Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Dancing with the Saints

November 4, 2018
The Feast  of All Saints
John 11:43-44
Since we are celebrating the feast of All Saints, I have to admit that, despite having been surrounded by the mention of saints all my life in the Episcopal liturgy, I have a somewhat checkered past around the subject.  
For most of my life, the universe of sainthood felt pretty small and the idea a little dubious.  I thought of saints as long-dead, super-duper, church approved people. People that I imagined always behaving perfectly – too perfectly. People that seemed more angelic than human.  The kinds of people that churches are named after. Not people I could relate to, much less be. I didn’t see them as having much of anything to do with me and my faith, and I wasn’t ever comfortable with the idea of praying to or through them.
After a few people that I loved died, the idea of saints began to feel a little more relatable, although still something far off. Now, I could imagine “saints” including my mom, and my grandparents, and dead people I’d heard about or known.  Real people with foibles and flaws that had in some way exemplified Jesus’ teachings by the way they lived and loved. Saints were a special group of people that, if I lived well, I too might get to be part of after I died.
And then my family visited St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I’d taken a class in seminary with the leaders of the church and loved some of their creative ways of doing liturgy.  But what ended up being most striking to me was the 3000 square foot icon on their huge ceiling that portrayed almost 100 saints dancing in a circle, with Jesus looming large among them as the Lord of the Dance.  The saints included are children and adults, men and women. They range in historical age from Isaiah from the Old Testament to Desmond Tutu. And they range in orthodoxy too, from the expected (like Francis of Assisi) to the unexpected (like Ella Fitzgerald).  There were plenty of Christians but also folks representing other religions – like Rumi the Sufi poet, and Anne Frank and Gandhi.
But the icon was more than a festive and theologically-surprising decoration.  At several points in the service we gathered inside that portion of the church, surrounded by the circle of diverse saints, and we danced in a circle, arms linked together, part and parcel of the collection of dancing saints.  Like them, we were young and old, male and female, black and brown and white, in various stages and ranges of saintliness.
I realize that some people might find the vast range of people included in that icon to be a tad heretical.  And yet I think that might have been the moment when I really started to believe that I am, we are, RIGHT NOW – at this moment and forever, part of the communion of saints.  That was when I started to understand how Saints (whether with a big and small “S”) could be relevant to my faith and life.
Every week we talk about this idea of the “communion of saints.”  It’s part of the Creed, and the Prayers of the People, and the eucharistic prayers.  But mostly it had just floated by me, sounding distant and holy and other-worldly But suddenly I could hear it as a way of expressing not only our union with those who have gone before but also a way of living right now.  The catechism in the back of our prayer book defines the communion of saints as “the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer and praise.”
So the communion of saints isn’t limited to just the famous, church-recognized saints, or even the super well-behaved people. The communion of saints doesn’t just include all the folks that we’ve loved and lost – like our relatives and the parishioners that have died over the year that we’ll name in a few minutes. It includes those of us that are still kicking, whether our saintly qualities are obvious – like Desmond Tutu – or less obvious, like me.  We are all part of the communion of saints! It isn’t something we look at from the outside but something we are living in the midst of.
My youngest daughter is named after one of my favorite writers -- and saints (though not listed in any official list just yet) -- Maya Angelou -- helps me to think about what that might look like.
I had the great joy of taking a class with Dr. Angelou, who was a professor at Wake Forest where I went to college.  It was one of those classes that only seniors could get into, and only if we lucked out and drew a good number when it came time for class registration.  Dr. Angelou only offered the class pass/fail, and all that was required was showing up. A couple dozen of us would sit and adore her as she told stories about her life, read from her books, recited poetry and broke out periodically in song.  The last class was dinner at her home. We got to see photos of her with everyone wonderful you could imagine. We got to see her gorgeous collection of artwork. We got to see her mementos from life in exotic countries. I don’t remember much of what we ate or who else was there; I just remember how special it felt.
She was larger than life, full of joy and beauty and wisdom.  And she was really helpful at a formative time in my coming to a grown-up faith.  She talked openly about her own faith and sang spiritual songs and referred to Bible stories.  But she was also painfully honest about how hard she found it all. She said she never felt comfortable calling herself a Christian because it seemed like something she failed at every day.
And maybe that’s why Maya Angelou came to mind for me when I thought about how this communion of saints business might look for those of us still working on it “down here”.  She confessed in an interview that she was always amazed when people say, “‘I’m a Christian.’ I always think, ‘Already? You’ve already got it? My goodness, you’re fast.’” “I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business.  It’s not something where you think, “Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day -- hot diggity.’ The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it. And then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, ‘Hmmm.  I only blew it 86 times. Not bad.’ I’m trying to be a Christian.”
Maybe it’s like I’m a mom and a wife and a daughter because I have kids and a spouse and parents even though my patience and love, my mothering and spousing and daughter-ing, is often imperfect….  And like I am a priest because I’m ordained even though I haven’t fully figured out my pastoral identity…. We are saints not because of our good deeds or because we can claim any kind of perfection, but because we belong to God.  
And because we are saints, we are called to participate -- to do God’s work in the piece of the world in which we find ourselves.  God uses us flawed saints to do divine things.
And that’s where the miracle story from our Gospel comes in.  This is the big daddy of Jesus’ miracles – raising Lazarus, who had been dead four days, to life again.  This is the one that created tons of believers and the one that sets some people on their course to try to destroy Jesus.
But Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus alone.  He called the crowd to participate. “Take away the stone,” Jesus commanded them, inviting them to begin the miracle by creating space for it.  And then, Jesus said, “Unbind him,” instructing them to complete the miracle and make it visible to everyone.
That’s how it works.  God is all around us doing incredible things - renewing and restoring, healing and forgiving.  But God doesn’t do it alone. We are invited to become God’s partners in the Kingdom of God. To become part of making God’s vision, God’s promise, a reality.

Because God is in our midst, we are able to do the work of rolling away stones unbinding that is so clearly needed in the world around us.  Because God’s light shines through us, we are able to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God. Because Jesus Christ is the Lord of the dance, we are able to hook arms and join in the divine circle.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Chipping Away

October 14, 2018
Mark 10:17-31


It feels odd to say this out loud, but lately I’ve been trying my hand at whittling.  It started a few years back when my son was in Cub Scouts and got his whittling badge.  At first, I was opposed to the idea of giving my 10 year old a sharp and potentially life-threatening weapon.  But the group started out carving soap with plastic knives and learned all the important rules - carve away from your body, make sure no one is in your “blood circle”, close the knife when you aren’t using it.  Miraculously, the new knife led to no blood shed. So soon my husband and daughters got into the action, sitting on the porch -- blood circle distance apart -- leaving curls of wood at their feet. It all seemed a little silly and old-fashioned to me.  But then one day, out of curiosity, I tried it too. And there was something really refreshing about taking something knobby and rough and making it smooth. There was something meditative about slowly whittling a chunk of branch into a point. None of us are actually able to create anything much other than pointy walking sticks, but I have this vision of someday being able to create something from my imagination out of a block of wood.
Maybe that’s why the story I’m about to tell you caught my attention...
Apparently, one day Michelangelo was hard at work in his studio in Florence, pounding away on a large block of marble with his hammer and chisel.  A little child from the neighborhood watched as pieces of stone started falling away. The child had no idea what the sculptor was doing. But a few weeks later, the boy returned and saw, to his surprise, a large and powerful lion sitting in the place where the marble had stood.  The boy ran to Michelangelo and said, “How did you know there was a lion stuck inside the marble?”

Now, granted, it’s probably an apocryphal story.  But I love it anyway. And what I love even more is that Henri Nouwen took this story and turned in into a spiritual meditation:
Nouwen suggests we imagine ourselves as a beautiful but unformed block of marble.  What would God need to chip away to reveal the lion inside?
I brought this question with me to the Tuesday night contemplative arts gathering a few weeks ago.  I put my colored pencils to work as I thought about my “lion” - my authentic, God-beloved and created core.  As I drew, I thought about the parts and pieces that might make up that core, with each piece represented by a different colored shape spiraling out from the center:  
My glimpses of joy and grace, my love for my family and friends, my work with other people on this journey with God, experiences when God’s presence felt most tangible, moments when I’ve felt I was right where I belonged, times when I couldn’t stop laughing.  
And I added other pieces that I knew could be strengthened to be a more solid part of that core, growing the spiral a little larger:
Like a more consistent prayer life.  More patience with my children. More attention to the people and moments in front of me.  More intention about discerning God’s presence in the world around me. You get the picture.
And then I began to think about what might keep keep my “lion” from being as perfectly formed as it could be.  The things that keep me from being my real self or that prevent me from living as fully into my belovedness as possible.  I used watercolors to signify all of that, and there were some grays and browns, but mostly these pieces still had color and life too, they just weren’t as clear and vibrant.  I realized that what needs chipping away isn’t entirely bad. There is some resistance to God, some actively bad intentions and uncharitable thoughts, some laziness and inattention.  But when I looked at what I’d drawn there was also plenty of filler filler - distractions and preoccupations and excuses, regrets and worries and fears, attempts to be something I’m just not.
I think the same is true for the man in our Gospel story today.  Mark describes him as a man “with many possessions.” He seems to have lived a good and upright life.  He has kept the commandments and worshipped regularly. His neighbors would say he was polite and kind and well-intentioned, I’m guessing.  He has done what is expected of a person like him. It doesn’t seem like he has any major dark secrets.
The irony here is that by society’s standards, this man lacks nothing.  He is an impressive piece of marble.
And yet, he knows something is missing.  Despite his wealth and good behavior, he is longing for something deeper.  Following the commandments and amassing wealth has not given him the completeness and joy that he aches for.  He senses in Jesus that something more is being offered. And maybe he senses in himself some weight that needs lifting.
Now, there’s another version of the Michelangelo story that has the boy asking the artist how he knew what parts to chip away in order to create the statue.  And Michelangelo answered, “I knew there was a lion in there somewhere. I just had to chip away at all the stone that wasn’t lion to get to him.”
When the rich man runs up to Jesus, he kneels before him just like the people who have come to Jesus to ask him to cure them of their blindness or disease, or to return life to their children or servants that are near death.  I think this is a healing story at its heart. And just as Jesus does with the other desperate people that have come to him for healing, Jesus looks at this man and loves him. Just like Michelangelo could see the creature within the marble, Jesus sees at the heart of this man before him the beloved creature of God that he is.  And then, as he always does, Jesus offers healing.
I think the healing Jesus offers in this story is really a chipping away.  A chipping away that promises to reveal the glorious lion inside this rich and aching man.
The trouble is that for this man what needs to be chipped away is his wealth.
We aren’t told exactly why, but somehow this man’s possessions have gotten in the way of his becoming a lion.  Somehow his wealth has gotten in the way of his relationship with God, his ability to fully follow and trust God.  
Maybe his stuff has become for him an idol, something that he is captive to, something he unconsciously considers more valuable than loving God and neighbor.  
Or maybe his confidence in his own ability to make money and care for himself has led him to think he can earn his way to salvation rather than depending on God.  
Or maybe his wealth has become a buffer against vulnerability, making it hard for him to form relationships.  
For whatever reason, Jesus says that this man’s material abundance is also the cause of his lacking.  And so giving his possessions away to the poor is where potential healing lies.
Unfortunately, from the story we read today it looks like the rich man may not be up to it.  We are told that he is shocked and goes away grieving. It looks like this man is refusing to be healed by Jesus.
But what if the story isn’t over?
Maybe the writer of Mark’s Gospel never knew what ultimately happened to the rich man.  For all we know, maybe the man went on to slowly, bit by bit, learn to rely less on his possessions and right behavior and more on Jesus.  
Or maybe, just maybe, this story is intentionally left open so that we can imagine ourselves into it.  So that we can grieve along with him as he walks away, knowing that his choice is in some way our choice to make as well.  So that we can examine the places in our own lives where we are walking away from Jesus’ healing. So that we can think about what we long for, what we lack, and what needs chipping away in our lives to more closely follow Jesus.
This is a hard thing that Jesus asks -- of this rich man, but also of us.  Chipping away can be hard and painful and slow. Marble doesn’t give way easily, and neither do we.  It’s hard to let go of wealth and material possessions. And it’s also hard to let go of control, to fight free of habits or addictions, to say goodbye to an unhealthy relationship, to forego security and comfort, to live in the moment, to say you’re sorry for a long-standing hurt, to work on a marriage that has grown cold, to admit some truth about yourself, to set aside time in an already busy day to devote to something that seems intangible.  
But, as Jesus promises in this story, “For God all things are possible.”
We are in the loving hands of a master sculptor, who created us and longs to shape us gradually into God’s image -- our true selves.  I wonder what God needs to chip away to reveal your lion?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Out of Whack

July 15, 2018
Amos 7:7-15

And the Lord said to Amos, “What do you see?”  I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A while back my husband Holden spent his free time for a few months finishing part of our basement.  With a lot of hard work, he turned it from a dark and dingy place full of pipes and insulation and wires
 to a relatively light and comfortable place for the kids to play. 
It was an amazing accomplishment.
The problem is that you have to go down a set of stairs to get there.  And it turns out that when Holden framed the stairs, something didn’t work out quite as planned, and the 5th stair from the bottom ended up about a 1/2 inch taller than it ought to be.  
It seems like such a small difference – you can barely even tell by looking at the stairs that that one step is a touch different.  But just about every person – child or adult – who goes up our basement stairs trips on that one step.  Even when we point it out and prepare people, they still trip on it.  Even now, a decade later, it still catches me. 
Apparently, the correct height of a stair is so ingrained in us that our body’s muscle memory tells our legs the height the stair ought to be.  And overcoming that norm is really difficult.
Turns out there’s a reason for all those codes and regulations that builders have to follow.  They aren’t just there to get us in trouble and make money for contractors.  At least I can vouch for the ones about stairs – they are there to protect us, to save us from injury and frustration, and to keep us from inadvertently teaching curse words to our children.  Sometimes it’s important to have a standard to measure things against.
That’s pretty much what the prophet Amos is announcing in our Old Testament reading as he recounts his vision of the Lord standing in the midst of Israel with a plumb line.

Now, in this basement project, Holden actually used a plumb line, so I know what it is (and our walls are pretty straight).  The plumb line is a simple tool – just a line with a weight at the end (called the “plumb bob”).  You drop the plumb line from a certain spot and gravity will place the bob exactly in line below that spot.  So if you build according to that line, you’ll end up with whatever it is you’re building perfectly straight.  This is a tool that helps you build something strong and safe and long-lasting.
So there stands God in Amos’ vision, holding this simple tool in the midst of the people. 
Interestingly, I find that, depending on my mood, Amos’ vision can sound like either a foreboding judgment or like a hopeful promise.
The judgment part is maybe easier to hear.  The Lord makes clear to Amos that measured against the plumb line, Israel is wildly out of whack.  
Amos’ story is set in the Northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BC.  It was a time of power and prosperity and peace under the king, Jeroboam II. 
It was all that a country could hope for, then or now.  But the people and their rulers and priests had forgotten their center, their plumb line.  They thought of themselves as chosen people, but they forgot who had chosen them.  They thought of their nation as exceptional, blessed by great wealth and power, but the rich and powerful refused to share their blessings with the poor and weak. And their religion had become corrupt and meaningless, ritual for the sake of ritual. 
So the prophet Amos had his work cut out for him. His job was to confront the king and the religious leaders and the powerful people with the Lord’s sovereignty and justice.  To persuade the rich and powerful to act on behalf of the poor and weak.  To insist they remember the stranger, the widow, the orphan among them.  To reclaim God at the center of their religion.  To show the people how off the mark they had become.  
They had been judged, and the judgment was not in their favor.  And because of far they had turned from God, Amos prophesies that their high places would be made desolate, their sanctuaries would be laid waste, and their kingdom would fall. 
Which all sounds pretty dreadful.
But this idea of a plumb line in their midst was more than a judgment - it was also a promise.  Even though they were already completely out of whack, even though there would be repercussions for their failures, in Amos’ vision God still calls them “my people.” Even though they had rejected and forgotten God, God hadn’t and wouldn’t forget or give up on them.  
It isn’t entirely clear what the plumb line was meant to represent in this reading.  It might be the prophet Amos himself; it might be the 10 commandments; it might be the covenant God made with Israel’s ancestors.  Some Christian commentators read into this a promise of Jesus Christ, the ultimate plumbline — our standard of how to live and be as people of God. But whatever the plumb line was meant to represent, the people needed it — desperately.  
They needed a sign of the love of a God who ached for relationship with them.  They needed to remember that they had had been imprinted with the likeness of God from the beginning and that they could still become the people they were created to be.  They needed to be reminded of their high calling to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with their God.  They needed God at their center.
And I wonder if our setting almost 3000 years later is all that different from Amos’.  We still need a plumb line to be both judgment of how far we have strayed from our calling as God’s people, and a present hope and promise for our world, for this country, and for each of us individually.
God’s question for Amos — “What do you see?” — is an equally good question for us.
What do you see that out of plumb in your life?  What is the stair that is tripping you up?  
Or maybe, how do you see our community, our nation, and our world out of whack?  In what ways are we living like the Northern Kingdom of Israel even now as we receive this vision secondhand from Amos today?
And where is our plumb line?  How do we know where our center is, and how do we return to it?  How do we become more completely the beloved people of God we are created to be?  Where do we catch glimpses of what might be possible, if only…?  


What do you see?

Amen.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

A (Holy) Interruption Sandwich

July 1, 2018
Mark 5:21-43

I’ve now been working here at St. Paul’s for exactly a month, and — I cannot tell a lie — it has been something of a whirlwind.  You all have been so welcoming and friendly, but there are a lot of you and your names are awfully slippery!  The staff is helpful and funny, and I’m starting to catch on to who does what.  I’m learning how lots of machines work (though it’s possible that Greg Milliken’s name may always live on my internal voicemail).  I’m beginning to get a sense of the systems — everything from how documents are shared in the Google Drive to the process of bulletin creation.  I’ve been getting immersed in wedding preparation and baptisms, pastoral care and outreach, liturgy formation, and the workings of your amazingly dedicated vestry.  But I’m fairly certain I’ve only begun to do what lies at the heart of this job.  Meanwhile, my family is still very much in the process of figuring how things will work with me being away from home more.  So it has been a bit of a balancing act.
But as I got a sense for the context of our Gospel story today, I felt some relief.  Because the things keeping me busy these days are nothing compared to what Jesus has been up to!
In the week leading up to the story we just heard, Jesus healed someone of a withered hand on the Sabbath, 
escaped an angry crowd that was plotting against him, 
preached and taught and appointed a couple disciples, 
took several boating trips — one of which required him to calm both his frightened disciples and a raging storm, 
and exorcized a demon-possessed person (killing a herd of pigs in the process).  
It sounds to me like Jesus needs a summer vacation!
But of course there’s no vacation on the horizon for Jesus.  Before he knows it he’s once again surrounded by a crowd — touching him, hanging on his every word, asking questions.  But then the crowd sees Jairus, one of the synagogue officials.  And quickly, like the waves parting at the exodus, the crowd moves to make way for this important figure.  They watch as Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to come heal his daughter.  
And this is interesting.  We don’t know specifically whether Jairus and Jesus have met before this moment, but here’s what we do know….  The synagogue leaders have caused a good deal of trouble for Jesus, making accusations against him and asking him questions to trap him.  To them, Jesus is a threat to religious order, a challenge to their holy practices and customs.  And so they have done everything they can to make Jesus’ ministry more difficult and dangerous.
I wonder who might be a sort of Jairus to you?  Someone that causes you trouble or seems to oppose you at every turn.  Someone, or maybe even a whole class of people, that you disagree with so strongly that you can barely have a civil conversation.  That isn’t so hard to do in our current political climate. 
Now imagine the possible responses Jesus might have made to this person coming to him for help.  There is the revenge possibility: “Why would I ever help you after the way you’ve treated me?”  There is the tit-for-tat option:  “Let’s make a deal.  You get the religious leaders off my back and I’ll help with your kid.”  And there is the response from inadequacy, “I don’t know anything about what you are going through.  I’m sure there’s someone more experienced that you can find to help.”  Or maybe the response from fear: “I can’t help you because if it goes badly, things will be even worse for me than they already are.”
But Jesus doesn’t opt for any of those responses.  He looks past all that Jairus has done and all that he represents and sees him instead as the desperate, grief-stricken parent that he is.  Jesus looks at Jairus — whom the world might classify as his opposition, his enemy even — with love.  Jesus listens to him, and changes course to go with him to see his little daughter who is at the point of death.  The God of heaven and earth comes to a grinding halt for Jairus.  Not because Jairus is powerful and important, but because Jairus is a child of God in pain.

Seeing what happened, the crowd around Jesus also changes direction, wanting to see what new and unexpected story Jesus will give them today to share with their friends.  But Jesus and Jairus have no sooner set off, when along comes a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  
For twelve years, this woman has been bleeding, and neither the doctors nor the religious leaders have been able to help.  We are not told her name, which seems fitting, because to the world around her, this woman is a ritually-unclean nobody.  The purity codes of the Torah are explicit — from Leviticus Chapter 15: “If a woman has a discharge of blood …, she is unclean.  Anyone who touches [her or anything she has touched] becomes unclean….”  This is someone that people cross the other side of the street to avoid.
I wonder who might be like this woman to you?  Who do you consciously or unconsciously consider other, unclean, untouchable?  Who lives on the margins of your world, disapproved by your friends or your tradition or your politics or your understanding of holiness? What group of people make you uncomfortable?
Now more than ever, you could imagine Jesus’ possible responses.  He could have claimed busyness: “Sorry, ma’am, I’m very busy and don’t have time to stop.”  He could have weighed other responsibilities as more important: “I’m sorry, but I’m off to help a dying child of a Very Important Person – I’m sure you understand that I have to protect my reputation.”  Or he could have refused to let her off the hook: “I’m sorry but you got yourself into this situation, so you’ll have to get yourself out of it.”  Or he could have done what everyone else did — just looked right through her and walked away.  
But of course Jesus doesn’t ignore her desperate pleas.  He doesn’t worry about her status, or her purity, or her reputation.  Or his own.  And he doesn’t even just physically heal her and move on to his next task.  Jesus stops.  He listens.  He lovingly calls her daughter.  The God of heaven and earth comes to a grinding halt for this woman.  She is worthy of his time.  She is a member of the family, a child of God, just as surely as Jairus is.
And only once Jesus has given all she needs — all she longs for, physical and spiritual, does Jesus turn back to Jairus and start walking with him again.
Oddly, the Gospel of Mark includes a number of stories written this way - with one story inserted in the middle of another.  Over and over in Mark, Jesus starts to do one thing, and then changes course and does something else, before finally returning to whatever he started with.  Jesus seems to be all over the place, easily distracted.  But it turns out that these frenetic interruptions are actually a consistent literary technique, called “sandwiching”.   The writer of Mark puts these two stories together, intentionally interrupting Jesus, in order to make a point.
These stories make clear that Jesus’ mission isn’t to travel efficiently from Point A to Point B.  Jesus’ mission is to spread the love of God to the world.  Which means that is isn’t possible to be an interruption to Jesus.  Jairus and his daughter, the unnamed woman who comes up behind him, every single person Jesus meets.  None of them, none of their needs, are distractions from his mission.  They are his mission.  And so are we.  The God of heaven and earth willingly comes to a grinding halt for each one of us, whether we are falling at Jesus’ feet in our tears and fears and pain, or just tugging uncertainly at the hem of his robe.  
And Jesus invites us into his mission of sharing God’s love in the world.  And often opportunities come through events and people that might feel like distractions.  But what if instead we can learn to see them as Holy Interruptions?  What if God is intentionally interrupting our best-laid plans and our busyness and our certainties?  Inviting us to see with eyes of love, hear with ears of understanding, and stretch our our arms in welcome.  Sometimes even to come to a grinding halt for the other beloved children of God that break into our stories.


Amen.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

For Bear - In gratitude and sorrow.

For Bear
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Jefferson Funeral Chapel

Today is the hardest of days.  We gather here to grieve for Bear -- husband, father, brother, son, friend and coach and so much more -- gone much too soon and suddenly.  We gather in sorrow, struggling to find some sense of hope.  We gather in pain, hoping to find some sense of comfort.  We gather with questions and regrets, needing so badly to find a sense of peace.
Barb, you’ve lost your husband, your best friend, your confidante.  Audrey and Rachel, you’ve lost your funny, proud, loving dad.  And there are no words to make that better, nothing that can fill that hole.  I know Bear still loves you, he is still proud of you, he will never be far from you.  And yet all of us know that isn’t the same as his being here with you.  Please know that this room today is full of people who want to offer you our prayers, our love, and our support as you begin to reshape your lives.  Know that today, but maybe more importantly, remember it next month, and next year, and whenever you feel overwhelmed or alone.  
Bear mattered to a lot of people — that much is obvious just by looking around this room.  One of the best ways you can remember and honor him is to share the pieces you have of him.  The stories that begin with, “Remember when …?” and lead to big grins, new understandings, and sometimes sadness.
So I’ll start.  Bear's family was attending St. Aidan’s when I first started there as a new priest 12 years ago.  A beautiful family, as you all know, so loving, so kind and giving, so much fun.  But what always stood out for me about Bear from the start was his searching, his interest in going deeper, his questions.  He had questions about God, about the church, about scripture.  Deep, seeking, life-long questions that generally felt impossible to answer with any certainty.  Bear's questions would challenge me even now, but certainly back then, fresh out of seminary and most definitely not sure yet how to fake it, when I saw Bear in church I would sometimes nervously wait for the new challenging thought he might have for me.  But I loved it.  Sometimes people think in church they have to pretend to believe everything, to understand it all, to have faith without questions, to have their lives together, to be proper and super holy.  Bear knew better, and that was wonderfully refreshing.
My favorite memory of him came during an adult ed Sunday school class.  I don’t think he came to many of them, so maybe that is why this memory stands out.  I love imaginative prayer - using our senses to imagine ourselves into the stories of scripture, to see what new discovery or encounter might await us.  And so that morning I passed out to small groups of adults different passages from scripture.  Their assignment was to read the story several times, and then to take on a role and act out their story in their small group and see how it felt to become that character.  And then to switch parts until everyone had tried on all of roles.  To one group, I gave the story of the Samaritan woman, challenging and being challenged by Jesus.  To another group, the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.  And to another group, Bear’s group, the story of the Prodigal Son that we just heard.  
The story of the Prodigal Son has always been one of my favorites.  The characters are so rich and true.  They present such a broad range of human and spiritual experience.  They present (or confront) us with some of the family dynamics that we all probably experience in our own families at some point or another.  And they challenge how we think of God and our relationships with God and with each other.
There is, of course, the so-called Prodigal Son himself.  The one who doesn’t feel satisfied where he is; wonders what else is out there; feels compelled to find out.  He lives life to what he thinks is the fullest before realizing that the depth and fullness of life is actually better found inside himself and in the love of family.  And then he returns home — eyes open, but full of shame and expecting disapproval.
And then there is the older brother.  He isn’t in the reading we just heard, but he’s an interesting part of the story.  He lives his life doing exactly what is expected, comparing himself to others.  He can’t seem to figure out how to get beyond the version of himself that others see.  Like his younger brother, he also has trouble seeing or accepting the love and openness and welcome that is right before him and within him.
And then there is the father.  The father that at first you feel sorry for because it looks as if he is being taken advantage of.  He gives his beloved youngest son whatever he asks and blesses him on his way, even though he knows that the road ahead for will be full of heartbreak and sadness and disappointment.  But when from far off he sees his son coming towards home, looking apologetic and forlorn, he rushes out to embrace him.  Pouring out nothing but love and welcome and forgiveness.  
This is a story of us with one another, it’s a story of us with God, and it is, I think most importantly, a story of God with us.
I remember watching Bear putting his full self into this story.  Some people you could tell felt silly and self-conscious, but not Bear.  I remember thinking Bear would enjoy most the role of younger brother - going out into the world seeking adventure with anticipation and questions.  Full of the good humor and intensity that he had.  But I was wrong.  It was the father role that clearly drew Bear’s imagination.  I’ll never forget Bear rushing out with wide arms ready to give a big “bear” hug to the person playing the Prodigal Son in one round of their acting, much to surprise of the person playing that role.  (And, at least in my memory, I’m fairly certain Bear was wearing a Hawaiian shirt.)  That piece of the story seemed to feel right and true and holy to him.  I’m guessing that was partly due to his own experience of fatherhood, and the deep love he had for his family.  But I also think it had to do with his understanding of God.  
Bear had questions and uncertainties and deep wondering.  But I think even in the midst of all that, he could imagine himself being embraced and welcomed by a loving God — no matter what.  The One who would finally have the answers and the assurances he sought.

Bear’s death hurts.  It leaves us reeling and overwhelmed.  But we have a God that runs with outstretched arms to greet us in our pain and confusion and tragedy.  Even when we feel far off, God is right here with us, weeping right alongside us.  So when you feel that pain, that hurt, maybe even that anger or regret, know that our God can take it.  With God, you don’t have to be strong, and you don’t have to be proper, and you don’t have to be particularly holy.  I think Bear’s questions showed he knew that about God.  And now he is experiencing God’s loving, welcoming, open arms for himself.  May Bear's soul rest in peace, and may all of you find that peace as well.  Amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pilgrims in a Thin Space

Pentecost
May 20, 2018
Last Sermon at St. Aidan’s

I love the humanness of the start of our story from Acts today.  There the disciples gather, huddled together in sadness over the loss of their beloved leader and friend.  Fearful that the authorities may be coming for them next.  Unsure what to do or where to go.  They can’t imagine carrying on Jesus’ ministry on their own — who were they after all?  Just ordinary people — fisherman and tax collectors, brothers and friends.  There was nothing particularly holy about them other than their association with Jesus.  And so there they were, all clamped shut in that room, with their broken hearts and their tense shoulders and their befuddled minds.  Sheep without a shepherd. 
I picture another group feeling a lot like that.  A group of pilgrims to Iona, after our beloved Ian Roberts collapsed in our midst.
Someone once said that “[t]o journey without being changed is to be a nomad, to change without journeying is to be a chameleon, to journey and be transformed by the journeying is to be a pilgrim.”  I do think our group lived into the word pilgrim. 
We certainly journeyed.  We spent about 24 hours getting to our first hotel.  Planes, trains, and buses finally got us to Oban, Scotland, our overnight stop on the way to Iona.  We had just a few hours in the evening and a few more in the morning for exploring the little fishing town - climbing the tower on the hill, sampling our first native beer, indulging in fish and chips.  Then the next day we were to ferry to a bus to another ferry to get to Iona.  
And we definitely were transformed.  Until the moment Ian collapsed, anyone who knows him will not be surprised to hear that he was our enthusiastic tour guide and spotter of beautiful and interesting things hidden in plain sight every waking moment.  He was back in his native land and so glad to have brought us all with him to share a place he loved so much.
Even after his heart attack, there was something about Ian that continued to create community, even among the countless incredible EMTs, doctors, and hospitality staff from the rest stop that attended to Ian and to our stricken group.  These strangers were honored to be with him, willing to do anything for him.  Ian was just that kind of person.
And so when we finally reached Iona — described as “an island off an island in the middle of nowhere,” a place held dear for almost two millennia by pilgrims who have found it to be a “thin space” between earth and heaven — when we finally arrived we were bereft.  Heartbroken and afraid for Ian, worried for Kathy, unsure about what to do next.
But maybe we were also ready to be pilgrims.  
When we arrived, we were, or so we thought, ordinary people.  People with jobs, people retired; people married and people widowed; husbands and wives; mothers and daughters; strangers and friends; seekers and explorers.
But as we traipsed around the magnificent island, we began to sense the sacredness of every inch of it.  The abbey that St. Columba founded, the crumbling remains of the nunnery across the green field, the wide-open blue sky, the clear teal waters, the marbled rocks on the shore, the craggy outcrops where purple flowers made their surprising homes, the mama sheep grazing with their skittish lambs, the shaggy shetland cows, the wind blowing our hair into messes, even the bogs that sucked our boots off and brought us to our knees.  And as we interacted with the people, we began to sense their sacredness as well.  The shopkeepers who wanted to hear about our experiences, the bartenders with stories to share, the members of the Iona community who prayed for Ian and Kathy.  The entire island seemed to have heard about what had happened.  To them, we were “Ian’s group.”  

We helped each other with our suitcases and we shared our special rocks.  We prayed and hugged each other through hurt and hardship and we shared bottles of wine and tastes of ginger cookies and toffee pudding.  We listened to each other as we spoke of uncertain futures and losses and decisions to be made and we handed out bandaids.  We laughed.  A lot.   And sometimes we cried. 
And it wasn’t long before we began to wonder if maybe the sacredness that we could so easily identify here in this mystical place and in these kind local people, wasn’t confined to Iona.  Maybe it included us, and every place in which we found ourselves, and every interaction we had.  Maybe we were holy people, all of us.  Maybe the thin space could be found everywhere.
As Mary Jane Guffey, one of our pilgrims, wrote in her journal on our silent morning towards the end of our stay, “We go through our day doing things, meeting people, but you can hear a hymn or read a prayer and suddenly you are crying as if a great gate to your hearts has been lifted.  But why the great rush of emotion?  Do we have our hearts clamped shut most of the time?  And if so, why is it shut?  Are we trying to keep out all the things we can’t control - the fear of loss or uncertainty, the fear of rejection or vulnerability?  I wonder.  And if we do keep our hearts clamped shut most of that time, how then do we live?  And what would a life less clamped look like?” 
There were the disciples.  An ordinary bunch, not particularly holy, not particularly wise.  They were sad and scared and unsure.  And, I bet,  somehow also hopeful and brave and wondering.  I’m guessing they were a lot like all of us.
And then the Holy Spirit came whooshing into that room, the wind messing up their hair and the flames of fire burning their hearts.  Or maybe that wind and fire had been there all along and somehow their sadness, their fear, their uncertainty, unclamped their eyes and their hearts just enough to see and hear and feel anew.  And suddenly they were so full of God’s abundance that they were opened up to share what burned in their hearts.  Suddenly they were so certain of Jesus’ love for them that they were freed to rush out into the streets to love the people around them.  Suddenly they became the Body of Christ, the Church.  
Pentecost wasn’t just something that happened in an ancient story in a far-off place to people long-dead.  It happens in our stories, right here, to us. The Holy Spirit is the wind that makes every space thin.  The Holy Spirit is the spark that makes every person holy.  We can’t catch it, contain it, control it, or confine it.  But we can be changed by it.  We can live as pilgrims, transformed on our journey with God.  

Normally I would say “Amen” and stop there.  But since this is my last sermon in this place, I want you all to know that St. Aidan’s has been a thin space for me, and I know all of you to be holy people, even though I know many of you wouldn’t describe yourselves that way.  I felt it the first time I wandered in with my family twelve years ago, and I have continued to feel it, whether we are celebrating or mourning, praying or gardening, planning or studying.  The laughter and the tears and the truth and the openness and the welcome and the depth of this parish have been like wind and flame in my heart.  My family and I have been so blessed to have been on this pilgrim journey with you all.