessed, and you have blessed many others – more than you will ever know.

*

Our Genesis reading this morning offers a fitting parallel to the story of St. Peter’s by the Sea. 

Abram, whom we will later know as Abraham, is on a journey with God. The scripture does not tell us very much about Abram. Unlike his ancestor Noah, who is described from the beginning as a righteous and blameless man who walked with God, Abram just appears on the scene.[1] The story of his calling is the first that we ever hear of him: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…[and you] will be a blessing.’”[2]  

God is not interested in what Abram is at the outset, but in what he will become on the journey. Journeys are easy to romanticize, but they always involve some struggle. Abram’s journey was longer than he had expected, he did not know where he was going, and he did not like living the nomadic life. In today’s episode, Abram’s weariness is palpable: He has found no place to set down roots and he has begun to doubt God’s promise that he will have an heir. In this dark moment, God appears to Abram in a vision. God turns Abram’s eyes towards the heavens and speaks a phrase to him that will be repeated time and time again throughout the Old and New Testaments: “Do not be afraid…”

I suspect that the stars shone brightly in the Middle Eastern sky that night, neither blocked by clouds nor dimmed by glare. A starry sky of incalculable depth testified to the largeness of God and the smallness of humanity. Abram was consumed by the cosmos, and in that moment, he remembered the sense of wonder and mystery that had moved him to make this journey in the first place. Count the stars, God says, if you can. “So shall your descendants be” – innumerable and beautiful, reflections of my love and power. 

We remember and honor Abram not for who he was, but for what he found the strength to do, and for what the Lord did through him. Abram stepped out in faith, and the Lord blessed him richly. As the writer of Genesis puts it, “[Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” St. James retells this story in his letter, and takes it one step further: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called the friend of God.”[4] 

Like so many of us, Abram was not an especially righteous man. Abram was a faithful man, and the Lord transformed his faith into righteousness. 

*

Two and a half years ago, God called me to a city about which I knew nothing, and to a ministry for which I felt woefully unprepared. I was scared and doubtful, but I had enough faith to believe, as Abraham will later say, that “on the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”[5] 

Sure enough, it was: Just about twenty minutes down the road, there lived a friend of God. Fr. Patrick and I had met only once before, sitting on the porch at Gray Center. A true odd couple, we were and are very different people with very different ministries, but our friendship took root almost immediately. 

There is an authenticity to Fr. Patrick’s faith that captivated me, and that I hope has captivated you. When I would get lost in the details of running a church, Fr. Patrick would remind me why the church existed in the first place – not just to construct and maintain buildings, not just to be social commentators, but to proclaim in word and deed the unbounded love of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Fr. Patrick’s faith has been reckoned to him as righteousness, as a spirit of unbounded possibility that is quite simply infectious – although, perhaps, a bit exhausting at times :-).

I do not know where God will take you in the years ahead, nor what audacious things God will call you to do for the transformation of his world. But, I do know this: If you can find in yourselves even a portion of the faith that you have exhibited in the past, even a portion of the faith of your Priest-in-Charge, it will be reckoned to you as an unimaginable degree of righteousness, and your faith will live on in your descendants.

*

Yesterday afternoon, Fr. Patrick took me to visit a tree on your grounds that he has been telling me about for months – I’m sure you know which one.  This tree had the strength to endure Hurricane Katrina, it had the grace to preside over the rebuilding of your church, and it has the beauty to inspire the next chapter of your ministry, as Ruff Turner’s painting so wonderfully shows.

This tree is a symbol of God’s enduring faithfulness to you. But, I hope that it is also a symbol of what God is calling you to do and to be in this place. Hear again the words of the Prophet, with emphasis on his very first word: “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.”

In the course of just a few verses this morning, Abram realizes the true extent of God’s plan for his life. He goes from believing that his heir will be the child of a slave to believing that his descendants will outnumber the stars. He comes to the remarkable, humbling, and thoroughly overwhelming conclusion that he will play an important role in bringing God’s plan to fruition. As he so often does, God exceeds Abram’s imagination. God may have to work a little bit harder to exceed Fr. Patrick’s imagination, but he will, because St. Peter’s by the Sea has a critically important role to play in bringing about God’s kingdom on earth.

I have no doubt that amazing things will continue happening in this place, that you will go from strength to strength, and that you will continue to testify to the transforming power of God. 

In short, you will be blessed, and you will be a blessing. 

Amen. 

Footnotes
[1] Isaiah 61:3b (NRSV) 
[2] Cf., Genesis 6:9 
[3] Genesis 12:1-2 (NRSV)
[4] James 2:23 (NRSV, emphasis added) 
[5] Genesis 22:14 (NRSV) 

Photo, left to right: The Reverend Scott Williams, deacon; the Right Reverend Brian R. Seage, Bishop of Mississippi; the Reverend Patrick Sanders; the Reverend Sandy Webb

Posted by Cara Modisett at 8:00 AM
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