Sermon, 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, Year B – The Rev’d. Amanda March

Have you ever come upon someone that you recognize…but have not seen in quite a long time? You search their face, looking deeply, reaching back into your mind and then you remember… “I know you,” you say…”we were in school together.”   Or, you hear your partner say to you in the midst of a loving moment, with your faces close together…”I know you…” What might it be like to hear these words said in this way? Or maybe someone says to you, as you are apologizing to them …”It’s okay…I know you…”

Take a moment now…  bring to your mind someone who knows you, or knew you, very well…perhaps – knows you as fully as anyone does, or ever has. Picture that person for a moment. How has this experience of being deeply known affected you…impacted your life?

Being known is integral to being human and to feeling connected.

Psalm One hundred and thirty nine says to us…I know you…

To be known by another intimately is to open yourself to the other, to allow closeness and sharing.  The reality of this can be simultaneously fulfilling and overwhelming –  even scary. We can imagine this vulnerable middle ground –  between longing to be known and resisting it –  as we read psalm 139.

Psalms are prayers- communications between us and God as they are written and spoken. And this psalm is a prayer of intensity. Walter Brueggemann, well known Old Testament scholar, suggests that psalms are prayers addressed to a known, named, identifiable You. The You we have here is God. Our psalmist addresses God directly and then refers to herself 13 times, using the words ‘I’ and ‘me.’ The intimacy between the psalmist and God is not only emphasized in this ‘I and You’ language, but also in the repetition of the Hebrew verb yadá (to know). This word occurs 7 times in this psalm. This word, yadá, is a rich one in Hebrew – it has meanings that range from everyday recognition to intimate sexual connection. It is, for instance, the same word used in Genesis – Adam knew (yadá) his wife Eve and so she bore a son. Yadá occurs 60 other times in the Psalter.[1] Surely ‘knowledge’ understood in this way is important to relationship connections. And, we are to know God, as God knows us.

This language gives the psalm a tone of reality. This is not “may you, or will you be acquainted with all my ways.” This is “you are acquainted with all my ways.”  This is the psalmist’s real experience.

When we look at the flow of this prayer we notice a few things…the Psalmist begins by addressing God – You have searched me and you know me  –  she follows with 17 verses that vividly describe how deep that knowledge really is…  and yet  –  despite the wild ride of emotions that such knowing surely evokes…   the psalmist concludes by inviting God to continue this searching and knowing….“you know when I move…you anticipate my thoughts…you sift through me…you encompass me front and back…”

This is deep and wide knowledge she describes.  Being “hemmed in behind and before” – does this comfort or smother her?… maybe some of both… there is  literally no place to remove herself from God – not by flying with wings, skipping over the sea, seeking the darkness…not even by visiting heaven or Sheol – the place of the dead. No, in all of those places God’s hand guides and holds her fast. How does this way of knowing sound to you? Is it a celebration of closeness or does it feel intimidating? If God is so withIN us like this, does this demand something of us that we cannot or do not want to give all the time – does it ask us to work harder than perhaps we want to? Some might feel that such an absolute presence of God is something they are not deserving of.  Perhaps you are somewhere in the middle – comforted and yet challenged by God.

Remember here that this psalmist is writing about her OWN experience – not what some theologian or preacher has to say … but her own experience of God  “God you know everything about me. You know all the good and all the bad…all the fear, all the joy. God you know the REAL me. [pause]  As we read this today we do not know what her experience of life was…maybe she had felt close to God throughout her life and this was her expression of pure gratefulness. Maybe she had been alone in life and felt that God was the only one who really knew her. Maybe her life had been lived trying to hide from others, afraid that if people really knew her they would hurt her or run away.  The psalmist witnesses so deeply here to God’s presence.

There is a freedom that arises from such deep knowledge…I know you, God says. I see you…Just as you are, and I will never leave you.  I am with you.

When I moved to Massachusetts 5 years ago I began to attend St. Paul’s in Brookline. I had never in my adult life had the experience of being a newcomer at church before, and it was daunting to me.  As an introvert, this was a challenge, as I was attending church by myself. The parishioners were wonderful and warm, but ‘passing the peace’ and ‘coffee hour’ were challenging for me and I felt quite vulnerable. One random day a parishioner who simply recognized me silently gave my shoulder a friendly pat while passing by me, returning from receiving communion.  I was surprised as I felt tears welling up…I was known…even just a little. That moment changed things. I wasn’t aware of how much I really needed that.

About a year later I began the priesthood discernment process at that parish. The group of eight who met with me learned more about my life than anyone should ever have to know about another person! They held a safe space of love and support for me throughout that process. They saw me just as I was…It was a powerful experience of being fully known – and as perhaps with our psalmist… it was both comforting and challenging.  The impact was profound in my life. Allowing myself to be fully known felt risky, but doing so freed me to connect in deeper ways to myself, others and God in ways that I had not experienced before.

Another dimension deepens this knowing even further. The psalm uses body imagery that depicts the whole person in its thinking, feeling and acting.[2] This is shown in verse 13 – at the center of the psalm. This week I read many translations. Among them I found this translation of verse 13,  “You created my kidneys”.   This line is more often translated as “you created my inner-most parts” or something similar. In the ancient world the kidneys were often associated with decision-making…searching within to distinguish right from wrong requires deep inner consultation – deeper even than one’s heart. Looking further, in the Jewish Study Bible the verse reads, “It was You who created my conscience”.  The kidneys were seen as the seat of both affection and conscience…both important aspects to relating and connecting with others.

The psalmist continues with praise of how fearfully and wonderfully she has been made by God.  We can take another look at the use of the word fear. My father told me from childhood, Amanda – when you see the word fear associated with God in the Bible I want you to imagine that you are in New York City and for the first time you are walking into the front door of F.A.O. Schwartz. You are in absolute AWE – replace fear with this word.  So, the psalmist says, I am awesomely and wonderfully made! God, You did good!

Love is powerful…that we know, and we also know that love cannot be if it is not allowed, not given consent. This can be the hardest part and it is what God is yearning for you to do. The psalmist concludes her prayer with this consent, even invitation. Search me, know me, lead me, God –  in your ways, just as you know all of mine.

As challenging as it may be in these days to be a people of hope and love that is what we are called to be. Every week, here in this sanctuary, we are reminded of the deeply personal knowledge and love God has for us, and the freedom this brings.

I know you, God says. Entirely. I am withIN you, not withOUT. My hand is upon you. I have called you by name.

Know, deep in your soul, that God knows and loves you intimately. You are awesomely and wonderfully made. Let that in.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=226

[2] “Body Imagery in Psalm 139 and its Significance for Biblical Anthropology,” Christl Maier, Lectio Difficilior: European Journal for Feminist Exegesis, 2/2001.

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Second Sunday of Advent, Year B 2017 by, The Rev’d. Amanda March

Each Advent we are given the opportunity to hear and respond to lessons of prophetic wisdom, as we are today. I have always loved the Godly Play description of a prophet… “Prophets are people who come so close to God and God comes so close to them that they know what God wants them to say or do.”  Our prophets today present us with acclamations and directives that ask us to respond. In our opening collect as we began the service today we prayed that God will give us the grace we need to heed these prophets that were sent to preach the need to repent and prepare the way for our salvation, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus. …repentance and salvation…What do these words evoke in you? ….they are not common topics for an Episcopal sermon.  But, if I didn’t get your attention yet, surely I have it now, no matter what direction I take with these two weighty words.  They have a connection, a relationship. They are an invitation.

Words, as we heard last week from Gretchen, matter. Last week I attended a talk by a seminary professor of homiletics, Mark Jefferson, who spoke of the importance and weight of words. Words, he said, human speech – is something given to us by God – given to us to change the world. So preach! The speaker said – use those words! God is counting on us. Words matter.

A few weeks ago I spoke to you of compassion fatigue – how we can become overwhelmed with all that we read and hear about in the news, resulting in a numbness – becoming desensitized….a sense of hopelessness that can cause us to tune out. We hear both in our own heads and from others, ‘nothing ever changes’…things are a mess and we don’t know what we can really do about it.

In our Hebrew scripture today Isaiah is addressing the Judean exiles living in Babylon who likely felt this kind of hopelessness. What would life have been like for people who were forcibly removed from their homes? Instantly they had become minorities, immigrants – living without security or civil rights…a traumatic psychological event. Perhaps they felt that things would never change. It would have been hard for even the most fiery and eloquent prophet to convince them that God was indeed on their side.  As we know all too well, the forced removal of people from their homelands continues unabated.  In my final year of seminary I made a trip to South Africa with fellow students. We spent time in the black townships in the Soweto area.  For a period of 23 years – from 1960 to 1983, the apartheid government forcibly moved 3 and a half million black South Africans in one of the largest mass removals of people in modern history. Despite the official ending of apartheid we met some of the countless families who are still living in those same townships in abject poverty….people there now who were part of these forced resettlements. We experienced in those we met a deep need for comfort and hope.

Isaiah’s message begins with a command for everyone – for all of us –  to comfort and reassure. Comfort, O Comfort my people! Speak tenderly to them, they have suffered double the amount that anyone ever should. This message of comfort and hope – as God’s word – stands forever for ALL people. All will be gathered and fed, carried and led by God the shepherd.  But… right before we are given these powerful promises of hope we’re given a challenge – we are instructed to build an expressway for God. Now this gave me pause…. Why would this all-powerful and incomparable God need any sort of roadway to get to us?

Lying within this metaphor is an Advent message. There is no road to God because God is not withOUT. God does not come and go. God is withIN, not outside of us. This understanding has been an important piece of my own pastoral theology. With our common language of spirituality and prayer and scripture it is easy to be in a place where we think of God as an entity that can come and go, that we can “call down” or absent ourselves from. When I was beginning my chaplaincy training I had a supervisor who would say – “By the way, remember that, you, chaplain, are not taking God along with you into that patient’s room today. God is there now.” God was not activating my pager…Okay Amanda, take me in there now, I am needed. God does not divide God’s attention between us. God is wholly present to all – everywhere, all at once.  The Advent wreath right here in our midst is round – no beginning and no end – an Advent message of eternal hope and love and presence.  People ask, Where do you find God? But –  when we think of God as outside of us – who might, just might – pop into our field of vision if we are really blessed –  this is when our roadways becomes uneven and rough. Our prophets are urging us to prepare the way …so how might that look?

We see the word ‘repentance’ several times in today’s scriptures.  The Greek word used here is metanoia.   Meta – ‘after’ or ‘beyond’ and noia –  ‘of the mind.’ … So one definition of metanoia is – to go beyond, to expand our present thinking or understanding.  Doing so requires a willingness to go beyond our fixed minds and inner postures – into new understandings –  and, in light of them make changes in our lives.

For newness to enter in we need to open up space. Ask yourself – from the place you are in your own life right now, what is most essential? Of course we all have important causes and diversions – but how might our lives be crowded – is there something that can be let go of?  In the hospital I see how this works powerfully in the lives of those I provide care for. A significant diagnosis for someone or for their loved one can bring things quickly into focus and priorities become clear in new ways. But it doesn’t require illness to consider what is most essential.

Repentance seen like this is an invitation to “clear the decks.” To make space – in our minds and in our lives. It is about openness to receive and to make changes. Change is one of the most powerful forces in our lives – and – change is possible. Embracing change is a marker of a flourishing life – this Advent we have an opportunity to practice it with the dropping of 3rd person gendered pronouns and replacing them with Ki and Kin –  a good example of what the prophets are asking of us – to expand our present understanding.

So this is the message of the prophets today – cleared decks enable us to receive and experience the presence of God and the coming of Jesus.  Love and freedom in the here and now…this is the salvation of God.  So…there’s that other weighty word – salvation –  what does it mean?…saved for what, from what, to what? Salvation as a Christian concept has been given a narrow view. Salvation is freedom in the here and now that we can experience through our connection with God.  Salvation is about deliverance from those things that hinder our lives now. It is about wholeness of life now. This is the relationship between repentance and salvation. Opening ourselves – metanoia – brings the freedom of salvation today. And with it, we can be agents on earth enabling others to experience it as well.

On our trip to South Africa we visited Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. Our guide, a South African Anglican priest, led us in prayer before we did a silent walk through the island. Ki asked us to consider this question, Is there a prison cell that you can free yourself from today? Maybe un-forgiveness in some form has imprisoned you…maybe it is a mindset of fear or scarcity…release yourself – open up this space and freedom in your life.

Mark’s gospel underlines this message and adds encouragement. We have, this morning, the very first verses of Mark and, characteristically, ki gets right to the point in the first 10 words. Here it is, ki tells us – the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. And to begin that proclamation ki quotes Isaiah’s prophetic words of hope and comfort. Those who came out to hear John preach would have been feeling some of that same hopelessness about the Romans who were occupying their towns and temples.  John tells them – clear your decks and get ready – and –  you think this is good? I am immersing you in purifying water but Jesus is coming to put you in the deep end – you will be in over your heads in the Holy Spirit. Be encouraged – with such empowering you will have all you need.

So, empowered and with decks cleared we are ready to fulfill what this scripture is really calling us into  – the command to comfort and proclaim, to BE the Good News ourselves – we are told to shout it out from the highest hill we can find – loudly and fearlessly that God stands forever, God is absolutely present and God is good! Here is your God – God that gathers and feeds us, carries and leads us, as a mother with her sheep.

Embody this Good News! Our world is in desperate need of it!

God has come so close to us and we have come so close to God that we know what God wants us to say and do…

Know this promise of hope in the deepest part of you, let its comfort wash over you.  Know that this Good News of God, as we will hear in these Advent weeks to come, gets even better as God embodies it in the flesh and words of a human life. We are called today to embody it ourselves… to BE the Good News ourselves…right here and right now.

Let us pray,    God we offer ourselves to you afresh…. Let our lives be a highway on which you are in full view. Thank you for making and remaking us more and more into the people you created us to be – Let the Good News of Jesus be reborn in us again this Christmas.    Amen

 

Proper 29, Year A – Christ the King Sunday Amanda March

Today is a feast day in our church that is traditionally known as Christ the King Sunday. This feast day always falls on the last Sunday of our church year…next Sunday we will begin a new year as we begin the season of Advent and turn our faces toward Bethlehem once again. This Sunday is a day for us to proclaim who Jesus is and why he should be referred to as the King – I’d like to suggest, the shepherd – of our hearts and our souls. And, on this particular Christ the King Sunday we have, as our Gospel lesson, the last story that Matthew records about Jesus before the narrative moves to his passion, death and resurrection. It is a lesson that, in many ways, preaches itself – distilling the message of love Jesus embodies.

To many of us the word ‘King’ is problematic – conjuring up thoughts of patriarchy, oppression, and separateness – we imagine kings as living apart from us, sitting upon a throne and safe in a palace – in a word, removed. Thankfully, our Ezekiel reading today gives us another image for the word king – that of shepherd. The image of shepherd was a common metaphor for kingship in ancient Israel – a person of political and military power who, if they were doing this well, would nurture as well as guide. Just prior to this passage, Ezekiel tells of the abuses of power and the subsequent failures of Israel’s kings and leaders of this time. And the Judean people were now suffering the consequences – in exile in Babylon. As exiles they were in a bad way – dejected, dislocated, afraid, and suffering.  The rich leaders had grown richer, in Ezekiel’s words – ‘fat and strong’ on the backs of the weak.  And in our reading we see God step in – out of the power and authority of love rather than of political dominion.  “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. I will rescue them…I will bring them into their land…I will feed them with rich pasture…I will seek them when they feel lost…I will bind up the wounded…I will strengthen the weak…I will feed them with justice.” What is common among all of these promises? The action of being with. In Ezekiel’s imagination the lean and lost sheep will experience healing because they will know that God is with them. This was an important and much needed prophecy of hope for the exiles. And…we hear God also speaking out against those who misuse power. How will the ‘fat and strong’ be judged? With an experience of separateness.

This scene resonates with us today – our world is in similar turmoil. Many of our leaders create the same scattering and division and exploitation Ezekiel testifies to – and that causes for us, as it did for the Judean exiles, dislocation, fear and lack. As these exiles did, we need meaningful change.

Our Gospel lesson for today is the Good News in a nutshell – the message of hope that we need, as much today as did those listening to Ezekiel or Matthew. God is present, we hear –  right here and now, in each of us.  In the language of the human life of Jesus we hear this:  when you love your neighbor you love me.   Now… once again this week … this message is accompanied by the language of eternal fire and punishment. As we’ve seen, the Gospels often contain disturbing accounts, passages that can be read as threats to personal security. Jesus repeatedly warns his disciples about the dangers and the suffering that is to come.   But – he does not make these warnings because he wants them to avoid struggle and suffering. His warnings are a call to be awake…to be alert…to read the signs of the times…to be present in the suffering of others. Jesus tells us, in those struggles, be attentive and aware – respond to God and to each other.

Not long ago, at Emmanuel Church we had a meeting of all the residents in our building. We arranged to have our local District 4 Boston Police Dept. Lieutenant, who is a Back Bay Safety Officer come to speak with us. There was quite a bit of anxiety that had been gathering amongst those in the building about recent events of violence, both local and national, and how we could best prepare ourselves for such an incident in the future. It struck me that the officer did not really give any rules, any particular procedures or specifics, to the chagrin of some in attendance that night. What he did say, in every way it could be said, was… be alert. Be awake to what is happening around you. Learn to read situations attentively and trust your instincts to respond in ways that don’t make the situation worse, that don’t cause obstructions for others. Last weekend, as I made my way through the bustle of the Thanksgiving weekend in the craziness that is the Orlando International Airport, I was balancing my carry-on bags and luggage. As I walked along doing this I was – yes – focused on my cell phone, trying to answer a text message from the son who was picking me up. I lost my balance and stumbled into the person at my side, who stumbled into another. No one got hurt, but folks were annoyed. I was, of course, oblivious to my surroundings and thus an obstruction. But in the joy of connecting with my family I put my phone away… I was awake to the moment. Later on that night, as our group crossed a busy main street in downtown Orlando I was aware that I was hyper-alert, wanting to protect my loved ones. Like a mama shepherd. What had changed? My love for them had woken me up and I responded.

Jesus tells us that attentiveness is not an option. Specifically, attentiveness to those who are hungry, thirsty, dislocated, naked, sick and imprisoned. What do all six of these conditions have in common? The state of vulnerability. Matthew tells us that when all are gathered at Jesus’ feet, all will ask…  “Lord, when was it that we saw you vulnerable?” And Jesus will answer and say, “As you met the needs of one of my defenseless sheep you met mine. As you did it to them, you did it to me.”   What we are being called to do here is not to find the cure for cancer or the answer to world hunger.   Feeding, clothing, healing, visiting – these can be simple actions, as simple as smiling, asking someone for their name and then using it –  a minimal act of dignity.  So… if this is so simple, what makes it challenging to carry out?  The difficulty comes when we understand that this is not only about “the other” although it may appear to be.  For if God is present in the most naked and imprisoned, the sickest and strangest, the hungriest and thirstiest, the most challenging to interact with – then that includes each one of us. Where are you vulnerable? Where do you experience hunger?

When we live in the blur of self…focused on our cell phones and schedules, we can avoid those we are called to respond to with love. Being busy is the ultimate screen of separation. And if we avoid the vulnerability we see in others, we can avoid it in ourselves. Perhaps if we slow down and walk through the world with enough time to respond we will see ourselves mirrored back a bit too closely for our comfort. But we don’t have to have it together any more than those we encounter do. God is with you exactly when you are most acutely aware that you don’t have it together. When you allow yourself to go into these places of vulnerability, and become aware that you are in as much need as the person before you – you may realize that Jesus the Shepherd has been with you both all along.

God’s power is that of love. In our Ephesians passage this morning we hear a description of the depth of this love. I will read a sentence from the letter twice, substituting the word power for love. Listen… “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…”    And now hear it again, with the difference… “God put this love to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.”  It is the power of such a love that will equip us to follow this call we hear today.

The lessons from both Ezekiel and Matthew this morning are messages of both grace and accountability. God, who has taken the language and name of a human life in Jesus, has deep and personal love for each sheep – and is the shepherd that is with us.

All that I have taught you, Jesus tells us, is needed now…I have shown you…I have empowered you…trust me. I am not hard to find. Look for me in one another. I am there.  They may not be looking for my face in yours…just look for mine in theirs. Then, let your encounter come from the recognition of your common vulnerability rather than from a place of duty or fear of judgment.  Know  that  you  are  the  answer  to  their  prayers  and  they  are  the  answer  to  yours.

Compassionate God, who in Jesus of Nazareth showed us an alternative to the kings, queens and emperors of history, help us to respect and emulate Jesus’ leadership: To love, respond to, and seek justice for all people. Help us to recognize your life-changing power of love, and to see your face in those we encounter. Give us the courage to see our common vulnerability. In Christ Jesus with you and the Holy Spirit, may we co-create a world ruled not through domination, but in compassion and love.  Amen.

(this prayer adapted from one found at: https://allsaints-pas.org/fun-facts-to-know-and-tell-about-christ-the-king-sunday/)

 

 

Proper 27, Year A by The Rev’d. Amanda March

There is a young couple that I have been meeting with as they prepare for marriage, and they are really fun to be around. They exude joy and excitement. Two of my own sons are also preparing for weddings in the coming months, so I am keenly aware of all the aspects of preparation that such an important life event requires….at least, if the wedding, and the marriage, is to have the best chance at success.  One of my sons is planning an outdoor Florida wedding and there will be, yes  –  oil lamps.  Now, these oil lamps will use Eucalyptus oil so as to light the darkness and repel mosquitos at the same time- and it will be important to have enough oil on hand. (although we will not be asking the bridesmaids to bring it along that day…)

But as happy as my young couple is – they are also aware that their preparation for marriage is not all about fun…there are important topics and potential challenges to work through and to discuss as they prepare to join their lives together and live into this love they profess.

And this is a season of preparation in other ways – as Thanksgiving approaches we gather food in our own ways, we look through recipe books for a new side dish to make for the big dinner…and also we gather food for families that the Centre Street Food Pantry assists … We prepare for winter by getting our warm clothes ready and donating to those who don’t have them.

The primary definition for the word preparation is to “make ready FOR USE.” So, it’s not just about making ready – it is making ready for use. We prepare food for use in our bodies and coats for use on our bodies. My young couple is preparing for marriage in an intentional way so that their hearts and minds and bodies will be of use to one another and to us as an outward sign of God’s love in the world – a sign of encouragement for all who encounter them. Love made visible.

Preparation is certainly important – and it is the most common way that our gospel lesson for today has been interpreted over time.

Our parable tells us  – the Kingdom of Heaven is like this…[offer a summary of story – There are 10 bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. We’re told that five of them were foolish, and five were wise. Those called wise take extra oil with their lamps, and those called foolish take lamps but no extra oil along. The problem arises when the bridegroom is delayed, and all 10 fall asleep while waiting. Now they all hear a shout – Look, here comes the bridegroom! All of them wake up. The five who didn’t bring extra oil realize that their lamps are now pretty low. They ask the others to share but they hear ‘no-if we do this there won’t be enough.’ They suggest that those low on oil go buy some. Although its midnight and unlikely the shops are still open, the 5 go off in search anyway and while they are gone the bridegroom arrives and takes those five along who have prepared themselves with a back-up oil supply.  The door to the wedding banquet is shut. Later the others arrive and call out, “we’re back, can we come in?’ But the bridegroom says, ‘Truly, I do not know you.’]  – “You’ve got to stay awake – because you do not know either the day or the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.”

So… the Kingdom of Heaven is about staying awake and being prepared because you cannot know the time or day on which Jesus will appear and judgment will occur. Not all will have a place at the heavenly banquet. Only those who are prepared come in……This doesn’t sound like the inclusive Jesus message we love   …and didn’t we hear in an earlier chapter of Matthew, Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you?   Doors shut against us doesn’t seem to jibe with what we know of the unconditional love of God.

We can note here that Matthew is the only gospel that contains this parable. In these past months we have heard about the current events of Matthew’s day and about some of the particular reasons and motivations for the content of his writing. It was a time of division as to who embraced the teaching of Jesus and who did not, a time of tragedy and disappointment as the Jerusalem temple was destroyed.    We know that the divine nature of Jesus was of major importance to Matthew and his community – Matthew begins his book with a lineage to show Jesus as the Son of God from his birth, as the fulfillment of Old Testament messianic prophecy.  As divine, Jesus is understood throughout Matthew to be returning to judge the world. Matthew’s community believed that this second coming of Jesus would be witnessed literally by those in their generation.  It was a source of hope for them. And…they likely felt that they, as our bridesmaids, had already been waiting too long. So we have this sense of immediacy from them about being prepared for the end time of judgment….for which, we are told, they would have no warning whatsoever.

In our church, outside of what we say in the creed and other parts of the liturgy itself we don’t hear much about the second coming of Christ. It is, however, a major article of our faith, as is the birth of Christ or the Resurrection. I found myself wondering this week why we don’t talk much about it, maybe it is too mystical sounding for us.

Parables – as the one we ponder today –  are not meant to be neat and tidy. They are meant to provoke and to stir us up…to get us thinking…As we say in Godly Play when we are working with a parable box – we knock on the lid to see if it will open for us…and on some days it just doesn’t but we keep coming back and knocking on it to see what opens up…

Let’s knock on this one again…and look for where we see God.  Here’s what we know.   All 10 bridesmaids were guests who loved the wedding couple and all were excited to participate in the wedding. All got so tired they fell asleep as they waited and all jumped up with excitement when they knew the moment was upon them. All had lamps with varying amounts of oil. Half went immediately to the party. The other half went shopping to ensure that everyone would have enough supplies in the long run and when they returned they were told that they were unfamiliar to the Door Man.

Thomas Merton, Catholic writer, theologian and mystic, wrote a poem which amounts to his own interpretation of this end-time parable. It is called The Five Virgins.

There were five virgins

Rowdies

Who arrived for the Wedding of the Lamb

With their motor-scooters burned out

And their gas tanks

Empty.

But since they knew how to

Dance

They were told to

Stick around anyhow.

And there you have it,

Five rowdy virgins

Without gas

But really caught up

In the action.

There were ten virgins

At the Wedding of the Lamb.[1]

The Kingdom of Heaven, we hear from Merton…is like this. Merton rewrites the parable, focusing on the love and joy of a wedding rather than divisiveness or the need for preparation. Stay awake, he seems to say – for the joy of the Dance. I love his invitation to those who are ‘out of gas, but caught up in the action.’ And note that he specifies this is the wedding of the Lamb – the suffering servant image from Isaiah – as with Matthew, the fulfillment of an Old Testament messianic prophecy. Yet, in Merton’s hands this second coming is about the inclusion of all.  Judgment in this view is from God who sees us with complete clarity and embraces us right where we are.

There is a middle space between these two interpretations – looking ahead is important, but not living ahead. We look ahead to see how we need to prepare but we are not meant to live in that space – we’re meant to live in the joy of the dance.

The Kingdom of Heaven, theologian Frederick Buechner tells us, is not a place, but a condition. In the many ways that in the here and now God’s will is being done in odd ways among us at this moment – the kingdom has come already. And in all the odd ways we do not do God’s will in this moment – the kingdom is still a long way off.[2] This is a different message than what we hear in Matthew. The Kingdom of Heaven is in the present and the future.

So…where do you see yourself in this parable?

For me, those with burned out scooters, empty of gas, and yet still “caught up in the action” – are easy to identify with – especially today. I think many of us are approaching a particular kind of burnout… a week ago today as I drove home from here I heard the news about the shooting in the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. I don’t know of a setting more at odds with such violence than the sacred space of a church. As I tried to process my feelings with a friend she spoke of the sensation of compassion fatigue that is affecting so many of us….horrific events and their details and photos coming one after the other. We begin to feel numb, de-sensitized, low on gas – yet still caught up in the action, as Merton puts it.   As healthcare chaplains we are assigned particular units in the hospital to enable us to build supportive relationships with the staff – because these are people who are susceptible to this kind of stress all the time. Compassion fatigue is caused by empathy…the natural consequence that results from long term caring for suffering or traumatized people.

One thing we know for sure – people who know that they are loved are less likely to experience compassion fatigue.

You are loved. Let that love settle in right now…breathe it in…

Those fatigued need to be renewed. Maybe you do as well. Renewal is one of the most important ways we can prepare for our ‘here and now’ Kingdom of Heaven as we await the return of Jesus.  Something that does not come easily to many, and yet is key to renewal is the practice of self-compassion. If we cannot give compassion to ourselves it will be very hard to give it to others for very long. In that sense, it is our responsibility. Preparation, is about making ready for use.  When we set an intention to care for our own lives they can be used in the lives of others.

There is Good News this morning, and it is for all 10 bridesmaids – and for each one of us – the refilling we need is right here. Soaking in God’s love is what we are here for in this Eucharist. It is an extraordinary love that replenishes and restores us.

Jesus tells us, You are the light of the world. As you come to the communion table today, let your lamp be refilled to the brim.

 

[1] Feminist Companion to Matthew (Feminist Companion to the New Testament and Early Christian Writings) December 19, 2001, Amy-Jill Levine (Editor), pg. 178

[2] Wishful Thinking, September 24, 1993, Frederick Buechner, pg. 60.

Proper 24 – Year A – Sermon, George Herbert, Anglican Spirituality by The Rev’d. Amanda March

The word ‘spirituality’ has as many meanings as there are people in the world who want to discuss it … The word spirit – in the Greek pneuma, and in Hebrew ruach ; can be defined as -to breathe, to blow,  …. With ‘spirit as breath’ in mind we could say that – as it seems clear see that we’re all breathing here this morning – it follows that we’re all pretty spiritual… J

In the beauty and diversity of our interfaith society the ways we understand this word spirituality – is ever deepening. My experience of this as a spiritual care provider in the hospital has been profound. Thankfully, in recent years the “chaplaincy” nomenclature has changed – what was called either chaplaincy or pastoral care departments is increasingly known now as spiritual care depts., and chaplains as spiritual care providers – names that honors all faith traditions.

Within these myriad definitions of spirituality, something universal arises  – and that is connection – seeking or desiring a connection to the divine, the sacred – to ‘God as you understand God’, to something that is ‘larger than yourself.’ And in the ministry of spiritual care, wherever we find ourselves, it is our role to facilitate such connections or reconnections in order to release that energy into healing within the person for whom we are caring.

For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of working as an interfaith chaplain amongst the diversity of people and situations it brings– has been a growing awareness that the secular and the spiritual are not separate categories at all…God is in all and all is in God…everything belongs… a basis both personal and communal…this is at the heart of Anglican spirituality and the manner in which George Herbert’s words shaped and expressed it in the late 16th and early 17th century. Herbert believed in the power of the word to move, enliven, teach, persuade…to bring this awareness to others and as we’ll see today his words continue to do so now as they have in every age.

As we noted, all ways of articulating spirituality seem to have connection in common –  for George Herbert spiritual connection was incarnational   – an immersion characterized by both an open and personal conversation with God as well as the necessity to gather in corporate prayer. Herbert tells us that this common prayer enables us to go out from the church and really see the world and the incarnation of God in it-everywhere!…As experienced in his writing this spirituality of connection remains as contemporary for us today as it was then.

 Today we will talk of our Anglican spirituality that invites us into a connection with God that is at once personal and communal – an ongoing conversation and intimacy with God, and through that with all of God’s creation. It was articulated in the life and writing of George Herbert and remains as contemporary for us today as it was in the 16th century.

 During these past weeks we have been celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by focusing on some of the most well-known writers and thinkers of that 16th and early 17th century period. Last week Gretchen spoke of the beauty of our Anglican sacramental theology as articulated by Richard Hooker and Thomas Cranmer. Today our Good News comes through the life and writing of George Herbert, who gave us, through his poems and prose, a picture of an intimate connection with God, through the humanity and person of Jesus, God who is immanent – very present to us. As does the Biblical psalmist, Herbert writes with vivid imagery of a personal relationship that spans the full range of human emotions. He describes a God that is accessible – that meets him, and us, right where we are. Some have called his work love poems to God.

George Herbert lived in a tumultuous time of religious controversy. We have heard the story of Thomas Cranmer, archbishop during the reigns of Henry the 8th, his son Edward and then Henry’s daughter Mary who did all she could to return the country to the Roman Catholic faith under the authority of the pope. Cranmer was burned at the stake for his beliefs amidst this tumult. George Herbert was born only 40 years after Cranmer’s death. During those years Elizabeth took the throne and set about restoring the Church of England. And, since church and state were inseparable, it is easy to see that this would have affected the people of the day politically as well as spiritually.

As we consider Herbert’s life and writing keep in mind a word that summarizes, in a simplistic way, the significance of Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker’s work as “Anglicanism” was taking shape. That word is participation. What we have spoken of in our focus on the Reformation – a return to the importance of scripture and the building of a lively and personal faith  – comes through the people gaining access, in their own language, not only to the Bible, but to, through Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, a simplified worship that involved them, and a lectionary to follow that provided a means to reading the entire Bible – and doing this reading and worshiping in common with others. This access allowed, encouraged and enabled the participation that would, these leaders hoped, lead to transformation. What Herbert contributes to this formative time for the Anglican church is an even deeper sense of access and therefore participation – not only to the words on the page in the language of the people, but a personal access to God through the way he expresses our human experience in his conversations with Jesus that are read in his poems.

Years ago as a brand new chaplain intern at a hospital in Florida I was filled with trepidation about making mistakes and making very difficult situations even worse. “First, do no harm” our ethics code read – I was not sure I was going to accomplish that. The educational model for learning spiritual care skill is called “the living human document” – in other words, the human standing before you is your text book. Interactions are your learning method. This is challenging, no matter how strongly you feel called into this ministry… Any classroom learning I had done at that point seemed useless. They would say…go ahead, you will be fine…shadowing is not necessary…that’s not how we teach. I had to participate, immerse myself in the process to learn. I had leaders to support and scaffold me, but I had to dive in and participate to be formed and transformed. Nothing else would have worked.

For George Herbert the spiritual journey is our movement, throughout life, toward connection by an ever deepening participation in our personal relationship with God, and also in the life of the church – which we see in Herbert’s work, as Christ’s body, the living extension of God after the resurrection of Jesus. Herbert did not see, or want to accept, that there were any barriers between what is done in church and the life that is lived outside of it. This is pretty radically communal stuff.  This journey includes the anticipation of the union with God that awaits us in eternal life. For Herbert, the church is the setting for this transformation as the liturgies, scripture, and sacraments of the Book of Common Prayer are experienced individually and communally. We see here the development of what we can say is distinctive about Anglican spirituality.

In this time of turbulence, Cranmer, Hooker and Herbert acted as a bridge over troubled waters – they enacted the via media – the middle way we spoke of last week – during this chaotic time period and gave people a way of talking about and connecting to God that was not confined to those who shared their particular theological concerns. They managed this by focusing more on the shape of the Christian life than on the structure of doctrine. [1]  This approach is true today in the Episcopal Church as it was then. Keeping in mind that the doctrine of incarnation was central to Herbert, in his poetry Christian doctrines are a backdrop –  they don’t take center stage. At center stage is a vibrant, honest and ongoing dialogue between himself and Jesus. Herbert’s moods are those we can recognize. He often gives himself and God quotation marks. He gives us a picture of his inner life that is compelling because it comes from his personal experience.  In it we see that, although he is often full of self-examination and reproach, his confidence in God’s love and grace enable him to not only bear this pain but also to circle back around to joy and wonder, as the psalmist does. Comfort can be found in the honest vulnerability expressed in these poems.

Beyond his poems, Herbert wrote a book he called The Country Parson. It can be seen as a sort of a handbook for how to be a priest. It is, of his own description, an idealized description of how a good priest does good parish ministry. Herbert’s parson is immersed in every aspect of the lives of his flock, truly present to them – visiting, teaching, caring, ringing the bell that calls them to daily worship, and providing- with his own life- an example for them to follow. I had a seminary professor who liked to say that The Parson meant The Person. As God’s Parson in the world you are God’s Person. Take this seriously J, she would say. (Frederica Harris Thompsett)

As we’ve said, we see in Herbert’s writing that he saw God everywhere, in all things – of body, mind and spirit, as well as the objects of creation whose images fill his poems. All is, he says, created in God’s image…God in all things and all things are God’s. Does this sound familiar? In today’s Gospel message we hear a ringing reminder from Jesus – Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and give to God the things that are God’s! George Herbert’s life and work serve also as a ringing reminder that God is inviting you to give all of yourself to God who meets and receives you right where you are today…from wherever you have come with whatever you have brought.  It is an invitation, offered through the heart of Anglican spirituality, into connection with God that is at once personal and communal – and as contemporary for us today as it was as it took form in Herbert’s day.

I will close today with one of Herbert’s poems, one that is a beautiful example of this ongoing and intimate conversation with God. Here, he is being welcomed by God (who is called Love here), but he is pulling back – not feeling worthy. Eventually he gives in. It is called Love:

Love (III)

 

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lacked anything.

 

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:

Love said, “You shall be he.”

“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,

I cannot look on thee.”

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

“Who made the eyes but I?”

 

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.”

“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”

“My dear, then I will serve.”

“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”

So I did sit and eat.

 

As you come forward for communion today, hear Love welcoming you….

Questions for discussion – Godly Conversation:

  • In a word, participation was the key to spiritual growth and transformation in the Anglican church then and now. Do you experience such participation? How does it affect you…transform you…deepen your spirituality? What are the challenges to participation in our church today?
  • How can we, as Herbert does, speak of God in ways that are compelling and personal in our world today? He asks us to open a window into our own spirituality in ways that can draw others toward God…in what ways is this challenging for you to do?
  • How did the time in which he lived shape him?
  • In Herbert’s inner life and spiritual struggles, as shown in his poetry, things were not always resolved in his relationship with God. Clearly, the way he experienced what he calls “affliction” was by the feeling that God was absent from him. His complete trust in the incarnation was a comfort in this. Have you experienced this feeling of absence? How did you see your way through?
  • In what ways can we carry on the tradition of Anglican spirituality that we see through Herbert’s life and writings? Does it seem relevant to you today? How can the shape, the practices, and the relational aspects we see in such a spirituality thrive in the interfaith beauty of our society?
  • Herbert saw the hand of God, the presence of God everywhere. In what ways do you see God in the world, or struggle to?
  • Discussion of BCP revision plan…

[1] The Anglican Quest for Holiness, Compiled by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, Rowan Williams; Oxford University Press; UK ed. edition (January 1, 2004) taken from “General Introduction” pg. x

 

Sermon – Proper 21, Year A The Rev’d. Amanda March

October 1, 2017

This morning is full of good news. To begin with we are in the company of a beautiful and amazing diversity of God’s creatures – great and small. We are led by our wonderful youth and accompanied by some music from the Beatles – my all time favorite band. As Gretchen would say – how great is that? Well, it gets even better. Because in our scripture today the good news continues.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who did not look upon his equality with God as something to take advantage of – but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave….   Emptied himself…and took the form of a slave…  The Greek word used here is kenosis which can be translated as “making empty.” Or spoken of as “pouring out.”

Think for a moment about what we hear at the beginning of the Gospel of John. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…and the Word was God.   God who has been pouring out love and creativity from the beginning –just behold the beauty of God’s creativity all around us today! –  and God continues this self-emptying by taking the form of a baby born in a stable to poor parents who are seeking documentation in Bethlehem and, shortly after the birth, asylum in Egypt.  The Incarnation – kenosis – love pouring out….the deepest pattern in our Christian thinking.

And we hear it continuing in our passage today – Jesus set aside all privilege, and continued this emptying, by going to death in the most humiliating way possible to humanity during the time he walked among us.

So here is the “ best Good News” the Bible has to proclaim…that the very essence of who God is and how God acts is a love deeper, wider, and higher than we can wrap our minds around.…a love that longs for connection with each of us and is willing to self-empty, to seek us, pursue us so that we will know that love. I know of no news better than that.

So if we boil this message down, condense it, and hear – “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” as simply as we can, we hear…”be like Jesus….have the same mind and spirit as Jesus”  …isn’t that the basis of the message we’ve heard in some form throughout our church experiences? It has been a prayer of mine all of my life, ever since I can remember I have prayed some version of this– Jesus, take my heart and mind and shape it into yours – help me see others as you see them – help me respond as you would… – you know, what would Jesus do? Yes, we have heard this message in many ways – be like Jesus!  When my sons were teenagers our church confirmed youth when they were in the 9th grade and confirmation classes were held every Sunday throughout the year.…as my middle son Tyler began this class he was just not a fan of the method the teachers were using. One Sunday afternoon, about 2 weeks into the year, he came to me…he said, “mom, I am ready to be confirmed now. I really don’t need to take these classes…I’ve got the message. It is the same thing that people have been saying to me all my life in Sunday School, every week. Basically, it all comes down to three things – love God, read the Bible and be like Jesus. I’ve got it.”  I agreed with him and told him he’d still have to go to class…I said I hoped during the year he might discover more about HOW to do those things as he grew into adulthood.

What about us? Is there something in this passage about how self-emptying love can be our essence as it is God’s?

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a well-known piece of scripture and much has been written and preached about it. Philippians is a letter written to a particular group of people at a particular time, for particular purposes.  Scholars believe that it was written by Paul, with some additions and edits. Of note is that much of our passage for today consists of what was most likely an early Christian hymn (known by many as the Christ Hymn, verses 5-11). These verses are believed not to have been written by Paul….that he added them to this letter.

Philippians is thought to have been written at approximately 50 c.e. as Paul was in prison. The city of Philippi was about 700 miles from Rome and it is said to be the first church that Paul established. He had deep connections to it. He wrote this letter to teach, encourage, and come alongside the Philippians. He wanted to help them move beyond their challenging circumstances, bolster them for the persecution that was to come and thank them for the ways they had supported him.

This was a time when Rome was transitioning from a city-state to a world empire and as such, it was colonizing cities such as Philippi. For this reason, Roman citizenship would have been an important social distinction for these people. Paul himself was a Roman citizen and so looking at this through our current lens – we could say that Paul had a green card. Many of the Philippians would have also had such green cards, but not all of those to whom this letter was addressed. In this group there were those who were privileged and those who were not….those who were documented and those who were not. Sound familiar? So…Paul challenges them in this letter with a message of unity – he is saying, instead of ‘one-upping’ each another in the eyes of the Roman officials – you are to be worthy citizens of the community of God before any other citizenship.  And how are they to do this?…through a willingness to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” rather than striving for social advancement or status. They are told to “regard others as better than yourselves and look to their interests”- we could say, pour yourselves out for them. Paul is calling them to anchor their identity as people in unity, comm/unity with one another and with God.

This was a counter-cultural message to the ancient world into which it was spoken and it remains so today. Paul’s world did not prize the kind of humility that he is calling the Philippians into. And, in our nation now as in other parts of the world, we see the value of individualism being held up as something to strive for rather than the globalism we have been working towards. A calling into humility and selflessness is counter to that.  We are in need of this call to citizenship in the community of God, to self-emptying love – and so for the Philippians as well for as ourselves – this call is challenging to embrace.

Of course, there are times when such self-emptying love is easier than others – we can see it through the experience of parenthood or that of committed partners. Your child cries in the middle of the night… or as the child grows older, they call you when they find themselves sick or in a crisis. Your partner becomes ill or troubled… In reaction, you empty yourself willingly and almost immediately despite the difficulties involved in doing so – you arise out of a sound sleep, call for help, jump in a car, race to the hospital, go to the bank, cancel plans…you do whatever is necessary for the situation, sacrifices are made – emptying yourself in what can feel like totality. It is with such pouring out that we do the best we can to meet that need. And, such selfless love is usually a reciprocal experience. After we are poured out we can be refilled by the love of the child or partner or pet into which we have poured.

Still, though – speaking as a parent myself, it’s a lot easier to have the mind of Christ Jesus toward my own flesh and blood than it is with the random people surrounding me. And here is where the light came on for me. In the original Greek the text differs in a significant way from the translation we have here today from the NRSV.

I have a translation called The Unvarnished New Testament that presents the text as it appears in the Greek in which it was written. Turns out that a key word is actually plural in the Greek and this is lost in our RCL that uses the NRSV. Where we heard, ‘Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus is better translated as ‘Keep the same spirit amongst yourselves that is also in Christ Jesus.’ In Greek the phrase ‘in you’ is actually plural ‘en humin’…amongst yourselves.

Same mind be in you vs. Same spirit be amongst you…this shifts the message to a focus on forming our communities by keeping the mind and spirit of Jesus amongst us all! This is not a private enterprise! Where do we see this same mind and spirit of God amongst us here at Parish of St. Paul? Amongst our circle of family and friends?  How can we deepen it?

What would happen in our world at large if that kind of self emptying love burst out, poured out, everywhere amongst us?  What does happen when we are not only pouring love out but are willing to be poured back into …..Here is a vision of co-creating with God!

I think St. Francis had this vision and today is his feast day in the church. It is a day that we celebrate by doing our best to bring creation inside and bless it, as he did. Francis said that nature itself is the mirror of God. It is said that his spiritual journey began after he heard a sermon preached on a passage from Matthew – go into the world and preach that the community of God is upon you and take nothing, not even a walking stick, as you go. This is the ‘pouring out of self’ that we have been speaking of, albeit with a totality that most are not called to do. He eventually renounced all of his material possessions – and, as we hear with the plural Greek – he did it amongst others, in community – forming community and with all those he encountered. There is said to be no one who has dedicated themselves more deeply than Francis to imitating the life and spirit of Jesus. He personifies our message today.

We are to keep the spirit and mind of Jesus amongst ourselves, and yet without sliding into that place where our sense of self disappears into our love and care for others.  The Incarnation was not about God coming to live among us so that we could be correctly instructed as to how to be humble, loving and obedient.  The Incarnation is a wider mystery than instruction. It is about God’s passion for us…that we are delightful and delighted in. It is about God desiring a close and abiding relationship with us. About the prophet Jesus writing the law of love – for others and fir ourselves – on our very hearts as well as our minds.

As you come to the communion table today, the real presence of the life and mind and spirit of Jesus is there for you…feed on him in your heart, by faith and with thanksgiving.

 

 

 

Sermon – Proper 18, Year A – The Rev’d. Amanda March

September 10, 2017

This past week I was with my family in Florida as I completed my summer vacation time. As this record breaking hurricane Irma approached, the word Exodus took on new significance for me –  thankfully I was able to change my flight and here I am! …..although a piece of me is still with my family in Florida…

For the next six weeks our lectionary will take us through the book of Exodus. In a broad sense, Exodus tells us of Moses, the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt and their wanderings in the desert until they received the law from God…a law meant to show them how to stay in relationship with God and with one another….how to be the community of God.

In today’s reading, well before any of that happens – we have the Passover story – a story that is at the very heart of the entire Biblical narrative. Its central themes of remembrance, liberation and responsibility remain as relevant today as they have been for millennia  – this story tells us who God is – a God that frees us, always remembers us and desires connection.

In our scripture reading, in the midst of the kind of rip-roaring action we’ve been having all summer in these texts – today’s narrative takes a sharp turn. The action will resume straightaway, but in these verses God is preparing to set the Israelite slaves free and gives very specific instructions to Moses and Aaron.  And, for the first time as these terrifying plagues have unfolded, we see that the enslaved are being asked to participate – to become active partners in the story and in their liberation.

Freedom does come to the Israelite slaves – but that is not all that comes. God calls the liberated, as God calls us, to become liberators themselves. Responsibility as well as freedom is given.

God is always drawing us into freedom, always desiring it for us. I had a spiritual director some years ago who would say that God offers two kinds of freedom – freedom from and freedom for ….. What might we be seeking freedom from today? Perhaps from oppression or discrimination…from relationships that diminish…from addictive behavior…from dishonesty or resentment… or from internal oppression that we imprison ourselves with.  The challenge arises for many of us when begin to experience freedom from such situations or patterns and yet don’t really embrace it – or let it sink deeply into ourselves.  Speaking from personal experience, this can be the work of a lifetime. When we are able to do truly claim freedom from what binds us, we can begin to experience transformation and healing.  And from this place of wholeness we can learn to become liberators, as we are called to be.

The Exodus story tells us that, for the Israelites, the process of embracing their own freedom from slavery was not a smooth one. We will see in these coming weeks that this community often wanted to return to their former enslavement because it must have appeared easier than the unknowns they continued to face in the wilderness….the myriad challenges and responsibilities that were before them – as individuals and as a community.

So, how do we embrace and truly claim freedom for ourselves? When we first step into a new sense of release from something that has held us captive it’s not uncommon to experience feelings of fragility and vulnerability…maybe so much that we can’t remain there and going back seems less scary than moving forward. This is when we need the strength of others. When we are able to integrate this new freedom our strength and confidence deepens.  Going back to Egypt seemed easier for many of the Israelites, but it would not be for the long-term. God knew them to be free people…even when living into it would bring turmoil and confusion.

We need to take the time to tune into who we are at our most authentic selves – this is when we are living true. When we are coming from this true place – who God knows us to be – we connect with an energy far beyond our own. It is a spirit of freedom – the Holy Spirit of God. It is the voice of God within us.

This is challenging work that we need support for….and that support is all around us as we seek and build relationships and participate in the community of God.

Matthew offers a way to find healthy community in today’s gospel lesson.  This lesson holds up the value of community relationships and practices. We see Jesus here laying out specific instructions – a process of reconciliation and, as in the Passover instructions, calling members of the community into responsibility for one another.  It brings to my mind the response we have as we engage in the baptismal service and answer the call to support the candidate with a vigorous “We will!” Jesus begins with the individual and then moves reconciliation to the community….offering a way to be restored to one another.  This is work that requires humility and a willingness to be vulnerable.  In the way of encouragement, Jesus promises his abiding presence and a vision of a community with limitless forgiveness – 70 times 7….more than any individual could do alone. Jesus tells us here to be persistent in reconciliation…keep trying…you are never alone in it.

Becoming such a beloved community is, as our presiding bishop likes to say – the dream of God for us. It sustains us and gives us the strength to address the needs of our world that surround us with such intensity.

At the end of today’s reading the focus is on the importance of this Passover story of freedom.  God tells them, “This day will be a day of remembrance, and you will celebrate it always.”  And, as they were instructed, Jewish families and congregations gather to celebrate this ritual annually with a Seder dinner (sometimes called the Feast of Freedom) that includes symbols and actions representing each part of the story as it is retold. On the table there is unleavened bread as a reminder of redemption, Miriam’s cup of water that brought refreshment and there are bitter herbs and salt as reminders of the pain and tears of bondage.  It is a both a ritual of thankfulness and of reminder that it is our ongoing responsibility to stand in the shoes of others and work for their freedom.  This story finds expression also in our Eucharistic feast – instituted by Jesus at a Passover meal in which we were instructed to give thanks and to remember…and in the Eucharistic feast – as in the Seder meal – God is present in the bread and wine and the symbolic actions accompanying them. These observances of remembrance enact the covenants we have been talking about all summer. They call us to remember that we are always finding ourselves leaving Egypt…that our struggle out of the narrowness and captivity of our fears, waywardness and oppressions and all that keeps us bound is ongoing. That in such a sense we have all been strangers in a strange land needing the love and strength of community. These liturgies say to us …”You are free! Live into that freedom!”

As we grow in this ability to claim the freedom God offers we need to ask ourselves, what do we do with this freedom, how do we live it out? Gretchen asked us a question two weeks ago – Are we a sanctuary site or are we truly sanctuary? Many of you have been part of meeting with and working alongside members of the many multi-faith and nonfaith-based groups and the 350+ volunteers that form our Newton sanctuary collaborative.  You’ve likely heard that, when working with this group, a tangible, palpable energy of love is present. And – It is also possible to experience conflict in this work that enables us to practice the work of community restoration set out for us in today’s Gospel.   This collaborative is a group of people living into their freedom with the intention of offering it to others. This is God’s call to us.

Next week we will begin our program year, and Gretchen has offered these questions for consideration:   “Who do we say we are? And, “Who does God know us to be?”  I offer one answer – God knows us to be a community of people who each have unique characteristics to offer, and all are equally important as we work to live out our Gospel mandate to love and liberate.  I am excited about the future of the church right now – because we are being given new opportunities to be relevant in the world.  We are being given increasing chances to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this world.

God knows us to be people of freedom – and wants us to claim that and live fully into the energy and peace it brings. As you come up for the communion meal today, know the presence of God in the bread and wine and let it remind you of your freedom and the strength you have to offer it to others.        Amen.

Sermon – Proper 16, The Rev’d. Amanda March

August 27, 2017

I have many memories.  I sometimes describe them is as snapshots in my mind. These mental snapshots are a way that I experience and access memories –   those that are particularly significant or strong –  are more sharply focused pictures and others are not as much. How about you? How do you call up your own memories – are they detailed – are they fuzzy?

Moving from mental snapshots to actual ones, if I was to hold up any random photo – a framed photo from my home or yours…what would we be able to know and not know about what we were looking at? Depending on the detail of the photo, we may have no idea what or where this was happening – we may or may not be able to determine the setting, we surely don’t know what happened before and after the photo was taken, who was missing from the photo and why they were missing– what was going on inside the minds of those pictured….who took the photo…etc. If we are interested enough, we might ask questions to learn the details.

Bringing to mind our story of Rebekah today- what would a snapshot of this story look like? Or perhaps a 16th century painting?  We are given some detail about the setting but not much about the characters … [Summarize story here using differing translations – the servant’s relationship to Abraham, his prayer focus, energy and confidence, his arrival, R’s appearance, her response, time it likely took to water 10 camels – size of vessels, heavy, camel’s capacity– she had lots more time than it sounds in the story to think,  pray and observe, then comes her invitation to servant, banquet, brother, next morning, servant’s attitude – family makes suggestion (10 months, not 10 days…)… then family asks for Rebekah’s decision

     And Rachel responds – ”I am ready to go.”   After making her announcement, Rebekah receives the blessing of her family – “Our sister, may you be the mother of millions, and may your descendants live in triumph. We know that in the preceding chapters God made a covenant with Abraham  – a three fold covenant God: offspring, land, blessing. ..these Genesis stories will serve to flesh this out –Rebekah is coming into this story as part of the fulfillment ]

Hear this again – Rebekah said – “I am ready to go.” She made a life-altering decision here. The text indicates that all that lay before her was completely unknown, so I would call her decision a leap of faith – which usually carries some form of risk. What are we to make of this? What brought her to this moment?  We are, in the story, given almost no clue.  Maybe she had been praying for a change – a husband… we don’t know what was going on… Maybe many had come seeking her and she had turned them away – or maybe none had come asking yet and she was worried about time. Perhaps her family life was painful or troubling and she was looking for a chance to leave.  Perhaps in this case, stepping into what could have felt like a free fall was easier than staying where she was? How did she come to the decision? Are we to think that she had such solid faith in God that the answer was totally clear for her? With any of these scenarios, she could not have known what was to come – but perhaps she began to come to an awareness that said – it will be okay … not easy, likely, but it will be okay. The presence of God with her…

I am ready to go, Rebekah said..…these words brought me to a mental snapshot of my own, one that is sharply focused. It takes me back to a decision that I made…a leap of faith.  Have you ever made a decision that you would call a leap of faith? What was that like for you? Perhaps you are considering one now…Most such decisions don’t happen quickly, they usually involve smaller ones along the way.  Stepping into uncertainty and risk is hard, and most of the time we do it with very few answered questions. Bishop Barbara C. Harris was known to often say, “the power behind you is greater than the challenge ahead of you.” Most of us try to trust God in these times of decision – but God’s presence can be illusive – not at all obvious – and most of the time it can only really be seen clearly with the benefit of hindsight.  ….so we’re just not feeling that power of God behind us that Bishop Harris speaks of.   Yet, all of us have to make important decisions about the future. So, how do we discern and then live into decisions as people of faith?  I’ll offer three things to consider.

First: we can begin with something that is known and that we can count on. God is a constant, God is always in character and that character is Love. So trust that God will always call you into and towards Love.  If the decision involves a choice that doesn’t match up ultimately with what we know of God’s character, it is not of God.

Secondly, the word Genesis is commonly defined as “origin or source.” In this book we find the origin of God’s covenanted promises to us. – and one of these promises is blessing – the blessing of relationship that benefits all. We are people of covenant that support one another and abide together in this community of St. Paul’s. Rebekah experienced just such a blessing in her significant moment – her family blessed and prayed for her and equipped her with her beloved nurse. So ask for blessings – for prayer and guidance from trusted friends as you navigate decisions. And they can affirm for you later on – wow, look hat all you have been able to do…even if you were not “feeling that power of God behind you…” at the time.

 And, finally, take some time to reflect on your life. I was able to do this recently on a retreat. In the reflection, I wrote about the many ways I had been blessed in my life as a whole, and I recognized anew the love and faithfulness God has shown to me throughout my life. Such reflection buoys me as I look to the future that will continue to place decisions in my path. Do you recognize God’s presence? We will be more likely to when we make the time for it.

We can apply this snapshot metaphor to these stories from Biblical literature – with these stories we are given snapshots and, as with our framed photos, much is unknown. Whoever the writers were, they show an amazing economy of words – we are told little about the characters themselves, hardly ever are we told what they are feeling, time is reflected in myriad ways, and we don’t know when they were written. What we do see is people acting and interacting.

When we spend time with these “snapshots” of scripture – when we read and discuss them together we are filling in details  – and for me this is why such discussion has always been important and remains so, even when it is challenging.  These are stories that show us violence and beauty, oppression and freedom, kindness and cruelty – the same kinds of things that are happening right now and have always been happening.  As we do this interpretation together we bring all of ourselves along for the ride…our beliefs, biases, contradictions, experiences and memories as we encounter the story.  Finding ways to talk about these things together brings clarity. Wrestling with these stories gives us that chance. The Bible – from disturbing to comforting – is a method for processing the reality we live in now. This is good news!   It is an ongoing interpretive dispute that becomes more important each and every day. It is part of our Christian responsibility.

     Rebekah reminds us that the power of God IS greater than the challenges ahead of us. Rebekah was ready to go, even with so much unknown. Is there a place in your life where you are feeling such readiness? Take hold of the hands of your community and step into it!

 

Sermon – Proper 15, Year A, The Rev’d. Amanda March

August 20, 2017

Talking points:

  1. Last week we began wrapping up our journey through Genesis with the story of Joseph and today we just heard the second part of this story, although the Joseph narrative is, of course, a great deal more lengthy than these two readings– and next week we will move to Exodus.
  • I spoke last week of Joseph as a person of inner strength, a person whose identity and sense of himself was strong – helpful behavior or not…
  • Spoke about how these qualities helped him find hope and creativity in places of narrowness and darkness – in moments of crisis and struggle.
  • Many of us have likely been seeking a feeling of hope this week, not easy – Standing here today, with the events of the week still so fresh, it feels very good to know how the demonstrations on the Boston Common went yesterday – “Counter protestor crowd dwarfs Free Speech activists” – [reflect more here…]
  1. My approach in these sermons on Hebrew Scripture this summer has generally been to ask you to let the scripture read you – where do you see yourself in it? Reminds us that God works with and through broken and flawed people and, how such inner reflection might bring transformation…[expand here.]

*As this week’s news unfolded, with its divisive rhetoric – the need for a larger scriptural focus came to mind. A focus that takes us wider than ourselves.

  • During the week I saw a message from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. It is available to read in its entirety, following a link on the The Episcopal Church’s national website. I will relate a small piece here.

In this moment when the stain of bigotry has again covered our land hope seems distant. It may help to remember those who have gone before. In 1967 Martin Luther King wrote his last book, it was titled, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” In the book he wrote – a moment of crisis is always a moment of decision.

Bishop Curry offers that the decision in front of us now is one of reconciliation that will move us toward becoming the Beloved Community of God. He speaks of the need for us to engage fully in this work.  What we have seen being displayed by the Neo Nazis and White Supremists, he says, is the alternative to God’s Beloved Community and it is unthinkable.

  1. I could, this morning with our lectionary texts, stay with the method I have taken often this summer, reflect and ask you to consider where you see yourself in the narrative and how that impacts you.
  • With this approach I would consider the context of this Genesis passage – and in doing so I would talk about the chapters directly before our reading – which show Joseph as a manipulator, toying with his brothers, like a cat with a bird on the string…Joseph as puppeteer. Not as lovely a story as our selection today. Joseph actually going on to enslave the Egyptians later in story…

But that is not what the RCL gives us today. What if we stay directly with this passage only?

  1. I was at the beach for several days this week with family members. (Describe here old method of viewing Polaroid photo slides on a projector screen.) We had boxes of these slides in my family and I love the memory of my parents bringing them out for us to view. Can anyone here remember this? Sound of machine….share about…sister digitalized these…brought them as a slide show for the TV set. We watched together 2 nights ago… [share more here?]
  • In honesty – when we look at old photos like these, don’t we look at the photos that have us in them more attentively, more closely? Sure…natural to do…yet there is more for us here…more than seeing ourselves… pull back … [ expand on this here…]

Here is a both/and.    Scripture is, fundamentally, the story of God’s activity in the world. It is, as a whole, the revelation of who God is and what God’s purposes are for the creation and for us – as we are made in God’s image and likeness. As I thought about this difference in focus – it felt expansive and spacious. How is it different to look for places where we see the in-breaking of God, rather than merely looking for ourselves in it?   It is a both/and – both ways are beneficial and can bring insight.

Who can we say God is? A God who desires union, reconciliation, and engagement.

 Taking a look at our Hebrew text just as we have it today, it is indeed the “good part” – a story of the beauty of reconciliation

  • We need this story today – what could be more timely for us – a time when we are, as B. Curry said, seeking and needing words of hope.
  • Powerful that it is story of reconciliation after murder, deceit, hatred…hearts that intended evil. So much hateful talk we are hearing
  • Joseph story here – focused on the release of forgiveness
  • Can you see the in-breaking of God? What does this tell us about the nature of God? – as we said – God seeks reconciliation with us/for us…..[expand on this here…]
  • Today’s gospel gives us story of Canaanite woman – a passage that is well known, it can be jarring and confusing to many when taken at face value.
  • I have heard this story smoothed and softened in the past by people interpreting it as a story of an omniscient Jesus administering a “test of faith” to this woman…[ expand on this …]
  • Offer a look at story through the lens of process theology…dynamic world/relational world – God creates, is working/creating with us – [expand on this … ]
  • Where do we see the in-breaking of God here? In the woman – who is the “other”…with her persistence she challenges Jesus, she is tenacious (3 times she comes with the continuing request/response), she is not going to allow herself to be dismissed, she doesn’t back down…
  • Who is the God we see here? This text poses an interesting and important Christological question…Does God, as manifested in the full humanity of Jesus that we see here…have such genuine conversations with us, as the kind we see here? Conversations that matter – that change us, change things, challenge us? Dynamic/relational God [process thought –expand a bit]
  • This is a God whose purposes are still being worked out…and who engages us with them, co-creates… a God who wants us to keep knocking, seeking healing and restoration, challenging as the woman did
  • She opens the table to the other – all are welcome at the table

What does this mean for us?

It is the both/and – reflecting on scripture is about who God is, how we see God break into the world, and our response to it. We are called to both.

Surely this is a moment of crisis in our world and country. The good news is that the pit is not the last word, the crisis is not the last word. We saw that on the Boston Common yesterday. We are called to engage with God and one another as we become the beloved community. This work will require the kind of genuine and persistent commitment (and tears and struggle) the Canaanite woman demonstrates, this is work that will help us get to reconciliation.  Let’s go from here today looking for the in-breaking of God, looking for and holding up places where we see people joining in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon – Proper 14, Year A, The Rev’d. Amanda March

August 13, 2017

With today’s Hebrew scripture and those of next week we conclude our journey through Genesis. It has introduced us to the founding matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel and their stories of courage and faith and of deceit and violence. Most of us would admit that some of these stories can be pretty close to home at times. We’ve seem in them how God works with and through people and families who are flawed and broken.

With our summer reflections we’ve been reading the scripture – not always with comfort – and we’ve also been letting the scripture read us – asking where we are in it, and where our world is reflected in it…this is a willingness to do the work of looking inward with honesty, knowing ourselves more deeply…this is where transformation occurs.

We consider now, as Genesis concludes – the story of Joseph – a story that serves as a bridge to the book of Exodus and the forming of the nation of Israel.

Many scholars say that those who wrote these narratives were writing after their experience of exile to Babylon.  It is clear that the story of Israel is a story of migration, exile and displacement from beginning to end – from Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden, to Noah, and through to Moses leading the people towards Canaan. And eventually, exile to Babylon. The Hebrew people are seen as refugees, asylum seekers…being displaced is an integral part of the Biblical narrative as a whole – Jesus experienced displacement, Jesus’ parents sought documentation, and shortly after the three of them sought asylum in Eygpt….displacement  is an inherent part of being God’s people.

So it is fitting that our bridge to Exodus, our story of Joseph and his family, is a story of an immigrant… a story of Joseph the dreamer who became an alien in a foreign land seeking understanding and a future…a timely story for today.

As our story begins, 17 yr old Joseph is tattling, taunting and boasting as he interacts with his brothers…even Jacob, his doting father, tells him to stop. The animosity of Joseph’s brothers grows into murderous envy and they throw him into a pit.  Certainly Joseph’s crime of obnoxious behavior does not fit this punishment.

Let’s consider this word “pit.” The Hebrew word used here, pronounced phonetically,  is ‘bor’ and it has layers of meaning. It can mean a large hole in the ground to catch wild animals or to collect water for drinking. The same word can be used to denote dungeons or prisons, or used as a metaphor for the underworld. Figuratively, we can say that this word is used to denote a narrow, dark and deep place.  Imagine how frightening this experience in the pit would have been for Joseph – a person who was so self-assured and confident – suddenly finding himself at the mercy of others.

The Midianites, to whom the brothers sold Joseph, would not have known a single thing about him other than what they could observe. He was sent into exile with no documents to take along, no way to prove his identity, and no command of the language in the land that would become his new home.

Next week our text will tell us that Joseph ends up in a pit once again, this time wrongfully accused of lusting after his master’s wife. And once again, although his behavior is still quite boastful, we’re told he was innocent, and he is tossed into a dungeon – here the scripture uses the same word ‘bor’ referring to this dungeon that it used to describe the pit he was thrown into as a teenager.  A place that confines – that is dark, deep and narrowed.

When all else is stripped away, Joseph seems to know who he is – and in many ways, he has from his youth – a dreamer who has a strong sense of himself and a willingness to live into it. Joseph kept right on dreaming and creatively interpreting the dreams of others – and as we discover, these dreams were meant for a greater purpose. Through Joseph’s creativity came the eventual stability of Egypt amidst famine and with it the rescue of his own family.  Joseph did not do this without others to help him. More about that next week.

This Joseph story – this bridge to Exodus – is where the story of Israel as an individual becomes the story of Israel as a nation. A nation that will need to find its way, with God’s help, out of the narrow darkness of exile in Egypt. Out of the pit. It will take strength, creativity and hope to do it…and the help of others.

In our gospel lesson today, Peter wants so much to take a step out of the darkness he finds himself in. He is afraid and calls out to Jesus  – ‘if it is you…command me to come!’   Peter’s fear, and that of the disciples, makes him unable to recognize the help that is right in front of him in the person of Jesus. Take courage! (Take heart, we see in some translations), Jesus says to him  –  Come!

Now – let these scriptures read you…Where are you in this story of narrow and limiting places? Perhaps you are in such a place now. It could be a place of your own exile. Is it possible to find creativity, even hope there? What do you need to be able to find it?

Here at our parish, as part of a sanctuary collaborative {speak here about how there are now 12 congregations involved and 300+ volunteers…many of these groups are congregations from other faith traditions, and some not faith-based}, we are in the final stages of preparing our basement as a sanctuary space for a family in danger of being deported.  It is looking very likely that our first family is on the horizon. Although the space will be freshly painted, cleaned and equipped for them, with helpers and supporters, it will be, by definition, a space that limits them, confines them in ways – that narrows the world as they have been experiencing it, it will be challenging. I know a chaplain who says, humans are hard-wired for hope. May those for whom we provide sanctuary experience this hope at St. Paul’s.

With our participation in this collaborative we have the opportunity to support those facing deportation while they abide in a space where much is unknown.  But this Sanctuary Movement is about much more than our own parish and the other collaborative participants  – there is a greater purpose at work here – and it is about the church with a capital C and our country at large.  To continue to move towards the love-in-action that is our gospel mandate there is much to be done. Yesterday’s tragic events in Charlottesville, VA, resulting from the largest hate-gathering in decades, is just the latest episode in this need for action.  Our current world situation is providing us with many opportunities to step out in ways that require the kind of hope, courage and strength that the counter-protestors demonstrated in Charlottesville. I read a quote last week, “The reason that we seem to lack faith in our churches is that we are not doing anything that requires it!” We have found this here at St. Paul’s.  The work of this sanctuary collaborative will require faith – faith as a stance…as a posture…as an action.

As the collaborative participants spent many weeks meeting together, one of the tasks was to create a covenant statement that all participant groups could agree to, sign and stand together with – in support of one another. The language of this covenant was discussed and agreed upon by all groups during a time when so much was still unknown, there were questions that we could not have firm answers to at that time. The discussions were honest, lively and full of spirit. All involved knew that signing the covenant would be a leap of faith – and that it would happen, with or without all the answers. An amazing witness of hope in our world! Several weeks later, there was a gathering here in our Parish Hall to celebrate this work, this purpose and this sense of solidarity. I was not able to be there that night, but many were. All said the room was packed. The following Sunday, I listened as Margaret Hummel, at the Coffee Hour, described the experience of this event as something much bigger than merely a group coming together to sign a covenant. She described an energy of joy and excitement and collaboration that was tangible that night.

Can a place of narrowness and limits be transformed into a place that is emancipating? A place of hope? Can the places of confinement in our own lives be a place in which we are transformed into more of who God created us to be?  These can become places where we see ourselves more clearly and find hope in unexpected ways.

Joseph knew some of this. His dreams had always told him that God was with him and knew him. Joseph knew who he was and whose he was. If you don’t find yourself in any sort of pit currently – it will happen at some point. When it does, listen deeply to your spirit…it will remind you where to look for hope. We are hard-wired for it.