Myrrhy Christmas

December 31, 2017: Christmas I/Epiphany

Lessons & Carols

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, the star, the Epiphany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Can God Get a Witness?

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

December 17, 2017: Advent III

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

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

 

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

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Ki Is the Living God

The Book of Judges 4:1-7

November 19, 2017

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kevin had shingles.

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

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

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

Kevin said, ‘Shingles.’

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

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

Kevin said, ‘Shingles..’

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

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

Kevin said, ‘Shingles.’

 The doctor asked, ‘Where are they?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alleluia! Amen.

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

 

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

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Remembering A New Way

A Celebration of Our Anglican Roots

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

October 15, 2017

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alleluia!

Amen.

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

[3] Hooker, Laws, V.54.10

[4] Hooker Laws, V.67.8

[5] Hooker, Laws, V.67.8

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Free To A Good Home

Exodus 14:19-31

September 17, 2017

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25He clogged* their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ 27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses. 
                                                                                                                         Exodus 14:19-31, NRSV

 

Happy New Year!

Every three years we are welcomed back to a new program year with this astonishing passage from the Book of Exodus. It usually coincides with our welcome back Sunday, and it usually happens during the week in which we remember the violent horror of September 11, 2001. What a context in which to hear this violent text from Exodus. And if the collectors of the canon had consulted me, I would surely have left parts of this story…..on the cutting room floor, and probably scheduled it for a nice sleepy week in August.

But here we are. And since this is Welcome Back Sunday, let me catch you up on the first few installments of this story that began in the late summer. We have been hearing from this fundamental story of our faith tradition in the Book of Exodus since the last Sunday in August. We started with the birth of Moses and the fearful Pharaoh’s decree to kill all of the newborn Hebrew boys in Egypt in an effort to stem the rising population of that immigrant class of slaves. Moses, of course, escaped his own decreed departure in a papyrus basket in the reeds of the river. The next week we heard the story of God’s call to Moses to free the Israelites. After hailing the attention of the shepherd Moses with a burning bush, God instructed Moses to free God’s people from generations of slavery. No small task. And when Moses asked God who he should say had sent him to upend Pharaoh’s entrenched structure of institutional slavery, God said tell them my name is: “I will be who I will be.” Eyeh asher eyeh. Or, “I am becoming who I am becoming.” Say it with me. God’s name:  Eyeh asher eyeh.

And then last week we heard the story of how the Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Israelites prompted God to respond with 10 plagues, the last of which took the lives of every first born male, of every species,  except, of course,  the Hebrews. It is the story of the Passover. And so today’s story is the culmination of the last three weeks. The liberation of the Israelites by a Pharaoh who finally relented after losing his own son in the 10th plague. And Moses and his brother Aaron follow God’s lead and shepherd the Israelites to freedom.

But it is a costly freedom. Today’s violence is the third massacre in four weeks. First Pharaoh’s death decree. Then the 10 plagues. And now the brutal end of this monumental escape with the Red Sea swallowing the entire Egyptian army.

For full disclosure: the Revised Common Lectionary does offer an alternative text track for this fall. That is to say, we could have avoided these violent readings. We did not have to read Exodus, we could have read Track II instead. This week’s reading is from the very end of Genesis. And if we had chosen that track, today we would hear Joseph forgiving his brothers for selling him into a life of slavery and leaving him for dead.

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ 16So they approached* Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17“Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive us. Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18Then his brothers also wept,* (Genesis 50:15-18)

This is a so much kinder and gentler release from bondage than the violent massacre we heard this morning.

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea… and as the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them survived. (Exodus 16:27-8)

And so every three years I am more than tempted to chuck Exodus and read Track II. To follow the God of Creation in Genesis rather than the God of Liberation in Exodus. Because, let’s face it, creation is fraught with growing pains and grounded in chaos, but liberation from institutional evil is almost always violent and costly! So very costly. There is just no peaceful easy way to free generations of slaves from bondage. Our own Civil War is still smoldering with every removal of every confederate statue and flag, with every familiar instance of racial profiling, even now in the twenty-first century.

But the thing that seems so very un….expected about the liberation story in Exodus, at least to those of us who hold on to God as the love of our lives, is that we do not want to think of our Redeeming Creator as such a Wholesale Destroyer. Despite all of the commentaries that justify the carnage in this event by saying that Pharaoh had it coming, he backed himself into this catastrophe. Even so, the God Who Is Becoming had a hand in it. And that just plain surpasses all understanding in my own theology, and in my own relationship with the living God.

But the text is all we have. So, having lost his own firstborn in the 10th plague, Pharaoh ordered the release of the Israelites from their 430 years of bondage. He summoned Moses and Aaron. And he said to them: “Go! and tell your God to bless me for my magnanimous decision to free God’s people.” So Moses and Aaron did just as Pharaoh had instructed them. They rounded up their people and led them, over 600,000 Israelite slaves and their children, out of Egypt.  A stream of newly liberated people headed…….well, they weren’t quite sure where. But they were willing to follow Moses and Aaron, willing to follow the ones sent by “I am becoming what I am becoming.”

They followed to freedom. They followed to new life. They were, at last, free to a good home.

And here is where the two seemingly opposite lectionary tracks appointed for this morning are intimately connected. The reading says that the fleeing Israelites took with them the bones of Joseph. Bones they had been saving for 20 generations. Bones that surely made their escape a bit more arduous. But this story of the Exodus recalls, remembers,  and literally advances the story of Joseph and his family. It binds the God of the Ancestors to the God of Liberation. This is not a new God, it is the new work of the ever-Becoming God. This is the next phase of the story, and it is built, clearly and intentionally on the story that has happened thus far. It is all connected. And so too, it tells us that God is always willing and able to open a new chapter in the life of the world.

Today’s story started with Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, who fled his angry brothers and ended up as Pharaoh’s slave in Egypt….that was the start of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt. Joseph was the seed. And the last verse of the Book of Genesis reads: Joseph said to his brothers “I am about to die: but God will surely come to you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” So Joseph said to the Israelites: “when God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” And then Joseph died, at 110 years old. He was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. And there ends the Book of Genesis.

But today’s story in the Book of Exodus is where we pick up the bones. Literally. And after 430 years, the children of Abraham, including the bones of Joseph are finally headed home. Note the time it takes to realize freedom, the time it takes for God’s justice to prevail: 430 years. Over 20 generations. Patience is a divine virtue.

So, the Israelites have been freed to follow Moses and Aaron out of Egypt. But not so fast, again Pharaoh has a change of heart. It’s a pattern with this Pharaoh.  “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” he laments to his armed forces. We cannot simply let all of this slave labor go. And so Pharaoh, despite the loss of his own son in the 10th Plague, renegs on his decision to free the Israelites, and  commissions his army and every chariot in the land to make haste to stop the mass exodus.

But by then, the God of ever-becoming had led the faithful followers through the wilderness to the bank of the Red Sea. It is not insignificant, I think, that God did not lead the Israelites over the dry land. Although that would have been a more direct route, as the scripture says.  But the God of ever-Becoming thought that the Egyptians might catch up with the fleeing slaves and “ if the people face war, they will change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God, in an effort to avoid putting the people in a situation that would lead them to their own demise, chose to lead them over the much more difficult terrain, a rough and tumble wilderness that lead to the shore of a massive body of water which the congregation of hundreds of thousands of Israelites, had no logical way of crossing.

I am guessing that some of us have been on this long and circuitous  journey to liberation with the God of ever-Becoming. God works in our own lives in the same way that God works in the world. After all, God is who God is….albeit becoming. And so we who have little experience with captivity and oppresses ion may hear this story  in terms of our personal life situations. Which is all good. Indeed it is a story about the way God sets us free if we have the courage to follow and the faith to cross when the waters part.

But this story has a much more socially axiomatic understanding, as well. This is a story about the evil of institutionalized oppression. About the structures of evil that enslave and marginalize and absolutely exist in this world. And it is about the fate of those who support those structures, intentionally, or unintentionally. Whether you are the Pharaoh who makes the law of the land, or the chariot driver for whom support is just a day job. The pillars and  the posts of such systems are coming down, one way or another.

The Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. preached a sermon on this text from Exodus in 1956 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of New York) on the occasion of the Supreme Court decision in Brown versus the Board of education. The title of the sermon was “Death of Evil Upon the Seashore.”[1] The sermon began like this:

“And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore.”-Exodus 14:30

There is hardly anything more obvious than the fact that evil is present in the universe. It projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles into every level of human existence. We may debate over the origin of evil, but only the person victimized with a superficial optimism will debate over its reality. Evil is with us as a stark, grim, and colossal reality.

The evil of which Dr. King speaks is oppression and injustice. His sermon grounds this passage in the reality that there are systems of evil in our midst that will require earth shattering reconciliation. Such oppression and injustice is not just in our biblical canon, it is not just in the history of our civilization, and it is not in our rear view mirror. We live in a time when the mightiest empires in the world continue to marginalize and oppress and enslave the migrants in their domain. Whomever the migrant. Whatever the domain.

And so if I can get past the horses at the bottom of the sea, I can hear this story as a call to oppose and resist those institutions of oppression. To take stock of my life, my thoughts words and deeds, and see where I might be supporting injustice, even indirectly, even if that support is just part of my day job. We must all resist systemic evil in all ways. With all of our might. Because the God of Becoming is opposing and resisting even as we speak, and the water is wide.

Maybe the shocking violence in this morning’s story is necessary to get our attention. Maybe we need to know that such abject evil always bears an astronomical cost.  Maybe this story is meant to be read as a cautionary fairy tale. A divine promise that freedom will always overcome. Even if it takes 20 generations, it will come. Because the God of Becoming is already on it.

Welcome back!

On with whomever we are becoming!

Alleluia! Amen.

 

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

[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sermon delivered May, 18, 1956. http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol03Scans/256_17-May-1956_The%20Death%20of%20Evil%20upon%20the%20Seashore.pdf The title and some of the text of this sermon was from the Rt. Rev. Phillips Brooks sermon “The Egyptians Dead Upon the Seashore.'”

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

How Becoming!

Exodus 3:1-15

September 3, 2017: Pentecost XVI

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.5Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ 6He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ 11But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ 12He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
13 But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ 14God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’* He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.”15God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord,* the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations. 
                                                                                                                                                          Exodus 3:1-15, NRSV

 

Happy Labor Day weekend! Today’s reading from the Book of Exodus seems well suited to this end of summer holiday, because it is all about the start of Moses’ new job as God’s executive prophet. That is, in this morning’s passage, God calls Moses not through a head hunter, or even an angel, but with a burning bush that ignites in the middle of his everyday life and burns without ceasing. When Moses “turns aside to see” what is happening, God has him. And God summarily hires Moses for a special project of gargantuan proportions, and puts his new Director of Liberative Operations immediately to work at a  job that comes with substantial sacrifice and risk, and little clarity regarding the reward, other than the inner satisfaction of serving the purposes of God Almighty, of course. A job for which Moses did not apply. Nevertheless, the same vulnerable, marginalized Moses who was floating in a papyrus basket in the reeds of the river to avoid Pharaoh’s death detail in last week’s reading is now recruited by the Creator of the Universe to march straight into Pharaoh’s court and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves, of which he was once one. The Book of Exodus is the Book of this collaboration between Moses and God that freed a people, constituted a community and delivered not just the Israelites, but the identity of God as the Great Liberator of all time.

 

We will be reading from the Book of Exodus for the next two months.

 

It began in our reading last week, after the Israelites have been in Egypt for several generations, long after Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, grandson of Isaac and Rebekah, great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah, have gone. And a new Pharaoh has come to power; a shortsighted, fearful, arrogant Pharaoh who rebukes and fears the number of “foreigners” in his land, who feels threatened from the get-go by the growing contingent of immigrants, Israelites in this case. And so Pharaoh begins to make life uncomfortable for them using a compliment of age-old, tried and true weapons of mass discomfort – ostracism, demonization, bondage without recourse, hard labor etc. And when the oppressed people, the Israelites, cry out for help, God hears their cries. And God responds as God always responds to the pain and suffering of God’s beloved people, God hooks up with a human partner to change the world. In this case, Moses.

 

Now, we might wonder why God doesn’t just fix these things. After hearing the desperate cries of God’s suffering people, why doesn’t God just take Pharaoh out? If God is indeed all-powerful, why can’t all this suffering be taken care of with a wave of God’s almighty hand? Why does God always seem to be waiting on flawed, fragile, frail, fractured human beings to do God’s work? Why does God even bother calling the likes of Moses – a shepherd of no special distinction, except of course that he is a criminal, having killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew and then burying his body (check it out, chapter 2 in Exodus, best seller material). Other than this drama, Moses is an ordinary working man who spends his days minding his father-in-law’s sheep. Why on earth would God choose Moses to lead the most central movement of God’s illustrious career to date?

 

And this is why I love the Bible. This is why I believe, as was stated in my ordination vows, that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation. And if we define salvation as being fully reconciled and reunited with God, the Bible is the story of how God never works alone. God is not a lone wolf. The Bible would be a very short text if our Almighty God ran the world as an all-powerful monarch or general or CEO or head honcho of any kind. But God does not choose to work alone. God works in and through creation in concert with, in partnership with, in mutual relationship with….us, God’s beloved creatures. And this morning’s reading from Exodus is a classic example of how God calls us into that partnership.

 

Prophets are key to our ongoing story with God. They are the ones who, like sacraments, point us to God’s purpose in this world, the ones who articulate the path to what we Christians call the Kingdom, or as we call it in this community, the Kindom of God. And so prophets are God’s collaborators.

 

In his classic book, The Prophets, Abraham Heschel writes that the biblical prophets essentially address the human “failure of freedom.” Their central prophetic message to us, says Heschel, is an, “insistence that the human situation can be understood only in conjunction with the divine situation…” That is, human beings have, “choice, but not sovereignty.” [1] That basically means that we have the freedom to choose between options, but not the sovereignty to control the options from which we can choose. Whether or not we follow God’s call is up to us. But we do not have the sovereignty to change the call. We pick up or hang up, but we cannot dial another number. This is the fabric of our partnership with God. This is the stuff of which our relationship is made, and this is the story that is told over and over and over again, through the generations in our Holy Bible. This is the first ingredient in the formula that is God’s call. The human must answer.

 

2There the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush; Moses looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.

 

And just then, God had him.

 

And so after the human answers, the second thing about a true calling is that it comes when we are ready, not when we are expecting. Not when we are wanting to be called, but when we are ready to be called. Then the bush bursts into flame! And unfortunately, sometimes, willing and able are in two different time zones. And so Moses tells God that he cannot be a prophet because he is not prepared, he is a rotten public speaker and so maybe God would rather call his brother. And God snaps back: “Just go. I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” Sort of the divine version of, “because I said so.” And again, Moses has the freedom to act, but not the freedom to change the calling or its timing.

 

The third thing about a true calling, as is evidenced by Moses’ persistent insistence on his unfitness for this work (and he objects no fewer than four times!), God never calls anyone into their comfort zone. Every prophet, every agent of God’s deepest will, has, at one time or another, been frightened to their core. That is not to say that we should not follow our bliss, as it were, but that if that bliss is authentic, the road ahead will be fraught with pain and pitfalls and sacrifice. God never calls us into our comfort zone. Just ask Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Paul, Peter……All sucked summarily out of their comfort zones. So, my prophetic friends, fasten your seatbelts.

 

And last, in the final analysis, God is calling us to wholeness above all else. God calls us just as we are, just as we were created to be called. God calls us to be reconciled with all that we are, the good the bad the ugly and the magnificent. Any calling that denies our whole selves is not God’s calling. Any calling that seeks for us to be good rather than whole is a trap. Every time. This is what the wise writer Parker Palmer means when he says that dwelling with God is being faithful to one’s nature, not one’s perfection or one’s proficiencies, or even one’s goodness, but only one’s wholeness, one’s human nature.

 

And so Moses, the vulnerable baby in the basket, the veritable criminal on the run, the meek shepherd tending the flock of his father-in-law is called, in no uncertain terms, by God to do the unthinkable. To leave his life, to risk his life, to turn the power structure of the Egyptian empire on its ear by freeing the entire population of marginalized immigrants in its midst. It’s not hard to see why the marquis prophets of God are few and far between. Although, we do not know how many God has called. We only know the ones who have answered.

 

Moses answered. He sees the burning bush and answers God’s call with “Here I am.” But he does not accept the job strait away. He seems to have one condition. And only one. He wants to know the name….the exact name…..the official name of his new employer. Not so that he will have clout when he comes up against Pharaoh, not to protect for himself should Pharaoh retaliate. Moses is not asking for a shield against Pharaoh, he is asking for an assurance for the Israelites; he wants a name to tell his fellow Hebrews so that they will have the courage to follow him. He wants them to know that they too are called by God, and not by Moses.

 

And so Moses says that it will not work to tell them “the God of Your Ancestors” has sent you. That is apparently not good enough for Moses….not specific enough….maybe it is not current enough. What have you done for us lately? Moses says, I can tell them that, but they are going to want to know your name. Not your history. Your presence. What should I tell them? Who do you say you are?

 

Last week in our Gospel reading, Jesus asked his disciples a similar question: Who do you say I am?  Of course, they already know his name. He is Jesus of Nazareth.  But that name takes some fleshing out. And so Jesus tells his disciples who he is in divine terms. First, he is the builder of the church, and he will build it on Peter. Second,  the holder of the keys to the kingdom of heaven which he will turn over to his Rock. And finally, Jesus orders his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah.

 

That’s the one! That’s the name the disciples are looking for: Messiah. The one anointed by God.

 

However, the name, Messiah (Anointed By God) would have little meaning without today’s story from Exodus. For Christians, Moses is (in hind sight) asking: Who shall we say anointed the Messiah? In whose name are we Christians baptized? In whose name are we to love our neighbor, sometimes dangerously and with considerable risk? Who is this God who calls us to freedom, whose will we are following?  And that is precisely what Moses wants to know. He wants a name.

 

And God’s answer to Moses could not be more vague or more precise. God says to Moses tell them you are sent by: Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be). Say it with me. Ehyeh asher ehyeh . Again, after all it is the name of God: Ehyeh asher ehyeh . The NRSV translates this “I am what I am.” But the verb in Hebrew is not in the perfect tense. You will remember, the two basic active verb forms in Hebrew are the perfect and the imperfect. The perfect applies to things that are complete (i.e. perfected or finished) actions that have occurred in the past. The imperfect tense applies to ongoing actions, things in process or happening in the future (not yet perfected or finished).

 

Ehyeh asher ehyeh is in the imperfect tense. And so the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon, the Hebrew equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, defines the verb forms in this statement as: “become.” God identifies God’s self as:  “I am becoming what I am becoming” or “I will become what I will become.” Not yet finished. God is not perfected.

 

And a name not likely to be found anywhere on the 8th century b.c.e list of most popular baby names, or in any century before or since. It’s a name too long to be listed on a driver’s license, but too true to be anything else. But if this is the name of our God, then ours must be a theology of becoming, a term coined by theologian Katherine Keller in the title of her wonderful book on Genesis: The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. But holy cow does it apply here!

 

And so when we ask ourselves in this beloved community, Who do we say we are? – our theme for the coming year – we will inquire through this lens of becoming….following God’s lead.  And so maybe our work with sanctuary and other justice ministries is not so much the work of resistance, but rather the work of becoming……maybe we are becoming a beloved community of a becoming God.

And so, oy ve! Have we got work to do!

 

Alleluia!

Amen.

 

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

[1] Heschel, 190.

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Eggs or Bacon?

The Book of Exodus 1:8-2:10

August 27, 2017

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

Good Morning! Today we begin our readings from the Book of Exodus.

Come, let us deal shrewdly with them….said the Pharaoh about the Hebrews –  or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.

Aren’t adverbs great!  I mean really. Adverbs are the parts of speech that give more flavor to the verbs. An adverb modifies a verb as an adjective modifies a noun. Adverbs give us the low down on how things happen, on the story behind the happening. The verb tells us what is happening, but the adverb provides the color for the connotation. And so it is with the start of this morning’s reading from Exodus.

Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, said Pharaoh about the Israelites.

Shrewdly sets up the story that leads us straight to the meat of this book, to the Exodus. The Egyptians did not simply deal with the Hebrews, they dealt with them….well, the Hebrew word that is translated as shrewdly in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible would probably more literally be translated as wisely in most other contexts. But the NRSV translators chose shrewdly over wisely –which makes the Egyptians seem just slightly more sinister than clever. Although actually, murderously would have been a more accurate adverb.

And so we begin the story of the Exodus….a word that in the Greek literally means the “way out.” Ex-hodos. The story of the liberation of the Israelites from the bonds of slavery in Egypt.

The Book of Exodus is second in the literary order of our Holy Bible. And it picks up where Genesis leaves off. Genesis closes with our founding family, Joseph, et al, living relatively peacefully in Egypt, albeit enslaved.

Today’s reading begins almost at the beginning of Exodus.  It begins with the literal juxtaposition of Israel (God’s name for Jospeh’s father Jacob and all of his offspring) and Egypt,( mitzra’im in the Hebrew – a word that literally means the narrow place.) It is a confrontation of God’s chosen ones and the tight place in which they find themselves. The time is 400 years after Joseph’s death…..20 generations later.

The Israelites are still slaves in Egypt.  But despite their bondage, they have been fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham, big time! They have been multiplying like bunnies, and are nearly as numerous as the stars of the sky, just as God promised. But this proliferation of the Hebrews is a problem for the Egyptians.

Now a new king rose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, Look the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we are. Let us deal shrewdly with them.”

And so this next phase of our story begins with a Pharaoh who fears the power of the people whom he has collected and oppressed.

The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites. They made their lives bitter and hard.

And shrewd dealing ensued. Pharaoh went to all of the Hebrew midwives in the realm and commanded that they kill every newborn boy in their tribe, in an effort to stem the tide of growth. (Although a smarter Pharaoh might have done away with the girls. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that crop control is about removing the seeds not the fertilizer. But that is a sermon for another day.)

So Pharaoh commands the killing of all Hebrew boys, but the scripture says that the midwives, “feared God.” And apparently more than they feared Pharaoh. Because they outright disobeyed him.  Which caused a frustrated Pharaoh to summon them and ask why they had not complied with his royal decree. And the midwives tell Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. The Hebrew women are more vigorous and they give birth even before the midwives arrive.

And so it was with the birth of God’s prophet Moses. Born to Israelite parents, he is hidden by them until he is too big to hide, and then he is bundled in a papyrus basket and set afloat to be hidden in the reeds on the bank of the river. His floating crib is discovered by none other than the daughter of Pharaoh. And her heart is touched by the baby in the basket, and so she calls for a nursemaid – who turns out to be the child’s own birth mother. And so Moses is raised by his own mother, right under Pharaoh’s nose. I know it sounds like a movie script, but not even Hollywood can top God’s own story!

But this is more than a great story. It is THE story. This is THE story of how God works in the world, and too how God works in each and every life that God delivers. This is the story of hope and redemption that is played out in this second book of the Torah, in the story of Moses and in the story of the Exodus.

They are parallel stories, the story of Moses and the story of the Exodus. So many similarities, right down to the rushes and reeds. The later text says that Moses parted the Red Sea, but the Hebrew word translated as Red in that passage is the same word used in today’s reading to describe the reeds in which Moses finds his own freedom from death. The saving of Moses and the saving of the Israelites are so similar, that one cannot help but see them as a sort of divine motif, a blueprint for the way that God…abides and delivers. Cosmically and personally. God is the Liberator.

This story, this Book of Exodus is about the identity of God: who God is. Who is God? God is the One who can raise a child; even a child who is born to enslaved parents, who is hidden in the weeds in a handmade basket with his very life at stake, who is discovered by the royal princess and raised by his own mother so that one day he might be called by God to part the very Red Sea in which he himself has been delivered from death. Who is God? God is the One with an unlimited imagination, and the power to back it up. God is the Creative Liberator beyond our wildest imaginations.

This is who God is. The One in whom all things are possible. The One for whom no story, no hope is too far-fetched. The One who delivers life and promises liberation to every beating heart. And the One who can deliver on that promise.

And so when Jesus asks his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, Who do you say I am? We know the answer reaches back to the Creation in Genesis and the Liberation in Exodus. We know that Jesus is God in the flesh, the Creator, Liberator and and also the Sanctifier. But his disciples do not seem to have our purview. They do not seem to know that this itinerate preacher who is their friend, is the flesh of the God of all Creation.

And so it is easy for us, we who know Jesus to be the Messiah, to think the disciples foolish when they do not seem to know the radiant identity of the Divine in their midst. They know the story of the Exodus, the story of the power of God. But they cannot see the true identity of their Rabbi. They cannot see him parting the Red Sea, delivering their ancestors from bondage,  shining like the Son of God. They cannot see what we, who know the full depth and breadth of both Testaments, know. The disciples do not yet know Jesus for who he is. They only know what they see.

I suspect it is not unlike the cosmic dance that created the total eclipse of the sun earlier this week. A rare total eclipse when the moon obscures the light of the world, entirely even, if only for a moment. But in that moment when the world is dark, the sun is still the sun. It is not different because it is behind the moon, not something else because we cannot see it for its brilliance. If, over the course of the eclipse, the sun were to ask Who do you say I am? We could reasonably answer simply a sliver a light, or even, at the apex when the sun is completely hidden, who’s there? Nevertheless, the sun is still the sun; the sun is still the source of all light and life.

Likewise, Moses was always the liberative agent of God, even when he was hidden in the reeds. And Jesus was always the messiah, even when he roamed the desert as a homeless vagabond. Just as the sun was always the light of the world. Always.

Identity is not based in perception. Identity is based in God’s imagination. God’s imagination, not ours. God’s imagination knows the truth of our Identity with a capital I.

And so for us, the salient question may not be who do we say we are, but who does God know us to be?  Who are we in God’s wildest imagination? The God who can raise a slave child from a floating crib in the river reeds to the top of Mount Sinai. The God who can raise a homeless child born in the stench of a manger to everlasting life. Only God’s imagination knows our possibility.

And so the practical question may be: How can we live into God’s imagination for us?

And what would we answer?…..individually and as a beloved community of God? How can we live into our identity as Christians? Not identity with a small “i”…..our identity as an inclusive caring worshiping community that values music and youth and formation and the food pantry and all of creation. But Identity with a capital “I”…..our Identity as followers of Jesus Christ who sacrificed his own body for the life of the world. It is the difference between what we choose to do and who we are called to be. It is the difference between our imaginations for ourselves and God’s imagination for the way we fit into the world.

Who does God say we are? We who will welcome a family seeking sanctuary into the heart of our community, literally into our physical body, this very week.  It will change our community life, but it will not change our Identity, with a capital I. It will change who we say we are, how we identify ourselves. Because now we say we are a sanctuary site. But it will not change our Identity as Christians. Because by our baptism, this is who we have always been. We have been born to respect the dignity of every creature of God, not by choice, but by birth.

So are we a sanctuary site, as a new ministry we have chosen to pursue, or are we truly living into our mission as God’s sanctuary? Are we a sanctuary site or truly a sanctuary?

I know it might sound like splitting hairs. But the adverb makes all of the difference. If we are truly sanctuary, we will be willing to walk in the very shoes of our friends and neighbors who are in need of it. Willing to put our own dignity on the line, as their dignity is on the line. Willing to put our own children at risk as their children are at risk. Willing to walk in their vulnerable shoes, and not just beside them at a safe distance.

It is a question about our level of commitment. Like the old adage about eggs and bacon. The chicken is supportive, but the pig is all in. So which are we? Are we supportive of this ministry, or is this who we are? Are we okay with this ministry because we got our kitchen painted and a new fire door installed; because we are now collaborating with a dozen other faith communities in a meaningful way? Are we supportive because this ministry is delivering other things that we care about? Is sanctuary a means to other ends?

Or are we offering the gifts of our very body to honor the dignity of God’s creation? Are the benefits that come with this work the results or the reasons for our being sanctuary? Is sanctuary a ministry or a mission? Is it what we are doing or who we are? Are we the eggs or the bacon?

I don’t know the answer to these questions.  But I do know that they are more than well worth asking. Over and over and over again. And this will be the theme for our coming program year. Who do we say we are?  Who does God know us to be?  And I look forward to plumbing the depths of these all important questions, together, and continually.

In the meantime, in the wake of this week’s eclipse, on the precipice of a life-changing embrace of sanctuary, and in the company of this beloved community,  I leave you with the wise words of Thomas Merton from his New Seeds of Contemplation.

If we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Bashō we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash–at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

So my friends, let us go forth prayerfully, faithfully, and honestly and take our place in that dance.

Alleluia! Amen.

 

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

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment