It’s the Light, Not the Star

December 29, 2019: Christmas I

Lessons & Carols

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw                                      

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

Merry Christmas! 

As you know, this is my last sermon from this pulpit. And I think it is the perfect occasion on which to celebrate our time together. Because this morning we celebrate the coming of Christmas by reading together some of the central stories in our shared salvation history; the history of our life together with God. 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. Stories that remind us of the ways in which God walks with us where ever we are on our journey.

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 the watersheds of our story.  But rather we each have a whole album of our family snapshots, all of which add a bit of information and color to the overall narrative. And probably, a few of those snapshots overlap.

It all starts with Creation.

After all else was created, humanity was the crowning touch. And in my personal theology, humanity was created by God for companionship; the most holy of yearnings. God had created the rest of the world. And God looked around and thought, hmmmm, with whom can I share this glorious creation?

And human beings were born.

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. 

And God’s Creation quickly turned to God’s Destruction.

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. 

It was the first in a long line of God’s covenants; binding commitments to be in relationship.

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

Humanity was on the move. From companions to covenantal parties to co-creators.

And then there was Mary – there is no more audacious and inclusive call in our scripture than God’s request of Mary, and too of Joseph; it was a call that changed the prospects of human kind forever more. 

And with that call, God’s commenced a New Creation. A call that is lived out in the flesh of a Saviour who was born in the stench of a stable with not an advantage to his 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, all along; from the very beginning when God etched God’s imagine on the human heart. 

The hope that we might come into this world with nothing but love to signal our status. And so God proposed a new way

A new story heralded by a new star. An epiphany. A new way of seeing and being.

The miracle of the virgin birth in Luke was matched 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. 

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.  Luke might be all about writing a new history altogether. But Matthew is all about fulfilling the scripture that already existed….and had existed from the beginning.

Both nativity stories seem appropriate at this time and place in our own story.

Fulfilling the story like Matthew, and writing a new one like Luke. The Parish of St. Paul is on the precipice of its own new way. As am I.

Last week, on Christmas, we took stock of Luke’s story. This week, on the advent of the epiphany, we would do well to focus on Matthew.

Matthew picks up almost the entire passage from Isaiah, chapter 60:  Arise, shine for your light has come… You will hear the two passages side by side next Sunday. The whole of Matthew’s passage is picked up nearly verbatim from Isaiah.  But nearly is the operative word.

Matthew adds one small detail to Isaiah’s story. One detail that changes everything. Everything about who Jesus is. And everything about who we are if we want to be good disciples discerning our own journeys.

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 the 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. Frankincense is the hallmark of one who is to be worshiped. 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 new born baby. 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 the death at the birth; that says that the death of this child will be as significant as his 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, the shiny bright star, is the part of Matthew’s story that we tend to embrace.

But the myrrh is the punch line. The myrrh is arguably the point. The part we don’t see coming. This so-called-king 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-blessed season of and after the epiphany. 

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 Matthew’s epiphany. The shiny, shiny star.

And so we focus on this story to help us orient ourselves. To help us clarify our own callings. And maybe especially this year, the calling to our faith community.

How is the star in the east calling us forward?  Where are we headed? Where does God want us to go? How will we get there? How will we know we are following the right star? 

And it would be easy to be so busy looking for that star and the coordinates of our destination that we get distracted from its purpose.

And so we fall into a bit of a misunderstanding, I think, when we worry more about where the star is taking us than the quality and the character of the gifts that we are able to deliver. 

Because the part of Matthew’s story that changes everything, the part that tells us HOW Jesus will fulfill the scriptures is not the star. It’s the myrrh. 

Like God’s prophets in God’s salvation story, Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Mary worried not about where they were going, they thought primarily about what they would bring. Not about where they were called, but what they might bear in God’s name. 

An ark full of creation. A covenant full of God’s promise. A child full of God’s flesh. That’s why Matthew put the most important part of his story in the gifts, not in the sky. In the light, not in the star.

This, I think, is the critical question for us. For this community as you search for a new priest. And for me as I search for a new ministry.

What radical and scandalous gifts are we willing to bear in God’s name?

Unfortunately I think, we tend to spend most of our time thinking about where we want to go. But God has already set our path via way of the gifts that we have been given.  And so we are not called to choose the path, that has already been designated. 

Rather, we are called to have the grace and the courage and the faith to bear the gifts we have been given. Knowing that we will bear them not for ourselves, but for God.

Likewise, I am not a folk singer, not because I wanted to do something different. I am not a folk singer because God did not endow me with the gifts I needed to be a folk singer. The gift with which God endowed me, was the love of music. And it took me almost 40 years to know how to plant that gift for God’s sake.

But once I realized that the vocational gifts with which I was endowed are  the gifts of parish ministry, I headed toward the priesthood. Once I stopped trying to find the star that would lead me to a vocation as a folk singer, and concentrated on bearing the gifts that God has bestowed, the star suddenly appeared; bright and clear

The star heralds the gift. The gifts do not follow the star. The star did not appear to Mary and Joseph before Jesus was born. It appeared after the gift was delivered. The star was a herald, not a directional. Herod used it as a directional. The wise ones were sent by Herod. The star was not intended to lead the magi or anyone else to the child, but to tell the world that the gift of all gifts had been delivered.

We here at the Parish of St. Paul know about focusing on our gifts. Because that is what led us to become a sanctuary. We had exactly what was needed, even if the immigration ministry had never been on our community radar. We came to that ministry by offering our gifts of space and companionship. And once we agreed to offer what we had for the love of God, the direction became clear. And the magi came, from a dozen surrounding communities, bearing their own amazing gifts. And pretty soon we had grown a vibrant collaborative of faithful companions.

That, my friends, is how the Kindom is built. Gift by gift.

The pre-emptive warning of this message is inherent in the myrrh. If we offer the sort of gifts that God desires, it could very well cost us everything. It’s a price that not many are willing to pay. I hope that we will be the exception to the rule. You and me. Where ever we go from here.

In the meantime, we will break bread together on our knees. We will be thankful for the part of the kindom that we have built together. We will take stock of the gifts that we have been given to take with us on the next leg of our journey.  And we will celebrate this season of hope by remembering our shared story.

A story that begins with God’s good creation.

A story that grounds us in God’s evolving covenants of love.

A story that assures us of God’s abiding companionship. 

A story that ends with peace……and that never ends.

So let us gather our gifts and offer our Christmas presence.

I thank you from my toe bottoms for being among the greatest gifts that I have ever had the privilege of bearing. You have formed me as a priest. You have taught me how to love with my whole heart. You have been my strength and my solace. And you will go with me where ever I go from here.

Thank you. I love you.

Onward! 

Amen.

© December 2019, The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

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‘Tis the Night Before Christmas 2019

 Christmas Eve 2019

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

‘Tis the night before Christmas, our last one together,

although nothing ever can truly untether,

the vein that connects us through thick and through thin,

the thread that collects us forever as kin.

 

And that thread it begins with the story we share

‘bout a babe in a manger to whom each is heir.

A story so crazy, it takes every cake,

and yet all of the hope of the world is at stake.

It’s a story of angels and magi and sheep,

of shepherds and migrants who’ve nowhere to sleep,

who all witness the birth of God’s earthly excursion.

Although every gospel-ler has their own version.

Four stories, four narratives; all four are true,

although none can agree on the same point of view.

Each has a diff-er-ent story to tell,

yet when rung together they sound the same bell.

 

There is Mark and then Matthew and Luke, and then John.

And they each tell their tale, and they pass the baton.

And when each is finished relating their chapter,

it’s hard to plug in sans a holy adapter.

 

So here is an overview from high above.

Of four different texts whose shared punchline is love.

Though regarding the birth there may be some rebuke –

cause tonight’s episode belongs only to Luke.

 

Mark offers nothing, not even a sliver –

until Jesus shows up decades hence in the river,

to be baptized by John and bathed in God’s Word,

who said nothing could cause him to be less preferred.

“You are my beloved,” said God with delight,

“You are pleasing and perfect in my divine sight.”

And that’s where Mark starts, it’s the launch of his drama.

Not a word about birth. There’s no babe. There’s no mama.

For Mark’s Jesus starts on his baptism day,

“Jesus Christ Son of God,” that’s all Mark has to say.

 

Now John, he says Christmas is plainly absurd,

because in the beginning was always the Word.

The Word that creates us and feeds us and frees us,

the Word is with God and the Word it is Jesus.

Luke may well say Bethlehem was the spot,

but John would insist when the world was begot,

Jesus was there from the very beginning,

before evening or morning or serpents or sinning;

before Pluto or Venus or Snickers or Mars,

before shepherds or mangers or wise ones or stars.

 

“In the beginning was the Word,”

although this sounds a bit absurd;

It sounds, to we who have the knowledge,

facts from books, degrees from college;

We who think we know what’s what

who understand and say, yes, but

How could the Word exist before

the stars, the sun, the ocean’s floor?

Yes but, we argue valiantly.

Can Z precede A,B and C?

Is not the Word by law unsung

until creation of the tongue?

Those other Gospels Luke and Matt,

they say that Jesus was begat,

and born of flesh and blood this day

in just the usual sort of way.

Okay, except the virgin birth,

and….all those angels down to earth;

and also…. ‘cept the star that led

those wise ones to the straw-lined bed.

But John, his Gospel just insisted,

brother Jesus pre-existed!

Everything that God created,

was by Jesus activated.

 

See, says the evalg’list John,

the Word precedes creation’s dawn.

For ‘twas the very Word’s insistence,

that spoke all life into existence.

The start of this story according to John

begins back on the Eve of very first dawn.

 

And then there is Matthew, whose story insists,

on the star in the east and the wise ones with gifts,

and the Emperor Herod, intent upon killing

the child he has heard might disrupt his own billing.

A child whom he fears will make room at the inn

for each red blooded peasant who claims God as kin.

And Matthew’s account picks up after the birth

of the child who will grow to move heaven and earth.

 

But tonight…

Luke’s is the story we choose to define us

as Christians, or so we are told by St. Linus.

Who tells us a tale of tall truths, a priori,

with Mary and Joseph and Angels of glory.

And an inn with no room, and a barn with no bed,

made a manger the hub of the world’s watershed.

Where a humble boy born to an uncharted mother,

a boy both alike and unlike any other.

A child with no status, no title, no claim

to anything more than his skin and his name.

Where a child so unprivileged, he could be a girl,

was delivered in straw, and the hope of the world

was  immediat’ly present, the darkness estranged,

and the light it was on, and the rules they were changed.

 

From now on all things are pre domini or post,

this moment that God has decided to host.

A moment in time when the forces all square,

and barnyards of chaos deliver the prayer.

With the birth of that babe a new hope to earth came,

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

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

how the human condition can thus complicate,

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

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

 

Our only charge right from the start:

was love the Word with all our heart.

The Word that’s etched upon each soul,

the spark of God that makes all whole.

It’s been there from each life’s beginning,

etched at birth, before the sinning.

 

But before long…..

We children born to bear God’s Word

began to feel ourselves preferred.

And we began to worship stuff.

And never seemed to have enough!

 

That’s when

Noah loaded up the ark

with every neigh and squawk and bark!

For making humans God regretted.

Thus, was all Creation vetted.

The flood it wiped the whole earth clear,

in hopes that we would finally hear.

The only way to get it right,

was love with all our will and might.

But even then we humans, flawed,

were not convinced to turn to God.

Not even with a flood, God thought,

did humans finally get the plot.

And too the exile proved a flop

at getting human greed to stop.

What next to do? To thus impart,

that God is etched upon each heart?

What sort of Godly CPR

will make them love with all they are?

 

And so God, having sworn no more to flood,

thought, how to teach this flesh and blood?

And then the Word began to brew

hmmmm, there’s only one thing left to do.

God thought…..

Perhaps a twist on my dictation

a brand new Word; a new Creation.

Perhaps I’ll dare to share their skin,

I’ll walk their walk, without the sin.

I’ll show them how to love the other,

offer mercy like a mother.

What it means to live with love!

No more my hoping from above.

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

prove nothing but my love survives.

I will join their human race.

My Word will have a human face.

And so surveying all the pews,

God chose the one, none else would choose.

The one that some might say, yes but….

The one to whom all doors were shut.

A child herself, with status….none,

yet she would be the chosen one.

Some thought….

O come on God, the only word

to recommend her is: absurd!

And yet the angel came to Mary

asking would she grant to carry

God’s own flesh, the world to bless;

and lo, at once the Word was: Yes!

 

And that was the answer that God longed to hear

When God asks:

Will you bear me? Will you volunteer?

And the answer, per Mary, with little ado,

is “Yes! Here is am, all of me is for you!

 And so….

Yes! we have plenty of room at the inn!

Yes! You are welcome to bring all your kin!

Yes! We will share what we have on the table!

Yes! If you’re willing we will be able!

Yes! You are just what we’ve been waiting for!

Yes! You’re the beauty that makes our décor!

Yes! You are welcome to come as you are!

Yes! This is the place advertised by the star!

Yes! You are worthy. Yes! You’re just the kind

Of holy companion that God had in mind.

It’s not hard to change cursed to eternally blessed,

When we stop saying but and begin saying yes!

 

Remember….

It was yes that brought us here together,

We who turned out to be birds of a feather,

Way back when your prospects seemed nothing but bleak,

And I, just ordained, had no oar in my creek.

And then all of a sudden the universe called,

and all that was stuck became promptly unstalled.

All our hopes came together, our dreams on the road,

and our cup that was empty, at once overflowed.

When we joined holy forces God granted our wishes,

the kind that come true just like loaves and like fishes.

Twas the star in the east that we never saw rising,

and then there we were brand new life, how surprising!

Then there we were with our Parish school brimming,

our youth program no longer sinking, but swimming.

The pews they were filling , the garden was lush,

the labyrinth came through, and the toilets all flushed.

We greened up our heat and we raised all (almost all) the cash;

we started a food pantry; Jon ran the dash!

We worshiped with Godspell and Jazz Blest and Bach.

And we changed all our pronouns with barely a squawk.

We offered our space that was sacred and needed,

to live what we preached, and perhaps we succeeded.

Who could have imagined the gifts we’ve enjoyed,

before our joint adventure divinely deployed.

It’s hard to count up all the ways we’ve been blessed,

when we gathered our voices in one holy yes!

 

But like all good gifts soon our time it will end,

It’s the part of the process that calls us to send

the ones we have formed out to serve as alum,

Of this Body of Christ in God’s Kindom to come.

And so here we are again, to wait

To see what life God will create

Here in this place of holy friends,

Where justice lurks and mercy trends.

We think that we’re waiting for God to deliver,

But in fact all the arrows are here in our quiver.

The truth of this night, of this midnight so clear

Is that all that is needed is already here.

And yes, we are waiting on Jesus Anointed,

But God from the start said that we were appointed.

We are the ones born to care for the flock,

To Love one another – like chips off the block;

We have been wond’rously, simply designed,

So make true our moniker, be humankind.

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

It our whole job description. Is one word, just LOVE.

For the gift that descended this night long ago,

Is the proof that God’s status is not status quo.

 

And no doubt the story we tell of this Word,

Is crazy, outrageous, prepost’rous, absurd.

Like virgins and angels and God born in straw,

But also like beauty, and friendship, and awe.

We already believe in things truly outrageous,

Like…..

Love warms the heart, and laughter’s contagious;

And doubting is fine, if the mind remains open,

Asking hard questions, relentlessly hopi’n.

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

Even if we are yet doubting with Thomas.

The promise that life everlasting is coming,

Sweet justice is rising, compassion is humming.

The peace and the kindness are still ours to make,

That’s why crazy new hope comes with every daybreak.

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

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

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

Fear not cherished children, you are etched with My Word.

Merry Christmas!  Amen.

 

 

 © December 2019, The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

 

 

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Advent II – December 8, 2019

What Everything Is For

Jazz Blest!

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

Good morning! Welcome to the jazzy week of Advent! It’s not identified as such on the official liturgical calendar, but St. Paul’s has reimagined more than a few rubrics in our day. 

For those of us who are not …regulars, Advent is the season when Christians wait for the coming of God. We do not know how or when God will come, but we wait nonetheless with faith and with hope.

And so today we celebrate this second Sunday in Advent with the official music of faith and hope: Jazz. 

It’s not an outrageous proposition, and in fact I’m surprised that we seem to be the only Christians (the official religion of faith and hope)  who have thought of celebrating Advent with a Jazz Blest. Because jazz and Advent have quite a lot in common. In fact they are a natural fit. Not like the lion lying down with the lamb, appearances to the contrary not withstanding.

It’s built into the timing, the tempo, the rhythm of …..well, we could call today a Jazzventure.

As I explained last week, Advent, is from the Latin word adventus. And adventus in Latin is a very particular verb form. It is a perfect passive participle. We don’t have this form in English. But in Latin, the perfect passive participle has a somewhat contradictory meaning in and of itself. The perfect passive part denotes something which has already happened. And is over and done. But the participle part is something that is happening as we speak, and continues to happen into the future. 

So, Advent, from the perfect passive participle adventus, is: something that is happening now, is ongoing into the future, and yet has already happened. It’s almost like science fiction, if it were not so….well, theological. 

Advent is about the blending of the here and now with the promise of something significant yet to come. It is a time of anticipation. It is a time of transition. Especially this year. It’s a time out of time.

And the core of jazz fits that description to a tee. Jazz has to do with time out of time. Improvisation, syncopation, spontaneity, and the freedom to respond to the need of the moment.

Jazz is just the way that John the Baptist instructs us to prepare for God in this morning’s Gospel. Well, not JUST the way, but one….interpretation of the way. John quotes from Isaiah:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 
‘Prepare the way of the Lord….’”

Can you hear the jazz? Although if we heard the full passage that John quotes from Isaiah, we would likely hear the music more vividly.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her… (hear the choir begin to swoon)
3 A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness (can you hear the sax?)

Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (there’s the trumpet)
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; (can you hear the bass riff?)
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. (here the piano takes the lead)
5 Then the glory of our God shall be revealed, (definitely a drum solo!)
   and all people shall see it together (the full throated congregation scats), 

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (The full ensemble lands on the last discordant note!)

Advent is the season for jazz. Because…….

*Jazz, like Advent, is located in the wilderness.  In the wide open space where anything can happen and there are no guideposts.

*Jazz, like Advent, is grounded in improvisation. An improvisation that requires our intense attention. That demands that we be fully awake and prepared to move in one direction or the other at a moment’s notice. 

*Jazz, like Advent, requires that we listen with eager anticipation to what is happening around us. 

*Jazz, like Advent, is a dance between dark and light, high notes and low notes, major and minor keys.

*Jazz, like Advent, is spontaneous. No matter how much we crave control,  it is out of our hands. And then out of the blue, the creation          of something incredible, something we might never have expected or imagined. Something that is both fully human and fully divine. 

*Jazz, like Advent, hinges on the almighty YES. The willingness to carry the music, the unmitigated consent to bear God’s gift to the world.

*And finally. jazz, like Advent, is the perfect season in which to celebrate transitions.

The transition that we celebrate today is the divergence of our two roads in this wilderness of ministry and mission that we have shared for almost twelve years. A transition that rides on a raft of memories and accomplishments and holy pathways that we have forged together. A bittersweet moment of celebration.

And as many of you know, my main coping mechanism for difficult transitions is the Top Ten list. When we have said good-bye to beloved musicians like James and Giorgi, or beloved interns like Ed and Amanda, or beloved friends like Archie Doodle Dog. Or in other difficult transitional moments like the election of our current president. When I am almost too veklempt to know what to say, the Top Ten list has always helped me to arrange my thoughts.

So here it is, my last Top Ten list from this pulpit. A sort of lessons and carol of the thoughts and prayers that I hope have been planted here during our spirit-filled time together. Here we go.

  1. Be extravagant in your giving!

It’s not an accident that this insatiable gift-giving holiday coincides with the birth of Jesus. And not because of the example set by the gifts offered by the magi to the child in the manger, but because of the gift offered by the child in the manger to the world.  

Jesus sets the bar for our giving. And he sets the bar out of this world. God came in the flesh to show us how to give ourselves to each other. Without holding anything back. And how to do it as though our lives depended upon it. If we do it right, if we follow the lead of that homeless itinerant preacher, if we honor the image of God that is etched on each of our hearts, our giving will not just be generous, it will be extravagant! 

The original meaning of the adjective extravagant (extravagantem) dates back to the late 14th century and has its root in, of all things, Roman Catholic Canon Law. It is from the Latin and literally means to wander outside and beyond the boundaries. 

But in the 17 century the word extravagant began to be used with its current negative      connotation. Today,  when we hear the word “extravagant” we think of something that is wastefully excessive. Lavish. Exorbinant. Unrestrained. Indulgent. Luxurious. Unnecessary. Maybe even immoral. Like the old adage: “Enough is enough. And too much is plenty.” 

 But if we understand extravagant as crossing boundaries that keep us apart, like its original meaning, then I think extravagant is the perfect word to describe the sort of giving that we celebrate in this season of the Incarnation. The sort of giving in which we want to engage.

Giving that is beyond the bounds. Giving that is sacrificial. Extravagant like the oil used by Mary to anoint Jesus’s head and feet in all four of our Gospels. The expensive oil that, according to the disciples, should have been saved for the poor. I have always wondered why we do not read this story in Advent. Because extravagance is the key        descriptor of the way I think we are called to meet each other in this season, this season of   ubiquitous, but often perfunctory, gift giving. 

Without extravagance, our gift giving falls short of the real and radical meaning of this season. So let us go forth and give with everything, and I mean everything, we’ve got. 2.

2. The mission is not to grow the church. The mission is to love the world

In my humble and maybe slightly off-road opinion, growing the church has never been the point. In fact the church is the only established institution whose own survival is not any part of its mission statement. The work of the church is not about growing itself, or even sustaining itself, but about living a life of loving God and God’s world with utter integrity. The church is the vehicle for that work, the mechanism for that work. Not its purpose. Long live the church….at least long, and only as long, as it serves pure love.

3. Ask for and offer up forgiveness. Constantly.

Because acting with the courage of our convictions often requires stepping on some toes. It’s that old adage that every omelet requires breaking a few eggs. And so God of all hopefulness, forgive us our brokenness, our blindness, our persistence and our stubborn resolve. Open our hearts to go forth with genuine humility and an unwavering commitment to the dignity of all of Your creation. Let us ask for forgiveness. Let us offer forgiveness. And let us put all of our eggs, fragile as they may be, in the basket labeled mercy.

4. Never offer unconditional love.

Ever. 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. Love that does not see our shame, our guilt, our weakness and our insufficiency is not love.  

Only love that is grounded in compassion for the whole of each being, grounded in our shared suffering, grounded in the recognition and embrace of every wart of our perceived unworthiness 

is love worth giving or receiving….unless, of course, you are a golden retriever. And then by all means, love all ways! And on a related note…..

5. Let us spend the rest of our lives spreading the Good News that Jesus is a four letter word!

Of course the word is: Love. Although I bet I could make a bit of a case for: Jazz.

6. Money is not the root of all evil. Privilege is.  

Unearned privilege could very well be at the heart of every systemic evil that plagues our common life. The notion that some of us just deserve more than others. The notion that there are hierarchical levels of deservingmay be at the heart of our panoply of social dis-eases: Racism. Poverty. War. The destruction of creation.  Our national immigration policy. This is all a delusion of our deserving

The delusion of our privilege, of course, is no delusion at all. Privilege is quite real. But it hangs on the coattails of the notion that we deserve what we have. And so I think it is well worth asking the question: what exactly do we deserve? Is what I deserve different from what you      deserve? Is it grounded injustice or in my own human concept of fairness? Do we deserve only what we earn? What if what we earn is a function of what we inherit? Do we deserve what we inherit? And what if our earning power is derailed or impeded by no fault of our own? Does what we deserve change? Is that fair? 

And so calibrating what we deserve can be very complicated. 

Can we quantify, or even know, much less articulate, what we deserve? I think the truth about what we deserve is buried in the semantics of the word itself: de-serve. When we think we deserve   something, we are actuallyde-serving it. That is, we are not serving it. When we think we deserve   more credit for our work, or more appreciation for our effort, or a gold star for our obedience we are de-serving what we seek….we are diminishing it. When we grumble that we are not being properly served by others, we are actively de-serving everything that we value…..or say that we value…..as    Christians. 

 Because de-serving is the opposite of what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to serve, not to be served, not to de-serve. In fact, if we believe Jesus, we don’t deserve a thing. Everything of value that we have and that we are is freely given to us by God, none of it is in any way deserved. 

So let us shift our attention from what we think we deserve to how we can better serve each other.  And act accordingly.

7. Discomfort is the agent of growth.

Good news! Times of stress are times of growth. (This one is for the wardens!) Admittedly, it’s a paradox. Para, meaning beside. Dox, meaning appearance. Paradox. An appearance beside itself. A blessing in disguise. When things get tough, we can use the adversity as a wake-up call to find the ground on which we truly stand. To get to the bottom of what we truly value. To locate the kernel of our purpose so that we might let everything else go. 

And that is not the only good news about adversity. But be assured that God never wastes anything. Every rotten break, every difficult situation, every deep ditch in which we might find ourselves or our community will be used to facilitate some offering of grace down the road. The light at the end of the dark, dark thruway would never even be seen without the tunnel

8. Be careful what you wish for.

We all know this warning well. We know from Goethe’s Faust, and Brendan Frazier’s Bedazzled, that nothing good ever comes when we are not clear about what we value. Whenever we are tempted to forfeit something that serves love for something that serves fear we can be sure that we are about to be….fffffausted.  Or at the very least up a bedazzled creek without a paddle.

Whenever we think we are called to serve things like quantity over quality, equity over mercy, progress over hope, unity over kindness, or any other false value over the celebration and affirmation of dignity.…….that temptation is a sure fire trap and we are making a deal with the devil….whoever that may be. Because we will either find out that the trade was not worth it, or that what we wanted comes in a form that we don’t want after all…..or both. Beware of best-laid wishes.

9. Number nine

There were two brothers. And they loved baseball. All of their lives. And as they aged, they promised each other that the first one to die would come back and let the other one know if there is baseball in heaven. One day Joe had a massive heart attack and died. About a month later John was mowing the lawn and there was Joe. Standing right in front of him. Oh Joe, exclaimed John, you kept your word! Tell me, is there baseball in heaven? And Joe said: well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, yes! There is baseball in heaven.  

The bad news is, you’re pitching on Sunday.

This too shall pass. It is among the central messages of Advent, if not all mainline religions. That the world as we know it is on the way out. And again, it’s a paradox. Good News and Bad News all at the same time. That we are free to live with integrity, free to let go of all of the stumbling blocks to our authenticity, and assured that despite the depth and breadth of the pain we are suffering, nothing lasts forever….well almost nothing. As the New Testament says: Our life with God is everlasting. And as the Talmud says: The sun will rise without you.  As I said, Good News and Bad News. And, not unlike jazz.

10. Remember what everything is for

At the end of Fiddler on the Roof,  Hodel and Perchik are talking about their new life ahead. And Perchik says: I will send for you as soon as I can. But it will be a hard life, Hodel. And she replies: But it will be less hard if we are together. And Perchik says, actually sings: Besides having everything, now I know what everything is for.

My dear friends, in the scheme of things, we in this beloved and extended community have everything. We have voices. We have choices. We have power. We have stability. We have relative economic and social security. And most of all, we have each other. And even though we will shortly be planted in different gardens, we have been so transformed by each other that nothing will ever separate us from each other or the love of God. We are inseparably connected.

I came to this parish almost 12 years ago, hot off the ordination press. This was and is and will    always be my first parish as a priest.  Everything I am as a parish priest has been informed by you. And although I arrived here with everything, almost everything a parish priest might need. I had everything to learn. And we gave each other everything we had. And now I too know what everything is for. 

I love you dearly. I will miss you deeply. And I thank you from my toe bottoms.

 In the words of St. Benedict:  Always we begin again.

 Onward! 

 Amen.

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Wake! Watch! Wield!

The Gospel According to Matthew 24:36-44

December 1, 2019: Advent I

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

Good morning and welcome to the first Sunday in Advent! 

It’s one of those Sundays that challenges a preacher whose pulpit does not change from year to year. Because the theological context and message of Advent I are the same…every year, albeit framed slightly differently by each gospeller in our three-year cycle.

But the message is simple across the board: Wake up. Watch out. And get ready, because the end of the world as we know it, is near. That’s the message in Advent I, in every Gospel, every year. Dark. Scary. Urgent.

 It’s so dark and scary that we hardly get past…..that. We hardly ever talk about why the world as we know it will be ending.  We almost never go there unless we are dragged by a …..sermon…or an… evangelical. Because, I think, the very concept at hand is somewhere around a 9.9 on the theological Richter Scale. It is an earth shatteringly difficult notion around which we, in this current culture, can barely get our human arms.

The concept is that of the Second Coming. And in my humble estimation, it is the only Christian theological concept that surpasses even the resurrection in its….incomprehensible unpopularity as a tenet of the mainline Christian faith. It would not even register as a chat topic on mainline spiritual social media. The Second Coming of Christ, at least in our denominational realm, has next to no followers, excepting clergy, of course.

But Advent is tailor made for our contemplation of the Second Coming. It is almost the core of Advent’s theme. And so we hear about it every year in the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent. 

We are made abundantly aware in our Scripture that what we await at this time of the year is not just the birth, but the return, of Jesus the Christ. It’s one of the reasons that we do not sing Christmas carols during Advent. Because they are overwhelmingly geared to the birth of the immaculately conceived child, with no acknowledgement at all that he has already been born. Advent is not just about the birth, but even more directly about the return of Jesus our Savior.

But Jesus makes it crystal clear, in all three Gospels, that he is intending to return. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus makes this promise to his disciples in the chapter just before this morning’s reading. He says: For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’ 

There it is in black and white. You will not see me AGAIN until... That is, I am going to be back, says Jesus. Which means that the Second Coming is not an afterthought. It’s not that Jesus came and died and rose and then God said, “Holy cow, I think we need to try this again, they didn’t get it the first time.” Nope. Jesus was planning to come again all along. Part of the plan.

And in a culture that is all in regarding second chances, we might think that the Second Coming would have more attention. But this Second Coming is not predicated on a failed first attempt, like most second chances. This one was in the cards from the get-go. 

And even so, even though there is hardly anything more uniformly and widely attested in the New Testament than the Second Coming of Christ, we still do not talk about it. Much. At all. Except today. On Advent I.

Although, we already embrace the Second Coming 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. We are praying explicitly for the Second Coming. We are praying for the new beginning that will fulfill God’s promise of peace on earth.

But it is not until this first Sunday in Advent that we actually focus on the cost of that new beginning. A new beginning that is predicated on a terrifying ending.

But Advent I insists that we come to grips with the cold hard truth 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. 

The theological term for that earth-shattering ending that will precede the Second Coming is called “the apocalypse.” Literally “to uncover.” Apo-kaluptein. To reveal. The apocalypse is the revelation that comes when the façade of this world is wiped away. 

Don’t worry if your eyes are glazing over, it’s a tough concept. But it is axiomatic to the Christian way. And it is the underlying message of this first Sunday in Advent. Every year. In every Gospel. The darkness of destruction  must precede the light of revelation. The apocalypse is the conduit to the Kindom.

But, apocalypse is not a Christian concept. The Book of Daniel is loaded with calculations and ruminations regarding the apocalypse. The notion that the world was coming to an end did not begin with the birth of Jesus Christ. It was alive and well centuries before. And the issue was not whether the world would come to an end, but when. And because no one knew when, there was always an aire of urgency.

All three of our synoptic Christian Gospels pick up this urgency in their passages on Advent I. Although all three deliver the warning a bit differently.

In year B, Mark simply delivers the bad news that the world is coming to an end.Yes it is. So wake up to that realization. See the signs. Accept the truth. And deal with it. Full stop.

In year C, Luke too delivers the bad news that the world is coming to an end, but he tempers that jolt with a modicum of hope. The world may pass away says Jesus in Luke, but my words will not pass away. In Luke’s Gospel, the coming demise is not just the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad end. It is more of a means to a beginning….an end that is required to clear the decks for a brand new, life-giving beginning. So if we can just wait it out, a new day will dawn at the end of this dark, dark night. Luke’s message is also wake up! But he adds a sit tight motif. Wait it out and things will be fine in the end.

But this morning begins year A. And although Matthew delivers the same bad news that the world as we know it is indeed on its very last leg, he adds what I hear as a true gift in the midst of the maelstrom. And maybe it is the ultimate gift…..for the Christian who has everything.

Dan Harrington, who was the professor of New Testament theology at Weston School of Theology when I was at EDS, says that Matthew picks up his version of the impending end almost verbatim from Mark’s Gospel.  But instead of just cautioning the reader to be aware of the signs in this generation that point to the coming of the last things, Matthew adds a twist.  Matthew balances his warning of the apocalypse with a call to action. 

He says that since we know the end is near, we are therefore free to live every day as though tomorrow were our last. And Harrington says that with this instruction, Matthew “brings about the union between eschatology and ethics.” (347, Sacra Pagina Commentary). In essence, Matthew frees us to behave every minute of every day as if we might wake tomorrow morning to find the kindom of God parked in our front yard blowing the horn.

It’s the perfect gift for Christmas! The gift of freedom. Matthew’s version of the doomsday Advent prophesy comes wrapped in the gift of abject freedom! Live like there is no tomorrow, says the Gospel. You are free! Free to stop acquiring things and start gathering loved ones.nFree to forget your obsession with security and start opening your doors to your neighbors. Free to forget protecting your reputation and social standing and begin speaking from your heart. Free to forget your fear of losing whatever it is that you love more than love. Because you are going to lose it. And soon.

So empty your pockets. Drain your coffers. Spend your time connecting. Give your attention to love. Invest in your values. Contribute to peace. Shell out kindness like there’s no tomorrow. Spread joy like jam. Unload whatever gifts you have in abundance. Because you are going to lose them. And soon.

Hold nothing back. Save nothing for a rainy day. Because that rainy day just might end up being a flood. And a big one. Ask Noah. This is no time for practicality. Spend your virtue with wild abandon. Because no doubt, the end is very near.

Matthew’s gift is not the sort of pastoral pablum for which our comfort zones might long. It’s not a reassurance that we will be fine. That all will be well. Matthew does not assure us that God’s reign will not conjure a flood or that all will be a-okay after the flood subsides. Matthew does not comfort us that peace will not cost us our prosperity. Matthew does not assure us that we need not worry because Christmas is just around the bend. Jesus will be born and peace will come on earth. Matthew does not blow smoke up our skirts. 

No. Matthew’s Gospel says nothing about Advent as a time of waking and patiently waiting for greener pastures. Rather, Matthew’s Gospel says that Advent is a time of waking and wielding. Wielding our agency to infuse God’s love  in everything we do. Because the end is coming. And all we can claim for ourselves is whatever time we have left with which to do whatever we were born to do.

Although we do not know exactly when the end will come, that might be part of the gift. Because that uncertainty is the core of our freedom to live with wild and generous abandon.  Because now that we know that that the end is on the way, we are free to throw caution to the wind and live with absolute and utter authenticity…. compassion…. mercy…. kindness… generosity…. intimacy…. honesty….what else? Go ahead, what else do we refrain from in the name of fear? To steal a phrase from NIKE, now we are free to : Just do it! Because we have nothing to lose.

It’s the Bad News Good News of Advent according to Matthew. A paradox. That the knowledge that the end of time is imminent offers such a great grace that frees us to spend our time infinitely well.

Because Advent takes us out of time as we await both the birth that has happened and the return that is yet to come. Our lighting of the Advent wreath is the inextinguishable sign that we are not in Kansas anymore. Now, we are in God’s time. We are with God’s blessing. We are in God’s hands. 

This notion of connecting tenses of time is at the core of our Christian eschatology. It’s another difficult word that just really refers to the end time; the eschaton, literally the end time. And eschatology is key. Because we take our earthly marching orders from our concept of what awaits us in the end, in heaven, of what awaits us when we shuffle off this mortal coil. Our present values and choices and behavior reflect what we think eternity holds. And so eschatology is worth understanding.

For example, if we think that there is nothing after death, that this earthly life is all that there is, then we might be predisposed to spend everything we have in this world on ourselves and our own priorities as individuals. Because there is nothing other than today. There are no after-life consequences. There is no after-life hope. There is nothing more to consider than here and now.

If we think that the end time will be a time of judgment, that we will be called to account on “Judgment Day,” then we might live our lives trying to make sure that we will pass muster; like the movie Defending Your Life. Our values will be predicated on their ability to make us look good, in preparation for that Day. We will live in a way that sets us up to win our own personal case in the court of eternity. Our marching orders will be designed to mitigate the judgment that lies ahead.

But if we think that eternity is a kindom that seats every child of God equally at God’s table;  that the worth and value of every creature and creation of God will be celebrated in the end, then we are more likely to spend everything we have in this world on each other. Because we will be sitting across the table from each other for all of eternity. 

The way we understand the eschaton determines the way we live our lives. It is not a stretch to say that eschatology makes all the difference.

Advent is the season when we are invited to check in with our eschatology. How are our lives connected with our understanding of what matters in the long run? Now is the time to align ourselves and our lifestyles with our understanding of eternity.

The very word Advent invites this time bending endeavor. Advent, is from the Latin adventus. And adventus in Latin is a very particular verb form. It is a perfect passive participle. We don’t have this form in English. But in Latin, the perfect passive participle has a somewhat contradictory meaning in and of itself. The perfect passive part denotes something which has already happened. But the participle part is something that is happening as we speak and continues to happen into the future. 

So, Advent, from the perfect passive participle adventus, is: 

  1. something that is happening now and is ongoing.
  2. and also something that has already happened and is finished.

This sounds like a contradiction. And it is if we are thinking in a linear way. Advent does not move in a linear way. We can’t get our arms around the coming of God if we try to move from start to finish, from beginning to ending. We can’t put one foot in front of the other and get to God. We have to change our orientation; to move spatially rather than chronologically. For there is no logic to God’s Chronos, to God’s time. 

And so this morning Matthew gives us a new translation of God’s timetable. A timetable where the human question: When? is translated into the divine imperative: Now. The focus is not when will the world will end, but when will we let go of our fear and live as we were born to live? Freely!

Matthew turns “the end is near, oh my!” Into “the end is near, get going!”

And so the most pressing question for us on this first Sunday in Advent is not: When will the end come? The question is: How will we live differently if we truly believe that tomorrow will be the end? Specifically. What will we change right now? Today. How might our life today reflect the eternity that might begin tomorrow? How will we spend our time? Our resources? Our energy?  Now. What changes will we make immediately?

Consider it. Because my friends, the question is not rhetorical.

Now that we are awake, what change will we make?

Amen.

© December 2019, The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

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Identity Matters

Identity Matters

November 24, 2019

Gospel According to Luke 23:33-43

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 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….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….the beginning of a new liturgical year. 

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 good time to dream about where God might be calling us from here. It is a time of remembrance and thanksgiving and hopefulness.

Next Sunday, the start of Advent, we begin the journey again. Although this year, we will begin in a way wholly different from any of our previous Advent seasons together. This year, Advent will be both a beginning and an end in a new way for us.

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.

Likewise, in our liturgical rubric, 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 a couple of years ago, we in this community amended that language and changed the word Kingdom to Kindom. 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. 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 our Scriptures tell us over and over and over again, kings are not…. God. Not even close.

Kings, even good kings, says the Good Book, 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 our scripture, even a king who is chosen especially by God, a king like say, Good King David is flawed and fractured and still only human.

King and God are fundamentally incompatible terms. Incompatible identities.

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. 

Twice in this morning’s reading from Luke, Jesus is called the “King of the Jews.” It would have been a scandalous accusation in his time. It’s hard for us to imagine just how scandalous. More outrageous than calling any one of us the “God of Newton.” Because there is only one God, and we are not she. Or them. Calling Jesus the King of the Jews was tantamount to that. There was only one king and Jesus was not him. 

Even so, by some bizarre twist of theological irony, our Christian vernacular refers to Christ as King. Not just the King of the Christians. The King of Kings. And we justify this acclamation by explaining that Christ is a new kind of king. Thousands of sermons this very morning will proclaim that Christ is a different kind of king. That Christ turns the definition of king on its head! That Christ is a king who sits not on a throne but hangs on a cross. Whose head is not adorned with jewels but with thorns. Whose strength is found not in armies but in weakness. They will say that Christ the new definition of king.

I don’t think so. Saying that Christ is a new kind of king is like saying that Putin is a new kind of pascifist. But no. Putin is not any kind of pascifist. And Christ in NOT any kind of king. Not even with a definite article. Not even THE king. Christ is God:  Creator. Liberator.  Sanctifier. Not king. Not even a different kind of king. Any more than a pickle is a different kind of blueberry. Or a golden retriever is a different kind of turtle. Christ in NOT a different kind of King.

But Christ is a whole new kind of Creation

And identity matters. I think this description of Christ as 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. But 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. 

Christ is not a new kind of king. But he is a new kind of power. Jesus shows us 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 “Kindom 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 Kindom. 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 of who and whose we are.

Last Wednesday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance and Celebration, an annual observance that was begun 21 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 the 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.

We need look no further than this morning’s reading from Luke to see how such an identity crisis relates to every Christian. Because it could just as well be a remembrance and celebration of the Incarnation; a child of God whose own self transgressed all of the boundaries of identity; Fully human and fully divine. A new creation. Not a new kind of king. A new kind of kin.

A child of God whose core identity crossed the boundaries of all understanding. A brother whose full flesh was pure God. 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 whenever we attempt to define the image of the divine within the limits of our humanly constructed language OR our human capacity for love. Whenever we allow earth to define heaven, we are in big trouble. That mystery is better left in God’s hands. Our work 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 this and every church hangs in the balance. Because identity matters.

And so on this last Sunday of our liturgical year, as we stand on the precipice of a new Creation, I want to leave us with the words of one of the founders of our identity as Protestants.  Words penned 500 years ago by Martin Luther from his Defense and Explanation of All the Articles. He wrote:

This life is…. not righteousness but growth in 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 is the road.

Alleluia! Amen.

© November, 2019  The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

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Zacchaeus. Come On Down!

November 17, 2019

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

This morning’s Gospel was originally scheduled in our lectionary rotation for November 3rd. But on that Sunday, we celebrated with the readings for All Saints Day. And since I did not want to let this little gem of a Gospel story escape us for another three years, we have heard it this morning slightly out of its appointed place. Which actually, I think, works well in terms of integrating form and function. Because this Gospel story itself is in some ways about being out of place, at least out of the commonly appointed place.

This morning’s Gospel tells the story of Zacchaeus. It’s a great name. Zacchaeus. It’s got girth and substance and it is not yet overused. In fact, a Google search of Zacchaeus reveals that it is used only once in our public sphere. Right here in this morning’s reading from Luke’s Gospel.

Zacchaeus occurs only in Luke. And not only the name Zachaeus, but his descriptor as the “chief tax collector” also appears only here in Luke. Nowhere else in our New Testament is there a reference to a chief tax collector. Let us take note. Because Luke’s language skills are the best and most precise in all of the Gospels. No one other Gospeller uses their words better than Luke.

This story of Zacchaeus falls at the end of a whole portion of Luke that is unique to Luke. Most of chapters 15 to 19 are aptly called the “L” source section….as in, found only in Luke.

But it is also sort of the “L” section in terms of its content. Because most of the characters in section “L” are outcasts and sinners….losers in the social sense. Parables about the lost sheep, the dishonest manager, rotten rich men, lepers, the poor widow and the unjust judge, and this last parable about the unpopular, untall, head tax collector Zacchaeus. The “L” section.  In one way or another, all of the characters in this section are social…..Losers.

Just the sort of folks that Jesus collects. The folks on the margins…..on every margin. Like Zacchaeus who, despite his affluence as a tax collector, is also an outcast.  And the author of this text really seems to want us to think of Zaccheaus as a loser. Big time.

Elisabeth Kaeton (an Episcopal priest with a long and impressive resume of service to the church) – writes in her blog “Telling Secrets,” that this tale of Zacchaeus is perfectly placed around the time of Halloween. Because, she says, the whole story is about how we are tricked into treating Zacchaeus as someone who is……deplorable, someone who fails to measure up against the moral yardstick of the day.

No one else is deplorable enough in all of the Gospels to be called the chief of tax collectors. It’s not bad enough to be just a regular tax collector, like the one denounced earlier in the L section, the one praying at the Temple with a Pharisee. Here, Luke adds a layer of disgust. Zacchaeus is the chief of the dirty rotten scoundrels who collect tribute for the Roman Empire.

And, as the text says, Zacchaeus is rich. It is the supreme knock against his character in the ancient world where wealth was a zero-sum game. Those who were rich always got that way at the expense of those who were poor. A rich chief tax collector was virtually swimming in sin.

And as the icing on the cake, the text says that Zacchaeus is also short. Apparently he climbed the sycamore tree because he wanted to see who Jesus was and, “he could not see because he was short in stature.” Many commentaries take this insinuation that Zacchaeus was too short to see Jesus as another derogatory slur. But I think it is not clear whether the author is referring to Zacchaeus as short in stature, or to Jesus as short in stature. Could Zacchaeus not see because he was short or because Jesus was short?

It seems a small point (pun only slightly intended),  but it is one of the reasons that I love this passage so much. There are so many seemingly innocuous unclarified nuances that invite the reader to ponder the very assumptions on which our faith is based. And in so doing, this story speaks to everyone. Everywhere.

It is jam packed with little teasers that challenge our most basic assumptions. What exactly is the stature of a loser in our society? What is the stature of Jesus? What do we need to do to get a better look at God? Does God know who and where we are? And who does God think we are? These are but a few of the deep queries we are called to consider in this, dare I say, short passage.

Anyway, regardless of whose stature was too short for Jesus to be seen without the aid of a sycamore tree, suffice it to say that Zacchaeus was unpopular in his shoes. And so right off the bat we are led to think of Zacchaeus as a rogue who needs a change of heart. We think of him as we think of the Pharisees, and rich Lazarus who tosses a single coin to the leper at his gate, and a host of other Richie Riches in the Gospels who loot the public coffers and take advantage of those who are on the margins.

So by the end of verse 2 we have a fairly poor impression of Zacchaeus.

Nevertheless, he wants to see “who Jesus is.” So he climbs a sycamore tree and waits for the procession. And when Jesus passes under that tree, Jesus looks up, as though he knows Zacchaeus is there. And somehow he knows Zacchaeus’s name. And Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, hurry down out of that tree, for I must stay at your house today.”

Can you imagine? There you are, perched in a sycamore tree like a kid hoping for a better view of the parade……or maybe like a rogue seeking camouflage and safety from an unfriendly throng…. or both – another little uncertainty to chew on in this text. Why is Zacheaus in that tree? Because he literally cannot see Jesus otherwise? Or because he is so hated that he needs to hide? Or maybe a bit of both?

Still, imagine how shocked he must have been when Jesus not only knew his name, but insisted on coming to his home. “I must stay at your house today,” said Jesus. Not “I want to come to your house.” Not “can I come to your house?” But “I must come to your house.” Holy cow! God invited God’s self to dinner! Just imagine how that must have felt!

And so Zacchaeus scurries out of the tree and “joyfully” welcomes Jesus. There is no grumbling by Zacchaeus for the unsolicited self-invitation. Zacchaeus joyfully welcomes him. It’s the same word “joyfully” used by Martha when she welcomes Jesus to her home.

I don’t know about you, but if one of you announced out of the blue that you must come to my house tonight for dinner, I might respond with a modicum of grumbling. You would, of course in the end, be most welcome, but joyful would probably not be my first response.

Not Zacchaeus. He responds to Jesus’ unsolicited invitation with utter joy! However, according to the scripture, everyone else grumbles. Not just the scribes and Pharisees who are the typical grumblers in Luke. Here, everyone is grumbling, disciples and apostles alike, and the crowd in general…..everyone is passing a mighty judgment on this rich chief tax collector whom they all take to be unworthy of Jesus’ attention. He is a sinner, they exclaim. Not good enough for Jesus.

And it’s easy to see their point. What is Jesus doing going to the home of this elite money-launderer? Why is Jesus spending his time at the home of this rich guy? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be focused on the meek, the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness?

And here is where we really need a good translator to properly interpret this text. Because the next line can make or break the way we hear the point of this story. In my humble opinion, I think the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the one we heard this morning, and in fact most translations, mistranslate the next verse, verse eight.

In the NRSV it reads: Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Halleluiah, we think. Jesus has changed Zacchaeus’ wonton ways. He will give to the poor and payback his transgressions. His heart has been converted by Jesus. He was a lost rich tax collector, but now he is found. He was blind but now he sees. Born again through his relationship with Jesus. It’s a story that I can imagine being used by the contingent of our Christian community who are most concerned with conversion through the acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior.

Because the NRSV translation presents this story as a conversion story. A story of repentance and reconciliation. Which is how almost every commentary interprets the story of Zacchaeus. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Bad guy meets Jesus. Bad guy turns himself around. Salvation is his reward. Go and do likewise.

One of my favorite theologians, Frederic Beuchner agrees. His commentary says: Zacchaeus was taken so completely taken aback by the honor of the thing that before he had a chance to change his mind, he promised not only to turn over fifty percent of his holdings to the poor but to pay back, four to one, all the cash he’d extorted from everybody else. Jesus is delighted.[1]

According to this, this is a story about the repentence of an extortionist. According to Beuchner, a sort of divine impeachment story, if you will. (I couldn’t resist.) And I love Frederic Beuchner, but not so fast…..

Because the fact is, that the Greek verbs in this sentence are not in the future tense. The literal text does not read “I will give ” and “I will pay back” these monies in the future.

Rather, both of the verbs in verse 8 are in a present active tense. They more accurately say: “I already give to the poor,” and “I already pay back four times what I have defrauded.” Zacchaeus is already a righteous man. And not for nothing, but in Hebrew “Zacchaeus” literally means “righteous.”

He already shares his wealth. He already makes amends for his transgressions. And he has been doing it all along.

Zacchaeus is not being converted, he is being a witness….a model of righteousness. Outward appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Zacchaeus is already what God wants of us.

And so when Jesus says “salvation happens in this house,” I think he is not talking about his own saving power. I think Jesus is talking about the substance of salvation as it lives and breathes in the way Zacchaeus has chosen to live his life……his financially advantaged life. The way that Zacchaeus has chosen to share his wealth and his resources and his privilege. In this story, salvation is located in Zacchaeus, not Jesus. Salvation is already there.

I think it is worth noting that this is the only place in Luke’s Gospel (other than the infancy narrative at the very beginning) where the word salvation is used as a noun. That is to say, salvation is not something that Jesus is doing, it is something that already exists. Jesus tells Zacchaeus that “salvation is here.” Zacchaeus is a witness for salvation through the generosity and hospitality and just-behavior with which he lives his life.

I can’t think of a better Gospel for us to read on this Sanctuary Sunday, than this one.

And so this morning, I invite us all to come down out of the tree and be called Zacchaeus. Not Zacchaeus the converted. Zacchaeus the witness. Zacchaeus who joyfully offers his home to Jesus, the Son of God who must come over and see for himself the salvation that is happening there. Zacchaeus who defies the grumblers who judge him by his job, his affluence, his stature. Zacchaeus who gives what he has and pays back more than he has to. Zacchaeus who models salvation by living generously, hospitably, and with nothing but integrity. Let us be Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus. It’s a great name. It’s got girth and substance and it is not yet overused. I am hoping that we can change that together.

On a final note, Australian Anglican priest Brian McGowan has suggested that maybe a sycamore tree should join the cross, and the empty tomb as a Christian symbol.

What do you think he might have meant by that?

Alleluia. Amen.

[1] http://frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustration-zaccheus

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Jesus and Job Descriptions

Job, Jesus and the Holy Baptism of Amberliz Pedraza-Rosado

November 10, 2019

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

From the Book of Job

Job said,

“O that my words were written down!

O that they were inscribed in a book!

O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;

and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,

whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”            –              

                                                                                                                     Book of Job 19:23-27

 

From the Gospel According to Luke

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

                                                                                         -The Gospel According to Luke 20:27-38

 

This is a very special morning! Today Amberliz Pedraza – Rosado will be getting a new job description.  Today she will be baptized, a sacrament that will bind her to a new, but lifelong job. The job of living as a Christian. Not an Episcopalian, but a Christian. Baptism is non-denominational. And although baptism is a sacrament of the church, it binds us, not to live into any particular church tradition, but into the mission that was inaugurated with the baptism of our brother Jesus; the first among us to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

If we take Jesus’ baptism as the blueprint for our own, then the generally accepted reasons for baptism are moot. If, as our tradition says, baptism is a cleansing of sin and an initiation into the Christian church, then Jesus’ baptism meant nothing. Because he had no sin to be cleansed. And there was no Christian church.

Jesus was baptized at the very start of his wholly human and wholly divine ministry. It was  the kick-off, as it were. The initiation of a brand new job. And Jesus’ baptism is the both the first thing that all four Gospels tell us about Jesus’ ministry. And the first of few things on which they all agree.

That Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, a sinless Jew, to stand in solidarity with every one of God’s children. His baptism was the beginning of his impossibly difficult mission to live the rest of his life reflecting the image of God that was endowed at his birth. Reflecting the work of pure love that is, was, and will always be God’s hope for every human being. Always. Every day. In every situation. To live the law of love. And that was, in a nutshell, Jesus’ baptismal job description. To love all ways. Always.

When it was easy and when it was hard. When people praised him as their messiah. And when they cursed and abused and reviled him for threatening their ….own power and privilege. Jesus’ baptism was the start of his life lived according to God’s pure love.

It’s a mission that sounds fairly genteel. But as we all know, it is fraught with difficulty and danger if it is done with integrity. But that is exactly the mission into which we will inaugurate Amberliz this morning. Her baptismal covenant will serve as her new job description, the same job description that guided Jesus.

As you know, I typically like to preach on the scriptural readings for the day. But I must admit that at first blush, this morning’s readings looked dubious for the task of illuminating a baptism.  Dubious at best. And maybe even flat out inappropriate.

First a reading about the suffering of Job. And then a bizarre reading in Luke about……who can say? The status of women and the men who own them?  The reality of resurrection? Who knows? It’s a hard reading.

However, after some more careful parsing, and a lively exploratory discussion at this week’s Wednesday Bible study, I now think that both of these readings, especially when taken together, might be just right for this morning’s glorious occasion.

Both of these readings invite us to think deeply and seriously about what it means to reflect the image of God that is etched on our hearts; the image of love and divine intent that God created us to uphold, no matter what, when it is easy and when it is existentially hard. And even when we are bound and distressed and disheartened by our own suffering and oppression. Even when we are tempted to think ourselves above the fray of those who suffer…..and especially for reasons that do not apply to us.

In our tradition, that job of reflecting God’s image is undergirded by a mutual covenant that binds us to God without question or qualm. The promise that is about to be made by the parents and god parents of Amberliz, to trust and love God in every and all ways for all of her life. And the promise made by God to Amberliz. God’s unequivocal promise, short and sweet, first articulated to Jesus at his baptism: You are my beloved. And with you I am well pleased. Full stop.

This is the covenant that baptized Christians have with God: The promise from God that we are loved and worthy, no matter what we say or do or believe, no matter where we have come from or think we are headed, no matter what. And our promise to do our best to reflect that love and worthiness in every thought word and deed. No matter what.

That is the full and complete job description of a Christian, in my humble opinion. But it is beyond hard to accomplish.

And that is where Job[1] and his own job description, the job description to be faithful to God no matter what, comes in. Job does not promise to reflect the image of God, but he does promise to trust God. Always. It’s a trust that is tested…..mightily.

It is a hard job to get our heads around Job’s job. Because the story of Job is challenging, to say the least. It is a story that stretches us both theologically and existentially. A story that raises direct questions about our relationship with God and the nature and cause of our own suffering. Universally. It is a non-denominational story.

And it is unique in our Hebrew Bible. It is the only full Book that focusses on the suffering of a single person, without a real and significant reference to the fortunes of the wider community. This story is only and all about Job.

It’s a story with which we are all probably at least tangentially acquainted. Every one of us knows what it is to suffer….and sometimes to suffer unjustly…..or so we think. And so Job’s story is in some ways every story. It is the intersection of every experience of the infinite and every experience of the temporal all wrapped up in one. Job’s story is the story of human life….albeit writ gigantically large.

Job is a blameless and upright man who fears God and renounces all evil. Are you listening Amberliz? And one day (it must have been a very slow day) some “heavenly beings” and also “Satan,” presented themselves to God the Creator of the Universe.

And really without any prelude or preface, or even without any reason, God mentions Job as an example of a truly and thoroughly righteous human being. Sort of out of blue, but with a seemingly ungodly braggadocio, God says to Satan: “have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears [which in bible speak means he is awed by] his God and renounces all evil.”

And Satan snidely replies,  “Does Job fear God for nothing?” as if to say  Game On! And they are off! God and Satan. Head to head. With the faith of Job as their pawn.

God insists…brags really, that Job’s righteousness is not grounded in anything other than his fidelity to his Maker. And, God Almighty claims that their servant Job will continue to be righteous and upright,  no matter what; even if he loses his blessings, even if he suffers painful afflictions, even if his health and livelihood and family are taken from him. So faithful is Job, that nothing, no hardship, no suffering, no injustice even, will be able to pull Job from his job description to ground his faith in God.

Go ahead,” says God to Satan…..hit Job with your best shot. And Satan obliges.

And so slowly but surely, Job loses almost everything; his possessions, his children, his health, his peace… and very nearly his mind. But the one thing Job does not lose, is his trust in God. Although, he never quite lets go of his trust in himself either. Job holds fast to his own innocence. He never quite lets go of Job. It’s a curious thing. But as the losses mount, Job seems almost less upset about what he is losing, than he is about why he is losing it.

For all of Job’s righteousness, this need to know why he is suffering, seems to me to be his weakest link. It is the part that saves him from being a hero who suffers humbly for God. Because he seems more focussed on knowing why he is being so unfairly persecuted, than he is on his faith that God abides for God’s own reasons. I am not proud to say that I resemble this obsession of Job’s; this need to be treated fairly and to understand the cause of any and all….suffering on my part. But I think that is why this story is so relevant in all ages.

Job’s wife and friends do not help. They insist that he must have done something wicked to deserve his fate. This sort of suffering does not just happen unless one has provoked it. We do not suffer unless we deserve it, says Job’s friends….from whence the adage comes: With friends like that, who needs enemies? And so if our own self- sabotage were not enough, this is how the world, and even the ones in the world who love us the most, sabotage our spirits with their own need to justify…..us, as worthy of our privilege. Our privilege to know why we suffer. Our privilege to be accorded a fair trial. Ou privilege to be in some semblance of control.

And so, the one thing Job want s above all others is a trial to prove that he is indeed innocent of all that has befallen him. And this is where we pick up the story in this morning’s reading.

Job wants his side of the story, his claim to innocence written down, in black and white…and not just black and white….inscribed forever on a rock with an iron pen.

‘O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book!

O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock for ever!

Job wants a record, an everlasting record of his defense. Oh yeah, and of his faithfulness that stands even in the face of injustice. He wants it known that he did nothing to deserve his suffering. And yet he remained “faithful.” …albeit ever innocent. As I said, it is a story to which I bet we can all relate.

And then there is the story in this morning’s Gospel according to Luke. As luck, or providence, would have it, the unique story of Job the individual is paired this morning with an equally unique story from Luke. This morning, in an amazingly difficult passage, Jesus directly addresses a group of folks who are questioning him about the bounds of human constructs – specifically about the relationship between what happens in this world and what happens in the next. These questioners, the Saduccees, do not believe in resurrection, and so they try to catch Jesus in a conundrum that will force him to agree that they have a point.

They ask Jesus this question: to whom does a woman belong (a woman who has been married several times) after she dies? The question is meant sarcastically and as a  theological trap. But in an extremely unusual turn of the tongue, Jesus replies with a straight forward response. It’s one of the only times in our Gospels when Jesus answers such a question directly. Maybe he is just sick of parables.

But Jesus says to them, you have it wrong.

The woman belongs to no one. And she never did. At least not in God’s realm.

In God’s realm no one needs to be married to belong or to be worthy.

In God’s realm, women belong just as they are, as does everyone else.

In God’s realm women are as worthy as are men, and everyone else.

In God’s realm, every human heart has equal value.

In God’s realm, God’s message to every child is the same: You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.

And so there you have it, dear Amberliz.

Two radical readings that seem to be custom ordered for this day of your baptism. Job’s message that invites us to stick with God always. No matter what, because God will stick with us. To that point, I think Job’s message is not about a God who controls all, but a God who bears all.  A God who sticks with us no matter what we say or do or think or believe. Even when we worship our own innocence over God’s good companionship.

And Luke’s message, Luke’s radical message that we are loved and accorded equally in God’s heart, if not in this world. That none of us are better or worse than any other. In God’s realm we all belong only and ever to God, and we should act accordingly.

But the promise that is about to be made on your behalf, Amberliz, will be a doozy to keep on your own. And so on this morning of your baptism, I offer you a mantra to go with your new job description. It is from German writer of the early 19th century, Johnanne Wolfgang von Goethe. It is a mantra that has held me in good stead since college – which seems like it was itself from the early 19th century. Here it is:

Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aide.

Today is the first day of the rest of your life, Amberliz. And also the first day of the rest of our life as a Christian community. Because today we get another chance to serve as the mighty force of which Goethe speaks.

As you grow up and live into the covenant that your parents and godparents promise for you today, we will serve as your ever-faithful community behind the outrageous sacrament that is your baptismal promise. It’s why sacraments are never consecrated in private, only in community. Because they are just too hard handle. Too daunting to dare without the love and care and support of a village who loves us.

Welcome to the village, Amberliz!

Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Job is thought by many scholars that Job was the great grandson of Abraham’s brother Nahor.

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Receive the Gift of God!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horses - Izzy

duplicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horses - Izzy

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

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

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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Horses - Izzy

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

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

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

The Cost of Love

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Holy Week.

Amen.

© April 2019, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
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Prodigal Love

March 31, 2019: Lent IV

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

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

The Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

 

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

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

 So Jesus told them this parable:

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

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

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