Hear What the Spirit is Saying

The Gospel According to Mark 1:4-11

January 7, 2018

Celebration of Amanda March’s Ordination

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw


Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

Good morning. And it is a gloriously good morning, indeed. As most of you know, our beloved Amanda was ordained to the priesthood on Friday. Several of you were there, and you will notice that her stole has taken a new shape. Amanda is now a priest in the church. And so this morning we will celebrate the birth of this new ministry, this new ministry that comes through years of discernment and formation, and comes with more than a new stole and the permission to celebrate the sacraments. It also comes too with a host of new expectations and accountabilities, weights and measures, perspectives and understandings, and, no doubt, some surprises along the way.

We celebrate this threshold of Amanda’s new ministry of ordination as a priest of the church, but every one of us was born a priest of the people. We are all God’s priests, if the definition of priest includes lifting God in all things. We all have God’s permission, no, God’s strident encouragement to live into that born-in vocation. And so I hope that every one of us will take this opportunity to claim a fresh start to our own priestly ministries, and we all have them. I hope we can all claim a soft start, or re-start to our own divine ordinations in the ministries to which we have been called by our Creator; ministries that are vital to the building of the kindom of love. We are each endowed with a unique constellation of gifts, and every constellation is needed if the galaxy is to shine.

Today’s lectionary gives us a splendid place to start with the renewal of our ministries. First the story of the new beginning of all of creation in Genesis, and then the beginning of the ministry of God as a part; a creature of that creation.

The Gospel this morning is arguably the true start, or kickoff, in the vernacular of this season of football playoffs, of Jesus’ own divinely ordained ministry on earth. It celebrates the baptism of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. It is the moment when Jesus is endowed by God with everything ki will need to choose love; every time; even when it is not popular; even when it conflicts with the advice of friends and family and disciples; even when it requires a sacrifice that might cost this precious life itself.

In this first chapter, Mark wastes no time at all. The real rubber meets the road in the very first line: This is the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God. And within the next ten lines Jesus is aptly armed for the mission ahead, let the games begin. We might say that Jesus, by baptism, has been ordained for the work of God that lies ahead. And everything Jesus needs is in this one pronouncement of God: You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased. That’s all ki’s got. That is the secret sauce. You are God’s beloved, and whatever you do, whatever you risk, whatever you lose – God will always be well pleased with you.

And the mission begins, fittingly, with Jesus’ feet in the muddy Jordan River along with every other ordinary jane and joe and Jehoshaphat in the land. There is no fancy ordination service. No chair for the bishop. No chanting of the litany. No procession or reception. There is only a river of dirty water full of sinners, some of whom are likely suffering mightily, and a holy spirit full of God. That, I imagine, is the description of Jesus’ ordination.

Baptism is the fork in the road, the point at which Jesus ceases to be just a young adult hanging with friends, and at once is inaugurated into the mission of God as God’s own revolutionary…..to hereafter serve as a political thorn in the side of the authorities. This is the passage where Jesus shows up; where Jesus grows up; where Jesus offers his whole self to the mission of the Living God. Fully human. Fully divine. Fully ordained.

This is where heaven and earth first meet in our Jesus story, well, that is, after the birth narratives in those other synoptic Gospels. But in Mark, they meet in the baptism. It is where the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth meets the Spirit of God.  And from now on, the dignity that Jesus insists be shown to every human being, will begin to step on the toes of the elite, begin to challenge the privilege of the political and religious powers……because love always pokes power. And so in short order, the elite authorities are going to begin to see that this Jesus is going to be a very uncomfortable thorn in their side. But make no mistake, the thorn sprouts here, at Jesus’ baptism.

And so here we are, Amanda. On the precipice of your ordination; your brand new ministry. I can’t think of any better scripture for your first celebration of the Eucharist; informed by the Book of Genesis and God’s creation of the world, and then by Mark’s Gospel and the baptism of Jesus to rock that world. I can think of no two better pieces of scripture to load into your ministerial toolbox. For these two readings stretch the imagination to the bounds of God’s world into which you are planting your new ministry.

And, as I have the privilege of preaching on this momentous day of your first consecration, I would like to offer you a few more starting tools; a few things that have found their way into my toolbox over the years. Having been a board certified chaplain for many years, you are no doubt familiar with everything I am about to impart. And so I offer them not as news, but as gifts of the spirit from one priest to another.

And as always, I am preaching here first to myself!

1. Never forget that your ordination this glorious weekend, is not by God, it is by the church. You have always been ordained by God….as has everyone in this hallowed space. God’s ordination process is called childbirth. We are each and all uniquely ordained by God for our ministry in this world….in the womb. You have now been ordained by the church, as well; ordered in the ranks of the church to lift God in this world specifically as a part of that/this holy institution.

2. Number two is a corollary to number one: The stole, like the collar, does not belong to God….it belongs to the church. Which is to say, you are not the only one wearing a collar and a stole. Everything you say and do while you are wearing those marks of your ministry, speaks, in one way or another, for and about the church, and everyone else who wears a collar and a stole. Which is to say, if you are wearing your collar (even sans stole), and the fourth rude person cuts you off in rush hour traffic, my advice is to keep all of your fingers tucked safely in your fist….and to wrap that fist safely around the steering wheel! ….and trust that there is justice in heaven! Let no holy birds fly while wearing a collar, or a stole.

3. As you know, and I know, but it never hurts to refresh our mindfulness: we do not offer forgiveness. God does. What we as ordained clergy offer, is a reminder of God’s forgiveness….an assurance of God’s forgiveness, but the substance itself is a gift that comes directly from God. Forgiveness, like roses and rain and all life-giving beauty and substance, come only from God.

4. Jesus is a four letter word. ….and the opposite corollary, as I keep reminding my friend Janet on the golf course, Jesus is not a four letter word. But you, as a priest, are now a walking invitation for all sorts of folks to talk openly about God and Jesus in the wider world. And because Jesus is often very difficult to articulate, when I talk about Jesus to folks who have no experience of Jesus, I almost always talk exclusively about Jesus as love. L-o-v-e. I explain Jesus as nothing more or less than pure love, God’s pure love for humanity and humanity’s charge to show the same pure love to each other. Jesus is a simple four letter word.

5. You are perfect. Absolutely perfect. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Our culture has adopted a very deleterious disclaimer that we apply every time we think we have fallen short of the mark, we say: Nobody’s perfect. And that, I think, is bullroar. You are perfect. You are the perfect constellation of gifts and challenges, you bring the perfect experience of joy and pain, you hold the perfect key to unlock some grace that you alone have been given to share, that you alone carry into every encounter. There is some potential in this world that only you can fulfill. There has never in the history of the world been anyone with that particular potential…nor will there ever be. God has created you and equipped you and consecrated you very particularly for this exact ministry, in this exact place, at this exact time. And so you are the perfect fit for what God needs you to do here and now. Not an angel. But absolutely perfect.

And I don’t remind you of this to swell your head. But I do want to warn you that this ministry is hard. It is a rare day when I do not question myself or my fitness for this wonderful, heartbreaking, handwringing, harrowingly hard, hard work. Like our friend Pam’s answer to the question we are frequently asked: when did you know that you wanted to be a priest? And her answer is: well, yesterday for sure. Not so much the day before. And today….maybe. This vocation in bone-crushingly hard.

And so maybe the most important wisdom I can offer is the reminder, at those moments when you are ready to chuck everything and crawl into an unholy hole where you think you belong, please remember that you are God’s perfect vision, and everything about you is perfect in God’s sight. Or as God assures Jesus this in this morning’s Gospel: You are God’s beloved, and with you God is now and will always be…..well pleased.

6. Never forget why you are doing this. What you are doing and how you are doing it are much less important than why.

And so I tell you this morning on your first celebration what my mentor, The Rev’d. Anne Fowler, told me in response to my fear that I might mess up some part of my first celebration: don’t worry, she said, the liturgy always ends. And it does. But maybe that needs an addendum : The liturgy always ends, but the worship never does. The why we are doing this is much more important than what we are doing or how we are doing it. God is divine. The liturgy is not.

7. This ordained ministry, is a ministry of interruption…..it is a ministry that demands that you pay attention to and embrace the moment in front of you. It is different as a pastor in a parish than as a chaplain in a hospital, where your whole job is to be front and center for the pain before you. But in a parish, there are myriad draws on your time and attention. Many needs to fulfill…and often all at once. It is a ministry that precludes perfection. You may be perfect, but your work never will be. You can make plans if you must, you can try to cover all of the bases, but try not to hold yourself to tightly to any results. The work that needs to be done is not necessarily the work on your to do list for the day. The real work that you are called to do will reveal itself on an as needed basis. In the meantime, you can tend your schedule and your inbox, but that is your work, it is not necessarily God’s.

8. You have been ordained to the priesthood, but never forget that you are still and will be forevermore, a deacon. A servant. And even though you are now ordained to the priesthood, your first order will be that of the deacon….the one who washes the feet of God’s weary people. No matter how dirty, no matter how tired are you or the feet you are washing, it is your calling to kneel down, take the feet of your neighbor in your hands, and restore them with soap and water and tender loving kindness. Servanthood must continue to be your first language. Remember that it is the status of deacon, not priest, that made you a reverend.

9. Hear what the spirit is saying to God’s people. Every day. We say this after reading the scripture, but I think it is said for no one more than the clergy. I think it is our work to hear, not what God is calling us to do, but what God is calling the community to do. Your call has already been well discerned and established. Now, you can stop listening for what God wants you to do, and focus your full attention on what the spirit is saying to God’s people. Because now, God is calling you to and through the community alone.

10. Never, ever, ever love anyone…..unconditionally. We say we want unconditional love…..but that, I think, is a bold faced lie! We do not want to be loved because we exist, we want to be loved for who we are…..particularly…..subjectively….very, very personally. Unconditional love does not lift us above the things that keep us from God. For it is our shame, our guilt, our weakness and our insufficiency that we think make us unlovable. And so only love that takes those things into account, only love that recognizes and embraces those things as part of the whole can lift us out of our own unworthiness. I suspect as a chaplain you know this well.

And so today, Amanda, we celebrate the very special, particular, unique gifts that you have offered this beloved community with such deep generosity, and that will continue to be formed and forged here. And so we give thanks for your spiritual intelligence, your deep love of God, your reverence for this ministry, your wonderful preaching and pastoral care, your sense of humor, your heart for ministry with the most marginalized, your willingness to serve in so many capacities, and a million other attributes that we do not have time to list.

We celebrate our gratitude for all that we have learned from and with you. And we remind you that we love you, not unconditionally, but with eyes wide open for ALL that you are, and ALL that you have been and continue to be for us.

On this weekend of your ordination and the Epiphany, leave you with this gem from Jan Richardson:

For Those Who Have Far to Travel
An Epiphany Blessing

If you could see the journey whole
you might never undertake it;
might never dare the first step
that propels you from the place
you have known toward the place
you know not.

Call it one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it only by stages
as it opens before us,
as it comes into our keeping
step by single step.

There is nothing for it
but to go, and by our going take the vows the pilgrim takes:

to be faithful to the next step;
to rely on more than the map;
to heed the signposts
of intuition and dream;
to follow the star that only you
will recognize;

to keep an open eye
for the wonders that attend the path;
to press on beyond distractions
beyond fatigue
beyond what would tempt you
from the way.

There are vows that only you
will know;
the secret promises for your particular path
and the new ones you will need to make
when the road is revealed
by turns you could not
have foreseen.

Keep them, break them,
make them again:
each promise becomes
part of the path;
each choice creates the road
that will take you to the place
where at last you will kneel

to offer the gift
most needed—
the gift that only you can give—
before turning to go home by another way.

Alleluia!
Amen.

 

© January, 2018 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

(“For Those Who Have Far to Travel” by Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2011/12/31/epiphany-blessing-for-those-who-have-far-to-travel/)
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Myrrhy Christmas

December 31, 2017: Christmas I/Epiphany

Lessons & Carols

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

Merry Christmas! I don’t think I have preached on the Sunday after Christmas since….

Because of this year’s crazy liturgical calendar, this Sunday, like last Sunday, serves two distinct liturgical observances. Last Sunday was both Advent IV and Christmas Eve. This Sunday is both Christmas I and Epiphany Sunday. And so we are meant to celebrate both the arc of our salvation history, which is typically the focus for Christmas I, and the beauty and power and mystery of that star in the east, which is Epiphany. So let’s jump right in!

This morning we celebrate the coming of Christmas by reading together some of the central stories in our salvation history; the history of our life with God. These are some of the defining narratives that show us how God works with us; stories that show us what God expects of us; stories that show us what we can expect from God.

There is not a set group of stories that fit this bill. There is a fair amount of leeway in the rubric regarding which stories we choose to tell THE story. Which confirms, of course, that there is no one story that sums up our salvation history, but rather a whole album of family snapshots, all of which add a bit of information and color to the overall narrative.

And so thinking that we would have the time and attention for no more than a few slices of our life with God, I set about the rich and wonderful task of selecting what I thought were some of the top seedings, the best group of stories to tell our story. And I settled on the six we heard this morning. Believe me, there were many more that just barely missed the cut!  But when I had to boil it down to what I consider to be the most telling lessons on this first Sunday in the season of the Incarnation, it was all about the way God calls us to work with God as agents and co-creators of this world…..the stories of those who were created and called by God to bring nothing less than their whole selves to participate in God’s good work.

It starts with God’s love for humanity, a love so deep that God etched God’s own image on our hearts.  But it did not take humanity long, with our selfishness and our greed and our lack of concern for each other, to break God’s heart. And in almost no time at all, God was so sorry and so grieved to have created us, that God resorted to a divine do-over; flooding the entire earth to wipe away all trace of the wickedness that had spread through the human race like wildfire.

But first, God made one ridiculously irrational call to an unsuspecting worker bee named Noah, whom God instructed to build an ark to preserve a remnant of God’s good work; an arc that would ultimately salvage the whole of God’s own creation from God’s own destruction. Because as it turned out, God was sorry to have reacted with such devastating anger, and so God offered a sign in the rainbow of God’s steadfast promise to all creation never to do that again.

And then, not three chapters later in the Book of Genesis, God posits another steep request to another ordinary companion named Abraham. And with that call comes another covenant, another massive promise to all humanity from that time forth. And so  Abraham along with companions Hagar and Sarah, is called to trust God above all, and then to plant seeds that will multiply and bless every generation of descendants forevermore.

And then there is Mary – there is no more audacious and inclusive call in our scripture than God’s request of Mary, and too to Joseph; it is a call that changes the prospects of human kind forever more. A call that is lived out in the flesh of a Saviour who is born in the stench of a stable with not an advantage to ki’s name – God’s own flesh and blood working in and through this world without a shred of political , economic, or social status, no power or position whatsoever. The perfect example of what God had intended of humanity, of all of us, from the very beginning when God etched God’s imagine on the human heart. That we might come into this world with nothing but love to signal our status.

And finally, the star, the Epiphany.

The Magi set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,* until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

The miracle of the virgin birth in Luke is matched almost by the magic of the star in Matthew. Shining in the East. The mystical sign of a promise. So deep so enduring so enlightening, that we tell the story 2000 years hence.

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house they saw the child with Mary, the mother, and they knelt down and paid homage.

 We sometimes call Matthew’s version of this story one of the two birth narratives in our scripture, but Matthew tells more of an appearance than a birth. Matthew’s big contribution to our beloved nativity story is the star in the East and the wise ones who have been sent by Herod on a sort of reconnaissance trip. Wise Ones who, in order to conceal the child’s whereabouts, wisely return home by another way. This, says Matthew, is told “so that what has been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled.”

Luke might be all about writing a new history altogether, but Matthew is all about fulfilling the scripture….the Hebrew scripture.

And so it is not surprising that Matthew picked up almost this entire passage from this morning’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, from Isaiah, chapter 60: Arise, shine for your light has come, etc. The whole passage, picked up nearly verbatim. ”Picked up” a euphemism for biblical plagiarism really. If Matthew had handed this story in in high school, ki would likely have been suspended for plagiarism.

But Matthew ‘s explanation is that this story is told so that what has been spoken through the prophets will be fulfilled. Not exactly the thorough footnote we would expect from such a….revered source, but the point here is that Matthew is all about the fulfillment of scripture. According to Matthew, Jesus does not supersede scripture, does not supplant the story in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus is not the replacement for the old tired testament, Jesus is the fulfillment of the story, the expected rest of the story.

And so Matthew tells that story, Isaiah’s story, to a tee; well, almost to tee. Matthew adds one small detail that changes…..everything.

Isaiah says that the ones who will follow the light will come by camels bearing gifts. They will bring gold and frankincense….and so says Matthew as well. Except, Matthew adds to the gift list because Isaiah does not mention myrrh. Matthew adds myrrh. And why does Matthew add myrrh? Why lift the scripture almost exactly and then add this curious gift? Gold is the gift for royalty. Check. Frankincense is the hallmark of one who is to be worshiped. Check. But myrrh is…. an embalming herb. It is what was used to anoint Jesus’ body after death. It’s not exactly on the top ten list of perfect gifts for Christmas, especially for a child, a new born baby. In fact, those of you who remember the Monty Python film The Life of Brian will recall that when the wise ones visit the baby Brian, the child’s mother is delighted with the gold and frankincense, but spends the next ten minutes of the movie trying to return the myrrh. What kind of gift is myrrh for a newborn babe?!

Well….it’s the kind of gift that says that this is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill child. It’s the kind of gift that emphasizes death at birth; that says that the death of this child will be as significant as ki’s birth.

Myrrh is Matthew’s equivalent of the humble manger in terms of what we can expect from this strange birth, in terms of turning the expectations of the world on their heads. The star is the part of Matthew’s story that we tend to embrace. But it is the myrrh, that is the punch line. The part we don’t see coming. This king whose birth is heralded by nothing less than a star is going to defeat the enemy not by star wars, but by…..dying…..a painful and shameful death. By dying a criminal’s death. The likes of a traitor to the empire in between two thieves. This is the punch line that awaits the story that we begin to tell in the bright shining light of this star this blessed season.

It’s easy to forget. With all of the tinsel and mistletoe….all of the bright and shining wrapping paper and bows….all of the gift giving and happy holidaying….it is easy to look no further than the star.

In that star we often lose ourselves in the hope of our own calling. We take this season to be a fresh start, a fresh invitation to follow the star that calls us to God. It is almost the relevant theme of the season leading us into the new year. How is the star in the east calling us forward? Sometimes, I think, we are maybe a little too worried about where we are being called. I know I am. Where does God want me to go? How will I get there? How will I know I am on the right path? I am often so busy looking for that star and the coordinates of my destination that sometimes, much of the time, I get distracted.

Because it easy for the star to distract us from the sobering depth of the gifts that we are called to bear.  And so we worry about where the star is taking us rather than what we are willing to bring?  But the prophets of old, Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Mary worried not about where they were going, only about what they would bring. Not about where they were called, but what they might bear in God’s name.

Likewise, the Wise Ones fretted not about where they were going, where they were called. Their agency and attention was firmly planted on the gifts that they would offer to God. (pause) They are calling us now. They are calling us, you and me, to follow that star in our own footsteps. This morning’s Gospel from Matthew tells us that the question this season for each of us is not where are we going in the new year, but what gifts will we bring?

What gifts will you bring? What will the new birth awaiting your journey require? What constitutes your gold? Your frankincense? Your myrrh? And make no mistake, myrrh will be required. If your calling is from God, you had better be prepared to pack the myrrh, because this journey is going to cost you, as does every true calling from God. And so everything you have, everything you are, everything you count on will be needed.

The one thing you do not need to worry about, is where you going. The star will lead you to the exact spot. It may take longer than you anticipated. It may take you over unfamiliar and inhospitable terrain. It may seem lost for a bit in the cover of clouds. But it will never leave you, and it will take you precisely where you need to go.

In the meantime, we will break bread together on our knees and celebrate this season of hope that is , if Matthew’s Gospel is to be believed: a Myrrhy Christmas.

Amen.

 

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

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‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

Christmas Eve 2017

The Rev’d Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

‘Twas the night before Christmas, the first one you know,

Nothing was stirring, the status was quo.

The mighty were nestled all snug in their beds

As visions of privilege danced in their heads.

The lowly of course, and as usual, instead,

Wished only for blankets and pillows and bread.

While the rich just got richer, the poor just got…..hosed,

The haves were in favor, the have-nots,opposed.

For unholy unfairness is no innovation,

‘Twas then as is now, just adjust for inflation.

 

This eve in our world, steeped in suffering and woe,

Is not at all far from that eve long ago,

When injustice, oppression and fear ruled the earth,

So who would have thought in the blink of one birth

Who in their right mind would ever conceive?

On that darkest of nights, on that first Christmas Eve?

That the morning would come with a light so intense

That the darkness would no longer make any sense.

 

In the dead of that night came the birth of the Sun,

Who was flesh and yet perfect, like all and like none;

Who straddled two worlds, that the worlds might align,

Earth’s fully human and heaven’s divine.

Who came as the gift wrapped in Mary’s embrace;

Peace with two hands; grace with a face;

Into a world that was battered and broken,

Speaking a language that’d never been spoken.

 

Although as John’s Gospel has clearly inferred,

In the beginning was always the Word.

Nothing else there at the birth of Creation

Only God’s glorious articulation.

And so though we say Bethlehem was the spot,

John would insist when the world was begot

Jesus was there, from the very beginning,

Before evening or morning or serpents or sinning,

Before oceans or mountains or sunshine or snow,

The start of this story was longer ago.

The start of this poem If we’re following John

Needs to tell of the Eve of very first Dawn.

 

‘Twas the night before God would create all that is;

Not a creature was stirring, just primordial fizz;

The chaos was thick in the not-yet-there-air,

When all of a sudden God whispered a prayer.

And though nothing existed, somehow it was heard,

And Creation commenced with not more than a Word.

 

And the Word it was Radiant, the Word it was Light,

And creation was born like a poem to recite;

More rapid than eagles God’s courses they came,

As God spoke each creation, called each one by name:

Now light, and now darkness, now dome of the sky,

Now water, now dry land, now vegetable pie; (okay, that’s poetic license!)

Now midnight, now morning, now fall, and now spring,

Now blackbirds, now Bennington, each living thing!

And thus was created the world’s livelihood,

And all from the Word; and the Word it was: Good!

 

The Word was the engine behind all creation,

Each mole and each whisker: divine acclamation.

The Word was there even before God was flesh,

Before The Almighty was born in that crèche.

 

And so although we might think Christmas is grand,

To the Gospeller John, it’s a mere ampersand.

For the Word was the light that first broke through the void,

The Word first conveyed, then Creation deployed.

 

Although…..

The birth of that babe was a change in the game;

When God joined our flesh and our flaws and our shame;

And too, for the first time, our God felt the weight;

How the human condition can thus complicate,

God’s original hope for God’s blest humankind,

To whom from the start, just one job was assigned.

 

Our only charge right from the start:

Was love the Word in every heart.

The Word that’s etched upon each soul;

The spark of God that makes us whole.

It’s been there too from the beginning,

Etched at birth, before the sinning.

 

But then, we who bear God’s holy Word

Began to feel ourselves preferred,

And we began to worship stuff,

And never seemed to have enough!

So, Noah loaded up the ark

With every neigh and squawk and bark!

For making humans God regretted.

Thus, was all Creation vetted.

The flood it wiped the whole earth clear,

In hopes that we would finally hear:

The only way to get it right,

Was love, just love, with all our might.

 

But even then we humans, flawed,

Were not convinced to turn to God.

Not even with a flood, God thought,

Did humans finally get the plot.

What next to do? To thus impart,

that God is etched upon each heart?

What sort of Godly CPR

will make them love with all they are?

 

And so God, having sworn no more to flood,

thought: How to teach this flesh and blood?

I’ve tried it all, but few comply.

I’ve only one thing left to try.

Perhaps instead of devastation,

I will try a new Creation.

Perhaps I’ll dare to share their skin,

I’ll walk their walk without their sin.

I’ll show them how to love the Word,

That is in every heart interred.

What it means to live with grace;

Refuse to run the human race.

I’ll live on earth, I’ll share their lives,

Prove nothing but the love survives.

I will join their mortal skin,

And show them they must lose to win.

 

And so two thousand years ago,

God came to earth to let us know

That “humble” is the winning Word,

The least are, not the first, preferred.

 

And yet…..

Here we are, two thousand years hence,

And clearly that message is still on the fence.

We’re still filled with fear and primordial dread,

And the karma we owe is still deep in the red.

 

And yet again this night we wait

For love to come and seal our fate.

We wait with childlike hope and awe,

Our own hearts laid bare in the straw.

 

We wait for an easier way through the mission,

We wait for teamwork to transcend competition.

We wait for the truth to make itself rise,

For some heavenly force to uncover the lies.

We wait for the courage to stand firm with love,

For our vultures of war to be trumped by Your dove.

We are waiting for someone to come to the rescue;

To wade through the swamp and the weeds and the fescue.

To come from the heavens and clean up this mess,

To nail down the truth and free up the press.

We wait for a sign that the end is not near;

That immigrant children have nothing to fear;

That Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Jews

Will be welcomed, respected and never refused.

That every child born, every featherless bi-ped

Whose breath is from God, and whose blood is, thereby, red

Will be valued and cherished and treated as well

As the best-ever guest in the finest Hotel.

 

But here is the rub of this midnight so clear:

The hands we await, they are already here.

As we wait for a sign with miraculous powers,

We’re missing the message that this mess is ours.

The Good News might not sound at first like a plus,

But Jesus is God who has come to find us.

And while we are waiting on one who’s anointed,

God, from the start, made clear we were appointed.

We were the ones born to care for our flock;

To love one another, chips off the old block.

But what God intended is not what God got,

Because humankind, is not named that for naught.

 

Though sometimes I wonder in all this insanity

Why God did not just remake all humanity.

Given our violence our greed and our hate

Why not just start over; why not re-create?

Why not just make humans softer of heart,

Respectful of differences right from the start?

Why not just upgrade the human ecology?

Jesus is proof that God has the technology.

 

And yet,

Christmas suggests that our God disagrees;

Despite all our failings, our flaws, our dis-ease,

There’s been no attempt to remake or re-coin us,

Instead, our Creator preferred here to join us.

This birth is a milestone from heaven above,

When our God shifts from giving, to sharing, our love.

It might not seem much, this new face of God’s talents,

But actually everything hangs in this balance.

When God gives us love, it’s a gift in God’s name;

But sharing requires God’s flesh in the game.

 

So you see, this bright night is the start of a movement,

Not a moment in time, or an act of improvement.

There is no quick fix to the mess that we’ve made,

No grace to be earned like a prized accolade.

There’s only each day, and a field fresh to sow,

When God wakes our spirits and hands us the hoe,

For we are the farmers of God’s holy crop,

And all that God asks is that we never stop

Tending the child who is born in the manger,

Feeding the hungry, befriending the stranger,

Lifting the ones who are lowly and hurting

For love’s sake alone, with no thought of converting.

Offering refuge and true sanctuary

No matter how costly, no matter how scary.

Ending the violence and curbing the trash,

Respecting the planet, and sharing the cash.

That’s all that’s expected from heaven above,

And can all be summed up: the Word it is LOVE.

For the gift that descended this night long ago,

Is the proof that God’s status is nowhere near quo.

 

And no doubt the story we tell of this Word,

Is crazy, outrageous, prepost’rous, absurd.

Like angels, and virgin births, God born in straw!

But also like beauty, and friendship, and awe.

We already believe in things truly outrageous,

Like: love warms the heart, and laughter’s contagious.

And doubting is fine, if the mind remains open;

Ask the hard questions, but never stop hopi’n.

For ours is a God who will still keep the promise –

Even if we are yet doubting with Thomas.

The promise that life everlasting is coming,

Sweet mercy is rising, compassion is humming.

The peace and the justice are still ours to make,

And so crazy new hope comes with every daybreak.

 

So tonight let us rise with the star in the east,

That reminds us that those who feel last are not least.

And God’s crystal-clear voice can be so plainly heard:

You have all that you need, let your love be the Word!

 

Merry Christmas!

Amen!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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Can God Get a Witness?

Gospel According to John 1:6-8, 19-28

December 17, 2017: Advent III

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but ki came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’* 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ Ki said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ Ki answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,* nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

 

A reminder that in this season of Advent, the Parish of St. Paul is refraining from any third person singular pronouns and gendered references to God as an act of radical inclusivity. The third person singular pronoun that we are using this season is Ki, an indigenous word that indicates a life force rather than a gender.    

If we were to write a catchy slogan describing the four consecutive Sundays in Advent, the bumper sticker might say: Awake! Arise! Anoint! Announce! This Sunday is the third Sunday on the bumper sticker, the Anoint Sunday, as it were. Liturgically, it has been known as Gaudete Sunday. In Latin, Gaudete means “rejoice!” The liturgical color of this season of solemn reflection and penitence is purple or navy blue, but the candle that we lit today on our Advent wreath is rose colored. It’s a tradition that stems from the tradition of the ancient church. It is meant to punctuate this season of penitence and solemn self-reflection with a glimpse of the joy to come; an oasis; a moment of relief and rejoicing in the stretch of the darkness that is Advent. And so today our theme is hope.

Like every third Sunday in Advent, in every year of our lectionary cycle, we hear about John the Baptist. According to our readings, John is our ray of hope in the midst of this dark season. In year A we hear about Matthew’s John in prison, asking Jesus: Are you the one or should we wait for another? In year C we hear Luke’s John, admonishing the crowds and warning the brood of vipers that they must repent before the coming of God, for the ax is waiting at the root of every tree that does not bear good fruit. But this is Year B. And year B belongs to Mark. The one synoptic Gospel that has no birth narrative. Mark’s Gospel begins not with the coming of Jesus, as Matthew and Luke’s encounters with John foretell, but rather with the baptism of Jesus. When Mark’s Gospel begins, Jesus is already among us. This is the good news of Jesus Christ, the One of God.

And so this year, because there is no story of Joseph and Mary to tell, we hear from John the Baptist, not once but twice.

Last week we heard Mark’s account of John. Mark’s account is short and sweet and presents John as the bridge between the Jewish tradition as it lives in the Older Testament and the New Creation as it lives in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, the New Testament. Like the other synoptic Gospels, Mark legitimizes John as foretold in the Book of Isaiah:

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,*‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,* who will prepare your way; 
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness….

 Mark’s John is identified not by the title, The Baptist, but by the descriptor, The Baptizer; it is who John is, not just what John does. But in that place and that time, baptizing was a rite that was normally done in or near the Temple, and by priests who were officially ordained by the religious establishment; just as it is done in this place and this time. And like today in most Christian churches, there were two primary reasons for baptism in the Jewish community of the first century of the common era: one was to purify those who had been defiled, made impure by some action that would have precluded them from entering the Temple. And second, baptism was a rite of initiation into the Jewish community for those who were not, at least yet, Jewish. Baptism was the third step of the process of initiation that followed an oral exam and circumcision. And so baptism was primarily the rite of the Jewish priests to prepare Jewish men for entrance into the Temple.

So John the baptizer, as ki is presented in all four Gospels, is something of a puzzlement; somewhat countercultural. First, John is not a priest. Second, the place where John is baptizing is nowhere near a Temple. And third, John is baptizing not for purity from impurity, but for forgiveness from sin. Now, that concept of forgiveness from sin is not unfamiliar in the Older Testament. It comes from Book of the prophet Jeremiah….in fact, it comes from the same chapter that introduces the concept of the New Covenant; the title that we use for Jesus. And so John may be foretold by the prophet Isaiah, but John’s message is straight out of Jeremiah. Chapter 31 verse 31:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors…..[and] they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

A new covenant for the forgiveness of sin. Isaiah may have predicted John, but Jeremiah provided John’s material…at least in Mark’s Gospel.

So, in Mark’s Gospel, John is called the Baptizer, and ki is a sort of a holy being of the outback. Ki wears a hair shirt and a leather belt and eats locusts and honey. Very Crocodile Dundee. And ki baptizes all of the people of the Judean countryside, not just the men for entrance into the Temple. Everyone, it can be assumed, at least in my own hearing of this story, of every gender identification. And in Mark’s Gospel, John baptizes Jesus.

This story of John’s indiscriminate baptism of all manner of human life in the River Jordan would have been thought to be thoroughly outrageous in John’s day. The Gospel stories of John transform the traditional Jewish rite of baptism into…..something thoroughly unorthodox. And so from the very get go, with the very introduction of John the Baptizer, Mark tells us that this New Creation is going to turn the old creation and all of its norms upside down.

But in this week’s Gospel, we get a very different John. In today’s passage from the Gospel according to John the Evangelist, we meet John who is indeed baptizing, but that is not John’s main attraction. Because John’s John has a different role altogether. Unlike the synoptic Gospels, John’s John does not appear from out of the wilderness, is not just a regular renegade prefacing the coming of Jesus. The Gospel reads:

There was a human sent from God, whose name was John.

In this Gospel, John is not just roaming around the countryside baptizing willy-nilly, as it were. This John is not from this place. This John is from God…. “one sent from God.” Not one sent as a bridge between the older tradition and the emerging tradition, as in Mark and Matthew and Luke. In John’s Gospel, this one is specifically and particularly sent straight from God. Not like Abraham or Sarah or Moses or even Mary …..not one who was called by God. Not called. Sent.

And the difference might seem slight, but called by God suggests that one is approached by God…maybe  while minding one’s own business with no awareness even of God’s presence….but when one is called one has not yet been formally recruited. One can still say no.

Sent, however, is another matter. Sent is what comes after we accept God’s call. It implies a much more intimate relationship with God and God’s mission; and much more accountability. Because we cannot be sent to do the work until we answer the call.  Once we accept the call, it’s on us. The difference between called and sent is the difference between going to God and coming from God; between responding to God and representing God. It is not an insignificant distinction. As Jesus came from God, so too did John. And so John, in John’s Gospel, is accorded the status of almost…an angel of the Lord. When we encounter John in this Gospel, we are encountering God’s own voice, God’s own mission. Almost, in my hearing, the equivalent of the angel Gabriel who spoke to Mary in Luke’s Gospel. In John’s Gospel John is fully human, and yet fully sent by God.

But sent by God is not the only difference in John the Evangelist’s account of John the Baptist. The second unique feature of John in this Gospel is that baptizer is not John’s identity, as it is in the three synoptic Gospels. In John’s Gospel, baptizing is just John’s vocation. Witness is John’s identity.

There was one sent from God, whose name was John. 7Ki came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through the witness…John was not the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

And so in this morning’s reading, the religious authorities press John for a statement of identity. Are you the one who is violating our terms and conditions? But John gives them almost nothing, except the assurance that ki is not the one they should fear. John does not identify Jesus; does not hand over Jesus as Judas will do at the end of our story. Instead, John taunts the priests and Levites from Jerusalem who object to John’s unorthodox ministry: if you think what I am doing is problematic, wait until you see the one standing among you, the one whom you do not know, whom you cannot yet identify. Because that one is going to rock the Casbah!

In this season when we discern and lift up words that matter, today’s theme is hope, and today’s word is witness. They go together. John who baptizes in all four Gospels, is, in John’s Gospel, the consummate witness and beacon of hope. Because my friends, let me tell you, there is little in this world that is more hopeful than a dedicated witness to the light.

A witness to the light is not by itself the antidote to the darkness. A witness is not the light. But without a witness the light has no path, no conduit, no exposure. And so a witness to the light is the most dangerous threat to the darkness. Witness, as in one who testifies. The truth cannot be known without a witness.  A witness is to the light as a word is to an idea. Revelatory. Like words, witnesses matter. So much so, that they can utterly change the world. A witness is evidence that there is hope.

You might have seen Friday’s article in the Washington Post[1] about the list of seven words that the Trump administration has forbidden the Center for Disease Control from using in documents they will submit for next year’s federal budget. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” Forbidden. Like George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words that were forbidden on television, when I was a kid. But the nation’s health and welfare is not a comedy act. And the CDC is not a nightclub. This, without trying to sound too melodramatic, is truly a life and death matter……for transgender teenagers, for Matthew Shepherd’s successors, for abortion doctors, for the most vulnerable (oh sorry, that word is forbidden!) the most marginalized among us, and absolutely, positively for the health and sustainability of the planet, our fragile island home. In fact, I can think of few more serious assaults to the light that leads us to inclusive justice love than this sort of authoritarian censorship.

The article goes on to say that “In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of ‘science-based’ or ­‘evidence-based,’ the suggested phrase is ‘CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes…’” What community are they referring to? Clearly and explicitly not the “transgender” community. And not any community of those who are “vulnerable” or dependent on any so-called “entitlements.” So the whims and wishes of “the community” (apparently a community of those who are not in any way connected to these seven politically deadly words) are to be factored into the official recommendations of the agency that is entrusted with the health of our republic. Talk about turning the world on it head….but so not for love.

And, according to the Washington Post, the Department of Health and Human Services has just removed all information about LGBTQ issues and Americans from its website.

Words matter.  And this news makes me know that our Advent practice of refraining from third person singular pronouns and gendered references to God could not be more important or better timed. This is our small witness to the light in this dark season of Advent. And our witness has never been needed more than it is at this dark moment in the life of our nation and our world. John the Baptist has arrived on the scene at just the right moment. Sent by God to serve as a witness to God’s light.

John’s Good News is that the darkness cannot overcome the light. But equally true is that the light cannot be known without a witness. The deepest hope of The Light is the courage of a witness.

So let us rest assured that we do not need to make the light, the light is already here. But it is our witness is to insist that it shine!

Amen.

 

 

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

 

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/cdc-gets-list-of-forbidden-words-fetus-transgender-diversity/2017/12/15/f503837a-e1cf-11e7-89e8-edec16379010_story.html?tid=ss_fb&utm_term=.75b2a1faba87

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Georgeorgeorgeorge…….

The Gospel According to Mark 13:24-37

December 3, 2017: Advent I

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

 ‘But in those days, after that suffering, 
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light, 
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

 

 

It is finally Advent! Welcome to the season of insanity……if the definition of insanity, not the serious clinical definition but the cultural colloquial one, is doing the same thing over and over again with the expectation of a different result.

Because here we are again, the first Sunday in Advent. Just like last year, and the year before, and the year before that, here we are beginning our story, again. Our same age-old story, in a new year, presumably in a new way. And yet, it is not a new story, not even close. For some of us, Advent could easily feel like …Ground Hog Day, the movie…the same old unfulfilled promise of peace on earth, once again.  Every year we wait with joyous expectancy for a gift that never seems to come. Are we that foolish? Or is God that untrustworthy? How can it be that God has already come on earth, and earth is still without God’s peace?

And to make matters worse, this morning’s Gospel reading from Mark makes us wonder if the promised peace on earth will even be worth the cost.

Because on this first Sunday in the festive season of Silver Bells we have made our way here through a world overflowing with twinkling lights and lawn Santas; through a maze of retail ads choking every conceivable media, touting a thousand affordable ways to make this Christmas bright. We have navigated gluttonous lists organizing a fleet of holiday parties and gift giving and festivity. And having made our way here through all of that, we gather this morning in the home of the Good News, to kick off this season of good tidings and great Joy to the World, where Merry Christmas is our vernacular…..and then we are met with this morning’s abominable reading from Mark’s Gospel.

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

 Bam! From holiday cheer to earth-ending fear. From Santa is coming, to life as we know it is on the way out. Which candidly, might actually sound like Good News to some in this world. But I am guessing that for most of us it is……terrifying.

Heaven and earth will pass away……

Jesus, Mary and Joseph!….and I invoke these names in the most reverent way possible. Is this really the time for such an apocalyptic text? In this the Most Wonderful Time of the Year? Who chose this Gospel reading?

But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven….

 O Holy Night! O Holy cow! Jesus is not talking about an eclipse. And this cataclysmic Advent premonition doesn’t lend itself to Johnny Mathis or Bing Crosby or Rosemary Clooney. But the stark truth is that nothing in this Christian life, the life that begins anew this season of Advent, does. Because Christianity has almost nothing in common with popular culture. And this morning’s readings are testament to that.

Christianity 101. If we want to live into the outrageous story that begins with the Incarnation of the Divine and ends with the Resurrection of a Human Being, albeit a fully divine human being, but a human being nonetheless, we are going to have to get a handle on the relationship between endings and beginnings. And so the first trick to getting Christianity is learning how to hear the end of one thing as simply, miraculously, thankfully, the beginning of another. Like spelling George…without end…..Georgeorgeorgeorge….and so on.

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

We hear this general message every year in the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent. The readings always assure us of the Second Coming of Christ. They always deliver the Good News that peace is still on the way. But they also remind us that peace will not just grace this world, it will replace this world. Altogether. Like the Incarnation and the Resurrection, the Second Coming will turn the world on its head; it will involve both an earth-shattering ending and a life-affirming beginning.

This year, in Mark’s Gospel we hear a slightly more intense edge to this message than we hear in the years when we read Matthew and Luke. Those Gospels end with a return appearance of our Saviour after the resurrection, and Jesus’ promise always to be with the disciples. But Mark ends much more definitively. With just an empty tomb, and followers who are, frankly, terrified to have lost not only their friend, but also, mysteriously and disturbingly, the body. How can the tomb be empty?

The last verse of Mark’s Gospel reads: So they [the ones who had come to the tomb to tend Jesus’ body] they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. The end. I always hear Linus in my head when I read this last sentence in this Gospel, as though the friends at Jesus’ tomb in Mark were somehow connected to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth in Luke: and they were all sore afraid!

This is the end of Mark’s Gospel. And some might argue, the crux of Mark’s story.

There is no soft landing in Mark. Jesus does not return to assure the disciples that their Savior will always be with them. In Mark, the tomb is just empty. In Mark, Jesus has simply come and gone. And the apostles are just terrified. And the world is not yet right. Oppression and violence and domination and fragmentation and all of the soul-squelching ills of human society are still alive and well, as they are today. And so their hope, and ours, turns to the Second Coming. The Second Coming that is foretold in this morning’s Gospel.

There is hardly anything more uniformly and widely attested in the New Testament than the Second Coming of Christ. It is in all three synoptic Gospels, Acts, Corinthians, The Book of Revelation and so on. And even though we do not, in our contemporary culture, talk much about the Second Coming in this exact term, we embrace that hope every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Every time we pray that God’s Kindom will come on earth as it is in heaven. That is an explicit prayer for the Second Coming of Christ.

And so this morning we hear Jesus’ answer to that prayer. Sit tight. I am coming. And then our instruction. Let us take a note: Our first task in this new liturgical year is not to Deck the Halls or even to Go Tell it on the Mountain, but to sit tight!  Actually, not just sit tight, but explicitly: Keep Awake!

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away…..so Keep awake!

Personally, I’m a big chicken, and if the world is going to come to an end, I would just as soon sleep through it! I don’t want to keep awake. It scares me to death. And I am guessing I am not alone. The same way the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea scares us to death. The same way the wild proliferation of gun violence in our schools and churches and public life scares us to death. The same way the opioid epidemic scares us to death. The same way the lifting of all regulation on carbon emissions and all earth-warming, creation killing activity scares us to death. The same way the possibility of another Ebola epidemic scares us to death. And so as it turns out, Mark’s Gospel proclamation of the Second Coming does not have a lock on terrifying endings. We already know what it feels like to be scared to death.

But the difference is, in Mark’s Gospel, the end is not just the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad end. It is more of a means to an end….an end that is required to clear the decks for a brand new, life-giving beginning. Because every beginning is preceded by an ending. It’s just the law of Creation.

And so as the popular preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says in her sermon on this passage in Mark, this end comes not in the absence of God, but with God front and center.[1] And God is not only present at this ending, God is responsible for it. (pause) Which makes this passage no less terrifying in my book, but it does offer an enormous light at the end of the tunnel. And not just a light, a light whose brilliance and comfort we can scarcely imagine, a light that so outshines our fear that we will want to be awake to see it.

Nevertheless, I must admit that if I were Mark’s editor, I might have suggested a different exhortation for our preparation for this terrifying ending. Because, while staying awake is surely good practice, I think that a more helpful instruction might be to let go. Let go of all the things that block our embrace of this ending as anything other than a divine new beginning. Let go of everything that we fear we will lose in order to gain the Kindom of God.

Let go of our obsession with security. Let go of our grip on prosperity. Let go of our cultural and constructed notions of home and family. Let go of our comfort and complacency and competitive drive. Let go of our notion that death is worse than suffering. Let go of our notion that life begins with, and belongs to, us alone. Let go of every human construct that gives us something to lose. Because lose it we will. All of us. All of it. Eventually. Whether we lose it now or later, in the course of our lives or at the end of the world, we are going to lose it.

But the Good News is that either way, there will be life abundant in the aftermath. So Advent may well be the time to prepare for the new beginning by letting go of our fear of the ending.

This morning we lit that first candle on our Advent wreath. It is the inextinguishable sign that we are not in Kansas anymore. We are now powered by God’s particular light, empowered by God’s expansive vision, and overpowered by God’s everliving love.  We are in God’s time. With God’s blessing. In God’s hands.

I think it is no coincidence that our Christian calendar begins in the darkest part of the year. When the days are short and the light of hope is waning.  I think December 21st….the longest night is a bit of a metaphor for Mark’s message. The days become shorter and shorter….darker and darker until one day, in the blink of a single night, they suddenly begin to grow longer and longer…lighter and lighter. December 22 is immediately lighter than was December 20th. Just like that. One day turns the whole tide. From darkening to lightening in a flash. So fear not!

But let us be duly aware that there will be darkness before there is light. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven. And then there will be a radical new world that we cannot begin to foresee!  To say that the Second Coming of Christ will be mind-blowingly radical is an understatement. It will be off the wall! Over the top! Beyond the pale and out of this world! Profound. Extravagant. Revolutionary. This binding of endings and beginnings in God’s realm will turn the world and everything in it on its head. All of our expectations will be moot. And all of our norms will be shattered, And all of our fears will be cast out by nothing less than love. And all of this is guaranteed by nothing less than our steadfast faith.

And so this Advent season we are embracing a sliver of the radicalness of the Coming of Christ by ending our use of third person singular pronouns in our liturgical language, and too all gendered expressions of God. Because words matter. And I can think of few practices that might offer the same radical experience of upending our cultural norms, unseating our collective comfort, unleashing the radical welcome and inclusivity that is promised in the Kindom of God, than adapting our language to fit our faith claim that we are one in Christ. Because we are.

Let us begin our Advent practice by letting go of the linguistic divisions that keep us from full participation in the Kindom of God. And let us not fret too deeply over the loss of such norms. Because as Mark reminds us, our ways are not God’s ways. And our words are not God’s words.

And as Jesus says:

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

 

Alleluia! Amen.

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

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Cowley Publications: Cambridge, MA) 1995. 135-6.
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Ki Is the Living God

The Book of Judges 4:1-7

November 19, 2017

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. 2So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.
4 At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgement. 6She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, “Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. 7I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                         Judges 4:1-7, NRSV

 

This morning’s reading from the Hebrew Bible is our one and only reading from the Book of Judges. Which is sort of a shame. Because Judges is an action-packed thriller of a read filled with power and greed, love and death, lies and deception, assassination, suicide, seduction, rape murder, political intrigue, civil war, victory and defeat, and that’s just what would fit in the trailer!  It has all of the elements of a great graphic novel, and it is fodder for a good fire and brimstone sermon! So settle in.

Judges marks a major transition in our story of Israel.  The Pentateuch precedes Judges; the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And these are all about creation and covenant and law.  They are about the constitution of the Israelite community, with God at the helm. The Book of Joshua immediately follows the Pentateuch.

And once the community has been constituted in the first five books, beginning with the Book of Joshua, the hot topic shifts to land acquisition. Before Joshua, (in the Pentateuch) the land belonged to God, not the Israelites. Before Joshua, the use of God’s land was predicated on obedience to God’s covenant. Before Joshua, access to the land was just a reality that came with being in right relationship with God. Before Joshua, the theme was land giving, not land taking.

But in the Book of Joshua, for the first time, the Israelites take the land into their own hands….they acquire land without God explicitly giving it. They defeat Cana, and for the first time, they possess the land. The land is no longer given by God, it is taken by armies. Let us not miss or underestimate this turning point in the relationship between humans and their divine Creator; when the land became almost separated from God. The land was no longer the connection with God; no longer the currency of the relationship with God.

And so After Joshua there was a transitional interim. A period in between the time when God was the head of the community, and Kings rose to the head of the growing empire. A period dating to around the Iron Age, for we who like to know such things. A period when God appointed a series of Judges to mediate between God and the people; to provide military and civil leadership…. but not without God’s direct oversight as the ultimate landowner.

These Judges were ordained by the Spirit of God to bring the people back to God; back from their wanderings toward human constitutions, as it were. Today’s reading from the Book of Judges is our only lectionary reading from this Book…and it comes at the very end of our liturgical year. Short shrift, if you ask me.

It features one of God’s premier chosen humans who happens to be, thanks be to God, a woman:  Judge Deborah. Just a quick show of hands: how many of you have even heard of Deborah, let alone know who she was? Not many. Deborah was a real, bonafide Judge. She was equal in power with Ehud and Samson and all the other Judges in the Book, whom we just assume are male. But the Book of Judges tells of more prominent women than any other book in the Bible. There are 19 women of note in this relatively short, and ubiquitously under-proclaimed Book.

But if you have never heard of Deborah, do not feel bad. It’s not unexpected that we might miss Deborah’s stature. For one thing, the translators over the years have not exactly done a great job of lifting this lone divinely ordained woman. In fact, I think they have done her and us a grave disservice.

For starters, every text of this scripture that I checked, every single translation from the Tanak to King James, to the NRSV identifies her as Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth. Who is Lappidoth? Lappidoth is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. By all accounts, there is no husband Lappidoth. There is, however, a place called Lappidoth. Which makes perfect sense when we know that the Hebrew word for woman and wife are exactly the same. The Hebrew word isha can be translated as woman or wife, a designation that makes all of the difference in a description such as this.

Deborah is the only woman of this stature in the Bible. She is not just a prophet, she has actual political and military power. She is a Judge, a commander in chief, the top civic ruler, in her own right. And yet the translators, every last one of them, have chosen to translate the Hebrew as Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, rather than the equally viable and much more likely, Deborah, woman of Lappidoth. Which one confers the more impressive status? A commander in chief identified by her husband or by her heritage?

Think for a moment if 2000 years hence the story we hear of the first woman to be the presidential nominee from a major party is about Hilary Clinton or Hilary, wife of Bill? Or may a better analogy would be Elizabeth Warren, wife of Massachusetts or woman of Massachusetts? You get my point.

Deborah is described as a wife of a man rather than a woman in her own right. And then to further diminish her status, many of the translations say that she would sit beneath the palm tree and the Israelites would come to her for decisions. But in the Hebrew text, that word decisions, or judgments, is not plural and it has a definite article. So the better translation is that the people would come to Deborah, not for her decisions, but for The Decision, the Judgment. The plural without the definite article makes it sound more like folks came to her for her opinion on their issues. But the singular with a definite article makes it abundantly clear that she has the power to decide the one outcome of the case. These are small inaccuracies of translation, but given the scarcity of good female role models in our faith tradition, it seems a travesty that this single example of a woman with outright political power should be so obscured by the text itself.

Because words matter. How we tell the story matters. It can be the difference between who is in and who is out. In her book Becoming Wise, On Being host Krista Tippett writes, “The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words make worlds.” And Deborah is a case and point.

Even when the words don’t sound derogatory. Even when they sound innocuous. Sometimes we need to listen more deeply, more carefully, outside of our context, which can skew the words to change their meaning altogether.

 

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 asked, ‘Where are they?’

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

Context matter. Language matters. How we hear words, and how the context influences how we hear words, matters. Whether we hear Deborah the wife of Lappidoth, or Deborah the woman of Lappidoth. Whether we hear Deborah weighing in with her opinions or Deborah with the authority to make the decision. It matters……at least to me it matters.

One of the reasons that I left the church at age 15, is that I could not find myself in the story. I could not find myself in the biblical witness….the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph were not stories that included the likes of me, they did not include women.  Sarah and Hagar and Rebekka and Rachel and Leah…were the wives, they were not the ancestors. They were not the recipients of God’s promise or God’s covenant. They seemed to me to be almost bystanders.

And I could not find myself in the life of the church, the community of faith that calls itself Christian. The community that worships the Father and the Son and the genderless Holy Ghost. Where are the women in the liturgies of the church? Where do I fit in to the prayers and the hymns and the sacraments?

The ecumenical movement has, since the 1970’s, been exploring the implications of the masculine pronominal references to God. Committees of thousands of faithful souls from many denominations have been thinking about the overwhelmingly patriarchal language of the liturgy, if not the biblical texts. But I am here to tell you that almost 50 years later, the patriarchy is yet alive and well.

Women are still, even as we read today’s scripture, either left out of the mix altogether or grossly minimalized in the few instances where we appear. But my dear friends, if women are left out, let us think how left out are those among us who do not identify fully as either the male or female; those whose gender status is not binary, not one of the two “normal” categories – imagine how left out those children of the living God must feel. Left out not only of the stories of the patriarchs, as am I….but left out all the way back to Eden, all the way back to Adam and Eve. A world in which everyone who is pleasing in God’s sight is either Adam OR Eve.

Tomorrow is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. And so I am thinking about the several kids connected with this very small parish who either identify as transgender or non-binary in their gender identification. A few do not claim either gender, in an exclusive sort of way, and prefer to be referred to with the  pronoun “they.” Instead of she or he, the only available pronominal option that does not totally misidentify these non-binary folks is “they.” I think I do not have to go into much detail regarding the difficulty that ensues when referring to a single person as “they,” at least in this cultural context. And so I have been putting my mind to thinking of ways that we might better include everyone in our midst, at least linguistically.

I don’t know how hard is existence in this binary world for these beloved children of God. But I myself know a bit about how hard it is to live on the margins. I am a woman priest in the Fatherland of Christianity; and a gay priest following the ferociously straight-laced footsteps of the Son of God. I know a bit of what it feels like to be on the margins. And although my margins have become appreciably more socially acceptable in the last twenty years, I still find myself in contexts where good hearted people mean to include me, but often end up making me feel even more marginalized by their heartfelt special accommodations. It still feels lousy to have to be the exception that even the progressive world often contorts to accommodate. I often feel uncluded rather than included. And I am betting that I am not the only person in these pews to know what I mean.

Uncluded in some way that separates us from the pack. Separates us by ethnicity or color, by gender, by sexual orientation, by country of origin, or physical abilities that require special accommodations. Unempowered. Unabled. Uncluded in one way or another.

And yet, we tell each other every time we gather that we are one in Christ. And we are. But that is not what our language conveys.

And so by assigning the third person plural pronoun “they” to a particular singular person of God, even with the best intentions, feels to me a bit like bringing the handicap ramp to the back door of the church, where it is the most affordably and easily accommodated –  instead of reworking the front entrance to include everyone in the same egress, without special accommodation.

We have chosen to accommodate the access rather than the inclusion. Because including everyone in the same entrance would require a radical rethinking of the whole façade of the building. A front entrance ramp would require that we change the look of our beloved nineteenth century parish. That we change the path through our historic lych-gate. That we lose some of the front yard and most likely the beautiful, but heavy, red wooden doors. And anyway, we have a perfectly usable access ramp to the side door, which assures us that “they” who need it are on our radar and that “their” presence is important to us. And yet my friends, let us not kid ourselves, “they” are still on the margins. “They” are still being accommodated rather than fully included. Even if “they” do not mind a bit that the ramp is especially for “them.”

And so no matter how comfortable we might get with calling the non-binary folks in our midst by the pronoun “they,” the rest of us will still be the norm; the rest of us will still be the culturally embraced he and she. We will not be plural. We will not be “abnormally” ambiguous. None of us will need to stretch to remember that we need a special accommodation.  And like it or not, good intentions or not, every non-binary child of God will continue to exist on the margins.

I don’t know about you, but I think…I hope…I pray that is not who we are.

And so as I lamented this regrettable state of affairs, I remembered an article that I read over the summer in Orion magazine, written by Robin Kimmerer, a botany professor at New York College. In her article “Speaking of Nature” she noted the importance of grammar in charting our relationships with each other. She wrote: “Grammar, especially our use of pronouns, is the way we chart relationships in language and, as it happens, how we relate to each other and to the natural world.”[1]

Her article recalled her own indigenous heritage. Her grandfather was a Potawatomi Indian. And she had begun learning some of that lost language that was her inheritance. It is a language that, like most indigenous languages, honors the earth and the life force that animates it. Kimmerer wrote that our English language has, “a special grammar for personhood. We would never say of our late neighbor, “It is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.” ….In the English language, a human alone has distinction while all other living beings are lumped with the nonliving ‘it’.”

But not in the Potawatomi tongue. In that vernacular there are no such pronouns that separate homo-sapiens from the rest of the living, that separate male and the female. In that vernacular, the designation is either imbued with the Spirit of life or not. Beyond that, there is no linguistic category.  For example, the word that most often describes living things is:  “Aakib-maadizii-win,…which means ‘a being of the earth.’” Kimmerer wondered about creating a new pronoun, signifying the divine life that flows through all living creations, by using the first part of that long Potawatomi word;  the “aaki” part. The part that means land. The land that belongs to the Creator.

 Kimmerer mused, what if our language returned our identity to the land, what if we used “Ki to signify a being of the living earth. Not he or she, but ki. Not it, but ki. So that when the robin warbles on a summer morning, we can say, ‘Ki is singing up the sun. Ki runs through the branches on squirrel feet, ki howls at the moon…. all alive in our language as in our world.” And so why not also:  ki is downstairs with the rest of the kids. Or We love our God,  Ki’s mercy endures forever.

Almost like a linguistic return of the land to God. To the time when the land was filled with God’s wholeness and not divided by human distinctions.  Why can’t every living being simply be ki….a being of the living creation?

And plural of ki is, of course, kin…..as in kinship. As in the Kindom of God. Kimmerer writes;  Kin are ripening in the fields; kin are nesting under the eaves….Our words can be an antidote to human exceptionalism, to unthinking exploitation, an antidote to loneliness, an opening to kinship. If words can make the world, can these two little sounds [ki and kin ] call back the grammar of animacy?

And I wonder, can these two little words, ki and kin establish a grammar of inclusion?

We will see. Because this Advent, December 3rd until December 24th we are going to attempt a linguistic challenge that may feel almost as radical as the world introduced by the birth of our Savior. We are going to live without third person pronouns, and without gendered references to God or God’s Son. We are going to stop accommodating those whose identity is not included in our tidy binary pronominal world. We are going to put us, each and all, the one body of Christ, on the same grammatical playing field.  We are going to rethink the façade of our linguistic building and change the ramp of our grammar, even if it is hard….and it will be. Even if it feels awkward. And it will. Even if it changes the look of our liturgy; even if it causes us to sacrifice some of the heavy red wooden doors of our prose that make us feel at home. Because I can assure us that we are not home, until and unless we are all here together on the same hallowed grammatical ground.

What we may be called to sacrifice is not as important as who we will welcome.

And that my friends, is the miracle of Christmas in a nutshell!

And so just as Deborah is from Lappidoth….identified by her heritage, like the rest of the Judges.

We will all be referred to as ki…..identified by God’s animating life force, like the rest of God’s Creation.

 

Alleluia! Amen.

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

 

[1] Orion Magazine, “Speaking of Nature” by Robin Kimmerer, March/April 2017 (https://orionmagazine.org/article/speaking-of-nature/)

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Remembering A New Way

A Celebration of Our Anglican Roots

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 4:1-19

October 15, 2017

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I can’t think of a better piece of scripture with which to celebrate the founding of our Anglican tradition than this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This community was thought by some to be the first Christian community in Europe. And Paul is thought to have written this morning’s letter to the Philippians about thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, around the year 62 in the common era. And so it was effectively a part of the start of the Christian church, such as it is. This letter offers some of the earliest pointers to following Jesus Christ in community.

The letter, like all of Paul’s letters, gives us a bird’s eye view of the earliest ecclesiology in our Christian tradition. Anglican ecclesiology is what we celebrate this morning. Ecclesiology is a ten dollar word that just means a particular way of being church.

In the beginning, the way was much less traveled than it is now. And so Paul was writing to a community of Christians who had no church experience or authority to guide them, no scripture, no tradition, nothing but what they knew or had heard of Jesus Christ and the Spirit which had authorized them to act as his followers. And so when they began to experience a bit of communal division and angst Paul wrote this letter to help re-ground them in their Christ-following values, in their holy “reason.”

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Paul implores: Hold on to what you have learned and heard and received. And so hold on to that holy “reason” championed by the early church, and then skip ahead roughly 1500 years to a time when the church had been more than well established. The scriptures had been canonized for over one thousand years. But they were still only accessible in the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, and in the Latin Vulgate. That meant that Bible was only accessible through the clergy, who were fully in control of the traditions of the church, and charged with the mediation of the relationship between God and all of God’s church-going people. The tradition of the Roman Catholic Church was paramount throughout Europe, and the authority of the Pope superseded even the authority of Kings.

And so when the English Monarch, King Henry VIII sought a divorce from his childless wife, Catherine of Aragon, the Roman Catholic Church, in the form of a Papal Bull, issued an unequivocal, non-negotiable response: “no.”  The authority of the institutional church in Rome had become so deep and broad and powerful that the King of England could not free himself from a marriage that was precluding an heir to his throne.

In March of 1530, Pope Clement VII denied Henry’s request for a divorce. In February of 1531, Henry VIII severed ties with Rome and declared himself to be the: “Sole Protector and Supreme Head of the Church of England.” Henry appointed a scholar priest named Thomas Cranmer to be his first Archbishop of Canterbury, whose first assignment, no surprise, was the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine.

Henry’s only preliminary intention in breaking with Rome and elevating himself to the lofty position of “Sole Protector and Supreme Head of the Church” was to secure a divorce. But his new Archbishop of Canterbury had other ideas. The rest of the European Continent had been undergoing a radical re-formation of its own which had started roughly fourteen years earlier, when a German priest and professor of theology, Martin Luther, posted his Ninety Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of a Wittenberg church in Saxony. And just like that….the Protestant reformation was born.

The English Reformers, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and priest theologian Richard Hooker, followed the lead of the Protestant Reformers on the Continent, but they did not entirely break communion with the traditions of the Roman Church, at least not quite so conclusively. Rather, they sought their vibrant new path by honoring the sacramental tradition of the church while elevating the role of, and direct access to, holy scripture. The Anglicans rerouted the laity’s access to God, from the narrow path that required the assistance of the clergy, to a direct route that encouraged full responsibility and participation on the part of every faithful soul.

The essence and practice of the new Anglican way was embodied in the Book of Common Prayer which was designed and compiled by Thomas Cranmer, and absolutely perfectly named for its purpose. Because perhaps the most powerful and far reaching change in Anglican ecclesiology was the shift in authority from the clergy and the traditions of the church to the laity, the common people, and their direct access to God through their own interpretation of scripture and their reception of the sacraments.  The Book of Common Prayer, represented a middle way between the traditions of the church and the radical new Protestant Reformation that grounded itself in scripture alone. The Anglican Way was the middle way; the via media.

I want to talk in a bit more depth about two pillars, maybe THE two pillars of our Anglican middle way that illustrate the shift in power from the church and the clergy to the laity, from the church as the gatekeeper of the faith to the church as the shepherd of the flock, a resource for the crowd-sourceing. Two pillars of the Anglican way that make it both distinctive and incredibly cool, speaking only for myself, of course. Both are a bit pithy, so please bear with me. But these are two foundations of our theology that we need to know…..at least in my humble opinion. They are Anglican Biblical Theology and Anglican Sacramental Theology. But in the Anglican tradition, they are to be mitigated by a third pillar, reason. You remember the authority articulated in this morning’s Letter from Paul to the Philippians. That is the third pillar: reason. And so these pillars support what Richard Hooker called the three legged stool of Anglicanism: Scripture and Tradition through the lens of reason.

So let’s start with scripture. Anglican Biblical Theology. In our liturgical world, this part of our story informs the first half of our Sunday morning service – the Liturgy of the Word.

Maybe the first and most powerful facilitator of the Re-formation on the Continent, was the translation of the Holy Bible into the vernacular. That is, from Latin, the language of the church, into the language of the people. Actually, from the Greek and the Hebrew into the language of the people.  Luther’s translation was in German. William Tyndale published the first full translation of the Holy Scriptures in English in 1535.  And for the first time in hundreds of years, over a century, people who were not religiously trained and ordained by the church had access to the scriptures, direct access to the Word of God. Germans, albeit educated Germans, and Anglicans, albeit educated Anglicans, could read, and more importantly interpret, the Gospels for themselves.

The Reformers all over the European Continent thought that reading scripture for one’s self was a prerequisite to being a Christian. They said that the Christ of Christianity was present and truly accessible only in and through scripture. Scripture was the word of God and the embodiment of Christ, and thus the sole source of Christian theology.  And so the Holy Bible, not the Holy Father (that is, the Pope), became the boundary for “the truth.” And it was therefore not only a right but a responsibility of every Christian to experience Christ for themselves through the study of scripture, now accessible in their vernacular.

With this new emphasis on the primacy and authority of scripture came a new emphasis on the importance of preaching. The Word and its interpretation were elevated to an almost equal status with the sacraments. And in fact, in our Episcopal tradition (which is, as you know, essentially the American arm of the Anglican tradition) we do consider preaching to be a sacrament; the Sacrament of the Word.

Now let’s turn our attention to the second pillar of our middle way, the tradition of the church, or  Anglican Sacramental Theology. The sacramental theology of the Anglican Church, established in the 16th century by the effective co-founders of the Anglican tradition Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker, was truly a re-formation rather than a rejection of the foundations of the Roman Catholic tradition. Unlike the Protestant reformers on the rest of the Continent, the English reformers did not change the fundamental structure of worship which featured the Eucharist at its center. However, the purpose and perspective behind the structure – as they related to the person, presence and participation of Christ in the sacraments – was subtly, yet substantially altered. The Church’s mediation of the relationship between each believer and God was replaced with a means and opportunity for that relationship to exist directly.

With the Anglican shift in focus from the sacraments in the hands of the church to the Holy Bible in the hands of each believer, the sacraments themselves became a vehicle for each of the faithful to partake in the redemptive Christ directly. This shift effectively elevated the role and responsibility of the receiver of the sacrament, and diminished the role and responsibility of the priest, and, the substance of the sacrament itself.

Instead of seven sacraments designated by the church, the new Anglican tradition acknowledged only two; not surprisingly, the two sacraments ordained by Christ in the Gospels: Baptism and Eucharist. Again, the primacy of scripture ungirds even the sacramental theology. And good news for you, we are only going to tackle the Sacramental theology of the Eucharist this morning.

There were some radically different theologies of the Eucharist afloat in the 16th century. The Roman Catholic theology insisted that the sacraments were objectified doses of grace which the Church alone controlled and distributed. On the other hand, there was a contingent on the Continent, lead by Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, which held that the sacraments themselves had no inherent efficacy whatsoever, and it was the faith alone of the recipient which empowered the Eucharist. The genius of the Anglican position was not its creation of something entirely new, but its creativity in harmonizing these two polar opposites.  Like the middle way between scripture and tradition with respect to authority, the Anglican reformers established a middle ground in its uniquely Anglican sacramental theology.

The soul of that theology is articulated in Thomas Cranmer’s Thirty Nine Articles penned in 1571[1], and Richard Hooker’s five volumes of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity published in 1594. Stick with me now. This is a little bit confusing, but it is the answer to that question that we all ask about what our Anglican tradition claims actually happens in the Eucharist.

The primary disagreement in the debate on sacramental theology, not surprisingly, was all about authority. Where exactly is the authority in the sacrament located?  Where and how is Christ present? Is the efficacy in the sacrament itself (in the bread and the wine), or in the ministering of the sacrament (in the priest who consecrated and distributes the bread and the wine), or in the reception of the sacrament (in the way you receive the bread and the wine?). Where is the authority located? The answer to that question makes all of the difference in how we understand our relationship to Christ through the sacrament we receive at the Eucharist. For example, if the authority is in the minister, in the priest, and the priest turns out to be a dirty rotten scoundrel, does that mean that none of the bread and wine consecrated by that priest was actually consecrated? Are the baptisms of children baptized by broken clergy valid? If the authority is in the priest, the answer might be no. The location of authority matters.

And so the purpose of the Eucharist was the first point of departure between the Roman Catholic Church and the English Reformers. Both agreed that, as Richard Hooker wrote, “grace is a consequent of sacraments.” But the Roman Catholic position did not concur when Hooker went on to say that the sacraments, “contain in themselves no vital force of efficacy, they are not physical but moral instruments of salvation, duties of service and worship, which unless we perform as the Author of grace requires, they are unprofitable.”[2] Sacraments were taken by Hooker and the Anglican contingent  to be a conveyance of grace, but they were not in themselves substantially divine. Moral instruments of salvation versus physical embodiments of grace.

The sacramental tide had shifted in the Anglican way from a physically endowed object to a spiritually empowered presence.  The conviction behind the new Anglican sacramental theology was predicated on a new perception of its foundational pillars regarding the person, presence, and participation of Christ in the Eucharist.  Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity was a creative, complex, and convincing presentation of the Anglican point of view regarding these pillars.

At the risk of oversimplifying Hooker’s brilliant argument, he held that the authority in the sacrament was inextricably bound to the fundamental attributes of the person of Christ. He wrote that there were four attributes that equally, and fundamentally, and axiomatically describe Jesus:

  1. he is divine. 2. he is human. 3. He is both of those things together. 4. He is each distinctly and yet one. [3]

These are the four elemental principals that describe the wholeness of Christ. And on this fourfold definition, Hooker predicated his views on the presence and participation of Christ in the Eucharist.

He said, if these four attributes were indisputable truths about who and what Christ is/was, then none of them can be violated without calling into question the very substance of the Christian faith. All of them had to be true at once. That made the issue of Christ’s presence, and the way that Christ is present in the Eucharist, both critical and controversial. If Christ is present, it is in all four of these ways. Equally. And all at the same time.

You see the problem brewing, don’t you? The Roman Catholic notion of transubstantiation says that the bread and wine themselves becomes the real presence of Christ. But according to Hooker, this denies Christ’s divinity, because it denies that he is everywhere, it denies his infinity by trapping his presence in the bread and wine. The Lutheran notion of consubstantiation says that the bread and wine are both elements in which Christ is present, but it is still just bread and wine, because Christ is everywhere. According to Hooker, this theology denies Christ’s humanity, because it denies that he is fully and exclusively available in the bread and wine. Neither understanding of the presence of Christ satisfies all four of Hooker’s descriptors.

And so instead of transubstantiation or consubstantiation, Hooker compares the presence of Christ to the a character on a line. A point on a line, says Hooker, is both finite and infinite, “in its possibility of application” it is at once finite in its local presence and infinite in its potential presence.[4] Right. At once the point is right here and as part of the line, could go on and on and on forever. Finite and infinite at once. A brilliant analogy! The presence of Christ is finite in our hands, but infinite with respect to its potential application in and through our lives. Who knows what we will go into the world and accomplish!

And so Hooker spelled out the bottom line on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist: “it is not the bread and wine that are changed, here it is the real transmutation of our souls and bodies.”[5] Our souls and bodies are the infinite application of the finite bite of bread. How great is that?!

And in this vein, Thomas Cranmer made a slight but powerful change to the prayer of consecration in his 1549 prayer book. He revised the wording regarding the bread and wine from the traditional, “to become the body and blood of Christ,” to, “to be to us the body and blood of Christ.”  Sooooo Anglican…..We are part of the sacramental equation.  This slight change clearly illustrates both the substance of the Anglican shift in position and the subtlety with which it was implemented. Gorgeous! Anglicans were no longer to be infused with the objects of grace, but were to receive Christ in a personal, spiritual, and even mystical (in its lack of objectified definition) relationship for which the sacraments provided a venue. Hooker’s new Anglican understanding of the authority in the Eucharist was called receptionist.

I think that is about enough for us to chew on for today. But let us notice how both the new emphasis on direct access to the Word of God by the People of God, and the Eucharistic sacrament as being both finite in the bread and wine and infinite in us and our lives, are cornerstones of our uniquely Anglican Way that rests much of its authority in the particular hands and hearts and minds of the faithful.

And the third cornerstone of our Anglican equation was laid back in the early church, as we heard this morning from the Apostle Paul. Neither the scripture not the sacrament can realize their full potential without the engagement of our values, our own sense of reason.  And so my friends, our re-formation as Anglicans both re-visions a new way and re-grounds us in the early church.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

 

Alleluia!

Amen.

 

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

 

 

 

 

[1] You can turn to page 872 in the BCP in your pews to see Thomas Cranmer’s original statement in The Thirty Nine Articles. Article 25 reads: “Sacraments ordained of Christ, be not only badges or tokens of Christian mens profession: but rather they be certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace and Gods good will toward us, by which he doth work invisible in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him.”

[2] Keble, John (ed.) Of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity by Richard Hooker , V.57.4

[3] Hooker, Laws, V.54.10

[4] Hooker Laws, V.67.8

[5] Hooker, Laws, V.67.8

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