The Stench of Life!

Gospel of John 11:1-45; Raising of Lazarus

April 2, 2017: Lent V

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
                                                                                                                                             Gospel of John 11:1-45, NRSV

The good news is that this morning’s sermon will not be as long as this morning’s Gospel reading. The bad news is that this reading is a bit too close to home.

Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench…

By too close to home, I am not talking about last night’s sewerage backup in the undercroft, although that was an uncanny happening on the eve of this reading. But I am talking about the ways in which we all resemble Lazarus. The ways in which we all require some degree of resurrection here and now. The stench that we all experience and exude when awake and are called to new life, like existential morning breath. The stench that pervades our being when we are too long….inert; physically, spiritually, effectively inactive. It is a shared and common phenomena. There is a certain stench that accompanies all of our apathy and atrophy and all that wastes in decay when we are not fully alive. My grandmother used to say that festering lilies smell worse than weeds. And I have known that adage from the inside out. I bet you have too. We are all at one time or another, Lazarus. All in need of a shot of new life. We are all entombed in…whatever entombs us. And when we fester too long, we begin to stink to high heaven. Our challenge is to respond to the call of Jesus to awake from our inaction and come out of our tombs, otherwise known as our comfort zones….and live into the dangerous calling of love!

And this call to arise is not a suggestion, it is an imperative. No one asks Lazarus if he wants to be raised. I am guessing he does not. Death is peaceful. Life is hard. And very few folks die without enduring some serious suffering of some sort on the way to their passing. Does he want to rejoin the land of the suffering mortals? Does he want to have to die all over again? Maybe not. But he does not have that option. Jesus commands him: Come out!

And eventually, we are called to hear those magic words, that liberating imperative, even though the prospect of such new life may frighten us to death. The command to: Come out! Is a command to rise to the power of love. The terrifying prospect of losing our lives to gain them. This is truly the great Christian coming out story!

This story of Lazarus stands alone in the Gospel of John. There is a story about a man named Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke, but unlike the nearly anonymous beggar in Luke, John’s Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, and the friend of Jesus of Nazareth. This story not only stands alone in John, it replaces the last straw for the authorities before they arrest Jesus, in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. You will remember, in the three narrative Gospels, Jesus is arrested shortly after chasing the money-changers out of the Temple. That act of civil disobedience is the final straw for the powers-that-be and the direct impetus for Jesus’ arrest in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus is feared as a rabble-rouser, a political activist, an agent of social change who has no regard for the authority of the authorities. And so in those three Gospels, the overturning of the tables in the Temple marks the crescendo of Jesus’ earthly ministry….and the last straw.

But in the fourth Gospel, the Evangelist John puts Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple not at the end, but at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The disruption in the Temple is not conveyed as the reason for Jesus’ arrest, but the inauguration of Jesus’ mission. Civil disobedience is not the last straw, it is the job description in John’s Gospel. Social change and political activism is the fabric of Jesus’ mission. It is who he is in John’s Gospel. His very mission is to re-vision and re-form the standing and understanding of God on earth; nothing less than turning the tables on the very identity of God.

And so, the last straw in John’s Gospel, is not a show of Jesus’ strength in the political arena (that is a given) but rather it is a showstopper of divine proportions – it is this morning’s account of Lazarus. The raising of Lazarus is the end, the finale of Jesus’ ministry in John. It is the divinity of Jesus, exemplified here by his absolute power over life and death, that is both the reason for Jesus’ demise on earth and the message in the Gospel of John as a whole. In John, Jesus is not the healer or the prophet or the teacher or the brother; in John, Jesus is God on earth, the beginning and the end. And this difference in the very identity and mission of Jesus, as God’s own self in John’s Gospel versus God’s agent, God’s Son in the synoptic Gospels, is at the heart of the age-old debate about whether the mission of the church is to save souls, as the divine Jesus in the Gospel of John would have us believe, or to save lives, as we see the human political activist Jesus encountered in the narrative Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Is our faith about resurrection or life? Our life in heaven or on earth? Are we to spend our lives saving our own souls or the lives of those on the margins? John’s Gospel or Matthew, Mark and Luke?

But maybe we do not have to choose. Jesus said: ‘I am the resurrection and the life…everyone who lives and beloves in me will never die.’  And so in John’s Gospel the resurrection and the life are a matched set. They are inseparable. For the Evangelist John, there is no resurrection without life and no life without resurrection. And we translate and hear that second part as “anyone who believes in me,” but the German roots of this word allow an equally authentic translation of believe as belove…..”anyone who beloves in me will never die.”  That feels much more inclusive and forgiving and realistic to me than the mandate to believe, which, if I am honest, I myself can not be counted on to do 100% of the time.  And so the resurrection and the life, heaven on earth, is available to any and all for the unambiguous price of nothing less than beloving.

Christopher Morse is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer professor of Theology and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. He wrote a fascinating book called The Difference Heaven Makes in which he analyzed every reference to heaven in the New Testament. And after all of his research his conclusion is that contrary to popular opinion and discourse, heaven is not where we go from here, but from whence God comes. Heaven is not a promise for tomorrow, it is a reality that we can live into today. Heaven is the symbol of the life of God which keeps adventing into history, our history.  The Christian challenge is to be on hand for that which at hand but not yet in hand, says Morse. At hand but not yet in hand. And so as disciples of God in the flesh, our job is to keep looking for the advent of God. Keep listening for the command to Rise Up! Come Out! Live love!

The name Lazarus is a shortened version of the Semitic name El-azar, which is literally translated as “God helps” – El (God) Azar (helps). In the symbol of Lazarus we see the union of heaven and earth, the way God calls us to action and life. The way God is in relationship with us, and we are called to respond, to complete the reconciliation. Because God cannot do God’s work alone….in the beginning there may have been but the Word, but on the very last day, there was nothing but the Relationship.

The importance and weight of relationality is exemplified in the tears of our savior in this morning’s reading. Jesus wept.  As you may know, this is the shortest verse in the entire Bible. And the verb used here, is unique in the entire Bible. Nowhere else does this particular verb for “wept” occur. So we know right off the bat that this is a very special event. This is not your typical pity party. These are not your run of the mill tears.

Jesus wept once. [1] He did not weep for Jairus’ dead daughter. Nor for the herd of God’s beloved creature swine possessed by the demons of Legion who threw themselves into the sea….I wept, but Jesus did not weep. Nor did he weep for hundreds of other sick and dying and dead that Jesus must have encountered over the course of his ministry. He did not weep in the Garden of Gethsemane. Nor at his own crucifixion. He wept only once. He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus.

But we must be careful here, Jesus knew that Lazarus would be raised. And so we must be careful not to misinterpret his tears. Jesus did not weep for Lazarus, he wept with those who wept for Lazarus, actually for those who wailed, as the Greek word used to describe Mary’s and Martha’s cries literally means. Jesus wept for the depth of suffering that came when his beloveds were in abject pain. Jesus wept for the grief of the living not the fate of the dead.

These tears, these rare tears of our Savior, tell us of the relationship of God’s deep love to the depth of human suffering and weakness.  Jesus wept because, when we weep, when we wail, when we are overcome with grief, God weeps with us. And so Jesus, God on earth according to John, wept not for the loss of his friend, but for the love of humanity and the weakness and suffering that we endure as an inescapable part of our human lives. And this steadfast companionship in our common suffering is the way… is the way Jesus himself teaches us to raise each other up.

It is the proximity that provokes our compassion. That is, we cannot suffer together at a distance. And so if we do not want to weep as Jesus weeps, then we would do well to keep our marginalized neighbors at an arms’ length, especially those who suffer the most. Those who are feeble and infirmed. Those who are poor. Unhoused. Undocumented. Those who are refugees. Prisoners. “Others.” Because if we dare to share their lives and their stories, we may be in for some serious weeping. If we take them into our hearts and our homes. If we break bread together on our knees. If we risk our comfort and our safety and our privilege to welcome heaven to this earth, we will surely weep as Jesus wept.

But we can always keep those “others” at bay, at a safe distance. And we may still weep for their poverty and their disadvantage  and their distress. But we will be weeping for them, not with them. Our tears will taste of charity, not compassion.

Which is why God weeps with us, and not for us. There would be no point in God weeping for us. Because Lord knows God can simply change whatever it is that is causing the suffering. But rather than eradicating the source of our pain, God always chooses to share it. To take our flesh and cry our tears. And why that sort of sharing rises, nothing short of love is born.

And when we follow God’s lead, when we rise from our comfort and put ourselves on the line, we should expect some tears. And we should expect a bit of a stench, the stench that come from too long-buried hearts and hands. And it is another Gospel paradox. That such an awful stench is the tell-tale sign that the tomb is opening and new life is just ahead. And the stench becomes a fragrant offering.

Sometime in each of our lives, that offering is ours to make. When we finally rise from our entombment, the work of raising heaven on earth is ours to behold.

Like the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Very fittingly by Emma Lazarus. It says:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

An invitation to the stench. And I can almost hear Jesus commanding us: Rise up! Come out!  Risk Love! Share Everything! Follow me!

Heaven on earth is calling our name!


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


1 In Luke’s Gospel Jesus weeps for the city of Jerusalem (chapter 19), but the verb that is used there does not denote a weeping of personal suffering, but weeping in disappointment.


Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News (London,       UK: T&T Clark International) 2010.

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I’ll Drink To That!

Gospel According to John 4:5-42

March 19, 2017: Lent III

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, `I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.      


This morning we heard one of my favorite Gospel stories. It is the story that my long time former spiritual director most often suggested I turn to when asking the question, where is God in my life?

It is the story of the Samaritan woman who has a life-changing encounter with Jesus at Jacob’s well. This passage contains the longest conversation between Jesus and anyone, in our canon. It is also among the few places in the Gospels where Jesus’ conversation with someone he meets on the road does not end in a monologue. The woman in this passage, although unnamed, has a voice. So this passage is not just about what God wants us to know, but how God wants to be in relationship with us, and how we become agents of God’s grace in this world. It’s a great passage to read in a season when we are cultivating spiritual practices of resistance.

Last week we heard Jesus explaining the finer points of the spirit to the privileged yet thoroughly thick  Nicodemus, who never quite got the message. In today’s story, the woman at the well, who is the abject opposite of Nicodemus in terms of social location….she gets it. Not at first. But in the end, she is the model of apostolic discipleship, even when compared to Jesus’ hand picked disciples who spend this passage shopping for supper rather than spreading the Good News. In comparison with Nicodemus, the elite Pharisee, this woman – unnamed, uneducated, unacceptable as she is on any sort of social scale, in her time and place – she is the model of Gospel discipleship. Like Mary, humble and without status, who’s soul magnified the Lord, so too does this unnamed Samaritan woman.

But, she is only unnamed until her story becomes our story.

Jesus is on his way from Judea to Galilee. Galilee is the site of Jesus’ first miracle in John’s Gospel; the changing of water into wine and the wedding at Cana. And he is heading back that way. But with no easy route, he ends up in Samaria, a foreign land to a Jewish rabbi.

But there he is. At mid day, high noon, says the scripture, tired and thirsty from his long journey, Jesus finds himself at Jacob’s well in the center of the town of Sychar in Samaria. His disciples have gone to fetch supper. And so he is alone at the well until a Samaritan woman approaches.

Please note that everything about this encounter between Jesus and this unnamed woman, from the get-go, is pointed toward public reproach, headed for a cultural train wreck of gigantic proportions. This unknown woman is about to have what Elizabeth Kubler Ross has called a radical and scandalous encounter with the divine. And although her assumed intent is to fetch some water from the well, she ends up resisting the foundational cultural norms of her social location and shattering the boundaries that would otherwise have precluded this encounter with the divine. She is the living lesson that sometimes God meets us precisely when we are willing to swim against the tide.

Because, first of all, noon is absolutely not the acceptable time to draw water from a well in the desert. The sun is too high, the stones are too hot, there are no shadows for relief or cover. So, right off the bat, the very timing of this event puts us on unconventional ground….and, it is ground that is initiated not by Jesus, but by this unidentified woman who approaches him… high noon. Notice this is the abject opposite of the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus last week, which happened in the dead of night, under cover of darkness. Not even close to the brightest light of the noonday sun.

And the unsanctioned timing of this encounter is just the beginning of the scandal in this story. A woman would never typically approach a strange man in public. Further, this strange man is not even a Samaritan. He is a Jew. And as the woman says, Jews and Samaritans have nothing in common. Or so she thought. It is hard to overstate how unlikely and radical is this encounter between a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman in the center of town in the middle of the day. She has no earthly business approaching Jesus, and he has no earthly business speaking to her.

Everything in this story goes against the grain of convention. This encounter might be akin to a Muslim woman approaching a white American male in the center of Bagdad….without her burqa. Or a community inviting an immigrant family of strangers to take shelter in their space. This encounter is an obliteration of a whole set of boundaries: cultural, class, and religious, to name but a few.

So Jesus is sitting alone at Jacob’s Well, where Jacob offered his son Joseph the gift of living water in the Book of Genesis. Water has always been the scarcest of resources in the tradition of the Israelites, the Red Sea not withstanding. As we heard this morning in our reading from Exodus, water is among the number one commodities in the business of sustaining life, it is right up there with breath. There are biblical scholars who believe that the stories of the Hebrew Bible and the current situation in the Middle East are fundamentally and primarily about the control of sources of water. And so this is a land in which the social custom of water-giving is more than a blessing, in fact, it is tantamount to an offer of friendship. In the desert, the offer of water was a lifesaving act and likewise resulted in a foundational bond.

So Jesus says to the woman as she approaches: “Give me a drink.” And given her social status, which is none at all, she might easily have said: There’s the well, help yourself. But she does not. She hears his request for a sip of friendship and she responds in kind. She fills his cup. And he takes the water and proceeds to talk to her about a different kind of thirst; a thirst for God, a thirst for God’s friendship. And at first she does not get it. But when she does, she heads straight out into town to spread the Good News…. just as the disciples are coming back with their food.

For a variety of reasons, this story, this week is viscerally reminding me of my first encounter with the divine through pastoral ministry. Maybe it’s because I just saw Manchester by the Sea and the scene in the ER at Beverly Hospital was where I was on call every weekend for six months during my CPE. Maybe because on Friday, Thalia’s father was admitted to the hospital with end stage renal failure and my site assignment at Beverly Hospital was the dialysis unit. So this is on my mind.

I saved CPE until the very last possible minute in my ordination process. CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Education. I needed 400 hours of it in order to be ordained. There is no way around CPE in the ordination process, believe me I tried everything. And it was my most dreaded requirement, mandating at least 200 hours of direct patient care as a hospital chaplain. And so in January of 2004 I began my stint as a chaplain at Beverly Hospital.

Now, for those of you who knew me before I encountered CPE, pastoral care, especially in a hospital setting, was not my long suit, shall we say…it was not even my short suit….in fact, it may not even have been in my wardrobe! I was not designed to deal directly with sickness and suffering. And so I dragged my faint hearted feet until the very last possible moment. Oh sure I took the requisite pastoral care classes in seminary. And I read a slew of relevant books and material. But I summarily avoided the hands on experience of ministering to strangers….strangers who would be facing pain and fear, and that terrified me. But I could not avoid that pain and fear forever. If I wanted to be a priest I had to first be a hospital chaplain.

In addition to being “on call” in the Emergency Room, the Intensive Care Unit, and the locked psychiatric ward each weekend, my primary assignment was the dialysis unit. For six months, I spent 14 hours a week as the chaplain to the good people who had indiscriminately been faced with end-stage renal failure. That means that both kidneys are out of commission and are no longer able to filter toxins out of one’s blood. Only 10% of one kidney needs to function in order to live without dialysis.

Unlike the site assignments for my fellow CPE chaplains, who were mostly assigned to hospital floors where patients rotated in and out on a daily or weekly basis, I would visit and re-visit my same patients (and my growing edges – failures – as a chaplain) every week for the entire length of my chaplaincy. Unlike most of my classmates, my patients never got discharged, and they never, or rarely, got better. They only got worse. And over the six months, 11 of the 121 dialysis patients died.

In the unit itself, there were twenty one beds in one large room with a nurses station at the center. Each patient was hooked into a machine that circulated and filtered one cup of blood at a time until the whole body’s worth had been chemically balanced and cleansed of all toxins. The whole process took about four hours and it needed to be done three times every week, forever and ever, amen. There was a lot of blood. There was a lot of discomfort. There was no privacy. There was no way out. And it was sooooo not fair. And if ever there was a time when I wondered where God was in the midst of suffering, it was during my time in the dialysis unit. And so I was not at all sure that I was cut out for this calling.

For starters, I dropped out of premed in college because, well partly because the chemistry labs conflicted with the field hockey schedule, but also because I had a very low gag threshold. And the dialysis unit is….well, not the place for someone with a low gag threshold.

More importantly, what could I possibly say that would be of any comfort to these people? How could I possibly allay their fears? What if they wanted to talk about God: God’s role,  God’s wisdom, God’s mercy, or the seeming lack thereof given their excruciating situations? What if I could not feel their pain? What if I could not feel anything but their pain? What if all I had to offer them was bumbling prayer. What good could I possibly be to them?

And so on my first day the charge nurse escorted me over to my first patient. I took a series of deep breaths and clutched my chaplain’s bag as though it were an organ for transplant. “Beth (not her real name),” said the nurse, “this is Gretchen, she’s the new chaplain.” And there I was…face to face with my deepest fear.

She was a lovely, fragile looking woman in her mid-seventies, I’d say. Her left arm was tethered to the dialysis machine. But there she lay in her St. John’s knit dress with a matching scarf around her neck, in nylon stockings and meticulously shined high-heeled shoes; her pocket-book perched neatly on the bedside table. She looked like she was on her way to the wedding at Cana. And despite her recently set blond locks, she was the spitting image of my grandmother. And to my shock and surprise, she bore the same name. My heart simultaneously sank and rose. As it happens, my grandmother had only one kidney. She lost the other one during a very difficult pregnancy. She also lost the child. And she spent the rest of her life in a frail and vulnerable state of poor health. But I looked up to her as one of the most courageous and wise women I had ever known. If there has been a woman at the well in my life, it was my grandmother.

I pulled up a short rolling stool to the side of Beth’s bed. She reached out her hand and smiled. I took it and smiled back. She told me she was having surgery the next day. Serious vascular surgery. I asked her if she was frightened. She said yes. We talked about football. She asked if I was Catholic, and proceeded to explain that both of her previous husbands had been Catholic, but that she was a Protestant. I told her that I was in the ordination process to be an Episcopal priest. Then she confessed and almost apologized that she was not a regular church go-er….and neither, for that matter, was her current husband – who sadly had no religious affiliation whatsoever. She wished she had been to church more often. She wished she had a better relationship with God. She wished that she could be certain that God would remember her “when the time comes.” I reminded her that she was born in God’s hands, was etched with God’s image, and that “when the time comes” she would die in God’s arms – and that nothing she could do would ever change that. Nothing would ever diminish God’s love for her. She began to sing “Jesus loves the little children.” I could hear my grandmother’s voice. We sang nearly the entire song together. Softly, as the chairs were in very close proximity. She asked if I had a Bible and if I would read her something from it. The bookmark was in the start of this series of healing passages in John’s Gospel, the Wedding at Cana. And so I read it to her. And she looked at me with large wise eyes and she said, “water into wine – that’s not such a big deal. Wine is mostly water to begin with.”

And the living water began to flow. I told her that she was my first patient and that this was my first experience with chaplaincy. She reached out her hand and asked me if I was frightened.  I nodded, my eyes welling up with tears. She smiled and said, “don’t be, you’ve got the face for it.” And the living water continued to flow…down both cheeks, I can still taste the salty reminder on my tongue to this day.

There she was, frail, fragile, frightened out of her own skin, facing serious surgery in the morning and she was my chaplain; she was ministering to my fears, she was tending my need. I smiled and squeezed her hand. And as she continued to talk freely about her family and her medical history and the inconveniences of end stage renal failure, and a host of odds and ends including sports and warts and eligible bachelors on TV, I felt a trickle of the living water of which Jesus speaks in this morning’s Gospel. I felt grounded in her openness. I felt fortified by her trust. I felt comforted by her company. And I felt the well of my spirit begin to fill with the living water of our mutual connection.

We prayed. We wiped our eyes. I kissed her hand. And I was on my way. The next patient, of course, realized my true greatest fear by summarily up-chucking on my shoes….but that is another sermon for another day.

My transformation that day at Beverly Hospital was in large part due to the holy power that flowed through the heart of one small holy woman who felt my thirst before I even knew to ask for a drink.

The living water of which Jesus speaks in this morning’s passage is the same spiritual practice that undergirds all of our authentic practices of boundary breaking and resistance. It is the living water of holy friendship. Inviting each other into thirst quenching relationship. Across all boundaries. And without any reservation.

Margaret Atwood said: “Water does not resist. Water flows.”

And that sounds right to me. So maybe we should replace our spiritual practices of resistance with spiritual practices of persistence. And so maybe in the vernacular of the Womens’ March, the woman-at-the-well was the founding member of what we might call today, the persisterhood.

And I can drink to that!




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

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Being Sanctuary

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

March 5, 2017: Lent I

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA


The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
   and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
   for out of Man this one was taken.’ 
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, `You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.  


Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. A season that we will celebrate this year by contemplating some spiritual practices of resistance. This is not the first year that we will have observed Lent through the lens of spiritual practices. It is the first year, however, when we will train those practices on social and political resistance. That is, it is the first year when our focus is not on our own spiritual growth but on the welfare of the creations of God who are on the margins. The first year when our focus for these practices will be outward rather than inward.

Our theme this week is “Being Sanctuary.” The word sanctuary is from the Latin, and its root is sanctus. Like the sanctus in our Eucharistic Prayer. Holy. And holy in the Hebrew (ko-desh) means set aside for God. A sanctuary is a place that is set aside for God. In this space it is the small area enclosed by the altar rail on which the altar rests. That space, where we consecrate our Eucharistic meal is the sanctuary; the place set aside for God.

Over time, the term sanctuary has come mean a place of safety, like a bird sanctuary. A place where those who are threatened may find shelter, harbor, peace. A place that might include the whole of a church. And so as our national political machine increases its assault on those who are most vulnerable among us, those who live on the margins of our society, sanctuary is becoming an increasingly important and valuable offering.

Today’s reading from the Book of Genesis is not only among the most familiar in our entire canon, it also takes place in God’s first sanctuary: the Garden of Eden: the first  place where God and humanity communed; where humanity abided in God’s presence.

Today’s reading is the second creation story -not to be confused with the first in which humanity is created on the sixth day in God’s likeness and then instructed to subdue and steward the earth. But this second version in the second chapter of Genesis begins and ends in the Garden of Eden. This second version of creation is, oddly enough, thought by scholars to be the earlier of the two stories. And in this telling, an earthling is created….Adam, from the Hebrew word for earth, adamah.  And from that first earthling, the first adamah, the first piece of earth the mother of all life is created….Eve, from, from the Hebrew verb for life, haya.

And after these earthlings are created, they are instructed by God that they may sustain themselves with the fruit of any delicious tree in their midst, except one. And our two earthlings seem to be fine with that single prohibition until a snake of a snake, the most sensible of all living beings (or crafty as the Hebrew might be translated), suggests, for some unknown reason,  that the fruit that they have been forbidden might just be the best fruit of all, and they should try it.

I say “they” rather than she, because according to the text, Adam is standing right next to Eve the entire time. A tidbit left out of our popular understanding of the story. Unintentional omission or alternative fact? But the text says that Eve shares the fruit with the man who is with her.  And so they succumb to the crafty serpent bully and they eat the forbidden fruit, which, the text says, deeply disappoints God….although I have my doubts about that.

But then, at the very end of this story, as God ushers the earthlings out of the Garden into the real world, God says to them exactly what we say to each other on Ash Wednesday as we impose ashes and begin the season of Lent. God says to Adam and Eve:  you are dust and to dust you will return. You are mortal. You are temporary. You are short lived. God does not say is now you are mortal, as though they were not mortal before they ate of the forbidden tree, as though mortality is some punishment. But God offers the same reminder that we are offered every year at this season. Life is short. And you will soon realize how much you need me.

And so here we are with the dust of our own ashes still fresh on our foreheads, cast out of paradise to brave the wilderness on our own. And just in case you did not get the full fleshly effect of this message, we will be imposing ashes this evening in our family Ashes and Altars event for anyone who missed this powerful ritual on Wednesday.

We all know this story of the Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden; from paradise to wilderness. Likewise we all know the story of Jesus herded from his baptism straight into the wild, the desert, the great unknown to be tested by the devil herself. These are our classic stories of temptation and obedience. In the Garden Eve and Adam cannot resist the temptation of the one tree from which they are forbidden to eat, and as a result says our faith tradition, humanity falls for all time. All mortals thereafter are born with the stain of their sin. And in the wilderness, Jesus resists the devil three times and in the end, humanity is saved for all time. This is our official Christian story of sin and redemption. And it makes a fairly tidy theological package for our Christian sensibility. Adam and Eve fail to resist the temptation of the bullying serpent and they are summarily tossed out of the Garden for their sin. And then, Matthew’s Jesus ventures not into paradise, but into the wilderness, and there in that place of abject discomfort our divine brother shows us just how resistance to temptation is done. And here is the message: Humanity sins. Jesus redeems. Simple as that.

Our Christian theology has, for centuries, been grounded in the core notions of sin and redemption. Ours is a theology that has been founded on an unflappable belief that humanity is, above all else, Fallen; forever been marred by that Original Sin.

I think this is a good time to mention that the notion of sin is never ever mentioned in this story in Genesis. It is not part of our Holy Scripture. There is absolutely no mention of sin (original or otherwise) whatsoever, in this entire story. None. And, I might add, there is absolutely no mention of its theological cohort, free will. Those concepts are theological, but they are not biblical.

The scriptural basis for Original Sin is not the Book of Genesis, it is the Letter of Paul to the Romans in which he says: the sin of the world came from one man. But that is not anywhere in this original story.  And so for centuries this morning’s reading has been known as a story of the Fall of Humanity, regardless of the absence of any mention of sin in the text. It is absolutely a story of disobedience. But it is not a story of humanity crushing “Original Sin” until it is embellished by theologians centuries later. Not until the second century, when Iraneaus, Bishop of Lyon first coined the phrase Original Sin in an argument with some gnostic adversaries.

From the beginning, it has been very advantageous for “the church” to identify our God as one who demands absolute obedience above all else. Because obedience to God requires obedience to the church, the keeper of God’s law. Original Sin was the hook that kept the fallen people coming back to church for forgivnss and redemption.  And by calling this transgression in Eden the “Original Sin” the church effectively made disobedience the ultimate sin…..ergo, obedience to the church the ultimate strive toward salvation.

Now, a big fat red flag on this sermon. This is my theology. It is not necessarily the theology of “the church.” Although, there is no “the” in church. And so this doctrine of Original Sin is front and center in the Roman Catholic realm, but not so much in the Anglican or Episcopal realms. In fact, if you turn to the catechism in the BCP, page 845 (which I highly recommend that you do), you will not find the doctrine of OS anywhere listed. It is not part of the official teaching of the Episcopal church. Although it is number 9 of the 39 Articles that serve as the loose articulation of our non-binding Anglican doctrine.

But our three-legged stool of Anglican authority rests on scripture and tradition through the lens of reason. And my own lens of reason tells me that the God that created and loves and abides with me would not punish all of humanity in perpetuity for disobedience. The propensity to disobey is born into the human condition. A condition created by God. So either God drastically overestimated the free willpower of God’s children, or the mere eating of a tasty, albeit forbidden, apple did not cause and promulgate the fall of all time.

There are other possible reasons why God might have sent Adamah and Haya from the sanctuary of Eden. Maybe the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was essential to the functioning of the Garden, and so by eating it, the earthlings were putting the Garden at risk. Maybe the transgression in the Garden was not disobedience, per say, but destructiveness; risking the welfare of the whole garden for the delight of their own selfish eyes. And so this story is not to remind us of our sinfulness, but to remind us of the preciousness of all of creation and our role in its health and wellbeing.

Or, maybe they would never have left.  Would we? Probably not. And so maybe the snake was God’s idea, an opportunity to send these first humans out into the world without kicking them out for no reason. Maybe the eating of the apple was God’s way of saying, okay, the honeymoon is over, now go out and fill the world with my Holy Spirit. And remember that you are mortal. So choose well.

Please do not mishear me. I am not saying that we should do away with any notions of sin and redemption. I am not. In fact what I am saying, or intending to say, is quite the opposite. I think we need to re-claim and also to re-vision our notions of sin and redemption. I do not think that reading this passage in Genesis as something other than Original Sin lets us off the hook. But I think that it does suggest a very different hook.

Maybe, rather than the traditional notions of sin and redemption as the basis for our relationship with God, creativity and blessing would be a better framework. As Christian mystic Meister Eckhart says, “there is, there must be, a certain divinity that flows from all that is created by a divine source. We are thusly created!” And so maybe instead of obsessively praying for our own individual redemption from the Original Fall, we are intended to join God as co-creators of this wide world into which we were sent by the divine; no longer permitted to languish in the idyllic Garden, but charged to go out and be that sanctuary in the world.

And so here we are at the start of Lent, on the precipice of the Garden. Reminded that we are no more permanent than ashes or dust, and that our station in this life is no guarantee. That we are mortal, and like Adamah and Haya we could lose our space in the Garden any day. But the irony of it is that when we lose our Eden, whatever it is for each of us, when we are stripped down to nothing left to lose, when we have lost our lot and everything we care about has been reduced to ashes, that is when God has us just where God wants us.

Not suffering. But the emptiness that usually follows the suffering. The disorientation that comes when we are stripped naked and thrown from the Garden without a handle or a clue. And when we reach that point where we are standing before God with nothing but God and dust to our name, that is precisely when we realize that we are more powerful than we have ever been, because we have nothing to lose.

It’s a paradox to be sure. But I think that as long as they were guests in the Garden, Adamah and Haya had everything to lose. And fear is the handmaid of everything to lose. But freedom is the handmaid of nothing left to lose. Ironically, nothing left to lose is the place where we can truly follow God’s law with absolute obedience.

And so it seems to me that the Garden is Eden, but the wilderness is sanctuary.

In this holy season of Lent, let us be a sanctuary for God and God’s creations in the wilderness of this world.



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




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Ashes To Ashes, Dust Is Us


Ash Wednesday; March 1, 2017

The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

Trinity Episcopal Church, Newton Centre, MA


Welcome to the radical ritual that begins on Ash Wednesday and follows us, or leads us, as the case may be, into the wilderness of Lent. It’s radical because the whole notion of Ash Wednesday and the Holy Season of Lent are utterly at odds with the tenor and tone and fabric of our contemporary culture.

Our observance of Ash Wednesday is about our humility before God, and too before each other. It is the one day of the year when we publicly let down our self-sufficient guard. When we not only suspect ourselves to be broken and vulnerable, but admit and even proclaim our mortal contingency, our fallibility, and our own culpability in our transgressions against God and everything God has created. And we proclaim it boldly to the world with the imposition of a repentant smudge upon our foreheads. We may be accomplished and proficient in our work, empowered and admired in our communities, respected and revered by our friends and families and neighbors but we are none the less dust. No less from the dust and headed to dust than the lowliest urchin in Calcutta. From dust we have come and to dust we will all, every one of us, from the poverty stricken to the proletariat to the president, return. And it’s not religion, its science.

Nevertheless, we do not inhabit a culture that often acknowledges such scientific and existential equality, inalienable as it may be. We live in a culture that seems to insist on a sliding scale, a stratification, of worth based on factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with our status as children of a loving God…..who loves all children, and our capacity and commitment to love and mercy and justice and peace. And so we reward and value things that, in the end, do not matter any more than the dust from which we have come.

Likewise, we seem to be fixated on the exulted notion that “winning” is to be valued above everything else. That we are in some everlasting competition with everyone who is not us. And that our charge and challenge is to leave everyone who is not us, in the dust. Every time. To win at all costs. Elections. Ratings. Wars. Win. Win. Win. As though winning might defy and deny the dust that awaits. But of course it does not.

And still, winning is our way. We seem to be a culture of braggarts who do not even try to camouflage our boasting and bullying, our grasping and hording, our desire to dominate and diminish everyone who is not like us.  I dare say an alien from another planet landing now in these United States of America, this One Nation Under God, would have a very different view of the posture of humanity than the posture that we are about to assume here before God on this Ash Wednesday; which is an anti-cultural posture of humility, and a recognition of our utter contingency on the re-issuance of the gift of life every day, every hour, every moment. Life is never, ever a given. Only death is.

And so my friends, we are about sink to our knees together, each of us equally fragile, each of us equally free to walk with Christ because each of us is nothing more or less than headed to dust. And so we are oddly empowered because we have nothing to lose…..and so very mysteriously, we are more empowered with nothing to lose than we ever were when we were “winning.”  Because winning, most winning, is ontologically grounded in the refusal to give up….ever.

And that is where Lent comes in.Lent is all about losing. Lent is all about giving up.

Some of us spend quite a lot of time choosing something to “give up” for Lent. But in a minute we will ask for forgiveness and declare our intention, as a contingency of that forgiveness, to give up a whole slew of tendencies that come with our human condition: our pride, hypocrisy, impatience and our self-indulgent appetites; our exploitation of others for our own wealth, security, and self-aggrandizement; our intemperate love of worldly goods, our dishonesty in daily life and work, our blindness to human suffering, our indifference to injustice and cruelty, our contempt for those who are different from us, our waste and pollution of creation and thus our gross disrespect for all who will come after us.

Although this may sound a bit like my list of objections with our current political arena, it is not…. although, if the shoe fits…. But no, these are the words that we will use to acknowledge and atone for our own lofty and arrogant and ungodly aspirations as featherless bi-peds. Every one of us.  These are our human transgressions,  and so I am willing to bet big that they will feel familiar to each of us. Just as we have all come from dust, we all embody some degree of these human conditions.

And so instead of looking for token renunciations like losing the election weight that has gained on our hips (I might just speaking for myself), or answering our emails within a single news cycle (okay, again, maybe just me), or saying the rosary instead of swearing a blue streak when we are angry (I bet this one is not just me!), instead of looking for plums of personal improvement, instead of using Lent as our wellness coach, maybe we could give up some things that matter…..more….broadly. Maybe this Lent could truly be the start of something big.

This year, I am going to commit myself to giving up some things that are more in keeping with the prayer of penitence and forgiveness that we pray on Ash Wednesday. I am giving up sorrow and suffering. I am giving up poverty in this richest nation on earth. I am giving up mass incarceration. I am giving up selling automatic weapons to…anyone, and any guns to anyone who is mentally unfit to be a responsible gun owner.  I am going to give up homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, sexism, racism, and every other dignity-squashing ism on the horizon. And while we are at it, I seriously think we should give up cancer and addictions of all kinds and Alzheimer’s. I invite you to join me in giving up cyber bullying, corporate greed and the notion that America ever was, is, or should be “first” at the expense of the rest of God’s creation. Let’s give up the notion that God has a preferential option for Americans, and claim the radical reality that America is a citizen of the world, one among many, with equally dignity-endowed and dust-threatened people.

But my friends, this list of the things that we could give up for Lent in accordance with our penitential prayer is far too long and hard to be realistic. This litany of pain and suffering that we need to give up, need to be done with, is so daunting, so seemingly impossible to accomplish, that sometimes all we can do is throw up our hands and give up altogether. Sometimes the sadness and the fear and the grief become so great that giving up is all that we are able to do…..the only choice we have, the only thing within our own control.

And that, my friends, is where the ashes come in. Ashes are all that remain when everything has been utterly burned to the ground.

And when we reach that stage, the stage where we have lost everything, when we do just give up on…. everything, that is when God has us just where God wants us. Not suffering. But the emptiness that usually follows the suffering. And when we reach that point where we are standing before God with nothing but God and dust to our name, that is precisely when the statement “I give up” ceases to be a threat, and mysteriously, because that’s the way God works, becomes a freedom. When we realize that we are dust, we are free. We realize that we are more powerful than we have ever been, because we have nothing to lose. It’s a paradox to be sure.

The last resort of giving up on everything yields the freedom to not give up. Go figure.

When we have relinquished all of our earthly acquisitions, all of our privilege and power and prosperity, all of that we have worked to acquire as individuals, when we have nothing left to lose, we can truly give up the debilitating fear that we are not getting anywhere, that we are not winning….enough. Paradoxically, losing it all frees us to…gain everything. Dust is empowering.

We must lose our life to gain it.

And that, I think is the deep and profound experience of this holy day. Ash Wednesday. It is the one day in the course of the year when we stop and acknowledge with our flesh that we are truly one with creation and with each other. It has always seemed a shame to me that there is but one Ash Wednesday a year. Speaking for myself, I could use a more regular reminder.

And so this Lent I am planning to observe Ash Wednesday….every week. I am planning six weeks of Ash Wednesdays. Every Wednesday I will take to my knees and recite the litany of penitence that we are about to utter together. And, despite Matthew’s instruction against publicizing our practice, I might even sport a smudge of ashes on my forehead. Every week. Both as an outward and visible reminder to myself, and as a means of engaging others in this conversation about our shared dignity and mutual responsibility; a conversation that they will initiate when they inevitably alert me to the swatch of dirt on my face.

I know, I will say. It’s Ash Wednesday. The day when we remember that we, you and I, are both from dust and to dust we will return. We are equal in our ultimate worth. Now what can we do in between the dust that will matter for me as much as it will matter for you? How can we live into our shared dust?

I have been reading a lot of Dietrich Bonhoeffer these days. He wrote from his prison cell just before he was executed for opposing a state that disregarded the dignity of so many children of God – in his case, the Third Reich – Bonhoeffer wrote: “Jesus calls us not to a new religion, but to life.”

Ash Wednesday may be the only Christian Feast or Fast day that is not just for Christians. Ash Wednesday is not just a Christian observance, it is a human observance. It calls us not to religion, but to an alternative life; grounded in losing rather than winning, grounded in our willingness to give ourselves up, entirely, for love. I might just make Ash Wednesday a permanent part of my life and practice. What do you think?

I want to leave you with a wonderful poem written by the deeply-wisdom-burdened Jan Richardson. It’s from her blog The Painted Prayerbook. And it’s called Blessing the Dust.


All those days

you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face

toward the wind

and be scattered

to the four corners

or swept away

by the smallest breath

as insubstantial—

Did you not know

what the Holy One

can do with dust?

This is the day

we freely say

we are scorched.

This is the hour

we are marked

by what has made it

through the burning.

This is the moment

we ask for the blessing

that lives within

the ancient ashes,

that makes its home

inside the soil of

this sacred earth.

So let us be marked

not for sorrow.

And let us be marked

not for shame.

Let us be marked

not for false humility

or for thinking

we are less

than we are

but for claiming

what God can do

within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff

of which the world

is made,

and the stars that blaze

in our bones,

and the galaxies that spiral

inside the smudge

we bear.

–Jan Richardson




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

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Blessed Are We

Gospel According to Matthew 5:1-12, Micah 6:6,8

January 29, 2017: Annual Meeting

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA


Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus* saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Micah 6:6,8             

6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
   with calves a year old? 
….God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you 
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?                                                                                                                                                                   


What a week we have had in these once-thought-to-be United States of America.  It has been a week in which every American has been not only invited, but challenged and required to discern our most basic collective values. To get to the bottom of what we truly care about in our life together, and to think carefully about what we are willing to risk in support those values. This is what historians call: a defining moment.

With that in mind, this morning’s readings from Micah and Matthew could not be more perfectly timed. Because they speak to the definitive questions: Who are we?  And what are we to do?

These are fine questions to ponder on this occasion of our annual meeting. Also a time when we discern together the grounding of our faithful union. What is it that we value here? And how much of ourselves are we willing to stake and share in the name of those values?

I know many of you marched in the Women’s March in Boston last Saturday as Thalia and I (and others from this beloved community) marched in Washington DC. What an experience! What a rush of peaceful and genuine solidarity across all sort of borders: age, class, race, creed, color, and fashion, to name just a few. The civility of the crowd was amazing. The creativity and humor of so much of the signage was inspiring. And most of all, the steadfast passion among such a diverse collective for a common set of values was sublime. To march with hundreds of thousands of people who were strangers before that day, but are now colleagues in a great movement toward our shared values. Although there were a host of particular issues on parade including immigration policy, prison reform, LGBTQI agency, reproductive rights, and more – in the end, we were all marching for dignity and justice….for all. Every one of us.

And if anything good has come of this presidential election, it is the newly lit fire in the belly of the justice-lovers in this nation and this world, who marched with us last Saturday, and too, last night at several international airports where refugees and foreign-born travelers from a host of middle eastern countries were detained, cruelly and, as it turns out, illegally. As I speak, hundreds of visa and green-card holders are being detained at airports around our nation that has, for a century, professed to welcome the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses who are yearning to breathe free. Professors and engineers and students and translators who have risked their lives to work with the American military in dangerous places like Iraq are sitting in holding cells at our borders. I dare say Jesus would be….appalled.

And so we put our feet to the pavement. Thousands protested last night at numerous airports in solidarity with refugees and Muslims. And hundreds of thousands marched last weekend in the Women’s March. 125,000 in Boston. 400,000 in New York. 12,000 in Oklahoma City, the reddest state in the union. In Stanley Idaho, 50% of the citizenry marched, the population is 63. Researchers at the University of Connecticut estimate that over 3.3 million people marched in over 500 American cities, and there were over 100 international marches of over 250,000 people world wide. All peacefully marching for dignity and freedom….and there was no violence and there were no recorded arrests. Zero. What a witness to the power of justice-love that is swirling in our universe! Last weekend was a clear and present sign that nothing is impossible when human hearts rise together.

Among the most moving and gut wrenching parts of the rally in Washington was a segment that came late in the afternoon. There were many moving voices, but the one that packed the most powerful punch, at least in my view, was led by Janelle Monae, the singer songwriter who is also an actress, most recently featured in Hidden Figures and Moonlight.  She said:  “Music has always been a powerful tool for galvanizing unity and I believe that singing and standing together, our voices will be stronger than any force that tries to repress us.” And then she led the massive crowd in a rap-like chant called Hell You Talmbout. For we baby booming white upper middle class Episcopalians that is: What the hell are you talking about?

And lined up behind Janelle on the stage – and projected on six jumbo-trons all the way down Independence Avenue almost to the Washington Monument –  were the mothers of African Americans slain, mostly, by law enforcement. The back beat began, and one-by-one each mother took the mic and said the name of her murdered child: Trayvon Martin. And the crowd, led by Janelle, chanted: Say his name! And his mother said it again. Trayvon Martin. Say his name! the crowd roared. Trayvon Maritn. Say his name! Trayvin Martin. Say his name! About six rounds for each mother, including the mothers of Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, Sean Bell, Sandra Bland, Aiyana Jones, Kimani Gray, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Phillip White, Jerame Reid, and Walter Scott. Each mother came forward and vocalized the name of her dead child followed by the crowd’s affirmation of his or her human dignity with the simple words: Say his name. Say her name. There was not a dry eye in the District. It was the collision of our sheer humanity and a realization of our sheer inhumanity. It was as if the crowd were assuring these bereft mothers that:  Blessed was and is your child. Beyond the injustice of their deaths, they had names, names that God, and now we, know well.

As in this morning’s reading from the sermon on the mount in Matthew’s Gospel. It is the portion that we call the Beatitudes. It is among the most familiar pieces of scripture in our canon. And, it may be among the least understood.  In a nut shell, it lists from the lips of Jesus himself, the ideals that describe the ones who will be the “winners” (to use our current cultural vernacular) in the realm of God. These are the ones who will be welcomed in the airports of heaven. The ones who are blessed. Hence the popular name of today’s gospel reading: the beatitudes; Latin for blessed.

This is the official list of the ones who will inherit the earth…who will receive the mercy…who will see God…who will be called children of God… who will live their everlasting lives in the kingdom of heaven. It is the blueprint for sainthood. But it is the abject opposite of the rhetoric that is filling our national and cultural discourse. And so, although we may think we aspire to be blessed, to inherit the earth and be called children of God, we seem to devalue, to denigrate, even to detest and despise, the characteristics that describe those who will win in the end.

And I can relate. I felt left out of these beatitudes for the better part of my life. Frankly, they did not seem to apply to me in the least, or to the me that I was willing to acknowledge. Who in their right mind would want to be poor or mournful or meek or even pure in heart (so not cool!). And who seeks to be hungry or thirsty for….anything really, and persecuted for Jesus? Well, that was a job best left to the southern Baptists, if you asked me. Because if that was what blessed required – poverty, hunger, thirst, persecution – did I really want to be blessed? Maybe, given who I was and what was expected of me in this world, it was for the best that the beatitudes were not my attitudes. And so for a huge part of my life I could well have been marching with the sign: Not my Beatitudes!

But some years ago, fifteen to be exact, the night before I preached on this very passage of scripture on this very Sunday in 2002, I got a backstage pass to the beatitudes. That Saturday night Thalia and I had to put our 6-year-old golden retriever, Rosie, down. She had not properly recovered from surgery a day earlier, and was suffering terribly. And for the first time in my life……I got it. Like an epiphany. Because that night I was no longer above it all. I was on my knees in the pit of the pit. Poor in spirit, meek, mournful, and begging for mercy. For this first time in my life, I fit the job description – these words of Jesus did apply to me after all.

Because no one on earth felt more impoverished in spirit at that moment in time, than did I. Blessed are the poor, and I was poor. And I have been thinking about that first line of this passage ever since: Blessed are the poor. And at the risk of boring the English majors to death, I think it would behoove us diagram this short sentence for some deeper insights.

Blessed are the poor. Poor is the subject. Are is the verb. And blessed is the adjective object. It’s a fairly simple sentence. But, it just may be one of the most misunderstood sentences in the whole of our religious vernacular. Or maybe just one that seems so uncomfortable that we have not bothered or dared to discern or discuss it in any depth. So here is our chance.

The first word, blessed, is the adjective that modifies the subject, the poor. Now, the word blessed has always caused me a bit of agita when it appears in something that I am reading out loud, especially in public. Because I never quite know how to pronounce it. As in our sanctus. Is it blessed is the one who comes, or blest is the one who comes? Is it blessed or it is blest? Does it even matter? They look the same. Are they just two possible pronunciations of the same word with the same meaning? I think not. I think there is a world of difference, especially in the context of these beatitudes.

I think if we are blest (b-l-e-s-t) we have been given a gift. And that gift has a transitive implication….that is, we have been blessed with something, there is an object or a modifier implied. We have been blessed with good health, or a beloved community, or treasure on earth or in heaven. The poor are thus blest with treasure in heaven. Blest is a gift that is offered to us. Something with which we have been blessed.

Bless-ed, on the other hand, is not a gift that is given, it is the gift itself. If I am blessed, I have not been given a gift, I am the gift. I am the gift. I am – the 1st person singular present active form of the verb to be: I am. And so these might well be called the to be attitudes.

Blessed are the poor. And no surpirse, the verb in this short sentence is itself a to be verb. The verb is are. It is not articulated in the Greek. The Greek just reads blessed the poor, but our English vernacular requires a verb and so the conventionally implied verb is are. Blessed are the poor – again, the present active form of the verb to be. Another reminder that these are not the to do attitudes, they are the to be attitudes. Grounded not in what we do, but in who we are.

And finally, poor – the subject of our sentence. It is the poor who are blessed. Not just those who are poor, but the poor. There is a definite article here.

Now, you might have noticed that typically in our liturgy we have changed most of our references to “the poor” to “those who are poor.” We have done that so that we do not objectify people living in poverty. Impoverished is not who they are, it is simply the state of their being. But I think the objectification is exactly what Jesus means in this Sermon on the Mount. He is speaking, not just to those who are poor now, but to we who are poor at the core of our humanity, all of us. Underneath whatever we have acquired in our lifetimes, we are still just children of God. Jesus cannot just be speaking to those who are poor here, because if those living in poverty now were lifted to a life of not-poverty, it begs the question: would they no longer be blessed? If Jesus were speaking only to those who are living in poverty, then their blessedness would be as fluid as is their daily situation. And my faith-gut tells me that this is balderdash.

We are all the poor in spirit, all of us, whether we realize it or not. We are the mournful, the meek, the pure of heart, the peacemakers. We are hungry and thirsty for right relationships, every one of us at our core. I have seen this truth in living color over and over and over again as a priest. There is not one of us who will not know these beatitudes in the core of our being at some point in our lives, if we do not know them already.

And at that moment, when we are stripped of ourselves and left only with God, that will be the moment when the blessing that is us, at our essence, will be revealed. It will also be the moment when we take our place at the margins of our world.

Because let us not forget that our God is a marginalized God.  Jesus was nothing if not marginalized. And so ours is a God who is and was and has always been on the outside looking in. A God who has always challenged the status quo, always confronted those who dominate and fragment and oppress others. A God who is rejected as a threat to those who have power and privilege. Our God was the immigrant, the one bearing a frightening new religion that was not accepted, the one who was different from the cultural norms and challenged the existential status quo of the general population not unlike the queer communities do today, the one who challenged every oppressive order, crossed every border, and stood with every detainee. Ours is a God who would have gone to the cross to stand with just one refugee.

I think these beatitudes are saying, at the deepest level, that we were created to be at the margins, and that God is with us there. The margins are not where we may one day find ourselves if we are among the un-preferred or the unlucky. The margins are where we belong if we are Christian.

And so, from our scriptural sommelier, the perfect pairing with these beatitudes is today’s reading from Micah, who gives us the recipe for living into our blessedness. Micah gives us the to do-attitudes to go with Matthew’s to be-attitudes. Micah says, God has told us what is good and what is required. We know which path to take: Do justice. Love kindness. Be humble. Walk with God. It is as old as our scripture…..the prophets are telling us to stand in solidarity; the prophets are telling us to rise to our feet and march for shalom.

And we’re all invited.  As Christians, we cannot stand for the sort of indignity that comes with arrogant, isolationist, inhumane policies like “America first.” As Christians we must work tirelessly for policies that deploy compassion and mercy and justice and generosity and respect for every part of God’s creation. As Christians, we know that service does not come without sacrifice. And so as Christians, we cannot simply stand for that which should bring us to our knees. We must act. We must live like we are the blessed ones of God….because we are. And so we must weigh every action that comes from our authorities against the Gospel. What would Jesus say?

And so on this occasion of our annual meeting, we need to be the church, the Body of Christ in the world, now more than ever. We have never had such an opportunity to make such a difference in the wider world. What we do together here matters! So let us pool our be-attitudes and get to work! God is calling our name!

Alleluia! Amen.

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


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‘Tis the Night Before Christmas 2016


Christmas Eve 2016

The Rev’d Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

Parish of St. Paul Episcopal Church, Newton Highlands


Tis’ the night before Christmas, two thousand sixteen,

And fin’ly the heat in this place has turned green!

But the warmth of this night does not come through the flews,

It comes from the gath’ring of hearts in these pews.


We’ve come to share Christmas, the birth of the Son

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

He straddled two worlds, that the worlds might align,

Earth’s fully human and heaven’s divine.


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

Peace with two hands; faith with a face;

Into a world that was battered and broken,

Speaking a language that’d never been spoken.


Although, the Gospel According to John says,  


Jesus (“the Word”) was there from the beginning,

Before evening or morning or serpents or sinning,

Before oceans or mountains or sunshine or snow,

The start of this story was eons ago.


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

Not a creature was stirring, just primordial fizz;

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

When all of a sudden God whispered a prayer.

And though nothing existed, somehow it was heard,

And Creation commenced with not more than a Word.


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

And creation was born like a poem to recite;

More rapid than eagles God’s courses they came,

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

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

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

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

Now blackbirds, now catfish, now each living thing!

And thus was created the world’s livelihood,

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


The “Word” was the engine behind all creation,

Each mole and each whisker: divine acclamation.

So the Word it was: Jesus! before he was flesh,

Before he was born on that morn in that crèche.


And so though we might think that Christmas is grand,

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


And yet it’s the moment when God changed the game

By joining our flesh and our flaws and our shame;

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

How the human condition can thus complicate,

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

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


Our only charge right from the start:

Was love the Word with all our heart.


But….. soon we children of the Word

Began to feel ourselves preferred,

And we began to worship stuff,

And never seemed to have enough!


So, Noah loaded up the ark

With every neigh and squawk and bark!

For making humans God regretted.

Thus, was all Creation vetted.

The flood it wiped the whole earth clear,

In hopes that we would finally hear:

The only way to get it right,

Was love, just love, with all our might.


But even then we humans, flawed,

Were not convinced to turn to God.


Not even with a flood, God thought,

Did humans finally get the plot.

What next to do? To thus impart,

that God is etched upon each heart?

What sort of Godly CPR

will make them love with all they are?


And so God, having sworn no more to flood,

thought: How to teach this flesh and blood?

I’ve tried it all, but few comply.

I’ve only one thing left to try.


Perhaps instead of devastation,

I can try a new Creation.

Perhaps I’ll dare to share their skin,

I’ll walk their walk, without the sin.

I’ll show them how to love each other,

Tend a sister, feed a brother;

What it means to live with kindness!

No more existential blindness.

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

Prove nothing but the love survives.

I will join their human race;

My love will have their human face.



Here we are, two thousand years hence,

And still just as willfull, and selfish and dense;

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 with the cloud of our faithful tradition,

For neighborly love to replace competition.

We wait for the madness to wither and fade,

An end to the pandering pompous parade.

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 truth to be valued and spoken,

A demise of the lies and the promises broken.

We wait for the values that might make us great

To show up in the plans of the next Head of State.


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

That the folks on the margins have nothing to fear;

That Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Jews

Will be welcomed, respected and never refused.

That every child born, every featherless bi-ped

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

Will be valued and cherished and treated as well

As the best-ever guest in the Trump Grand Hotel.


So we wait for the day when all dignity matters,

We wait for the sound when the glass ceiling shatters.

We are waiting for light. We are waiting for grace.

We are waiting for justice to pick up the pace.

We are waiting for wrong to be bested by right,

We are waiting for peace to inherit the night.

We are waiting for whimsy, a break from the grind,

For wellness and healing of body and mind,

For our calling, our purpose, our oyster’s pure pearl;

And how about next time the “Word” is a girl!


Yes we each wait for something, and this is the Eve

When the Word comes to life and the Word is: Believe!


Though sometimes I wonder in all this insanity

Why God did not just remake all humanity.

Given the violence the greed and the hate

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

Why not just make humans more humble, more kind,

Softer of heart, wiser of mind,


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.


His 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.



this evening God steps without any resistance,

Into the muck of our human existence;

Into this mess, a Divine Pioneer,

Campaigning for freedom to love without fear.

His platform is simple, his message is sure,

Join up with the movement, the “Love-All-Ways” tour!

But costly the ticket, the price of admission:

A life full of love that could lead to sedition.


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

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

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

No awarding of peace we can make, like a grade.


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

When God wakes our spirits and hands us the hoe,

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

And all that God asks is that we never stop

Tending the child who is born in the manger,

Feeding the hungry, befriending the stranger,

Lifting the ones who are lowly and hurting

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


Ending the violence and curbing the trash,

Respecting the planet, and sharing the cash.


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

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


And the love that descended this night long ago,

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


But ours is a God who for sure keeps the promise –

No matter if we are still doubting with Thomas.

The promise that life everlasting is coming,

Sweet mercy is rising, compassion is humming.

The peace and the justice are still on their way,

And crazy new hope comes with every new day.


So tonight  we must 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:

Keep the faith and remember that Love is the Word!


Merry Christmas!


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


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The Birth of God Took Place in This Way

Advent IV, 2016

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”
                                                                                                                                                     The Book of Isaiah 7:10-16, NRSV
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
                                                                                                                                                      Gospel According to Matthew 1:18-25, NRSV

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way….

The birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are among the most well known, best loved, frequently enacted and honored stories in the entire Christian Testament. They are also the least trusted by scholars as authentic. Although for years they have been summarily dismissed by the academic community as mere myth, they have always been the most accessible part of the Jesus story for the vast majority of Christians. Every year we flock to Bethlehem to await with joyous expectancy the birth of our new hope. Some of us follow on to Nazareth and Capernaum and Jericho. Fewer follow into the solitude of the Galilean hills and on to Jerusalem. And to Calvary….almost none. Each stage of the journey becomes more and more difficult. Each stage of Jesus’ mission casts a new uneasy shadow on our light of joyous expectancy; the light that is lit right here in Advent. But when that beautiful baby is born to a couple of ordinary, yet extraordinarily willing country folk in the bucolic burg of Bethlehem….we are all right there!

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way….

As many of you know, the two birth narratives in our canon are astonishingly different; different in tone, in perspective, in their vision of who Jesus is and will be, and different in their location of power. Luke’s account is told from the perspective of Mary. It is the story of the nativity, the humble birth of a humble baby born in a mere manger, and heralded by mere shepherds. Matthew’s account is told from the perspective of Joseph. And it is the story of the epiphany, the brilliant promise of the incarnation to a world oppressed by a misguided power structure. If Luke’s markers are shepherds and a manger, Matthew’s markers are Herod and a star. Luke’s story is a commentary on how Jesus will gather the margins of the world to the center. Matthew’s story is a commentary on how Jesus will turn the power structures of the world on their heads. Two very different visions.

And yet they are interdependent; gathering the margins to the center and upending the power structures that not only permit but engender and encourage injustice, especially at the margins. It’s a both/and, these perspectives from Luke and Matthew. And so we often conflate these two very political New Creation birth narratives into one “Charlie Brown Christmas story.”

Despite the mythical/mystical grounding of the Gospel stories, the historical framework that underlies the birth of Jesus is less contested. The history of how the people of God got from this morning’s reading in Isaiah, to the birth of Immanuel from the Virgin Mary (which seems to have been foretold in this morning’s reading from Isaiah), to this celebration of Advent IV in the year 2016 has some familiar reoccurrences.

(The blue type is historical background which can be skipped if history is not your deal!)

This morning’s passage from the seventh chapter of Isaiah was likely written in the 8th century before the common era. At least a hundred years before the exile when the Temple of God was destroyed by the Babylonians and the people of God were cast out from their homeland to live in the land of the aggressors for roughly half a century. They were a people in despair. Until Cyrus, the King of Persia, conquered the Babylonians and restored the people of God to their home in Judea. They were a grateful people restored, albeit under a foreign rule; and for the next almost 400 years.

Until 160 years before the birth of Jesus when an uprising of Jewish rebels, later known as the Maccabees1, took control of Judea, and specifically Jerusalem. They reasserted Jewish rule in the region, and purified and rededicated the Temple, which was, not incidentally, the first Chanukah.2

And the Jewish Maccabees ruled relatively copacetically for about 100 years. Until roughly 63 years before the birth of Jesus when the marriage between Temple and State imploded. The Maccabbees succumbed to a sort of family feud. For reasons too complex to discuss here, the Monarchy (represented by the Pharisees) found themselves at mortal odds with the High Priests (represented by the Sadducees). We hear a lot about this family feud throughout the Gospels. But here are the roots. Sixty years before the birth of Jesus.

Anyway, a Roman general named Pompeus intervened in the Maccabean civil war and Israel effectively became a client state of the Roman Empire.

In the year 37 before the birth of Jesus, Herod the Great was installed as the King of Israel; the homeland of the Jewish people of God. Which is why the Roman Senate called him the “King of the Jews.”

But Herod the Great was….actually not so great, especially to his opponents and to those dangerous Jewish rabble rousers who threatened the stability of the kingdom. The later works of Josephus describe Herod’s rule as tyrannical and despotic. He was pompous and arrogant and very thin skinned. He brutally repressed his dissenters, amassing a huge secret police and using them to spy on his opposition. He prohibited all protests of any kind, and arrested (or worse) anyone who dared to oppose him.

He also had a passion for building magnificent classical edifices….edificis? It has been said that “epic” was his genre of choice. And he spent ridiculous sums of money on these monuments to his personal prowess, such as the Temple Mount which bears his mark to this day as and is known as the…..Western Wall. Herod the Great ruled with an opulent iron fist.

Until four years before Jesus was born when Herod the Great died. And his youngest son, Herod Antipas (an dee pas), stepped into his father’s shoes. He became the King Herod of Jesus Christ Superstardom, the surrogate ruler of Galilee answering to the Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus. And although he was known as “King Herod,” he was never officially awarded that title. Like his father before him, Herod Antipas had ambitious and paranoid tendencies.3 This “King of the Jews” reigned from four years before the birth of Jesus until six years after his death……and resurrection.

Which brings us to the Incarnation; the precipice of the common era. Herod Antipas was newly in power. The realm was in a volatile state, especially regarding relations between Romans and Jews. And Mary and Joseph were two seemingly insignificant bystanders with no semblance of power or standing in the political, economic or social spheres of the Roman Empire. They were simply subjects of the realm, and poor, un-influential ones at that. They were not activists. They were not rebels. They were not political players of any sort. And I think it is safe to assume that they did not see themselves as agents in the upending of the power structures of the world or the gathering of people from the margins to the center any more than they saw themselves as the subjects of beloved canticles and prayers that would be lifted in worship around the world, every Advent for the next two thousand years.

Until they each received a visit from an Angel of the Lord.

The birth of our New Creation is not only told in two of our canonical Gospels, it is also told in several non-canonical gospels.4  All of these accounts, canonical and non-canonical, has a few common elements. They all relate the birth of the baby Jesus. They all agree that Mary and Joseph were his earthly parents. They all agree that Mary was chaste and Joseph was old. And they all rely on the critical appearance of “an angel of the Lord” to both comfort and convince our wholly human heroines.

Last year, in Luke’s Gospel, we heard how the Angel of the Lord came to Mary. This year we just heard how the Angel comes to Joseph: Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him….

The Angel of the Lord is the only common element besides Jesus and Joseph and Mary in both the canonical and the primary non-canonical birth narratives. Now, angels are pretty prominently featured in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Testament alike. They appear well over 200 times in our Holy Scripture. But a so-called “Angel of the Lord” is much more rare. This exact phrase appears only 11 times in the New Testament; 7 are in the Gospels; and 5 of those are in the birth narratives of Jesus. The 6th is in the birth narrative of John the Baptist. And the 7th is at the very end of Matthew when an Angel of the Lord rolls back the stone on Jesus’ empty tomb, ushering in his life everlasting. In the Gospels, an Angel of the Lord appears almost exclusively to announce and facilitate a miraculously conceived new life.

And it is hard to see how the birth of Jesus could have been orchestrated without an Angel of the Lord. Could Mary or Joseph have agreed to God’s preposterous plan without the steadfast assurance of an Angel of the Lord to walk with them? Who else could have superseded the power of peer pressure and social norms, or mere common sense and reason? As the writer Madelyn L’engle wrote of Advent:

Behold the irrational season

When love burns bright and wild
Had Mary been filled with reason                                                                                                  There’d have been no room for the child.

An Angel of the Lord always trumps human expectations. But this is the job of an Angel of the Lord, to render our human sense of reason and propriety moot in the face of divine wisdom. And so it is hard to imagine that our ordinary Mary and our average Joe would or could have been such willing and able agents of God’s work in this world without a visit from such an Angel. As Mary and Joseph can attest, when our human expectation has been stretched to its very outer limit, only an Angel of the Lord can intervene and resize the realm.

And Lord knows this realm of ours could use some resizing. Like the realm in which Mary and Joseph lived we may be headed for another Herod-like era. For our own ruler-elect seems to have similar tendencies: authoritarian, thin skinned, and with a misplaced sense of his public purpose. According to his Twitter feed, he seems much more concerned about his portrayal on Saturday Night Live and receiving a bad restaurant review than about the civilian executions taking place in Aleppo or the reports of tampering with the United States electoral process. And it is more than slightly Herodian for a president-elect of a free nation to suggest jail time (or worse) for flag-burners and his own personal opponents alike (“lock her up!”). And it is alarming that the chief servant of the people, as our president is intended to be, has appointed a foreclosure king to head the Treasury, a science denier to head the EPA, an opponent of public education to head the Department of Education, an apparent racist to be the Attorney General….and the list just never seems to end. It begs the question, which people are being served? And finally, we are about to install a head of state who thus far has refused to separate his private interests from the common-wealth, which is almost sure to place the interests of the nation he serves behind the inheritance he will leave to his children and his own personal global estate.

My friends, these are trying times. But no more trying than they were on the advent of the birth of the New Creation. And let us be heartened that no one but an Angel of the Lord saw that new life, that New Creation, coming. And yet it came. It came through simple, ordinary people who were not unlike….us. Sometimes there is seemingly no hope until hope is miraculously born.

And so I am almost certain that soon and very soon, we will not just be called, but also empowered to change this world in ways that we cannot even yet conceive. And somewhere between our incredulity and our fear around what we will be asked to do, and our consent to do it …an Angel of the Lord will appear and tap us on the shoulder, settle in the pit of our upset stomach, and descend upon our palpable angst in such a way that the wholly unimaginable will suddenly, immediately, instantly and without explanation become not only possible, but imperative. It will be the Angel of the Lord that will open our hearts and minds to the possibilities for us and our world; possibilities that only God can now envision.

But let us beware. When that moment comes, that moment that puts us outside of our…selves, it will shatter our expectations for our lives and our fortunes and our future. It will ask us to rise to heights that we may neither choose nor want to reach. It may seek to transform us into people we may neither be able to imagine nor even want to be. And I am guessing at that moment, like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds on the hill, we will be sore afraid.

Until, from the rubble of our fallen expectations, from the depth of our fear at facing whatever is asked of us by a God – who seems to have a wildly inflated sense of our capacity to change – just then, an Angel of the Lord will appear to us and deliver this crystal-clear message. A message that will carry us through every step of the work that lies ahead. And it will be the same message that was delivered to Mary and to Joseph. And the message is:

  1. You are not alone.
  2. You are not in charge.
  3. You are not insignificant.

And we will not be able to help but hear, as did Mary and Joseph, that we have been chosen especially, particularly, specifically by our Creator to bear our part of God’s dream; to bear our etching of God’s image in and through our own flesh; to rejoice in the unspeakably rich new life that awaits nothing more than our consent. And we have nothing to fear.

Just ask Linus. Blogger Jason Soroski, an evangelical pastor, recently made a wonderful observation about the Charlie Brown Christmas special.5  We all remember it. Right? Near the end, in answer to Charlie Brown’s frustrated question: Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?! Linus calmly assures his friend that he knows. And he steps onto the stage, lowers the lights, and begins to quote Luke’s Gospel, verbatim: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flocks. And lo, an Angel of the Lord came upon them. And the glory of the Lord shone upon them. And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them…. and here is Soroski’s wonderful observation: right before he quotes the Angel of the Lord, Linus, who never ever unhands his precious blanket, flings it on the floor as he emphatically continues quoting the Angel who frees us to follow. As Linus unhands his blanket he declares: Fear not! It is the one and only time that Linus drops his security blanket. At the very moment when he quotes the Angel of the Lord saying fear not!

Linus dropped his security blanket the way I imagine Mary and Joseph dropped theirs. And so the birth of Jesus took place in this way. It could not have taken place in any other way. Fear not, we will not be asked to do this work alone or unattended. This terrifying news that we are personally to be the bearers of God in a world that does not seem to be ready to bear God, is the joyous expectancy that dances within and among us this and every Advent season. This is what we await. Our own agency as God’ bearers. And so the Gospel reads: Now the birth of God took place in this way….

Ah. Did you hear it? Matthew does not start this story with the word “now” for nothing. Now! the birth of God took place in this way….

And so, fear not dear friends, let us drop our own blankets because like it or not, we are on that way!

Alleluia! Amen.


End notes

1 Also known as the Hasmoneans. From the family of Mattathias

2 According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war. From:


4 The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of pseudo- Matthew, and the Latin Infancy Gospel to name a few.

5 5

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


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