20 Nov 2016
“But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands, for Manasseh was the firstborn.” (Gen. 48:14)
The message I take away from Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh with his arms crossed is that ours is a God of surprises. When we think we have God understood and explained, when we imagine that there is nothing new to expect, there is this wonderful God of surprises hiding in the darkness around the corner just waiting to jump out and remind us in no uncertain terms that He’s still here. Joseph brings his sons to his father for a blessing, the oldest to the right, the youngest to the left. Then Joseph is scandalized by his father’s break with tradition as Jacob crosses his arms. Joseph tries to force his father’s arms apart to where he expected them to be. Jacob says calmly, “‘I know, my son, I know.’” Jacob appreciated Joseph’s distress. Long ago he had helped pull a fast one over on his father, and he felt guilty about that for the longest time. Now in his old age Jacob sees the trickery of so many years prior was as God intended. Jacob kept his hands exactly where they were because he had grown comfortable with letting God surprise him, with letting God lead the way even if Jacob didn’t know to where. There’s a lot of potential for excitement in the faith when we are committed enough to let God lead the way.
And by now we should be pretty comfortable with surprises. The Cubs were such a fun surprise. Frontier’s post-season triumphs have been great surprises. One of the nicest things about small town life are those processions back into town with sirens blaring. And November 8th was an even larger one. It didn’t matter if you were pleased or horrified by the election results, just about everyone was surprised by them. And how about the fact that marijuana-for-fun is soon to be legal? When I was in college, they raised the drinking age on me. As a freshman I could imbibe, but no longer as a sophomore. In Brandeis’ college pub, while I was having a soda because I was 19 and underage again, they never bothered the rule-breakers smoking pot in the corner. But we at Holy Name are going to do our part to make pot not cool even if it is legal. We’re going to grow a field of it out behind my rectory and use it to lure young members to come to church. Plus, when they get the munchies, we’ll have our food sales ready to go. We’ll make a fortune. And what normal kid is going to take-up marijuana when the church is selling it. Somehow we can even make pot boring.
Sharon and I are sitting at the counter of a local eating establishment for our usual Sunday morning breakfast. A mother sends her son up to pay the bill at the cash register. The boy and the owner are joking around. The owner asks the boy why he looks so exhausted. The boy with barely enough energy to breath out the answer tells him, “I went to church this morning.” Yeah, we can do boring. And I wonder if this has anything to do with forgetting that ours is a God of surprises, that God is not only found in what He did, but also in the unexpected of what He’s going to do. Abraham Heschel is famous for speaking of “radical amazement,” that there is so much around us in God’s good creation to impress and motivate. Boredom is born when we don’t let this God surprise us anymore.
We come together this afternoon to express our sincere thanks to God for the blessings shared upon our nation. We are, however, a country deeply divided at present. We have endured a deflating election season. I was visiting a 95-year-old woman who told me that it’s too bad the candidates were not young enough to put over a mother’s knee because of the way they were acting. And I absolutely hate the hate that is growing out there. It’s scary. But nevertheless, I am very thankful for another peaceful transfer of power. We can see so many countries where this is impossible and we can see the destruction and suffering that goes along with it. This is why I am so thankful to God for the possibility of change.
Change is a virtue when we believe in a God of surprises who tells us we’re not yet where we’re supposed to be. I love the idea that God expects us to be better because He knows we can be. I wish we knew that better. A God of surprises means there’s always room for change. We’ve come together today at South Deerfield Congregational Church out of our usual sequence of venues. We do so out of respect for this congregation’s nearly 200-year history, a history, a story, that will be changed in January, but it’s not the end of the story. The story of this congregation will continue through its embrace of their legacy, of helping others in their work for God and God’s people. The paths where those gifts of faith will lead meander over the horizon and are unseen, but it is this excitement of uncharted paths that reminds us that we are all followers of God, that there’s further to travel, even if we don’t know to where.
The poet Langston Hughes wrote Let America Be America Again. He acknowledges the greatness of what we can be while at the same time admitting to the reality that as a black man, in his words, “America never was America to me.” But the God of surprises is the God who inspires change, and Langston Hughes embraces this as hope. He writes: “O, let America be America again, – the land that never has been yet – And yet must be – the land where every [person] is free.” This, again, is that gift of change for which I am so thankful to God who believes we can be better.
At a time when differences can be used to divide, our being here together, differences and all, respectful of each other, is a statement of hope for our nation. However and wherever we invoke God, we see something noble and hope-filled in coming together in prayerful thanksgiving. Maybe the God of surprises needs us to surprise others with this example. May our coming together inspire us to be co-workers with God so that we may help build the America that “yet must be,” while at the same time offering our profound thanks for the America that is and where this change is possible. For these things we pray in His most holy of names. Amen.
Fr. Randy Calvo