Take Heart: Endings Are Beginnings

The Gospel According to Luke 21:25-36

December 2, 2018: Advent I

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

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 wethat foolish? Or is Godthat 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 Luke makes us wonder if the promised peace on earth will even be worth the cost.  It reads like a sadistic doomsday threat: the devastation, says Jesus, it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place…even before Last Friday’s climate report. The report that is endorsed by NASA, NOAA, the department of defense and 10 other scientific agencies, according to the Atlantic. The report that represents the work of over 300 scientists over the course of decades. And the bottom line is that if we do not repent soon and very soon, “hundreds of thousands of lives may be lost.”

Today’s reading from Luke could easily be the preamble of that very contemporary report.

And so on this first Sunday in the festive season of Silver Bells we have made our way here to hear this prophesy through a world overflowing with twinkling lights and lawn Santas; through a maze of media that implores us to spend our money on things that will hasten our collective demise. 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 homeof the Good News, to kick off this season of good tidings and great Joy to the World, where Merry Christmas isourvernacular…..and then we are met with this morning’s abominable reading from Luke’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. The is no question that if we do not make some changes…serious changes….well, we are going to be smack in the middle of this morning’s passage from Luke’s Gospel. 

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 a depressing text? In this the Most Wonderful Time of the Year? Who chose this Gospel reading for this season of joy and good cheer?

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, on the earth [there will be]  distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken….

O Holy Night! O Holy cow! Jesus is not talking about an eclipse. And this cataclysmic Advent premonition is not at all suited to the soundtrack by 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 nothingin 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 come to terms with the upending of our cultural norms. The last shall be first. The first shall be last. Beginnings are endings and endings are beginnings.

We are going to have to learn how to hear the end of one thing as simply…..miraculously, and often thankfully, the beginning of another.

Heaven and earth will pass away, butmy words will not pass away.

We hear this general message every year in the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent. The reading always assures us of the Second Coming of Christ. Each reading delivers 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.

There is hardly anything more uniformly and widely attested in the New Testament than this scenario of 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; a new beginning that will blossom from a painful ending.

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 to wake up and prepare. This may be where all of the decorating and Christmas pomp comes in, as was suggested in yesterday’s workshop on the Gospel according to Luke. Prepare so that we will not be…surprised.

 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away…..so Keep awake!Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life….

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 synagogues 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. And so as it turns out, Luke’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 Luke’s Gospel, the end is not just the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad end. In the Gospel, the end is more of a means to a beginning….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.

It’s the Bad News Good News of life. When we embark on a new beginning, something is going to have to come to an end. Something is going to have to be left behind. And not just chaff in our lives, but also, maybe, some of the wheat. The choices we make will make all of the difference.

And so in this morning’s Gospel, I might have suggested a different exhortation for our preparation for this terrifying ending. Because, while staying awakeis surely good practice, I think that a more accurate instruction might have been 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 on the road to building 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 and belonging and citizenship. Let go of our comfort and complacency and competitive drive to win, win, win. Let go of our notion that death is worse than suffering. Sometimes it is not. Let go of our notion that life begins with, and belongs to, us alone. Let go of the temptation to protect the status quo that keeps us comfortable. Let go of every human construct that gives us something to lose when we reach for God. 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…everything is going to go.

Everything except the Word of the Beloved.

And so 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; we are empowered by God’s expansive vision; we are 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 Luke’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. 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, our 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.

Instead of referring to the Divine with inappropriately singular masculine pronouns, he and him, we will instead use the genderless third person plural pronouns, they and them. This change not only alleviates the unsuitable implication that God is male, it highlights the core of our faith that God is the trinity – three in one persons – they and them. Likewise with the Holy Spirit whom we, in this place, usually refer to with the equally inappropriate feminine third person pronoun, she and her. The preferred pronouns for the Holy Spirit will also, during Advent, be they and them. The only person of the trinity whose pronoun will not change (this year) is one whose gender is actually……human – the Incarnation who is the Son of God.

So in this holy season of Advent, a season set aside for God, let us take stock of our world and prepare for a New Creation. Let us, as Luke instructs this morning, be alert, wake up, stand our ground for love, and pray. Pray hard. Because Jesus is coming. To turn the world on its head. Jesus is coming. Again. So we had better pay attention.

 Amen.

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

 

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Kin-dom Matters

November 25, 2018

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

Well, we can check another liturgical year off the calendar. Today is is the last Sunday in the year, the liturgical year – the timeframe that marks the seasons of the church as the calendar year marks the seasons of creation. And like the calendar year, the liturgical year features distinct seasons that mark the emphasis of our lives. Planting, sowing, growing, reaping, resting. The liturgical year starts in Advent when we wait. In ordinary time after Epiphany, we watch. In Lent, Jesus is fully human. In Eastertide, fully divine. And in Pentecost, after Jesus has ascended back to God’s arms, we are sent out to plant the Gospel in the long stretch of ordinary time after Pentecost….which ends today.

This Sunday sits on the precipice between all that we have experienced and become over this past year, and all that we might live into when we begin anew next Sunday. It’s a good time to take stock of who we are. It’s a good time to think deeply about our identity, as Christians in an increasingly secular world. It is a time to assess who we are and to dream about where God might be calling us from here. It is a time of both thanksgiving and hopefulness.

Next Sunday, the start of Advent, we begin the journey again. So today is sort of our Christian New Year’s Eve.

The liturgical term for this last Sunday in the church year is Christ the King Sunday, or the Reign of Christ Sunday. In his 1925 encyclical, Pope Pius instituted this Feast Day, registering his opposition to the secularism that was challenging the authority of Christ even among Christians, even among Roman Catholics. And so this day is meant to be a reminder, in an increasingly secular world, using exceptionally secular language, that Christ reigns….still….as always. That Christ is, as we say in the vernacular of our political realm, the King.

In our liturgy guide, the Eucharist begins with a statement about God’s Kingdom. Blessed be God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. And blessed be God’s Kingdom now and forever, amen. But last year at about this time, we in this community amended that language and changed the word Kingdom to Kin-dom. Because, we thought, the connotations of king and kingdom may not authentically express our understanding of God’s realm or God’s intentions for God’s realm. Because the language of king and kingdom seems to almost contradict the language of the divine. The language that honors the sacred in all of God’s creations. King and Kingdom denote genres of absolute authority that seem most appropriate to humanly constructed realms, not heavenly realms. A kingdom is a realm of this earth that requires allegiance to….well, a king. And as the Hebrew Scriptures tell us over and over and over again, kings are not even close to God.

In fact,  God spends several chapters in the first book of Samuel trying to dissuade the Israelites from pursuing a king altogether. For kings, says God, even good kings tend to be greedy and selfish and power hungry -and in the end, a king will take, take, take whatever a king can get. Only God is universally gracious. Only God is unselfishly generous. Only God is everlastingly just and righteous. Even a good king, says God, even a king who is chosen especially by God, a king like David, even he is flawed and fractured and still only human.

But the last three or four chapters from 2 Samuel, from which we heard this morning, mark a subtle turn in the theology of this biblical book; a turn from the notion that the king is all-powerful, a shift from a sort of “royal absolutism” to the realization that there is an authority beyond even the king’s. An authority that surpasses the King’s. Which is why king and God are fundamentally incompatible terms. Incompatible identities.

Which explains Jesus’ answer to Pilate in today’s reading from John’s Gospel. Pilate summons Jesus and asks: Are you the King of the Jews? And Jesus replies: It’s you who say I am. Jesus himself rejects the title of king, the royal title offered by the Romans. King isyourtitle, not mine says Jesus to Pilate. Although, Jesus does not say no, I am not a king. What he says is, in my hearing of his answer, if I am the king,I am not the kind of king you say I am. If I am the king, we are going to need to redefine the word king.

And yet here we are, along with every other Anglican and Protestant and Roman Catholic and Orthodox church in the world celebrating Christ with a title that, as it is defined by our culture, Jesus himself denied.  And even though Jesus dodges the question by insisting that those are Pilate’s words and that his kingdom is not of this world, the image of Jesus as King is ubiquitous in our prayers, in our hymns, in our Christian cultural norm.  We refer to Christ in the language of kingship, of his reign, of his victory of his royalty in every aspect of our Christian worship. And so for almost a century, Christians have reaffirmed and celebrated the universal “kingship” of Christ on this last Sunday in the liturgical year. Kingis the image, the identity, that we have chosen to sum up our God.

But I think this description of Jesus, as triumphalist King, may well be among the most discouraging images of Christianity in our contemporary world. The identity of Christ as a King seems a poor response to the spiritual hunger that runs deep in our post-Christian culture. The depleted spirits of our time and place are not seeking a ruler of the universe, they are yearning for a personal connection with the Source of love, the Source of compassion, the Source of mercy, the Source of peace.

And, it has always felt odd to me that we Christians rebel against secularism by assigning a totally secular, almost anti-spiritual, title to our Savior. Why are we using old images of earthly power and might to talk about the new grace that God is doing in and through Christ?….a thing grounded in humility and gratitude and kindness and caring. A thing not at all akin to a king.

The Incarnation calls us to this different paradigm of power. Not ruling power. Healing power. Reconciling power. A whole new way of being strong and resilient and transformative in the world. A way of life that denies both the hierarchies of this world that oppress and diminish us all, and the death that dooms us to the limits of this earthly life. A way of life that turns the structures of authority and legitimacy in this world on their heads! That turns power into love and love into power. A way of life that reorders the patriarchal-sounding “Kingdom of God” into the relational “Kin-dom of God.” A realm that honors and lifts the kinship of all of God’s creation, here and now. That makes every creature of God kin to every other.

Christ is not a new king to rule over the old world. Christ is a wholly new creation that comes to reorder and revision the old world into God’s new Kin-dom.  To transformthe Kingdom. And we are not just talking about objectives, we are talking about identity.  And identity matters. It is the starting point from which everything else flows. From which every relationship is built. From which every heart and hope is understood. Identity is at the core.

Last Tuesday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance and Celebration, an annual observance that was begun 20 years ago when the life of a beautiful, vibrant, transgender woman, Rita Hester, was taken on November 28, 1998 in the name of horrific ignorance and unbridled hate. The now annual remembrance celebrates those among us who are gender variant on a spectrum that seats most of us somewhere between the binary absolutes. It particularly remembers the many who have suffered for their non-conforming gender identities. It particularly celebrates and honors those folks whose inward existential and ontological core may not match the expected outward appearance. It celebrates those who may not seem to be who they truly are.

That should sound more than familiar to Christians. Because it could just as well be a remembrance and celebration of the Incarnation; a child of God who himself transgressed all of the boundaries of identity; Jesus was fully human andfully divine. A new creation. A child of God whose core identity crossed the boundaries of all understanding. Whose inward identity was never fully revealed in his outward appearance.  And when he suggested that he was born with this special identity, this full divinity, he was either mistrusted by his community or rejected and reviled by the authorities and the establishment. Jesus was feared for his status-quo-busting identity as I suspect many trans folks are feared for theirs.  I am guessing that our non-binary earthmates can sooooo relate to the way Jesus must have felt carrying his fully divine identity within his fully human body.

Because Jesus was a fully new creation. And the complexity and diversity and beauty of that and every creation of God is missed when ever we attempt to define the image of the divine within the limits of our humanly constructed language OR our humancapacity for love. Whenever we allow earth to define heaven, we are in big trouble.

That mystery is better left in God’s hands. Ourwork is to cross the borders and boundaries that we have culturally constructed, and which serve only to keep us from loving each other as we have been loved by God….those borders and boundaries that hold our allegiance to the kingdom and the king…..rather than the creation and its Creator.

Which is why we need a New Creation every year about this time. Another opportunity to start fresh; to reimagine our identity as Christians. Again, we get to cleanse our palates of our arrogance and our judgment of each other and our hatred and our impatience and our fear and give thanks for the breath of this life, and the companionship of our communities, and the love of a good and abiding God who will come to us in the flesh, again. Who will come to share our joy and our sorrow with a full-throated call for us to follow nothing more than faithfully!

Every Advent offers us a fresh opportunity to flesh out our identity as Christians.

Who are we? What do we value? What is at stake? And what are we willing to give up in God’s name? I think it is not too dramatic to say that in this post-Christian day and age the very life of the church hangs in the balance. This church and every mainline church.

It is no secret that, in general, mainline Protestant churches are in decline. The paradigm that has served the church well for the last 100 years, is no longer sustaining itself as it once had. Our world is becoming increasingly secular and the social benefits that once came along with church membership in the 1950’s and 60’s and 70’s and 80’s even, no longer pay off. There is no longer a social or cultural incentive to belong to a church community. In fact, in New England, the most secular region of our nation, church is not just out of fashion, it is down-right unfashionable. And with the absence of blue laws that protected Sunday morning for worship, and the increase in the average hours of work and general busyness of life, especially for families, church is also down-right inconvenient. And so in this time and place, most mainline congregations have dwindled to the folks who belong to the community because they truly want to be there. It is a classic bad news good news sort of deal; both a worry and a delight. The membership is shrinking. But the level of commitment and faithfulness of the flock that is left, is authentic.

The fact that church is no longer fashionable does not mean that the Christian life is no longer relevant or needed. In my humble estimation, the world is as hungry as it has ever been for what church has to offer. And possibly that hunger reaches deeper into the human spirit than it ever has before. Deeper than what the traditional church paradigm had to offer. But discerning the character of the hunger and the complexion of the bread that will feed it, is going to take some serious time and effort.

Because maybe the future of our tradition no longer lies in the programming of the church, but in the intentionality of the community. Maybe the thing is no longer how many youth activities or Bible studies or outreach projects or choir retreats or any other program we offer, but the ways in which we are intentional about coming together as a community. About the ways we are together rather than the deliverables that we provide. Maybe what the church needs is itself a New Creation. A newly intentional way of being community.

And I think that this has been brewing in this place for quite some time. In every survey that we have done since my arrival 10 years ago, the number one reason why people love St. Paul’s, why they have stayed at St. Paul’s, is the quality and character of the community. Not the programming or the priest or the average Sunday attendance. It helps when all of those things are goodly. But the bottom line that is valued from stem to stern is the caring, loving, respectful, authentic community that is the Parish of St. Paul in Newton Highlands.

We are not just talking about objectives here, we are not just talking about whether or not we will have a program for our kids. Of course we will. We are not just talking about whether or not we will support outreach projects for our neighbors. Of course we will. But those are things we do, not who we are. Those are no more markers of identity than is our personal identity defined by providing our kids with a high school education or helping our neighbors when they are in need.

But identity matters. It is the starting point from which everything else flows. From which every relationship is built. From which every heart and hope is understood.

Underneath our outward appearance as one of seven historical, inviting Episcopal churches in Newton, we have a particular identity. Who are we? What holds us together? How do we measure our success? And why do we exist? These are the questions we must address and try to answer as we enter the new liturgical year that begins next Sunday. And we must address these questions honestly and faithfully and patiently. Because this is the hard, hard work. The hard, hard work of coming to grips with our identity as God’s creation.

 I want to leave us with the words of one of the founders of our Protestant Way.  Words penned 500 years ago by Martin Luther from his Defense and Explanation of All the Articles (those articles among the 95 that were condemned by the Roman Catholic See). He wrote:

 

This life is…. not righteousness but growthin righteousness,

not health but healing,

not being but becoming,

not rest but exercise.

We are not yet what we shall be,

but we are growing toward it.

The process is not yet finished

but it is going on.

This is not the end,

but it isthe road.

 

My friends I am delighted to be on this long and winding road with God’s New Creation and each and every one of you.

Alleluia! Amen.

 

© November, 2018 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

 

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Drunken Sailors for Life

The Book of Esther

September 30, 2018

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

Good morning! I am so relieved to be here with you.

It has been a tough week in our national arena. A week that demands an assessment and accounting of our values as a nation. Much is at stake. And although it is hard to believe, I think we have even more at stake than the tie-breaking seat on our Supreme Court which is accorded the ultimate jurisdiction over the constitutional and statutory laws of our land, and all of the people therein. That,in and of itself, is quite a lot to have on the line. But after a rash of accusations of sexual assault against the current candidate and the gripping testimony on Thursday of the first, and thus-far most compelling accuser, the stakes have risen.

They have risen past politics. They have risen past ideology. They have even risen past the constitutional rights arbitrated by that highest court in the land. Now we are down to the nitty gritty of what we value as a culture. Now we are debating the character of justice – which always begins with an assessment of power and privilege. Who has it? Who does not? And how will it be used? The character of our justice depends on the answers to these questions.

I think it is not a stretch to say that in our culture the root of most, if not all, evil has to do with privilege. From the Latin: privus legit literally means “private law.” Like private property, privilege is not available to the public, but belongs only to those who can afford it. In our culture, unearned privilege is an undeserved entitlement that offers a special advantage to some at the expense of others. Unchecked privilege is the very antithesis of our Christian teaching that every child of God is intrinsically and equally worthy. And unearned privilege is the currency that fuels and funds the destructive structures of oppression and fragmentation that plague our culture, like racism and misogyny.

Privilege has been in high relief this week. Both the candidate for the Supreme Court and his accuser are very privileged people. But they have chosen to use their privilege in very different ways. And the impact of privilege comes down to the way it is used; how it is hoarded or how it is spent. And sometimes how it is completely ignored as it wields its almost invisible sway.

For those of us who care about the building of the Kin-dom of God the question always comes down to this: how much of our privilege are we willing to spend; how much are we willing risk?  How much of our privilege are we willing to spend to protect our own “good names” and our reputations and our ambition? How much are we willing to risk to protect and value the human rights of others; in this case, of the millions of women who have been subjected to physical mental and emotional abuse that has scarred their lives? Because as our nation’s most famous Sunday School teacher has been quoted as saying: “The abuse of women and girls is the most pervasive and unaddressed human rights violation on earth.” Those, of course, are the words of Jimmy Carter.

When it comes down to one or the other:  personal reputation or basic human rights – which do we choose? Which do we who have the privilege to choose, value more?

With this question in mind, we are more than blessed to be hearing from the Book of Esther this morning. It is our only lectionary reading from this unique and wonderful Book. Like this week’s circus of hearings, it is a wild story of Shakespearian proportion with the life of an entire class of people on the line. And although we do not have the time in this short sermon to delve into the full depth and breadth of this story, but there are a couple of notable things about this short, but powerful Book in our canon, that might help us to think about our contemporary predicament more ….theologically.

The first notable thing about the Book of Esther is that it is the biblical source for the Jewish holiday of Purim – which is an annual celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from the threat of annihilation by their Persian overlords. One cannot help but think of the Holocaust. In the Jewish tradition, this Book is read aloud in its entirety twice during Purim. And we have celebrated thusly at our Family Compline services in past years.

The second notable thing is that the hero of this canonical book is a woman. Actually, the second notable thing is that the hero of this book is human.  But that human is a woman. And not just a woman, not just a female, but a female who is an orphaned refugee. She is the very definition of marginalized in her social and political context; akin to Mary the mother of Jesus in terms of her P rating (you know, the power, prerogative, privilege, property, etc.). Esther’s P rating, like Mary’s, is less than zero.

Esther’s ancestors were captured in Jerusalem when Nebuchadnezzar sacked and burned that city a century earlier. And when her exiled parents died, Esther was entrusted to her cousin Mordecai, an advisor in court of the Persian emperor Xerxes (known in today’s reading by his Hebrew name Ahasuerus). And so the Book of Esther is essentially about an orphaned Jewish exile who becomes the queen of Persia, and eventually the veritable savior of the Jewish population in that realm. Until she is chosen by the king to be his queen, Esther is a nobody, less than a nobody in terms of social, political or economic power. Especially in the highly stratified social structure of the 4thcentury before the common era, when this text was thought to have been written.

And so this is a story of the ways in which the power and identity of even the most marginalized people can beconstituted within a society that values privilege above almost all else, a society not unlike our own. This is a story of justice and the risks that we are willing to take for the things about which we care most.  And it is a story of supreme hope; of how anything can happen in this world, no matter how many cards we might think are stacked against us. And Esther had a few stacked against her, starting and ending with her gender and her ethnicity. Her Jewish name was Hadassah. But no one knew she was Jew. And she would not reveal that identity until everything was on the line. We might ask why she not reveal that truth earlier? But we know the answer without even asking the question.

The third notable thing about the Book of Esther is that God is never, ever mentioned in this book. The Bible is generally described as the story of God’s presence in and through history. There is hardly another story so devoid of the explicit mention of the central character.

But God’s presence is not absent here. Some call the Spirit of God in this story coincidence, others call it divine providence, but as I tell you, briefly, the story of the orphaned Jewish refugee who became the Queen of Persia and saved the whole of her people, note the places where God appears; usually, as in our own lives, when things are inexplicably turned on their heads, when fortunes are reversed and lives rise from the ashes. When we are faced with an unexpected opportunity to make a whopping big difference for the good in this world, God is always there. Esther shows us that when we are brave enough to speak truth to power, to risk one’s own self for the life of God’s people, the structure of that power changes and anything becomes possible.

So the story goes like this, King Ahasuerus was the ruler of all of Persia, from India to Egypt says the text. And one fine day, during one of the king’s many banquets he summons his queen, Vashti to show her off to his guests. But she refuses to come.[1]  The king is outraged. “What,” he asks his trusted counselors and sages, “shall be done according to the law, to Queen Vashti for failing to obey the command of the king?” And one of the wise men surrounding the king replies:  “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against your majesty but also against the officials and against all the people of your kingdom. [read “the men of your kingdom”] Because the Queen’s behavior might rub off on other women and they too might refuse to come when their husbands call them.” This is really what the text says. And I’m guessing along the lines of what many privileged men of our own kingdom have been thinking this week.

So the counselors tell the king to write an edict and sign it into law that Vashti shall never again enter the presence of His Majesty.  And they set about to find another queen who is more worthy. Every available young woman in the land is summoned to the king’s palace. Among them is beautiful young Esther, the ward of one of the king’s advisors, Mordecai. But since the king is not likely to select a refugee as his new Queen, Esther’s guardian tells her to conceal her identity as a Jew. And she does.

All of the beautiful young virgins of the land are taken to the royal fortress and assembled in the harem under the guard of the chief eunuch. And of course, as you might have guessed, as soon as the king lays eyes on Esther, he is smitten. The scripture reads: “the king loved Esther more than all the other women…so he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen…” No one knows her true identity. No one knows she is an orphaned refugee; a survivor.

And from here the story gets a bit hairy and somewhat farcical, you will need to read it for yourself to get the full on effect, but here is the gist.

Mordecai, Esther’s guardian, overhears a plot to kill the king. Mordecai exposes the assassins. They turn out to be guilty. And Mordecai the Jew is thanked for his loyalty. But instead of promoting him for his good work, the king promotes a dastardly devil named Haman.  Haman is a Persian whose ancestors opposed the first Israelite King Saul way back in the book of 1 Samuel.

The king passes an edict that all of his subjects shall now bow down before Haman the Persian, but Mordecai the Jew refuses. And like the king who was enraged by Vashti’s disobedience and disrespect, Haman is incensed by Mordecai’s. Privilege was not invented in the 20thcentury. And neither have we learned a lick since the dawn of time!

And because one Jew refuses to bow to him, Haman decides that he will punish every Jew in the land. And not just punish, the text says that Haman vows to “destroy, massacre, and exterminate the Jews.”  The plan is to slaughter the Jews on the 15thof the month of Adar, which is, the date on which the festival of Purim is celebrated today.

Mordecai sends a messenger to alert his cousin Queen Esther to Haman’s intention to slaughter their people. Esther says that she cannot possibly intervene, she cannot possibly get involved. It would be too dangerous to her. She has too much at stake. She could lose her own status, her own position, her own newly acquired privilege as queen of the kingdom. She could even lose her very life, as an unbidden approach to the king is punishable by death.

And here is the meat of today’s passage in the context of today’s national distress:

Mordecai says to her: Esther, remember who you are. Remember you are a part of a wider community of people whose lives are also at stake; who will suffer if you are not willing to sacrifice your personal place for their collective peace. Their suffering is your suffering. You can no longer pretend to be a Persian, you must stand up as a Jew. And do not think that you will be spared just because you live in the palace. On the contrary, if you do not speak up, help and deliverance will come to your people from somewhere else, and youwill perish for your cowardess. Who knows, perhaps you have become queen for just this purpose. Maybe the privilege that is yours is the meant to be providence for your people.  Maybe yourpower is meant not for you, but for your them.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot help but hear the consonance between Esther and Christine; between the woman who risked her own life for the life of the many who were her fellow refugees and the woman who risked her own peace for the peace of the many who are her fellow survivors. It is the difference between using our power for the wellbeing of the world and hoarding our power to serve our own ambition. Esther and Christine chose the former.

And so like Dr. Ford, Queen Esther gathers her courage and heads out on that shaky unprotected limb where every truth is told to power, for the sake of her people. Esther puts herself aside and does the right thing.

She invites Haman to a banquet. And at the banquet the king asks Queen Esther (whom he adores): “What is your wish? It shall be granted to you.” And Esther replies, “If your Majesty will do me the favor, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. [this is it – she is offering her life for the life of her people] For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated ….” The king is shocked and demands to know who has dared to threaten his queen. Esther replies, “it is the evil Haman!”  And, as the scripture says, “Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen.”  The king, in his fury, storms out of the banquet and Haman proceeds to beg Queen Esther for his life.  But the king has Haman hanged on the gallows that Haman has prepared for Esther’s guardian, Mordecai.

The very ending of the story is a bit violent and vengeful, but the story of its heroine, the orphaned refugee who rose from rags to privilege and then risked it all for the life of her fellow refugees is worth our attention. Because it is the story of the way God works in this world. Very often through the most marginalized among us. But also through those who have deep privilege and are willing to spend it with wild abandon on those who have none, even at the risk of draining their own well.

My friends, we are such privileged people. You and I. Like Queen Esther and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, we have a level of power and privilege that I am sure our God hopes is burning a hole in our pockets….just dying to be spent on the life of the world. As Mordecai said, maybe we have been afforded this power for something other than our own enjoyment and gain; maybe we are meant to risk it all for the justice that honors every life in equal measure.

And so if we truly believe this morning’s psalm; if our help truly is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, then we will have no fear in spending our privilege for the life of the world…..and spending it like drunken sailors!

Amen.

 

 

© September, 2018 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

 

 

[1]I just heard the story of someone who named their dog Vashti because she never came when she was called!

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May the Words of My Mouth….

Psalm 19

September 16, 2018

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

1 The heavens declare the brillianceof God, *
and the firmament shows thehandiwork of its Author.

2 One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.

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

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

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

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

 

7 The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

8 The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.

9 The fear of the Lord is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.

10 More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.

11 By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.

12 Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.

13 Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.

14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

 

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

Every Sunday, at least every Sunday when I am preaching, this last verse from this morning’s psalm 19 precedes my sermon. Every time. I always begin this way because it frames my fundamental hope for every homily. It says that the message to be offered from both my lips and my heart is offered on behalf of God; God’s wordis the word that matters. Because God is the rock on which we stand, and the redeemer who lifts us to our fullest stature. Everything we are, we are because God brought us into being to do God’s work in the world. And so, my mouth belongs to God and my prayer is that every utterance will be to God’s liking.

This short prayer is the foundation upon which I build every sermon. Regardless of the topic. And it is a good short stand-alone statement. But a couple of times a year, when Psalm 19 is appointed in the lectionary, we get to hear this pithy little mission statement in its context. And for me, that amplifies and expands its power exponentially.

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

It is divided into two almost distinct parts. The first 6 verses address Creation. The glory of God in the created world. In this section, the word for the divine in the Hebrew is el, as in Elohim. God the giver of Creation. But beginning in verse 7, the word for the divine in the Hebrew changes to YHWH, God the giver of the Law. And the subject changes from creation to torah, God’s Law, God’s Wisdom.

And so this short 14 verse psalm is a microcosm of the torahitself, the five central books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Like Genesis, this psalm begins with God’s creation. The heavens as the firmament. The day and the night. The sun and all that is warmed by its rays, which is to say everything; for nothing is hidden from the warmth of God’s sun says the psalm. Just like Genesis. And then the psalm turns to the glory of God’s Law and God’s power of redemption as in the books of Exodus and Numbers and Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Psalm 19 could be characterized as a micro torah.

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

The first six verses set the stage. They remind us in no uncertain terms, that God is bigger than we are. That God is capable of anything, and the proof is in the pudding. Don’t trust my word, says the psalmist, just take a look at the world in which you exist. God created that.  And despite God’s big picture handiwork, God neverloses track of us individually, personally. Nothing escapes the warmth of God’s sun.

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

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

I invite you to close your eyes now (if you like) and to unburden your heart;  hear these first six verses in the context of whatever weight you are carrying this morning. It is poetry for your soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I especially like that last part:

 In the deep has the divinest a place for the sun…. nothing is hidden from its warmth

I hear that phrase “the deep” as the depth of my own suffering. In the deep of my own angst the Creator has set a place for divine healing and warmth by way of a celestial orb that will never burn out.

This is the context in which I hope to set every sermon. In this context that God’s Word might flow with or without my words.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight.

From the beginning of this psalm is the clear declaration that all of creationis witness to the brilliance of its Creator; the gloryof God. The heavens recount the glory of God.

I confess that the word glory (overused in my mind in many Christian circles) never really moved me. That is until I read Frederick Beuncher’s interpretive definition. He writes in his small gem of a book “Wishful Thinking,”: Glory is to God what style is to an artist. A painting by Vermeer, a sonnet by Donne, a Mozart aria each is so rich with the style of the one who made it that to the connoisseur it couldn’t have been made by anybody else, and the effect is staggering. The style of artists brings you as close to the sound of their voices and the light in their eyes as it is possible to get this side of actually shaking hands with them.[1]The gloryof God is the quality of God’s handiwork; and so it could only have been done by God. Glory is God’s signature style. It is the thing that makes the works of God indubitably, unquestionably, absolutely from God….alone.

And so in this psalm creation itselfsings of God’s glory.

Weneed not prove that there is a God says the psalmist. God’s creation is proof enough; witness enough that only God could have created it. The heavens recount the brilliance, the glory of God.

Weneed not convince each other that every day is both brand new and bigger than our own imaginations, our own conversations and cares. One day pours out God’s word to another.

Weneed not talk about God’s consistency or abundance or ability to find us where ever we may try to hide. In the deep has the divine set a pavilion for the sun….and nothing is hidden from its heat.

This psalm lets us off the hook with respect to proving that there is a God….but then in the second part it puts us onthe hook, holds our feet to the fire, to live according to the law of the one who created us; the one who created everything. Creation proves God’s existence and the character of God’s Word, and the Law tells us that we are born to live according to that Word.

7 The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent.

8 The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes.

9 The awesomeness of the Lord is clean and endures forever; *
the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

10 More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold, *

This psalm suggests a powerful corrective force in this world; a force that yearns for, and arcs toward, and insists on integrity. A world that is made by God and belongs to God should act in ways that are acceptable in God’s sight. The heavens do. The day and the night do. The sun does.

And so, then, must the rest of God’s Creation, including God’s featherless bi-peds.

Someone once said that wisdom is knowing the right path and integrity is taking it. Psalm 19 offers us the wisdom and then beckons us to the integrity. It says: look around you and then live as though you were part of the plan, the plan that includes the heavens and the rhythm of time and the eternal rising of the sun; live as though you were intended for such beauty and marvelousness…..because you are. Each one of us a piece of God’s outrageously creative Word.

And so in the very last line the psalmist cannot help but pray for the integrity to live as she was created to live:

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

Be ever acceptable in your sight

O God my rock and my redeemer.

Amen.

 

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

[1]http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/9/18/glory?rq=psalm%2019

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Dogs Are Us

Mark 7:24-30: The Syrophoenician Woman

September 9, 2018

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

The Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

 And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house, and would not have any one know it; yet he could not be hid. 7.25But immediately a woman, whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell down at his feet. 7.26Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 7.27And he said to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 7.28But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 7.29And he said to her, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 7.30And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone.                                                                                                                                                                               

Good morning!

Sometimes I am utterly amazed at the way the lectionary seems to dovetail with whatever is happening in the world.  And this morning’s Gospel reading from Mark is a case and point. It is the story of the Syrophoenician woman as she is called here in Mark’s telling of this story, or the Canaanite woman, as she is called in Matthew’s version.

This morning’s passage from Mark’s Gospel is, to my ears, the more difficult of the two versions, both of which are among the most difficult stories in our holy scripture. And the first couple of times that I read this story I thought, if ever there were a slice of scripture that should be roped off for repairs….this is it; this story of the Syrophoenician woman, according to Mark. Scholars have been searching for some justification for the abject rudeness of our living God in this periscope, for as long as there have been biblical scholars.

For this passage in Mark (and its sister passage in Matthew) presents Jesus in the perhaps the most unflattering light in our scriptural record.  Biblical scholar Sharon Ringe says in her commentary “A Gentle Woman’s Story” that this is the place where Jesus“is caught with his compassion down.”[1]Hmmmm. I was not aware that Jesus was allowedto be caught with his compassion down. Ever. And Jesus is not just un-compassionate here, he is on the verge of being a bully. He calls this woman, who approaches him for help, a dog.

Jesus is not the only man to call an unwanted woman a dog.[2]But that is a sermon for another political season.

As you well know, no one loves dogs more than I do. But even I know that when someone calls you a dog, not a dawg, but a dog, you have been summarily insulted. It is almost worse to be called a dog than even a female dog, if you know what I mean. Because the latter is a commentary on one’s disposition and demeanor, while the former is a commentary on one’s ontological status.

And it was even more ugly in Jesus’ day when dogs were not generally beloved; not members of the family dining on kibble n bits and starring in the Christmas Pageant. In Jesus’ day, dogs were dirty, stray, disease-carrying four-legged scavengers. And so for Jesus to call this woman, this desperate woman a dog, is beyond……belief. Which makes this passage more than a bit of a challenge….and on more than a few levels.

So here it is: Jesus has retired to Tyre for some rest and recalibration…maybe a bit of a sabbatical. Tyre is a territory bordering the Gentile land in the North of Gallilee; not unlike the way Texas borders Mexico. It marks the ethnic boundary that distinguished between the Israelites, God’s chosen people, and the not-so-chosen people, by God. And so the first challenging bit of this passage is that it clearly juxtaposes the status of Jews and the status of the Gentiles. Jesus, the Jew, is up against the Syrophoenician woman, the Gentile.

In Matthew’s version of this passage, Jesus comes right out and says that he is not here for the Gentiles, he is here exclusively for the Jews. This theological travesty, as it were, takes some of the spotlight, some of the heat, off of the absolute rudeness of his interaction with the woman. In Matthew, our indignation is immediately trained on Jesus’ apparent misunderstanding of his mission to serve all of God’s children. And so the brutal sting of his inhospitable remark to this desperate mother of a sick child feels somewhat overshadowed by his overarching misunderstanding of his mission on earth.

But Mark offers no such cover for Jesus’ overt rancor. Here, his exclusivity is not theoretical or ecclesiastical, it is, to be blunt, racial. In this passage, Jesus is the bearer of an unequivocally racial slur. Ugh.

Nevertheless, inbothMatthew and Mark, this passage is often held up as testament to the power of a marginalized person to stand up for human dignity, especially women. This is the only time in these sacred scriptures where Jesus is seemingly contradicted, corrected even, by a human being, and a woman no less…..and a Gentilewoman maybe most importantly. And so this thoroughly marginalized mortal questions and corrects Jesus until he acquiesces and agrees that she is right. And as a reward for her courage and wisdom her wish is granted and her daughter is healed……instantly, says the scripture.

Now, I do not want to get into the efficacy of faith as a cure to our human ills. The fabric and purpose of prayer and faith is beyond the bounds of this sermon. The actual miracle that seemed to heal the child is another sermon for another day.

I am more interested in the relationship between Jesus and the Gentile woman. Doesn’t it seem like the only ones who ever recognize Jesus for who he is, aside from his friend John the Baptist, the only ones who get who he is and from whence his power comes……are the most disrespected, the most powerless people in his path? The unclean spirits, the sightless jaywalkers, and the underclass of women and men who have nothing but a prayer to count on….they are the ones who seem to follow without question or qualm……even when they are rejected and rebuked. They are the ones who believe fully in the power of this Jesus of Nazareth.

And it is hard to hear this scripture and not think of our own immigration policies in this country at this moment; not to think about the thousands of children at our border whom our government of, by, and for the people has separated from their parents as though they were litters of puppies rather than human families.  It is hard to read this passage without seeing the children of the world who are seemingly acceptably treated as dogs, or worse. And so, I can’t help but continue to ask, Jesus and we who follow him, whose children are we here to feed?

Because in this passage, it feels like Jesus has forgotten his own message of universal love. He has not read his own Gospel according to John that God so loved the world! Here, Jesus has trumped, so to speak, his message of love with a message of entitlement. Entitlement based on race. The Israelites are entitled to God, but the non-Israelites are stopped at the border…the border between God and no-God.  Jesus might as well have called this Syrophoenician woman an illegal….and in a way, he did.

He tells her in no uncertain words that she is not entitled to the riches or benefits that he bears from God. And then he adds insult to injury by calling her a dog. Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner says that “If any other Jewish teacher of the time had said such a thing, Christians would never have forgiven Judaism for it.”[3] This Gospel reading is about as outrageous as it gets.

In fact, this response from Jesus is so problematic on so many levels that most scholars treat it almost as if it were a biblical joke. William Barkley’s popular commentary says: “We can be quite sure that the smile on Jesus’ face and the compassion in his eyes robbed the words of all insult and bitterness.”[4]Really? Where is that in the Greek? And A.J. Rawlinson writes that Jesus probably spoke these words whimsically. Seriously? According to what source? Other scholars say that Jesus did not call the woman a dog, but a little puppy, in a sort of affectionate way, like, hold on there little doagy, your turn will come. Oh please! Some say that the woman was wealthy, as many in Tyre were, and that Jesus was scoffing the affluent oppressor when he called her a dog. But there is no textual grounding for this interpretation whatsoever.

The 4thcentury monk John Chrysostom says that Jesus was testing the woman, which is the only interpretation that does not seem to directly conflict with the scripture. Chrysostom says that Jesus wanted to give the woman a chance to respond to his harshness with utter and unfailing faith, which she did, and thereby healed herself. That is to say, Jesus, with his ugly slur, was setting this marginalized woman up to succeed.[5]Okay. But is this really the way that God works? Are the oppressed and abused in this world just being tested? Is all suffering just a divine EKG? A divine test of heart?

I think that this is both unlikely, and an unnecessary stretch of the interpretive imagination. There is nothing in the Greek or in the context to indicate that any of these interpretations are based on anything other than….the danger we perceive when we are disappointed in God. Because, holy cow, is Jesus ever disappointing in this passage! And scholars have been trying, unsuccessfully as we have just seen, to mitigate that disappointment for years.

The Good News in this morning’s reading from Mark, the real mitigating Good News is not that Jesus was redeemed from his rude shortsightedness…..but that this woman rose to the occasion. And so in a rare Gospel twist, the teacher in this passage is notJesus. The teacher is the Syrophoenician woman. She is the ultimate example of speaking truth to power with love.

Because she refuses to believe her ears without checking in with her dignity.  Maybe Jesus has a lousy poker face. But this woman calls his bluff. She refuses to be baited with this insult. She is seemingly un-phased by the degradation and presses on with her mission – the healing of her daughter. Despite being somewhat bullied by this divine healer, she refuses to deny her own faith, she refusesto betray her own heart, she refusesto abandon her own truth that she is a worthy daughter of God, she refusesnot only to obey the conventions of the day which would have prevented her from approaching Jesus in the first place, but she refusesto obey even the apparent rebuke of the shepherd she is beseeching. She refusesto be derailed by words that she knows to be untrue, words that would have dissuaded a lesser lamb.

She is the resistance!  If we are looking for a model for our own resistance, I suggest we look no further than this Gentile. Not a resister of any one, but of every way that denies dignity, that refutes her innate and intrinsic worth, that suggests that her race is not chosen by God as equally as is that of Israel. She is the ultimate example of speaking truth to power with love.

And so instead of shrinking away, instead of obeying her social sensibilities or her comfort zone, this courageous woman presses on.

She kneels down at the feet of Jesus. And she responds to the affront by saying, yes Lord, but even the dogs deserve a few crumbs.  Martin Luther wrote in his fabulous sermon on this passage that this woman, “catches Christ with his own words. He compares her to a dog, she concedes it, and asks nothing more than that he let her be a dog…..where will Christ now take refuge? He is caught.”[6]Amen to that!

And so finally, and not a moment too soon, our story comes to its neat and happy ending: ”Because of what you said,” says Jesus emphatically, “go home ; the demon has already left your daughter.” And it is so.

And not for nothing, the daughter is not the only one to have been healed by this woman’s gently fierce faith. Jesus himself has been healed of the log in his own eye.  This Syrophoenician woman reminded Jesus – in the depth of his humanity, his dirty rotten rejecting self-righteous humanity-  she reminded him of his divinity.

And that is the Good News. There is divinity buried deep within our humanity, and therefore within our inhumanity. There is the chance to turn ourselves to the good. Can we find our divinity as Jesus found his? Can we follow Jesus’ lead and heal ourselves of our own misunderstanding of our mission on earth? Can we learn that we are here to bring every living thing into the fold? Can we live as though every living thing were as divine as are we? Can we find our way through our own racism, shedding our own privilege for the life of the world?

Jesus models for us the first step when he listens with open ears to the voice of the woman who challenges his assumptions. He changes his understanding of himself. Shechanges his understanding of himself. So let us go forth this morning listening for that challenge to our own assumptions. Listening for the ones who rattle our certainties, the ones who insist that even the dogs deserve some crumbs….because in the end we are all the dogs, and the dogs are all us.

Alleluia! Amen!

 

© September, 2018 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

 

[1]Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Letty Russell (Westminster, 1984) 69.

[2]President Donald J. Trump called his former advisor Omarosa Manigault Newman a dog. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/14/us/politics/trump-omarosa-dog.html

[3]Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching (Macmillan 1929) 294.

[4]William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Westminster 1956) 122.

[5]http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/200152.htm

[6]Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Volume 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 325

 

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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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