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, in effect, murder, 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 sacrifice 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 perverse fidelity? And a fidelity that surpasses, or suspends, the ethical imperative against murder? This request by God in Genesis violates 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 love for his God. And if that were 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 blind, and maybe even heartless, 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 certainty 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 is never carried out. We have no way of knowing whether or not Abraham could or would have gone through with it.

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 was spared by God, or if he would ultimately have been spared by Abraham. Or maybe he was 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 a possibly 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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I’ll Drink To That!

Gospel According to John 4:5-42

March 19, 2017: Lent III

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, `I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.      

 

This morning we heard one of my favorite Gospel stories. It is the story that my long time former spiritual director most often suggested I turn to when asking the question, where is God in my life?

It is the story of the Samaritan woman who has a life-changing encounter with Jesus at Jacob’s well. This passage contains the longest conversation between Jesus and anyone, in our canon. It is also among the few places in the Gospels where Jesus’ conversation with someone he meets on the road does not end in a monologue. The woman in this passage, although unnamed, has a voice. So this passage is not just about what God wants us to know, but how God wants to be in relationship with us, and how we become agents of God’s grace in this world. It’s a great passage to read in a season when we are cultivating spiritual practices of resistance.

Last week we heard Jesus explaining the finer points of the spirit to the privileged yet thoroughly thick  Nicodemus, who never quite got the message. In today’s story, the woman at the well, who is the abject opposite of Nicodemus in terms of social location….she gets it. Not at first. But in the end, she is the model of apostolic discipleship, even when compared to Jesus’ hand picked disciples who spend this passage shopping for supper rather than spreading the Good News. In comparison with Nicodemus, the elite Pharisee, this woman – unnamed, uneducated, unacceptable as she is on any sort of social scale, in her time and place – she is the model of Gospel discipleship. Like Mary, humble and without status, who’s soul magnified the Lord, so too does this unnamed Samaritan woman.

But, she is only unnamed until her story becomes our story.

Jesus is on his way from Judea to Galilee. Galilee is the site of Jesus’ first miracle in John’s Gospel; the changing of water into wine and the wedding at Cana. And he is heading back that way. But with no easy route, he ends up in Samaria, a foreign land to a Jewish rabbi.

But there he is. At mid day, high noon, says the scripture, tired and thirsty from his long journey, Jesus finds himself at Jacob’s well in the center of the town of Sychar in Samaria. His disciples have gone to fetch supper. And so he is alone at the well until a Samaritan woman approaches.

Please note that everything about this encounter between Jesus and this unnamed woman, from the get-go, is pointed toward public reproach, headed for a cultural train wreck of gigantic proportions. This unknown woman is about to have what Elizabeth Kubler Ross has called a radical and scandalous encounter with the divine. And although her assumed intent is to fetch some water from the well, she ends up resisting the foundational cultural norms of her social location and shattering the boundaries that would otherwise have precluded this encounter with the divine. She is the living lesson that sometimes God meets us precisely when we are willing to swim against the tide.

Because, first of all, noon is absolutely not the acceptable time to draw water from a well in the desert. The sun is too high, the stones are too hot, there are no shadows for relief or cover. So, right off the bat, the very timing of this event puts us on unconventional ground….and, it is ground that is initiated not by Jesus, but by this unidentified woman who approaches him…..at high noon. Notice this is the abject opposite of the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus last week, which happened in the dead of night, under cover of darkness. Not even close to the brightest light of the noonday sun.

And the unsanctioned timing of this encounter is just the beginning of the scandal in this story. A woman would never typically approach a strange man in public. Further, this strange man is not even a Samaritan. He is a Jew. And as the woman says, Jews and Samaritans have nothing in common. Or so she thought. It is hard to overstate how unlikely and radical is this encounter between a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman in the center of town in the middle of the day. She has no earthly business approaching Jesus, and he has no earthly business speaking to her.

Everything in this story goes against the grain of convention. This encounter might be akin to a Muslim woman approaching a white American male in the center of Bagdad….without her burqa. Or a community inviting an immigrant family of strangers to take shelter in their space. This encounter is an obliteration of a whole set of boundaries: cultural, class, and religious, to name but a few.

So Jesus is sitting alone at Jacob’s Well, where Jacob offered his son Joseph the gift of living water in the Book of Genesis. Water has always been the scarcest of resources in the tradition of the Israelites, the Red Sea not withstanding. As we heard this morning in our reading from Exodus, water is among the number one commodities in the business of sustaining life, it is right up there with breath. There are biblical scholars who believe that the stories of the Hebrew Bible and the current situation in the Middle East are fundamentally and primarily about the control of sources of water. And so this is a land in which the social custom of water-giving is more than a blessing, in fact, it is tantamount to an offer of friendship. In the desert, the offer of water was a lifesaving act and likewise resulted in a foundational bond.

So Jesus says to the woman as she approaches: “Give me a drink.” And given her social status, which is none at all, she might easily have said: There’s the well, help yourself. But she does not. She hears his request for a sip of friendship and she responds in kind. She fills his cup. And he takes the water and proceeds to talk to her about a different kind of thirst; a thirst for God, a thirst for God’s friendship. And at first she does not get it. But when she does, she heads straight out into town to spread the Good News…. just as the disciples are coming back with their food.

For a variety of reasons, this story, this week is viscerally reminding me of my first encounter with the divine through pastoral ministry. Maybe it’s because I just saw Manchester by the Sea and the scene in the ER at Beverly Hospital was where I was on call every weekend for six months during my CPE. Maybe because on Friday, Thalia’s father was admitted to the hospital with end stage renal failure and my site assignment at Beverly Hospital was the dialysis unit. So this is on my mind.

I saved CPE until the very last possible minute in my ordination process. CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Education. I needed 400 hours of it in order to be ordained. There is no way around CPE in the ordination process, believe me I tried everything. And it was my most dreaded requirement, mandating at least 200 hours of direct patient care as a hospital chaplain. And so in January of 2004 I began my stint as a chaplain at Beverly Hospital.

Now, for those of you who knew me before I encountered CPE, pastoral care, especially in a hospital setting, was not my long suit, shall we say…it was not even my short suit….in fact, it may not even have been in my wardrobe! I was not designed to deal directly with sickness and suffering. And so I dragged my faint hearted feet until the very last possible moment. Oh sure I took the requisite pastoral care classes in seminary. And I read a slew of relevant books and material. But I summarily avoided the hands on experience of ministering to strangers….strangers who would be facing pain and fear, and that terrified me. But I could not avoid that pain and fear forever. If I wanted to be a priest I had to first be a hospital chaplain.

In addition to being “on call” in the Emergency Room, the Intensive Care Unit, and the locked psychiatric ward each weekend, my primary assignment was the dialysis unit. For six months, I spent 14 hours a week as the chaplain to the good people who had indiscriminately been faced with end-stage renal failure. That means that both kidneys are out of commission and are no longer able to filter toxins out of one’s blood. Only 10% of one kidney needs to function in order to live without dialysis.

Unlike the site assignments for my fellow CPE chaplains, who were mostly assigned to hospital floors where patients rotated in and out on a daily or weekly basis, I would visit and re-visit my same patients (and my growing edges – failures – as a chaplain) every week for the entire length of my chaplaincy. Unlike most of my classmates, my patients never got discharged, and they never, or rarely, got better. They only got worse. And over the six months, 11 of the 121 dialysis patients died.

In the unit itself, there were twenty one beds in one large room with a nurses station at the center. Each patient was hooked into a machine that circulated and filtered one cup of blood at a time until the whole body’s worth had been chemically balanced and cleansed of all toxins. The whole process took about four hours and it needed to be done three times every week, forever and ever, amen. There was a lot of blood. There was a lot of discomfort. There was no privacy. There was no way out. And it was sooooo not fair. And if ever there was a time when I wondered where God was in the midst of suffering, it was during my time in the dialysis unit. And so I was not at all sure that I was cut out for this calling.

For starters, I dropped out of premed in college because, well partly because the chemistry labs conflicted with the field hockey schedule, but also because I had a very low gag threshold. And the dialysis unit is….well, not the place for someone with a low gag threshold.

More importantly, what could I possibly say that would be of any comfort to these people? How could I possibly allay their fears? What if they wanted to talk about God: God’s role,  God’s wisdom, God’s mercy, or the seeming lack thereof given their excruciating situations? What if I could not feel their pain? What if I could not feel anything but their pain? What if all I had to offer them was bumbling prayer. What good could I possibly be to them?

And so on my first day the charge nurse escorted me over to my first patient. I took a series of deep breaths and clutched my chaplain’s bag as though it were an organ for transplant. “Beth (not her real name),” said the nurse, “this is Gretchen, she’s the new chaplain.” And there I was…face to face with my deepest fear.

She was a lovely, fragile looking woman in her mid-seventies, I’d say. Her left arm was tethered to the dialysis machine. But there she lay in her St. John’s knit dress with a matching scarf around her neck, in nylon stockings and meticulously shined high-heeled shoes; her pocket-book perched neatly on the bedside table. She looked like she was on her way to the wedding at Cana. And despite her recently set blond locks, she was the spitting image of my grandmother. And to my shock and surprise, she bore the same name. My heart simultaneously sank and rose. As it happens, my grandmother had only one kidney. She lost the other one during a very difficult pregnancy. She also lost the child. And she spent the rest of her life in a frail and vulnerable state of poor health. But I looked up to her as one of the most courageous and wise women I had ever known. If there has been a woman at the well in my life, it was my grandmother.

I pulled up a short rolling stool to the side of Beth’s bed. She reached out her hand and smiled. I took it and smiled back. She told me she was having surgery the next day. Serious vascular surgery. I asked her if she was frightened. She said yes. We talked about football. She asked if I was Catholic, and proceeded to explain that both of her previous husbands had been Catholic, but that she was a Protestant. I told her that I was in the ordination process to be an Episcopal priest. Then she confessed and almost apologized that she was not a regular church go-er….and neither, for that matter, was her current husband – who sadly had no religious affiliation whatsoever. She wished she had been to church more often. She wished she had a better relationship with God. She wished that she could be certain that God would remember her “when the time comes.” I reminded her that she was born in God’s hands, was etched with God’s image, and that “when the time comes” she would die in God’s arms – and that nothing she could do would ever change that. Nothing would ever diminish God’s love for her. She began to sing “Jesus loves the little children.” I could hear my grandmother’s voice. We sang nearly the entire song together. Softly, as the chairs were in very close proximity. She asked if I had a Bible and if I would read her something from it. The bookmark was in the start of this series of healing passages in John’s Gospel, the Wedding at Cana. And so I read it to her. And she looked at me with large wise eyes and she said, “water into wine – that’s not such a big deal. Wine is mostly water to begin with.”

And the living water began to flow. I told her that she was my first patient and that this was my first experience with chaplaincy. She reached out her hand and asked me if I was frightened.  I nodded, my eyes welling up with tears. She smiled and said, “don’t be, you’ve got the face for it.” And the living water continued to flow…down both cheeks, I can still taste the salty reminder on my tongue to this day.

There she was, frail, fragile, frightened out of her own skin, facing serious surgery in the morning and she was my chaplain; she was ministering to my fears, she was tending my need. I smiled and squeezed her hand. And as she continued to talk freely about her family and her medical history and the inconveniences of end stage renal failure, and a host of odds and ends including sports and warts and eligible bachelors on TV, I felt a trickle of the living water of which Jesus speaks in this morning’s Gospel. I felt grounded in her openness. I felt fortified by her trust. I felt comforted by her company. And I felt the well of my spirit begin to fill with the living water of our mutual connection.

We prayed. We wiped our eyes. I kissed her hand. And I was on my way. The next patient, of course, realized my true greatest fear by summarily up-chucking on my shoes….but that is another sermon for another day.

My transformation that day at Beverly Hospital was in large part due to the holy power that flowed through the heart of one small holy woman who felt my thirst before I even knew to ask for a drink.

The living water of which Jesus speaks in this morning’s passage is the same spiritual practice that undergirds all of our authentic practices of boundary breaking and resistance. It is the living water of holy friendship. Inviting each other into thirst quenching relationship. Across all boundaries. And without any reservation.

Margaret Atwood said: “Water does not resist. Water flows.”

And that sounds right to me. So maybe we should replace our spiritual practices of resistance with spiritual practices of persistence. And so maybe in the vernacular of the Womens’ March, the woman-at-the-well was the founding member of what we might call today, the persisterhood.

And I can drink to that!

Amen.

 

 

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

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Being Sanctuary

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

March 5, 2017: Lent I

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
   and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
   for out of Man this one was taken.’ 
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, `You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.  

 

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. A season that we will celebrate this year by contemplating some spiritual practices of resistance. This is not the first year that we will have observed Lent through the lens of spiritual practices. It is the first year, however, when we will train those practices on social and political resistance. That is, it is the first year when our focus is not on our own spiritual growth but on the welfare of the creations of God who are on the margins. The first year when our focus for these practices will be outward rather than inward.

Our theme this week is “Being Sanctuary.” The word sanctuary is from the Latin, and its root is sanctus. Like the sanctus in our Eucharistic Prayer. Holy. And holy in the Hebrew (ko-desh) means set aside for God. A sanctuary is a place that is set aside for God. In this space it is the small area enclosed by the altar rail on which the altar rests. That space, where we consecrate our Eucharistic meal is the sanctuary; the place set aside for God.

Over time, the term sanctuary has come mean a place of safety, like a bird sanctuary. A place where those who are threatened may find shelter, harbor, peace. A place that might include the whole of a church. And so as our national political machine increases its assault on those who are most vulnerable among us, those who live on the margins of our society, sanctuary is becoming an increasingly important and valuable offering.

Today’s reading from the Book of Genesis is not only among the most familiar in our entire canon, it also takes place in God’s first sanctuary: the Garden of Eden: the first  place where God and humanity communed; where humanity abided in God’s presence.

Today’s reading is the second creation story -not to be confused with the first in which humanity is created on the sixth day in God’s likeness and then instructed to subdue and steward the earth. But this second version in the second chapter of Genesis begins and ends in the Garden of Eden. This second version of creation is, oddly enough, thought by scholars to be the earlier of the two stories. And in this telling, an earthling is created….Adam, from the Hebrew word for earth, adamah.  And from that first earthling, the first adamah, the first piece of earth the mother of all life is created….Eve, from, from the Hebrew verb for life, haya.

And after these earthlings are created, they are instructed by God that they may sustain themselves with the fruit of any delicious tree in their midst, except one. And our two earthlings seem to be fine with that single prohibition until a snake of a snake, the most sensible of all living beings (or crafty as the Hebrew might be translated), suggests, for some unknown reason,  that the fruit that they have been forbidden might just be the best fruit of all, and they should try it.

I say “they” rather than she, because according to the text, Adam is standing right next to Eve the entire time. A tidbit left out of our popular understanding of the story. Unintentional omission or alternative fact? But the text says that Eve shares the fruit with the man who is with her.  And so they succumb to the crafty serpent bully and they eat the forbidden fruit, which, the text says, deeply disappoints God….although I have my doubts about that.

But then, at the very end of this story, as God ushers the earthlings out of the Garden into the real world, God says to them exactly what we say to each other on Ash Wednesday as we impose ashes and begin the season of Lent. God says to Adam and Eve:  you are dust and to dust you will return. You are mortal. You are temporary. You are short lived. God does not say is now you are mortal, as though they were not mortal before they ate of the forbidden tree, as though mortality is some punishment. But God offers the same reminder that we are offered every year at this season. Life is short. And you will soon realize how much you need me.

And so here we are with the dust of our own ashes still fresh on our foreheads, cast out of paradise to brave the wilderness on our own. And just in case you did not get the full fleshly effect of this message, we will be imposing ashes this evening in our family Ashes and Altars event for anyone who missed this powerful ritual on Wednesday.

We all know this story of the Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden; from paradise to wilderness. Likewise we all know the story of Jesus herded from his baptism straight into the wild, the desert, the great unknown to be tested by the devil herself. These are our classic stories of temptation and obedience. In the Garden Eve and Adam cannot resist the temptation of the one tree from which they are forbidden to eat, and as a result says our faith tradition, humanity falls for all time. All mortals thereafter are born with the stain of their sin. And in the wilderness, Jesus resists the devil three times and in the end, humanity is saved for all time. This is our official Christian story of sin and redemption. And it makes a fairly tidy theological package for our Christian sensibility. Adam and Eve fail to resist the temptation of the bullying serpent and they are summarily tossed out of the Garden for their sin. And then, Matthew’s Jesus ventures not into paradise, but into the wilderness, and there in that place of abject discomfort our divine brother shows us just how resistance to temptation is done. And here is the message: Humanity sins. Jesus redeems. Simple as that.

Our Christian theology has, for centuries, been grounded in the core notions of sin and redemption. Ours is a theology that has been founded on an unflappable belief that humanity is, above all else, Fallen; forever been marred by that Original Sin.

I think this is a good time to mention that the notion of sin is never ever mentioned in this story in Genesis. It is not part of our Holy Scripture. There is absolutely no mention of sin (original or otherwise) whatsoever, in this entire story. None. And, I might add, there is absolutely no mention of its theological cohort, free will. Those concepts are theological, but they are not biblical.

The scriptural basis for Original Sin is not the Book of Genesis, it is the Letter of Paul to the Romans in which he says: the sin of the world came from one man. But that is not anywhere in this original story.  And so for centuries this morning’s reading has been known as a story of the Fall of Humanity, regardless of the absence of any mention of sin in the text. It is absolutely a story of disobedience. But it is not a story of humanity crushing “Original Sin” until it is embellished by theologians centuries later. Not until the second century, when Iraneaus, Bishop of Lyon first coined the phrase Original Sin in an argument with some gnostic adversaries.

From the beginning, it has been very advantageous for “the church” to identify our God as one who demands absolute obedience above all else. Because obedience to God requires obedience to the church, the keeper of God’s law. Original Sin was the hook that kept the fallen people coming back to church for forgivnss and redemption.  And by calling this transgression in Eden the “Original Sin” the church effectively made disobedience the ultimate sin…..ergo, obedience to the church the ultimate strive toward salvation.

Now, a big fat red flag on this sermon. This is my theology. It is not necessarily the theology of “the church.” Although, there is no “the” in church. And so this doctrine of Original Sin is front and center in the Roman Catholic realm, but not so much in the Anglican or Episcopal realms. In fact, if you turn to the catechism in the BCP, page 845 (which I highly recommend that you do), you will not find the doctrine of OS anywhere listed. It is not part of the official teaching of the Episcopal church. Although it is number 9 of the 39 Articles that serve as the loose articulation of our non-binding Anglican doctrine.

But our three-legged stool of Anglican authority rests on scripture and tradition through the lens of reason. And my own lens of reason tells me that the God that created and loves and abides with me would not punish all of humanity in perpetuity for disobedience. The propensity to disobey is born into the human condition. A condition created by God. So either God drastically overestimated the free willpower of God’s children, or the mere eating of a tasty, albeit forbidden, apple did not cause and promulgate the fall of all time.

There are other possible reasons why God might have sent Adamah and Haya from the sanctuary of Eden. Maybe the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was essential to the functioning of the Garden, and so by eating it, the earthlings were putting the Garden at risk. Maybe the transgression in the Garden was not disobedience, per say, but destructiveness; risking the welfare of the whole garden for the delight of their own selfish eyes. And so this story is not to remind us of our sinfulness, but to remind us of the preciousness of all of creation and our role in its health and wellbeing.

Or, maybe they would never have left.  Would we? Probably not. And so maybe the snake was God’s idea, an opportunity to send these first humans out into the world without kicking them out for no reason. Maybe the eating of the apple was God’s way of saying, okay, the honeymoon is over, now go out and fill the world with my Holy Spirit. And remember that you are mortal. So choose well.

Please do not mishear me. I am not saying that we should do away with any notions of sin and redemption. I am not. In fact what I am saying, or intending to say, is quite the opposite. I think we need to re-claim and also to re-vision our notions of sin and redemption. I do not think that reading this passage in Genesis as something other than Original Sin lets us off the hook. But I think that it does suggest a very different hook.

Maybe, rather than the traditional notions of sin and redemption as the basis for our relationship with God, creativity and blessing would be a better framework. As Christian mystic Meister Eckhart says, “there is, there must be, a certain divinity that flows from all that is created by a divine source. We are thusly created!” And so maybe instead of obsessively praying for our own individual redemption from the Original Fall, we are intended to join God as co-creators of this wide world into which we were sent by the divine; no longer permitted to languish in the idyllic Garden, but charged to go out and be that sanctuary in the world.

And so here we are at the start of Lent, on the precipice of the Garden. Reminded that we are no more permanent than ashes or dust, and that our station in this life is no guarantee. That we are mortal, and like Adamah and Haya we could lose our space in the Garden any day. But the irony of it is that when we lose our Eden, whatever it is for each of us, when we are stripped down to nothing left to lose, when we have lost our lot and everything we care about has been reduced to ashes, that is when God has us just where God wants us.

Not suffering. But the emptiness that usually follows the suffering. The disorientation that comes when we are stripped naked and thrown from the Garden without a handle or a clue. And when we reach that point where we are standing before God with nothing but God and dust to our name, that is precisely when we realize that we are more powerful than we have ever been, because we have nothing to lose.

It’s a paradox to be sure. But I think that as long as they were guests in the Garden, Adamah and Haya had everything to lose. And fear is the handmaid of everything to lose. But freedom is the handmaid of nothing left to lose. Ironically, nothing left to lose is the place where we can truly follow God’s law with absolute obedience.

And so it seems to me that the Garden is Eden, but the wilderness is sanctuary.

In this holy season of Lent, let us be a sanctuary for God and God’s creations in the wilderness of this world.

Amen.

 

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

 

 

 

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Ashes To Ashes, Dust Is Us

 

Ash Wednesday; March 1, 2017

The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

Trinity Episcopal Church, Newton Centre, MA

 

Welcome to the radical ritual that begins on Ash Wednesday and follows us, or leads us, as the case may be, into the wilderness of Lent. It’s radical because the whole notion of Ash Wednesday and the Holy Season of Lent are utterly at odds with the tenor and tone and fabric of our contemporary culture.

Our observance of Ash Wednesday is about our humility before God, and too before each other. It is the one day of the year when we publicly let down our self-sufficient guard. When we not only suspect ourselves to be broken and vulnerable, but admit and even proclaim our mortal contingency, our fallibility, and our own culpability in our transgressions against God and everything God has created. And we proclaim it boldly to the world with the imposition of a repentant smudge upon our foreheads. We may be accomplished and proficient in our work, empowered and admired in our communities, respected and revered by our friends and families and neighbors but we are none the less dust. No less from the dust and headed to dust than the lowliest urchin in Calcutta. From dust we have come and to dust we will all, every one of us, from the poverty stricken to the proletariat to the president, return. And it’s not religion, its science.

Nevertheless, we do not inhabit a culture that often acknowledges such scientific and existential equality, inalienable as it may be. We live in a culture that seems to insist on a sliding scale, a stratification, of worth based on factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with our status as children of a loving God…..who loves all children, and our capacity and commitment to love and mercy and justice and peace. And so we reward and value things that, in the end, do not matter any more than the dust from which we have come.

Likewise, we seem to be fixated on the exulted notion that “winning” is to be valued above everything else. That we are in some everlasting competition with everyone who is not us. And that our charge and challenge is to leave everyone who is not us, in the dust. Every time. To win at all costs. Elections. Ratings. Wars. Win. Win. Win. As though winning might defy and deny the dust that awaits. But of course it does not.

And still, winning is our way. We seem to be a culture of braggarts who do not even try to camouflage our boasting and bullying, our grasping and hording, our desire to dominate and diminish everyone who is not like us.  I dare say an alien from another planet landing now in these United States of America, this One Nation Under God, would have a very different view of the posture of humanity than the posture that we are about to assume here before God on this Ash Wednesday; which is an anti-cultural posture of humility, and a recognition of our utter contingency on the re-issuance of the gift of life every day, every hour, every moment. Life is never, ever a given. Only death is.

And so my friends, we are about sink to our knees together, each of us equally fragile, each of us equally free to walk with Christ because each of us is nothing more or less than headed to dust. And so we are oddly empowered because we have nothing to lose…..and so very mysteriously, we are more empowered with nothing to lose than we ever were when we were “winning.”  Because winning, most winning, is ontologically grounded in the refusal to give up….ever.

And that is where Lent comes in.Lent is all about losing. Lent is all about giving up.

Some of us spend quite a lot of time choosing something to “give up” for Lent. But in a minute we will ask for forgiveness and declare our intention, as a contingency of that forgiveness, to give up a whole slew of tendencies that come with our human condition: our pride, hypocrisy, impatience and our self-indulgent appetites; our exploitation of others for our own wealth, security, and self-aggrandizement; our intemperate love of worldly goods, our dishonesty in daily life and work, our blindness to human suffering, our indifference to injustice and cruelty, our contempt for those who are different from us, our waste and pollution of creation and thus our gross disrespect for all who will come after us.

Although this may sound a bit like my list of objections with our current political arena, it is not…. although, if the shoe fits…. But no, these are the words that we will use to acknowledge and atone for our own lofty and arrogant and ungodly aspirations as featherless bi-peds. Every one of us.  These are our human transgressions,  and so I am willing to bet big that they will feel familiar to each of us. Just as we have all come from dust, we all embody some degree of these human conditions.

And so instead of looking for token renunciations like losing the election weight that has gained on our hips (I might just speaking for myself), or answering our emails within a single news cycle (okay, again, maybe just me), or saying the rosary instead of swearing a blue streak when we are angry (I bet this one is not just me!), instead of looking for plums of personal improvement, instead of using Lent as our wellness coach, maybe we could give up some things that matter…..more….broadly. Maybe this Lent could truly be the start of something big.

This year, I am going to commit myself to giving up some things that are more in keeping with the prayer of penitence and forgiveness that we pray on Ash Wednesday. I am giving up sorrow and suffering. I am giving up poverty in this richest nation on earth. I am giving up mass incarceration. I am giving up selling automatic weapons to…anyone, and any guns to anyone who is mentally unfit to be a responsible gun owner.  I am going to give up homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, sexism, racism, and every other dignity-squashing ism on the horizon. And while we are at it, I seriously think we should give up cancer and addictions of all kinds and Alzheimer’s. I invite you to join me in giving up cyber bullying, corporate greed and the notion that America ever was, is, or should be “first” at the expense of the rest of God’s creation. Let’s give up the notion that God has a preferential option for Americans, and claim the radical reality that America is a citizen of the world, one among many, with equally dignity-endowed and dust-threatened people.

But my friends, this list of the things that we could give up for Lent in accordance with our penitential prayer is far too long and hard to be realistic. This litany of pain and suffering that we need to give up, need to be done with, is so daunting, so seemingly impossible to accomplish, that sometimes all we can do is throw up our hands and give up altogether. Sometimes the sadness and the fear and the grief become so great that giving up is all that we are able to do…..the only choice we have, the only thing within our own control.

And that, my friends, is where the ashes come in. Ashes are all that remain when everything has been utterly burned to the ground.

And when we reach that stage, the stage where we have lost everything, when we do just give up on…. everything, that is when God has us just where God wants us. Not suffering. But the emptiness that usually follows the suffering. And when we reach that point where we are standing before God with nothing but God and dust to our name, that is precisely when the statement “I give up” ceases to be a threat, and mysteriously, because that’s the way God works, becomes a freedom. When we realize that we are dust, we are free. We realize that we are more powerful than we have ever been, because we have nothing to lose. It’s a paradox to be sure.

The last resort of giving up on everything yields the freedom to not give up. Go figure.

When we have relinquished all of our earthly acquisitions, all of our privilege and power and prosperity, all of that we have worked to acquire as individuals, when we have nothing left to lose, we can truly give up the debilitating fear that we are not getting anywhere, that we are not winning….enough. Paradoxically, losing it all frees us to…gain everything. Dust is empowering.

We must lose our life to gain it.

And that, I think is the deep and profound experience of this holy day. Ash Wednesday. It is the one day in the course of the year when we stop and acknowledge with our flesh that we are truly one with creation and with each other. It has always seemed a shame to me that there is but one Ash Wednesday a year. Speaking for myself, I could use a more regular reminder.

And so this Lent I am planning to observe Ash Wednesday….every week. I am planning six weeks of Ash Wednesdays. Every Wednesday I will take to my knees and recite the litany of penitence that we are about to utter together. And, despite Matthew’s instruction against publicizing our practice, I might even sport a smudge of ashes on my forehead. Every week. Both as an outward and visible reminder to myself, and as a means of engaging others in this conversation about our shared dignity and mutual responsibility; a conversation that they will initiate when they inevitably alert me to the swatch of dirt on my face.

I know, I will say. It’s Ash Wednesday. The day when we remember that we, you and I, are both from dust and to dust we will return. We are equal in our ultimate worth. Now what can we do in between the dust that will matter for me as much as it will matter for you? How can we live into our shared dust?

I have been reading a lot of Dietrich Bonhoeffer these days. He wrote from his prison cell just before he was executed for opposing a state that disregarded the dignity of so many children of God – in his case, the Third Reich – Bonhoeffer wrote: “Jesus calls us not to a new religion, but to life.”

Ash Wednesday may be the only Christian Feast or Fast day that is not just for Christians. Ash Wednesday is not just a Christian observance, it is a human observance. It calls us not to religion, but to an alternative life; grounded in losing rather than winning, grounded in our willingness to give ourselves up, entirely, for love. I might just make Ash Wednesday a permanent part of my life and practice. What do you think?

I want to leave you with a wonderful poem written by the deeply-wisdom-burdened Jan Richardson. It’s from her blog The Painted Prayerbook. And it’s called Blessing the Dust.

 

All those days

you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face

toward the wind

and be scattered

to the four corners

or swept away

by the smallest breath

as insubstantial—

Did you not know

what the Holy One

can do with dust?

This is the day

we freely say

we are scorched.

This is the hour

we are marked

by what has made it

through the burning.

This is the moment

we ask for the blessing

that lives within

the ancient ashes,

that makes its home

inside the soil of

this sacred earth.

So let us be marked

not for sorrow.

And let us be marked

not for shame.

Let us be marked

not for false humility

or for thinking

we are less

than we are

but for claiming

what God can do

within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff

of which the world

is made,

and the stars that blaze

in our bones,

and the galaxies that spiral

inside the smudge

we bear.

–Jan Richardson

 

 

Amen.

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

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