Summer Sermon Series 2017
Lyrical Living: Words to Live By
“Your Hands Swift to Welcome, Your Arms to Embrace” Click here for audio
Luke 15:11-13, 17-20 Mark 10:13-16
Pastor Donna R. Buell
When we were choosing phrases for our Lyrical Living sermon series, one phrase that kept rising to the surface for me came from the hymn Lord of all Hopefulness which we just sang. I love this hymn, not only because it is set to a favorite Irish melody, but also because it so beautifully captures the spirit of early Celtic Christian spirituality which has played an important role in my own spiritual formation over the last 15 or 20 years. This hymn reflects the Celtic understanding of God’s presence in the midst of every aspect of life, and it reflects a way of cultivating and nurturing our awareness of God’s presence as an essential part of our practice of faith. I’ll speak more about that later.
The particular phrase which we chose for today – “your hands swift to welcome, your arms to embrace” – appears in the third stanza of the hymn and speaks of our experience of God as the Lord of all grace – a grace which feels like the embracing arms of a family welcoming us and embracing us when we return home.
For me, this phrase immediately calls to mind a couple of familiar passages of scripture. The first is the parable Jesus told of the prodigal son who returned home to the unexpected and welcoming embrace of his father, and the second is the story where Jesus rebukes the disciples for trying to keep children away from him, and then welcomes and embraces and blesses those children. These two stories are significant examples of the way in which Jesus reveals to us the heart of God and then calls us to do the same; calls us to love as God loves, opening wide our arms that we might not hinder, but rather embrace God’s children.
So what does it mean to reveal in our own lives a God with hands swift to welcome and arms to embrace?
I was fortunate to be raised in a family where, as children, we knew that we were welcomed and loved and blessed. That’s not to say that ours was a perfect family. We had and continue to have our share of dysfunctions just like every other family. But at the bedrock level, my two older sisters and I grew up safe and fed and nurtured and loved and encouraged and blessed. There were times when our parents were disappointed in us or expressed disapproval for our behavior, when they corrected us or disciplined us. But we always knew that our parents loved us no matter what, and that they wanted what was best for us.
Now although my mother used to say that I had him wrapped around my little finger, my father could be an intimidating presence, especially to a little girl. When I was young he was 6’4”, weighed well over 200 pounds, and had a deep, resonant voice. He was the strong, silent type. He was reserved and private and not overly demonstrative. When our father was unhappy about something we knew it. He would become even more still and more silent, and then he would breathe in slowly and deeply through his nose and then exhale. When he did that we knew that someone or something had displeased him, and we each hoped it wasn’t us. But that was as far as it went. Our father didn’t hang on to his anger, but released it quickly. He rarely raised his voice, and he never raised a hand to strike anyone, let alone his wife and children. He demonstrated a deep love and respect for our mother and for each of his three daughters, and we learned that our father was someone we could trust.
On June 25th, during our At Intersection of Faith and Life gathering, I shared about my sister Carol who has been in a committed relationship to her partner Olivia for over 35 years. I was the first in the family to whom Carol came out, for she sensed that I was the least likely to be freaked out by the news. Though I was in my early 20’s at the time and didn’t fully comprehend all that this would mean for my sister and for her life, what I did understand, and all that really mattered to me, was that she was my sister and that I loved her and that I respected her. And it was very clear to me that there was nothing she could say or do or be that would ever change that. A few months later she told our older sister. But it would be another 15 years before she would come out to our father. She felt the need to do that at that time because she wanted to have a child and she needed our father to fully understand the nature of her family.
Though I am sure this was not an easy thing for my father to absorb – he wasn’t exactly the most progressive person in the world – I must say that he handled that news with a great deal of grace, and in all the years after he never treated my sister and her partner and their adopted daughter any differently than he treated my other sister and me, and our male partners, and our children. In 2011, when legal marriage became a possibility in New York State where they live, my sister and Olivia planned to be married. But before their wedding, my sister felt a need to call our father and Olivia’s mother and to ask for their blessing, which they both willingly offered.
I’ve often wondered what it was that allowed my fairly conservative father to respond as he did to my sister. And I’ve always suspected that it had to do, at least in part, with something that happened between his father and his sister many years before. Apparently my grandfather and my aunt had a great falling out. This wasn’t something we talked about in our family, so I don’t know the whole story. But I do remember being told once that this rift occurred at the time when my grandfather decided to marry the woman who had been the family housekeeper and caregiver for the more than 10 years that followed the death of my grandmother. At the same time my aunt decided to marry the boy next door…well actually across the street. And apparently Grandpa Buell and Aunt Marion did not approve of one another’s choices, and hurtful words were spoken between them, and from that point on they rarely saw or spoke to one another.
My father and his younger brother refused to take sides in this family dispute. They did their best to maintain a relationship with both my grandfather and his wife and my aunt and her husband, though I’m sure that wasn’t always easy. But I suspect that my father made a commitment to himself at that time that he would never allow that kind of rift to occur between himself and any member of his family. And so our father loved us, no matter what, and that was that. And that continued to be that to the day he died.
Now I don’t really like to tell stories about my family in sermons because, like my father, I’m a pretty reserved and private person. But I’ve told this story today, because this is one of the ways that my father revealed to me the heart of God. This is one of the ways that I have come to know and to experience in my life the unconditional love of God that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ – a God with hands swift to welcome and arms to embrace – a God who as Mark tells us “took the children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” A God who told a story about a compassionate father who embraced is wayward son and welcomed him home.
I know that this isn’t reflected in the lives of all families. And I know there are times and circumstances when individual people need to make different choices in their lives. But when that happens, I pray that all those involved are able to find places where they do experience that sense of welcome and embrace.
As children of God and as followers of Christ I believe that we are called to share the love of God that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, not only for an hour of worship every seven days but every hour of every day. Not only when we are engaged in so-called “religious” activities, but in every aspect of our lives: in our work life, in our family life, in our religious life, and in our civic life. For you see, I believe that practicing our faith is not something that can be compartmentalized to a little corner of our lives with no impact upon every other aspect of our lives. But how many of us really live that way 24/7, as they say. How many of us consciously nurture an awareness of God’s presence with us and of God’s love for us at all times and in all circumstances? How many of us intentionally seek to reflect that presence and that love wherever we are…at church, at home, at school, at work, and in the community?
I know that I don’t. But in my own imperfect practice of the faith I have found some things to be helpful. And one of those things is the early Celtic Christian spirituality I mentioned earlier. This form of spirituality flourished in the 5th and 6th centuries in Celtic lands like Ireland and Scotland, several centuries before the Roman Empire and Roman Christianity became the dominant forces in the western world.
In the Celtic regions of that time, people learned their faith not from priests in cathedrals, but from monks in monasteries. And this faith was infused with a deep awareness of the sacramental nature of life, and of God’s presence in the midst of all of life, and with a monastic sense of the daily rhythm of life. And so the people learned to nurture their awareness of God’s presence with them throughout their day, calling upon God in the midst of all their daily tasks. There were prayers and songs to accompany every aspect of daily life. There were prayers for waking in the morning, for bathing and dressing, for stirring up the fire in the hearth and for making the first meal of the day. There were prayers and songs for accompanying the daily tasks of labor, for times of travel, and for returning home in the evening. There were songs and prayers for making and sharing a meal, for banking the fire to preserve embers for the morning, and for lying down to sleep at the end of the day. And these prayers were passed down through the centuries so that vestiges of them exist even to this day.
There has been a resurgence of this Celtic spirituality in recent years because this is a spirituality that fits with the active and busy lifestyle that is so much a part of our contemporary life. It is not something that requires us to set aside large blocks of time, or to go away to some special sacred place. Rather, it is a spirituality that can be nurtured and practiced in the midst of all the daily activities of life. But we do have to be intentional about it. It requires us to be present to each task and to the way in which we do it, remembering that God is present with us through it all.
This brings me back to the hymn “Lord of all Hopefulness”, for it offers a good example of this aspect of Celtic Christian Spirituality.
In the four stanzas of this song we call upon God to be there in our waking, in our labor, in our homing, and in our sleeping. And this song invites us to recognize God’s presence in all of those moments of the day: with a sense of joy and hope as we begin each new day, with a sense of eagerness and strength as we pursue our daily labors, with a sense of welcome and grace when we return home in the evening, and with a sense of peace and calm when we lie down to sleep at the end of the day. I wonder if this song doesn’t provide a helpful framework for parents who have children at home. Can you imagine what a difference it would make if our children were being raised in homes where this awareness of God’s loving presence is experienced and nurtured and practiced each and every day? But this call to live out our faith in the midst of our daily lives is not only for families with children, it is for all of us.
There was a Sunday school teacher who sent her students home one Sunday with an assignment for the next week. She asked her students to think of a character from the bible that they would most like to be, and the next Sunday the boys and girls all shared their thoughts. One mentioned Moses leading the people through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Another mentioned David slaying Goliath with his slingshot. Another mentioned Mary, the mother of baby Jesus. And one little girl said the character she most wanted to be was Lo. Her teacher sat for a moment, puzzled. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t recall that name from the bible. Can you tell me who Lo is?” And the little girl responded, “Oh, you know, the one Jesus was talking to when he said ‘Lo, I am with you always.’”
I like the way that little girl’s mind works: that the character she would most like to be is one who has heard and absorbed the promise that God will be with her always. But remember that Lo wasn’t actually an individual. Jesus made this promise to all who would follow him. And so I pray that each and every one of us, no matter what our age, may build our lives and our faith more and more each day on this solid bedrock foundation of God’s love revealed to us in Christ. That we may have people in our lives who reveal the heart of God’s love to us, like my father did for me and for my sisters. That we may trust in the God who is welcoming us and embracing us, guiding us and strengthening us, loving us and encouraging us, blessing us and sending us forth that we may be a blessing to others. Let us pray.
LORD OF ALL HOPEFULNESS By Jan Struther Tune: SLANE
Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy,
whose trust, ever childlike, no cares could destroy;
Be there at our waking, and give us, we pray,
your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the break of the day.
Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,
whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe:
Be there at our labors, and give us, we pray,
your strength in our hearts, Lord, at the noon of the day.
Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace,
your hands swift to welcome, your arms to embrace:
Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray,
your love in our hearts, Lord, at the eve of the day.
Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm:
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day. Amen.