Friday, December 8, 2017

John the Baptizer

In some circles people like to say that "Jesus is the reason for the season." (I don't tend to travel much in those circles!) In Advent, however - in this season of preparing for Christmas - Jesus barely makes an appearance. While we wait expectantly to celebrate the dear Savior's birth, the two central characters of the Advent Season are John the Baptist and Mary, Jesus' mother.  

John and Mary are different in so many ways. But one big thing they have in common is that both were faithful Jews. It is tempting to see John as, well, a “Baptist” I guess, and to see Mary as a good Roman Catholic girl. But of course even to say it aloud is to know that this is silly. Both are rooted in the customs and faith practices of first-century Judaism, not Christianity and especially not denominational Christianity. To understand them we need to appreciate what Christians call the "Old Testament" as the scriptures that shaped their faith as well as the first-century context of Jewish practices.  

As we think about John, it helps to remember his parents: Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah is a priest who belongs to the priestly order of Abijah, according to Luke. (Luke 1:5) According to II Chronicles, back in the days of King David, the priests were divided into twenty-four different divisions. The eighth of these were the order of Abijah. These priests would serve in the Jerusalem temple for two weeks each year. Elizabeth traces her family lineage back to Aaron, Israel’s first priest. So Luke is suggesting that John is a “PK”—a priest’s kid; on both sides of the family. 

I think it’s kind of fun to think about that for a little bit. The guy we meet at the Jordan River is usually interpreted as a prophetic figure—a second Elijah or better still, second Isaiah, crying in the wilderness, preparing a highway in the desert, making the crooked places straight. There he is: dressed in his camel hair and his breath smelling of wild locusts and preaching repentance. 

But the tradition suggests that he came from a more "traditional" family. What might it be like to imagine how it is that John moves from what was no doubt an expectation that he, too, would become a priest to the journey that got him out there in the wilderness? How might his "roots" help to give him those "wings?"

Elizabeth and Zechariah are an older couple who’ve not been able to have kids. That rings bells for those who know the Hebrew Bible. We know about Abraham and Sarah and the promise delayed, and Sarah’s laughter when she finds out she is pregnant. We also know about Elkanah and Hannah, crying in the temple because she is distraught about not having children. And then Samuel is born. It might be interesting to think about Isaac and Samuel—two kids born to elderly parents. Most of us probably can think of at least one friend, an only child born born to parents late in life. It is a different kind of upbringing than people who grow up in larger families with younger parents; usually it's a very grown-up world. 

So when Luke tells us that Elizabeth was "barren" (that is of course the only way that first-century people could describe a childless couple, even if old Zechariah had a low sperm count) we are meant to remember these other old women who became mothers. Elizabeth herself tells us when the EPT turns blue that "she had endured disgrace for years." So few words, and yet it doesn’t take much imagination to enter into that world. These two people, getting on in years with their morning rituals: Zechariah puts the water on for tea, Elizabeth makes the oatmeal: morning liturgies and rituals that seem like they will continue until one of them dies, without interruption. And then all of a sudden their world is turned upside down. 

Zechariah is at work—on duty in the temple where it is his turn to enter the sanctuary of the Lord, the holy of holies. I have a little note in one of my Bibles that this is a privilege that would be afforded to a priest only once in his lifetime. So Zechariah is going about this holy work when an angel appears to him on the right side of the altar of incense. And as always happens in the Bible, Zechariah doesn’t say, “hey Clarence, how is it going?” He is scared out of his wits. Fear overwhelms him. You know what is coming next of course, it’s what angels always say in the Bible:  fear not Zechariah. And then the message:

  • Your prayer has been heard. 
  • Your wife, Elizabeth, is pregnant. 
  • Name the kid John.
The message continues: this grandchild of priests will have the spirit and power of Elijah and will turn the hearts of parents to their children and of children to their parents.

There is one more thing. Zechariah is speechless. Literally. As a sign that all this will come to pass, the poor guy comes out the temple and isn’t able to speak for nine months, until the child is born. When his son is born, however, he sings this amazing song. (See Luke 1:67-80) Luke then goes on to tell us that “John grew, and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to lead Israel.”

We meet him again every Advent, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and preparing the way for the one who is coming after him. But I wonder what his life was like in kindergarten or if he had a date to the senior prom. I wonder what was going on in his life in his early twenties that led to his sense of vocation and how his parents felt about all of that.

I'm not preaching this Advent on John (nor on Mary for that matter) but both are shaping my prayers. With John, it's his commitment to the truth and his awareness that his job is to point to the one who is coming - to Jesus. He prepares the way; he isn't The Way. I don't look or sound much like John the Baptizer, but I think this is what I am called to as a twenty-first century priest as well: to tell the truth, even when people aren't interested in hearing it. And to point to Jesus. It's not about me. It's not even about the Episcopal Church I love. It's not about building a fan club - or seeking approval. It's about Jesus. Our job is to prepare the way.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Nicholas of Myra

December 6 is the feast day of Nicholas of Myra—Saint Nicholas. He was a real person: a fourth-century bishop of the Church who may have attended the Council of Nicaea (from whence we get the Nicene Creed.) He is remembered as the patron saint of seafarers, sailors, and children. 

Little is known that can be clearly distinguished from the many legends about his life, but one thing we are fairly certain we know is that he was tortured and imprisoned for his faith during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. His memory and example was brought to this country by Dutch colonists in New York, who called him Santa Claus.

For my money, Miraslov Volf, who is the Director of  the Yale Center for Faith & Culture and Professor at Yale Divinity School, is one of the most creative theologians of our time. He wrote an extraordinary book a decade or so ago entitled Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. 

Volf makes an important distinction between God and our images of god. (Paul Tillich was making the same distinction many years ago when he spoke about “the God beyond God.”) That is to say there is this God who is beyond all of our knowing—“I AM” who encountered Moses at the burning bush but would not give a name—the God we can only glimpse and never control. And then there are the images we make—some of them iconic and some of them graven—but all of them limited and therefore always needing to be critiqued.  

Two common (but according to Volf false) images of god are god the negotiator and god the Santa Claus. Sometimes we imagine god as the one with whom we can play “let’s make a deal:” god, if you do this for me then I will do that. And conversely, if I do this for you then I want you do that for me.  Even our prayers (especially our prayers!) can become a means to an end: we want what lies behind door number one or curtain number two. If God will make my child better then we will go to church every Sunday. Promise. 

Alternatively, we run to the god of consumerist materialism to sit on his lap: the god who knows when we’ve been bad or good, so we better be good, for goodness’ sake! The god who gives everything and yet demands nothing. We go to this god with our shopping lists: insisting that we have discerned not only what we want but what we need.

I don’t want to caricature these images, and Volf doesn’t either. But they permeate American Christianity. And Volf challenges both images as idolatrous, insisting that the God of the Bible is first and foremost a Giver. He insists that the God of authentic Christian faith is the God who has created us and the world in love. But unlike Santa Claus-god, the Giving God’s gifts require a response in us, because God takes us seriously. God’s gifts, Volf writes, oblige us to a “posture of receptivity.” And once we have received God’s gifts, that marks not an end but a beginning. As we move toward gratitude we move also toward a willingness to respond in kind and to act in a similar way in the world. And so his title: it is not only God, but we ourselves who are called to “giving and forgiving” in a culture stripped of grace.  

I think we need to reclaim the Bishop of Myra as a saint of the Church. The problem for us is that "Santa Claus" has been co-opted to the point where the guy at the mall and coming down the chimneys bears little resemblance to the Bishop of Myra, who knew the cost of discipleship and whose generosity most definitely grew out of his encounter with the Giver of all things, the Maker of heaven and earth. So I think that old St. Nick needs a good press agent, and needs to be reclaimed by the Church.

By this we know that we abide in Christ, and that Christ abides in us: because he has given us of his Spirit. Even in Advent, even as we prepare for the birth of the holy child, we remember that in his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to be with us. We have been given gifts—each of us—to do the work of ministry. Each of our congregations have been given gifts. Some we already recognize and claim and use. Some we are only beginning to claim, or even identify. And still others have been buried deep within us, and remain unacknowledged—these need to be unearthed and discovered like pearls in a field so they can be claimed and used for the sake of God’s reign.

This season of Advent puts in front of us an opportunity to once again encounter the God who truly is beyond God—and beyond all of our doctrines, all of our images, and all of our language. It gives us an opportunity to be still in the presence of this God who refuses to be used by us or domesticated by us or co-opted by us: this God who is the Giver of all things.

My prayer is that this Advent season we might each encounter this living God anew—the One who so loves the world that he sends Jesus into it in order that we might have life and have it abundantly. And that in a couple of weeks we might recognize the Gift that comes to us wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. When we do, I pray that we might receive the Gift with gratitude and then respond with our lives. Or as Christine Rosetti put it:

What can I give him, poor as I am?
                        If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb
                        If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
                        Yet what can I give him, give my heart.


Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

The readings for this day, including the text from the sixty-fourth chapter of Isaiah, can be found here. This sermon was preached at All Saints, Worcester

The first words of this Advent season and of this very first day in a new liturgical year come from the prophet Isaiah. They are a desperate plea addressed to God, words with great pathos: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

Have you ever prayed such a prayer? Or perhaps knelt next to someone who has? Perhaps you were at the grave of a loved one who died before her time? Or maybe you have gone through a rough divorce or lost your job right before the holidays? Or maybe you are still having a hard time sorting through the range of emotions you feel even here, even now, at All Saints? After all, you come here to get your bearings, to get centered, and it may not feel like that right now. What do you do with all that emotional energy? Push it down? Rage against the machine?

One of the exercises I used as a parish priest to ask of the kids whom I was preparing for confirmation was intended to expand their repertoire of Biblical metaphors for God. The Bible has far more metaphors than our liturgies tend to avail themselves of, and I wanted them to explore that a bit. One of the texts that I had them look up comes from the tenth chapter of the Book of Job, where Job suggests that God is a lion. (Job 10:16) But as we unpacked that image, it became clear that Job wasn’t using it in the flattering way that C.S. Lewis does with his great Christ-figure, Aslan. You will remember that Job was suffering from incredible loss and was in the midst of incredible turmoil. But worse than all of his spiritual pain is that he has come to see God as the cause of all of that suffering, which was almost too much to bear. So when Job says that God is a lion, it’s because he feels like he is a wildebeest that God has hunted down and chewed up and spit out. He is asking a haunting question: “why are you doing this to me, God…You, You…LION!”

It’s hard enough when your life is coming unglued. But you can pretty much get through just about anything if you feel that God is with you, that God is your Rock or the Good Shepherd who will lead you through the valley of the shadow of death to still waters. Even if we know it will be another six months or a year that we have to face chemotherapy or until we find new employment or love again, we can make it if we have hope. We can make it if we feel that God is on our side and working through it all to bring about something good. The good news is that we light that first candle today, the candle of hope, because even if we need to “fake it ‘til we make it” we are a people who hope that the end of this story is in fact heavens torn open so that the Word might be made flesh, and dwell among us.

But I’m getting ahead of myself because we aren’t there yet, and because we live “in the meantime.” And in the meantime, life is complicated. I think our deepest fear comes when, in the short-run – in the present tense—we are no longer certain that God is with us. Sometimes we experience a sense of abandonment, and we feel, as Job did, that God is the source of our pain (like a lion who has hunted us down.) And that may be too much to bear.

And yet these first words of Advent from the Prophet Isaiah are much the same. Isaiah is asking God to open up the heavens and come down because he wants answers. He wants to be heard. For Isaiah, it isn’t personal suffering like Job’s, but a national tragedy that gives us these first words of Advent. He speaks on behalf of an entire nation, out of the pain of the Babylonian exile and out of that feeling of having been betrayed by God. Isaiah poses a profound theological question, perhaps the most serious theological question any of us will ever ask: where’ve you been, God? Isaiah wants to know, given God’s past marvelous deeds, where God is right now? If God could do all those wonderful things “back in the day” (like bring slaves out of Egypt) then why isn’t God doing something now? O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

It may seem like an odd way to begin Advent. Sorry, I hope you didn’t come here today “dreaming of a white Christmas!” But Advent is about getting real and telling the truth even when it’s hard. It’s about preparing the way with John the Baptizer and about saying yes to God, as Mary did. Let it be with me according to your Word. This is the work of Advent, this season of preparation and of hope, peace, joy, and love.

Maybe some of us here today have prayed this way after hearing yet another report about glaciers melting or when we meet people experiencing homelessness on a Thursday afternoon right in this building, or when we see a family member who cannot afford the healthcare they need. We come here in this month especially when it is all too easy to feel off-kilter. I suspect that your hope, like mine, is to leave here feeling a little more grounded and centered than when we came in. Otherwise why get out of bed to come to church, if it’s going to be so de-centering? One of my former parishioners in Holden used to say this to me frequently. He had a job he didn’t like much and a boss who was not very fair. “The world can be pretty tough, he’d tell me, and I come to church on Sunday to hear some good news. I need good news!” And for what it’s worth I sympathized completely. And for what it’s worth, sometimes my week in the church ain’t no picnic either. It’s not all holding hands and singing kumbaya! But I hope you’ll stay with me because I do think we’ll get to good news, even today, and even in this sermon. It’s just that sometimes it doesn’t come as fast as our chicken McNuggets at a drive-through window…

Advent is about waiting. Not passive waiting, but active, expectant, urgent hopeful waiting. My experience as a pastor and preacher and above all as a fellow traveler is that sometimes the good news just isn’t immediately accessible. These opening words of Advent express extraordinary grief and loss and a sense of betrayal that grow out of Isaiah’s first-hand experience and he needs to take that to God, whom he feels has been M.I.A. He needs to be heard and acknowledged before he can get to hope. But we should never confuse hope with denial nor with wishful thinking.

I read one commentator on this text who says that “God hides in order to deconstruct a distorted faith.” Now that sounds like the kind of thing a Biblical scholar would say, doesn’t it? But I want to ask you to hang in there with that statement for a couple of minutes because I think it evokes good theology and eventually some good news. And it’s how we are going to get there in this sermon, so please hear me out: God hides in order to deconstruct a distorted faith.

God is beyond all of our language and beyond all of our images. I don’t mean only the false idols. Of course God is not a golden calf or a little statue or a 401-K. But I also mean that God is beyond even the most helpful of icons: beyond “father” and “rock” and “light” and “lion.” At the burning bush when Moses wants to know God’s name, but God insists, “I am who I am.” And “I’ll also be who I’ll be, Moses.”

At best, all of our words and images for God, even our very favorites, can only point us toward the Inscrutable One who is always beyond our understanding and comprehension; the One Paul Tillich called “the God beyond God.” We need human words, of course. But we must always be careful about confusing our words for God with God. They are not the same. God is always bigger.  

I’ll give you just one example. You can come here and hear the image of “Father, Father, Father” in our liturgy and our prayers and our readings and our hymns. And hardly anyone blinks. They will say that they know it’s “just a metaphor” and God isn’t an old man in the sky. But use “Mother” just once and watch people perk up: some with a twinkle in their eyes, and some ready for a fight. We need human words, of course. But our words are not God. At best our words point us toward God.

So when someone tells me that they don’t believe in God (which tends to happen for the first but not last time for almost all kids right around confirmation age) I always ask them to tell me about this god they no longer believe in. And usually if they are willing to talk about it, what I discover is that they are actually beginning to deconstruct a distorted faith. Or to say it another way, I don’t believe in the god they don’t believe in either! They need to let go of some old images that are keeping them from encountering the more mysterious but true and living and real God beyond God. Their crisis of faith is real, for sure. But every crisis represents not only danger, but an opportunity and in this kind of experience there is a very real opportunity to discover God anew. And I think that is why these words of Isaiah may in fact be a very good place to start our Advent journey.

So if I still have your attention, or can get it back now since I’m coming to the end, let me move from preaching to meddling. If we aren’t careful, especially in this month, we will confuse God with Santa Claus. Our prayers will be too much like compiling a wish list of what we hope we’ll get if we’ve been more nice than naughty this year. Sometimes it takes an exile or a crisis in faith or even a crisis in our congregation to bring us to our knees. And then we find ourselves vulnerable and frightened and maybe we cry out for God to make it all better by fixing the ozone layer or cleaning up the oceans or bringing about peace on earth: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down here, God! You LION!”

And then when nothing happens we may begin to wonder, since God clearly hasn’t done what we asked. If God is real, why isn’t God doing what we want God to do? I want to say to you today that in that moment, real faith is born. A distorted faith begins to be deconstructed so that something closer to the real thing might begin to emerge. In that moment, as we let go of those old images, we may well encounter the true and living God in new and fresh ways. Or at least begin that journey with hope.  

Here is the thing though: the process of giving birth is always painful, isn’t it? (Or so I’ve been told!) And if it is about nothing else, this season of Advent is about birth. Not only of the child whose birth we are preparing to celebrate, but also the new birth that each of us must go through to discover or rediscover authentic faith. We prepare ourselves for a king of kings and a lord of lords, a messiah to rule the world and triumph over evil and bring peace on earth and good will to all. And then what we get is a tiny little baby who needs his diaper changed. We find ourselves kneeling before a manger and before a child who needs to be fed and cared for, and loved.

So here is the good news: God meets us where we are. God actually does tear open the heavens and come down; just not in the way we expected. In Bethlehem we see God as a homeless and helpless infant who says, “I am with you always, to the end of the ages.” The irony of this opening prayer of Advent is that it has been answered in Jesus the Christ: the heavens have been torn asunder and God has come to dwell among us, very God of very God, begotten not made. The Word has been made flesh and we have beheld his glory, full of grace and truth. But not as we expected. Brian Wren, in a hymn we’ll sing today at the Offertory, puts it in the form of a question:  

Can this newborn mystery, an infant learning to feed,
defeat the grim and chilling powers of domination, death and sin?

Can he? Is this infant with the tiny little hands and fingers the best God can do? Can he really defeat the powers of domination, death, and sin?  Stay tuned…

Thursday, November 30, 2017

St. Andrew

Today is the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, brother of St. Peter. Readings for this day can be found here.

In the same way that Peter came to represent the Church in Rome (and through Rome all of western Christendom), his brother Andrew played a similar role in the East. It is believed that his missionary journeys took him to Greece and then Byzantium and Russia. After his crucifixion some of his remains were, according to the tradition, taken to Scotland. And so it is that he came to be patron saint of Scotland, Russia and Romania.

Usually when mentioned in the Bible, Andrew is just one of the twelve. It is not himself that he proclaims, to paraphrase St. Paul, but Jesus Christ. Moreover, he seems to have had to live his life in the rather large shadow of his brother Peter—who looms large in the New Testament writings. Imagine spending your life identified as “Peter’s brother.”

But in John’s Gospel, Andrew stands out a little more. (It’s therefore curious to me as to why those who chose the readings for this day didn’t look to John’s Gospel rather than Matthew, but that’s for another time, I suppose!)

In John 12, the Greeks want to speak to Jesus. They approach Philip, who in turn speaks with Andrew, and then together they go to Jesus. Earlier, in John 6, in the story of the Miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, John shares a little detail not found in the synoptics. A young boy is spotted who has five small barley loaves and a couple of fish, which he agrees to share with the crowd. Guess who it is who spots that boy? Andrew again.

And in the first chapter of John, it is actually Andrew who is called first—a different recollection than what Matthew gives us in the reading for this day, where they seem to have come to Jesus together. In John, Andrew is called and then he in turn goes and finds his brother, Peter. It is through this memory of the early church that Andrew is sometimes called Protokletos, i.e. “first called.”

Bear with me a moment longer and consider each of these little vignettes about this disciple who most of the time easily blends in with all the others. He distinguishes himself by bringing others to Jesus. He brings the Greeks, he brings the small boy with his loaves and fishes, and he brings his brother who becomes the Rock of at least the Western Church. Perhaps it’s for this reason that a fellowship of men in The Episcopal Church committed to evangelism and bringing others to Christ takes Andrew as their namesake.

In any case, he has something to teach us, especially as Episcopalians, about evangelism. Most of us are not comfortable standing out on street corners telling strangers about Jesus. I’m not all that convinced it’s the most effective way to do evangelism anyway. But that doesn’t get us off the hook. And Andrew, I think, shows us a way forward.

Just as Andrew helps to connect Jesus the Jew with the Greeks who express interest in meeting him, we are called at the very least to practice hospitality and a ministry of welcoming to the stranger. We can make the connections and the necessary introductions and we can keep alert to the questions our co-workers and neighbors and friends are asking of us in their own search for meaning.

In a similar way, connecting Jesus to his brother, Peter, is really no big deal. It’s more about being willing and able at the end of the day to sit at the dinner table and say, “let me tell you about my day….let me tell you about what God is doing in my life.” That need not be heavy-handed. It can very well be about simply being willing to share our stories, and listen to what others have to say as well.

And just as importantly, I think the faith of Andrew we are meant to emulate is about keeping one’s eyes open. It’s about being on the look-out for people’s gifts. It’s about noticing the small gifts, the small people, the ones who could easily go unnoticed, and yet whose gifts lead to the kind of transformation that makes big things possible.

And so we give thanks today in our prayers for Andrew—apostle and evangelist and “first-called”—for reminding each of us of our own calling and of the promises we have made in Holy Baptism, promises renewed every time we break the bread and share the cup. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The One Who Went Back

The Gospel Reading for Thanksgiving Day is Luke 17:11-19. It's about the healing of ten lepers and the one who went back to say "thank you." It's a great text. I preached a sermon on it seven years ago, on October 10, 2010 at St. Francis, Holden; not on Thanksgiving, but on the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost when this text also comes up. I've revised that original sermon for this post, perhaps as a help to those who will be preaching on Thursday and also for those who may not make it to Church that day but are still feeling grateful. 

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When asked to describe the nature of true worship, Martin Luther responded succinctly: “the tenth leper turning back.”

Luke has organized his gospel in such a way that Jesus and his disciples are "on the way" to Jerusalem from Galilee, and along the way they have various encounters that  reveal something about the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim and establish.

In the seventeenth chapter, however, we seem to have taken a detour. Luke reminds us that we are still “on the way” to Jerusalem, but then adds that now Jesus “is going through that region between Samaria and Galilee.” We should pay attention. It’d be like saying that on the way from Worcester to Boston they stopped in Providence. It’s out of the way!

There are three possibilities for such a detour. One is that Jesus has gotten lost, which is possible but unlikely. In fact, since faithful Jews aren’t supposed to be anywhere near Samaritan soil, it seems Jesus is making a point here. 

A second possibility is that Luke doesn’t have a very good sense of first-century Palestinian geography. Since all of the gospels, including Luke, were written decades after the events being recounted, it is in fact possible that Luke has gotten his geography wrong. 

But most scholars think there is a far more likely third possibility, and I agree with them: that both Jesus and Luke know exactly what they are doing and a serious theological point is being made here. Jesus is stepping into a boundary where ethnic and religious tensions are palpable. Think about a detour to beyond the wall in Israel to the West Bank, or to Belfast when tensions were highest between Catholic and Protestant Christians there or to Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating or maybe to the DMZ in North Korea today. Luke is putting us on notice: while we are still “on the way” to Jerusalem, something important that reveals something about the Kingdom of God is going to happen in this little village…

Only Luke gives us that other famous Samaritan story, the one about the so-called Good Samaritan. For any self-respecting first-century Jew, of course, that phrase, Good Samaritan, would have been considered an oxymoron. Everybody knew that Samaritans represented that which was never good: that which was to be feared as unholy and polluted. Jesus has crossed the tracks to the part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop. He’s traveling through that region between Samaria and Galilee when they come to a village.

Now in case anyone reading Luke’s Gospel has missed the point, we get hit over the head a second time by a 2 x 4 when Jesus encounters a group of lepers there. Not only is he in a place considered unclean, but now there are lepers everywhere. People with leprosy were considered to be ritually unclean and not allowed to come into contact with healthy people. Hence the leper colonies where they lived away from the community. They keep their distance because coming into contact with someone who had this ailment would make you ritually unclean. In fact, as you approached a leper, they were required to shout out: “unclean, unclean” as a kind of warning, just to be sure that you don’t walk up to them accidentally to ask for directions. Imagine such a life: suffering not only from a terrible disease but being socially ostracized as well. And then notice that while they do approach Jesus, Luke makes it clear that they “kept their distance from him.”

Keeping their distance, they shout out to Jesus for mercy. And then Jesus sends them along to the priests, because the Torah says that before they can re-enter the community the priest must pronounce them ritually clean. As they turn to leave they find their skin disease is healed. But they still need that “OK” from the Temple authorities before they can re-enter society. They know that, and everyone with Jesus knows that; and besides Jesus has just told them to do that. So off they go.

But one of them turned back. Now it may be fair enough as you hear this to say, “Hey, cut the nine some slack because they are just doing what Jesus said to do.” But that really isn’t the point of the story. The point here is something that every parent I know tries to teach their children from a very young age. And even when you don’t know much about Middle Eastern geography or the ritual laws about leprosy, this part of the story translates pretty easily from first-century culture to our own day: it doesn’t cost you anything to say “thank you.” They can get on their way soon enough. But their lives have just been radically changed. This is huge! 

And yet they have tunnel vision: must get to priests! Only one of them takes the time to turn back and say, “thank you!” That is what Luther meant when he said that true worship is to be like this one. Or as Meister Eckhart put it: “if the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you’ it would be enough.”

We all know this. But it takes practice. We are surrounded by miracles and you would have to be blind to live in New England in autumn not to not notice. We experience, even on the most difficult of days, blessing upon blessing. The one who turned back, takes us to the very heart of the gospel. Ten were healed of their leprosy: their skin got better and they were all presumably soon pronounced ritually clean and allowed to re-enter society. But only one of them got well. He isn’t just “not sick” anymore; he’s been made whole. He’s alive.

Can I say it this way: he’s saved? That word makes Episcopalians squirm a little bit and I get why: it’s a little like the word “evangelism” or “stewardship.” Often when someone asks us whether or not we are “saved,” we may be tempted to run the other way. But that is in fact the Greek word used here: the root sozo literally means “to be saved” or “to be made well.” In the old King James Version it says, “Your faith has made you whole," which of course is what salvation is really all about.

Being saved isn’t about something that happens to us after we die. The abundant life that Christ promises begins here and now and this story suggests that we take hold of that new life. We really are made whole when we cultivate gratitude in our lives. That part, at least, of this reading is really very simple. 

Miracles abound. That doesn’t mean life isn’t sometimes hard, although it’s hard to imagine a life any more difficult than being a leper in a small Samaritan village. But too often we’re too busy moving on to the next thing; the miracles are all around us but we must get to work or get to class or get to the doctor or even get to church. We need to get supper ready or do the laundry. All these things matter but if we aren't careful we begin to live our lives focused on the next thing rather than the thing we are doing right now. And too often we forget to stop and say: “thank you, God.” 

So I think Luther had it just right: true worship is the one who returned. Discipleship is about cultivating gratitude, until we learn to become givers ourselves.  

Anne Lamotte says that she has two favorite prayers that she tries to pray every day: one in the morning and one at night. When she gets out of bed, she simply prays: “Help me. Help me. Help me.” And at the end of the day, before her head hits the pillow, she prays: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Those are both really good prayers. And they will take you a long way down the path of being made whole, if that is what you seek. They will take you a long way toward embracing the saving love that is in fact already ours in Jesus Christ. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Shechem

Today is the 23rd Sunday since Pentecost. I am at St. John's in Williamstown this weekend, where they are entering the final stage of calling their next rector. They have been an amazing congregation to work with, and they remain in my prayers as they anticipate the next chapter in their life together. 

The importance of the story we heard today from the the 24th chapter of the Book of Joshua in the arc of the Old Testament narrative cannot be overestimated. It’s a new beginning. It’s a moment of covenant renewal. And yet I bet it’s not in most Sunday School curricula, and maybe not even in the top one hundred moments in Old Testament history that you could come up with if we had done a little pre-worship quiz today. Maybe it’s for just that reason that I’m drawn to it on this November morning, not as just a nice little lesson in Biblical theology, but perhaps a moment that St. John’s might attend to and then even read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, in order to hear a Word of the Lord today.

One could argue that the Book of Genesis is really a kind of prequel to the most important book of the Torah: Exodus. As you may remember, Genesis ends with Joseph and his brothers landing in Egypt during a time of famine. And then, just a few verses into the Book of Exodus, a new Pharaoh arises “who didn’t know Joseph and his brothers…” And so it came to pass that the Hebrew people are enslaved. From there: the people cry out to God, Moses is called at the burning bush and given a mission to go tell old Pharaoh to let God’s people go and then there is the first Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, the dramatic escape. All of that gets remembered each year by Jews at the Passover Seder. It’s important stuff and if you’ve ever attended a Seder you know it’s not taught like something that happened a long time ago. It’s more like every Jew is transported back to that key event to cross the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit.

And then forty years in the wilderness where the Torah is given, better translated as Teaching or Instruction than Law. That takes us all the way to the end of the Pentateuch, to the very end of the Book of Deuteronomy, where an aged Moses looks with this band of ex-slaves across the Jordan River toward the Promised Land. As they prepare to enter this land “flowing with milk and honey,” Moses cautions them that in the midst of economic prosperity they will be tempted toward amnesia: they will begin to think that they have achieved all these things on their own. He urges them to “remember” all that Yahweh has done for them when they were living one day at a time in the Sinai wilderness.

So that’s the “Cliff Notes” version of the first five books of the Bible! Then comes the Book of Joshua, from which we read today. At Jericho, General Joshua leads the people in a series of battles and the walls come “a tumblin’ down” as they seek to claim this Promised Land, which it turns out is a contested piece of real estate that already has people living in it. That’s another sermon, for another day. In any case, at long last they enter the Promised Land. They stand on the dawn of a new day. And this takes us to Shechem. Joshua gathers up all the tribes of Israel and summons the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. You can still go there today. I was there a couple of years ago. It’s now called Nablus and it’s in the northern West Bank, under Palestinian control. Nablus is known for their knafah, a delicious sweet pastry made with pistachios and rose water and cheese. Being there makes a moment like we read about today not feel like it happened a long time ago, but very much present-tense.

Even so, we might ask: what does Shechem have to do with Williamstown? What we see in today’s reading is that God’s people pray, and they give thanks, and they renew their commitment to a vision and a dream. That’s why Joshua has gathered them together. Joshua reminds them, as Moses had at the end of Deuteronomy, that serving God will not be an easy matter and that in many ways it really will be harder in the Promised Land than in the wilderness, because there will be lots of distractions and lots of other gods that vie for their attention. But he makes it clear that he and his family will serve the Lord. Together, the people recall their story, and all that the Lord has done: how God brought them up “from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and protected them in the wilderness.”

So here they now stand, promising that they, too, will serve the Lord. There is no reason to doubt their sincerity. And yet we all know that the rest of the Bible is about how people fail to keep their promises to God, even when God remains faithful. Because those other gods are often too hard to resist.

I believe there may indeed be a Word of the Lord here for you, St. John’s. Let me first be clear what I don’t mean. I don’t want to suggest that Peter Elvin was Moses! Direct Biblical correlations are rarely exact or helpful and no rector, no matter how good, ought to be compared with Moses. And it would be untrue to say that the thirty years that Peter was here was like wandering in the wilderness. Or that the next rector is going to lead you into battle. So I don’t mean that.

Even so, you know better than most congregations in our diocese what it’s like to have one leader for a very long time. You’ve been through a lot together. In the past year or so you’ve gotten to know Libby, who is at CREDO this weekend. I think she’s a wonderful person. But beyond that, I think she’s been the right priest for you all to find your way to where you are today. Close, we hope, to calling a new rector. I don’t consider that work done until the ink is dry on a Letter of Agreement, but we’re gaining on it.  

Whoever that person is, and whenever that person arrives here, there will be an opportunity to do something like gathering at Shechem. We call it a Celebration of New Ministry. It usually happens a couple of months after a new cleric arrives. Often, in addition to the parish, some neighbors come by as well including, usually, some Berkshire area clergy, both Episcopal and ecumenical. It’s a chance to look to what lies ahead and covenant to work together. You’ll pray, and give thanks, and renew your commitment to a vision and a dream.

What I’ve learned in this work I’ve now been doing as Canon to the Ordinary for about four and a half years now is this: the hardest work of calling a new rector is not behind you, it’s ahead of you. No one ever believes me when I say this but it’s the truth. The arrival of a moving van in Williamstown and the first Sunday of a new rector will be terribly exciting. But that doesn’t mean the work is done. The hard work that lies ahead will be for the new rector to just become the rector. And that takes both time and commitment. I’m sure that even at Shechem some folks were whispering about Joshua: “he’s no Moses!” The work that lies ahead isn't just for the vestry or a profile committee or a search committee; it's work that belongs to all of you. 

You see those red Prayerbooks in your pews? They first got put there in 1979, nearly forty years ago! They’ve been there as long as the Israelites wandered around Sinai! And yet there are still folks who refer to it as the new Prayerbook! Transitions take time. I think the wisdom of Joshua (coming on the heels of the long ministry of Moses)  is that he wants to be clear with God’s people that a new chapter is about to begin. That it will be both different and the same. There will be different challenges and he won’t try to walk in Moses’ shoes; he’ll wear his own. He’ll try to be Joshua because, quite honestly, that’s who he is. Moses had his time and it can be honored without trying to keep duplicating it. And the context is different: they are no longer in the Sinai Desert scraping up manna for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They are in Canaan, which will present its own challenges.

On the other hand, same God, same Torah. The story of who God is and what God has done is remembered and rehearsed and retold. Some things are new but the old story continues to unfold. That is why Joshua says, “are you with me?” and keeps pressing the point: are you sure? He doesn’t ask people to swear allegiance to him. In fact, he reminds them (to paraphrase St. Paul many centuries later) that they weren’t baptized into Moses or Joshua, but that they have been claimed and marked and sealed by the living God. That is whom they are called to served.

So, in my work, I get to attend a lot of Celebrations of New Ministry and they are always a joy. They mark a new beginning. Recently I’ve been to liturgies in Oxford and Holyoke and we have another coming up in Sheffield this month. And before you know it I’ll be coming back here for one. It will be exciting. And a little scary, too.

The bishop requires new clergy to attend a program called Fresh Start for two years after they come to our diocese. It’s a program that meets monthly and is co-facilitated by my colleague, Pam Mott and me. It’s a chance for new clergy to get to know each other and the diocese, a movable feast that each cleric has a chance to host over the course of their time in Fresh Start. It’s also, we pray, a safe place where they can share not only their successes but their failures and disappointments, toward the goal of turning those into opportunities for growth. I also make it a point to schedule a Mutual Ministry Review with the new cleric and the vestry at some point later than six months in, but before a year is up so we can ask together: what’s going on? What have been the surprises? Where is some re-negotiation needed?

Notice those are all questions. Questions are better in that first year of a new ministry than declarative statements like “this is how we’ve always done it!”

Here is the thing: most people here don’t remember the first five years when Peter arrived here. Even if you were here then, you still remember it filtered through the rest of the story. But comparing Peter’s last five to the first five of a new person won’t be helpful for anyone, especially for your new rector. New beginnings are just that. Joshua wasn’t Moses and he wasn’t called to do things the same way.

So I don’t want this sermon to lapse into becoming a report on transition ministry and maybe I’ve already crossed that line. So let me bring this to a close: it seems to me that the Holy Spirit likes to do new things. That doesn’t mean we don’t value tradition. Lord knows we Episcopalians love our traditions! But if tradition is to avoid lapsing into nostalgia for the past, then we need to stay alive to the new thing God is about to do. We need to cultivate an openness to where God is leading us next. We need to be a people who remember that God doesn’t rest on past laurels, but is always calling us to be faithful in this time and place. That means a willingness to share the news and the work with our children and our children’s children more than building a shrine to our parents and our parents’ parents.

Pastoral leadership transitions mark an invitation and a new opportunity for clarity about vision and mission. If not exactly a re-set button, then they at least mark the beginning of a new chapter in a still-unfolding story. I think that is what was going on in Shechem with Joshua and a people who needed to get ready for the next thing, even as they remembered the lessons of Sinai. And I think that is what is soon to happen here at St. John’s, by God’s grace. Choose, then, whom you will serve. Choose to stick with the living God who has brought you this far, the God who continues to be faithful from generation to generation. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

All Saints?

Today I am again at All Saints, Worcester. It is their patronal feast day, which is just a fancy way of saying that they take their name from this feast day in the church calendar - this Sunday of All Saints. In celebration of this day the 10 am service and the 11:45 Spanish-language service have combined at 10:30 with a potluck lunch to follow. 

There is a new television ad for the Google Pixel Phone that has imprinted on my brain. Which, of course, is exactly what advertising means to do. Don’t worry, this is not a sermon brought to you by Google and I’m not endorsing any products today. But I think the ad has theological implications.

It begins like this: “when you change a period to a question mark, it changes everything.” And then they give some examples, in rapid succession:
  • The earth is flat. The earth is flat? 
  • We’re lost. We’re lost? 
  • Cars need drivers. Cars need drivers? 
  • Smartphones can’t get any smarter. Smartphones can’t get any smarter?
You with me? When you change a period to a question mark, it changes everything.

Some of you have perhaps seen the comma that has been used over the past few years by the United Church of Christ in an ad campaign. They want to say that God is still alive and still speaking through God’s people, and so they want to replace periods with commas to make this point.

But today, on this Feast of All Saints, your patronal feast day, I want to wonder out loud with you what happens when we change periods into question marks.

My experience teaches me that questions lead to deeper faith. Perhaps the patron saint of this truth is St. Thomas, whom we mis-remember as a doubter, when he was really just that guy who was willing to ask the hard questions.Certitudes truncate faith and certitudes are an equal opportunity offender: there are versions on both the left and the right. 

When someone knows something, for sure, they stop listening. Period.

They close themselves down. Period.

This is always a problem for Christian community. Statements tend to get debated. Questions get explored.

So when we change periods to question marks, it changes everything. We begin to wonder what we might not see or know and we wonder what others have to offer us to help with our blind spots. Our neighbor is no longer a threat, but a gift to us. We begin to embrace that baptismal prayer that we might have "inquiring and discerning hearts."

I’ve been with you now for just about a month. I’m here part-time in a position that requires full-time work. And I’m only here for another eight or nine weeks. So I am feeling free to say just about anything.

But here is what I want to say to you today, All Saints: you are in this together.

Literally as I look out at you today, I see a thing of beauty. I feel like John on Patmos, glimpsing what he saw: una gran multid de todas las naciounes, razas, lenguas y pueblos. You are all saints.

You are all saints?

One of my favorite preachers is Nadia Bolz-Weber, the founding pastor of a church called the House of All Sinners and All Saints. She’s a Lutheran, so those Lutherans as you may know are big on the fact that we can be simultaneously both sinners and saints. But it’s not just a Lutheran idea; it’s a solidly Christian idea.

What’s dangerous is to think that some are the saints and the others are the sinners. This not only destroys Christian community; it’s not true. There are variations on the theme: we are more saintly, the others are worse sinners. But that is just wrong.

When Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of that Wittenburg Church five hundred years ago, he started asking big questions about the relationship between faith and works and the meaning of grace. One place that led to was a 21st century congregation called All Sinners and All Saints which just about sums it all up.

Well, it’s probably too late to change your name, all saints. But your patronal feast day may be a good time to remember that being saints doesn’t mean always getting it right.

You are all saints? Yes, to be sure. And you are all sinners, saved by God’s grace.

Here’s the deal while we’re talking about sin: we can’t confess our neighbor’s sins. It just doesn’t work that way. We may see their sins more clearly than we see our own, but that’s no excuse! Their sins are not for us to confess.

Jesus had something to say about getting rid of beams in our own eyes before we worry about the splinters in the eyes of others, remember?  

You are all saints?

Some days we may not feel like we are, or that that person two pews in front of us definitely is not. But I want to tell you again as I look out today, this is what the Kingdom of God looks like: you are from every nation, or at least a lot of nations. You are from different tribes, and peoples, and languages, and today we hear just a few of them: Swahili. Spanish. English. Take a good look because this is what heaven looks like.

After this liturgy we’ll share different foods representing different cultures from the African diaspora and from different Latin American and Central American countries and from Europe and from native people who were here long before the Europeans came. We are many. And we are one. We are blessed by our diversity.

We are blessed by our diversity?

Some days it doesn’t feel like that, I know because it’s hard work. Division and mistrust permeate the dominant culture in which we live, but we come here to remember a deeper truth: that each of us is created in the image of the living God. That each of us is worthy of being treated with dignity and respect. We come here to remember that Jesus commands us to love one another. Though we are many, we are one.

In the past month I’ve discovered some ghosts in this place. Most of them seem friendly enough. Former rectors who were great theologians, like Father Huntington, and clerics who became bishops, like Vinton and Davies and Hastings and Beckwith. When I wander the halls upstairs they all look so young. And of course for every former rector with a photo on the wall, there were countless choir directors and choir members and Sunday school teachers and vestry members and altar guild members and loud praying members and soft-spoken ones, too. We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, and they were faithful in their time.

But here’s the deal: this is your time, all saints. All of us will eventually go down to the dust and join the heavenly chorus. But in the meantime we have work to do here. Work of healing and of reconciliation. Work of being faithful stewards, which is always about more than just being money managers.

When you change a period to a question mark, it changes everything. Keep asking what the Lord requires of you? Keep asking what it means to be all saints and how you will commit to that, with God’s help. Keep asking how you can be part of the work of reconciliation rather than of division. 

And then praise God, from whom all blessings flow. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Pie Jesu Domine

I am, once again, privileged to be among God's people at All Saints Church in Worcester. Because they celebrate their patronal feast day next weekend ("All Saints Day") they have a tradition of extending that time by including a celebration of All Souls Day the week prior - so the readings for today differ from what most parishes are using. They can be found here. 

First, and most importantly: yesterday late in the afternoon, William Ruben Reyes Rosendale was born, the first son to the Reverends Mary Rosendale and Jose Reyes. Our prayers are with this family, near and dear to our hearts.

Your program says that Jose is preaching today. That was the plan. But kids sometimes change the best laid plans, and today you and I are all surprised together that you get me!

But here goes…

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Always when we gather in this thin place where many have come before us, and many will come after us. But today we are more keenly aware, on this Feast of All Souls. We remember those whose names are printed in your program today. We remember Priscilla and Elisabeth who died just this past week. The grief of those who loved them is still fresh and maybe even raw. Hold them in your care. Give those who loved them a hug.

We will also name those who have died over the course of this past year: Sandra and Thomas and Marjory and George and Doris, Diana and Peter and John, Caollen and Charlie and Nadeen and Henry and Kevin, Richard and Janet. There may be others we will name as well. Our Jewish brothers and sisters, when they gather for prayer, pray the mourner’s kaddish to remember those who have died, which is something like what we do here today as we light those votive candles. Interestingly, the kaddish is focused on God: on praising God for having shared these people with us more than on grief or loss. We give thanks to the Creator for the privilege of knowing these people.

Many of you, including me, have added names that are found at the end of our program today. And I’m sure there are many, many more who for whatever reason didn’t get to respond and fill out the form to have their loved ones remembered today. Or just there are too many to number, and so we write down the names that mean the most. Literally all of the names we bring with us today could fill many books!

But they are not just names on a page. They each have their own unique stories. I added Richard, my father, who died at the age of 37 and I added my step-father, Martin, who died just fifteen months ago. I won’t tell you their stories here, but I bring them with me to the Table today as I know you bring those whom you love but see no longer. We hold them in our hearts as the choir leads us through Faure’s Requiem Mass. It is all beautiful but the Pie Jesu in particular, touches my soul:

Pie Jesu Domine. Dona eis requiem., sempieternaum requiem.
Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest, eternal rest.

Faure is so beautiful. If I’m lucky enough to have a choir like this one sing at my funeral I’d like to request the music we are hearing today sung. I actually put this request in to Graeme this week but I’m not sure he took me seriously, nor was prepared for my dying. But you are all now my witnesses! Not every choir in this diocese can pull this off, but we are very blessed, and we are all grateful. 

Thank you choir. But seriously, you all are going to owe me one, so I’m going public on the request: sing Faure for me when I’m gone!

There is also a poet/theologian from the swamps of Jersey that I’m a big fan of – his name is Bruce Springsteen. If you can get him to sing at my funeral that’d be cool, too. The Boss has a song on a less well-known album called Wrecking Ball which is called We Are Alive! It’s an All Souls hymn that we are not singing here today, and I am not going to sing it for you either, which is a blessing for you all. But the words of that poem begin like this:
There is a cross up yonder up on Calvary Hill / There is a slip of blood on a silver knife / There is a graveyard kid down below / Where at night did come to life / And above the stars, they crackle in fire / A dead man's moon throws seven rings. / Well, we put our ears to the cold grave stones / This is the song they'd sing / We are alive / Although our bodies lie alone here in the dark / Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark / To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.
Those names, on the pages of our programs today and all the other names written on our hearts: they are alive! Their spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark and we stand shoulder to shoulder, and heart to heart. We may not see them any longer but they are alive. And they cheer us on!

And that's what this day is about. As we heard from the prophet Isaiah, death is swallowed up. We live in that thin place where the table is set with a banquet - a fiesta and we are all in this together: saints triumphant and as the old language of the church put it, the saints militant.

Our work is to raise up saints like William Ruben Reyes Rosendale as we share the faith we have received with them, trusting that death is not an end but a transition to something greater. We feel sad when we lose those we love but we also live in hope.

This is not a denial of death. We know enough about death. But it is a fierce claim of resistance, that death does not get the last word. Not ever.

Grant eternal rest to them, and let light perpetual shine upon them. And give us the faith to run the race that is set before us with perseverance, with courage, and with hope. And with love - always love. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Today I am with the good people at All Saints Church in Worcester. The readings for today can be found here. The sermon is something of a recap of the second book of the Bible, Exodus, from which those of us who use the Revised Common Lectionary have been reading since the end of August.

Since the end of August, we have been reading from the Book of Exodus as our Old Testament reading each week. Have you noticed this? Sometimes we kind of don’t fully wake up until we get to the epistle reading and the gospel; you know – the "really important stuff" in the New Testament! But on August 27 we read from Chapter 1 of Exodus, and we’ve been plugging away ever since, over these past nine weeks. Last week Jose preached a fine sermon on the golden calf and the meaning of idolatry in our lives today.

Today we come to the end of our readings from Exodus; next week it’s on to old Deuteronomy. So it seemed to me that a quick review is in order. Ready? A new Pharaoh arose who didn’t know Joseph and the Hebrews who had come to Egypt during a famine. And he began persecuting them. It’s what oppressors do. They worship the economy and they forget that the measure of a nation’s real wealth is in its workers, not GDP. You all remember what that rabbi from Galilee said about how you cannot worship both God and mammon, right? Well, in this case the Hebrews are being used as a permanent underclass to make bricks that make Pharaoh richer. The whole Passover liturgy of plagues and the flight from Egypt is about remembering that. They leave and end up with the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s army behind them and in that moment, they are between a rock and a hard place and obviously scared to death.

You don’t need to be a history professor to know what happens to escaped slaves if they get caught. And you don’t need a PhD in psychology to know what happens to people’s brains when they are experiencing anxiety. We become like reptiles. In that moment of desperation and fear, the finger-pointing begins. It has to be someone’s fault. “Why did you bring us out here to die?” they say to Moses. Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt? We told you this would happen, why didn’t you leave us alone to serve the Egyptians? Slavery is, like, way better than being dead!

Maybe, maybe not. Amazingly, though, Moses doesn’t get defensive or go on the attack in response. Instead he basically tells them that they have nothing to fear but fear itself. You can look it up in Exodus 14, where he says: “Do not be afraid; stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” The Lord is going to work this out.

Now we have the distinct advantage of 20/20 hindsight and of knowing that it all did work out, because we’ve been telling this story for thousands of years now. But pause for just a moment to consider what happens when you are in a situation like that in the present tense and you don’t know for sure. When you are between a rock and a hard place at home, or at work, or at church with what may feel like the world’s most powerful army behind you and the sea in front of you. Oh, and you can’t swim. And the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God, is: “don’t be afraid. Stand firm….”

Do you believe this? As it turns out this is good advice because it moves us out of our reptilian shame-and-blame brains and into something more closely resembling human thought. In Exodus, the Hebrews cross the Red Sea (or the Sea of Reeds) and right after this great miracle, they sing a little ditty you may remember. We sing it every year at the Easter Vigil, about how “horse and rider have been cast into the sea.” They bring out their tambourines and they do a little liturgical dance. Essentially it goes like this: God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good. Praise the Lord!

And then they look up. And now the waters of the Red Sea are behind them, and the Sinai Desert is in front of them. We know as readers that they are about to spend the next four decades wandering around in that wilderness. They don’t know that yet, but it probably does dawn on them finally that the move from slavery to freedom has only just begun and that it will be a long and arduous journey. Because the journey from slavery to freedom is always a long and winding and arduous one. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes: it’s not that hard if you’ve ever felt scared, hot, tired, hungry, thirsty and cranky. So the complaining and shaming and blaming and bickering all start up again. It seems to be a theme in Exodus. Oh the cucumbers and melons back in Egypt! Those were the days!

In Israel’s memory, as parents told their children and then those children grew up and told their children and grandchildren what happened that day, the message of this text is really quite profound and quite clear: God was with us. We simply would not and could not have made it without God. We made it because God had a plan for us. We made it because we cried out and God heard and God saw and God sent Moses to Pharaoh. We made it because God keeps God’s promises. Not always on the timeline we want, but always over the long haul. Sandwiched in between that message of good news, however (and even layered into it like a club sandwich) is real honesty about the realities of what fear can do to us, about leadership and courage and hope and tribulation and the fear of scarcity and God’s providential care in hard times. It’s good news because we are kind of living through some of this right now in this nation and in this congregation and a lot of us feel jammed between a rock and a hard place, and maybe even paralyzed by fear. But we really are not alone. And if we open our eyes we’ll find some gifts along the way, like daily bread and water from the flinty rock. The people survived that arduous journey from slavery to freedom, and you will survive, all saints, because God really can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. And because God really is good even in the times when we doubt it. God is good, all the time.
So this Exodus narrative that has unfolded in nine parts since August 27 is about God, the great Liberator who has taken the side of this band of slaves in search of a better life. God is working God’s purposes out; make no mistake about that. But it is also worth noting that the narrator is pretty realistic that the journey from slavery to freedom is a dangerous and circuitous one that will take decades, not minutes, because the journey is not magic. It’s about building community. And that’s always hard.

When they cross the Red Sea, the text says that Moses stretched his hand out over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back. Moses has no super-hero powers. He is merely God’s agent. Whatever he is able to do is because of God working through him. But Moses does have to trust that when he stretches his hand out, he won’t end up looking like a fool. Think about it: what if nothing happens? Before he can stretch out his arm, before he can tell everyone else to “just chill”—he has to believe that himself. He has to be able to imagine freedom. He has to trust the Lord God with his whole heart. So he stretches his arm out, hoping that that whole thing at the burning bush wasn’t just a dream. This is what leadership requires, and not just from the ones who wear collars.

I love Jewish interpretation of Scripture because there is a built-in resistance to settling the story into one simple meaning. Midrash is about reading the story in ways that generate new stories and new questions. So somebody says, “there we were and the waters parted…” And the rabbis say, “that reminds me of a story…”

One of my favorite midrash on the Passover narrative is that while the Israelites were doing all that singing and dancing and playing of tambourines, God was weeping. When the angel asks God why, God says: “because the Egyptians are my children too.” God is Liberator—make no mistake about that. God takes on injustice – make no mistake about that. God sides with the powerless- make no mistake about that. But there are nevertheless real costs to freedom, as every soldier knows. People die when injustice is confronted. So God cannot join the singing and dancing in the midst of all that carnage. For Israel this is a great day, a day of celebration: God rescued them from slavery and they are on the road to freedom. And to be clear: Pharaoh’s government was oppressive and the Egyptians really did have this coming. Or at least Pharaoh did, even if those soldiers are only pawns in his game. But God still loves all the little children of the world; they are all precious in God’s sight. So God weeps, or so say at least some of the rabbis.

The other midrash I love about this event at the Red Sea says that the waters didn’t immediately part when Moses lifted up his staff, but only after the first Israelite steps out and puts her foot into the water. I like that because it adds another dimension to this story: insisting that Moses’ trust in God isn’t enough. The people’s faith is also needed. Courageous leaders need courageous followers. What Moses’ act of leadership does is to inspire the trust of others and together they take a leap of faith and put their trust in God and only then does the miracle happen. The leader can inspire hope, but true freedom is a community event and not hero worship.

Whatever you make of these two midrashim, the larger point is a truth reiterated again and again in both Testaments: fear paralyzes us, fear leads to blame, fear leads to death. The way forward in such moments of danger is to remember to breathe until perfect love casts out fear. We will never move from slavery to freedom if we let our fears truncate and distort our faith. And so we breathe in and we breathe out and we remind each other not to be afraid and we ask questions and we let God be God and we begin to move out of our reptilian brains and take that first step towards new life.

Now I’ve just used most of my sermon time to review the plot of Exodus and I have only a very little time left to focus on the text we heard today, before we turn the page next week to Deuteronomy. But I can talk fast from here. Today we have this little tete-a-tete between Moses and God. Moses feels he’s been bearing the brunt of things and he reminds God, “these are your people too and besides, you got me into this line of work!” God reminds Moses he is always with him and will give him rest, but Moses pushes back: “God, if you aren’t going with us, then let’s talk about that right now. Don’t carry us up from here only to abandon us down the road. That’s not fair.”

Have you ever prayed to God like that? The Psalms are a help in this deepening of prayer, but that’s another sermon for another day. For today notice this: God says, “you can’t see me face-to-face, but I will let you see my backside.” I wonder if that doesn’t mean something like this: we can make more sense of God’s presence in our lives looking backward than we can trying to figure out what lies ahead. We can see how God was at work in our lives, but looking ahead it’s much more challenging to predict how God will work. So all we can do is trust God to do God’s thing in the future like we know God did it in the past: the God who was with us will be with us.

In the meantime here is what I hope you will take away from this sermon today: we are on a journey to the Promised Land. But it’s not immediately in sight. While we are often scared along the way, and there will always be some complaining, there are also gifts given by a living God who is trustworthy. Look for those gifts and give thanks for them. God is with us. God is in charge, God is present, even if we only recognize that presence in hindsight. God really is good all the time; all the time, God is good. We pray that this is enough to go on as the journey continues.