Free To A Good Home

Exodus 14:19-31

September 17, 2017

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25He clogged* their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ 27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses. 
                                                                                                                         Exodus 14:19-31, NRSV

 

Happy New Year!

Every three years we are welcomed back to a new program year with this astonishing passage from the Book of Exodus. It usually coincides with our welcome back Sunday, and it usually happens during the week in which we remember the violent horror of September 11, 2001. What a context in which to hear this violent text from Exodus. And if the collectors of the canon had consulted me, I would surely have left parts of this story…..on the cutting room floor, and probably scheduled it for a nice sleepy week in August.

But here we are. And since this is Welcome Back Sunday, let me catch you up on the first few installments of this story that began in the late summer. We have been hearing from this fundamental story of our faith tradition in the Book of Exodus since the last Sunday in August. We started with the birth of Moses and the fearful Pharaoh’s decree to kill all of the newborn Hebrew boys in Egypt in an effort to stem the rising population of that immigrant class of slaves. Moses, of course, escaped his own decreed departure in a papyrus basket in the reeds of the river. The next week we heard the story of God’s call to Moses to free the Israelites. After hailing the attention of the shepherd Moses with a burning bush, God instructed Moses to free God’s people from generations of slavery. No small task. And when Moses asked God who he should say had sent him to upend Pharaoh’s entrenched structure of institutional slavery, God said tell them my name is: “I will be who I will be.” Eyeh asher eyeh. Or, “I am becoming who I am becoming.” Say it with me. God’s name:  Eyeh asher eyeh.

And then last week we heard the story of how the Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Israelites prompted God to respond with 10 plagues, the last of which took the lives of every first born male, of every species,  except, of course,  the Hebrews. It is the story of the Passover. And so today’s story is the culmination of the last three weeks. The liberation of the Israelites by a Pharaoh who finally relented after losing his own son in the 10th plague. And Moses and his brother Aaron follow God’s lead and shepherd the Israelites to freedom.

But it is a costly freedom. Today’s violence is the third massacre in four weeks. First Pharaoh’s death decree. Then the 10 plagues. And now the brutal end of this monumental escape with the Red Sea swallowing the entire Egyptian army.

For full disclosure: the Revised Common Lectionary does offer an alternative text track for this fall. That is to say, we could have avoided these violent readings. We did not have to read Exodus, we could have read Track II instead. This week’s reading is from the very end of Genesis. And if we had chosen that track, today we would hear Joseph forgiving his brothers for selling him into a life of slavery and leaving him for dead.

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ 16So they approached* Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17“Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive us. Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18Then his brothers also wept,* (Genesis 50:15-18)

This is a so much kinder and gentler release from bondage than the violent massacre we heard this morning.

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea… and as the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them survived. (Exodus 16:27-8)

And so every three years I am more than tempted to chuck Exodus and read Track II. To follow the God of Creation in Genesis rather than the God of Liberation in Exodus. Because, let’s face it, creation is fraught with growing pains and grounded in chaos, but liberation from institutional evil is almost always violent and costly! So very costly. There is just no peaceful easy way to free generations of slaves from bondage. Our own Civil War is still smoldering with every removal of every confederate statue and flag, with every familiar instance of racial profiling, even now in the twenty-first century.

But the thing that seems so very un….expected about the liberation story in Exodus, at least to those of us who hold on to God as the love of our lives, is that we do not want to think of our Redeeming Creator as such a Wholesale Destroyer. Despite all of the commentaries that justify the carnage in this event by saying that Pharaoh had it coming, he backed himself into this catastrophe. Even so, the God Who Is Becoming had a hand in it. And that just plain surpasses all understanding in my own theology, and in my own relationship with the living God.

But the text is all we have. So, having lost his own firstborn in the 10th plague, Pharaoh ordered the release of the Israelites from their 430 years of bondage. He summoned Moses and Aaron. And he said to them: “Go! and tell your God to bless me for my magnanimous decision to free God’s people.” So Moses and Aaron did just as Pharaoh had instructed them. They rounded up their people and led them, over 600,000 Israelite slaves and their children, out of Egypt.  A stream of newly liberated people headed…….well, they weren’t quite sure where. But they were willing to follow Moses and Aaron, willing to follow the ones sent by “I am becoming what I am becoming.”

They followed to freedom. They followed to new life. They were, at last, free to a good home.

And here is where the two seemingly opposite lectionary tracks appointed for this morning are intimately connected. The reading says that the fleeing Israelites took with them the bones of Joseph. Bones they had been saving for 20 generations. Bones that surely made their escape a bit more arduous. But this story of the Exodus recalls, remembers,  and literally advances the story of Joseph and his family. It binds the God of the Ancestors to the God of Liberation. This is not a new God, it is the new work of the ever-Becoming God. This is the next phase of the story, and it is built, clearly and intentionally on the story that has happened thus far. It is all connected. And so too, it tells us that God is always willing and able to open a new chapter in the life of the world.

Today’s story started with Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, who fled his angry brothers and ended up as Pharaoh’s slave in Egypt….that was the start of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt. Joseph was the seed. And the last verse of the Book of Genesis reads: Joseph said to his brothers “I am about to die: but God will surely come to you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” So Joseph said to the Israelites: “when God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” And then Joseph died, at 110 years old. He was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. And there ends the Book of Genesis.

But today’s story in the Book of Exodus is where we pick up the bones. Literally. And after 430 years, the children of Abraham, including the bones of Joseph are finally headed home. Note the time it takes to realize freedom, the time it takes for God’s justice to prevail: 430 years. Over 20 generations. Patience is a divine virtue.

So, the Israelites have been freed to follow Moses and Aaron out of Egypt. But not so fast, again Pharaoh has a change of heart. It’s a pattern with this Pharaoh.  “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” he laments to his armed forces. We cannot simply let all of this slave labor go. And so Pharaoh, despite the loss of his own son in the 10th Plague, renegs on his decision to free the Israelites, and  commissions his army and every chariot in the land to make haste to stop the mass exodus.

But by then, the God of ever-becoming had led the faithful followers through the wilderness to the bank of the Red Sea. It is not insignificant, I think, that God did not lead the Israelites over the dry land. Although that would have been a more direct route, as the scripture says.  But the God of ever-Becoming thought that the Egyptians might catch up with the fleeing slaves and “ if the people face war, they will change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God, in an effort to avoid putting the people in a situation that would lead them to their own demise, chose to lead them over the much more difficult terrain, a rough and tumble wilderness that lead to the shore of a massive body of water which the congregation of hundreds of thousands of Israelites, had no logical way of crossing.

I am guessing that some of us have been on this long and circuitous  journey to liberation with the God of ever-Becoming. God works in our own lives in the same way that God works in the world. After all, God is who God is….albeit becoming. And so we who have little experience with captivity and oppresses ion may hear this story  in terms of our personal life situations. Which is all good. Indeed it is a story about the way God sets us free if we have the courage to follow and the faith to cross when the waters part.

But this story has a much more socially axiomatic understanding, as well. This is a story about the evil of institutionalized oppression. About the structures of evil that enslave and marginalize and absolutely exist in this world. And it is about the fate of those who support those structures, intentionally, or unintentionally. Whether you are the Pharaoh who makes the law of the land, or the chariot driver for whom support is just a day job. The pillars and  the posts of such systems are coming down, one way or another.

The Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. preached a sermon on this text from Exodus in 1956 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of New York) on the occasion of the Supreme Court decision in Brown versus the Board of education. The title of the sermon was “Death of Evil Upon the Seashore.”[1] The sermon began like this:

“And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore.”-Exodus 14:30

There is hardly anything more obvious than the fact that evil is present in the universe. It projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles into every level of human existence. We may debate over the origin of evil, but only the person victimized with a superficial optimism will debate over its reality. Evil is with us as a stark, grim, and colossal reality.

The evil of which Dr. King speaks is oppression and injustice. His sermon grounds this passage in the reality that there are systems of evil in our midst that will require earth shattering reconciliation. Such oppression and injustice is not just in our biblical canon, it is not just in the history of our civilization, and it is not in our rear view mirror. We live in a time when the mightiest empires in the world continue to marginalize and oppress and enslave the migrants in their domain. Whomever the migrant. Whatever the domain.

And so if I can get past the horses at the bottom of the sea, I can hear this story as a call to oppose and resist those institutions of oppression. To take stock of my life, my thoughts words and deeds, and see where I might be supporting injustice, even indirectly, even if that support is just part of my day job. We must all resist systemic evil in all ways. With all of our might. Because the God of Becoming is opposing and resisting even as we speak, and the water is wide.

Maybe the shocking violence in this morning’s story is necessary to get our attention. Maybe we need to know that such abject evil always bears an astronomical cost.  Maybe this story is meant to be read as a cautionary fairy tale. A divine promise that freedom will always overcome. Even if it takes 20 generations, it will come. Because the God of Becoming is already on it.

Welcome back!

On with whomever we are becoming!

Alleluia! Amen.

 

© September, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sermon delivered May, 18, 1956. http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol03Scans/256_17-May-1956_The%20Death%20of%20Evil%20upon%20the%20Seashore.pdf The title and some of the text of this sermon was from the Rt. Rev. Phillips Brooks sermon “The Egyptians Dead Upon the Seashore.'”

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How Becoming!

Exodus 3:1-15

September 3, 2017: Pentecost XVI

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.5Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ 6He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ 11But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ 12He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
13 But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ 14God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’* He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.”15God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord,* the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations. 
                                                                                                                                                          Exodus 3:1-15, NRSV

 

Happy Labor Day weekend! Today’s reading from the Book of Exodus seems well suited to this end of summer holiday, because it is all about the start of Moses’ new job as God’s executive prophet. That is, in this morning’s passage, God calls Moses not through a head hunter, or even an angel, but with a burning bush that ignites in the middle of his everyday life and burns without ceasing. When Moses “turns aside to see” what is happening, God has him. And God summarily hires Moses for a special project of gargantuan proportions, and puts his new Director of Liberative Operations immediately to work at a  job that comes with substantial sacrifice and risk, and little clarity regarding the reward, other than the inner satisfaction of serving the purposes of God Almighty, of course. A job for which Moses did not apply. Nevertheless, the same vulnerable, marginalized Moses who was floating in a papyrus basket in the reeds of the river to avoid Pharaoh’s death detail in last week’s reading is now recruited by the Creator of the Universe to march straight into Pharaoh’s court and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves, of which he was once one. The Book of Exodus is the Book of this collaboration between Moses and God that freed a people, constituted a community and delivered not just the Israelites, but the identity of God as the Great Liberator of all time.

 

We will be reading from the Book of Exodus for the next two months.

 

It began in our reading last week, after the Israelites have been in Egypt for several generations, long after Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, grandson of Isaac and Rebekah, great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah, have gone. And a new Pharaoh has come to power; a shortsighted, fearful, arrogant Pharaoh who rebukes and fears the number of “foreigners” in his land, who feels threatened from the get-go by the growing contingent of immigrants, Israelites in this case. And so Pharaoh begins to make life uncomfortable for them using a compliment of age-old, tried and true weapons of mass discomfort – ostracism, demonization, bondage without recourse, hard labor etc. And when the oppressed people, the Israelites, cry out for help, God hears their cries. And God responds as God always responds to the pain and suffering of God’s beloved people, God hooks up with a human partner to change the world. In this case, Moses.

 

Now, we might wonder why God doesn’t just fix these things. After hearing the desperate cries of God’s suffering people, why doesn’t God just take Pharaoh out? If God is indeed all-powerful, why can’t all this suffering be taken care of with a wave of God’s almighty hand? Why does God always seem to be waiting on flawed, fragile, frail, fractured human beings to do God’s work? Why does God even bother calling the likes of Moses – a shepherd of no special distinction, except of course that he is a criminal, having killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew and then burying his body (check it out, chapter 2 in Exodus, best seller material). Other than this drama, Moses is an ordinary working man who spends his days minding his father-in-law’s sheep. Why on earth would God choose Moses to lead the most central movement of God’s illustrious career to date?

 

And this is why I love the Bible. This is why I believe, as was stated in my ordination vows, that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation. And if we define salvation as being fully reconciled and reunited with God, the Bible is the story of how God never works alone. God is not a lone wolf. The Bible would be a very short text if our Almighty God ran the world as an all-powerful monarch or general or CEO or head honcho of any kind. But God does not choose to work alone. God works in and through creation in concert with, in partnership with, in mutual relationship with….us, God’s beloved creatures. And this morning’s reading from Exodus is a classic example of how God calls us into that partnership.

 

Prophets are key to our ongoing story with God. They are the ones who, like sacraments, point us to God’s purpose in this world, the ones who articulate the path to what we Christians call the Kingdom, or as we call it in this community, the Kindom of God. And so prophets are God’s collaborators.

 

In his classic book, The Prophets, Abraham Heschel writes that the biblical prophets essentially address the human “failure of freedom.” Their central prophetic message to us, says Heschel, is an, “insistence that the human situation can be understood only in conjunction with the divine situation…” That is, human beings have, “choice, but not sovereignty.” [1] That basically means that we have the freedom to choose between options, but not the sovereignty to control the options from which we can choose. Whether or not we follow God’s call is up to us. But we do not have the sovereignty to change the call. We pick up or hang up, but we cannot dial another number. This is the fabric of our partnership with God. This is the stuff of which our relationship is made, and this is the story that is told over and over and over again, through the generations in our Holy Bible. This is the first ingredient in the formula that is God’s call. The human must answer.

 

2There the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush; Moses looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.

 

And just then, God had him.

 

And so after the human answers, the second thing about a true calling is that it comes when we are ready, not when we are expecting. Not when we are wanting to be called, but when we are ready to be called. Then the bush bursts into flame! And unfortunately, sometimes, willing and able are in two different time zones. And so Moses tells God that he cannot be a prophet because he is not prepared, he is a rotten public speaker and so maybe God would rather call his brother. And God snaps back: “Just go. I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” Sort of the divine version of, “because I said so.” And again, Moses has the freedom to act, but not the freedom to change the calling or its timing.

 

The third thing about a true calling, as is evidenced by Moses’ persistent insistence on his unfitness for this work (and he objects no fewer than four times!), God never calls anyone into their comfort zone. Every prophet, every agent of God’s deepest will, has, at one time or another, been frightened to their core. That is not to say that we should not follow our bliss, as it were, but that if that bliss is authentic, the road ahead will be fraught with pain and pitfalls and sacrifice. God never calls us into our comfort zone. Just ask Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Paul, Peter……All sucked summarily out of their comfort zones. So, my prophetic friends, fasten your seatbelts.

 

And last, in the final analysis, God is calling us to wholeness above all else. God calls us just as we are, just as we were created to be called. God calls us to be reconciled with all that we are, the good the bad the ugly and the magnificent. Any calling that denies our whole selves is not God’s calling. Any calling that seeks for us to be good rather than whole is a trap. Every time. This is what the wise writer Parker Palmer means when he says that dwelling with God is being faithful to one’s nature, not one’s perfection or one’s proficiencies, or even one’s goodness, but only one’s wholeness, one’s human nature.

 

And so Moses, the vulnerable baby in the basket, the veritable criminal on the run, the meek shepherd tending the flock of his father-in-law is called, in no uncertain terms, by God to do the unthinkable. To leave his life, to risk his life, to turn the power structure of the Egyptian empire on its ear by freeing the entire population of marginalized immigrants in its midst. It’s not hard to see why the marquis prophets of God are few and far between. Although, we do not know how many God has called. We only know the ones who have answered.

 

Moses answered. He sees the burning bush and answers God’s call with “Here I am.” But he does not accept the job strait away. He seems to have one condition. And only one. He wants to know the name….the exact name…..the official name of his new employer. Not so that he will have clout when he comes up against Pharaoh, not to protect for himself should Pharaoh retaliate. Moses is not asking for a shield against Pharaoh, he is asking for an assurance for the Israelites; he wants a name to tell his fellow Hebrews so that they will have the courage to follow him. He wants them to know that they too are called by God, and not by Moses.

 

And so Moses says that it will not work to tell them “the God of Your Ancestors” has sent you. That is apparently not good enough for Moses….not specific enough….maybe it is not current enough. What have you done for us lately? Moses says, I can tell them that, but they are going to want to know your name. Not your history. Your presence. What should I tell them? Who do you say you are?

 

Last week in our Gospel reading, Jesus asked his disciples a similar question: Who do you say I am?  Of course, they already know his name. He is Jesus of Nazareth.  But that name takes some fleshing out. And so Jesus tells his disciples who he is in divine terms. First, he is the builder of the church, and he will build it on Peter. Second,  the holder of the keys to the kingdom of heaven which he will turn over to his Rock. And finally, Jesus orders his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah.

 

That’s the one! That’s the name the disciples are looking for: Messiah. The one anointed by God.

 

However, the name, Messiah (Anointed By God) would have little meaning without today’s story from Exodus. For Christians, Moses is (in hind sight) asking: Who shall we say anointed the Messiah? In whose name are we Christians baptized? In whose name are we to love our neighbor, sometimes dangerously and with considerable risk? Who is this God who calls us to freedom, whose will we are following?  And that is precisely what Moses wants to know. He wants a name.

 

And God’s answer to Moses could not be more vague or more precise. God says to Moses tell them you are sent by: Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be). Say it with me. Ehyeh asher ehyeh . Again, after all it is the name of God: Ehyeh asher ehyeh . The NRSV translates this “I am what I am.” But the verb in Hebrew is not in the perfect tense. You will remember, the two basic active verb forms in Hebrew are the perfect and the imperfect. The perfect applies to things that are complete (i.e. perfected or finished) actions that have occurred in the past. The imperfect tense applies to ongoing actions, things in process or happening in the future (not yet perfected or finished).

 

Ehyeh asher ehyeh is in the imperfect tense. And so the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon, the Hebrew equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, defines the verb forms in this statement as: “become.” God identifies God’s self as:  “I am becoming what I am becoming” or “I will become what I will become.” Not yet finished. God is not perfected.

 

And a name not likely to be found anywhere on the 8th century b.c.e list of most popular baby names, or in any century before or since. It’s a name too long to be listed on a driver’s license, but too true to be anything else. But if this is the name of our God, then ours must be a theology of becoming, a term coined by theologian Katherine Keller in the title of her wonderful book on Genesis: The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. But holy cow does it apply here!

 

And so when we ask ourselves in this beloved community, Who do we say we are? – our theme for the coming year – we will inquire through this lens of becoming….following God’s lead.  And so maybe our work with sanctuary and other justice ministries is not so much the work of resistance, but rather the work of becoming……maybe we are becoming a beloved community of a becoming God.

And so, oy ve! Have we got work to do!

 

Alleluia!

Amen.

 

© September 2017, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

[1] Heschel, 190.

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Eggs or Bacon?

The Book of Exodus 1:8-2:10

August 27, 2017

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

Good Morning! Today we begin our readings from the Book of Exodus.

Come, let us deal shrewdly with them….said the Pharaoh about the Hebrews –  or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.

Aren’t adverbs great!  I mean really. Adverbs are the parts of speech that give more flavor to the verbs. An adverb modifies a verb as an adjective modifies a noun. Adverbs give us the low down on how things happen, on the story behind the happening. The verb tells us what is happening, but the adverb provides the color for the connotation. And so it is with the start of this morning’s reading from Exodus.

Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, said Pharaoh about the Israelites.

Shrewdly sets up the story that leads us straight to the meat of this book, to the Exodus. The Egyptians did not simply deal with the Hebrews, they dealt with them….well, the Hebrew word that is translated as shrewdly in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible would probably more literally be translated as wisely in most other contexts. But the NRSV translators chose shrewdly over wisely –which makes the Egyptians seem just slightly more sinister than clever. Although actually, murderously would have been a more accurate adverb.

And so we begin the story of the Exodus….a word that in the Greek literally means the “way out.” Ex-hodos. The story of the liberation of the Israelites from the bonds of slavery in Egypt.

The Book of Exodus is second in the literary order of our Holy Bible. And it picks up where Genesis leaves off. Genesis closes with our founding family, Joseph, et al, living relatively peacefully in Egypt, albeit enslaved.

Today’s reading begins almost at the beginning of Exodus.  It begins with the literal juxtaposition of Israel (God’s name for Jospeh’s father Jacob and all of his offspring) and Egypt,( mitzra’im in the Hebrew – a word that literally means the narrow place.) It is a confrontation of God’s chosen ones and the tight place in which they find themselves. The time is 400 years after Joseph’s death…..20 generations later.

The Israelites are still slaves in Egypt.  But despite their bondage, they have been fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham, big time! They have been multiplying like bunnies, and are nearly as numerous as the stars of the sky, just as God promised. But this proliferation of the Hebrews is a problem for the Egyptians.

Now a new king rose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, Look the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we are. Let us deal shrewdly with them.”

And so this next phase of our story begins with a Pharaoh who fears the power of the people whom he has collected and oppressed.

The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites. They made their lives bitter and hard.

And shrewd dealing ensued. Pharaoh went to all of the Hebrew midwives in the realm and commanded that they kill every newborn boy in their tribe, in an effort to stem the tide of growth. (Although a smarter Pharaoh might have done away with the girls. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that crop control is about removing the seeds not the fertilizer. But that is a sermon for another day.)

So Pharaoh commands the killing of all Hebrew boys, but the scripture says that the midwives, “feared God.” And apparently more than they feared Pharaoh. Because they outright disobeyed him.  Which caused a frustrated Pharaoh to summon them and ask why they had not complied with his royal decree. And the midwives tell Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. The Hebrew women are more vigorous and they give birth even before the midwives arrive.

And so it was with the birth of God’s prophet Moses. Born to Israelite parents, he is hidden by them until he is too big to hide, and then he is bundled in a papyrus basket and set afloat to be hidden in the reeds on the bank of the river. His floating crib is discovered by none other than the daughter of Pharaoh. And her heart is touched by the baby in the basket, and so she calls for a nursemaid – who turns out to be the child’s own birth mother. And so Moses is raised by his own mother, right under Pharaoh’s nose. I know it sounds like a movie script, but not even Hollywood can top God’s own story!

But this is more than a great story. It is THE story. This is THE story of how God works in the world, and too how God works in each and every life that God delivers. This is the story of hope and redemption that is played out in this second book of the Torah, in the story of Moses and in the story of the Exodus.

They are parallel stories, the story of Moses and the story of the Exodus. So many similarities, right down to the rushes and reeds. The later text says that Moses parted the Red Sea, but the Hebrew word translated as Red in that passage is the same word used in today’s reading to describe the reeds in which Moses finds his own freedom from death. The saving of Moses and the saving of the Israelites are so similar, that one cannot help but see them as a sort of divine motif, a blueprint for the way that God…abides and delivers. Cosmically and personally. God is the Liberator.

This story, this Book of Exodus is about the identity of God: who God is. Who is God? God is the One who can raise a child; even a child who is born to enslaved parents, who is hidden in the weeds in a handmade basket with his very life at stake, who is discovered by the royal princess and raised by his own mother so that one day he might be called by God to part the very Red Sea in which he himself has been delivered from death. Who is God? God is the One with an unlimited imagination, and the power to back it up. God is the Creative Liberator beyond our wildest imaginations.

This is who God is. The One in whom all things are possible. The One for whom no story, no hope is too far-fetched. The One who delivers life and promises liberation to every beating heart. And the One who can deliver on that promise.

And so when Jesus asks his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, Who do you say I am? We know the answer reaches back to the Creation in Genesis and the Liberation in Exodus. We know that Jesus is God in the flesh, the Creator, Liberator and and also the Sanctifier. But his disciples do not seem to have our purview. They do not seem to know that this itinerate preacher who is their friend, is the flesh of the God of all Creation.

And so it is easy for us, we who know Jesus to be the Messiah, to think the disciples foolish when they do not seem to know the radiant identity of the Divine in their midst. They know the story of the Exodus, the story of the power of God. But they cannot see the true identity of their Rabbi. They cannot see him parting the Red Sea, delivering their ancestors from bondage,  shining like the Son of God. They cannot see what we, who know the full depth and breadth of both Testaments, know. The disciples do not yet know Jesus for who he is. They only know what they see.

I suspect it is not unlike the cosmic dance that created the total eclipse of the sun earlier this week. A rare total eclipse when the moon obscures the light of the world, entirely even, if only for a moment. But in that moment when the world is dark, the sun is still the sun. It is not different because it is behind the moon, not something else because we cannot see it for its brilliance. If, over the course of the eclipse, the sun were to ask Who do you say I am? We could reasonably answer simply a sliver a light, or even, at the apex when the sun is completely hidden, who’s there? Nevertheless, the sun is still the sun; the sun is still the source of all light and life.

Likewise, Moses was always the liberative agent of God, even when he was hidden in the reeds. And Jesus was always the messiah, even when he roamed the desert as a homeless vagabond. Just as the sun was always the light of the world. Always.

Identity is not based in perception. Identity is based in God’s imagination. God’s imagination, not ours. God’s imagination knows the truth of our Identity with a capital I.

And so for us, the salient question may not be who do we say we are, but who does God know us to be?  Who are we in God’s wildest imagination? The God who can raise a slave child from a floating crib in the river reeds to the top of Mount Sinai. The God who can raise a homeless child born in the stench of a manger to everlasting life. Only God’s imagination knows our possibility.

And so the practical question may be: How can we live into God’s imagination for us?

And what would we answer?…..individually and as a beloved community of God? How can we live into our identity as Christians? Not identity with a small “i”…..our identity as an inclusive caring worshiping community that values music and youth and formation and the food pantry and all of creation. But Identity with a capital “I”…..our Identity as followers of Jesus Christ who sacrificed his own body for the life of the world. It is the difference between what we choose to do and who we are called to be. It is the difference between our imaginations for ourselves and God’s imagination for the way we fit into the world.

Who does God say we are? We who will welcome a family seeking sanctuary into the heart of our community, literally into our physical body, this very week.  It will change our community life, but it will not change our Identity, with a capital I. It will change who we say we are, how we identify ourselves. Because now we say we are a sanctuary site. But it will not change our Identity as Christians. Because by our baptism, this is who we have always been. We have been born to respect the dignity of every creature of God, not by choice, but by birth.

So are we a sanctuary site, as a new ministry we have chosen to pursue, or are we truly living into our mission as God’s sanctuary? Are we a sanctuary site or truly a sanctuary?

I know it might sound like splitting hairs. But the adverb makes all of the difference. If we are truly sanctuary, we will be willing to walk in the very shoes of our friends and neighbors who are in need of it. Willing to put our own dignity on the line, as their dignity is on the line. Willing to put our own children at risk as their children are at risk. Willing to walk in their vulnerable shoes, and not just beside them at a safe distance.

It is a question about our level of commitment. Like the old adage about eggs and bacon. The chicken is supportive, but the pig is all in. So which are we? Are we supportive of this ministry, or is this who we are? Are we okay with this ministry because we got our kitchen painted and a new fire door installed; because we are now collaborating with a dozen other faith communities in a meaningful way? Are we supportive because this ministry is delivering other things that we care about? Is sanctuary a means to other ends?

Or are we offering the gifts of our very body to honor the dignity of God’s creation? Are the benefits that come with this work the results or the reasons for our being sanctuary? Is sanctuary a ministry or a mission? Is it what we are doing or who we are? Are we the eggs or the bacon?

I don’t know the answer to these questions.  But I do know that they are more than well worth asking. Over and over and over again. And this will be the theme for our coming program year. Who do we say we are?  Who does God know us to be?  And I look forward to plumbing the depths of these all important questions, together, and continually.

In the meantime, in the wake of this week’s eclipse, on the precipice of a life-changing embrace of sanctuary, and in the company of this beloved community,  I leave you with the wise words of Thomas Merton from his New Seeds of Contemplation.

If we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Bashō we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash–at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

So my friends, let us go forth prayerfully, faithfully, and honestly and take our place in that dance.

Alleluia! Amen.

 

© August, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

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The Sanctuary of Abraham

Genesis 22:1-14

July 2, 2017: Pentecost V

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

 

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill* his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’;* as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’*                                                                    

                                                                                                               Book of Genesis 22:1-14  

 

After these things God tested Abraham.

God tested Abraham in this way?

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a sacrifice on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’

Is this the way that God tests us? Is this the price of faith? This request to sacrifice one’s only child? What kind of God is this? Prove your fidelity to me by taking your only son to the place I will show you, and kill him. This sounds more like Whitey Bolger or Tony Soprano than God, at least the God I know, the Author of Heaven and Earth who created humanity in the divine likeness of God’s own self. This is the way God tests God’s own likeness?

This is a terrifying text. And terrifying, in many ways, because it is so confounding.

First of all, Isaac’s birth was on account of God’s miraculous gift of life. Abraham and Sarah were elderly, and there was no way they were going to conceive a child without God’s intention. And so after waiting a lifetime for this miraculous son, Abraham is to offer him back to God as some sign of fidelity? And a fidelity that surpasses, or suspends, the ethical imperative against killing another human being? This request by God in Genesis seems to violate the seventh commandment (from God!) in Exodus. God is asking Abraham to break God’s own law.

Also confounding is that last week (in our RCL), God instructed Abraham to banish his first son – albeit at Sarah’s request. So here is Abraham, already down one son on account of his obedience to God, and again God asks him to give up a son, now his only remaining, miraculously born, son. And not just give him up as in send him away, like Ishmael, but sacrifice him on a ritualistic altar, a burnt offering; like a fatted calf.

It is no wonder that as difficult biblical texts go, today’s ranks right up there on the top shelf. It is among the most familiar stories and yet among the most discomforting, disconcerting and to many hearts, disappointing in the Bible. For it seems to be a story about a father willing to sacrifice his last remaining child to satisfy what seems to be a heartless God. What a theological bummer. At least for those of us who believe that our Creator is a loving, life-giving Source of peace and mercy and hope.

This is precisely the theology that chased me from the church at age fifteen, and kept me at a safe distance until I stumbled back into seminary in my mid-thirties.

This is a terrifying and confounding passage; at least if we read it in accordance with most of the commentaries that have held sway on its interpretation for generations. Christian commentaries in particular. Although, in my view, much of the Jewish midrash is unsatisfactory as well.

Even the Rabbis through the ages have not been in much agreement about the correct interpretation of this passage. Some focus on the “happy ending.” That is, they say that the point of the story is that God did not, in the end, require the sacrifice of Isaac’s life.

And so we do not know nor will we ever know for sure if Abraham was truly faithful to God’s obscene request; if he would indeed have sacrificed his only son to pass God’s test. Nor do we know if God would have been equally pleased had Abraham ultimately refused or failed to follow God’s request.  Maybe that was the correct answer to the test. Not, yes I will. But, no I won’t. Maybe God was testing Abraham’s love for his son, not his obedience to God. And if that was the case, Abraham was just about to fail the test when God offered a random ram in the bush to take Isaac’s place. Maybe God saved Abraham from killing his son, and thereby failing the test.

The point is, we do not know because Isaac was not ultimately sacrificed. We don’t actually know if Abraham was faithful.  And even if God were testing Abraham’s obedience to the divine voice in his head, we do not know if God would actually have required the sacrifice in the end. Either way, maybe God never had any intention of allowing Isaac to be sacrificed. So, maybe the happy ending is the thing. In the end, God will always provide. Maybe this is a story about the happy ending that will come if we stick with God. All’s well that ends well.

The problem with this is that we abdicate any sense of responsibility for our actions. No matter what we do, God will bail us out. The happy ending theory absolves us of our accountability, and thus in many ways, our agency. We are free to care for each other or to take each other up the mountain to be sacrificed…..either way, God will provide a happy ending.

Other Jewish scholars say that the important part of this story lies in the authority of God’s command to Abraham. They say the point is that where God reveals God’s will, humanity is obliged to obey, no matter what. This story is the ultimate illustration of the degree of difficulty that will be involved with our claim of fidelity to God. If we say we believe in God, we had better be willing to sacrifice even our child…..or abandon our claim. Where God’s will is concerned it is incumbent upon we who are chosen, to be faithful despite any impulse to follow even our visceral understanding of basic human ethics or the most primitive dictates of our human hearts.

In this interpretation, our relationship with God (forgive me) trumps all else, even our regard for human life, even if that life is our own flesh and blood. With this interpretation, the point of this story is that Abraham blindly (and rightly) obeyed what he thought God was requiring of him. And so in our hearing of this scripture, we are called to the very same obedience.

Among the deep problems with this interpretation is that we have no way of knowing for sure whether the voice in our head, the one telling us to violate everything we know in our heart, is truly God’s voice, or if that voice beckoning us to violence and destruction is…….not God’s voice at all. We know all too well about the extremists among us, who wreak holy havoc in this world in the name of strict obedience to a voice they call God. If any voice calls us to do anything other than tend each other, to sacrifice anything other than ourselves for love (and even that is a dicey proposition), I can tell you with utter clarity that that voice does not belong to God….not the God I know.

And so happy ending or blind obedience; neither of these interpretations cuts the mustard seed, as it were. Neither feels a satisfactory settlement with this intensely difficult bit of holy narrative.

But part of the discomfort is that the whole story is so very speculative. Again, from the text, we don’t actually know what God expected or how God hoped that Abraham might respond. The sacrifice was never carried out.

All we know for sure, is that Abraham showed up. God said: Abraham! And Abraham responded: “Here I am.”  And Abraham followed what he thought God wanted him to do. He ascended the mountain with Isaac. But before he could harm his only son, God appeared and again called his name. This time, though, God called his name twice. Almost as though Abraham was misunderstanding his charge. The way we might call to a child who responds to our request in an unintended way that puts that child in danger.

“Sebastian, take this box to the neighbor across the street.” And when Sebastian heads across the street without looking both ways to see that a car is coming, we yell to our beloved again, but with much more urgency and intensity to get his attention before disaster strikes: “Sebastian! Sebastian!”

This is how I hear God calling Abraham on the mountain. God’s beloved’s knife in hand. Raised even, ready to go through with something that God may never have intended for him to do in the first place. And so God calls to him. Frantically. Urgently. Abraham! Abraham! We read this very politely from the lectern. But I am quite sure that God was screaming God’s lungs out. Abraham! Abraham! And again Abraham responds, “Here I am!” And just then, a random ram miraculously appears, stuck in a nearby bush. And Isaac is spared. We do not actually know if Isaac is spared by God, or if he would ultimately have been spared by Abraham. Or maybe he is just spared by a random ram stuck in a bush.

But the pattern of God’s call to Abraham in this passage allows some of us ( okay, it allows me) to interpret this whole episode as, possibly, a mishearing or misunderstanding on Abraham’s part. And just because the text says that God was testing Abraham by requiring a sacrifice, we do not actually know if the testing was in God’s exact word, or in Abraham’s contextualized hearing.

It is a well-known adage that the wise one will not believe everything she thinks she hears or sees. Thalia and I have a lot of neighbors who are over-renovating the beautiful old center entrance colonials in our neighborhood and turning them into behemoth McMansions. It is among our favorite things to gripe about with our friends. And the newest culprit just up the street seems to have followed suit by going up a floor and refinishing the attic, which, in our closely-knit neighborhood puts a set of windows above the neighboring houses and removes any privacy that folks across the street previously had through their second story windows. Another neighbor has seemingly added an obnoxious third floor with the attendant dog shed dormers springing forth from the roof…spying on the mere second story hovels below.

But yesterday while I was walking the dogs past that very house, the sun was hitting those new windows just right, and low and behold I could see that the windows were fake. I could see the roof underneath. And my assumption that they had outsized another gorgeous old colonial and were invading the privacy of their neighbors was totally false! And even though I might have sworn in a court of law that they had renovated the third floor (the new windows were proof positive) I would not be even close to accurate in my testimony.

Abraham! Abraham! I think you did not hear what I said. Hear again!

As Anais Nin once said: we do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.  We see what we expect to see. We extrapolate our understanding of things based on patterns that we have already seen and accepted. For centuries Christians have believed in a God who sent his only son to be sacrificed in the most brutal way to show the Father’s love. It is no wonder that we Christians call this reading in Genesis: The Sacrifice of Isaac.

The Jewish tradition, however, calls this story The Binding of Isaac, in accordance with the actual Hebrew text  (the Akedah). Because Isaac was bound. He was not sacrificed. And so our Christian tradition has opted for a headline that is (in the vernacular of the day) fake news. Nevertheless, The Sacrifice of Isaac fits our expectation and our theology in a way that makes the lack of an actual sacrifice, almost immaterial. Like dog-shed dormers with nothing behind the windows.

And so the way we tell and interpret this story not only suits our existing theology, but I think it contributes to the way we Christians often treat each other with outrageously callousness and cruelty. Because when we read this passage as an imperative; as a model of faithfulness to God, even as a father is seemingly intending to murder his own son, this passage tells us that tending each other is not the ultimate divine accountability; it tells us that there is something more holy than loving each other with everything we have; that there is something more pious than refusing to do violence or harm to each other; that there is a power of obedience that supersedes the power of love. We are saying that the guide and authority for our behavior is not to be found in the absolute hospitality of the heart, but in the preferenced perception of the ears. The traditional hearing of this passage tells us to hear God without consultation of the heart.

And so Christians throughout the ages have felt justified in taking the lives and disrupting the peace of those they deem to be……disobedient to God. Justified in their vilification and sometimes even “sacrifice” of abortion doctors, and transgender teenagers, and anyone else that does not fit their godly yardstick.

Our traditional interpretation of this passage suggests that humans are tools of God’s testing. Isaac was a tool for Abraham to prove the faithfulness of his pudding. But once we have established the practice of sacrificing each other to prove our own faithfulness, it is not a stretch to see how we are willing to sacrifice healthcare for the most vulnerable in our midst for tax cuts for the most economically pious. It is not a stretch to see how we are willing to sacrifice the entire planet in obedience to our God of capitalism. It is not a stretch to sacrifice the truth of life to the will of power.

But what if this passage is not about sacrifice? What if it is about the way God stays with us through our own transgressions?

This week, this month, at this juncture in the life of this beloved community, I am hearing this passage not as The Sacrifice of Isaac, but as The Sanctuary of Abraham. Our beloved community is preparing to offer hospitality to some of our most vulnerable neighbors. It is a precarious proposition. And yet, how can we do anything else?

And so as we discern our willingness to undertake this civil disobedience, I think most of us (I’ll just speak for myself), I understand the danger inherent in Abraham’s deep desire to obey God; even if it requires a whopping big sacrifice. It is a terrifying desire; thoroughly certain and uncertain all at once. Is this what God is calling us to do? Or is this just Gretchen’s idea of what God is calling us to do? Tis a puzzlement. And so I understand Abraham’s desire to hear, and be clear, and get on with it.

What I do not understand is Abraham’s willingness to violate one love for another. His willingness to violate his love for his son for his love for his God. That does not mean that God does not ask us to make immense sacrifices for love. I think that sacrifice is inherent in the work of love. But if our sacrifice violates another human being, or I might even go so far as to say any part of God’s creation, I think we must be wary of the voice that we are hearing make such a request.

And so in my own interpretation, I think Abraham may well have misunderstood God’s charge. We have no way of knowing. But in my imagining of this story, maybe God did ask Abraham to ascend the mountain with Isaac. The Hebrew words for burnt offering and ascension are dangerously close. And maybe God did ask Abraham for a sacrifice. But maybe it was not the life of his son. Maybe it was something else that Abraham valued, and he projected his fear onto God’s request. And so when God saw what Abraham was about to do, God called out to him before it was too late: Abraham! Abraham! Stop what you are doing! And in that moment, Abraham entered the sanctuary of God. He was immediately released from the terror of his own misunderstanding. His ordeal was over. God was with him.

And all at once, there was no more testing. No more terror. Just peace. The peace that comes when God opens God’s arms and saves us from ourselves.

Praise God for The Sanctuary of Abraham….and all of Abraham’s children!

Alleluia. Amen.

 

© July, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

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Still Willing

April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

 

Alleluia, Christ has risen!

And in Matthew’s account, he has risen with quite a lot of unique fanfare! In fact, Matthew’s account is perhaps the most theologically and realistically persuasive of all four Gospels. Partly because Matthew’s account is the ONLY one in which the stone has not yet been rolled away from the tomb when the witnesses arrive. In every other Gospel account, we assume that Jesus’ body has been resurrected, but I’m pretty sure there is an episode of Law & Order out there where the body behind the stone was not raised as promised, but stolen for some nefarious reason…… the following was inspired in part by a true incident, but the story does not depict any actual person or event. I have always been suspicious of the Gospel accounts where the stone has been rolled away when the women arrive. But not in Matthew. In Matthew the tomb is sealed when the witnesses get there.

And it is not an incidental detail that, other than the empty tomb, the only thing that all four Gospels have in common in this story is that the first witnesses were women. The only corroborated parts of the story are that Jesus was indeed resurrected and the witnesses to that saving act of God were women. In every Gospel account Mary Magdalene is the first one of Jesus’ apostles on the scene.

As a personal observation and aside: If we want to take scripture as our model for the structure of our church tradition, with the most faithful apostles in the most celebrated positions of leadership, it feels like the debate should be about whether or not we should ordain men…..which of course we should. And, it is more than outrageous that not all Christian traditions, even those who say they subscribe to the authority of scripture, do not yet ordain women; the ones who waited with Jesus at the cross and were the witnesses to the resurrection.

Anyway, in Matthew, the tomb is still sealed when the women arrive. It’s hard to imagine that they could have expected to do anything other than sit Shiva given the heavy stone that enclosed Jesus’ tomb. But as soon as they get there a great earthquake erupts, just as Jesus had predicted, and an Angel of the Lord descends from heaven.

Now there are angels at the tomb in other Gospel accounts, but only in Matthew is this very specifically an Angel of the Lord; it’s not your run-of-the-mill-angel of which there are hundreds in our Holy Scripture. There are only seven Angels of the Lord that show up in our Gospels. Five of them appear in the virgin birth of Jesus (to Mary to Joseph and to the shepherds on the hill); one appears at the almost equally incredible birth of John the Baptist (whose mother was over 100 years old) ; and the last one appears right here in Matthew, at the wondrous birth of new and everlasting life. Every time an Angel of the Lord shows up, we can expect an outrageously radical new life on the scene.

In today’s Gospel, this Angel of the Lord descends and summarily rolls away the stone. I suppose we should expect an Angel of the Lord to be buff and robust. Fit enough to displace a boulder. But this one is buff enough that the Roman guards shook and became like dead men, says the scripture.

Although as far as we know, the women were not thusly incapacitated by the prowess of the Angel, who says to them what the Angel of the Lord always says: Do not be afraid. Another unique feature in Matthew’s telling of this story. Here the Angel says first what Jesus would have said first: do not fear. The recognition of this phrase must have given these women some comfort. Although I am guessing that fear was still in play, along with a host of other distressing emotions; among which was surely the feeling that they were lost. Very, very lost.

And so this week I have been meditating with a poem by David Wagoner by that same name: Lost. I have been hearing the poet’s powerful perspective through the lens of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus who were probably feeling as dis-oriented as they had ever felt before.

Everything was now out of kilter. Every road ahead was going to be new. This was to be their new home. Not the tomb, but the state of being without Jesus as their leader, their teacher, their prophet and their friend. I am guessing that some of us here this morning know that feeling; know what it feels like to completely lose your bearings and everything you have counted on and worked toward your whole life. To find yourself standing in a place that shakes you to your core, wondering where to go from here. If you have, this morning’s Gospel assures that you are not alone.

Like the women at the tomb, new life is on the way. Sometimes it is a life that we are happy and ready to embrace, and sometimes it is not. For these Marys it was probably not. A new community would need to be constituted, but without their rabbi. And so they had no choice but to trust a new and unfamiliar path to show them the way to a place they could not yet imagine. And yet they were still willing.

I hear this new challenge before these women in David Wagoner’s poem. He based the poem on the teachings of the Indigenous Peoples of the Great American Northwest who used these instructions to guide their children if they ever found themselves to be lost in the dense wilderness of their homeland. This poem feels like a survivalist’s version of E.M. Forster’s famous line “Just Connect.”

But survivalist is probably not a bad description of Jesus’ remnant who went on to plant the early church. Here’s the poem:

Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know [] and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to [the] Raven.
No two branches are the same to [the] Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost.

Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

 And that is just what Jesus does. Jesus who is now the forest and the trees and the breath that passes between them and surpasses all understanding. Jesus finds them. The women leave the tomb in awe and great joy and run to tell the disciples what they have witnessed. But before they get to their destination, Jesus appears to them on the road and greets them, heartily. And they recognize him, immediately. And he confirms his identity with that trademark phrase, now the second time they have heard it on this amazing morning: Do not be afraid.

But it’s too late….because clearly they are not afraid, for they have already grasped his feet and are worshiping him as he is telling them to fear not. They are good disciples, these women. They have learned their lessons well. Mary is once again at the feet of Jesus. For Jesus has found them where they are. They are simply Here, and Here is now home.

Where ever you are is called Here…..Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.

And indeed these women do just that. Just a short time before, feeling utterly lost standing in that agonizingly empty tomb, and now utterly filled with joy at the feet of their beloved Rabbi. Their expectations transformed in less than the time it takes to walk from Here to home. Utterly changed from what must have felt like utterly lost to unexpectedly found.

This is the lesson we learn from these faithful women who have followed Jesus from Galilee, who stayed with him at the foot of his cross, and who have now come to start the next generation in the wake of his ministry. This is the pattern of Christian faith: lost and then found. Repeat until everlasting life kicks in.

But in that cadence of losing ourselves in faith and finding ourselves in faith, over and over and over again, we are slowly but surely transformed…..as were these women when they recognized their beloved Jesus on the lost road to finding their new life.

 This early Christian paschal experience of responsive transformation reminds me of Darwin. For you will remember that survival of the fittest does not favor the strongest of the species, or the most plentiful, or the most intelligent, or the most simple or the most complex, or even those with the most toys. No, surviving, and indeed thriving, favors those who are most willing and able to change. Not impulsively. But intentionally. Those who are so grounded in their core value that nothing can stand in their way, not even death. And so they are willing to embrace change without fear. In this context, transformation is just another word for no roads left to choose.

For Darwin that core value that outweighed all else was survival…of the fittest. For Jesus it was love…..of all of God’s children. And for these women who had followed their Rabbi from Galilee to death and resurrection, I suspect their core value was home. Home was where Jesus was. Which is why and how they so readily left their families to follow this itinerant preacher in the first place. Jesus was their home, their sanctuary.

Our beloved community has been talking about sanctuary a lot lately; about offering some of our parish space to welcome undocumented immigrants who have a legal path to residency here in this great nation, but who are at risk of deportation before that path is realized.

It is hard to contemplate the events of Holy Week and the sacrifices made by Jesus’ followers and not think about the meaning of sacrificial discipleship in our own time and place in general; and in particular, about the contingent of undocumented people in our midst; over 200,000 in Massachusetts alone. And in the current dangerously nationalistic climate that has welled up in the power structures of our country, these undocumented brothers and sisters are all, in one way or another, fundamentally lost in a country that is increasingly hostile to their very presence; to their very existence. Whether they have lived here for decades or are newly arrived, their security is at impending risk. And if they are deported the risk may be to their lives.

And so we have been talking about the possible fit between our gifts and the needs of this marginalized population. Could we see ourselves offering part of our undercroft, all but unused in any substantial way at this juncture, to a family who needs a place to find welcome and hospitality, although not security – for we cannot offer that. The authorities can always breach our threshold if they are inclined to do so. But churches, like schools and hospitals, are generally understood to be “sensitive areas;” off limits, if only theoretically, to immigration raids.

And so here we are. This may not have been our first choice of ministries of resistance, but it is the choice that dovetails with our current gifts and resources and conditions. We have a great set up for level 1 sanctuary. Lots of open space. Two bathrooms downstairs and a shower in the back of the rectory. A large kitchen. Two lockable rooms in the undercroft that we can still use for our own needs. Our yard is fenced in. And Newton is already a sanctuary city.

Nevertheless, it would be a massive undertaking, this Level 1 commitment. And we could not even consider making it without at least a half dozen seriously committed level 2 partners to help provide the necessities of life for folks who who will literally be captive in our space: they would need food, laundry, tutoring, access to medical care, the list is long. Nevertheless, I think we have such partners waiting in the wings as we speak.

But our commitment to house a family in our own space is inherently a bit more precarious than the level 2 commitment of support. It’s the old comparison between eggs and bacon. The chicken makes an investment, but the hog is all in. Level one is all in. We would have to commit ourselves whole hog, as it were. And our parish life would be ontologically changed. Not forever. But for now.

Although, that may just be the reason to say yes to this uncertain ministry that to date has no given rules and few case studies. We would be on the forefront of this movement. And so yes, there would be a substantial number of risks and sacrifices that would surely come, and yet there are several excellent reasons to seriously consider making this momentous leap of faith:

  1. The vestry has been talking about ways to better use our unused space in accordance with our ministry priorities and values for the nine years that I have been here. And the undercroft is currently a marvelously cavernous space that is not being used. It is virtually empty seven days a week; a veritable empty tomb just waiting to host a resurrection to new life.
  2. We would enter into a covenantal relationship with at least six other communities of faith, our level 2 partners; only a couple of whom will likely be Episcopalian and not all of whom will be Christian. This is an outstanding opportunity to do the sort of meaningful deep collaboration that we have been dreaming about for years!
  3. We can truly and meaningfully contribute to changing the narrative in our nation that increasingly rejects and excludes those whom “we” have decided do not “belong” here. We can be living witnesses to the casualties of our arrogant and ungodly national policy of “America First.” I am quite sure that the risen Christ would be on board with changing this narrative, as today he and his apostles would surely have fit the bill of undocumented trespassers.
  4. This is the best opportunity that we have before us to remind the world and ourselves of what church is all about. We are nothing if not a place of welcome. We are nothing if not a place of hospitality. We are nothing if not a place of sanctuary. Sanctuary is not just our job description, it is the credential in our DNA, as followers of Christ crucified and risen who stood with every marginalized undocumented child of the living God till death did them part.

And so if we decide to do this, we will have the opportunity to live into the sign on our front lawn: No hate, no fear everyone is welcome here. Integrity is a beautiful thing! We will be a beacon of courage and compassion for the larger church, and for the world, and for our children.

This is a chance for us to remember who we are. Re-member. Put ourselves back together, again, as a Christian community. And there is no better time for that re-membrance than Eastertide. When Jesus himself is changing his relationship in and to  the world. And so I think that we are here and now in the right place at the right time. We might want to keep our eyes open for that Angel of the Lord.

But honestly, I don’t know if we will come to the place where we can make this level one sacrifice. It’s a lot to ask. It’s a lot offer. But my prayer is that we will put ourselves on the line with those apostles, the women and men who sacrificed so much to follow Jesus, and think about the sort of new life that we might build if we are willing to go the distance. My prayer is that we will seriously discern this road together. Share our hopes and our fears, our certainties and our doubts. And if at the end of our conversation we decide that this is not our calling, our decision will have been intentionally and prayerfully reached. And that is all the angels can ask.

In the meantime, let us remember that, like the women and men who followed Jesus, we are not entirely in control. And so may we be both open to the new life that can come from the wild imagination of a loving God, patient in that openness. Because sometimes we just need to bide our time and let the Holy Spirit do her thing.

So friends, to paraphrase…okay, to tweak David Wagoner in this season of Eastertide:

 Let us stand still willing. The Spirit knows where we are. Let us let her find us.

 For Alleluia, Christ has Risen indeed!

© April, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

 

 

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The Trojan Horse of Holy Week

April 9, 2017: Palm Sunday

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

Matthew’s Gospel continues…..

Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw…. what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’* Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him..

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be ever acceptable in your sight oh God our rock and our redeemer.

The renowned Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge[1], calls Palm Sunday the “Trojan Horse” of the church year. And I get it. It has no legs of its own. It has no meaning on its own. Palm Sunday is the interstellar space between Jesus’ ministry on earth and his death and resurrection in Holy Week. Palm Sunday is a liminal space, as the Celtic Poet John O’Donohue might have described it. It is the blink of an eye between Hosanna Hey Sanna and Crucify Him!

Fleming Rutledge never really explains what she means by Palm Sunday as a Trojan Horse, but it makes me think about the contemporary strains of political resistance that are coursing through our national body politic at this juncture; the countercultural undercurrents of justice and mercy and self-sacrifice that are pressing against the grain of our national infatuation with winning at all costs and our vilification of enemies and truth-telling; our unscrupulous use of self-agrandizing military might, and unholy worship of personal wealth without limit; and, too, our rampant exclusivity that makes us fear everyone who is not…..us…whoever we think we are. Jesus was the ultimate resistor against all of this and more; against all things smacking of fragmentation and domination and empire; against all that tears at the fabric of God’s good world. Holy Week is our invitation to that resistance.

Maybe Palm Sunday is the Trojan Horse of our Christian tradition because it features the most humble flesh on earth entering the most powerful city on earth on the back of a mere donkey in an unfolding drama that will end with the God of all Creation hanging on a brutal cross; executed by God’s own children; willing to be executed for the love of those same children. Now that is a Trojan Horse; divine strength masquerading as mortal weakness in the most spectacular way. Let us take heed.

My very first Holy Week at St. Paul’s, in fact my very first Sunday at St. Paul’s, was 9 years ago today. And so this is roughly my 468th sermon from this pulpit, give or take a few weeks off. And as the regulars among us will attest, I preach pretty much the same sermon every Palm Sunday. In fact, I preach pretty much the same sermon every Sunday. I try to come at it from a different angle every week, but I really do have only one punch line. And this is it.

My one true message, my only message is that in Jesus Christ I have found ever-loving proof that God the Almighty Creator, Liberator and Sustainer of heaven and earth, is not only good and just, but longs for us with such passion that this divine Creator was willing to embody the pain of our flesh and die an excruciating death in order that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. And it is our integrity (as Christians) that is at stake when we do not intend and attempt, with every fibre of our being, to follow Jesus toward life and love; the dangerous, risky, thoroughly discomodious road to life and love.

Like a dog with a bone, this has been my singular story. But the problematic hinge of this story is always the sacrifice for love that we encounter in Holy Week. We always seem to get stuck on the sacrifice. In what way was Jesus’s death a sacrifice for love? Who sacrificed Jesus and for what?

For most of my own life I was taught that Jesus was offered as an intentional blood sacrifice by God to somehow make right something that went wrong in the Garden of Eden at the dawn of creation. This was, and still is in many respects, the teaching of “The Church.” That God sacrificed Jesus, sent him as a lamb to the slaughter, for the redemption of all human sin. But, as it turns out, that is not necessarily the only way to understand Christian theology. There is more than one way to hear the Jesus story; more than one way to answer the questions: how was Jesus sacrificed for love? Who sacrificed Jesus and for what?

Could it be that the sacrifice of Jesus’ life was more about living for dignity than dying as a ransom for some else’s sins? Did Jesus sacrifice himself by refusing to give up on mercy and radical Gospel hospitality to protect his own comfort and security? Maybe what Jesus sacrificed was his safety, which cost him his life; and not for our sins, but for our dignity.

And so here we are on this Palm Sunday, following Jesus into Jerusalem to the place where he will suffer the ultimate consequences of his sacrifice. This is our Christian narrative.

Ready or not we are walking into Jerusalem with Jesus. And the question is: are we willingly to go the distance with him? Holy Week offers us a space to wonder how much of our own safety and security and comfort we are willing to give up, to sacrifice for love. Not whether or not we are good enough or pure enough or on the right road or in the right crowd or doing the right thing. But whether or not we are willing to commit to sacred living, courageously sacred living; which will require some degree of sacrifice; which may require that we let go of everything but love….knowing that God will walk with us every step of the way.

This is a concept that flies squarely in the face of our national pride as the most powerful and affluent nation on earth; winners in every imaginable respect. We seem to think that we do not need to sacrifice, we just need to win! But our Christian narrative tells us that God does not love us because we are winners. God loves us because we belong to God, in all of our spectacular weakness. I believe that God does not yearn for us despite our fragility, our brokenness, our weakness, but because of it. Our weakness does not make us losers, it makes us accessible.

In an a-theistic world, a world without God, a world where human beings set the standards, human weakness will always and ever be a detriment to be overcome. Winning will always be the standard of strength. But in a world that is created by and for Love, a world full of the sort of love that God shows us in and through the life and death of Jesus, weakness is strength, weakness is an invitation to connect and engage, it is not an indication of failure and defeat. And when weakness is strength, we are called to follow as disciples, not to lead as winners. Our human fragility is, most certainly, by design…..and no human could possibly have come up with such a paradoxical design! That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!

Holy Week offers us a space to wonder how far we are willing to follow for love. Not whether or not we are ready. But whether or not we are willing. We cannot make ourselves ready for living a life filled with love. We will never be ready for the sort of sacrifice that will inevitably be necessary. But as soon as we are willing, God will make us ready.

And so I leave you, as I always do on Palm Sunday, with a poem written by my friend and mentor The Rev’d. Anne Fowler. The poem reminds us that Jesus was fully human, and that perfection, if it were a verb, would be an imperfect verb, that is to say, perfection is not something we have done or not done, it is not achieving right over wrong. It is not in any completed action, but in the way we respond to God in any given moment.

The poem is called Ready.

 

No one should be astonished

Is what he said.

He spoke as usual,

In a manner made for not explaining.

His few regrets –

A small procession he could have joined and didn’t,

A woman he should have loved, but would not risk.

Blessings no one might dream of.

For some days he was not ready,

And then he was.

 

And so, my friends, the question to ponder this Holy Week is: Are we?

 

Amen.

© April 2017, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

 

 

 

[1] the renowned Episcopal priest and author of several books of sermons including a wonderful commentary on Paul. The Undoing of Death.

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The Stench of Life!

Gospel of John 11:1-45; Raising of Lazarus

April 2, 2017: Lent V

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
                                                                                                                                             Gospel of John 11:1-45, NRSV

The good news is that this morning’s sermon will not be as long as this morning’s Gospel reading. The bad news is that this reading is a bit too close to home.

Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench…

By too close to home, I am not talking about last night’s sewerage backup in the undercroft, although that was an uncanny happening on the eve of this reading. But I am talking about the ways in which we all resemble Lazarus. The ways in which we all require some degree of resurrection here and now. The stench that we all experience and exude when awake and are called to new life, like existential morning breath. The stench that pervades our being when we are too long….inert; physically, spiritually, effectively inactive. It is a shared and common phenomena. There is a certain stench that accompanies all of our apathy and atrophy and all that wastes in decay when we are not fully alive. My grandmother used to say that festering lilies smell worse than weeds. And I have known that adage from the inside out. I bet you have too. We are all at one time or another, Lazarus. All in need of a shot of new life. We are all entombed in…whatever entombs us. And when we fester too long, we begin to stink to high heaven. Our challenge is to respond to the call of Jesus to awake from our inaction and come out of our tombs, otherwise known as our comfort zones….and live into the dangerous calling of love!

And this call to arise is not a suggestion, it is an imperative. No one asks Lazarus if he wants to be raised. I am guessing he does not. Death is peaceful. Life is hard. And very few folks die without enduring some serious suffering of some sort on the way to their passing. Does he want to rejoin the land of the suffering mortals? Does he want to have to die all over again? Maybe not. But he does not have that option. Jesus commands him: Come out!

And eventually, we are called to hear those magic words, that liberating imperative, even though the prospect of such new life may frighten us to death. The command to: Come out! Is a command to rise to the power of love. The terrifying prospect of losing our lives to gain them. This is truly the great Christian coming out story!

This story of Lazarus stands alone in the Gospel of John. There is a story about a man named Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke, but unlike the nearly anonymous beggar in Luke, John’s Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, and the friend of Jesus of Nazareth. This story not only stands alone in John, it replaces the last straw for the authorities before they arrest Jesus, in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. You will remember, in the three narrative Gospels, Jesus is arrested shortly after chasing the money-changers out of the Temple. That act of civil disobedience is the final straw for the powers-that-be and the direct impetus for Jesus’ arrest in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus is feared as a rabble-rouser, a political activist, an agent of social change who has no regard for the authority of the authorities. And so in those three Gospels, the overturning of the tables in the Temple marks the crescendo of Jesus’ earthly ministry….and the last straw.

But in the fourth Gospel, the Evangelist John puts Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple not at the end, but at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The disruption in the Temple is not conveyed as the reason for Jesus’ arrest, but the inauguration of Jesus’ mission. Civil disobedience is not the last straw, it is the job description in John’s Gospel. Social change and political activism is the fabric of Jesus’ mission. It is who he is in John’s Gospel. His very mission is to re-vision and re-form the standing and understanding of God on earth; nothing less than turning the tables on the very identity of God.

And so, the last straw in John’s Gospel, is not a show of Jesus’ strength in the political arena (that is a given) but rather it is a showstopper of divine proportions – it is this morning’s account of Lazarus. The raising of Lazarus is the end, the finale of Jesus’ ministry in John. It is the divinity of Jesus, exemplified here by his absolute power over life and death, that is both the reason for Jesus’ demise on earth and the message in the Gospel of John as a whole. In John, Jesus is not the healer or the prophet or the teacher or the brother; in John, Jesus is God on earth, the beginning and the end. And this difference in the very identity and mission of Jesus, as God’s own self in John’s Gospel versus God’s agent, God’s Son in the synoptic Gospels, is at the heart of the age-old debate about whether the mission of the church is to save souls, as the divine Jesus in the Gospel of John would have us believe, or to save lives, as we see the human political activist Jesus encountered in the narrative Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Is our faith about resurrection or life? Our life in heaven or on earth? Are we to spend our lives saving our own souls or the lives of those on the margins? John’s Gospel or Matthew, Mark and Luke?

But maybe we do not have to choose. Jesus said: ‘I am the resurrection and the life…everyone who lives and beloves in me will never die.’  And so in John’s Gospel the resurrection and the life are a matched set. They are inseparable. For the Evangelist John, there is no resurrection without life and no life without resurrection. And we translate and hear that second part as “anyone who believes in me,” but the German roots of this word allow an equally authentic translation of believe as belove…..”anyone who beloves in me will never die.”  That feels much more inclusive and forgiving and realistic to me than the mandate to believe, which, if I am honest, I myself can not be counted on to do 100% of the time.  And so the resurrection and the life, heaven on earth, is available to any and all for the unambiguous price of nothing less than beloving.

Christopher Morse is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer professor of Theology and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. He wrote a fascinating book called The Difference Heaven Makes in which he analyzed every reference to heaven in the New Testament. And after all of his research his conclusion is that contrary to popular opinion and discourse, heaven is not where we go from here, but from whence God comes. Heaven is not a promise for tomorrow, it is a reality that we can live into today. Heaven is the symbol of the life of God which keeps adventing into history, our history.  The Christian challenge is to be on hand for that which at hand but not yet in hand, says Morse. At hand but not yet in hand. And so as disciples of God in the flesh, our job is to keep looking for the advent of God. Keep listening for the command to Rise Up! Come Out! Live love!

The name Lazarus is a shortened version of the Semitic name El-azar, which is literally translated as “God helps” – El (God) Azar (helps). In the symbol of Lazarus we see the union of heaven and earth, the way God calls us to action and life. The way God is in relationship with us, and we are called to respond, to complete the reconciliation. Because God cannot do God’s work alone….in the beginning there may have been but the Word, but on the very last day, there was nothing but the Relationship.

The importance and weight of relationality is exemplified in the tears of our savior in this morning’s reading. Jesus wept.  As you may know, this is the shortest verse in the entire Bible. And the verb used here, is unique in the entire Bible. Nowhere else does this particular verb for “wept” occur. So we know right off the bat that this is a very special event. This is not your typical pity party. These are not your run of the mill tears.

Jesus wept once. [1] He did not weep for Jairus’ dead daughter. Nor for the herd of God’s beloved creature swine possessed by the demons of Legion who threw themselves into the sea….I wept, but Jesus did not weep. Nor did he weep for hundreds of other sick and dying and dead that Jesus must have encountered over the course of his ministry. He did not weep in the Garden of Gethsemane. Nor at his own crucifixion. He wept only once. He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus.

But we must be careful here, Jesus knew that Lazarus would be raised. And so we must be careful not to misinterpret his tears. Jesus did not weep for Lazarus, he wept with those who wept for Lazarus, actually for those who wailed, as the Greek word used to describe Mary’s and Martha’s cries literally means. Jesus wept for the depth of suffering that came when his beloveds were in abject pain. Jesus wept for the grief of the living not the fate of the dead.

These tears, these rare tears of our Savior, tell us of the relationship of God’s deep love to the depth of human suffering and weakness.  Jesus wept because, when we weep, when we wail, when we are overcome with grief, God weeps with us. And so Jesus, God on earth according to John, wept not for the loss of his friend, but for the love of humanity and the weakness and suffering that we endure as an inescapable part of our human lives. And this steadfast companionship in our common suffering is the way…..it is the way Jesus himself teaches us to raise each other up.

It is the proximity that provokes our compassion. That is, we cannot suffer together at a distance. And so if we do not want to weep as Jesus weeps, then we would do well to keep our marginalized neighbors at an arms’ length, especially those who suffer the most. Those who are feeble and infirmed. Those who are poor. Unhoused. Undocumented. Those who are refugees. Prisoners. “Others.” Because if we dare to share their lives and their stories, we may be in for some serious weeping. If we take them into our hearts and our homes. If we break bread together on our knees. If we risk our comfort and our safety and our privilege to welcome heaven to this earth, we will surely weep as Jesus wept.

But we can always keep those “others” at bay, at a safe distance. And we may still weep for their poverty and their disadvantage  and their distress. But we will be weeping for them, not with them. Our tears will taste of charity, not compassion.

Which is why God weeps with us, and not for us. There would be no point in God weeping for us. Because Lord knows God can simply change whatever it is that is causing the suffering. But rather than eradicating the source of our pain, God always chooses to share it. To take our flesh and cry our tears. And why that sort of sharing rises, nothing short of love is born.

And when we follow God’s lead, when we rise from our comfort and put ourselves on the line, we should expect some tears. And we should expect a bit of a stench, the stench that come from too long-buried hearts and hands. And it is another Gospel paradox. That such an awful stench is the tell-tale sign that the tomb is opening and new life is just ahead. And the stench becomes a fragrant offering.

Sometime in each of our lives, that offering is ours to make. When we finally rise from our entombment, the work of raising heaven on earth is ours to behold.

Like the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Very fittingly by Emma Lazarus. It says:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

An invitation to the stench. And I can almost hear Jesus commanding us: Rise up! Come out!  Risk Love! Share Everything! Follow me!

Heaven on earth is calling our name!

Amen.

© April, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

 

1 In Luke’s Gospel Jesus weeps for the city of Jerusalem (chapter 19), but the verb that is used there does not denote a weeping of personal suffering, but weeping in disappointment.

 

Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News (London,       UK: T&T Clark International) 2010.

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