Receive the Gift of God!

 

Gospel of John 20:19-31
April 28, 2019: Second Sunday of Eastertide
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

Welcome to the second Sunday in Eastertide! Jesus is back! As is the snow. (sigh!) In this morning’s Gospel Jesus returns to his grief-stricken disciples. And he comes bearing a gift. Actually, THE gift. The gift of the Holy Spirit.

Receive the Holy Spirit, says Jesus to his stunned freinds.

This gift of the Holy Spirit is an essential dimension of the Easter story. In Luke Acts this gift is given to the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost, 50 days after Easter. But in the Gospel of John, the gift comes immediately after the resurrection; in Jesus’ first appearance to his disciples; before he satisfies the questioning Thomas, the one who, like most of us, wants to actually see the fish before he buys the story hook, line, and sinker. So before Jesus proves himself in the resurrected flesh, he offers the disciples, actually he commands the disciples to: Receive the Holy Spirit!

As our scripture tells us, the Holy Spirit has been around for awhile. Since the beginning, if you believe the wisdom literature. But not until the Incarnation, with a capital I, did the Holy Spirit become so…..present, so palpable, so intimately intertwined with our own potential and authority as children of God. With the Incarnation came the notion of the triune God. Creator, Creation, and the Spirit of Creativity that makes it all possible. The Spirit is thus born into all of creation. And so it is in our experience of the flesh that we, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading from John, receive the Spirit. Nevertheless, the Spirit has been with us since the beginning. It is not newly available…maybe just newly accessible. Receive the Holy Spirit!

I am guessing that we all have our own experiences of receiving the Holy Spirit in our own flesh. And I am guessing that, as in this morning’s Gospel, it usually comes when we least expect it and requires a serious leap of faith. That’s just how the Spirit rolls. Almost always by surprise! Among my own best examples of receiving the Holy Spirit is my beautiful chestnut Hanoverian Thoroughbred, Izzy. Izzy’s journey into and through my life was pure Holy Spirit. He was gorgeous. He was huge. And everything about him was a surprise. He was 8.1 hands high (that’s 6 feet 1 inch at his withers, the base of his neck). He was a Grand Prix show jumper who had also been in the movie Seabiscuit.

Horses - Izzy

duplicate

Izzy came to me by way of my dear friend Carter Heyward, as did my first horse Patience. But after a year and a half of jumping sweet Patience over small fences, I was ready for a horse that could challenge me…teach me to ride a big stride and to jump a respectable upright. I was ready for a horse that could lift me to a new level, a new level of equitation and a new level of learning about myself and my potential, whatever that meant. Carter put me in touch with her friend Eleanor Boatwright who lived on the same mountain as did Carter in North Carolina. Eleanor was looking to sell her horse Izzy. I was not looking to buy a horse, but Izzy was just the sort of horse that could teach me what I wanted to learn. And Eleanor had priced Izzy to move.

I vividly remember my call with Eleanor. I was leaning on the rail outside the refectory at EDS. I remember the sun beaming through the wide windows, warming my face as Eleanor described her dream horse, whom she had jumped in numerous Grand Prix competitions, who had been featured in the movie Seabiscuit, and whom she loved so much that she was willing to sell him for a song to someone who would love him as she had.

The phone call was almost surreal. As I listened I thought, even though the purchase price of this magnificent animal is far below his market value, there is no way I can afford him. And even though he is superbly trained to do just what I need to learn, I am way too much of a novice to be able to handle him. And even though I am already spending a couple of days a week at the stable, my life is far too hectic to be able to absorb another horse into my schedule. I knew I had no business even thinking about buying this horse. And so I was absolutely, definitely, surely going to decline this way-over-my-head opportunity. Until………..at the end of our conversation Eleanor said in her deep southern drawl: We call him Izzy, but his show name is Gift of God.

Gift of God?! Seriously?!!!! I was standing in a seminary. I was studying theology. I was preparing for ordination to the priesthood. And a stranger  offering me a Gift of God?!!! This is positively biblical!

And in an instant, less than instant really, my reasoned, sensible “no!” came out: “How will I get him up here?” And before I knew it, I had committed to a Gift of God that I had no business receiving. Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible when they were called, there were a million reasons why I was not prepared, equipped, deserving, or in any way the right person to receive this Gift of God. Every facet was beyond my capacity.

But, Eleanor agreed to deliver my Gift of God to Boston.

So I sold the last bit of my retail career stock, the last bit that was not already committed to my Master of Divinity degree, and I spent the next month anxiously awaiting Izzy’s arrival. I vacillated between sheer terror laced with self-flagellation for my recklessness and a self-congratulatory pride that I had taken this wild leap of faith in the name of God’s adventurous new Gift. Because, please, I ask you, how could I say no to a Gift of God?

The day finally arrived. Into the stable turnaround pulled the long shiny trailer with North Carolina plates. The truck door opened and out hopped a perfectly appointed, barely five-foot-tall stereotype of a southern gentlewoman. Gorgeous knee high leather boots. Stunning Barbour hunting jacket. Diamond rings on perfectly manicure fingers with long red nails. Eleanor opened the back door of the trailer and disappeared into the cavern. She emerged with what looked to me like a baby dinosaur. He was the most immense living creature I had ever seen from such a close proximity; close enough to read the very expensive brass name plate on his halter which, to my unmitigated horror, read not Gift of God, but Gift of Gold.

What?!!!!! No Gift of God? Oh no! What had I done?! In a flash I went from sacrificing everything for a Gift of God…..to squandering my last pennies on a horse! A Gift of Gold. I had waltzed out onto this way-too-far-out-for-me-limb on a mistaken hearing of a southern accent. A Gift of Gode!…which, apparently, in my context and wishful thinking registered in my hearing as Gift of God.

And so there I was, under prepared, under funded, under experienced, under a barrel of absolute disbelief. How could I have been so foolish?! This was not at all what I had expected. And yet, holy cow, was he beautiful. As beautiful as anything I had ever seen. And as Eleanor led him off the trailer his gorgeous deep brown eyes met mine, and I could swear I heard him saying to me, as clearly as Thomas heard the risen Christ: Here I am. I am here for you. Receive this Holy Spirit.

That was March of 2003. In March of 2007…I lost him to a brain tumor. But oh what the Holy Spirit can do in four full-on years! I had Izzy at just the right time in my life to be able to fully receive the Gift of God that he turned out to be, after all. And so my time with him was among the most spirit-filled and transformative times of my life. Every moment with Izzy overflowed with with passion and compassion, terror and mercy, stretching out and letting go, trusting and doubting. Through Izzy, I felt the Spirit work in and through every fiber of my being…and even in some fibers with which I had never before been acquainted.

IMGP0033

original (4294971829)

original (4294971829)

I had about a year and a half with Izzy as the horse that I expected him to be. The horse that would teach me to ride like the wind and to be the proficient horsewoman to which I aspired. But very soon after I had just become comfortable in his saddle, he tore his deep digital flexor tendon. And that my friends, is a deal breaker. At least for a jumper. And for Izzy, he was never again completely sound even for riding, let alone jumping.

In between the torn tendon and the brain tumor, Izzy suffered an array, an amazing array, of medical issues large and small including two major colic surgeries. Colic is a life threatening condition in horses. Their digestive tracks only go in one direction, from front to back. There is no way to expel matter or air through the mouth. So if something gets blocked or twisted, it is a serious matter!

In June of 2004 I had just graduated from EDS. And I had accepted a position as a leader of the Mountain Mission of St. Clare in Brevard North Carolina. I was to be working with my friend Carter, who was a founding member of the Mission. And, my two horses (Patience and Izzy) and my Golden Retriever, Archie, and I had rented an apartment at the stable on Carter’s farm for the coming year.

So Carter and I loaded our horses in my trailer and headed south. But Izzy had a very rough trip. He began to colic on the trailer. And by the time we arrived in Brevard, Izzy was clearly in trouble. And as soon as I realized that he likely needed surgery, I had no choice but to head back through the narrow winding Carolina Gorge to the large animal hospital at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. They were three hours of the most sheerly terrifying travel I have ever experienced.

There, Izzy had two colic surgeries in as many weeks. Carter and I watched the first from behind the big plate glass window in the gallery. I did not realize it at the time, but his surgeon later reported that his heart had stopped for a moment during the surgery. And so he was literally back from the dead. One week later he needed surgery again. And not for nothing, but neither surgery found any blockages. Neither surgery found any cause for his colic. But after the second surgery, the very wonderful medical team at UT told me that he there was nothing left that they could do. Two surgeries was his limit. What he needed was time to recover, if he was going to recover. And if not, he was not. Either way, it was time for me to take Izzy home. Frail. Fragile. And more vulnerable than straw in the wind. And that was my state of being!

So, with Carter behind us, Izzy and I and Archie headed back across the treacherous three hour section of the Smokey Mountain highway, through the winding Gorge, back up See-Off mountain to Carter’s stable, which was a full hour away from the nearest vet, if one were needed. There was nothing remotely comfortable about this situation.

There I was on top of a relatively remote mountain, essentially by myself, with my gorgeous 2,000 pound Gift of God back from the dead, but not yet out of the woods. His recovery, actually his survival, would depend on our working together. Him and me. He needed to heal. I needed to make sure that he got what he needed to heal and that he stayed absolutely quiet. So I hand grazed him every six hours around the clock, as instructed by his medical team. He needed antibiotics every four hours that I administered through the IV’s in his neck. And every morning and every evening I irrigated and thoroughly cleaned the 135 staples in his belly – the only thing keeping his intestines from falling on the ground. And so for weeks, at least twice a day I had my hands in Izzy’s deepest wounds…. they became our wounds. It was the most profound confluence of both belief and disbelief that I had ever experienced. I had never been more sure of the Spirit within me. And, I could not fathom how this could be happening. This was not the Gift of God that I had expected!

But it was a Gift of God that I got. Every minute of my experience with Izzy was no less than that….a gift of the Holy Spirit that I could never have expected or provided for myself. It was not until I was forced to put my hands in his wounds that the otherness between us melted away. Not right away, of course. Not with the instantaneous re-cognition that Thomas felt when he put his hands in Jesus’ wounds….but I am guessing, not in an un-similar way. Like Thomas, I was so far beyond my comfort zone that I might as well have been on another planet.

It was my bad to think that I would be receiving my Gift of God seated in a leather saddle soaring over a five foot jump……rather than standing in a soggy stall with 2,000 pounds of discomfort, holding an IV drip at four in the morning. And I did it all for a horse that I knew no one would ever ride again. Which is when it dawned on me that I did not have Izzy to learn to ride, I had Izzy to learn to let go without walking away. To let go of my expectations without walking away. This Gift of God was not intended to teach me to be a better horsewoman, but to be my own Gift of God.

I don’t argue much with God’s timing any more. Izzy came into my life one month after I had been made a Postulant (the first step in the ordination process) in the diocese of Massachusetts. And I lost Izzy two months after I was ordained to the priesthood. If Izzy was not a Gift of God, I don’t what is.

Horses - Izzy

Thomas says to his friends: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And Jesus says to Thomas: “do not be unbelieving, but believe.” For some reason we have come to know this passage in the Gospel of John as the story of “Doubting” Thomas….perhaps because that is how many of the popular Bibles translate Jesus’ words: “do not be doubting, but believe.” But the word doubt does not actually appear anywhere in this passage. Thomas does not literally doubt Jesus. But, before he invests himself again, he wants, he needs, to see and feel a connection. He requires what we require in all mutual relationships, a point of contact. And so Jesus says to Thomas, have faith. Here I am. I am here for you.

Photograph (265)

Where are the Gifts of God among us here and now? Where are the Gifts of the Holy Spirit that we may not recognize until we put our own fingers in the wounds? The Gifts of God that maybe we think we cannot afford? The Gifts of God for which maybe we feel unprepared? The Gifts of God that are out of our league? Where are those Gifts? Because Jesus tells us to receive them. Those Gifts are the manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

Like Thomas, maybe the only way to receive that Spirit is to is to let go of our fear and our uncertainty, our need to be competent and accomplished, and maybe even our better judgment…sometimes maybe we just need to receive Holy Spirit, because no matter what it may cost us, it will be a Gift of God. Surprise!

Alleluia! Amen.

Photograph (266).jpg

Photograph (267)

Horses - Izzy

© March, 2016 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

The black and white photos were taken by the wonderful Beverly Hall 2003.

And, my deepest gratitude and love to Carter Heyward who accompanied me every step of the way during Izzy’s medical emergencies in Brevard. Izzy and Archie and I would not have made it without Carter and her golden lab, Buddy.
Posted in Sermons | 1 Comment

The Cost of Love

April 14, 2019: Palm Sunday
The Gospel According to Luke
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

We entered Jerusalem on a tour bus. Having just come from Capernaum to the house of Peter’s Mother-in-Law where Jesus healed the dying woman with nothing more than a loving word and a soft touch. Hosanna! And then to the synagogue where Jesus himself preached on the sabbath. Again, Hosanna! From there to Tabgha where Jesus is said to have turned two fish and five loaves of bread into a feast for five thousand. Hosanna! And from there to the place where Jesus offered his beatitudes, the eloquent assurance to all on the margins that they are at the center of God’s heart. On to Jerusalem.

We got there late in the afternoon. The road was lined with protestors. Not an exceptionally unruly crowd, but then they were well chaperoned by a solid contingent of military peacekeepers. The protestors were shouting at the passing vehicles and thrusting their picket signs in the air. The message on the placards, mostly hand written in Hebrew was….loosely translated….Crucify them! They are an abomination! They violate God’s law! Crucify them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The March for Pride and Tolerance was just getting underway in the center of the ancient city where old and new converge as though time has both stopped and insisted its forward march. This was the local gay pride event that has happened every year since 2002. But it has been an international media event since 2015 when an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stabbed to death 16- year-old Shira Banki and wounded six others as they peacefully walked for human dignity and the right for every child of God to simply be who they are created to be.

2015 was the second violent occurrence marring this event in Jerusalem. The first was exactly ten years earlier in 2005 when several marchers were also attacked with seething hatred and knives wielded in the name of God.

We heard this story as our bus shuffled through the conflicted city streets, increasingly crowded with hordes of humanity – kept in check by a path of police officers in green berets carrying oozies slung over their disconcertingly young shoulders.

The Parade was just beginning to gather steam. The entrance to our hotel had been cordoned off by the military. And so the bus parked on a side street and we were shuttled on foot with our luggage past the crowd control barriers into the back door of the Tryp Bat Shevah Hotel.

 

The Jerusalem Post estimated that there were 25,000 marchers and 2,500 military – intent on preventing any more violence and death at the hands of an angry mob.

We watched from the lobby of the hotel as thousands of marchers waving pride flags boldly swept through the city – a torrent of human dignity of all ages and abilities and complexions – with the message that love is more powerful than……anything. And that not even the memory of a violent death can stop the truth of love’s power from marching straight down the middle of the main street for all the world to see…..and embrace.

Four of our contingent of fifteen clergy, felt the pride of this parade in our own bones. We all felt that we belonged there, if I can speak for all of us. We each expressed our encouragement and hopefulness and our sheer joy. And yet, we could not help but feel the shadow of Palm Sunday in the air. The passionate mob in Jerusalem. It was palpable.

After we had checked in to our hotel, the four of us wrenched our way into the crowd and marched side by side with all manner of pride-full people- Jews and Palestinians alike, some wearing t-shirts that said, “God created me this way” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” An international glob of humanity connected only and forever by our insistence on the validity of love. What a concept! Not separated by land rights or national affiliation or even religious tradition. We were connected, Christians and Jews and Muslims and folks of no religious affiliation at all, by our faith in love alone.

 

And so the story continues. The Pride Parade in Jerusalem as a contemporary splinter from the branch of the story that we celebrate this morning. The story that teaches us that the freedom to love is not even close to free.

The fantastically tall tale of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on his own tour bus of a donkey to be met by a thick crowd of folks who first support and adore him and then turn on him so quickly that the celebratory palm fronds are still waving in their hands as they call for his execution. We might think that this story is too far- fetched to believe, were it not for the 2000 years it has been told by millions of good and intelligent people of sound mind and body, as the Gospel truth. But as far-fetched as it may sound, it still feels all too familiar to those of us who are paying attention to the world around us.

I think most of us can see and hear and feel ourselves in at least a part of this story that we have heard this morning. We recognize, we re-cognize, literally we re-know this story in our own lives. We re-know this story in the ways that this passion feels like our passion. For me, the Pride parade in Jerusalem. The ways in which we are betrayed and betray each other. The ways in which we are denied and deny each other. The ways in which we are sold and sometimes sell each other down the river or up onto the cross, to protect our own ….well, whatever it is that we fear losing more than we fear losing our own personal power, as the Jewish elite did with Jesus.

And too, the ways in which we are tended and tend each other in the hour of need….like the woman who anointed Jesus. The ways in which our crosses are borne, and in which we bear each other’s crosses when the weight is simply too devastatingly heavy to bear ourselves….like Simon of Cyrene. And the way we can count on a few companions to go the distance with us, like the few who can count on us in that same way….as the women who followed Jesus from Galilee and waited for him at the foot of the cross. I dare say each of us has walked in all of these shoes at one time or another. And so it is not hard for us to hear this story as familiar…in our very bones.

Each year, we hear the denouement of this story on Good Friday from a different Gospel perspective, a different angle on the broad Gospel message.

Last year, we heard Mark’s version which calls out our human vulnerability. Most of us can relate to Mark’s recounting of Jesus’ last words on the cross: “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me!?”

Mark invites us to relate to Jesus in the deepest suffering of our own being. This is Jesus giving us permission…you and me and all of humanity —in the depth of our own despair, in the dankest recesses of our most unmentionable pain, in the bowels of our darkest moment….to doubt. To feel abandoned. To question where God is in our lives. It is okay to feel for our own suffering. It is okay to wrestle with our own pain. It is okay to question where God is in our despair. Jesus did. Mark’s Passion story is abundantly pastoral – the greatest comfort that can be offered: because no matter how deep our suffering, we can be assured that our God has been there and felt that too. In Mark, Jesus’ final message is very much about his personal suffering.

But not in Luke. Luke’s last words on the cross are not pastoral, they are more…..political. And I mean political as in having to do with the realm of public affairs. That is, how we are in relationship to and with each other. As we have been hearing all year, Luke’s Gospel is the divine manual for love in action; how we are meant to treat each other when the rubber meets the road. And Luke’s passion narrative is true to that lens.

In the last words from the cross, Luke beckons us not to relate to Jesus’ anguish, but to realize the cold hard fact that the institutions of the day, the state and the religious elite and all of their explicit and complicit supporters have crucified an innocent man. Jesus says to us as he hangs on the cross: Father forgive them for they know not what they do. That is, they are executing a thoroughly innocent life. This is both the ultimate crime of humanity and the cost of a life lived according to love alone. I think Jesus’ innocence is the crux of Luke’s Passion Narrative.

In Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus dies, the centurion says: this man truly was the Son of God. In Luke, after Jesus dies, the centurion says: this man truly was innocent. Even Pilate says that Jesus is innocent. Three times. He says to the crowd, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death.” If nothing else, everyone agrees that Jesus is an innocent man. And yet the crowd demands his demise.

It’s easy to pass right over this seemingly obvious detail. It is so front and center that it might be taken for granted. That Jesus was innocent. But I think it is at the heart of what Luke wants us to know about the caliber of love that Jesus has come to share and to demand in his disciples. And so it warrants some deeper consideration.

When we think of the innocent Jesus hanging on the cross, it is hard not to think about the families on the border whose only crime is that they seek a better life. It is hard not to think about the hundreds of thousands of captives (mostly men of color ) incarcerated for petty crimes that are grounded more often in their poverty than in their criminal character. It is hard not to think of the children in Columbine and Sandy Hook and Parkland and Compton and Baltimore and Chicago and Dorchester and everywhere where our gun laws and our gun culture, not to mention our often underlying racism, permit the slaughter of children no less innocent than Jesus of Nazareth. And I have not even mentioned the wholesale slaughter of God’s innocent creation.

I think Luke calls us to make the connection between the execution of Jesus and the execution of equally innocent life in our own context. Holy Week seems the perfect time to ask whose innocent blood stains our own hands in this world in which we live?

Luke’s highlight of Jesus’ innocence is a double-edged sword. In one respect he asks us to check the blood on our own hands. And at the same time, he invites us to check the direction of our own feet.

Like Mark, Luke invites us to walk in Jesus’ shoes; to put ourselves in the shoes of our rejected, reviled, ready-to-accept the-cost-of-obedience-to-God rabbi who followed the commandment to love all ways, all the way to the cross. To be ready for the price that our discipleship may well exact. To be ready to be condemned and punished and even crucified without cause, as we say in the corporate vernacular.

It’s hard for people of privilege to get our arms around that. The notion that we might suffer without….wrong behavior. People on the margins are much more comfortable accepting that they might suffer without being at fault…..but then people on the margins have much more practice than do we.

Who among us here this morning could or would stand for even one minute before the Sanhedrin, with our lives at stake, and not demand that our innocence acquit us. Likewise, who among us could or would tolerate the injustices levied by our own systems of criminal so-called justice and immigration that are standard treatment for people of color and undocumented neighbors? But that is exactly what Luke calls us to do; exactly how Jesus calls us to follow. To love without any thought about the fairness with which we might be treated; without any retaliation whatsoever if and when our love puts us in harm’s way.

I wonder how long we would last with our own innocent lives on the line. And I wonder how many innocent lives are on our collective tab, just in the time we have been gathered here this morning? Even if the answer is only one, it is one too many. And we know this because the One whom we remember this morning confirms it for us with the gift of his life.

Father forgive them for they have no idea what they are doing.

That’s what Jesus said. That was then. But this is now. And now we do know what we are doing. We do know that we are complicit in the destruction of innocent lives. And we do know that someone apparently must be least and last in our temporal world.

And so we need to ask the question, why not us? Why must it always be someone else? Someone less innocent than we think ourselves to be.

And so as a community of faith, followers of Jesus, we are here to help each other keep that message front and center; to keep it real. To stand for and with each other; for and with all of our neighbors regardless of the cost, regardless of our own perception of our own innocence. Holy Week is a prime time to renew our commitment to God and to each other and to our own hearts.

Because in the end, as in the beginning, we are each and all God’s innocent beloved children. May this time between the bookends of Palm and Easter Sunday be our chance to begin again to act accordingly.

Welcome to Holy Week.

Amen.

© April 2019, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
Posted in Sermons | 1 Comment

Prodigal Love

March 31, 2019: Lent IV

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32[1]

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

The Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

How great is the story of the Prodigal Child?!  It’s one of those stories that we all know from our childhood, and, from the center of our humanity. It’s a story that is familiar both in our life’s literature and in our life’s experience. It is a story about faith and forgiveness, about repentance and hope; and it is, as are all of Luke’s best stories, about loving each other from our toe bottoms. Loving each other the way God love us. ….no matter who we think we are or what we may have done. Where we have left home and frittered away the family inheritance or sacrificed our own dreams to stoke and tend the family hearth. Either way, we are loved, and meant to love, beyond measure.

Actually, we might more accurately call this parable the Prodigal Family than the Prodigal Son. In Latin, the word prodigal means: wasteful. And that description does indeed fit the behavior of the younger son with respect to his inheritance. He is said to be as wasteful as a drunken sailor. But prodigal also describes the love of the father when his wasteful son returns. Lavishing him with love and acceptance as though there were no tomorrow, as though there were no yesterday. As though the only thing that mattered was the moment before them. And so nothing needed to be held back. Nothing saved for another day. Nothing spared for retribution. This is a story about the sort of wastefulness that comes when love is the only issue; the sort of wastefulness that can change the world.

This parable is exclusive to Luke’s Gospel. It doesn’t appear anywhere else. The upside of its exclusivity in Luke is that it is not worn out in our lectionary. The down side is that we only get a crack at it every three years.

This longest parable in our Gospels is always in the season of Lent. …at least it has been since the introduction of the RCL in 1992. Always, we hear this story in the context of our walk with Jesus through the wilderness. …the season when we are reflecting on ourselves and our own walk with God. And so we are set up to hear this parable as a commentary on ourselves, and not just on the world at large. Unlike many of the parables in Matthew’s Gospel, this parable is not about how we must overturn the systems of injustice in the world – there are other parables for that. This one is rather about how we are to behave with the ones that we already know, the ones who are already in our midst, and the ones that we already…..love.

This parable is not about the system, it is about the family. About how we reconcile our flaws and failings and feelings about each other. And about how we can welcome each other home. Unlike the lost sheep and the lost coin in the stories that immediately precede this one in Luke’s Gospel, the lost son is not sought….no one is looking for him. He is the agent of change in this story. He comes home of his own volition.

We are invited to try on all three of the main characters in this parable. One at a time. There is the child who has strayed and suffered and returned…not a wild success, but a destitute failure. Poor. Hungry. Humbled. Many commentaries call the return of the young son an act of repentance. But I doubt it. I think he was simply at the end of his rope and just had nowhere else to go. Then the parent who has lost a child and then found that child, who has suffered and forgiven and welcomed and sacrificed the fatted calf for the one, the beloved who has caused the suffering and feels unworthy of such a grace. And finally, the stay-at-home-follow-the-rules- sibling who is so blinded by rivalry and jealousy and fear of his own inadequacies, that he cannot see the forest of love for his own trees of competition and regret. And I might add a fourth character. The beckoning, judgmental unforgiving world that taunts us and calls us to disconnect. The wider world that says, I have something that will make you greater than you are. And all you have to do is leave home and find it. Yes, this is a story that has it all….all of our possibilities…..and all of our demons.

As with Luke’s other famous exclusive story of the Good Samaritan, I think that probably we all embody a part of each of the characters here. We all have at least a smidge of the wasteful son. We have all wasted something of our lives on frivolous impropriety at one time or another. And surely we all have a dose of the loving forgiving father who is delirious with gratitude at the return of the son whom he had taken to be lost forever. And I will bet that we also have a bit of the begrudging older sibling who receives the same inheritance as his philandering brother, although keeps his half in the family; the older obedient sibling who grumbles about the wasteful behavior of his younger disobedient rival; the older sibling who grouses about the unfairness with which his younger sibling is accorded comfort and kindness and prime-grade-A nourishment and forgiveness. The scripture says:

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. The slave replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then the older brother became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But the son answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given meeven a young goat so thatI might celebrate with myfriends.

You have never given me so much as a young goat to celebrate with my friends. Ouch. Can you feel it? I can. Because this is where this simple parable gets very complicated. I am guessing that we can all understand and process the first two parts of this story. We can all relate to and maybe even teach the lessons of returning when we have strayed and forgiving when we are able, but what do we do with this last part? The part about our own anger with the unfairness of it all. The part where we are incensed by the way some of us seem to get away with bloody murder, figuratively speaking, of course. The part where we feel our own worth challenged by the “worthiness” of those who who fail to measure up to …..us? The part where we measure our worth by ……well, anything other than our capacity to love as we have been loved.

Through this lens, this is the Parable of the Unfair Heir. Through this lens we are treated to a ring side seat of the pettiness and the rueful bitterness that I suspect most of us know all too well, the feeling that we and our accomplishments are somehow diminished when someone else is accorded what we feel is an undeserved or unearned….anything; an accolade, an award, acceptance, credit for something well done, a better job, a higher position, the presidency, you name it. We seem to be wired to want not only what we need in this world, but what we “deserve.” And not just what we deserve, but we want some sort of fairness quotient applied to what everyone around us deserves, as well.

We might relate to all three of the characters in this parable, but the righteous indignation of the older brother seems to me to be the Gospel pay dirt. Lest we miss the connection between the Pharisees and Scribes at the preamble of this parable who are grumbling that Jesus is treating tax collectors and sinners as though they were……as entitled to hospitality and respect as are the religious elite.

This parable starts: All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

 It is the grumbling of the religious elite that prompts this parable. It is that familiar grumbling that often comes almost automatically when we feel that there has been an injustice, and that we are not getting what we deserve. The Greek word for “grumbling” is  diagonguzo. And it recalls the connotation of the Israelites in the wilderness when they were hungry and thirsty, and took the injustice of their discomfort out on Moses and Aaron in the form of some seriously sensational grumbling (Exodus 15:24; 16:2, 17:3, Num. 14:2, Deut. 1:27).  It is the grumbling that we tend to do when we feel that we are not being well-served…..that we are not getting what we “deserve.”

For some ungodly reason we featherless bi-peds measure our own just desserts by the just desserts of our fellow featherless bi-peds. We tend to measure others by the standard of what we believe we have earned. And the grumbling that comes with our anger over what we perceive to be the unearned privilege of others is often coupled with our abject blindness to our own unearned privilege. That could just be at the heart of every systemic evil that plagues our common life. This notion that there are hierarchical levels of deserving may be at the heart of our panoply of social dis-eases: Racism. Poverty. War. The destruction of creation.  Our national immigration policy. This notion that some deserve more than others is……well, maybe this is the root of all evil; this delusion of our deserving.

This delusion of our privilege, which of course is no delusion at all. Privilege is quite real. But it hangs on the coattails of the notion that we deserve what we have. And so I think it is well worth asking the question: what exactly do we deserve?

Is what I deserve different from what you deserve? Is it grounded in justice or in my own human concept of fairness? Do we deserve only what we earn? What if what we earn is a function of what we inherit? Do we deserve what we inherit? And what if our earning power is derailed or impeded by no fault of our own? Does what we deserve change? Is that fair? And so calibrating what we deserve can be very complicated.

Can we quantify or even know much less articulate what we deserve?

Because that may well be the question that is at the very heart of this Holy Season of Lent; a season that begins with the imposition of ashes reminding us that we are dust and to dust we will return. And the litany of penitence in which we confess that we are deserving of ……absolutely nothing. In fact, we have quite a negative balance on our tab that we acknowledge needs to be forgiven before we even think about deserving anything.

I think the truth about what we deserve is buried in the semantics of the word itself: de-serve. When we think we deserve something, we are actually de-serving it. That is, we are not serving it. When we think we deserve more credit for our work, or more appreciation for our effort, or a goat for our obedience we are de-serving what we seek….we are diminishing it. When we grumble that we are not being properly served, we are actively de-serving everything that we value…..or say that we value…..as Christians.

Because de-serving is the opposite of what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to serve, not to be served, not to de-serve. In fact, if we believe Jesus, we don’t deserve a thing. Everything of value that we have and that we are is freely given to us by God, none of it is in any way deserved. And the fastest way to stray from our faithfulness in God’s goodness is to shift our attention from whom we are serving to what we are deserving. And the most reliable way back to God is to shift our attention from what we think we deserve to the what we can do to serve others.

And so here we have our parable that juxtaposes the seemingly undeserving son who returns home and the self-professed deserving son who grumbles upon that return. And in between, in the connection, the serving father – wasteful beyond measure with his love for his two sons; neither of whom have earned their inheritance or their privilege. But both of whom are equally loved and served without judgment or regret by the one who welcomes them with open arms.

And that is both the Good News and the exhortation in this morning’s reading. That we are to turn our attention from what we think we deserve ourselves to how we know we can serve the other. And sometimes, sadly, we who think we are first will be called to serve by moving to the back of the line.

So my friends, let us go forth into the world serving each other with prodigal love…that is, wastefully loving each other until the cows come home!

Amen.

© March 2019 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

 

[1]All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

 So Jesus told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”      – NRSV

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Gentle Revolution

Luke 9:28-36; the Transfiguration

March 3, 2019

The Rev’d Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”– not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Finally it is the last Sunday in the season after the Epiphany. We have not had seven Sundays after Epiphany since 2001. It’s been an unusually looooong season.

The season after Epiphany is appointed to introduce us to the person and power of Jesus, who will, after Easter become the Christ. It’s the season that begins with Jesus’ Baptism and ends with his Transfiguration. And today, we see for ourselves that Jesus, whose face is transfigured in the presence of prophets who have been dead and gone for generations, is divine.

On Wednesday, which will be Ash Wednesday, we will begin the season of Lent with the all too human Jesus. The vulnerable Jesus. The rejected Jesus. The Jesus on his knees on the Mount of Olives. The broken body of Jesus, bleeding and weeping on the cross. The Jesus who is our brother, who shares our flesh, who lives our human suffering. The fully human Jesus.

But this morning we are on the mountain with this Jesus who is about to be transfigured right before our eyes. And as special effects go, this is pretty spectacular, and a scene that is displayed in all three of the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. The versions of this story that appear in Matthew and Mark are almost identical. But there are a few details, key details, that set this story apart in this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke. The author of Luke writes:

And they went up on the mountain to pray.  And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed…. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem…

The first distinction in Luke is, quite significantly, that Luke treats the transfiguration not as an experience of supernatural power, but as an experience of prayer. Luke puts us in a very different frame of mind. Jesus and three of his disciples go up on the mountain to pray and while they are praying the transfiguration transpires. They do not ascend the mountain for the purpose of transfiguration. They go in search of prayer.

More than in any other Gospel, Jesus prays. And that is one reason why our Lenten theme this year will be Pathways to Prayer. If we are going to be walking through Lent with Luke, we will need to prepare to spend some time on our knees. Over and over and over again Luke emphasizes the power of prayer to mediate the presence of God. Luke wants us to know that divine things happen when prayer is involved.

And so after Jesus prays with Peter, John, and James, he is “transfigured” right before their very eyes. His robe changes to a dazzling white. But this is not just a fashion statement. For Jesus’ whole being glows with dazzling divine presence. The author of Luke says that indeed his face changed. And this is the second significant difference in Luke’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration.When Matthew and Mark describe the change in Jesus, they use the Greek verb metamorpheo that literally means that Jesus completely changes form. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus undergoes a metamorphoses, he is literally trans-figured. He becomes something that he was not before. He takes on a whole new identity.

But Luke says that only the appearanceof Jesus’ face changed. That is to say, he does not morph into something altogether new. He does not become something that he is not already. Luke does not use the verb metamorpheo. In Luke, this dazzling change is rather the illumination of what is already there. The divinity that has always been there in Jesus, suddenly begins to shine through.

This is a significant departure from Matthew and Mark. In Luke, the change is embodied in the way Jesus is perceived, not in the substance of who Jesus is. He was not suddenly divine, he is just suddenly perceptibly divine. It seems more about how the disciple see him than who he is.

And so although this passage is called the transfiguration in all three Gospels, I think that Luke’s story would be better referred to as the transcendence. Or maybe, in Luke, Jesus is just plain trans. In Luke, Jesus transcends the boundaries of this earthly existence and becomes more of his true self. For the first time, his appearance matches his inner self, his inner divinity. For the first time, Jesus looks to be both fully human and fully divine, a non-conforming identity if ever there were one!

And so Luke tells us that as Jesus prays he is brilliantly and dazzlingly transfigured. Both Moses and Elijah appear with him. The gang is all here. Moses, the keeper of the law; Elijah, the prophet of the Source; and Jesus, the New Creation. A continuity of God’s chosen old and new that is unmistakable. Here they are.

And here is where Luke’s version of this story is again a bit different from Matthew and Mark. Right here, the author of Luke clearly makes a connection between Jesus’ mission on this earth and the story of the Exodus in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is here not just as God’s Son on earth, but specifically to deliver us from the suffering of this world. Luke writes: They appeared in glory and were speaking of Jesus’ departureto Jerusalem….the Greek word used for departure here is literally exodos. Moses, who was chosen by God to lead the first exodos out of the persecution and suffering in Egypt, appears here with Jesus who is God’s chosen one to lead the second and final exodos out of the suffering of this earthly world. As God says to Jesus in this passage, “This is my Son, my chosen”…as opposed to Matthew and Mark, where God calls Jesus the “beloved. Jesus is specifically chosen for this mission.

It’s an important divergence. Because for me, Luke elevates this story from a mere revelation, as it is in Matthew and Mark, to a call coined by Australian poet Michael Leunig, a gentle revolution[1]– a focus on Jesus’ particular mission, which is the liberation of those who are marginalized and enslaved, as were the Israelites in Egypt. In Luke, this story of the transfiguration is not just a story of revelation; not just revealing of Jesus’ divinity. In Luke, the transfiguration grounds Jesus’ identity and mission in the story of God’s liberation.

And isn’t this exactly the story that we need right here and now in this world! A story that is grounded in prayer, accomplished by shining our true selves through the darkness, and that promises ultimate liberation from the struggle and suffering and persecution that is life on this earth, especially for those who live on the margins of power. It’s the story we long to hear, the story we need to hear, the perfect story for our time, until……….Peter opens his fully human mouth and says to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah“—

What is Peter thinking?! Maybe he’s thinking exactly what we might be thinking were we in his shoes. At least that is what many of the most popular commentaries suggest. The prevailing opinion on this passage says that Peter misses the point of everything by trying to capture and contain what is clearly divine and uncontainable.

But I am not convinced of Peter’s apparent…..denseness. What if Peter’s suggestion of building houses for the divine visitors was not a ploy to secure them, but rather an offering of hospitality? What is more hospitable than providing housing for those who have nowhere to go? A sanctuary movement, one might call it. Providing a place where those who have no place to go might regroup before they move on to the next destination. Maybe this offering of Habitat for Divinity has been misunderstood. Maybe it is an offer of sanctuary;  a way to offer these divine travelers some sense of belonging. More along the lines of the hospitality of Abraham rather than the selfishness of Jacob.

You know I rarely mull a piece of scripture without finding some new insight from my horses. And each year as the transfiguration comes up and Peter proposes his building project to house Moses and Elijah, I cannot help but think about my year living at the stable owned by my friend Carter Heyward on a See-Off Mountain in Brevard, North Carolina. I was just there this week and we talked about this again.

It was 2004. I had three horses and Carter had five. It was the start, I think, of this wild weather that has become part of our landscape. And with every storm – and there were several whoppers that year! – Carter and I would angst over what to do with the horses. Should we put them in their stalls? They would be sheltered from the lightning and the rain and the wind, BUT they might be trapped, like if a tree fell on the roof, or lightening hit a gutter and caused an electrical fire. Maybe we should just leave them out in the field. We equivocated every time – knowing full well what we should do.

Horses have been surviving violent storms for eons. They are designed with a full compliment of instincts and facilities to provide for themselves on the open range. They have been surviving nature’s wrath for thousands of years, and without any help from me or Carter. And so while we knew that their best bet was to be free out in the field, to have the freedom to navigate around falling objects and windblown….whatever. It always seemed an excruciatingly difficult decision. Lock ‘em up? Or let ‘em go?

The decision was so tough partially because human beings would always rather have shelter than freedom. But our real fear about leaving the horses in the fields was that if a tree fell and damaged a fence, they might get away. If the fence was breached, we might lose them.

And so the real decision was between keeping them close by putting them in stalls or keeping them safe by allowing them to use their God-given instincts out in the open field. And when I put it that way out loud, it seems like there should not have been any question at all. And yet there always was. In the end we almost always left them out, but it was always an excruciating decision made with great fear and fretting.

And so when, in this morning’s reading from Luke, Peter suggests putting Moses and Elijah in a couple of stalls…. I must admit, know how he feels. What if they get away?

I know how seductive the prospect that we are the providers, the protectors, the ones who are here to take care of those in our charge. I know how easy it is to forget that horses are designed to be free. They are not designed to be mine, no matter how much hospitality I am willing to offer. And the offer of that freedom is among the pillars of Luke’s story of the transfiguration.

Luke sets us up well to walk into the wilderness of Lent. He says:

  • It all starts with prayer. Divine things happen when prayer is involved.
  • We are already everything we need to be. We do not need to change into something better, we only need to reveal the image that is already etched on our hearts, and shine that brilliant light through every pore of our being.
  • Our journey with and toward God is about liberation, not security.

One could say that in this morning’s reading, Luke is calling us to what my favorite Australia poet/prayer master calls the art of the gentle revolution.  A revolution that changes the way we are in this world. That beckons us to trade our performance anxiety for prayer, and to stop longing to be seen as something we are not for the light of God that already shines in us, and to put our faith and trust in the agency of the other rather than our own desire for their security.

Michael Leunig prays:

God help us to change. To change ourselves. To change the world. To know the need for it. To deal with the pain of it. To feel the joy of it. To undertake the journey without understanding the destination. [God help us embrace] the art of gentle revolution.

Onward into Lent!

And for the last time until Easter…..Alleluia!

Amen.

 

© March, 2019, The Reverend Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

[1]Michael Leunig’s term.

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Here I Am, Send Me!

February 10, 2019

Luke 5:1-11

The Rev’d Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:”Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”      Isaiah 6:1-8, NRSV

 

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.                                 Luke 5:1-11, NRSV

                                                                                                                                                                              

 Good morning!

 

If you are discerning a call, this week’s readings are for you! And in a year when we are actively discerning our calling as a community, this morning’s scripture feels almost divinely delivered. We get a double dose in both of our readings from the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible, and from the Gospel according to Luke. Both are narratives of prophets and apostles answering God’s divine call.

The former is the account of God’s call to the prophet Isaiah. A sort of atypical call, because in contrast to the calls to Moses and Jeremiah (both of whom immediately question the wisdom of God’s choice of them as prophets and mightily protest) Isaiah just volunteers himself for the position that God is looking to fill. God states the mission and asks “whom shall I send?” And up pops Isaiah’s hand; Isaiah is sort of the Arnold Horshack of prophets (you remember Welcome Back Kotter?) and so he says: “Here I am!” ….Oh, Oh pick me! And God does. Unlike most of the prophetic call narratives in our scripture, there is no coaxing or cajoling or convincing needed for Isaiah. He is in from the get-go!

Likewise this morning’s Gospel reading is Luke’s version of Jesus’s call to his disciples is a different version from the call narrative recounted in the other two synoptic Gospels. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus is walking by the Sea of Gallilee, he sees a few guys fishing, he says, “follow me and I will make you fishers of people,” and they drop everything, immediately, and do as he says. Without question or qualm they leave their boats and their nets and their wives and their lives and follow Jesus as instructed to….God knows where.

Luke however, tells it a bit differently. Luke combines the call of the disciples with a preview of the miraculous work that is in store for them. In Luke, Jesus does not call them to follow blindly. First, he performs a miracle by exponentially increasing the fishermans’ catch, beforehe suggests that they drop their previously empty nets to follow him.

This is sort of the sister story to the post-resurrection story in John’s Gospel when the disciples encounter Jesus on the beach and catch more than they can possibly carry.

In Luke’s version, the disciples witness Jesus’ power and glory before they make their commitment to drop everything and enlist. I say enlist rather than follow to emphasize Luke’s omission of Jesus’ command. The command to follow him. Because unlike Mark and Matthew, in Luke Jesus never verbally calls the disciples to follow. In Luke, following Jesus is just what they do. They hear the explicit call from a different place….like from the Holy Spirit that is written on their hearts.

Maybe because they are already familiar with the power and promise of this miracle-maker. Jesus has already healed Peter’s mother-in-law. It is curious that Peter is so astonished at the size of the catch that Jesus delivers. But he has already seen the power of this rabbi in action.

And so without prompting, the disciples drop their nets on the spot and go with Jesus  leaving the enormous catch of fish, maybe the largest of their lives, on the beach. It would be tantamount to walking away from a winning lottery ticket. That is how strong was their internal call to follow.

Luke’s story feels much more authentic to me than the similar versions in Mark and Matthew. The versions where Jesus says out loud, follow me. Maybe because I have spent eons of my own life waiting to hear God speak in such a clear voice. Waiting for God to tell me what to do. Where to go. And when. And I myself have never heard the words with my ears. But I have felt them in my gut. Clearly. Emphatically. Indubitably.

I suspect that these fishermen who become the disciples of our Jesus, followed their gut, thusly. This is how it is done, says Luke in this passage. You take all of the information you have. All of the miracles you have witnessed. You trust your intuition about the leadership that you are folloing. And you listen to your gut. When it says follow this one, you have the courage to say yes. Even if you have to leave the largest catch of your life on the beach. Even if you have to leave the boat that you have spent your life building and repairing and relying upon. Even if you have no idea where the path might lead from here.

Frederick Beuchner says that we know when we have met our true calling when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.[1]– That is, when the work that we most need to do fits with what the world most needs to have done.

This is the best definition of call I have ever come across. Because in this definition, our own desire is only half of the equasion. The other half is God’s need. This morning’s reading from Isaiah is a perfect example. Because the key to Isaiah’s eagerness to go, I think, is that God needs someone to go. Isaiah does not apply for the job before it is needed. He does not say “Here I am, what can I do that feeds my bliss?” He offers himself up only after God asks: “whom shall I send?”

There is no discerning a call in a vacuum. Any inward assessment of what we want to do or are meant to do or are needed to do must be matched with an assessment of what is wanted and needed in the world around us. Its not enough to want to fish for cod because we’re good at it and we already have our own boat. Because maybe the world needs us to fish for people and we will have to leave the boat on the beach. Both sides of the equasion must be honored.

For Christians, the point of following any calling, the point of discipleship, is to join the transforming mission of God. And that means that we must be opento the transforming mission of God. As were the first disciples. I am guessing that following an itinerant rabbi had never entered their minds as a viable vocational option. Or at all. But when the door that had never been on their radar, never, opened, they were willing to walk through. They were the blueprint for the way of faithfully following a true calling.

The disciples are our role models. Discipleship is our Christian goal. But I hardly ever feel like I am measuring up to those fishermen. And yet I don’t think that they followed because they were any better than the rest of us. They were not the crème de la crème of the faithful crop. They were not even Christians. They were fishermen. They did not follow because they were particularly good, or faithful or righteous….there is no mention of any of these things in this passage, or anywhere in the Bible, with regard to them,  for that matter.

I don’t think this is a story about how human beings can turn our lives to God if we only have the strength and the courage to blindly follow the call like Peter and John and James. The good news is that this story of discipleship is not a story about the power and capability of human beings at all…..it is a story about the power and capacity of God….a story about the way God works in us and in the world.

For these fishermen had no reason to drop their lives and follow Jesus….no reason except the spirit of God that swept in and created an unquestionable faith where none had existed…..This is a story about the power of God’s grace, and God’s timing. About the way God creates disciples of Christ from fishers of cod in the blink of an eye. Immediatley. But in God’s time. And without a word. With only a feeling in one’s gut that the Spirit is ready.

This passage is not a yardstick for our own faithfulness. It is an epiphany of hope….a reminder that God not only works in mysterious ways, but in powerful life changing ways as well. Albeit when God is readyt.  A reminder that God’s call is always accompanied by God’s grace. The grace that has compelled countless apostles through the ages to abandon their personal catch of the day for nothing less than the struggle for wholesale peace and justice for all human beings. Some of them are among us now. Here in this sanctuary. The kind of grace to which our hearts must stay open if we are to be ready to respond to God’s call, immediately; if we are to take our personal places in God’s divine love story.

Most of you know that I traveled to the holy land this summer on a JCRC clergy study tour. Every year the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston takes about a dozen Christian clergy to the holy land to better educate us about the exigencies of that religiously-charged segment of our wider world. It was a fabulous trip. Among many other amazing experience, a full week of walking in the footsteps of Jesus. From Nazareth to Jerusalem.

On our Jesus tour, we started at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.  And from there to the Jordan river where Jesus was baptized and tourists can today baptize each other in the same muddy water. Then we stayed in a kibbutz on the Sea of Galillee called Nof Ginnosaur in Tberias. And before we left there for Tagbha to see the church of the loaves and fishes and then on to Capernum where there is the house of Peter’s mother-in-law, and then the mount of the beatitudes, we walked along the shore of the Sea of Galillee to a small museum simply called “The Boat Museum.” We almost skipped it. The day ahead was filled to the brim with Christian holy sites and time was tight.

But for my two cents, the Boat Museum was among the most powerful moments of our trip. The whole museum wasn’t much bigger than this church. A café, a gift shop and the exhibit space which would have fit in this chancel.

And the exhibit was simply the shell of the 1stcentury boat that was raised from the bottom of the lake in 1986, and is now supported in a stark metal frame in the middle of the room. The boat was discovered when drought caused the Sea of Galillee to recede enough for the hull to stick out of the water. The small vessel is 27 feet long, 7 and a half feet wide, and has the remnants of four oars. In the sparse carefully climate-controlled space there is also video showing the painstaking process by which the boat was raised and radiocarbon dated. It took several years.

On another wall, there is a wall chart identifying the 10 different types of wood that were used in making and repairing the boat including cedar , sycamore, hawthorn, carob, laurel, willow, Aleppo pine, Judas tree, and couple more. Clearly this boat was well-used and repaired repeatedly. These fishermen took good care of their vessel.

And finally, there was a large hanging display with this morning’s reading from Luke in English and in Hebrew.

We were there first thing in the morning and so our small group of about 15 clergy were the only ones crowded into the small dark space around the cadaver of the ancient vessel. We stood there in utter silence – for this first time in the four days that we had traveled together no one uttered a word. Silence. But we could all feel it. The connection. The emotional connection. Not with Jesus. With the disciples. And maybe even just with the story of the disciples. We could feel ourselves in their shoes. In this rickety little boat. Listing under the weight of a catch that was far bigger than they could handle. On seas that might have been too rambunctious to safely navigate. This was the boat that had provided their livelihood and then been abandoned for their calling.

There is no evidence that this is THE boat, other than the dating and the location of its discovery.  But the tears on our cheeks were evidence enough of its authenticity. And I can only speak for myself, but I imagine that every one of us that morning felt called in a new way. Every one of us could hear the still small voice of God say, in the depth of our bowels: follow me. And it is going to cost you.

I think the reason this experience was so powerful was that we were sharing the call stories of the disciples whom we hope to follow. Sharing our stories is a huge part of the process of healthy discernment, I think. And when that sharing is accompanied by a deep listening for the intersection of our hunger and worlds need, and very intentionally listening to what the Spirit is telling our gut, I have utter faith that we will each and all end up exactly where we need to be. Albeit, only when God is ready for us to be there.

And so as we discern whatever call we are discerning, let us remind ourselves that we must walk without fret or fear forGod’s call is always accompanied by God’s grace.

Amen.

 

© February 2019, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

[1]Freerick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Harper & Row Publishers, 1973. Pp. 95.

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

The Gifts We Bring

February 9, 2019

Terumah

The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, West Newton , MA

 

Exodus 25.1-19

25The Lord said to Moses: 2Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. 3This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, 4blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats’ hair, 5tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood, 6oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing-oil and for the fragrant incense,7onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece.8And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.9In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.

10 They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. 11You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a moulding of gold upon it all round. 12You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on one side of it, and two rings on the other side. 13You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 14And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, by which to carry the ark. 15The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. 16You shall put into the ark the covenant that I shall give you. 17 Then you shall make a mercy-seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. 18You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy-seat. 19Make one cherub at one end, and one cherub at the other; of one piece with the mercy-seat you shall make the cherubim at its two ends.

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved…..8And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.

 

Good morning! I am so honored and delighted to be with you this morning. Thank you for the invitation. I have such respect for your dear rabbi and the work of your beloved community. I see so many friends here this morning. None of whom I had laid eyes on two years ago today. But all of whom I now consider friends who have taught me, and guided me, and supported me, and inspired me and welcomed me here this morning. I am verklempt beyond words to have been asked to speak with you here and now.

And I am further delighted to be talking with you in the context of today’s reading from Exodus – the Terumah. The gifts that are offered for the creation of a sanctuary where God dwells among us. A text that speaks explicitly about the tangible intersection between your community of faith and mine: about the offering of our mutual gifts in service to a radical contemporary sanctuary where God surely and palpably dwells in our midst.

Tell the people to bring Me gifts; ….from every person whose heart is so moved…..8And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.

It’s that last bit that makes this exhortation a holy endeavor and not just another project. The part about God’s desire to dwell not in the structure of sanctuary, but in the ones who are building it. Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.  As Toba said earlier. God does not intend to dwell in the sanctuary, but in the gathered community that is there.And so this text seems tailor made for our mutual work together as the Newton Sanctuary and Solidarity Collaborative.

I have to say that this reflection in the context of Exodus 25 required quite a bit of foundational preparation for me. Because this chapter of Exodus is never read in the common lectionary that designates the scriptural readings for most mainline Christian churches. Chapter 25 in The Book of Exodus never surfaces in any mainline church on any Sunday morning or feast day. Never. We hear from the Hebrew Scriptures every week. But never from this particular section.

I suspect it is for the same reason that we rarely hear from the books of Leviticus or Deuteronomy.Because they are full of particularities. Specifications. Instructions that detail exactly howlife is to be orchestrated. Rules for living. Laws for purity. Directions for….almost every facet of life. The howof living as a people of God.

And it’s not that Christians can’t follow a….recipe (although that is possible). But Christians have a different set of criteria for living intentionally in the presence of God. And I think I understand that divergence with a new clarity since I attended services for Yom Kippur last September, a first-time experience for me. And one that was long overdue.

Such invitations have been a treasure trove of unexpected gifts from our sanctuary work together. The opportunity to experience, to participate in, some of the touchstones of your faith tradition, like being here this morning.

And participating in Yom Kippur is at the top of my list of thanksgivings for our shared ministry.  As you well know, it is the holiest day of your year. But it could not be further in character from the holiest day in the Christian year, the Feast of the Resurrection, a.k.a. Easter. For Christians, Easter is a day of everlasting joy. It is the day when we revel in God’s promise of everlasting life to us. It is a promise that we take on faith. The promise that death has been defeated by God. On our holiest day of the year: Joyful is the descriptor. Invincible is the hashtag. Faith is the currency.

But the holiest day for you is a day of remembering sin and brokenness and of asking for forgiveness that you might do better next year. A day when the faithful bow before God and confess that we have not lived up to God’s intention or creativity or expectation. On the holiest day of the Jewish year: Prayer is the descriptor. Remembering is the hashtag. Repentance is the currency.

The holiest day of the Christian year hangs on our belief in God’s promise, and answers the question: What has God done for me?  The holiest day of the Jewish year hangs on repentance, and answers the question:  What can I do for God?  The holiest day in the Jewish calendar is not grounded in God’s promise to us, but in our promise to God.

That is not say that Christians do not have a day dedicated to repentance and forgiveness. We do. But it is not our holiest day. It is Ash Wednesday, the mid-week-holy-day that begins of the season of Lent and leads straight on to the real Holy Week.

And it is not to say that Christians do not value good works. We do. But we come at those works from a different angle. And this understanding of these fundamental differences in the character of our holiest observances has helped to explain for me how our sanctuary collaborative got off the ground.

The NSSC was not founded by its host, the Parish of St. Paul. It was founded by the preponderance of gifts that were offered by you, and by other Jewish partners, before we had even begun to entertain the possibility of offering our own gifts, our own sacred space. The first gifts that built God’s sanctuary among us came from the incredible broad and deep support of the several Jewish communities that provided both the commitment and the en-couragment (in the truest sense of that word, as in to put heart into each other, en-couragement). You en-couraged St. Paul’s to say yes;  to set aside our sacred space for God’s sanctuary.

The initial conversations were between a few of us from St. Paul’s and a parish-hall filled with soon-to-be level II partners. After months of those conversations with your community and Temple Sinai and Temple Beth Zion and the Newton Centre Minyan and Hebrew College and the Boston Workman’s Circle our lone Christian church, our Episcopal Parish of St. Paul felt enough sacred support to offer up our gift of sacred space.

On June 4th2017 we resolved to serve as a physical sanctuary for at least the next two years.  And it was not because immigration had been a focus of our ministry or mission, because it had not. Our congregation was primarily focused on Creation Care, and LGBTQ dignity, and feeding the hungry – we were among the founders of the Centre Street Food Pantry. But after the 2016 election, we had a congregation full of distressed folks who no longer felt like we belonged in this country. Like our undocumented neighbors, we too, felt like aliens in a strange land. And we craved something concrete to do.

Our various outreach programs were just not enough. And unlike you, we had no dedicated tikkun olam initiative that was already at work mending the wider world. But what we did have to offer was a great big bundle of sacred space. And for those undocumented children of God seeking sanctuary, only sacred space would do.

Ours was largely unused for most of the week. And it was zoned with a newly renovated heating system that, for the first time in our history, allowed a modular use of our building. Is that God at work in the background or what!? Our space was: Empty. Sacred. And zoned for climate control. The perfect sanctuary.

And so after months of prayerful discernment, our parish offered up its space to be a new sort of dwelling place for God…..a sanctuary that has ultimately been less about the refuge provided by the physical space and more about the mutuality of the work that is happening there.

After over a year now of live sanctuary, as our collaborative becomes even more amazingly adept at navigating our challenges, our parish is realizing that we may have had some misunderstanding regarding the fullness of the concept of sanctuary. As many of you know, our community voted almost unanimously to offer our space to this endeavor. That is an amazing fact. But it counted only votes, not hearts.

Because we now see that part of our initial unity around sanctuary seems to have resulted from some different expectations of what “sanctuary” meant. That is to say we did not all have the same understanding of what we were talking about. Despite our attempts to plumb the many meanings of the term before we levied a final vote, sanctuary was clearly heard differently by different folks.

It reminds me of a story.

Kevin had shingles.

He walked into the doctor’s office and told the receptionist that he had ‘Shingles.’

So she wrote down his name, address, medical insurance number and told him to have a seat.

Fifteen minutes later a nurse’s aide came out and asked Kevin what he had…

Kevin said, ‘Shingles.’

So she wrote down his height, weight, a complete medical history and told Kevin to wait in the examining room.

A half hour later a nurse came in and asked Kevin what he had.

Kevin said, ‘Shingles..’

 So the nurse gave Kevin a blood test, a blood pressure test, an electrocardiogram, and told Kevin to take off all his clothes and wait for the doctor.

An hour later the doctor came in and found Kevin sitting patiently in the nude and asked Kevin what he had.

Kevin said, ‘Shingles.’

 The doctor looked him up and down and asked, ‘Where are they?’

Kevin said, ‘Outside on the truck. Where do you want me to unload ’em??’

Sanctuary.  We now seem to be a community that is populated by some who have worked their way through the protocols and await the next step of the process, and others who just want to unload the truck and move on.

For some it was just going to be the use of our space by what they perceived would be an outside collaborative for a finite period of time – 2 years is the length of our community resolution. But for others, for me, and for what I think is the majority of our community sanctuary was going to transform our way of being church.

And it has indeed been a seismic shift. We have moved from a small village church grounded in programming and dedicated to the expansion of our own ranks (like the church that I grew up in) to an expanding intentional community that includes an interfaith dimension and is dedicated to changing the way we are in the world. Sanctuary as just another program versus sanctuary as an existential transformation of identity and purpose. We still have some discerning to do!

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved…..8And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.

Even for those of us who expected sanctuary to be transformative, our understanding of its paradigm and purpose has evolved with time and with the work. I can only speak for myself, but in the beginning, I expected that our small endeavor was part of the larger movement to change the inequity and injustice of the national immigration system. The work and its publicity that we expected to be forth coming would raise awareness and propel us to take a stand in a way that would help to change not just hearts and minds, but laws and institutions. We were to be a small flame igniting a bigger fire.

But I have come to understand this work to be so much holier than that. We are changing so much more than laws and protocols. We are changing the way the world works and the way we work together in the world. And so we are so much more than advocates or a social justice initiative. We are in fact a thriving change agent for nothing less than the respect of human dignity.

I will just speak for myself. The sort of work that we do as a sanctuary is the antithesis of the work that we are wired to do, especially as people of privilege and relative power. We are used to having far more information about where our gifts of time and energy are going than we have with sanctuary. We are far more comfortable when we know the lay of the land and that we can control the variables and at least attempt to fix what we view as…not-best-practices. And yet every minute of every day for the last 13 months, two unsung companions have been present in our church to keep watch and to keep company with a family that many of them have never even laid eyes on, and never will. A family about whom they have very little information, and will never have more. Understanding that the privacy and agency of this unknown family who might be choosing things that we might not choose is more important than anything else. And we will abide.

Speaking just for myself, this work itself is true sanctuary. For those of us who have never had the opportunity to relinquish our privilege quite so powerfully this work is excruciatingly life-giving.

As you might expect, folks are forever asking why we are devoting so many resources, so much time, such energy and such precious bandwidth to the care and companionship of one small family. Over 500 volunteers have served companion shifts over the last year. We have raised over $30,000 to support the family and education of the kids. And we have accepted countless gifts of all shapes and sizes in the building of this small dwelling place for our undocumented family unit. All of that for just one family?

And I remember the moment when my answer to that question was formed in my own heart. The ethical answer is that we would not ask that question if it were our own family. But the theological answer is a bit more fundamental.

It was 2007. And I had just accepted the job as the Executive Director of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry (RCFM).  It was at a critical time in the same-sex-marriage movement here in Massachusetts. The legislature was deciding whether to put that civil right to a public vote. I had been approached about the job at RCFM before, and had dismissed it on several occasions for a whole host of reasons. I had the corporate experience necessary to run such an organization, but I was not a “gay rights” activist. Despite my membership in the flock – even as a kid I was more interested in badminton than boys, and believe me, I was not that interested in badminton – I had never been all that committed to the gay community as a political entity, and had never lent my time or talent to that particular agenda. I had always been more concerned with the “bigger” fish of systemic evil like world poverty and the health of the planet and a spectrum of more, as I saw them, weighty and universal injustices. But, for some reason, in May of 2007, the President of the Board who was and is a dear friend and mentor asked me with a more…..determined, shall we say, demeanor than ever before. And so I caved in and I took the job.

That week, my mother (who lived in Peoria, Illinois) called to congratulate me  – or maybe I called her to congratulate me…. whatever, but she said, “Darlin’, good for you. That’s just great. (looooong pause) Gay people should have the same rights as straight people. But tell me again why you want to spend your time on this…I mean, it’s important, but what about all the bigger problems facing the world? What about the war? What about global warming? What about world hunger? Aren’t there bigger problems to spend your life fixing?”

I was not ready to defend my decision. I was only ready to accept congratulations. I had not done any piece of the heavy theological lifting, at least consciously. But I heard myself respond without hesitation. The answer, seemingly etched on my very heart, flowed from my lips, as my granddaddy would have said, as swiftly as goose poop flows through a tin horn:

“No!” I almost shouted. “There is not one thing that is more important. There is not one problem that is bigger than this one. There is not one priority that is more necessary than supporting and ensuring the dignity of all of God’s creation. The fight to protect equal marriage is not about raising the gay community to the status quo, it’s about broadening the horizons of our collective imagination. [Which I think is what we are doing with sanctuary] We are forging new frontiers of hope and expectation for the whole of humanity! [Again, just what we are doing with sanctuary] We are doing nothing less than revisioning the world! This is about the way we value and relate to each other as human beings.”

I remember stopping to take a breath. And there was another looooooong pause. And my mother said: “Oh. So how are the dogs?”

I feel the same passion about our intensive care and constant companioning of one small family in the face of the much larger and more wide-ranging behemoth that is our national immigration system. Separating children from parents at the border. Detaining and deporting human beings in inhumane ways. Denying services and opportunities and basic human rights on mass based on country of origin. These are horrific travesties that indeed need to be addressed and changed, and now.

But the work that we are doing together in our small sanctuary is bigger than all of that. It is about the way God dwells among us, and the way we dwell with God. It is about changing the paradigm of life together in a world that is uneven and unforgiving for those who ride on the margins, and more than enough good fortune for we who do not. And it is about our willingness to do that work without any fanfare; under the radar. When no one is watching. No one, but God.

In her book The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg quotes Rashi on the first verses in Exodus 25: “Let them make Me a housefor holiness – that is, not a sacred object, but a space in which holiness is potential”[1]She continues, “The definition of sanctuary, therefore, is the space at its center.”

Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.

Despite the fabulous work that our communities are doing together, and I could not be more grateful for all that you have contributed, the real abundance of dignity and grace in our collaborative resides in our family. The sanctuary that is being built rests on the foundation of their offering, not ours. By trusting us to be a sanctuary for them, they have invited us to the height of spiritual integrity by requiring that we put our most valuable resource on the line for the other; our privilege. And for my parish, that includes our sense of ownership of our church. Our notion that we are the magnanimous ones for offering our property, and that we are entitled to make that decision.

Our welcome of this family has required that we reflect on our deepest values. Do we really believe that we are accountable for our welcome of the stranger? We say we do. But do we have the integrity to live into that claim? Because true welcome requires a release of ownership. And so although our privilege tells us that our space is ours to manage and determine, our faith tells us that we are only stewards of that space. Because if our space is as sacred as we claim, it belongs not to us, but to God. And if it belongs to God, then our family, who has made it a sanctuary, is equally to it entitled.

As I read the detailed protocols for material use and construction of the tabernacle in today’s reading – it immediately reminded me of the many moving parts of our sanctuary collaborative. Of the many gifts that have been so generously and freely offered so that God might dwell among us. But as we have grown together in the work that we share, it has become ever-more clear that the sanctuary that we are building is not what we are bringing or even what we are providing, but rather it is the work that we are sharing. In the very substance of the work itself is the dwelling place of God.

And the people said: amen.

 

© February, 2019, The Reverend Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

 

[1]Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus(New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001) 331.

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

May the Words of Our Mouths…..

Psalm 19

January 27, 2019 – Annual Meeting Address from the Rector

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen

I always begin my sermon with this last stanza of psalm 19. Every time.  It frames my fundamental hope for every homily. It says that the message to be offered from both my lips and my heart is offered on behalf of God; God’s wordis the word that matters. At least that is my intention.  And so regardless of the topic, this short prayer is the foundation upon which I build every sermon.

But the whole Psalm 19 is appointed in our lectionary a couple of time each year – when we get to hear its pithy little last stanza in its context. And for me, that context amplifies and expands its power exponentially.

C S Lewis called Psalm 19, “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”  It is short. It covers roughly all of the bases generally addressed in the five books of the Pentateuch. And it is jam-packed with theology.

It is divided into two almost distinct parts. The first 6 verses address Creation. The glory of God in the created world. In this section, the word for the divine in the Hebrew is el, as in Elohim. God the Author of Creation.

But in the second half, beginning in verse 7, the word for the divine in the Hebrew changes to YHWH, God the Author of the Law. The NRSV translates the Hebrew as LORD. Either way, the subject changes from God’s Creation to God’s Law, from God’s Desire to God’s Wisdom.

This short 14 verse psalm is a microcosm of the five central books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the torah. This psalm begins with God’s creation, just like Genesis. The heavens as the firmament. The day and the night. The sun and all that is warmed by its rays, which is to say everything; for nothing is hidden from the warmth of God’s sun says the psalm. As does Genesis. And then the psalm turns to the glory of God’s Law and God’s power of redemption, as in the books of Exodus and Numbers and Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

And from my lips to your ears, and acceptable in God’s sight, this whole psalm is well worth keeping on speed dial!

The first six verses set the stage. They remind us in no uncertain terms, that God is bigger than we are. That God is capable of anything and everything, and the proof is in the pudding. Don’t trust my word, says the psalmist, just take a look at the world in which you exist. We need not prove that there is a God says the psalmist. God’s creation is proof enough; witness enough that only God could have created it.

But despite God’s big picture handiwork, God never loses track of the particulars. Not us as individuals. Not us as a community of faith. Nothing escapes the warmth of God’s sun.

And that is the Good News in this psalm. That in the dankest regions of our darkest nights; in the places where we are hard pressed to find our faith or maintain our hope; when we feel overwhelmed, underprepared, out of our depth, deep in the weeds, thoroughly discouraged, enveloped by despair, afraid, ashamed, a failure, a fraud, alone. When we have no idea how we will get through this night, the psalmist reminds us that both the day andthe night belong to God and once this night is over it will befollowed by a brand new day. And in that day, the warmth of the sun will find us. Where ever we are. However far we have strayed. However broken we have become. As individuals. And too I think, as communities.

These first six verses are a sort of pastoral panacea. They remind us that we are the miraculous work of God’shands; the same hands that created the heavens and the earth the night and the day, and the ever -rising sun.

I invite you to close your eyes now (if you like) and to unburden your heart;  hear these first six verses in the context of whatever weight you are carrying this morning.  And whatever weight we are carrying as a community together, let us offer it up to the psalm.

The heavens recount the glory of God, *
and the sky declares our Creator’shandiwork.

2 One day pours out the word to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.

3 Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,

4 Their sound has flowed out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.

5 In the deep has the divineset a place for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.

6 It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its warmth.

This is the context in which I hope we will enter into our conversation later this morning.  May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God.

This psalm may speak about the glory of God, but it also speaks about the responsibility of God’s Creation, it holds our feet to the fire to live according to the Law of the one who created us; the one who created everything. Creation proves God’s existence and expresses the character of God’s Word, and the Law tells us that we are born to live according to that Word. The second half of this psalm calls us to the integrity of our faith.

7 The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul…

8 The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart…..

9 …the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

This psalm suggests a powerful corrective force in this world; a force that yearns for, and arcs toward, and insists on integrity. Because a world that is made by God and belongs to God should act in ways that are acceptable in God’s sight. The heavens do. The day and the night do. The sun does.  And so, then, must the rest of God’s creation, including God’s featherless bi-peds, and maybe especially including God’s church.

As my grandfather was fond of saying, wisdom is knowing the right path and integrity is taking it. Psalm 19 offers us the wisdom and then beckons us to the integrity. It says: look around you and then live as though you were part of the plan, the plan that includes the magnificence of the heavens and the rhythm of time and the eternal rising of the sun; live as though you were intended for such beauty and marvelousness…..because you are.

Each one of us is a piece of God’s outrageously creative Word and intended to act in ways that point to our Creator, ways that are acceptable in God’s sight. Full stop.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

But alas, I think that not all of the words that are flowing through this community at this time are acceptable in God’s sight. And not because they are words of disagreement, but because we have taken to expressing those disagreements disrespectfully, unkindly, unhealthfully. And so our disagreements have begun to sow division.

As many of you know, there is a contingent in our community that is not at all happy with the path we are on. Not happy with our sanctuary, and/or the things that have come with sanctuary.

And I must admit, I did not see this coming. At least not as aggressively and abundantly as it is unfolding now. Because forgive me, but I thought that the parish was on board with this vision of our path that included sanctuary. There is no doubt that sanctuary was my vision from the start. But we met for community wide conversations six times before we voted! And then when it came to a vote, the result was almost unanimous.

I know now that if every member of this community had voted, that would not have been the case. We might have had more than a dozen “no” votes instead of only two. But I suspect that some folks who might have voted “no” surmised that their opposition would not have mattered because so many others seemed so in favor of the resolution. Or maybe they just did not want to oppose the set-in-stone vision of their rector.

And it is true that a few “nays” would not have outweighed the preponderance of “yeas.” Not by a long shot. Even with a dozen or so votes opposing the resolution, we would probably have proceeded anyway given the weight and enthusiasm of the proponents.

But the vote would not have been thought to be unanimous. And we would….I would have taken much more time to tend and mend what I now understand to be a palpable fracture in our community. Shame on me for not expecting more dissent. And for not touching base with those members of our community who did not participate in the process and/or the final vote. I could have reached out to folks individually.

But Holy Cow! For almost two years I have been bragging far and wide in every talk I have been invited to deliver, in every comment I have been asked to offer, in every forum where I have been questioned about how our small community has navigated the folks who must have been opposed to this radical work. I have said…..with a pride that I apparently had no right to boast: I know, it is amazing, but we voted almost unanimously to do this.

That was not a lie. But I now understand that it was not the truth.

The truth is, some of us are not in favor of the work that we are doing. Some of us value the things that we have lost more than the things that we have planted. And so we have a serious and seemingly growing divide in this community. And it has been my bad for not doing more to solicit feedback along the way. I am sorry for that. Please forgive me.

But here we are. And at this juncture the larger issue, as I see it, is not just that we disagree on our path and the content of our ministry and maybe even our visions for the community. The thing that is most surprising and most deeply distressing to me is not our level of disagreement, but the disrespectful and damaging way that a few of us are expressing that discontent. Some have chosen to make their dissatisfaction known in ways that are often clandestine, and almost always hurtful. And that cannot continue. I am feeling very beaten up. And that is unacceptable.

The first order of business is for us to mend our nets. And we can only do it together. As a whole community. To begin talking with and to each other rather than around and about each other. Every one of us has a responsibility for the health and well-being of the whole. This is not just the tale of a few vocally unhappy folks and the rector who has made them unhappy. This climate of disrespect belongs to the community as a whole…..especially now that we all know.

The second order of business is to determine what sort of vision this community wants for itself. The question is, is my vision still in line with the vision of this community? And I don’t know the answer to that question. It is possible that the vision that we shared when you called me to be your rector in 2010 is no longer a mutually held vision. And that is okay. But it needs to be discerned. And sooner rather than later.

Because as everyone here knows, I do have a very strong vision for this community. And we are only a good fit if that vision is still in line with your hopes and dreams for this parish.  Because I will continue to push hard for the vision that I think best fits the values that I think we share….or the values that I want us to share.

It may come as a surprise to some of us that my vision is not sanctuary, per say. Sanctuary was (and still is as long as we have a family with us) an urgent need in the wider community that happened to knock on our door at just the right moment. A moment when our Average Sunday Attendance had been falling precipitously for a couple of years. And our Parish School space was all but empty on Sunday mornings, not to mention the rest of the week. And we had newly zoned heat in every section of our building which gave us a capacity to use our space in a modular way. And finally, but maybe most importantly, many of us, most of us were in deep despair over the 2016 presidential election. And we were looking for something “concrete” that we could do to help build the Kin-dom in the midst of the increasingly unholy empire; something that the church could contribute, particularly.

And so when the need for sanctuary presented itself, and our facility was able and available, and dozens of interfaith partners were pledging their full support, and I thought about the experiences of the beloved immigrants in our own community, I presented the possibility of our using our vacant sacred space to serve this urgent need; to stand firm with the dignity of some of God’s most marginalized children. Because for sanctuary seekers, only sacred space would do.

But my overall vision for us was never (and is not now) that we become a sanctuary for undocumented families…forever. In fact, my vision for this community has not really changed much over the decade that I have been your rector. It has always been a vision that we lift and celebrate the dignity of every part of God’s creation with everything we have, even when it costs us more than we can comfortably afford. Even when it costs us $300k for a new heating system to back up our claim of being a Creation-Loving community. Even when it costs us the precious bandwidth of some of our most faithful and competent parishioners who put their time and attention to serving on the Board and as the Executive Director of the Centre Street Food Pantry rather than shepherding ministries within our own community program, because we say we believe that we are called to feed God’s sheep. And so when sacred space was seriously needed, and we have always claimed to follow the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger, the shoe seemed to fit.

That does not mean that our service as a physical sanctuary is a long-term reality. Although I do not know how long our family will need our sacred space.

And I do not know where the road ahead will lead us. But I think, I hope, that sanctuary is more of a metaphor for our deepest values than it is a physical reality for the long-term use of our space. From my vantage point, we are no more committed to being a physical sanctuary forever than Jesus was committed to being a winemaker forever, even though his first miracle happened to be turning water into wine at the Wedding in Cana, as we heard in last week’s Gospel. Turning water into wine was the way in which Jesus addressed the urgent need before him, it was not his life’s work, specifically.

It was simply the first work that took him outside of himself to live into his destiny as the healer, miracle-maker, teacher, rabbi, redeemer of the world that he was born to be. I believe that his life’s work was to gather the children of God, all of God’s children, into the arms of God; into the love of God. But first, he needed to turn the water into wine. First he needed to begin; to devote all of his powers to serving the need in front of him – and at his mother’s request I might add. Winemaking was his first contribution to the cause, it was not the fullness of his identity.

According to my vision, sanctuary is to us as winemaking was to Jesus. It is not necessarily the work that we have been called to do forever, but it is the first fruit of a new harvest; a new sort of work that calls us into a new form of community, maybe a more intentional community. Maybe a more expanded and interfaith community. Maybe a community that is more grounded in its commitments to each other and to changing the way we live in this world.

But hopefully a community that speaks to the upcoming generations more than Sunday School or Confirmation Class or even Sunday worship seem to speak at this juncture. A new sort of community that actively invites participation by the generations who will be the next leaders and visionaries in the church, the ones who are becoming the current visionaries in the church, the ones who are interested in a different model of church than the one most of us grew up with.

The ones whom I think are much more interested in a wholly intentional community that is committed to changing the world rather than a well programmed community that is committed to growing its ranks – the church I grew up in. And if you don’t believe me, just ask them. We have solid contingent of millennials and Gen Xers in our midst. They are almost all involved in sanctuary. And I encourage those of us who are not supportive of sanctuary and who mourn the loss of some of our previous programming to talk to the next generations about what they value and envision. Our future will be built on the wisdom and integrity of all of our generations working in concert with each other to craft our future. But it will also depend upon our willingness to change.

That is not to say that we are ditching our programming. But it will need to be reimagined. And that is going to take some time. Appearances to the contrary, our programming has not been neglected over the last year, but it has been changed.

In addition to tending our sanctuary and flourishing collaborative, my priorities in the coming year will be focused on our youth, on Christian and spiritual formation for all generations, on music and liturgy, and on the ways in which we might become a more intentional community…a term that I think we will define as we go.

Pastoral care, hospitality, and outreach will continue to be valued at the heart of our community. But all of these ministries will need to be reconstituted to serve the community that we are becoming, rather than the community that we once were.

And that is an exciting proposition! The sky is the limit if we can see our way to keeping our eyes and heart open to where ever God calls us.

On the bottom line, my vision for us is that we continue to grow into a very intentional community of beloved and holy friends who are willing to risk more than most to live into our Gospel values with utter integrity. Committed disciples who love and respect each other…..and act accordingly.

Please know how grateful I am to be your rector. I am overjoyed with the example that we are setting for our kids and the Kin-dom that we are building here in this sacred and beloved space. I am hugely hopeful for our future. I value every voice and every heart in this room. I humbly ask your forgiveness for places where I have stumbled. And I will lovingly and endlessly offer the same to you.

And most of all:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart

Be ever acceptable in your sight, O God our rock and our redeemer.

Amen.

 

© January 2019, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment