Here I Am, Send Me!

February 10, 2019

Luke 5:1-11

The Rev’d Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

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

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

 

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

                                                                                                                                                                              

 Good morning!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

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

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The Gifts We Bring

February 9, 2019

Terumah

The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, West Newton , MA

 

Exodus 25.1-19

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It reminds me of a story.

Kevin had shingles.

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

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

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

Kevin said, ‘Shingles.’

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

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

Kevin said, ‘Shingles..’

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

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

Kevin said, ‘Shingles.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the people said: amen.

 

© February, 2019, The Reverend Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

 

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

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May the Words of Our Mouths…..

Psalm 19

January 27, 2019 – Annual Meeting Address from the Rector

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And most of all:

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

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

Amen.

 

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

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‘Twas The Night Before Christmas 2018

Christmas Eve 2018

The Rev’d Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

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

Nothing was stirring, the status was quo.

The mighty were nestled all snug in their beds

As visions of privilege danced in their heads.

The lowly of course, and as usual, instead,

Wished only for blankets and pillows and bread.

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

There were the haves and then have nots, the case it was closed.

For unholy unfairness is no innovation,

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

 

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

Is not at all far from that eve long ago,

When injustice, oppression and fear ruled the earth,

So who would have thought in the blink of one birth

Who in their right mind would ever conceive?

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

That the morning would come with a light so intense

That the darkness could no longer mount an offense.

 

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

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

Who straddled two worlds, that the worlds might align,

Earth’s fully human and heaven’s divine.

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

Peace with two hands; grace with a face;

Into a world that was battered and broken,

Speaking a language that’d never been spoken.

 

And we all know the story, we hear it each year,

Of the child in the manger with Santa’s reindeer;

And King Herod, the Grinch who stole Christmas, or tried;

And the wise ones who followed Expedia’s guide…

Or was it the shepherds, it’s tough now to know

Which parts are the truth, and which parts are the show.

It’s hard, in the midst of our every day dishes

To tell the Good News from our own wants and wishes.

 

And that, so it seems, is the rub of this season.

The part of our journey that borders on treason.

For somehow we’ve managed to mix up the streams,

To conflate what we wish for with God’s hopes and dreams.

We seem to forget how unlikely the way

God was born here among us that first Christmas Day.

 

Because,

Christmas is not about dreams that make sense.

It’s not about anything in its right tense.

It’s all about turning the world on its head;

Where Spirit is blood, and body is bread.

So a wish is just too small in scope for this eve,

For this moment in time is when hope was conceived.

 

For from now on all things are pre domini or post,

This moment that God has decided to host.

This moment in time that’s not here and not there,

It’s just simply present, much like a prayer.

This story of God born in flesh in a manger

Could not be more true, and yet could not be stranger.

 

It all started in Bethlehem, so Luke has said,

With a simple boy’s birth in a donkey’s straw bed.

And the child both alike and unlike any other;

A Savior, a prophet, divine, yet our brother.

 

This birth is the marker that separates history,

But not like a wall, more like a myst’ry.

A gesture from God filled with wild expectation,

An open invite to the breadth of creation.

 

It’s the tale of a night, years, two thousand, ago

When a young teenaged girl gave her all even though

She’d no status, no privilege, no power, no clout;

She was poor, she was homeless and almost about

To deliver the gift of all gifts without knowing

How great was the fruit of the seed she was sowing.

She wasn’t the type, neither royalty nor gentry,

And yet she was chosen to offer God’s entry.

 

And so here we sit two millenniums hence,

And we wait for the cry, intimate and immense;

The cry of the child in that raw, humble crèche;

The cry that God utters as God shares our flesh.

We wait with excitement, surreal but sincere,

For we know that this hope is ours now, free and clear.

 

But….

Though the times may have changed. Our predicament? No.

We still think that we are the star of the show,

And we’re still filled with fear and primordial dread,

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

 

And yet again this night we wait

For love to come and seal our fate.

We wait with childlike hope and awe,

Our own hearts laid bare in the straw.

 

We wait for an easier way to be faithful,

A way to be great, and still to be grateful.

We wait for the courage to stand firm with love,

For the vultures of war to be trumped by the dove,

We are waiting for someone to come to the rescue

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

To come from the heavens and clean up this mess,

To nail down the truth and free up the press.

 

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

That immigrant children have nothing to fear;

That Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Jews

Will be welcomed, respected and never refused.

That every child born, each featherless bi-ped

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

Will be valued and cherished and treated as well

As the best-ever guest in the finest Hotel.

 

For here is the rub of this midnight so clear

The change we await, it is already here.

Though we wait for a sign of miraculous powers,

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

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

But Jesus is God who has come to find us.

 

For while we are waiting on Jesus Anointed,

God, from the start, said that we are appointed.

We are the ones born to care for the flock,

Love one another – like chips off the block;

Have we turned out even near to God’s inkling?

The name humankind seems like just wishful thinkling.

 

Though sometimes I wonder in all this insanity

Why God did not just remake all humanity.

Given our violence our greed and our hate

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

Why not just make humans softer of heart,

Respectful of differences right from the start?

Why not just upgrade the human ecology?

Jesus is proof that God has the technology.

 

And yet,

Christmas suggests that our God disagrees;

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

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

Instead, our Creator preferred here to join us.

This birth is a milestone from heaven above,

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

 

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

But actually everything hangs in this balance.

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

But sharing requires God’s flesh in the game.

 

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

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

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

To the nets that we’ve broken, the dreams we’ve delayed.

 

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

When God wakes our spirits and hands us the hoe,

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

And all that God asks is that we never stop

Tending the child who is born in the manger,

Feeding the hungry, befriending the stranger,

Welcoming those who just need a safe space

To breathe and regroup, and to share in the grace.

Offering refuge and true sanctuary

No matter how costly, no matter how scary.

 

There’s only one path to our Godly success:

To do just like Mary did – Just say Yes!

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! We are willing, that all may 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 are grand.

Yes! You are clearly God’s favorite brand.

 

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

And can all be summed up in the Word that is: 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 can stay open,

Asking hard questions, not giving up hopi’n.

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

Even if we are yet doubting with Thomas.

 

The promise that life everlasting is coming,

Sweet mercy is rising, compassion is humming.

The peace and the justice are still ours to make,

And so crazy new hope comes with every daybreak.

 

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

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

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

Stop your waiting – and live as though Love were the Word!

 

Merry Christmas!

Amen!

 

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

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Take Heart: Endings Are Beginnings

The Gospel According to Luke 21:25-36

December 2, 2018: Advent I

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

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

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

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

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

And so on this first Sunday in the festive season of Silver Bells we have made our way here to hear this prophesy through a world overflowing with twinkling lights and lawn Santas; through a maze of media that implores us to spend our money on things that will hasten our collective demise. We have navigated gluttonous lists organizing a fleet of holiday parties and gift giving and festivity. And having made our way here through all of that, we gather this morning in the homeof the Good News, to kick off this season of good tidings and great Joy to the World, where Merry Christmas isourvernacular…..and then we are met with this morning’s abominable reading from Luke’s Gospel.

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

Bam! From holiday cheer to earth-ending fear. From Santa is coming, to life as we know it is on the way out. The is no question that if we do not make some changes…serious changes….well, we are going to be smack in the middle of this morning’s passage from Luke’s Gospel. 

Heaven and earth will pass away……

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

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

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

Christianity 101. If we want to live into the outrageous story that begins with the Incarnation of the Divine and ends with the Resurrection of a Human Being, albeit a fully divine human being, but a human being nonetheless, we are going to have to come to terms with the upending of our cultural norms. The last shall be first. The first shall be last. Beginnings are endings and endings are beginnings.

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

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

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

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

And so this morning we hear Jesus’ answer to that prayer. Sit tight. I am coming. And then our instruction. Let us take a note: Our first task in this new liturgical year is to wake up and prepare. This may be where all of the decorating and Christmas pomp comes in, as was suggested in yesterday’s workshop on the Gospel according to Luke. Prepare so that we will not be…surprised.

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

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

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

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

And so in this morning’s Gospel, I might have suggested a different exhortation for our preparation for this terrifying ending. Because, while staying awakeis surely good practice, I think that a more accurate instruction might have been to let go.Let go of all the things that block our embrace of this ending as anything other than a divine new beginning. Let go of everything that we fear we will lose on the road to building the Kindom of God.

Let go of our obsession with security. Let go of our grip on prosperity. Let go of our cultural and constructed notions of home and family and belonging and citizenship. Let go of our comfort and complacency and competitive drive to win, win, win. Let go of our notion that death is worse than suffering. Sometimes it is not. Let go of our notion that life begins with, and belongs to, us alone. Let go of the temptation to protect the status quo that keeps us comfortable. Let go of every human construct that gives us something to lose when we reach for God. Because lose it we will. All of us. All of it. Eventually. Whether we lose it now or later, in the course of our lives or at the end of the world…everything is going to go.

Everything except the Word of the Beloved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Amen.

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

 

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Kin-dom Matters

November 25, 2018

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This life is…. not righteousness but growthin righteousness,

not health but healing,

not being but becoming,

not rest but exercise.

We are not yet what we shall be,

but we are growing toward it.

The process is not yet finished

but it is going on.

This is not the end,

but it isthe road.

 

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

Alleluia! Amen.

 

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

 

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Drunken Sailors for Life

The Book of Esther

September 30, 2018

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

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

 

 

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

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