Sunday, October 1, 2017

Living the Prayer of St. Francis

Preaching and Presiding today at Christ Church, Rochdale.

Seven hundred and ninety one years ago this Tuesday, Francis of Assisi died. We will celebrate his Feast Day on Wednesday. For today I want to ask a question: what can a man from Umbria who lived eight centuries ago teach us today about following Jesus?

From 1998-2013, I served as the rector of the only parish in our diocese that bears the name of St. Francis of Assisi. When I went to Holden, I knew next to nothing about him. But during my tenure we became close friends. Many of you have, I’m sure, seen the familiar statue of St. Francis hanging around in gardens; in fact I think there is one around this building if I’m not mistaken. He is pleasant enough; often some birds are there chatting with him or some animal is sitting at his feet as Francis preaches the gospel at all times, sometimes even with words.

But to encounter him in the flesh we have to travel back to the latter days of the twelfth century, to the Umbrian town of Assisi, half-way between Rome and Florence. Assisi sits on a hill and it’s obvious that the roads were built long before the automobile. So you park at the bottom of the hill and you walk up and up to the narrow streets where you can almost imagine walking into good old Francis, no longer a statue but a real person in a real time and place.

In 1182, an infant boy was baptized in the cathedral font of Assisi. His mother was a religious person who decided to name her son after John the Baptist, the one who “prepared the way” for Jesus. And so he was christened “Giovanni” – the Italian version of John. Francesco, which means “little Frenchman,” was the nickname given to him by his father, who loved all things French.

In the latter part of the twelfth century, Assisi was moving from a feudal society to a mercantile society. That led to clashes between social classes: the old guard and the “nouveau riche” merchants like Giovanni’s father, who was a cloth trader who traveled regularly on business to France. Francesco may have even traveled with his dad on business trips in his teenage years. If he did and they got to Paris, then he would have seen a new cathedral under construction that would be named for the mother of our Lord, Notre Dame.

By all accounts, Francesco was a spoiled rich kid. It happens sometimes when parents are upwardly mobile and they indulge their children so that they will have all of the “opportunities” they didn’t have. His father expected him to follow in his path in the family business. Something happened, though—it’s not clear what—that led Francesco to a change in his worldview. Some say he came down with an illness that left him bedridden for a long period of time. In any case, he ended up in the military and decided to become a knight.

When someone says “semper fi” to you, you know that they are shaped by a whole set of values that make that person a marine. Knights in the Middle Ages were something like that, and the equivalent of “semper fi” was the notion of chivalry. Two “core values” for knights were a commitment to largesse, i.e. to give freely, and to be always courteous. Yes, sir. No thank you ma’am. I mention this because as profoundly as Francesco would be formed by the gospel, these military values also played a role in shaping who he was becoming and they stayed with him. Generosity and courtesy permeate the Rule of Francis. Obviously these are gospel values, but they were also reinforced by his training as a knight. I suspect that the same could be said for many of us: hopefully our core values are rooted in the gospel, but our families and our work also leave a mark.

And then Francesco had this powerful religious awakening in the church in San Damiano. While praying, he heard Christ calling to him “Francesco, rebuild my church.” Some might call this a “conversion experience,” which is fine. But I prefer to think of such experiences as “awakenings” because they remind us that it’s about what God is doing in our lives, not the other way around. That is to say, at that cathedral font, baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he had already been “claimed and sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever.” It isn’t God’s fault he was asleep to that reality for so many years! In any event, he finally “woke up,” and when he did he began to literally rebuild that chapel in San Damiano, like a good junior warden.

So Francesco had “gotten religion.” A little too much from his father’s perspective. So his dad calls the bishop (who happens to be a personal friend) to talk some sense into the boy, who was beginning to take his faith just a little too seriously. Part of what was happening is that his commitment to largesse was making him very generous with his father’s hard-earned money.

If you ever go to Assisi and perhaps some of you have been, there is a fresco in the upper church that captures a heart-wrenching moment on the town green: Francesco, his father, the bishop, and a whole lot of nosy neighbors. I stood in front of it and tried to imagine the turmoil and the sense of shame and betrayal that both father and son must have felt that day in the public square as Francesco went, shall we say, “al fresco,” taking off his clothes and giving them to his father and saying, “now I don’t have anything that belongs to you. I’m as naked as the day I was born. You are no longer my father; my only father is the one I have in heaven.” The bishop is so embarrassed he takes off his chasuble and covers Frank up.

There is such humanity in this scene, long before Francis became a statue in the garden. Even if he is canonized, I think we make a mistake if we turn him into the hero of this moment and his father into the devil. I imagine his dad, especially within his context of a changing world where there were increasing opportunities for those willing to work hard as honestly wanting the very best for his son. The problem is that father and son don’t see eye-to-eye on what is best. Their core values clash and Francis has to live the life he believes God is calling him to, not his father’s dreams. Families are like this sometimes as we navigate our way from generation to generation.

I have sometimes wondered if this isn’t a kind of inverted story of the prodigal son: instead of the father running out to embrace the son, Francesco’s father seems almost to be recoiling in that fresco, as if he’s asking: “who is this kid and what has happened to him?” With all due respect to Francesco, as a parent I can’t help but feel some empathy for the father. That isn’t the same as saying his father was right: we raise our kids in order to let them become adults who will find their own path to God and their own way in the world. But moments like this one are so hard not just for father and son and for the bishop but for all the rest of us who are eavesdropping on a family matter being played out on the town square. It’s a sad and heart-wrenching moment, at least to me it is. Yet it is also a defining moment in Francesco’s spiritual journey.

So we get this very public rift in a small town. For Francis, at the heart of the gospel was a call to embrace poverty as a way to share in Christ’s suffering. His father simply couldn’t understand that after all the sacrifices he had made to make life better for his son. And so father and son go their separate ways.

I want to tell you about one more encounter in Francis’ life that you might not already know about. In 1219, he heads off to the Middle East during the time of the Crusades. War is always hell, but the Crusades were particularly brutal, as perhaps only religious conflicts are. Yet Francis goes down to Egypt to the sultan’s palace to meet with a caliph who is roughly the same age as he is—late thirties. The Muslim leader, most likely a Sufi mystic, is fond of religious poetry, intellectually curious, and on good terms with the merchants of Venice. The two men meet and Francis tries to convert him to Christianity. That doesn’t happen, but they depart in peace and on good terms.

In the heart of the Islamic world, in the middle of the Crusades, Francis bears witness to the love of God he knew in Jesus. But he also listens and he treats the other with dignity and respect. The word crusader literally means “he who bears the cross.” In the twelfth century and to this very day, however, that word sends chills down the spines of people who remember the atrocities done in the name of Christ and in the name of the cross, especially in the Muslim world. Our language can be so easily manipulated in times of war. Yet Francis bore witness in the midst of all of that to another way. He was a true crusader because for him the “way of the cross” meant the way of mutual respect and conversation and humility, and trying to be an instrument of peace in a warring world. It meant sowing seeds of love instead of hate, and living with hope for the dawn of a new day.

I suspect most of you didn’t come here today to hear stories about St. Francis. We don’t worship the saints, but we try to see their lives as a witness that inspires us to do what they did: to see Jesus more clearly, and follow him more nearly, and love him more dearly. Francis models that in a way that I think is still relevant for twenty-first century Christians and it’s about more than loving our pets. We honor St. Francis when we care for this planet, this fragile earth, our island home and love all creatures of our God and king. But we also honor Francis when we risk interfaith dialogue with Muslim neighbors, and when we choose not to wield power over others but to bear the cross as a sign of hope and of our own humility and vulnerability. We honor Francis we commit ourselves to be instruments of peace by sowing love, and pardon, and union, and faith, and hope, and light and joy wherever we may find ourselves.

In today’s epistle reading, from Paul to the early Christians in Philippi, we heard these words:

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

That mind of Christ does not mean we will all agree or vote the same. The mind of Christ is to be cross-bearers and peace-makers whether we are traveling to distant lands or reaching across the dinner table. We are called to be of one mind, which does not make us the same but as a contemporary Irish theologian puts it, “one love, we’re not the same…but we get to carry each other.”

May we not just pray the Prayer of St. Francis, but try to live it, always with God’s help. In a world where there is so much hatred and injury and discord and doubt and despair and darkness and sadness we have our work cut out for us. But we keep sowing seeds.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today I am at All Saints, South Hadley, home to Mount Holyoke College. As mentioned in my sermon, below, I've been there many times before but this is my first time preaching there. It's been fifteen weeks since the Feast of Pentecost - the readings for this day can be found here.

What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us? This is the question on the hearts of Joseph’s brothers in today’s Old Testament reading. You will remember, I’m sure, that they are the ones who left him in a pit and sold him off to some Midianite traders, but not before they first contemplated killing him. Something to do with that multi-colored dreamcoat, and because dad always loved him more. In the end I guess selling him to those Midianite traders was an act of mercy, but it probably didn’t feel that way from the pit.

You will recall (even if it’s from the Broadway version of these events) how things went from there: the sexual abuse accusation from Potipher’s wife that landed Joseph in jail, his release from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s anxious dreams, his rise in Pharaoh’s cabinet as Secretary of Agriculture. Joseph is no longer the “little brother” when we see him today. He’s got lots of power and these brothers come from a land that has been suffering from a famine. Given that he now has all this power, they are afraid that he’s about to use that power to seek revenge. That he will, as we heard, “pay them back in full.” You know how it goes: what goes around, comes around. I mean, they have it coming. Joseph knows it. The brothers know it. We, the readers, know it.

What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us?

Joseph chooses to forgive them. He chooses to let that old grudge go. He chooses to see the hand of God in his past that leads toward forgiveness in the present and hopefully toward reconciliation in the future. He is, where he is, because of all that has happened and well, it is what it is. This is a holy moment to witness, when old grudges are left in the past and no longer define the present, or what is possible, with God’s help.

I want to ask you to hold all of this for a moment or two, and perhaps reflect on grudges you’ve held in your own life, or grudges that have been held against you. Grudges where there’s been an opportunity to “pay them back in full” and grudges that have been let go of. Hold that, if you would, for a moment or two and I’ll circle back. I promise…

Some of you know who I am and some don’t. And I know who some of you are and some I’ve not yet met. I work as one of the two Canons to the Ordinary in this diocese – the ordinary is a fancy Latin derivative for the Bishop, the one who ordains. If I were a Lutheran I’d be called “Assistant to the Bishop,” but Canon to the Ordinary sounds that much more impressive, doesn’t it?

I’ve been in this church building many times over the past two decades or so; I’m guessing more than twenty and probably more than that. Before I held this position, I was the rector of St. Francis in Holden for fifteen years. I’ve been here for Diocesan Clergy Days and Continuing Ed events and I’ve been here for Commission on Ministry Meetings when Betsy Fowle was the chair, before I took over from her. I’ve been here for meetings for General Convention Deputies. It’s a pretty central location as Tanya likes to remind us at Diocesan House. I’ve been here to meet with your rector and executive committee and vestry and I was here for Chip Doherty’s retirement party. And I was here when Lawrence House was blessed and those first Lawrence House interns were commissioned. In fact the picture Vicki Ix uses on my diocesan bio was taken here in South Hadley at that great event. But this is my first time in this pulpit. I’m grateful for the opportunity and I hope it’s not my last chance.

I love this building, and as I said, it works as a meeting place for many, not just members of this congregation. But I learned in Sunday School (and maybe some of you did too) that the Church is not a building, but a people. That I am the Church, and you are the Church, and we are the Church together. And I think we have to keep saying that until we believe it, and once we believe it, we need to live it. In other words, the work that sends you out from this place as the people of God called to love your neighbors defines you.

Part of spiritual growth—for an individual and for a parish—is to pause every now and again and figure out what our gifts are, what our ministry truly is, so that those gifts can be shared for the sake of the gospel. Sometimes ministries need to die because they belong to the vision of a past generation and we have neither the time nor the passion nor the energy to do them any longer. Letting go is usually accompanied by grief. In the work I do with congregations in transition, congregations that are seeking new clergy in particular, I often remind them that in spite of what we usually say about Episcopalians resisting change, it is not so much change we really resist as loss. When we move forward, we lose something from the past and that involves some emotional work. We are a people who do not ever believe death is the last word, so we can let go in hope. But that doesn’t make it easy.

Sometimes new ministries are born as someone comes up with an idea, with a hunch, with a hunger. And then by God’s grace and with the help of others and the stars aligning, that vision is implemented. I think of Lawrence House as mustard-seed-like parable of that not just for you at All Saints, but for all of us in this diocese. And we are seeing that growth as Lawrence House comes into its own. So thank you all for that good work toward fulfilling God’s mission of mercy, compassion, and hope.

Now, do you remember where I began? With grudges. Joseph’s brothers worry he may still have a grudge against them, which would be for good reason if he did. They worry that now that he’s in power he will repay them. But instead he shows mercy. And in showing mercy he claims all that has been as part of God’s work in the world. He models forgiveness in a very real and specific family situation. I want to suggest here today among God’s people gathered at this Table on this September morning that we are called to do the same; that we need to do the same to bear witness to a polarized world that God is love.

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew comes to us from a first-century community in Syria, probably Antioch. They didn’t yet have a building, but they gathered in each other’s homes. Their specific struggles and concerns were different from those in Jerusalem or Rome or Springfield or South Hadley. But there, as anywhere where two or three are gathered together, there was a need for forgiveness. How hard that can be: both to accept that God forgives us and that we are called to forgive others!

How often, Jesus is asked. As many as seven times? Jesus says no, more than that. It’s not clear whether he says seventy seven times or seventy times seven; the text is ambiguous. Since some of you may not yet be awake and I didn’t warn you there would be math this morning, I’ll just say that seventy times seven equals 490. But whether it’s 77 times or 490 times, it’s a lot.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus prefers telling stories to setting down dogmatic rules? Jesus invites people to reflection. He doesn’t “lord it over” his disciples. He doesn’t preach at people. Instead he tells stories that invite them to see things in a new way and to change our perspective. Jesus doesn’t say, “you better forgive 77 times or else you are going to hell…” The Church has had a tendency to add that sort of thing, which I think can leave people paralyzed and feeling like they don’t measure up. Instead, Jesus tells a story. Only because most of us don’t understand the first-century Roman monetary system we tend to miss the point, or skip over it. But let’s linger a bit with a little more math if you are up for it. One denarii is equal to one day’s wages. There are ten thousand denarii in one talent. To put that another way, one talent is like thirty years wages. That’s one talent but the parable says that the guy is in debt ten thousand talents, which is to say something like a billion dollars – a ridiculously huge amount of debt equal to that of some small nations.

It’s an absurd number. This is Middle Eastern hyperbole which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is exaggerating. Now this debt is forgiven. The guy in turn is owed a comparably small debt, but nevertheless a not insignificant one. One hundred denarii is like three month’s wages. So let’s call it $15,000. The guy who has just been forgiven a billion dollar debt now wants every penny of what he believes he has coming to him. I think we are meant to laugh when we hear this story but after the laughter may come some tears, and some questions, and some self-reflection. Many of us have a tendency to get focused on the hurt done to us more than on the hurt we’ve done to others which I think is the reason for the Middle Eastern hyperbole here to help us see that. We tend to focus on the grudges we must hold onto rather than the ones we have been forgiven for. So we might wonder – and I’m not asking for volunteers here because we are, after all, Episcopalians, but in the quiet of our own hearts we might wonder: when have I been like the forgiver? Like the forgiven? When I have I held onto a grudge longer than I needed to? We pray at least once a week as we gather that we might forgive others as we have been forgiven. Do we dare to live as if we believe that?

Yes, that’s hard. And yes people really do hurt us. My experience teaches me, however, that when we get stuck it is very often ourselves that we hurt for we let the other continue to control us and take up residence in our heads. True freedom in Christ is about letting go. Again, think of Joseph. All those years he didn’t have his brothers in his life. Now he has a choice: to keep that status quo or to open the door to a new future. To hold on to that grudge or to let it go. Where forgiveness happens, creativity and energy for ministry are unleashed, on all sides.

In his short story, “The Capital of the World,” Ernest Hemingway tells the story of a Spanish father and his teenage son. It’s the story of a strained and eventually shattered relationship that causes the boy, Paco, to run away from home. Like the father of the prodigal son, this father in this story longs to welcome his son home, and so he goes in search of him. When he comes to Madrid he places an ad in the newspaper which reads:

Dear Paco, Please meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon. All is forgiven. Love, Father

The next day, at noon, there are 800 Pacos at the newspaper office, all of them apparently seeking forgiveness from their fathers.

There are worse ways, I am convinced, than to be known than as the Church where love is unleashed through the power of forgiveness. I truly believe this takes us to the very heart of Biblical faith, in both the old and new testaments. In a world of shrill polarities, I think it offers real hope for the world for us to proclaim not only with our lips, but our lives:  Paco, Tanya, Shalom, Chip, Rebecca, Susan, Terry - all is forgiven. 

May we forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven, in the name of the living God. That isn't the end of the story of the good news of Jesus Christ, but surely it is a good place to begin. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

9/11

Seven years ago, I was still serving as the rector of St. Francis Church. The Sunday we celebrated "Welcome Back" Sunday fell on September 12, and I reflected on 9/11. I've left my sermon notes "unedited" for this post - it's seven years old but perhaps still, in some ways, relevant to the emotions of this day. 

The lectionary is a way to read the Bible in public worship, as we come together each week for common prayer. It’s a template, organized on a three-year cycle. What that means is that the same readings that we heard today come up every three years: we last heard them in September 2007 and they will not be read again until September 2013.

This also means that these are the very same readings we heard nine years ago, on the weekend after September 11, 2001. Some of you may remember, as I do, that there were people here for worship that weekend that I’d never seen before, and whom I have not seen since. They came, I imagine, looking for a word of hope and comfort in the midst of events that were too frightening to comprehend. You could have heard a pin drop when the lay reader got up to read from the fourth chapter of the prophet Jeremiah, these same difficult words we heard today:

"For my people are foolish,
they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
but do not know how to do good."
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the LORD, before his fierce anger.

What struck me, more perhaps in hindsight than in that exact moment, was that as brutally harsh as Jeremiah’s words sounded as they filled this room, that they also seemed to capture where we were emotionally. We, too, had just beheld what can happen when people put their talents to work for doing evil rather than good. We too, beheld a city in ruins. Jeremiah of course, did not have lower Manhattan in mind when he spoke nearly six hundred years before the birth of Christ. He was speaking about the city of Jerusalem being “waste and void” because of the devastation caused by the Babylonian army.  He was speaking of the temple, not the towers, being brought to the ground. 

Even so, on that September day nine years ago it seemed as if the gap between Jeremiah and us had been closed, and we were together in our confusion and grief and fear and anger. The biggest theological question of all was right up front as well: where was God?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the prophet is not only the one who hears God’s voice, but the one who can feel God’s heart. Heschel had no patience with the “god” of the philosophers – Aristotle’s famous “Unmoved Mover.” As Heschel read the Bible (and especially the prophets) he discovered what he called the pathos of God. The God of the Bible, he said, is a God who loves us even when we do behave like stupid children who have no understanding; a God who loves us even to the point of Her own broken heart. Jeremiah imagines God more like a frustrated Parent than an Unmoved Mover: “I’ve done everything I can,” God says. “I created humanity in my own image. I gave them the gift of Torah, a gift “sweeter than honey.” How on earth could they have messed things up so badly?”

Prophets like Jeremiah push us way out of our comfort zones. But they do so for a reason: they are trying to push us hard enough and far enough out of our denial so that we will take another look at our lives and the world around us, so that we will see the parts of ourselves and the world that we would prefer to cover up. They do this not to depress us but to wake us up, so that we can truly live. When tragedy strikes, we ask, “where is God?” The answer that the prophets give is one we don’t usually want to hear: that God has been holding up God’s end of the bargain, and the real question is this: where are God’s people?

Most of us can’t bear too much reality, and we don’t really want to hear about the pain of the world. Denial is one response; getting numb is another—and we have any number of options in our time to help us get numb. Flannery O’Connor once said, “to the hard of hearing you need to shout.” I’ve always thought that is as good an image of what the prophets are up to as any. They seem like mad men at times, shouting away. But they have the difficult task of breaking through our defenses to get us to see what we prefer not to see.  Nine years ago our collective defenses were ripped down, and so Jeremiah’s hard words hardly needed for the preacher to say more. But what about today, on these waning days of late summer nine years later?  

When I thought about what to say as ministries start back up again this weekend, I confess that I thought a lot about avoiding Jeremiah altogether for something happier. But as I prayed and reflected on these texts, I realized again that Jeremiah lived through hard times and he refused to sugarcoat the realities of the pain and hardship of the Babylonian Captivity. This first decade of this millennium has also been a very difficult and polarizing time for our nation and for the wider Church as well. We are not immune from all of that here at St. Francis. It seems to me that we come to church not for sugarcoating but for a dose of reality, and that our several callings to ministry take us not to some dream world that we wish existed but more deeply into this world, with all of its warring madness and all of its challenges. It also seems more obvious to me on this ninth anniversary of 9/11 more than any that have gone before that we’ve not yet grieved, and because we have not yet grieved we have not moved on. We are collectively, as a nation, stuck.  

From the perspective of hindsight we know that the road ahead for Jeremiah and the Babylonian exiles would be a long one, as in something like a half century or so. We don’t like to hear such things, of course, in a culture that wants “closure” as fast as possible. We want someone to make it all better for us as quickly as possible and in the absence of a quick fix then there is always blame, or denial, or getting numb. But it is worth remembering that even through those decades of the Babylonian exile, Jeremiah was able to imagine the dawn of a new day, and to speak of hope. If you can stay with that old bull-frog of a prophet all the way to chapter thirty-one, you do find good news. There he begins to talk about the day when God at long last will write the law not on tablets of stone, but on people’s hearts. That law is the law of love.

As followers of Jesus Christ, love is a non-negotiable. We are held in love and because of that we are called to love others. It is the core value that defines who we are and if we can’t live out of that core value in difficult times then it is really nonsense to pretend that it matters. If we cannot live out of and into that love when times are tough, then it’s nothing more than sentimentality. Love is not the same as being nice, or of liking everyone. Faithful people in Jeremiah’s day as in ours will and do disagree on many things. But in the Church, at least, we are called to disagree without polarizing and demonizing the other, for Christ’s sake. It is in this world that nearly a decade after 9/11 remains fearful, embittered, and grieving that you and I are called to serve, to speak up, and to act as “instruments of God’s peace.” It is in this world that we are called to preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary to use words. As in Jeremiah’s day, and centuries later in Corinth, so we too must remember that the law of love “is patient and kind, not arrogant or rude…it does not insist on its own way but strives for the truth.”

I didn’t agree with former President Bush on very much. But I admired and respected him when he went to the Washington Islamic Center on September 17, 2001, less than one week after 9/11. There, as you may recall, he said that Islam is a religion of peace and that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had nothing to do with the teachings of Islam or the sincere Muslims of the world who deplore terrorism. He went on to say that those who inflict harm on innocent Muslims are “just as wrong” as those who carry out terrorist attacks.

Nine years later, as a nation we seem to be in danger of forgetting that insight. In places like Gainsville, Florida and Murfreesboro, Tennessee and even at Ground Zero itself we are in danger of acting like the First Amendment applies to everyone except Muslims. We are in danger of letting fear and ignorance and blame beat down our better angels.

As Christians, you and I are called to do better than that: we are called to love our neighbors even when we may not agree with them. This past week, in the midst all of the talk about burning Korans in Florida, the American Bible Association said it would stand in solidarity with Muslims by offering a program to give away two Korans for every one burned. This gesture  was, it seems to me, a courageous witness rooted in Biblical faith. Maybe the only good thing that came out of this last couple of weeks of media circus in Florida is that people on the right and on the left were united in the belief that burning books, and especially holy books, is never a good idea.

Walter Brueggemann has said that it is the task of prophetic ministry to “nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness” to the dominant culture around us. My job as a preacher and pastor—and our work as “all of the people” called to share ministry in Christ’s name—is to remind one another of what we already know: that perfect love really does cast out fear.

There is a prayer found on page 815 of the Book of Common Prayer that to my mind fits for this occasion. We remember, of course, those who died on 9/11 and we pray for their families and friends. But out of that reality may we also offer a prayer for the whole human family as we remember the work God has given us to do. Let us, then, pray:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look   with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today is the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. I am covering today at Christ Church, Rochdale for the priest-in-charge, who is on maternity leave.

I think I’ve been to Christ Church more Sundays than any other congregation in our diocese since I accepted this position on Bishop Fisher’s staff four years ago. It’s an honor to be back here with you all today and I look forward to being back here again in October as well before Aileen returns from her maternity leave.

There is a lot going on in the world. We will and we should keep the folks in Charlottesville and Houston and in Cuba and Florida in our prayers today. All of these places represent opportunities for the Church to be the Church: for us to be light and salt and yeast and to bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. I am going to go in a different direction today, but please don’t read that as suggesting these prayer concerns are not on my mind and heart. They are…

I want to say something that I hope is not news to anyone here, but it’s so important from time to time to step back and remember it. Here goes: behind every Biblical text that we hear in church each week is a particular context, a unique place and time where the living God was experienced. Someone wrote it down later, but the Bible didn’t just “plop down” from heaven.

Let me say this again another way. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John aren’t running around with clip-boards like vestry clerks taking notes on everything Jesus said and did contemporaneously. Rather, communities remembered the stories, over decades. They told them at coffee hour and when they gathered to break the bread and share the cup and around campfires. They remembered the stories and then forty and even fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, someone said “hey, we should write this stuff down so that we can share it with our children and our children’s children.” The earliest of the four gospels (Mark) didn’t get written down until around 70 – nearly four decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. So the Bible is more like a library than a single narrative and in that library are the recollected experiences of God’s people through time and in different places.

Now this is a sermon, not a Bible study. But if you are still with me, then let me push this just a little bit further before I move along. We heard from Paul’s letter today to the Church in Rome. Paul’s letters were actually written before the gospels. This one was written to those first-century followers of Jesus in Rome, the hub of the Roman Empire, far from the Sea of Galilee and the holy city of Jerusalem. The word had spread that far about Jesus who was crucified, dead and buried and on the third day rose from the dead. They didn’t have church buildings; they gathered in homes. But they did something like what we do. They read from Scripture, although as already mentioned, at that point it was just the Old Testament. They sang psalms. The reflected on how that Word of the Lord related to them. And then they broke the bread and shared the cup.

When Paul writes those words to them he is trying to help them to think about what it means to be the Church, and only later does the Church decide his words might be helpful to future generations, so they become part of what we call the New Testament. Are you with me? I know this is heavy lifting for “welcome back Sunday!”

I think most of us recognize all that I’ve said about Paul’s Letters as true but we’re more prone to forget that the same is true of the four gospels, which are not documentaries on the life of Jesus but more like four plays. In other words and this is an important place to come back even if I’ve lost you a bit in taking the scenic route to get here: Christian communities exist before the New Testament does. The New Testament – the gospels, Acts, Paul’s Letters, the other epistles, Revelation – all of it emerges in the latter part of the first-century as they reflect on what it means to be the Church.

We sometimes forget that, but as I said, nothing I’ve said is controversial. (At least not yet!) It’s just helpful to remember that these readings we hear have a context. So even though Jesus is speaking in today’s gospel reading, it’s important to remember that Matthew is remembering these words within a community that claims Jesus as the Christ – a community that gathers around Word and Sacrament week after week. When he explains how communities ought to deal with conflict you can bet that he’s speaking to people who have some experience with that and who probably have faced some challenges.

It’s pretty simple really, and wise. And hard to do. Hard to do in families, in church, and at work. If you have an issue with someone, take it to them and try to work it out face-to-face. Don’t tell somebody else about the issue you have with so-and-so. That is called “triangulation:” you tell Jane about the problem you are having with Joe and the thing is, Jane can’t do anything to help you that problem and Joe can’t do anything because you aren’t talking to him. Take it to the person directly and see if you can’t work it out. And don’t send an angry email after a glass of wine either. Meet up for a cup of coffee and see if you can work it out. Easy stuff, right? Maybe not.

In families, in congregations, and in work places it turns out this is much easier said than done. But always it should be the first step and one might even go so far as to say that we are meant to practice these conflict management skills in congregations like this one so that we get better at it. In vestry meetings and in the altar guild and with conflicts over a sermon the pastor or the Canon to the Ordinary preached, to deal with our concerns face to face. To try to practice honest speaking and lean-in listening.

A lot of times it works. I am here to tell you, it really does. We clear up a lot of misunderstandings when we take the risk of speaking honestly with one another, in love. But sometimes it does not work. Step two: find someone who can be objective and hear you both out. Someone you both trust. See if you can’t work it out that way. That’s not a triangle – you aren’t gossiping to that other person. You are asking them to be a kind of mediator; to hear both sides.

The point here (and it seems to me the experience of Matthew’s community that seeks to follow the risen Christ) is that conflict cannot be ignored or buried under a carpet. That helps no one. Neither does escalating things! If you insult me and I punch you in the nose we are not moving toward reconciliation. So as baptized persons, we practice direct honest open healthy communication. We covenant to work things out…

In my work as a member of the Bishop’s staff, I see way too much conflict avoidance, however. Clergy are sometimes the worst. I see a lot of clergy profiles of people who are looking to work in congregations in this diocese. Someone has clued them in that avoidance is not a great conflict strategy, so they know it in their heads. But it’s a lot harder to put into practice because somewhere along the line, people have been taught to think that think their job in Church is to be nice, which is not exactly the same as showing love. Sometimes love is hard. It takes work. And when we don’t deal with conflict in healthy ways, at home or at work or in church, it goes underground. But eventually it catches up with us.

So that is the word of the Lord Matthew has for us today. And ditto with Paul. His message is the same whether he is writing to the Church in Corinth or Galatia or Rome or Ephesus. God is love. Love God. Love one another. Those who claim hate in the name of God are taking the Lord’s name in vain. It’s that simple. Hate is not of God. If we choose to scapegoat other people because of our own projected fears, well that’s on us! That’s not of God. God is love.

Paul has to remind Christian congregations of this for the same reason that Matthew has to remind his folks of it: because we are prone to amnesia. Because we can get complacent. Wake up, St. Paul says! You know what time it is! It’s time to live what we profess with our lips. It’s time to walk the walk. And what is that walk? It’s about love. Love of God and love of neighbor. Love strong enough to face conflicts in the hope of reconciliation; not substituting cheap grace for the hard work of real grace.
Pretty much everything you need to know how about how to be the Church is found in today’s two readings from the New Testament, rooted in two first-century communities, but still relevant here in Rochdale in 2017. I think these texts made it into the Bible because we all know they are true. They are a Word of the Lord and it’s easy to say “thanks be to God” when they are read aloud. They aren’t really very hard to understand. But they are very hard to live. I think this is because people can get under our skin.

For a long time now, I think about sixteen years, I’ve been part of the Fellowship of St. John the Evangelist. I take retreat time at the monastery in Cambridge and out at Emery House on the north shore. I meet with a spiritual director regularly, one of the brothers. This summer my spiritual director shared with me that when a novice comes to their community, they tell him that he’ll get a teacher who will help him to grow in faith. Not one who is assigned as a mentor, but an unofficial one. They are excited about this, “oh good, a spiritual teacher!” But then they are told that the teacher will be the brother who most gets on their nerves, the one who most annoys them. Why is this? Because that is the brother who has something to teach them because usually when someone annoys us it’s less about them than it is about us. It’s about how we react to them and how we react tells us something about ourselves.

What if I were to tell you as you gather yourselves up again at the start of a new program year that you all get a teacher here too. That yes, congregations can be like families, as I am told in every single parish in this diocese. But most Thanksgiving Dinners I’ve been too are, at best, “complicated.” Sometimes people get on one another’s nerves in families. But what if we see these as teachable moments? As opportunities to learn something about ourselves? As means toward reconciliation and healing and growing into the full stature of Christ and therefore of building authentic Christian community, not something fake but very real.

As you begin a new year here at Christ Church, I invite you to practice these things together. Continue to be patient and kind and gentle with yourselves and with your still-new priest and with one another. Keep at it. Do not lose heart. Stay awake. Because the world needs for us to learn how to be the Church, now more than ever: in Charlottesville, and in Houston, and in Florida, and right here in Rochdale too. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Labor Day Rumination

One of the best reasons I know to have written prayers, in addition to extemporaneous ones, is that written ones can be internalized over time. We come back to them again and again. And as we learn them by heart and they sink in, by God's grace we slowly begin to live them.

The collect for Labor Day in The Book of Common Prayer goes like this:
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 
There must be twenty or thirty (or a hundred) ruminations that might come from this prayer: one might pray for work that brings dignity, for the common good, for a fair minimum wage, for labor unions, for the unemployed and the underemployed...  Over the years as a parish priest I tended to deviate from the lectionary for this weekend to focus on this day's readings on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. (Don't tell the bishop or the liturgical police!) To me this day matters a lot and it is rich with possibilities.

But I want to focus today on just one little phrase: "you have so linked our lives with one another..." I think that this is true. I also think it's counter-cultural. Another Anglican poet/priest once said, "no man is an island." But in the United States of America - this land I love - this sounds quite counter-cultural. Capitalism insists what we earn is ours; ours by our own "hard work." If others would work as hard...

This is bullshit. That is the technical theological term for it; from the German. It's idolatry. People who clean toilets work hard and they don't get paid what corrupt Wall Street bankers do.

People of God believe that gifts are given from God to be used for the common good. We deserve a fair return for our labor, but so do all the other laborers upon whom we depend. We are linked together. The migrant worker - whether s/he has papers or not - is linked to us whenever we eat a peach or an apple. So, too, the people of Houston, and Charlottesville, and Flint.

I followed the comments today on a friend's Facebook page: he was protesting on behalf of those he called undocumented neighbors. One of his "friends" said that he was speaking of law-breakers and should say the "right" term: illegal alien. I'll leave it to you, my reader, to imagine how the "conversation" unfolded. But how we speak of people matters and shapes our narratives and whether or not we see our lives as linked together.

The prayer for today says we are linked together. We need to keep reminding ourselves of this and that this linking is not limited to those within the borders of nation-states. I love it that people from Mexico were helping out their neighbors in Texas this past week. We are bound together, and we share the image of Christ. My friend is right: undocumented neighbor is not politically correct. It's theologically correct. It's just true!

Let us, then, give thanks on this day for all work, and for lives that are all tied up together. For good, and for ill.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Striving After Wind

Dr. Choon-Leong Seow, who currently teaches at Vanderbilt, formerly taught at Princeton Seminary. He has an extraordinary commentary on Ecclesiastes in The Anchor Bible Series that I highly recommend.

Years ago, I was privileged to take a class with Dr Seow at Princeton Seminary on the Wisdom Tradition. And then, as I was reminded recently by a colleague, we brought Dr. Seow to the parish I was serving at the time, St. Francis, Holden, to preach and then lead a continuing education event for Episcopal and ecumenical clergy on Ecclesiastes. I've been thinking about that lately, and thinking about what insights that literature has to offer in these crazy times we are living through.

There are two Hebrew words one needs to learn before opening up the Book of Ecclesiastes to move beyond that text about there being a time and a season for everything made popular by The Byrds. The first is the name of the preacher/teacher: Qohelet. Leong suggested that we call this preacher/teacher "the Gatherer."

The second term is hebel - which means something more like "vapor" or "mist" rather than what we usually read in English, vanity. (One popular translation (NIV) uses the word "meaningless!" which is perhaps reason enough to never use that translation!) The word appears 38 times in Ecclesiastes, so trying to get it right matters. If you have to pick a word, I think "All is vapor" works pretty well. As Seow puts it:
It refers to anything that is superficial, ephemeral, insubstantial, incomprehensible, enigmatic, inconsistent, or contradictory. Something that is hebel cannot be grasped or controlled. (Ecclesiastes, page 47)
So there is perhaps intended irony that the gatherer cannot gather hebel any more than one can grasp the vapor coming out of a humidifier. Vanity of vanities to think we can!

If you are still with me then perhaps you will stay with me longer. Recently a lot of us laughed as Tina Fey ate a sheet cake on SNL while trying to make sense of what happened in Charlottesville. The segment was funny because Tina Fey is funny and it was well-written and it struck a chord. But what also made it work, I think, is the underlying theology that I think Qohelet would appreciate. All is hebel and a striving after wind! May as well eat sheet cake: Or, as Qohelet puts it:
I commend enjoyment for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 8:15).
We need to keep reading the prophets. And we need to keep on speaking truth to power. We need courage for the living of these days. But we also need to find ways to cope. Eating a sheet cake a day is one way but maybe not the healthiest! But understanding that the work toward racial justice and healing has never been a linear enterprise and "grasping" that the world is just sometimes crazy, and even insane, is also part of the work to which we are called. We need routines and prayer and exercise and fun because otherwise we'll burn out. We need to support one another. We need to sometimes sit down at a bar with Qohelet and order a good IPA and pour out our hearts about everything we've seen under the sun. That includes some crazy, uncontrollable shit.

In that class I took with Seow all those years ago, he suggested that the Book of Proverbs was about learning how to cope with life when all is well. It's what we teach our kids. Pay attention to the ant. Work hard. Look both ways before you cross the street. The Book of Job, he suggested, is about what happens when that tragedy strikes, when life is not fair, when we look both ways but a drunk driver comes out of no where...

Qohelet, he said, is about what happens when the world seems to have gone off the rails. When up is down and down is up. "I've seen," says Qohelet...
...that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
I commend this old text to you, whether or not you consider yourself a "religious" person. Some read it as pessimistic. Not me. I'm an optimist by nature, but always tempered with realism. And I think Qohelet is reasonable. Nothing wrong with a sheet cake every now again. But we might also read, mark, and learn this ancient wisdom as well - even as we remember there is a time and season for everything under the sun. Or to put it another way, "this too shall pass."

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Speaking truth to power

Last week my Facebook page was filled with posts from fellow clergy, across denominational lines, trying to find ways to preach in the aftermath of the events that we all watched unfold in Charlottesville. I was one of those clergy who was re-writing my sermon as late as Sunday morning, trying to speak a word of "good news" in a world that seems to be coming unglued. I saw some fine sermons posted and it made me grateful for this vocation to preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary to use words.

But such times are also fraught with danger. In the opening essay of Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, Dr. Brueggemann writes about "The Preacher as Scribe." (For those who don't own a copy of this great book, I encourage you to buy it! But in the meantime he says some of the same things in an essay entitled "Where is the Scribe?" that was published in the Anglican Theological Review and can be found on-line here.)

Brueggemann is not exactly easy reading, but he has such amazing clarity. In "The Preacher as Scribe" he explores four scriptural confrontations that he says might be construed as truth speaking to power: Moses addressing Pharaoh, Nathan addressing David, Elijah addressing Ahab, and Daniel addressing Nebuchadnezzar. He then notes how problematic these examples are for preachers and that the model can be overly simplistic. Brueggemann writes about what every preacher struggles with at one point or another when confronting this question:
When we preside over institutions with programs, budgets, and anxiety-filled members, we are not likely to practice, with any simplicity at all, the notion of truth-speaking-to-power - not if we want to keep our jobs. Certainly there are occasional dramatic moments when truth can and must be spoken directly to power. But on the whole, the model of truth-speaking-to-power is not possible in our society, particularly in local congregations where one is cast as preacher and administrator. It is utterly impossible to be charged with both truth-telling and maintenance. (page 10)
Moreover, in a post-modern era we know the words "power" and "truth" are, as he puts it, "endlessly subtle and elusive."

What then to do? Cower in silence? No. Brueggemann reminds us that the goal isn't to get behind the texts to the historical Moses, Nathan, Elijah or Daniel but to remember that we are a people who have inherited the texts and who claim to hear a Word of the Lord here. Hence the preacher as scribe, the one who stands with her or his congregation to enter more deeply into these ancient texts. Not to preach the "headlines" of the day but to hold these texts up imaginatively and creatively so that God's people might hear an alternative narrative that has the potential to transform our lives and the world; to become people who together do justice and love mercy.

"The text is a voice of truth, albeit an elusive one." As humble scribe, the preacher is not asked to be Moses or Nathan or Elijah or Daniel on any given week but, to use Brueggemann's image, to function more like a pastoral therapist who "seeks to let power of illusion and repression be addressed by old, deep texts that swirl around us." And then this:
Like a therapist, the Preacher-Scribe does not own the text; the text lives in, with, and under the memory of the community. So the Preacher-Scribe gets out of the center and out of the way. The Preacher-Scribe trusts the text to have a say through the power of the Spirit rather than the power of the preacher; trusts the listening congregation to make the connections it is able to make; and trusts the deep places of truthful power and powerful truth that draw us in and send us forth in repentance, a turn that makes all things new. 
This work is not easy, to be sure. But as a preacher trying to be a more faithful Preacher-Scribe, I find the reminder helpful for the living of these days.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, Take II

I tend not to be a Saturday night sermon writer. In fact my sermons are usually written by Thursday afternoon so I can enjoy my day off on Friday. Such was the case this week and at 5 a.m this morning a post went out from this blog of the sermon I had planned to preach this morning at Grace Church in Oxford, Massachusetts. But the events unfolding this weekend in Charlottesville, VA led me to radically re-write that sermon early this morning. Below is my re-worked manuscript and the sermon I plan to preach in a couple of hours at Grace Church.

We are told that the setting for today’s gospel reading is that there is some weather: the waves are bashing the boat and the wind is kicking up. And when people are in a boat during a storm they get scared – even salty old fishermen.

I remember being in a plane just about a month after 9/11 and smoke was coming out of the bathroom. It turned out to be an electrical problem and not an act of terrorism, but at the time that wasn’t clear to anyone, including the flight crew. As the plane that had just taken off from Worcester airport bound for Atlanta made a quick up and down emergency landing in Hartford their faces said it all.  

The Bible is more like poetry than prose and more like our real lives than a documentary. I can’t tell you that it happened exactly this way in today’s gospel but I know how stories work. We tell stories to make sense of our lives. We tell stories like this one to remind ourselves not to be afraid. Perhaps you’ve had the experience (as I have) of people telling the same story and remembering different details and even learning different lessons from it. Here is what Matthew wants to make sure we understand from today’s Gospel reading: whatever we face, and however fierce the wind is, and however much we are battered by waves, Jesus still says to us:  “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

In fact, maybe the whole gospel could be summarized with just those nine words: Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.

Maybe this doesn’t happen to you all, but I am prone to lose heart. When things don’t go my way or when my job feels impossible or when it feels like the nation is on the wrong path, I lose heart. I get discouraged. I am generally very much an optimist by nature, but when I feel like something is broken I have some old tapes that tend to make me think it’s my job to fix it. So when I hear those words, “take heart” I am encouraged. I pay attention.

It is I. Jesus is with us. On the land and on the sea and in the air. On mountaintops when we totally know that to be true and in the valley of the shadow of death when we may be prone to doubt it. In just three words, this is the mystery of the Incarnation – of Immanuel – of God-with-us through thick and through thin. Wherever we are in our journeys, we can count on Jesus being there calling us to move forward and not to be paralyzed, because we do not walk alone.

Do not be afraid. Those words may be the most frequently uttered words in the Bible. Bishop Fisher tells me they appear 365 times, once for every single day of the year. I haven’t counted but that makes good theological sense to me even if the math might be off by a couple. The angels sing it all the time; they are like one-hit wonders. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to live your life, the one to which you are uniquely called. Do not be afraid to show kindness and friendship to the stranger. Do not be afraid to open your heart to your neighbor. Do not be afraid to speak the truth you know and live the life that God calls you to live.

Thich Nat Han, a wise Buddhist monk, has taken today’s gospel to heart and come up with his own midrash when he writes, “the real miracle is not to walk on water but to walk on this green earth dwelling deeply in the present moment and being fully alive.” I don’t think that’s counter to what Matthew conveys to us today, I think it goes right to the heart of it. Good for Peter in trying to walk on the water toward Jesus. And poor Peter, who always screws it up, reminding us that Christian discipleship relies more on God’s mercy than our perfection.

But I’m neither Jesus nor Peter. I’m trying not to walk on water so much as to walk on this good earth, with God’s help. Trying to keep on living fully into this moment in time which will not come our way again. Nostalgia and anxiety work against us being fully present to this unique moment in time and it happens to individuals, to families, to congregations. Even sometimes to nations. We can get stuck.

As a nation, there are places where we’ve gotten stuck. Race relations is one of those places. Slavery is this nation’s Original Sin and it is not going to go away. We make some gains and we celebrate and then racism rears its ugly head again and tries to pull us back. This week we see it all playing out on television in Charlottesville and it pushes all those old buttons.

One of the clergy standing against the bigotry and racism of those waving Nazi flags is David Stoddart, who used to the rector of St. Luke’s in Worcester. He welcomed me to this diocese twenty years ago when I arrived at St. Francis, Holden and took me out to O’Connors for my birthday just six weeks after that. 

When David left Worcester to accept a call to serve as rector of Church of our Savior in Charlottesville I lost track of him. But this past Wednesday on Facebook I came across a blog post of his that I want to share with you all. I share it not because it “says it all” but because David is a trustworthy witness and a faithful pastor writing to an Episcopal congregation in the midst of all this madness. 


What does it mean for us to claim Jesus in this time and place? What does it mean to be people who have promised in Holy Baptism, and who reaffirm every time we gather to share the bread and the cup, we will “strive to work for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” What does it mean that we have promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons and love neighbor as self? As David puts it, we don’t simply stand against any truncation of that vision but for this witness of the love of God that embraces all people, and the reign of God in which every single person can experience the abundant life God created everyone to enjoy – no exceptions.

When we stand for something like that we can be sure to meet with resistance. People died yesterday for standing up for this inclusive vision. I think Jesus says to us, to the Church, to the gathered community that we are still in the same boat and the waves may be strong and our fears may threaten to undo us, to keep on listening for the voice of the One who still says:  Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.

Let us pray:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ("For the Human Family," The Book of Common Prayer, page 815)



Monday, July 31, 2017

Limping Through Life

One of my recent posts was entitled Finding Ourselves in Genesis. If you preach (as I do) in a liturgical church that uses the The Revised Common Lectionary, this year has an option to be reading through some great texts that come from that first scroll of the Bible. But the ninth Sunday after Pentecost (which would normally fall this coming Sunday) gets benched on August 6 in order to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. On August 13 we will return to our regularly scheduled program for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, having skipped over this wonderful story of Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok River in Genesis 32:22 - 33:11. 

Don't tell the "liturgical police" but if I were in a parish this coming weekend I'd suggest that we since we remember the Transfiguration every year on the Last Sunday after Epiphany and we get Genesis 32 only once every three years that it's too great a text to miss and the preacher's prerogative might be exercised in order to be sure this reading is heard in the assembly. Twelve years ago, on July 31, 2005, I preached a sermon on this text. I've very slightly edited that sermon below for any who may be interested in what we'll be missing this week. I've kept the cultural references in tact, however, to a novel I'd just finished at the time (The Kite Runner) and to a "new" song I'd recently heard by Tracy Chapman, as well as to the work of Miraslov Volf, whose book I returned to once again during my recent Sabbatical and still commend to all. (RMS)

As the Genesis narrative has unfolded this summer, here in a nutshell is what we know about Jacob:

·        The narrator has suggested that Jacob was ambitious from the day of his birth—that he was a “heel-grabber” who finally tricks his father into blessing him in his old age; that, of course, comes at the expense of his brother Esau;
·        Immediately upon so doing, he runs for his life to his mother’s brother’s house, that is, to Uncle Laban;
·        There he meets his match as the “trickster” is tricked into fourteen years of labor to marry Laban’s two daughters: the younger one whom Isaac wanted to marry and the elder one, Leah, whom he didn’t really bargain for.

We picked up the narrative today as Jacob is heading back home after these many years away. He is accompanied by his two wives, his two mistresses, and a ton of kids—eleven to be precise. And yet, as he crosses the Jabbok River, he is all alone.

Think about that a moment. It suggests to me that no matter how big a family we come from, when we face our past and when we try to work out family-of-origin issues we can be supported by others but ultimately it is “our” work. A therapist or pastor or twelve-step program or a spouse can help us identify the issues and can support us in the struggle, but in the end they cannot do that work for us. There is some aspect of all of us that belongs to God alone.

Have you read the extraordinary novel, The Kite Runner? It’s a sad and at times disturbing read that may not be for everyone, but I really loved it. The narrator, an Afghani living in San Francisco, reminds me in some ways of how I imagine Jacob. The crux of the story is a return home: in this case to Taliban-occupied Afghanistan where he must confront his past, a past that cannot be changed but might be redeemed. That is all that any of us can ever do with our past: we can’t change it, we can only confront it and with God’s help redeem it and pray for the healing that makes new life possible. That, however, takes courage, and risk, and trust. It is the work of faith.

Yet it may be that it is in precisely such moments, when we feel most alone, that God meets us where we are. Or more accurately, it is in such moments that we become more deeply aware of God’s presence in our lives.

What happens on the banks of the Jabbok River is that Jacob has a divine encounter, which is immediately followed by a very human encounter with his estranged brother, Esau. The divine encounter leaves Jacob with a limp; the human one is characterized by an embrace. I want to suggest the two are connected: that divine encounters change us, and demand of us that we chose to live otherwise, as people who are open to the possibility of healing and reconciliation.

Notice first, that this divine encounter is characterized by wrestling; that it leaves Jacob with a new name and walking with a limp. Most of us I suspect prefer our divine encounters to be tame and calming and leave us with a sense of peace. I think of that “still small voice” that comes to the prophet Elijah, for example. The Spirit can and does work that way, to be sure. But far more numerous in the Bible are divine encounters that leave us stunned and even wounded.

·         I think of Moses stuttering at the burning bush;
·         I think of Isaiah of Jerusalem with a hot coal burning his unclean lips;
·         I think of Jeremiah, accusing God of having “ravished” him;
·         I think of St. Paul knocked off his feet and blinded on the  Damascus Road;
·         I think of our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane;
·         I think of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost like a mighty wind, and like tongues of fire—disrupting old patterns and breaking down walls.

My experience of the living God—the God of the Bible—is that more often God challenges us or if you prefer to say it this way, “pushes us out of our comfort zones.” 

Wrestling with God becomes a vital metaphor for the way that Jews, and later Christians, are called to relate to God. It’s not an easy relationship! Episcopalians for the most part embrace that notion. We refuse to limit faith to a creed or to a Church Council, or to a formula or even to the Bible itself. We are always trying to remember that all these things point us to God, but are not in themselves God. To experience the living God, the God of Israel and Abba of our Lord, is to experience something like wrestling that may well leave us walking with a limp rather than feeling all warm and fuzzy.

Encounters with the living God change us, and then they call upon us to live differently.  

Tracy Chapman has a new song out I heard for the first time this week. It begins and ends the same way:
           
                  If you knew that you would die today,
                    If you saw the face of God and Love,
                   Would you change? Would you change?

Now that said, let’s be honest: it is Esau who really initiates the act of reconciliation here and we know nothing about what his faith life has been like over the past fourteen years or so. Jacob gets up the next day and continues to journey home and it is Esau who runs toward him. It is the wronged brother who makes the first move. Nevertheless, Jacob is open to that possibility, knowing that with God all things are possible, including new life. Including reconciliation. Without that openness, change is not possible.

I’ve talked in the past about an amazing book called Exclusion and Embrace, written by native Croatian theologian named Miraslov Volf who now teaches at Yale Divinity School. He says that an embrace—which is the symbolic act of reconciliation—is a four-part drama. All of the “steps” are required as each needs to be met with a response. (1.) The opening of arms (2.) Waiting. (3.) Closing of arms. (4.) Release.[i]

It may happen faster than that, but anyone who has ever tried to hug a person who doesn’t want to be hugged (or who is being hugged by someone you wish would rather not) understands this drama of embrace. Always an authentic embrace is an invitation that cannot be coerced. And at any point the “drama” can break down. When it works, it is because each step is mirrored. Only then does it function as a kind of sacrament for healing and reconciliation—literally an “outward and visible sign” of something that has happened within. It can only happen when both parties are ready, because reconciliation and intimacy can’t be forced.

Anyway, that is what happens between these two brothers in Genesis. It brings to mind the New Testament story told by Jesus, of that father who is "soft on sin" and runs out to embrace his “prodigal” son even before the kid can get through his well-rehearsed apology.

In general, my style of preaching is that I tend to tell the story, and leave it for people to make their own connections. I don’t usually finish with “and this is what it means for our lives.” That is because I think that our lives are so rich, and our lives so complicated. Where are you this week in your own journey? Are you Esau or Jacob, Rachel or Leah? What you need to take away from the story this week might be quite different from what someone else needs to hear. So I trust the Spirit to guide us, as we come to the story and draw our own conclusions. I figure if the story is told in such a way that it can be heard in new ways, then you will in a sense each write your own sermon. At least that’s my goal…

But that said, it seems obvious to me that this story is our story in a much larger sense, and that at least is worth highlighting. Jacob gets a new name out of this: Israel. That is, he becomes a representative of the faith of Israel. As Christians we claim to be part of an extension of that same covenant and so the metaphor fits for us, too. We have experienced God in and through the Cross, in and through the Passion of Jesus. That leaves us, too, “limping through life.” Everyone who has struggled at all with their faith knows what it is to wrestle with God. Anyone who has experienced loss knows what it means to grieve broken relationships. And anyone who, by the grace of God, has experienced the healing of an embrace that represents new life knows what it means to celebrate the resurrection.

This is, I believe, a gospel story. There is good news here for us. I hear in it a call for us to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Henri Nouwen would say we do that “as wounded healers.” The narrator of Genesis might say as people who are limping through life. Either way, our limps—our wounds—may well be signs not only of divine encounters but invitations to be ambassadors of reconciliation, which is always gospel work.  As we keep limping on, the challenge is to do so with open arms: arms that keep the possibility of embrace always before us. Regardless of whether we initiate such embraces or respond, these moments represent our highest calling as Christians, as people who are always ready to allow for the possibility of reconciliation that shows the world why faith really does matter.



[i] For anyone interested in more detail on this, see Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. It is truly an extraordinary book. The pertinent section here is on pages 140-147, entitled “The Drama of Embrace.” Volf writes: “for embrace to happen all four must be there and they must follow one another on an unbroken timeline; stopping with the first two (opening of the arms and waiting) would abort the embrace; and stopping with the third (closing the arms) would pervert it from an act of love to an act of oppression, and paradoxically, exclusion. The four elements are then the four essential steps of an integrated movement.”
(pg. 141)