Proper 24, Year B, 2015

The last few weeks the Old Testament readings have given us a taste of Job’s story. The book of Job is a very unusual one. Job is not part of any narrative history, like Moses or David. In fact Israel is not even mentioned. Job is a stand alone mythic tale written about human suffering.

In the story, God is meeting with his heavenly beings, Satan being one of them. God remarks about this righteous man, Job, and Satan challenges him. Satan says, “Of course he is righteous, you’ve made him prosperous and he is surrounded by a loving family. Why wouldn’t he be righteous?” God is convinced Job will remain righteous, so he allows Satan to interfere with Job’s life. Job’s animals are stolen, his children are killed, and he is given a terrible skin disease that makes him anathema to every one around him.

Job is devastated and just wants to die, but he remains faithful to God. Three of his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar come to comfort him. At first they spend a week just silently supporting Job, but then the friends start giving helpful advice. They say things like, “I guess your children died because God needed a few more angels” and “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” and “Everything happens for a reason.”

Okay, so his friends don’t say those things.

But they are sure they have the answers to Job’s problems. Eliphaz suggests that Job should be happy to be experiencing God’s discipline. Bildad suggests Job should just pray harder. Zophar is convinced that Job must be hiding some secret sin and if Job would just be honest about it, God would restore everything that had been taken away from him.

You can just hear Job groaning as he replies to each of his friends, assuring them that he has been praying, that he has remained righteous, but that all of this suffering is happening anyway. He is utterly miserable and just wants God to send him to Sheol so he does not need to suffer any more. Job pleads his case before God, wanting answers, wanting relief.

Once his friends are done talking, a young man who has been listening to the conversation, decides he just has to jump in and give Job his perspective. He tells Job that Job has been dwelling too much on the negative and if he just focused on how great God is, everything will turn around for him.

Poor Job. Everyone wants to weigh in on his problems, and the only One he wants to hear from is God.

Job’s story is universally understood, because everyone has suffered at some point in his or her life. Everyone has been ill, or lost a loved one, or had serious financial problems. We all know the feeling of being completely overwhelmed, unable to help ourselves. We can also relate to the experience of people around us not really knowing how to help. How many of our mothers just can’t help but give us unasked for advice? How many of our friends give us awkward words of comfort? How many of us have had strangers weigh in on our lives? We get Job. We get his grief, his feelings of isolation and his anger. We, too, want to know why God lets terrible things happen to us. If God loves us, shouldn’t he protect us?

Job desperately wants answers from God and for God to help him.

But when God finally answers Job, and appears in a whirlwind, it becomes clear that God is not interested in giving Job the kind of pastoral care for which he was hoping!

Instead God summons Job:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

And then a series of questions:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?

Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may goand say to you, `Here we are’?

Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?

Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert?

Phew! Is this the heavenly equivalent of God saying, “Because I’m your mother, that’s why!” For the whole story, Job has been the center of the universe. All the action and terrors have been focused on Job. And that’s how it feels when we suffer, right? When we are in pain, all we can see is our own experience.

But here is God, reminding Job that God remains at the center of the universe. He’s not saying this to diminish Job, in fact, he tells Job to “Gird up his loins”. He wants Job to contend with him. But God places himself firmly in the position of the Creator who knows his creation more deeply than any human ever could. God knows the deep order of the universe—and there is a deep order, the sun rising and setting, the tides moving in and out, birth and death—even if our lives feel like chaos. God reminds Job of the beauty of the world.

David Henson, in a beautiful homily titled “What Job and God learn from each other” writes:

Instead, God responds with beauty.

Job cast a vision of a world overshadowed by pain and suffering. God responds by showing him the beauty and hope of the same world.

And here’s the thing. I’m not sure these are competing views. I don’t think the one negates the other. God doesn’t respond with beauty to cancel out or disregard Job’s suffering. I think that’s why God doesn’t exactly answer Job’s question about suffering. Because no answer — even one from God — is ever satisfactory in the midst of our pain and grief. Nothing solves suffering. Nothing answers it. But neither is suffering and grief the whole story of our lives and of the world. There is beauty, and grace, and hope in the world, too, existing simultaneously, in paradox, side-by-side

God’s answer, God’s presence is enough for Job. Job responds in wonder:

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.

God does not provide any easy answers or apologize for the suffering Job has experienced. But being reassured that God has not abandoned him and that the world is filled with order and beauty, even in the midst of Job’s suffering, leaves Job satisfied.

In crisis, sometimes that experience of the presence of God is enough to sustain us. We may not know how to move forward from our crisis, but if we can sense God is with us, that can be enough to keep us going. And remembering there is deep order and beauty to the universe can help us remember our problems are not the end of the story. We have a future.

Job’s story does not end with this holy encounter. Job goes on to have more flocks, more children. He has a new beginning after his tragedy. This new beginning does not replace everything he has lost. New children cannot replace children who have died. His pain and grief still lie underneath this new beginning. But he does not remain paralyzed by his suffering, but is able to move forward, with God’s help.

May God bless you with a deep sense of his presence and a conviction that, no matter what is happening in your life, that even now God is preparing a new beginning for you. Amen.

Lent 1, Year B, 2009

The story of Noah’s Ark is such a sweet story, isn’t it?  You’ve got a big boat, a colorful lead character, animals marching two by two.  We even have a big, beautiful rainbow wrapping itself around the story as the finishing touch.  Because it is sooo cute, Noah’s Ark imagery is very popular for children’s toys and décor for nurseries.  [Holding up brightly colored, stuffed, Noah’s Ark toy.]  This is adorable, right?

The story stays adorable until the kid who plays with the toy start asking questions.

“Why did Noah build a boat?”

“God told Noah he was going to send a big flood and that Noah should build a boat.”

“Why did God send the flood?”

“Because God was very angry with people.”

At this point the child starts looking a little concerned.

“God was mad at the people so he sent a flood?”

“Yep.”

“So, no one else got to build a boat?”

“Nope.  Only Noah.”

“So. . .did the other people. . .die?”

“Yep.”

About this point in the conversation is when I would suddenly offer the kid the opportunity to eat whipped cream right out of the can.  I would offer anything just to redirect the conversation.

The Noah story is not really an adorable story.  The Noah story is a horror story.  We have seen two mind-bogglingly terrible floods in the last few years:  The 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean and the terrible 2005 hurricane related flooding in the gulf coast.  There was nothing adorable about either of those tragedies.  Through the power of television, we saw the bloated, drowned bodies.  We saw survivors begging for food.  We saw the panicked faces of people searching for their loved ones.  We saw animals, separated from their owners, looking lost and forlorn.  No one is going to design a Katrina or tsunami themed nursery, that’s for sure.

So, why are we so quick to embrace Noah as a hero?  Why don’t we resent Noah for not trying harder to rescue his neighbors?

I find it helpful to think of the story of Noah as a myth.  There was some kind of enormous flood in early Mesopotamia. Nearly every culture in the region has some mythology surrounding this vast down pouring of rain and subsequent flooding.  The peoples of the time did not have a scientific or even historical understanding of the world, so they would not have recorded data or interviewed survivors like we might do today.  Instead the survivors would tell stories.  They would ascribe spiritual meaning to the flood and tell the miraculous story of their survival.

In this case, the survivors, Noah’s descendents, understand their very existence as a gift from God.  They tell the amazing story of Noah’s survival in mythic terms in order to emphasize what a miracle Noah’s survival was.

But that does not get Noah’s descendents completely off the hook.  The story of Noah’s ark has a disturbing “us” and “them” mentality.  The “us”, Noah and his family, become this superior, righteous family who were chosen by God to live. The  “them”-the rest of humanity-are judged as sinners so that we don’t feel too badly about their death.

We truly are descendents of Noah’s, because we still have the exact same tendency to divide and diminish.  As Episcopalians, we tend to judge Fundamentalists.  Northerners judge southerners.  Politicians judge Hollywood.  Homeowners with ballooning mortgages judge New York bankers.  Christians judge Muslims. Democrats judge Republicans. And, of course, all of these statements can be reversed to be equally true.

But here’s the thing.  Noah’s exclusive family boat may have worked for his situation, but none of us are going to be given the opportunity to escape from people who are other than us.  No one is going to call me up and say, “Hey, Sarah, we’re starting a colony on the moon.  It’s going to be GREAT!  The only people who will live there will be just like you. When can you leave?”

This moon colony has several problems, not the least of which is that I cannot imagine anything more annoying than being surrounded by people just like me.  But the larger problem, is that our Christian faith not only allows for incredible difference within it, Christianity compels us to open our churches and our lives to all kinds of people.

Jesus, if you will allow the metaphor, offers us an enormous boat and invites all of us to climb aboard.  While Noah’s family understood their survival as the grace of God.  Jesus widens this image so we understand that God offers grace to all people-the righteous and unrighteous, the ins and the outs, us and them.  We are all in the boat together.

The name for the part of the church building where you are all seated is the nave.  Nave comes from the Latin word for ship.  Architecturally, the word nave is a reference to the ship like appearance of the ceilings in Gothic cathedrals, but the image of the nave works for a simple church like ours, as well.

Every Sunday we gather here, together, in one boat, in Jesus’ boat, because of what Jesus did for us two thousand years ago.  We climb into this boat time and time again, because our God is a God who loves all people-people of all cultures, income brackets, skin colors, and beliefs.

We climb into this boat, because we need each other.  We climb into this boat, because if we are going to survive the floods that this life brings us, we are going to need the security of the faith and fellowship contained in this boat.  We climb into this boat because Jesus stands at its bridge and welcomes us on board with open arms.

Amen.

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.

Proper 4, Year A, 2008

Noah was a man with a vocation.

God called Noah, clear as a bell, and told him to build a boat.  God told Noah to build a big boat.  God told Noah to build a boat so big that it could hold a pair of every kind of animal under the sun.

Living in Crozet, we have had the unique opportunity to see the Ark in person-at least Hollywood’s version of the Ark-and we know the Ark was one big boat.  But I’ll bet you a dollar that when Noah was in that big boat, on top of the choppy seas, on about day twenty of the rainstorm, Noah felt like he was in a flimsy little basket, floating on the great unknown.

Can you imagine?  All of humanity has been wiped out, and God has chosen you to be cruise director, zookeeper. . .and, oh yeah, put you in charge of repopulating the earth.  Noah must have been one nervous navigator.

Discerning our vocations can make us feel like we’re on flimsy little baskets, floating on the great unknown, too.  We stand side by side with Noah and his poor wife when we ask God, “Who am I?  Who would you have me be?”

After all, our first vocational act is to be baptized, to submit ourselves to the mystery of water and the Spirit in order to be transformed and welcomed as God’s very own.  From that time on, our job as Christians is to pray and discern who God is calling us to be.  When we are children we are called to be children-to play and to learn.  We are to immerse ourselves in the language of our faith through Sunday School and Children’s Worship and prayers around the dinner table.  Then, when we grow up, and we start realizing the gifts God has given us, we leave the playground and go to work.  Sometimes this is our vocation, and sometimes it is just work.  After all, for one person crunching numbers may be an area of excellence AND an area of passion, but their neighbor in the office next door may feel as much passion for numbers as they do for the color beige.

The trick to figuring out God’s call for us, the trick to figuring out our vocation is to find the place, as Buecher said, “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  As Christians we are called to serve, and our true vocations will always contain some element of service.

Discerning vocation can be frightening.  Having steady work is the opposite of being adrift in a basket on a stormy sea.  Having a good, steady job is like being firmly planted in nourishing soil.  Leaving such an auspicious state can seem absolutely crazy!  But discerning your vocation is still worth it, I promise.  First, because at our core our deepest need is to have meaning, and our vocation gives us meaning.  Secondly, discerning our vocation does not always mean having to leave our jobs!

It is entirely possible to work full time in a job that is not your vocation, and find your vocation doing something on the side:  writing,  volunteering for hospice, taking on more pro bono work, teaching classes in your field to those who can use the knowledge.  One of my favorite parts of being your priest, is getting to hear your stories of vocation.  Those of you who raise service dogs, visit with the dying, serve food to the poor, coordinate after school programs, and the like have such deep joy and meaning in your lives.  Your vocational work is not always easy and can even be heart rending, but you are expressing the deepest part of yourself in a way that serves our community and our God.

When we begin this vocational discernment, we might find it helpful to remember that God doesn’t just send us out in our rickety baskets on uneasy waters.  God also inhabits the very water that upholds our boats.  God bears us gently even as we seek to follow him.  God is present in our vocation and in our search for that vocation.

And today as we baptize Stuart Caroline, she begins her own vocation as the newest, littlest Christian in Christendom.  She joins us on our rickety boats as we go off on our ocean adventure together.

Amen.

Trinity Sunday, Year A, 2008

Is an anatomy textbook more true than a C.S. Lewis novel?

These are not questions we can answer.  An anatomy text book and a novel are trying to do two completely different things.  An anatomy textbook certainly has lots of facts in it, (Did you know an adult human body contains 206 bones?), but a textbook tells us nothing about our soul.  A C.S. Lewis novel has not one fact in it, but it tells us an enormous amount about what it means to be human.

So why people look to the first chapter of Genesis for scientific information about the beginning of our world is a mystery to me.  The first chapter of Genesis is not a scientific text.  Remember, it was written somewhere between 950 and 500 BCE, and Descarte did not write about the scientific method until 1637 CE.  That is more than two thousand years later!  If the authors thought modern Christians were using their writings to argue scientific points about how and when the earth was created, I think they would roll their eyes.  After all, the authors did not even understand that the world was round.  The dome they refer to in this passage is the sky.  Their understanding was of a flat earth, with a bell jar of a sky laid upon it.  If you read Genesis with a scientist’s eye, you miss the point.

So, if the authors of Genesis were inspired by God to write this passage, but is not a scientific text, than what is it?  Our reading today is part of what Biblical scholars would call mythology literature.  Now, we hear the word myth, and we think it means the same thing as a lie, but that is not what mythology means here.  Mythology is a form of writing that a people uses to describe a mysterious event that they did not witness.  The creation of the world is a common subject of these stories.  The Sumerian cultures that surrounded the Jewish people had their own version of the same story.  By writing this story, the authors are trying to understand who they are, what the earth is and who their God might be.

And just like a poem or a C.S. Lewis novel, the creation story contains an abundance of truth and beauty that can teach us about God and humanity.

First of all, let me just brag about the literary beauty of this passage.  Genesis may have been written three thousand years ago, but the author uses a very sophisticated parallelism here.  Notice that the first and fourth days are both about light.  The second and fifth days are both about water.  And the third and sixth days are both about the earth.  See, the motivation of the order of Creation in this passage is not scientific-the order is literary.  The stars and the sun and the moon were not created after plants and trees, but it is more pleasing in a literary sense to have the balance of the parallelism.

And this passage does not have parallelism for parallelism’s sake.  This literary choice tells us something about God.  The entire arc of the Creation story is the idea that God turns this chaotic, formless, watery nothingness into an orderly, fruitful, life-filled something, and the parallelism echoes that.  In the Creation narrative, God pushes the chaos out beyond the confines of the dome, and forms boundaries that enable light to shine, plants to grow, and animals to walk the earth.  God does not eliminate the chaos; he establishes boundaries to protect us against it.  Through both the form and the content of this passage we learn that God is always moving from chaos to order.

But the chaos still breaks through occasionally, doesn’t it?  In the last two weeks the chaos has broken through in the form of tornadoes across the United States, a cyclone in Myanmar, and that horrific earthquake in China.  This occasional, deadly and terrifying breaking through reminds us that we live in tension, and that the world can still be wild and wooly.

But chaos is not what God desires for us, God seeks to protect us and guard us and encourages us to seek order, as he calls for us to have dominion over and be stewards of this wild and wooly creation.   We are to subdue the chaos and bring order.  And we have.  We have cultivated fields and domesticated animals and pruned trees.  Unfortunately, we’re learning that too much dominion, too much subduing can lead us right back into chaos.  Finding the balance, finding the tension between chaos and order is difficult business.  Our adult forum class on the environment today, should help us with this balance.

As we go deeper in the passage, we learn even more about God, and about ourselves.  We are told that “God made humankind in his image:  male and female he created them.”  We are made in the image of God!

What does it mean to be made in God’s image?  None of us knows exactly.  Perhaps it means that we are creative like God is creative.  We have the capacity to imagine and act on what we imagine.  We can paint and sing and sculpt and build. Or, maybe being made in God’s image means that we are relational, like God is relational.  In the very first chapter of the Bible, God refers to himself as “us”.  We don’t know if the “us” refers to cherubim and seraphim or whether God was already hinting at his Trinitarian nature.  In any case, God chooses to act and reflect in community rather than as a solitary being.  There is a reason that a fundamental part of experiencing both Judaism and Christianity is community.  We gather together, because God calls us as community, not as individuals.  We worship together, because God knows it is not good for us to be alone.

And when God is done making us, he looks us over and says, “Indeed, it was very good.” This is about the most exciting thing I’ve ever read!  This image of creation is so different from the story in the second chapter of Genesis, when humanity immediately starts disappointing God.  So much of religion is focused on our sinfulness and our need for salvation, but in this glorious-and brief-moment, before we start lying and fighting and murdering each other, God looks us over and approves of what he has made.  In fact, he not only approves of us, he also gives us his blessing.

And God never sways from his commitment to us.  From that first blessing he remains committed to being in relationship with us.  He sends us leaders, kings, prophets, poets and finally Jesus and the Holy Spirit so that we can remain in a loving relationship with Him.  There is no way to measure or prove this love of God’s.  This love cannot be titrated or weighed or computed.  But this love is truer than any historical fact, any scientific treatise or mathematical equation.  This love is as true as the light in the skies, the water in the seas, and seed bearing plants on the earth.

Amen.

Lent 1, Year A, 2008

You’re a fraud, a fake, a charlatan.

That’s a rather rude way to open a sermon, isn’t it?  Well, I can say all those things about you with great confidence, because I, too am a fraud, a fake and a charlatan.  We all are.  That is part of our human condition.

Being married has been extremely eye opening for me.  I knew marriage would be difficult, but I thought it would be difficult because of something my husband would do.  Maybe he would be sloppy, or careless, or insensitive.  It turns out that marriage has been challenging, because now I have someone in my house to mirror exactly how selfish I am!  Living on my own for the last five years, I had no one to irritate, no one with whom to compromise, no one with whom to disagree.  Now, I have all sorts of opportunities to pick fights, whine, sulk, demand my own way. . .You get the idea.  Don’t get me wrong, Matt and I have a very happy marriage, but it has been shocking to me how my self image does not match up to reality!  I am very content to project the image of a loving, caring pastor, even when I am not behaving in a very loving or caring way.  You’ll notice our times of silence before confession have been longer since I’ve been married.  That’s because I just need more time now.

I would worry more about this, but I know I’m not alone.

After all, the authors of Genesis knew all about these kind of human tendencies.  The very first thing Adam and Eve do after they’ve tasted the forbidden fruit is to cover themselves.  Adam and Eve feel shame for the first time, and in order to deal with that shame, they disguise their naked bodies and hide from God. 

We hide ourselves, not with figleaves, but with nice Sunday clothes, and bright smiles, and the answer, “Fine.” when someone asks us how we are, even if we are suffering.  Somehow what has become important is what people will think of us, rather than how we are actually feeling.

We all experience shame, fear, or sadness in our lives-each of us is struggling with something.  I know you.  I know each of you has your own set of very impressive baggage along this journey, but here’s the secret.  No one’s baggage is any more spectacular than anyone else’s. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, some Sunday, if we each brought a suitcase with us?  Mine might be labeled:  anxiety disorder, and tendency to be controlling.   Yours might be labeled: depressed, or out of energy to deal with my children, or struggling with addiction, or grieving a loved one, or having serious money problems, or really hate my job, or really don’t like my spouse.  We would air out our suitcases, listen to each other’s stories, and then march them up to the altar and offer them up to God.

(Sigh.)  That is basically my fantasy day at church.  But, back to reality.

At the beginning of the service today, to honor the beginning of Lent, we sang the Great Litany.  Some people love this part of the service and some people HATE the Great Litany. At times, it seems the litany of ways we fail God and each other will never end! But really, what the Great Litany does is give us a chance to bring our baggage before God.  The Litany gives us a chance to be honest, and to tell God, “You know what?  I can’t do this on my own.  I can’t manage my own life, I don’t always make the right choices, I need help.”

This kind of honesty is what Lent is all about.  Lent is not about self-flagellation, Lent is about surrender. We surrender to a God who loves us more than we can imagine. We surrender to a God who has faced all the same temptations we have.  We surrender to a God who was able to resist those temptations in a way we cannot. 

Lent is a time to lose our fig leaves.  We are invited to stand naked before God and offer ourselves-our broken, misbehaving, selfish, addicted, ungrateful selves.  We do not have to pretend to be okay in front of God.  We do not have to offer God a polite smile /and a “fine” when he asks us how we are doing.  We can tell him the ugly, unvarnished truth.

Lent is a time to get real.  Lent is a time to look at ourselves deeply and to start being honest with the people around us. 

The road to Jerusalem is a long and tiring one.  We’ll walk this road, following Jesus, for the next six weeks.  On such a long journey, carrying heavy baggage will just be exhausting, and pointless really.  You don’t need baggage where Jesus is going.  So, today, as you come forward to communion, I invite you to leave your suitcases on the altar, leave all that weighs you down and start this journey fresh, knowing that God will take good care of you and of what you leave behind.

Proper 22, Year B, 2006

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable unto you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.

I find the conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus about divorce to be unsatisfying.  Do you?

The Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus in a slip-up. Jesus has had the gall to teach people on the Pharisees’ turf-They were the authorities on law, not this young upstart–and they’ve long since stopped being amused by him.  The Pharisees ask Jesus this question about divorce, not out of their own trouble or grief, or out of some burning question members of their congregation have been asking them, or even out of a desire to seek holy living.  No, they just want to see how he’ll tiptoe around a difficult political question

(After all, the 6th chapter of Mark reminds us that Herod Antipas, leader of the Jews, was married to his brother’s wife.  They each had to get divorces in order to get married.  You’ll remember that John the Baptist was killed because of his condemnation of their relationship.) 

Well, Jesus is not about to be trapped by their maneuvering.  He asks the Pharisees to recall what Moses said about divorce in Deuteronomy.  When they give the answer-Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal to his wife-Jesus tells them that Moses created this exception because of their “hardness of heart”.  You see, this “certificate of dismissal” was originally meant as a measure of mercy for women.  It allowed them to remarry.  However, the certificate ended up being a way for men to divorce their wives easily.  In the Hillel tradition, a man could divorce his wife because “the bread was burned too badly!”  Jesus thinks this is a bad system.  Jesus turns their question around from politics to spirituality and refers the Pharisees to the earliest Jewish reference about marriage there is–the second chapter of Genesis–our Old Testament reading today. 

Now, the reason the Pharisees’ question is not satisfying is because they are not asking the question about divorce on behalf of those who have gone through the pain of divorce.  Their attitude disrespects those who have experienced divorce because of the manipulative way they ask the question.  At first glance, Jesus’ response is equally unsatisfying.  Sure, it’s nice that he doesn’t want women to get abused by a divorce system that is too easy, but it still leaves a lot of questions for us about modern divorce.  And then later, when the disciples have him alone, and ask him to clarify himself, he simply says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 

We know through other stories that Jesus is a compassionate person, but his response does not seem to leave room for those people who sought divorces for what we would consider good reasons-to escape abuse, to protect one’s children, as a response to chronic infidelity or disrespect.  Jesus certainly couldn’t have known that his words would be used to excommunicate people, force people to stay in abusive marriages, or make people feel rejected by God. 

I wonder though, if Jesus was as unsatisfied with the question of the Pharisees as we are.  The Pharisees’ question about divorce was not a bad one in and of itself, but because they asked it with a motivation to trap Jesus, out of a “hardness of heart” rather than out of an “open heart” the question loses its credibility.

Clearly Jesus did not support divorce.  But what was his perspective on divorce?  Was there a reason for his strong reaction besides the Pharisees’ hypocrisy?  Let’s go back to the passage from Genesis that Jesus quotes to see why he chose to speak these words.

In the passage from Genesis, we read a lovely story in which God decides that Adam needs someone as a helper.   Now here helper is not a demeaning term.  In fact this particular word is used to describe God in several passages in the Old Testament.  I think we sometimes think of this word as helper in the sense of, “Honey, can you help me?  I want a beer but there are only three minutes left in the game and I don’t want to miss anything. . .”  Actually, when the word “helper” is used in the Old Testament it means rescuing a person, saving someone’s life. 

So, God was not interested in getting Adam housekeeping help.  God wanted to create someone who would be with Adam through thick and thin, on whom Adam could rely.  Now that God knows what he is looking for, he tries out several options.  Though Adam seemed duly impressed with all the cattle and birds God presented to him, he wasn’t ready to set up house with any of them. 

We all know what happens next. God puts Adam under some pretty heavy anesthesia, and takes out a rib. . .or does he? 

(Pause)

The word for rib is an interesting one.  Every other time it is mentioned in the Old Testament, the word refers to something architectural, most commonly a side chamber of a building.  So, when God was pulling out Adam’s rib to make his partner, he wasn’t pulling out a miscellaneous bone that Adam didn’t really need, he was pulling out his side, a fundamental part of Adam’s person, so that this helper really could be “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh”.   This woman and Adam are going to be connected in the deepest way possible.  Alone, Adam was not enough.  To complete this human race God was creating, Adam needed a partner.

When he sees his partner for the first time, Adam is so struck by the presence of this new person that he speaks for the first time. He recognizes that this woman is truly a part of him and can’t help but proclaim that.  “I will name her woman, for she was taken out of man.” 

So, when Jesus was responding to these questions about divorce, maybe he wasn’t giving the answer that seems so harsh initially.  Maybe, on another level, Jesus was responding to the question the Pharisees didn’t ask.  Maybe Jesus was saying, “I wish you could remember.  I wish you could remember how it was at the beginning, when you were so thrilled to see another person that you stopped in your tracks.  I wish you could remember how magical it was to see a reflection of yourself in her.  I wish you could remember those first few moments, before you started bickering about who ate the apple and blaming each other.  I wish you could remember how we meant it to be when we created you.” 

Of course Jesus condemns divorce.  Who would want to worship a God who intended for marriages to fall apart?  For people to betray one another?  In our hearts, we wish divorce didn’t happen, too.  Who of us falls in love thinking, “Gosh, I’m glad there’s an escape clause in this one!” I’ve never met anyone who has gone through a divorce who has enjoyed it, even if their life after the divorce was healthier and safer than in marriage.  Divorce represents all of our deepest fears:  rejection, betrayal, being unloved, being alone. 

For Jesus to condemn divorce is not the same as Jesus condemning those who have had divorces.  We know Jesus-we know his compassion to the woman at the well, we know his love for those going through rough patches in their lives.  We know that if a heartbroken man or woman had asked the same question the Pharisees asked, Jesus’ response would have been full of love and compassion.

So, what do we do with Jesus’ response?  We know we can’t crawl back to Eden, back to the days before brokenness entered the world.

I think, in reminding us of our intimate connection with each other; in the way we share the same flesh and bone with all other humans, Jesus points us to what his ministry was all about.  He came into the world to take on all the brokenness that drowns us. If anyone had a right to be angry about divorce, Jesus did.  He earns the right because he was willing to do something about it.  He was willing to take all that pain, all that suffering on himself, so one day we could be free of it.  His death and resurrection are the second half of his answer about divorce. 

The reason we can survive the devastation divorce and other broken relationships bring is because we know, ultimately, through Jesus’ death and resurrection one day we will healed and whole and reconciled to ourselves, all others and God.  Although that can be hard to believe-or even want-in the midst of breakup, some small part of us recognizes that someday in our future we will live in a place where there are no divorces, where there is no heartbreak. 

The hope Jesus offers us is not only for a future heavenly kingdom, it is hope for the here and now.  No, Jesus does not offer us an easy escape from pain.  Being a Christian does not exempt anyone from the hard work of grief.  What God does offer us is a safe place to come with that grief.  Whether we use the image of God as strong rock or a sheltering wing, God gives us something steady to hold onto, gives us a safe place to fall.  Before God we can be completely honest.  We don’t have to pretend to be fine, hide our anger, stop our tears.  By allowing God to be part of our grief, we give Him room to be part of our healing.  Experiencing God’s love for us gives us courage to take steps toward relationship again, knowing that as capable of destruction as we are, we are also capable of the kind of love we were designed to give.  The love Adam felt as he watched, jaw dropped and eye opened as his life partner was made. 

Amen.  

 

 

Pentecost, Year B, 2007

Once upon a time, many years ago, all the people of the world lived in one place and spoke one language.  There were not very many of them-a few hundred at the most-and they wandered all over the face of the earth until one day they found a little spot of land perfect for a city.  The earth was red and dense-perfect for making bricks.  So, they packed the mud together, made and fired bricks, and started piling them together.  Soon they had made several houses and even a town hall.  While this was the grandest city any of them had ever seen-it was the first city, after all-they decided these buildings were not quite spectacular enough.  What they needed was a tower-a tower that reached the highest heavens. 

As soon as they had made enough bricks, they began the tower.  After the first week, it was as high as the tallest man’s head.  After the second week, it was taller than the tallest building.  By the end of the first month, you had to crane your neck waaaay up to see the top of the tower.  It was a magnificent sight.

God was keeping an eye on this city, and particularly on this tower.  He saw how well the people were working together, how powerful they became.  While he loved them, the way they were grasping for power, grasping to conquer the heavens concerned him.  The tower was all anyone talked about.  People were skipping meals, neglecting their children, forgetting to say I love you when they left their homes in the morning.  All the people thought about was reaching the top of the heavens.

God knew this kind of behavior would only end in disappointment for the city dwellers, so he made a difficult decision.  Rather than everyone on earth being the same, God would give them differences.  They would speak in different languages, live in different countries, have different colored skin.  That way the human race would never grow too powerful.  When people saw the remains of the tall tower, they called it the Babel Tower, because they remember that it marked the beginning of all the languages of the earth.

For many years, people were separated from each other.   And those separations caused huge problems.  First, all the different language groups retreated to their own corners.  They spent so much time with just themselves, they forgot other groups existed.  When they did come across the other groups, they would fight for power and land.  Many people died because these different groups could not resolve their differences with words.  One group even got special treatment:  God chose them, and only them to be his people.  He blessed them with his presence and even gave them permission to invade other groups’ land! 

One day, however, everything changed.  A man named Jesus had come to earth.  The people who knew him got very excited about him.  They were all shocked when he died at the age of 33.  That shock didn’t even compare to the surprise they felt when he was resurrected!  They practically danced in the street!  However, Jesus gave them other instructions.  He told them to stay put, to meet together in an upper room.  Jesus explained that he had to leave, but that he would send someone to take his place-someone to be an Advocate and a Comforter to his people.

One day, fifty days after the day of Jesus’ resurrection, the people in the upper room had the strangest experience.  This spiritual presence rushed into the room-it felt like. . .like wind, or fire. . .something that rushed over them, but also into them.  And when it rushed into them, something changed.  They began to understand what all the strangers outside their door were saying, and suddenly, they were speaking their language!  A language they didn’t even recognize before that day.  And as they found themselves speaking, they felt a little delirious, but just kept telling these strangers about the wild experiences they had had with Jesus and how he came back from the dead. 

This weird energy did not leave them, either.  The energy felt less intense after awhile, but it remained with them and gave them strength and courage and helped them to understand the mysterious things they heard Jesus say.  This Advocate, this comforter, also helped them to reach out.  Suddenly it did not matter if someone spoke Greek or Aramaic or Coptic or some language you had never heard of.  They understood that God loved the whole world, not just their language group.  They understood that the days of division between languages, cultures and race were over.

(Long pause)

I wonder how these early, Spirit filled Christians would feel if the saw the state of our world today.  Even with our global economy, we as humans seem unable to get over our differences, unable to give up fighting for power, land or ideals.  Do you know what the name of the town where Babel tower was built is now?  Baghdad.  The irony that the center of our current conflict is in the very place where we were first experienced differences in language haunts me.  The tower of unity has collapsed indeed.

For goodness sake, even our churches have become battle grounds for ideologies and moral codes.  The words some Christians use to attack other Christians are just as sharp edged and ugly as words used to attack another culture or country. 

Where has the life and language giving Spirit gone?  Are we doomed to repeat this cycle of violence and misunderstanding?  Are we doomed to live without the Spirit?

I was at a conference at Virginia Seminary this week.  The keynote speaker was a man named Graham Standish, who has written a book called, “Becoming the Blessed Church.”  His hypothesis is more or less that Mainline Churches:  Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists, have gained a reputation for being Spiritless, functional churches.  They may be nice, warm places, but they have lost that visionary drive to follow Christ, so in response, people have fled to non denominational, charismatic churches.

He argues that this reputation is not necessarily true.  Though on a denominational level, all four denominations have had internal fights worthy of newscoverage, on an individual level many parishes are thriving and are filled with God’s life giving Spirit.

I know I have felt the Holy Spirit in this place.  I have felt it most in the St. George’s chapel, during my own prayers and healing prayers.  I have felt it in the movement of your lives and in Chuck’s words.  The trick for us is to pay attention.  God’s Spirit is here among us, just as it was that first day of Pentecost. 

As Episcopalians, we’re a little uncomfortable with the Holy Spirit.  After all, we see what happens in those charismatic churches.  Heaven forbid one of us start speaking in tongues or prophesying!  However, not being a charismatic church does not give us permission to resist or ignore the Holy Spirit. 

The Holy Spirit is the force that connects us to God and helps us to discern what God’s will is for us as individuals and as a church.  The Holy Spirit is the force that, like on Pentecost, gives us the power to reach out to neighbors and strangers and welcome them with the Good news of God’s love for them.  The Holy Spirit is the force that guides us on the path to our true calling and helps us resist temptations along the way. 

So, how do we interact with the Holy Spirit?  There’s no mystery here.  To open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, we need to pray.  We need to pray and we need to create a few moments of silence in our lives. 

And it is critical that we engage in prayer for this church and for each other, as Emmanuel continues to discern its role in this community.

I was hired, and began this job a year ago, because this part of Albemarle County is experiencing incredible growth.  While this is exciting, any change, in any community, is also a little unnerving.  Emmanuel has a very distinct character and I have heard some anxiety that Emmanuel’s uniqueness might be lost if the church grows.  That kind of anxiety leads to much speculation. 

Here are some of the rumors I have heard. 

First, that the diocese will start a mission church in Crozet.  As far as I know, this is not true.  Emmanuel is the church that serves this part of the world, and it is our responsibility and our delight to welcome those that move here. 

Second, that we are going to build a larger church.  This is also not true.  This building is precious to us, and before we change anything structural, we would add more services on Sunday.  Even this change is not happening any time soon. 

My favorite rumor is that we are going to pave the grassy area in front of the church so that people can park.  The vestry is researching options for parking, but I can assure you none of them involve the view of the church from the road. 

Keep in mind that change comes very slowly to churches.  Any change will be discussed and deliberated with the parish.  There are no secrets here.  And this is why we all need to pray for the Spirit’s guidance.  We need to listen for God’s will for us as a team, together.  God is so clearly working in this place, let us make it easy for God to continue that work by prayerfully listening for what his will is for this place. 

We can choose to be Tower of Babel people-striving on our own strength to create change that is on our terms, or we can be Pentecost people-open to the Spirit, open to change in God’s time, and in God’s ways. 

Lent 5, Year B, 2006

You promise to pay a certain amount of money every month, and you get a house in return. 

You vow to stay in relationship with a person for the rest of your life, and she does, too. 

You sign a piece of paper saying that you’ll stay with a job three years, and you are promised salary and benefit in return. 

And you never, never, never date your best friend’s exes.

What do these situations have in common?  They are all examples of contracts, either official or implied.  In a contract, two parties exchange promises and the contract can be broken the minute one party does not live up to his or her promise. 

Humans have used contracts for thousands of years.  A contract assumes that both parties have equal responsibilities to fulfill the promises they make.  What happens historically if one party has much more power than the other?

3500 years ago in the Hittite kingdom, there were king like figures called Suzereins, who had money and armies and a great deal of power.  Because they had so much power, instead of making a contract, the Suzereins made covenants with the peasants.  If the peasants gave them a certain percentage of the crops they grew and cattle they raised then the suzerains gave them protection from invading armies.  However, if an invading army was going to come through, the suzerein was not going to check each peasant’s records-he was going to defend his territory.  So, the peasant, to some degree, could still receive the suzerein’s protection, even if he failed to deliver his end of the bargain.

So, why am I telling you all of this?   An understanding of covenant is important because God has related to human beings, throughout history, through covenants.  Suzerien covenants were happening roughly about the time when Genesis and Exodus were written and the covenants written in the Bible have the same structure as these Suzerein covenants.

Depending on how you count, there are anywhere from five to eight covenants between God and people in the Bible.  In our Old Testament reading for today, Jeremiah talks about the concept of God making a new Covenant, but before we can understand the New Covenant, we have to understand the old covenants.

And, because this sermon threatens to make all of you fall asleep, you’re going to have to help me list these first five covenants.  I’ll give you a few clues, and you tell me which biblical character I am describing.

The first covenant was made with the man who was the only righteous man left on the planet. Any takers?  Okay, another clue. . .there was a boat involved. ..

Right!  Noah.  Now, can anyone remember WHAT God promised Noah?  (Not to wipe out humanity)  What did Noah have to do in return?  What was the symbol of this covenant?  (rainbow)

Excellent work.  Now, on to the second covenant.  This one was made with a man who was married to a woman named Sarai?  Any ideas?  Another clue-this man had a child when he was very, very, very old.  Abraham!  Right, what did God promise to do for Abraham?  And what did Abraham need to do in return?  What was the symbol of this covenant?  Circumcision.

Okay, now we’re onto the third covenant.  This covenant was made with a man who discovered as a baby in a basket by the Phaoroah’s daughter.  He went on to experience God by a burning bush. . .Right, Moses!  God made a covenant with Israel through Moses.  He called Moses up on Mount Sianai-what did he give him there-right the Ten Commandments! 

In this covenant, God speaks directly to the people.  He calls Moses to Mt Sianai to warn the people that God’s coming to speak to them directly.  When God does speak to them, he reminds the Israelites that he is the God who delivered them from Egypt and gives the law, which will govern their life.  If they keep the law, God will remain with them.  This period also codifies the sacrificial system-if the people sin, they are required to make a blood sacrifice-either a bird or a sheep or cow depending on the offense and their financial state.

Well, soon enough, the Israelites, who are tired of wandering around in the desert, forget they’ve had this incredible experience of God and start worshiping false idols, complaining, and certainly not following the law. 

God, however, does not give up.  In Deutoromy 30, we read about the next covenant, the land covenant.  In this covenant, God says that if the Israelites come back to him and start behaving faithfully, he will gather them together and give them a spot of land to call their own.  And yes, this is the covenant that is still causing part of the problem in the Middle East!  But that’s a whole other sermon. . .

So, after Moses’ generation dies, the Israelites finally get their parcel of land, but again, they are unable to keep their end of the deal.  They live in the land of Canaan for awhile, but eventually the tribes start bickering with each other and the threat of invaders becomes very serious.

However, all is not lost.  In the book of Samuel, we read about how  the people of Israel start whining because they don’t have a king and everyone else has a king, so God decides to give them one.  The first king, Saul does not work out, so God chooses a second king.  Can anyone remember this second king’s name?  Here’s a hint:  as a kid, he killed a giant with a slingshot.  Yes, David!  It is under David’s leadership that Israel and Judah briefly reunite again and under his leadership that Israel captures Jerusalem. David’s 30something year reign is the Golden Age of Israel.  God loves David so much that he makes an unconditional covenant with him.  God promises that the Israelites will be a rooted people with land of their own and that God will establish an eternal kingdom from David’s line.

All this sounds well and good, but a theological problem developed when the Israelites were NOT able to stay in Jerusalem and the line of kings from David turned out to be kind of terrible and eventually died out. . .where does this leave us in terms of God’s faithfulness?  Our reading from Jeremiah today gives us a clue.  God decides to form a new covenant, a sixth covenant with us.  As you can see, historically, humans have not been great at living up to their ends of covenantal agreements.  Any wise businessperson would have written us off long ago.  Not only are we terrible at following god’s law, we’re not even that great about faithfully worshipping one God!  Any chance we got, we worshiped a golden calf, another God, a credit card. . .

Luckily for us, God is not a businessperson.  God is so interested in maintaining a relationship with us that he cooks up a new covenant, in which he does ALL the work.  In this covenant, he will write his law, the law of love, on our hearts.  While he required blood sacrifices in the past, all along what he really wanted was the sacrifice of our lives-for us to give up our selfishness and love God with our whole hearts. 

So, in order to make things right, God becomes human, lives a life in which he grows into perfection, and then is offered as a blood sacrifice on our behalf.  And while this seems barbaric and a little weird to our modern minds, we have to understand the context in which this happened.  All the sacrifices we offered, all our best efforts, were never enough.  And instead of raising the stakes, or wiping out humanity again, God decides to shoulder the responsibility, to continue the kingship of David through Christ and to offer us a new kind of covenant with him.  A covenant of love and trust and understanding-a covenant of the heart.

Next Sunday, Palm Sunday, begins Holy Week.  Holy Week you will have the opportunity to attend church Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  I encourage you to attend these services as we reflect on and remember this miraculous and overwhelming, sad and glorious New Covenant that God has made with us.  We take God for granted, we take Easter for granted, but we are so lucky-God does not demand our money or our sacrifices. God just wants us-our hearts, our minds, our souls-he wants to know us and be known to us. 

All of the Covenants have been pointing to this-God’s desire to be in relationship with us and his desire to help us be worthy of that honor.  God has stuck with us the whole way-through all of our missteps, all of our false worship, all of our betrayals and he waits for us now, to turn our hearts to him and worship him with all of our mind, our heart, our soul and our body.