Epiphany 5, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

Imagine it. A pint sized University of Southern California cheerleading uniform, complete with a maroon and gold pleated skirt, the letters USC proudly emblazoned on the front, and pom poms with a full head of extremely shakeable maroon streamers. When I was five years old I owned this very uniform and on one fine fall day, I was going to wear this uniform to Kindergarten to participate in a play. I dreamed of this day for weeks. I was going to enthusiastically shake those pom poms as long as they would allow me. I was going to embody the spirit of both my parents’ alma mater and cheerleading in general. The day was probably going to be the peak experience of my academic life.

And then, of course, I got strep throat. As I watched the mercury rocket to the top of the thermometer, the tears began to well up in my eyes. A fever meant no school. No school meant no cheerleading uniform. No pom pom shaking. No proudly cheering on an imaginary team. My best day ever dissolved into resting on the couch, weepily watching cartoons, feeling sorry for myself.

Being sick is no fun. While we often focus on the physical symptoms of illness—the pain, the exhaustion—perhaps the most difficult part of illness is the dislocation a person experiences. While it was sad that my five year old self did not get to fulfill her role as a cheerleader for a day, I did manage to overcome that developmental obstacle. But what about kids that are so sick that they miss weeks or months of school. What about adults that are so ill they cannot keep up with their work and have to go on disability? What about parents that are so sick, they can no longer take care of their children?

Think about all the roles you occupy on a given day. You are a worker, a friend, a daughter, a parent perhaps. You are a customer, a teacher, a volunteer, a pet owner. Now imagine you were no longer able to fulfill those roles. Imagine that you no longer had the strength to leave your home; that all your time was taken up with doctor’s appointments and treatments. Imagine other people coming in to do your job, to clean your home, to nurture your children, to walk your dog.

Would your deepest grief revolve around the pain you were experiencing, or suddenly losing so much of your identity?

Simon’s mother-in-law was ill and she did not have the hope modern medicine offers to us. She lay in her home, unable to fulfill her role as matriarch.

Now, I have to admit, this passage always makes me laugh a little. Jesus has just left the temple, to go to Simon’s house. He is probably starving. I imagine him looking at Simon and asking, “What’s for lunch?” And Simon saying, well, usually my mother –in-law would make something really delicious, but she’s been sick lately. . .”

But, let’s be clear, that is just my imagination and is NOT what is going on in the text here!

Simon’s mother-in-law has a fever and this fever has knocked her out. The fever is severe enough that the people in her household are very concerned about her and tell Simon and his friends immediately upon their entry into the home. Now keep in mind that Jesus has not healed anyone yet. He has sent some demons flying, but the people in this house do not know there is a healer in their midst. They are just concerned about the health of this woman.

Jesus goes to her bedside, holds her hand and lifts her up, healing her. Jesus does not heal her and then tell her to stay in bed and get some rest. No, his healing is so complete, she is immediately fully restored to health. Jesus lifts her to her feet and restores her to her place in her household.

In my sermon last month, we talked about how God brings order out of chaos. Jesus demonstrates this in the first chapter of Mark. By exorcising demons and healing the sick, Jesus is ordering what is chaotic in his followers’ lives. He restores the order of Simon’s mother-in-law’s life and her household.

Now, we might be made uncomfortable by the woman’s servile response, but the text does not say, “And Simon’s mother-in-law got up and made them a delicious lunch because she was a woman and that is all women are good for.” The text says that she served them—the verb here is diakoneo—the verb from which we get the word deacon. This word is only used twice in Mark. Once here and once in Mark 10:45—For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve”. Her service is holy service.

When Simon’s mother-in-law is healed by Jesus, her response is to serve Jesus. She is restored not only to her role in her household, but has a new role, as a servant of God. Even though some of his disciples are right there with him, they will not be able to live out this type of response to Jesus until after his death. Simon’s mother-in-law understands what it means to follow Jesus, long before her son-in-law and the other disciples do.

We in the church still believe that Jesus is in the business of healing and restoring us to our rightful places in our lives. We offer healing prayers in the Unity Chapel every Sunday, trusting that God hears our prayers and acts in our lives.

Now, the Kingdom of God is not fully realized. Just as mercy and justice are not fully present in our world, the full healing of God is not completed in our world, either. So we may pray our hearts out for our own health or the health of someone we love and not see any results. We may stay sidelined, unable to live out the roles we were called to live.

So, why do we continue to pray for healing?

We pray because our illness reminds us we are not as in control of our world as we thought we were. We pray because we know God knows all the roles we fulfill, and desires us to be our full selves. We pray because we believe God will heal us, that we will be restored to our full selves, even if the healing will not happen until we are in our resurrection bodies. We pray because we believe Christ’s healing is a sign that points to the fundamental nature of who God is—that our God brings order out of chaos and wholeness out of brokenness. We pray because we believe the Kingdom of God is in process of coming to fruition and we want part of that life with God. We pray because we want to be healed and we want to joyfully serve our God.

Where are you in our story today? Are you ill? Have you been dislocated from roles in your life because of sickness, estrangement or unemployment? Are you feeling consumed by the chaos of your life?

Or have you experienced the blessing of God’s healing? Are you ready now to serve our God?

We are all somewhere in this story.

During our communion hymns, I invite you to spend some time praying about where you might be in this story. If you would like healing prayer for yourself or someone you love, please join us in the unity chapel for prayer. If you feel ready to serve, pray that God might show you where you can best serve him.

We are all part of God’s story. No one is too ill, too sidelined, too unemployed to be without a role in God’s Kingdom. On the other hand, no one is too healthy, too important or too rich to have a role, either. All of us are necessary parts of this church and the greater Church. Each of us has something to contribute.

Jesus extends his hand to you, inviting you to get up. Will you take it?


Epiphany 2, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

Do you remember Abbot and Costello’s routine “Who’s on First?”  “Who’s on First?” is an epically long comedic bit about a disconnected conversation.  Abbott and Costello are talking about a baseball team, but the players’ names are more than a little unhelpful.  The first baseman’s name is Who.  The second baseman is What.  The center fielder’s name is Because.  Abbot is trying to explain all of this Costello, who keeps misunderstanding him and their conversation unravels in a spectacular way.

I don’t know about you, but I go through phases of my life and faith in which I feel more than a little bit like a character in that sketch.  There are times when I just feel slightly off kilter, when I can’t communicate what I want to, when I can’t hear God’s voice clearly, where everything feels a little disjointed.  I’m in one of those phases of my life now where I’ll hand my husband a cup and say, “Could you give this sippy-clock to the baby?”  And my accidental nonsense words often make much more sense than anything politicians or the media are saying. Are rich people corrupt jerks who are taking advantage of the rest of us?  Are poor people lazy slobs who wouldn’t work if they could? Are our economic policies going to destroy our country?  Where is God in all of this?  Do any of the people claiming to speak for God know his heart?  Is Tim Tebow really the closest thing we have to a prophet?

The writer of First Samuel captures this feeling of disconnect beautifully in the wonderful story of the Prophet Samuel’s call.

Samuel was given to Eli to raise by a woman named Hannah.  Her story is another heartbreaking sermon entirely. Eli was raising Samuel in the priesthood in a time where the entire culture felt a little disconnected from God.  The author of 1st Samuel introduces our story with the line:  “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  He paints a picture of a community isolated from their God.  Even Eli’s sons, who are supposed to carry on the line of priesthood, who are supposed to guard and protect the sacred traditions, have taking advantage of women in front of holy religious sites.  They are horrible, profane men.

What happens next is not too far removed from our Abbot and Costello sketch.  Now, it’s comic enough that Samuel keeps thinking the Lord’s voice is Eli’s, but this story gets even more wonderfully disconnected when you realize Sam-u-el in Hebrew means “God has heard” and El-I means “my God”.

When Hebrew speakers read this story they hear this wonderful subtext:

Then the LORD called, “God has heard!  God has heard!” and he said, “Here I am!”   and ran to “my God”, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.”

This confusion is even more pronounced because all the action in the story is happening in the most sacred part of the Temple.  Samuel is literally sleeping at the foot of the Ark of the Covenant, where the Israelites believed God’s presence to rest.  He is so close to God, but even in the holy of holies, God’s word is hard to hear and understand.

But, and it is a big but, remember that our God is not a God of disconnect.  Our God is not a God of chaos.  The very first thing God does in creation is bring order out of chaos.  Even when the line of priests is as terrible as Eli’s sons, God does not abandon his people to chaos.

No, God cuts through all the disconnect and chaos and he speaks directly to the one person capable of hearing him.  Samuel.  Samuel cannot hear God on his own, he needs the help of his mentor who redeems himself mightily by understanding what is happening and encouraging Samuel to listen.

Eli and Samuel might not have expected God to speak.  They may have assumed their disconnected way of life was the way life had to be, but when God did finally reach them, they responded immediately and with great courage.

When Samuel finally told God he was ready to listen, God did not give him an easy word.  He did not say, “Samuel, I just wanted you to know that you’re really special.”  Nope, he told Samuel to tell Eli,

See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.  On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.  Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.

In case you’re wondering, that is not good news.  In fact, Samuel stayed in his room the rest of the night.  You can just imagine him putting off communicating THAT message just a few more minutes!  When he finally showed up at Eli’s door, Eli insisted he tell him the truth and to his credit, Eli took the bad news with dignity.

This moment was a critical moment in Israel’s history.  Samuel is the hinge between the era when Israel was governed  by Judges and when Israel was ruled by Kings.  Samuel anointed both King Saul and King David and was the first big prophet of the era in which God used prophets to communicate his word.  A huge, important chain of events began on this one night with God’s whispered word “Samuel.  Samuel”

Samuel did not have time to prepare.  There was no retreat.  There were no prophet classes that he took in elementary school so he’d be ready for the responsibility.  Eli did not have a corporate downsizing expert come in to gently break the news that his family was fired.

In an instant Samuel and Eli went from people who were as disconnected from God as everyone else, to being center stage on the story of God’s relationship with his people.

We are not in Advent any more, but this passage might as well be paired with the Gospel of Mark’s admonition to “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

God is just as connected to his people of faith today as he was in Samuel’s day.  We may feel disjointed and confused and disconnected.  We may see signs of God’s leaders up to all sorts of bad behavior.  We may believe the church is dying.  But I am here to tell you that God is still God.  God is still making order out of chaos.  God still speaks, even if the word of the Lord is rare in these days, even if visions are not widespread.

Beware, keep alert, because you might, like Samuel, hear God whispering your name some dark night.  You might roll over and tell your roommate to keep it down, but that will not stop God.

Beware, keep alert, because God may be trying to speak to you through someone else.  Like Eli, it might be your job to help someone interpret what they are hearing.  It might be your job to listen humbly while someone tells you how royally you have wrecked your life.

Beware, keep alert, because God might be starting something new with you.  God might want to use you to break the world’s disconnect.  God might want to use you to remind people that God demands justice and mercy and love.  God might be calling you to use your prophetic voice against all that is broken in this world.

And if you are overwhelmed by the chaos of your own life, turn off the television and the white noise machine.  Put down the newspaper and your iPhone.  Tuck yourself into bed a little early tonight and wait in the dark and the silence.  Listen for the sound of your own name, being called by the God that created you, knows you, and has big plans for your life.


Epiphany 7, Year A, 2011

I have a confession.

I have a big problem with our Gospel lesson today.  Rather, I have a problem with the way this text has been used in the Church.  This gospel lesson has been used as a justification for people staying in abusive relationships and I have to address that before I can move on and preach the text.

Domestic violence is a huge problem in the world and in our community.  Domestic abuse—whether verbal or physical—is not limited to other classes or races.  Some of the worst domestic violence cases I’ve encountered were situations in which both partners had multiple degrees and extremely high incomes.

There is almost certainly at least one couple in an abusive relationship here today.

Historically, the Christian church has not done a great job of helping victims of abuse leave their partners.  Passages like the one today have been quoted to victims—often women—and these women for generations have been told to turn the other cheek and to stay faithful to their vows.

I want to be very clear that I, with great confidence, do not believe Jesus was addressing people in abusive domestic situations here.  Remember, last week we read verses 21-22 of this same chapter,

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

What is domestic abuse if not a violent combination of anger and condescension as described here? Jesus unequivocally condemns abusive behavior.

If you are currently in an abusive relationship, or you are not sure but you think you may be in one, please contact Father Paul or me. Our conversation will be confidential and we will try to get you the help that you need.  You can also contact the organization Woman Space, who are experts in these matters.  Their web address is womanspace.org.  Their chaplain, Susan Victor, is wonderful and will be leading our adult forum next Sunday.

Okay, moving on to the text.

We are still hearing The Sermon on the Mount and Jesus is still referring to Hebrew Law and then upping the ante.

The old law, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was developed to stop people from trying to right wrongs with disproportionate violence.  This way, if a sheep was stolen, the sheep needed to be replaced, rather than the other farmer’s farm being burned to the ground.  The law was designed to rein in our impulse for revenge that escalates our conflicts.   It’s a pretty good law!  It’s sensible!

But Jesus turns the tables and tells his audience that if they are slapped on one cheek to offer their other cheek!  And if someone steals their coat, they are to give them their cloak as well!

At first it appears that Jesus is encouraging victimhood, that the Christian’s role in the world is to be pathetic and taken advantage of.  But Jesus knows that the power of God is not going to be shown through spectacular acts of revenge—anyone can enact revenge.  The power of God is shown through strength of character and through love.  And really, what shows more strength then calmly and steadily turning one’s face to receive a second blow?  And imagine if a Roman on a horse came by and stole your coat, how better to illuminate the bad behavior of the Roman than by offering him your cloak, which was the only garment you had left to keep you warm.

What shows more strength than loving your enemies?  It does not take much character or will power to hate your enemies.  If your upstairs neighbor plays his music too loudly, and won’t turn it down when you ask politely, it’s much easier to call the police than to bake the guy some brownies and ask him nicely one more time.

Walter Wink, a professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn University, supports the view that Jesus is not asking his followers to be victims. He believes the word for resist—antistenai—is mistranslated here, since the same word is used to describe warfare in other parts of the Bible.   He believes Jesus intends to communicate that his believers should not resist evil violently. Wink argues that Jesus resisted evil all the time, whenever he encountered it, so it would not make sense for him to tell his believers not to resist evil.  Wink believes Jesus is trying to stop the cycle of violence. [1]

Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the power of this point of view.  Rather than interpreting “turning the other cheek” as blind acceptance of the abuse of power, he used the text alongside Ghandi’s teaching to help create the peaceful protests of the Civil Rights era.  In 1964, Gunnar Jahn, who was presenting King with the peace prize, quoted King as saying,

If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written [in future generations], the historians will [have to pause and] say: “There lived a great people – a black people who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.” This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.[2]

King demonstrated to us that turning the other cheek, refusing to respond to violence with violence, can change an entire country.  We saw similar protests earlier this month in Egypt, which also affected great change.

And maybe the great large scale non-violent protests do have something to say to us about our personal struggles.

Maybe there is something to be said for maintaining one’s dignity and continuing to act in a kind a loving manner when someone is trying to dominate or take advantage of you.  Of course that does not mean we have to yield to the demands of the person with power.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue, because I’m hearing from more and more of our kids about bullying in school.  Even our little second and third graders are trying to figure out what it means to stand up for yourself, but still be a kind and loving person.  How do we teach kids about the injustice of the world?  That people behave in rotten ways, even people who are not inherently rotten?  How do we so root them in God’s love that they can move confidently through life, knowing their valued place in the world?  How can we help prepare them to be non-violent resisters, who don’t accept bullying as the status quo and help to change the culture in their schools?  Seriously, if you figure this out, please let me know!

In the meantime, those of us who are adults can start to act out resisting evil in a way that show the evildoers that we are different.  Yes, we will stand up for ourselves.  But we will conduct ourselves with the highest ethical behavior.  We will not bully back, or slander, or slash tires, or gossip.  We will not throw a punch or destroy someone’s credit rating.  We will protect ourselves and our families, by distancing ourselves from the evildoers, or by going through appropriate legal channels, but we will also treat the person who torments us with dignity and we will pray for them.

This may seem difficult when our blood is boiling, but Jesus is looking out for us when he ups the ante on these laws.  He knows that perpetuating the cycle of violence only brings harm to everyone involved.  He knows that living a life of dignity and restraint will help us not only be more faithful Christians, but be happier, to boot!

When we learn how to lovingly and firmly resist evil; when we find a way to see the humanity in our enemy; we are given a kind of freedom.  Jesus shows us a way to live our lives in which our identity is so rooted in being children of God that our enemies’ behavior does not define us.  We may not feel stronger than our enemies, but God is always stronger than evil and we belong to God.

Thanks be to God.

[1] http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/wink_3707.htm

[2] King, Martin Luther as quoted by Jahn, Gunnar in his 1964 speech presenting King with the Nobel Prize.  http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/press.html

Epiphany 6, Year A, 2011

Preached at the evening service of the Episcopal Church of Princeton University.

I am a rule bound person and have been ever since I was a kid.  My parents had very clear rules for my sister and me and I had very little problem following them.  We did our homework before we played.  We went to bed at 8:00 PM.  We had to eat at least one bite of everything on our plate.  No motorcycles, no tattoos, and strangely, no pierced ears.  Life was ordered and made sense.  I even liked imposing rules on others.  When I was eight and in the school play, before the play started, the only person you could hear from the audience was me hushing my fellow actors saying, “Shhhh.  Shhhh.  The play’s about to start.”

I became a Christian my last year of high school, through an evangelical group called Club Beyond.  I continued my life as a Christian in college through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  There, too, the rules were very clear.  Being a Christian meant going to large group meetings and bible studies, being kind to others, not drinking, smoking or having sex, and telling your friends about Jesus.  As a new Christian my brain really liked the clarity.  I was told what to do and what not to do and my rule-following mind was calm.

So, I have some sympathy for Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, who tells us in our Old Testament lesson today that “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”   At first, this seems plausible.  The commandments are laid out throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, so there is no mystery.  We don’t have to guess at what the commandments might be.  Hypothetically, it’s entirely possible to follow the commandments to the letter.

And Jesus seems to be reinforcing this message on the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus has been doing all kinds of radical things and people are starting to wonder if he is going to tell them that the Hebrew Law is invalid.  Instead he tells his follower that they need to follow the Law even more diligently than the scribes and Pharisees!  And the scribes and Pharisees were serious, serious rule followers.  Not only that, but in our passage today, Jesus raises the stakes.  Jesus raises the stakes considerably.

Jesus clarifies that according to the law, you weren’t supposed to murder someone.  But now, you’re not even supposed to insult anyone.  Even idiots.

Jesus clarifies that according to the law, you were not supposed to cheat on your wife.  But now, you’re not even supposed to check out a hot girl’s boobs, even if she’s wearing a low cut top!

You’re not supposed to divorce, you’re not supposed to promise to do something you don’t intend to do.  The rules are getting stricter and stricter.

And our reading today is not even the end of the list.  You’ll be hearing more about the high stakes that Jesus wants from his followers next week.

Suddenly, Ben Sira’s words don’t seem that easy.  I can go through a day without murdering someone without much a problem. But, going through an entire day without insulting someone behind their back is much more challenging.  There are so many bad drivers and generally inconsiderate people in the universe that deserve my scorn!

And if a really handsome guy walks into the room, I might check him out before I even realize I’m doing it!

Jesus is getting at something really uncomfortable.  Jesus is telling us that living a holy life is not just about following rules.  Living a holy life is about the content of our hearts and minds.  We can follow rules to the letter and be hateful, mean spirited people. We can follow rules and completely miss the spirit of what the rules mean.

I ended up leaving the evangelical church for a variety of reasons, but partly it was because the rules started to not line up with the Jesus I was getting to know.  Now, I am not talking about the explicitly stated rules of the community, I am talking about the implied rules.  We were not supposed to be gay or have gay friends. We were not supposed to have normal dating lives: we were supposed to pretend like everyone we dated was going to be the person we would marry, and court them.  We were not supposed to be Democrats.  We were supposed to be really concerned about middle class values.  We were not supposed to have non-Christian friends unless we were actively trying to convert them.  We were not supposed to believe in Evolution.  If we were women, we could have leadership roles in the campus groups, but not in the churches we attended.  And we were supposed to be happy all the time, especially when worshiping.

These rules started to chafe at me a bit.  They did not line up with the Jesus I was getting to know.  The Jesus that seemed to really enjoy the company of outsiders.  The Jesus that seemed to flout convention.  The Jesus that seemed much more concerned with the content of people’s hearts than their outward behaviors.  The Jesus that loved and respected women.

A friend of mine invited me to the Episcopal church around this time and I fell in love.  Sermons were not just about conversion—they were about how to live in a complicated world while still following God.  The music expressed a whole range of emotions—light and dark.  One of our priests was a woman–a brilliant woman.  Another volunteer priest was a world-renowned geneticist, who saw the wonder of God in his work as a scientist.   The intellectual life of the community was rich and vibrant.

I knew I was in a whole new world one Wednesday night when I first went to a church supper before a catechesis class.  At the dinner, they served wine.  I about fell over.  There was wine. . .at church. And not just at communion.  What kind of rule breaking church was this?

At first I was giddy with the freedom the Episcopal Church offered me.  But soon, my interior rule follower started to get really nervous.  I realized, I did not know how to follow Jesus if I did not have a rule book to follow.  I did not know how to be faithful if the priests were not going to tell me what to do about dating or sex or drinking.  I was a little freaked out!

Finally, I realized that I needed to pray.  About everything.  If no one was going to tell me what to do, I needed to study Scripture and bring my life before God and use my own reason and instinct to make decisions about my own life.  Rather than follow a cookie cutter pattern of what it meant to be holy, I needed to be actively engaged in my own life and take responsibility for my choices.

I also needed to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to be perfect.  There were parts of my personality—like my anxiety and my tendency to be swift to judge—that I was going to have to wrestle with my entire life.

As Episcopalians, we live in tension.  We know the dangers that come with strict rule following, but we also want to follow God.  We know that the Bible is not an instruction manual, but we still seek wisdom about our own lives in its pages.  We know that Jesus’s primary rule for us is to love God and love our neighbor, but we also recognize in ourselves a congenital inability to love consistently.

And thankfully, this is where grace enters the picture.

God did not choose to be incarnate so that he could come to earth and give us a list of rules in person.  There are more efficient ways to get that done, even before the days of email and facebook.  God chose to be incarnate so he could deepen his relationship with us and rip the veil that separates us into pieces.  He tried for generations to give us solutions to deal with our own sin. He gave us rules and leaders and prophets, but nothing seemed to make us any better.  We’re still not any better.  We still shoot up fraternities in Ohio and send  men with camels and whips into crowds of peaceful protesters.  We still betray our lovers and snap at our best friends.  We still use alcohol and drugs to dull our boredom and pain.  We’re still pretty rotten in a lot of ways.  Rules or no rules.  We even got so irritated with God-incarnate that we killed him.

But Jesus came back.  Even at our murderous worst, God decided he still loved us and wanted to be in relationship with us.  He resurrects his murdered Son.  He continues to pursue us and love us, even at our most rotten.  He defies the rules of logic and physics and biology for no other reason than to show us that he will pursue us and be in relationship with us no matter what it takes.

Being a Christian is not about being good.  Being a Christian is about being loved.  Being a Christian is about acknowledging that there is a God who created the Universe who, inexplicably, wants to be in relationship with us.  He wants us to pray, to ask questions, to challenge, to argue.  He wants to show us the parts of us he created and the parts of us that are broken.  He wants to heal us and use us for good in the world.  And when we’re done in this world, he wants to be with us forever in eternity.  Rules or no rules.

Grace can free us from our anxiety about following God’s rules perfectly, yet somehow free us to follow the ultimate commandment—Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  As we realize that God’s grace extends to all of our icky and broken parts, we begin to be gentler and less judgmental about other people’s icky and broken parts.  As we realize God wants to reconcile with us after we stray from him, we begin to seek reconciliation with others.  Grace offers us freedom to accept ourselves in all our glorious messiness, so we can begin to accept others.

Grace allows us to be in a free, loving relationship with God and with our neighbor, which is what the rules were supposed to do all along.

Thanks be to God.

Epiphany 5, Year A, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

When I was little my family spent a lot of time with good friends of ours—the von Hendys.  The von Hendys also had two children, Vanessa and Stephan.  Vanessa was just a year or two younger than me and Stephan was just a year or two younger than my sister, Marianne.  At the time, I was a huge, huge fan of Solid Gold.  For those of you who were too tasteful—or young–to watch such things, Solid Gold was a TV series that aired on Saturday nights from 1980 until 1988. I don’t think I was actually allowed to watch it that often, but when I did I was totally entranced.  The premise was pretty simple:  extremely sexy dancers danced to whatever Top 40 songs were popular at the time.  They wore extremely high heels and often wore gold lamé.  They were awesome.

My favorite game to play with the von Hendys was a much more tasteful version of that show.  Basically Vanessa and I, as the older siblings, would make Marianne and Stephan hold a flashlight on us while we danced around to Starship songs.  You should have seen our artistic interpretations of We Build This City.  Our dance involved a lot of leaping back and forth across the room, but in a very elegant way, of course.  Eventually Marianne and Stephan would get bored of shining lights on their elders and wander off to do something more interesting and the game would end.  I was always a little sad when they wised up that their turn in the spotlight was never going to come, because I loved being in the spotlight.

And its no wonder I loved being in the spotlight—our culture is built around spotlights! Movie sets!  The flashbulbs of paparazzi!  You tube videos! Culture teaches us that the ultimate success is to be famous and to be caught in the glare of those lights.  I’ll confess that a remnant of my love of the spotlight is that I still love celebrity culture.  I love reading gossip columns and seeing movies and I watch the Golden Globes and Oscars every year.  This celebrity culture is so prevalent on television, on line and on newsstands we can begin to think that light was developed just to shine on these people!  And we’re left with the hope that maybe, one day, the spotlight will shine upon us.

Our Gospel reading today challenges our whole understanding of our relationship to light.  After all, this passage was written thousands of years ago, before neon signs, before flashbulbs, before marquees.  After the sun set, light was a rare and remarkable commodity.  People might have light from a fire, or some kind of lamp or candle, but that light was treasured and used sparingly. Light broke through the darkness with subtle illumination, inviting rather than commanding attention.

Our reading today is part of what is called the Sermon on the Mount.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls his disciples, travels around, gets famous and soon hundreds of people are following him, hoping to get healed.  He sneaks away to a mountain with his disciples and starts to talk.  And talk.  And talk.  The Sermon on the Mount starts with the Beatitudes, which Fr. Paul read to us last week, but the rest of the sermon goes on for three more chapters of the Gospel of Matthew.  In fact, we will be reading bits from the Sermon on the Mount Sunday mornings until Lent begins!  The sermon is a framework that the author of the Gospel uses to collect all the famous sayings of Jesus in one place.  By the time Jesus is done in Matthew’s version of the story, the crowds have found him again, so he goes from speaking to just his disciples to hundreds of followers.

Our passage today about salt and light comes pretty early in the Sermon, right after the Beatitudes.  Jesus uses the imagery of light to describe how his followers should interact with the world.   They are, we are, to be the light of the world.  We are to be beacons on a hill. We are to let our light shine in the darkness so that others will know about our good works and give glory to God.

Note here that Jesus does not say, “You are in the spotlight of the world.  When the light shines on you, you seem really, really fabulous.”  There is a huge difference between being in the spotlight, and being a source of light.

When we’re in the spotlight, we are drawing attention to ourselves.  We are showing how beautiful or graceful or talented we are.  We are seeking to be admired.  Now, some celebrities who are stuck in the spotlight whether they like it or not have gotten clever and have been able to use the spotlight that is constantly on them to point out injustices of the world.  Think of George Clooney’s work in the Sudan, or  the Pitt-Jolie’s work in New Orleans.  But even that kind of good work is not the same thing as being the light of the world.

Jesus is not talking about us being in the spotlight.  Jesus is talking about us generating the light.  We become the source of illumination, not the object of it.

And we do not become a source of illumination because of our beauty, or our amazing Starship dance moves.  We become a source of illumination because we follow God and do good works.  A life of following God leads to the kind of illumination Jesus wants us to have.  And that illumination always points toward God.

God calls all of us to bear his light into the world.  To learn how, we can seek role models.  To find role models, we don’t follow the spot light. People who light up and point us toward God are not the same people who seek the spotlight.  In fact, those who bear God’s light are often the quietest in the room.  They would rather listen than speak.  They would rather serve than lead.  They have deep lives of prayer.  They listen with patience and empathy.  They are slow to anger and quick to forgive.  When you are with them, you sense the presence of something holy. It’s also entirely possible that you walk by these lights every day and do not notice them.  All the other bright lights of our culture make it hard to see the slow, long burning light of God.

I and the other 3000 students at University of Richmond walked by one of these lights every day.  The year before I graduated from college, one of the postal workers that served the University of Richmond retired.  Normally, this would not be a big deal.  To a group of self-absorbed students; postal workers were pretty interchangeable.  So long as your mail showed up in your mailbox, there was no reason to pay much attention to who put it there.

However, this particular postal worker had an incredible story that came in out in local papers that made us realize we students were entitled idiots who were so absorbed in our own spotlights we did not even notice the true light among us.

Thomas Cannon was a postal worker who had a 7th grade education.  He never made more than $30,000 a year.  In his later years, he took care of his ailing wife.  So far, this is a fairly common story.  What made Thomas Cannon unique is that over the course of his life, he donated more than $150,000 to charity.  This was not a man with a large savings account.  He lived a bare bones existence and put any extra money towards donations to others that needed the money.  He read the Richmond Times-Dispatch with a prayerful eye.  When he came across a story of someone in need or someone who had been courageous, he would send the author of the article a check and ask him or her to pass it along to the subject of the article.

This is a man who lived out God’s light.  Remember last week, when Fr. Paul talked about the foolishness of Christ?  Thomas Cannon was a giant fool for God.  He lived the upside down life of the Beatitudes—giving away money instead of hoarding it, thinking of others instead of himself, helping instead of hurting.

Even when the word got out about his actions, and the spotlight started to shine on him, he made it very clear that he did not want any buildings named after him or permanent memorials—he just hoped his actions would inspire others to give.

Thomas Cannon was letting his light shine.

As we mature in our faith, God’s light in us will shine brighter and brighter.  Our path will not look exactly like Thomas Cannon’s.  Each of our lights will shine in its own way.  What we have in common is that we will become beacons in the dark—inviting others into a life that is filled with the true light of God.

Thanks be to God.

Epiphany 2, Year C, 2010

My husband and I planned our own wedding.  We wanted the wedding to be a low-key, fun affair, but it turns out that planning low-key, fun affairs for 130 guests requires an enormous amount of effort.

I traveled to vendor after vendor, choosing tents and lights and tables and chairs and table cloths and forks.  I did not think I was the kind of bride who cared about such things, but suddenly I had very strong feelings about whether the ribbons that were wrapped around the bridesmaid’s bouquet were white or pink.  It’s even possible to say that I got a little. . .controlling.  We may or may not have had several, extremely complex spreadsheets in which we recorded every detail of our planning.

We were able to control a lot about our wedding.  We were able to choose Memphis-style barbeque for the reception, complemented by Whole Foods vegetarian side dishes.  We were able to choose Whiskey Rebellion, the band that played bluegrass covers of such classics as “Cheek to Cheek” and “Sweet Child of Mine.”  By the generous offer of a friend, we were even able to choose an incredibly beautiful outdoor location for the reception that overlooked the rolling hills of Albemarle County, Virginia.

While there was a lot we could control, there was one thing that worried me.  The one thing I had no control over:  the weather.  I looked at almanacs.  I found the special wedding planner part of The Weather Channel’s website, I followed the weather as close as humanly possible.  Having an outdoor reception, I was afraid of two things:  heat and rain.

Well, sure enough, June 8th, 2007, was the hottest June 8th on record in Greenwood, Virginia, with the thermometer breaking 100 degrees.  As I was getting dressed in the air conditioned parish hall, I kept asking my bridesmaids, “It’s really hot outside, right?”  And bless their hearts, they just bold faced lied to me.  They even ran a perimeter of defense around me.  If anyone came into the parish hall, they immediately intercepted them saying, “Do NOT discuss the heat!”

It was so hot, that when you look at our formal wedding photographs, even though Matt and I are madly in love with each other, we’re holding each other with about six inches of space between us. Taking pictures, we noticed thick clouds rolling in, and sure enough, as we stepped into the car to take us to the reception, the skies opened up and huge drops of rain started to fall and the sky started to crack with thunder and lightning.  My worst fears were coming true.

The author of the Gospel of John doesn’t mention the weather at the wedding at Cana of Galilee, but the bride at was probably none too pleased that at her wedding, the wine ran out way earlier than they had planned.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ miracle at the wedding is the first public act of his ministry.  He and his disciples are invited to this wedding, as is his mother.  Mary somehow overhears the drama about the wine shortage and decides that this would be a good time for her son to actually do something about those special God-powers of his.  And while the grumpy interaction between Jesus and Mary is really fun to read, it does not explain why this story, of all possible stories of Jesus before his public ministry, was chosen to be included in the Gospel.

The jars Jesus has the servants fill up with water are jars that held water for purification.  You might remember that Jesus was berated by Pharisees because he did not make his disciples wash their hands with special purification water before they ate.  Well, here, Jesus makes a similar statement by transforming all the purification water into delicious, quality wine.  Jesus boldly flouts the Pharisaical rules and traditions around purity.

Imagine if you were visiting someone at Princeton hospital and you stopped by one of the many Purell stations, gave it a squeeze, and realized your hand was full of sticky crushed grapes, not hand sanitizer.  Imagine if when the acolytes ritually washed the celebrant’s hands here at Trinity, instead of water, out poured a nice Bordeaux.

Water and wine serve very different purposes.  Water is for keeping clean, keeping pure, keeping respectable.  Wine is for sensual enjoyment.  Wine is for celebration. And, of course, wine evokes the image of the last supper.

Jesus’ actions solved the problem of the breach of hospitality, but they also reveal an enormous amount about Jesus’ priorities.  Jesus’ business is to redefine the relationship between God and human beings.  No longer will it be necessary to perform complicated rituals, dictated by those in power, before one can have access to God.  Jesus’ business is to show the radical, abundant love that God has for us.

The poet, Richard Wilbur, wrote a poem as a wedding toast for his daughter based on this text that gets at this idea of abundant love. The first three stanzas read:

St. John tells how, at Cana’s wedding-feast
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That the world’s fullness is not made but found,
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for you.[1]

This is the hardest lesson for me to learn about God and probably why I preach about it so much!  Believing that the love of God is abundant and overflowing can be difficult to remember as we learn about the massive destruction of parts of Haiti.  Believing in God’s provision can be difficult when a person is looking for work, with no leads in sight.   I find it much easier to believe in a God who punishes us for our bad behavior, who wants us to live tightly controlled, pious lives.  But over and over again, Jesus tells us that is not what God desires.  God desires to be in a loving relationship with us.  God’s love pours out—for the people of Haiti, for those in our country who are out of work, for us, wherever we are on our journey.  We may not always be able to feel that love, but it is there, for us.

And while it is a shallow illustration, the weather at my wedding remains a metaphor for me, about God’s love.

The night of the wedding, after the rain stopped pouring from the sky and the lighting stopped threatening people’s safety and the electricity stopped flickering, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, the clouds parted, and the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen blazed across the sky.

The wedding pictures we treasure that day are not the stiff formal ones, but are photos taken during that half hour before the sun went down.  There is one of us against the red and purple sky and countless photos of people softly illuminated, gazing the sunset with wonder.  Without the heat, without the rain, we never would have had that gorgeous sunset.

No planning on my part could have created that moment.  Just as I could not control the awful heat and violent storm, I could not control the beauty that followed.  The sunset was pure gift.

I highly doubt that God was so personally invested in my wedding that he manipulated the skies for us, but for me the sunset is a metaphor for the radical, abundant, surprising blessings that God pours out for us throughout our lives, often out of the darkest places.

We could not have stopped the economic crisis.  No amount of control on our parts could have stopped the earthquake that has ravaged Haiti.  But I guarantee you, that even in the middle of despair and epic suffering, God is at work, redeeming that which seemed irredeemable, saving that which seemed unsalvageable, and pouring his abundant love out, even for the seemingly unloved.

And so, I return to Wilbur’s poem:

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That the world’s fullness is not made but found,
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for you.


[1] Wilbur, Richard, Collected Poems:  1943-2004, Harcourt Inc.:  New York, 2004, p. 136.

Transfiguration, Year B, 2009

I occasionally wish that I lived in an earlier era.  Now, granted, I would want that era to have women’s rights and flushing toilets, so perhaps what I really want is a mythical earlier era.  In that imaginary era, I would never have seen a special effect.  So that, when I read the Bible, I would be awed by the stories it contains.

We 21st century people are jaded. We have seen waters part in The Ten Commandments.  We can see creation begin by turning on the Discovery Channel.  Noah’s flood has been replicated in any number of movies and cartoons.  And dead people appearing is nothing new. In the last calendar year alone, the television series House, Grey’s Anatomy, and Lost all had major characters who were dead.  Dead Amber appeared in House’s memory.  Dead Denny was hallucinated by Izzie.  Dead Christian-well, we still don’t know how he got on the island.  And that’s not even considering the dead characters on the show Medium!

We are not impressed by well-laundered clothes and Old Testament ghosts.  We have seen it all before.

Thankfully, Peter, James, and John are not jaded.  Their senses are still sharp and their minds are fresh and open.  For them, the transfiguration is the most incredible event they have ever witnessed. For Peter, James, and John the transfiguration is a moment of transcendence, a moment of understanding God in a new way.

It turns out for them, for Jesus, and for us, experiencing those moments of transcendence is a gift from God to help understand God better and to receive nourishment for the hard work of ministry.

Jesus and the disciples have been working hard.  In the eighth chapter of Mark, immediately before this reading, Jesus has:  miraculously fed 5,000 people bread and fish, walked miles and miles on foot, healed a blind man, informed his disciples that he was going to die tragically, and argued with Peter.  Talk about a heavy couple of days!

Jesus and the disciples must have been worn out-physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

Jesus leads three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up a mountain so they can spent some time away from the demands of their work.  While they are there two amazing things happen.  First, Jesus becomes illuminated.  His robes become so white they know the source must be supernatural.  Second, two great Old Testament Heroes appear next to Jesus: Moses and Elijah.

Why Moses and Elijah?  Why not Abraham or David?

The disciples are shown Moses and Elijah because of their unique, spiritual relationships to God. You might remember when Moses comes down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments his face shone with a supernatural light.  Peter, James and John would remember that story, look at Jesus’ shining clothes and realize that Jesus had the same ability to hear directly from God.

Legend has it that Elijah never died, but instead was assumed into heaven.  Jesus has just told his disciples that he will die and be resurrected.  They see Elijah as a kind of foreshadowing, to help them prepare for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.

I believe for these three disciples, Jesus’ transfiguration was their transformation.  While Jesus got time to rest and commune with his Father, the disciples had an incredible supernatural experience they would never forget.  On their walk, after the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is.  They guess many things, but finally Peter gets it right.  Peter tells Jesus he thinks he is the Christ.

The transfiguration is a way for these disciples to really internalize and understand at a more intuitive level what it means that Jesus is the Christ.  When your friend is the Christ, weird, supernatural things happen.  When your friend is the Christ, he can glow at will.  When your friend is the Christ, biblical heroes who have been dead hundreds of years will suddenly appear.  When your friend is the Christ, the voice of God will pour out of the sky, filled with love.

These memories of the transfiguration will be something Peter, James and John will be able to hold onto during their darkest moments of doubt.  Even as Peter lies about his association with Jesus on Good Friday, perhaps a small part of his mind was reminding him that everything was going to be okay.  His friend, Jesus, was bigger than death and more powerful than the laws of nature.

The transfiguration was the spiritual experience Peter, James, and John were given so they could keep on going, keep on “running the race”, as Paul phrases it in 1st Corinthians.  After they leave the mountain, Jesus and the disciples get right back to work, right back to ministry, but now they can do it with a little more energy, a little more bounce in their step.  They now know, in a concrete way, that God is with them.

Now, I think it is fair to conjecture that none of us will ever experience the transfiguration.  However, I do know many of you who have had some kind of spiritual experience.  I think we are all capable of that kind of experience.

Some of you have had spiritual experiences when you have taken time away from your own family and work and retreated for a few days in prayer and meditation.  Others of you have experienced the holy when you have traveled to holy places like Iona, or Shrinemont.  Others of you encounter God through singing sacred music. Still others of you have experienced the divine when you had your first child or understood God’s love for you through the love of another.   There are many ways and places where God can break in and speak to us.

Those moments may be few and far between, but they are great gifts to us.  They give us courage to go back to our ministries and give all we have to them.  Those moments feed us spiritual nourishment that sustains us through difficult times.  Those transcendent moments remind us that God is real and that he is with us.  When we experience a spiritual moment we are invited to savor the time we are given with God and use the energy the experience gives us to return to our daily lives and ministries and give back to those around us.

We may be jaded.  We may have seen it all, but like the disciples, we still need God.  We still need reminders that he loves us.  We still need the transfiguration.


Epiphany 4, Year B, 2009

When I was ten, my father got diagnosed with high cholesterol.  My mother was the cook in our house and within days she was deep in the American Heart Association cookbook and ordering a subscription to Cooking Light.  Gone were the omelets, steaks, and sour cream from our lives.  They were replaced by cheerios, pasta, and skinless chicken breasts.

At the time, this did not seem that remarkable to me.  But now, looking back, I am impressed with my mother’s willingness to uproot an entire family’s dietary lifestyle for the health of one member of the family.  If my dad’s eating habits had to change, all of our eating habits had to change.  It would not be fair to him if he was eating a piece of fish while the rest of us chomped down on hamburgers.

Our passage from 1 Corinthians today is also about dietary choices that are good for a community, but the situation Paul is responding to is not as simple as one member of the Corinthian community having high cholesterol!

Corinth was a Greek town with a predominantly Hellenistic culture.  Part of that culture was idol worship.  Small statues would be placed on altars and these “gods” would be given gifts of food.  The food would later be eaten by people in social gatherings.  The religious and social life was entwined together.

This created a huge problem for Corinthian Christians.  After all, they certainly did not believe in worshiping idols or that these small “gods” even existed.  To them, there was only one God.

The Corinthian Christians had broken into two camps.  The first was a group who approached the situation intellectually.  They were secure in their faith, they knew no other gods existed.  Since no other gods existed, then food offered to those gods was no different from any other food.  For this group of Christians, joining in the social eating of food offered to idols was not a problem at all.

The second group of Corinthian Christians were not so sure.  At one point in their lives they, too, had offered up food to idols, and that time was recently enough that eating food to those same idols now made them nervous.  To these Christians, eating the food offered to idols was acknowledging the gods they represented and was just plain wrong.

And this is where Paul comes in.  Paul has been asked to adjudicate this dispute.  He acknowledges that the first group, the intellectuals, are right from a philosophical viewpoint.  He states,

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth– as in fact there are many gods and many lords– yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

He agrees with their argument that since there is only one God for the Christians-even if another culture thinks there are many gods-then idols don’t exist so food offered to them is food offered to nothing.

However, just as that group is feeling pretty proud of themselves for being right, Paul turns the argument.

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

In other words, just because the intellectual argument was correct, does not mean that eating the meat offered to idols was right.  By eating the meat, the first group was threatening the faith of the second group.  Members of the second group may know that there is only one God in their head, but that deep knowledge may not have penetrated their heart yet.  Worshiping many gods may still be a temptation for them.  Because of this Paul is saying that he, for one, would choose not to eat the meat sacrificed to idols in front of Corinthian Christians.  Eating the meat did not matter one way or the other to God, but wounding another Christian was absolutely not acceptable.

Paul is telling the Corinthian Christians that they are in this journey together.  They need each other.  If eating meat sacrificed to idols threatens the faith of some of the community, than the entire community should abstain from eating the meat.

In the modern church we do not have a direct comparison to this problem.  As far as I know none of you were part of an idol worshiping religion before you came to Emmanuel!

However, I think we can learn about sticking together from this passage. Paul sums it up well when he says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

The desire to be right, the desire to win an argument can blind us to the needs of others.  Whether we are on our high horse about our political beliefs or whose turn it is to take out the trash, our single mindedness can be deadly to our relationships.  I find it helpful to step back from an argument and think about what I really want.  Do I really want to prove that I cleaned exactly 61% of the house or am I just looking for some affirmation and gratitude for the work that I did?  Ultimately what we want, I think is to feel heard and loved in our lives.  When we don’t feel that, being “right” is the next best thing.  But what we really want, is love.

The foundation of any good relationship is love.  We want love ourselves, but we are also asked to give love.  Part of love is seeking the good of the other, even if it means some sacrifice for yourself.  Paul asked the intellectual group of Corinthians to be generous to their brothers and sisters.  We are called to be generous, too.  For instance, if you live with an alcoholic, the generous response is to not keep alcohol in the house.  If you are friends with someone who is pinching pennies, the generous response is to plan a walk through a park together, rather than a shopping trip.  If your father has just had a heart attack, the generous response is to not bring him over those bacon wrapped twinkies you just deep fried.  While none of us can control the behavior of another person we can help to make life a little easier.  We can refrain from being “stumbling blocks” to those around us.

We are a community that worships one God.  And that God reminds us over and over again to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We are bound together by our faith in God, but those binds can enrich us as much as they limit us.  By rooting our identities in a community rather than in our individual lives, we become kinder, more open minded, flexible and loving.  Seeing the world through the different lenses of members of our community helps us to be creative and to learn.  Our community makes us stronger.  Our community makes us better Christians.

Epiphany I, Year B, 2009

My husband, Matt, just finished reading The Life of Pi.  I read it a few years ago and don’t remember all the details, but when I began thinking about this week’s readings, I kept coming back to the main image of The Life of Pi, which is the image of a young boy, stuck on a lifeboat in the middle of the sea, with a  zebra, a hyena and a Bengal tiger.  Now, being stranded in the middle of the sea in a small boat is bad enough, but you can imagine that wild animals as your shipmates complicate matters.  At one point, after the tiger has dispatched with the zebra and hyena, Pi writes a message and puts it in a bottle.  The message reads,

Japanese owned cargo ship Tsimtsum, flying Panamanian flag, sank July 2nd, 1977, in Pacfic, four days out of Manila.  Am in lifeboat.  Pi Patel is my name.  Have some food, some water, but Bengal Tiger is serious problem. Please advise family in Winnipeg, Canada.  Any help is very much appreciated.  Thank you. (p. 238)

Ah yes, those Bengal Tigers will get you every time.

Being stranded in a boat is a powerful image because endless water is one of the most primal, beautiful, but fearful images in the human psyche.  Water, though it sustains us, can also completely subsume us.  Water symbolizes that which we both need, but that threatens to destroy us if not controlled.

Water courses throughout our readings today.  We begin in Genesis with the wild waters of creation that simmer in the chaos, not yet controlled by land.  These images continue in descriptions of thunder, storms, and flooding that threaten the Psalmist.  Water is presented here as something extremely powerful and dangerous.

If water represents unknown, uncontrollable forces, then it certainly is a metaphor for our times, isn’t it!  In my three and a half years here I have never received as many calls and visits for financial assistance as I have the last three months.  People are getting hours cut back and fired because businesses just can’t sustain activity in the current economy.  Being a worker right now feels a bit like being afloat in a boat on the wild seas.

And in such unsteady times, if any additional part of your life begins to fall apart, it can feel like there is a Bengal tiger right in your boat with you!

For better or worse, we are not the only group of people who has ever felt this kind of anxiety.  In fact, most of our readings today were written to respond to anxiety.  When everything is going well, and you sense the presence of God very clearly, you don’t need to be reminded about who God is.  However, when things in your life are rocky, you need all the reminders of God’s goodness you can get.  When you are an Israelite who has been exiled from Jerusalem, you might need to hear about the God that controlled chaos and created plants, animals and people with loving care.  If you are an early Christian who fears being persecuted, you might want to be reminded that Jesus really was the son of God, and that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove.

Telling our stories is a powerful antidote to anxiety. We tell stories from the Bible every week in church because they remind us of who God is.  We need those reminders on a regular basis to stay rooted in our identity as God’s children.

The stories we tell in this week’s lectionary readings remind us both who God is and also who we are in relation to God.

Our first reading is the very first passage from Genesis.  When the creation story starts, the world is nothing but a formless void.  The world is dark and filled with water.  We don’t get the whole creation story, but we get the very beginning images: a wind from God sweeping over those vast waters and then out of the darkness, comes light.  God makes something out of nothing.  God sheds light where there was only darkness.  God takes something chaotic and scary and makes something beautiful and life-filled. Although water can be overwhelming and uncontrollable, in this passage, God is fully in control and able to shape and guide the powerful element. This passage reminds us of God’s control and the way God brings light into difficult situations.

The author of Psalm 29 calls out to this Creator God as he faces a terrible storm, and reminds himself that the Lord God is incredibly powerful and reigns even over the floods and cracking trees and thunder that the storm brings.  The Psalmist gives us a model of how to pray in the midst of crisis.  He is able to celebrate God, even while being nervous about his own safety.

Our stories from the New Testament today address water and God’s relationship to water in a different way.  Both stories are about baptism.  In the Gospel we have Jesus’ baptism and in the epistle we have the baptism of Apollos.  While these images may seem completely unrelated to the images of wild and dangerous water from the Old Testament readings, danger is actually a part of baptism.

Baptism symbolizes cleansing, but it also symbolizes death.  Like Jesus’ baptism, early baptisms were all fully immersion baptisms.  People who wanted to be baptized were pushed under the water and then hauled out again three times.  Being pushed under, symbolized drowning, reminding the baptized of the power of water and of death.  When you were pulled back out, it symbolized your new life in Christ. And like God shows up in the Old Testament when waters become dangerous, God shows up at baptism, too.  Both Jesus and Apollos experience the Holy Spirit after their baptisms.  In the book of Acts, Jesus explains that the Holy Spirit gets sent at baptism to be our Comforter and guide.

We need to be reminded of the Holy Spirit.  We need to be reminded that even amidst the roiling waters God sends us a comforter and guide to help us through difficult times.  We need to be reminded that God is with us, even as we face off our own Bengal tigers in our tiny boats.

And so, we tell our stories.  We tell stories of God’s faithfulness in the Bible, but we can also tell stories of God’s faithfulness in our own histories.  I think of all the stories I know about how God has shown up in my life and your lives just in the nick of time.  These stories calm me.  They remind me that God is with me.

You might remember times when you thought you would be adrift forever, but then God rescued you in unexpected ways.  Better yet, you might remember a time when you were lost on the seas, but suddenly God helped you to see that you were not lost after all-you were just on a little character building adventure.

This remembering is what puts legs on our faith.  Telling our stories gives us the courage we need to take risks, to be brave in unfortunate circumstance, to be kind when we are feeling threatened. Telling our stories helps us to be true to our baptismal promises on the days when they seem silly or outdated.

Telling our stories helps us to remember that God holds us up amidst the waters, even if there is a tiger in our boat.

Epiphany 2, Year A, 2008

A dear friend of mine recently moved to New York City.  She is a gifted actress, recently graduated from UVA, and is working in a legal office by day and acting in a play by night.  Every few months she sends long, gossipy emails about her new life filled with stories of life in a small apartment, working in a big city office, the auditioning process, and of course celebrity sightings.

Recently, she went to see Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner.  After the play, they went around to the back door in order to catch a glimpse of the stars exiting the building.  My friend was at the back of the pack of people, and I’ll quote from her email to tell you what happened next,

We were reconciling ourselves to trying to get pictures of the famous people by waving our camera in the air over our heads (which yielded a surprisingly awesome picture of JG) when a little door immediately behind us opened and a bodyguard-ish type person poked his head out.  We looked around in surprise, as we were the only people who noticed him, and he holds the door open and out sails MATT-freaking-DAMON.  Matt Damon.  Matt Damon saw the show the same night we did.  And of course, OF COURSE we didn’t take his picture/speak to him/tell him we loved him because we were too busy squealing at each other and yanking each other’s arms and squealing some more.  I am way too easily starstruck to be an actor. 

I tell this story, because I think her experience parallels the experience of those who followed Jesus in our Gospel reading today.  People had flocked to be baptized by John. They were fascinated by him, drawn by his message.  While they were excited to see him, they were also expecting to see him.  Seeing Jesus, however, was a huge surprise.  A few of the disciples start following him around, star struck in their own way.  He senses they are behind him, turns around and asks them, “What are you looking for?”

And they become completely flustered.  This was not just a movie star they were following, this was God.  Even if they did not realize that consciously, they sense there is something wonderful about Jesus.  They cannot pull themselves together, and instead ask the Messiah, “Um, uh, where are you staying?”

Jesus next issues the most important invitation these people will ever receive.  He invites them to “Come and see.”

Come and see.  Jesus does not give them a direct answer.  He does not lecture them.  He does not bombard them with theological arguments or grandiose pronouncements about himself.  He simply invites them to come and see for themselves. 

The experience of knowing Jesus can never be fully explained or taught.  In order to know Jesus, one has to encounter him. 

This invitation to come and see is repeated an additional three times in the Gospel of John.  Soon, after Jesus offers his invitation, Philip is talking to his friend Nathanel who asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Philip says, “Come and see”. Next, after Jesus engages with the woman at the well, she goes and tells her friends, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  Finally, when Jesus has come to visit a grieving Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus’s death, he asks where the tomb is, and they invite him to come and see.  Ironically, it is they who will really see and understand when Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for these star-struck followers of Jesus to be issued an invitation to come and see?  I can assure you, Matt Damon did not invite my friend to follow him around, and even if she had, I don’t know that she would have gotten much out of it. 

Following Jesus, however, is another matter.  To follow Jesus, to observe Jesus as he went about his daily business, was a chance to observe God.  To follow Jesus, was an opportunity to engage with the God who created all of us, to understand what his love means for us.  To follow Jesus was to learn about how to be fully human.

Thankfully, Jesus’ invitation to come and see is not limited to those encounters recorded in the Gospel of John.  We, too, are invited to come and see.  To come and see what happens when we begin to pray more regularly, or study scripture, or serve the poor.  We’re asked to come and see what Jesus was doing in Biblical days and what Jesus is doing today.

And while it may not feel like it, our annual meeting is another chance for us to come and see what Jesus is doing in our midst.  The administrative part of church life may not feel as uplifting or spiritual as the ritual or fellowship part of the church life, but Jesus works amidst those decisions, too. 

As we choose our leaders for the next year, and engage in conversations about issues relevant to our life together, we have the chance to discern where Jesus is working in this church and in the greater community. 

So, come to the annual meeting and listen very, very carefully.  You may hear Jesus invite you to come and see.