Monday, March 20, 2017

The Samaritan Woman - a co-preaching conversation

Because this Gospel reading is so long, John and I decided it would be fun to preach it as a conversation.  We broke the reading into six parts and took turns both reading the scripture pieces and preaching after each.  I'm including the reading pieces below to help give context for the preaching.

John 4:5-9
       Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 

Right before this reading John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is heading to Galilee, but he has to pass through Samaria to get there.
That’s the kind of place Samaria is.  An undesirable place you have to pass through to get to where you really want to go.
Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, and although the Samaritans and the Jews were distant cousins, there was no love between them.  Samaritans were seen as ritually impure by the Jews — too close to the pagans and incorrect in their worship.  As we heard in our reading, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”
And yet, here is Jesus.  He’s resting in the heat of the day by the Samaritan well where low class women and servants come to get water.
And here comes this woman, this nameless woman who is not only part of the despised Samaritans but also disrespected because she is a woman and has a less than reputable personal life.  She is coming to the well to complete one of the most tedious of daily chores, lugging her heavy clay water jug, kicking up dust, sweating in the noon day sun.
Jesus is right here.  In this undesirable kingdom, with this disreputable woman, in this place of tedium.  God shows up.  This kingdom, this woman, this ordinary activity — It’s all worthy of God’s love and care.
There’s both hope and challenge.  Hope - because that means God can be found anywhere, with any of us, in the midst of whatever we are doing, however ordinary.  It’s all worthy of God’s love and care.  But also challenge - because I’m guessing God wants our love and care to stretch that wide too.
John 4:10-15
       Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”   

       It is so easy and so common to look first outside ourselves for what we think we need.  Think of the consumer market where, as Jackson Brown tells us, “the ads take aim and lay their claim to the hear and the soul of the spender”….. It is so common to believe that something out there can fulfill our desires, heal our hurts, make us whole.  It is common also to believe that something or someone out there is the source of our pain, our discontent.  Jesus often countered that idea.  You hear it in story after story.   “It’s not what we take in from outside that gives us trouble, but what comes from inside.”  God can make ancestors from these stones…..your salvation lies not in your lineage, but in your own heart.”  Jesus travels around Palestine working as a psychologist, teaching people to look for answers in their own lives, their own motives, their own stories before trying to explain the troubles or the sins of other people.  When Jesus encounters people pointing fingers at others he always led them back to their own situations, their lives.  That, says Jesus, is where they should be looking.  The answer lying inside is true, not only for what troubles us, but for what makes us whole as well.  Jesus tells this woman that she will find goodness within her that will fill her and sustain her and leave her refreshed.

John 4:16-26
       Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman is his longest recorded conversation with anyone in the Bible.  
In this incredible back and forth between these two Jesus reveals his true self: “I am the Christ,” he says.  Something he hasn’t even told his disciples.  
And, we learn more about this woman than we do about most of the disciples! 
This unnamed, disreputable Samaritan woman has been excluded from proper religion because of her life circumstances.  But Jesus bothers to know her anyway.  He talks to her and listens to her and responds to her questions.  Maybe for the first time in her life, this nobody of a woman feels like she matters.  With Jesus she is able to share what is on her heart, to speak about God and her deep yearning for a different life.  For the first time, she begins to really know the God that she has always assumed was distant and Other and judgmental.
What parts of ourselves have we been too afraid to share with God?  How are we separated from God by our untold truths?

John 4:27-30

       Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.  

       I don’t know much that is harder than living with stories that can’t be told.  Stories that we are afraid of others finding out.  We have all done it, lived with such stories, and some of us live those stories much of our lives.  It is the same with fears, fears that often that have no grounding.  It is easy to worry about what others might think, easy to worry that scary things we don’t even know to be true about ourselves but might be.  Maybe I’m not as competent as I think I am.  Maybe that trouble really was my fault.  Maybe that bad thing I did year ago is coming back to haunt me. We have all been in the position of trying to look like we really have it together when deep inside we are pretty sure we don’t.  That can be an awful place to live.  
       Nothing can feel better—when we are finally ready to let go of our fearful secret— than the gentle laughter of a kind soul who, upon hearing it says with a caring smile, "You’ve been worried about that?" It can be like a warm spring shower that refreshes the flowers brightens the sky when it passes.  Everything changes.  The moment is a little resurrection.  Life begins again.  

John 4:31-38
       Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

        When Jesus sat down by the Samaritan well he was exhausted by his journey.  Maybe he was also exhausted by disciples who even after all the time they’d spent with him still understood God’s kingdom as being too small to include someone like this Samaritan woman.
But now, after his conversation with this woman, he is rejuvenated.  This conversation has nurtured his soul just as surely as hers.  For Jesus, being in relationship with people - maybe especially people that have been discounted and judged - and helping them explore their longing for God is as filling and nurturing as food.
The disciples are suspicious and jealous, but Jesus invites them to rejoice instead, Sower and Reaper together.  How might God be calling us to spread the kingdom in unusual ways and to rejoice in that work?

John 4:39-42
        Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”  

       We are to experience God for ourselves.  Not rules or formulae or creeds, but experience.  What leads us to the point where we want to go see for ourselves is not preaching about what we should do or claims about what God wants us to do, but stories we tell about having met Jesus in our lives.  I may not want to hear about your religious ideas, but if you tell me how excited you are about painting the walls of the house your community is reading for a family of refugees I may feel drawn to join you.  We don’t talk that much about spreading the gospel but we do it in the best way possible.  We tell our stories and some of those who hear our stories decide to come find out for themselves.  When we ask why people are at St. Aidan’s the answer is often about having found a community that accepts us where we are and welcomes us.  Many of us can tell about the person in this community who told us about this place and who was glad to see us come out and see for ourselves.  
       The end of this story about a chance meeting is the story of Christianity.  It is the story of one who is stirred by an experience of Jesus and who tells the story to others who want that sort of experience themselves, people who in the end can say I believe because of what I have found in Jesus’ presence.  You story was good and I thank you for it, but now I have my own story to tell and that will carry me from here.  

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Being Salt and Light, in 5 sermons, or more

February 5, 2017
Matthew 5:13-20

I wish that our Gospel reading today was about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well.  Because instead of having 5 husbands, I have 5 sermons, and my present sermon is not really my sermon.  
But instead today we get Jesus talking about salt and light.  And in the end, maybe that’s just what I needed to hear.  Maybe it’s just what we all need to hear right now.  It just might take some time working on it to get to the point where we can begin to figure out what to do with it.
“You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells the crowds gathered before him.  Or, from another translation, “Let me tell you why you are here.  You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth….  You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.”
The light part sounds familiar, we’re used to hearing, singing, praying about light.  And we know what light does.  It allows us to see, produces warmth, creates growth and energy.  It’s a symbol of wisdom and joy and goodness.  It’s also an important metaphor for the people to whom Jesus spoke.  The people who were called to be God’s light to the nations.
Salt is a less familiar metaphor.  In Jesus’ day, salt wasn’t just used for seasoning.  Back before refrigeration, it was used to preserve food.  It was also an antiseptic, used to cleanse wounds.  And salt was a sign of hospitality and friendship. Eating salt together at the table was an expression of fellowship and peaceful relations.  Salt was also intimately involved with their religious experience.  Salt was part of every Temple offering and sacrifice because it symbolized the covenant between God and Israel.
So salt and light.  And we, the crowds gathered around Jesus a few millennia later, are included in this too.  We, too, are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
And at first hearing, I thought that seemed easy enough.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that recent months have made abundantly clear how hard it is to be salt and light.  Because we aren’t alone in this endeavor.  Other people are involved, and sometimes other people can make it tricky to be salt and light. 
In particular, for me, my task as a preacher has gotten a whole lot harder in the last couple months.  In the old days, I would sit with the readings for the week and it wouldn’t take long to figure out the piece that was calling me.  I would research and pray and imagine and before long I knew what angle I was going to take and, pretty soon at least, what story or modern application I could use to make it real.  Hopefully, my sermon would inform, or inspire, or challenge you in some way.  And all would be well.  But recently, my sermon work has been agonizing.  And this one was the worst so far.  Because in order to talk about salt and light, I had to figure out what it means for me to be salt and light.  And that is no light task right now.
Thankfully, John Lewis, congressman and civil rights icon who was bashed and bloodied in the march toward integration, has been with me for my process this week, and he has been a great imaginary companion in my weeklong struggle.  His interview with Krista Tippett re-aired recently in honor of Martin Luther King Day and I’ve been thinking about it all week.  He was very helpful as I worked on my five different sermons for this morning.
My first sermon was about our call as Christians in the public square in our current national atmosphere.  I came out of our Diocesan Convention last week fired up by our bishops’ willingness to get arrested to protect the vulnerable.  I thought it would be fun to imagine and write a top ten list of God’s executive orders.  Starting, perhaps, with God’s executive order to the people of Israel once they finally made it into their own land: You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  
As I swirled ideas in my head I thought about the piece in John Lewis’ interview when he talks about growing up surrounded by segregation and racial discrimination.  “I didn’t like it,” he said.  “And I would ask my mother and my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, why. They would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’”  But that advice didn’t work for Lewis.  Because, as he explained, “attending church and Sunday school, reading the Bible, the teaching of the Great Teacher,” he knew that “the way it is” had to change.  There are some things that our faith compels us to work to change.
The problem with this first sermon was that thinking about all the things in the world that need work, and all the ways we aren’t living up to God’s call, ended up completely stressing me out.  If this is going to be substance, rather than just rhetoric, there is so much big work to do in the world and that makes me feel incredibly powerless and a little desperate.  And I didn’t want to leave you all feeling that way too.  And so that inspired my second sermon about the worry and anxiety I’ve been feeling myself and seeing in others over the last few weeks.  I’ve had a constant onslaught of emails and social media reminders to make phone calls, sign petitions, attend meetings, write postcards.  As a politics major whose first career plan was to be the first woman president (which is still possible, I might note), I love witnessing the level of civic engagement growing in our country.  But, for some reason I find that the more I do, the harder it is to imagine that what I do makes a difference.  I find myself more cynical than I used to be.  Which I really don’t want to be.  
So I loved what John Lewis had to say about that.  He said the core of his action was always “this belief that somehow and some way things were going to get better, that you had to have this sense of hope, a sense of optimism, and have faith. You have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward is already done. It’s already happened.… You just have to find a way to make it real.  If it failed to happen during your lifetime, then maybe — not maybe, but it would happen in somebody’s lifetime.  But you must do all that you can do while you occupy this space during your time.”  In other words, we must, as faithful people, live as if the dream of God is already real.
The problem with that second sermon came when I remembered that today would be Scout Sunday and so there would be people here who didn’t already love me and give me the benefit of the doubt and so might not hear the Gospel shining through either of these first two sermons as much as they’d hear judgment or politics.  And so my third sermon was about how we need to learn to speak to each other differently and listen more gently, more spaciously, than perhaps we have gotten used to doing.  I’m guessing that you, like me, are inundated with angry rhetoric and reactionary us-them talk, especially on social media.  Trenches are being dug all around us, full of accusations and shoulds and judgment.  A friend of mine received a bomb threat yesterday because of what I would have said was a pretty mundane tweet.  I’ve seen seminary acquaintances accusing each other of losing sight of the Gospel.  The scorn and contempt and demonization of the Other is making dialogue harder every day.  Where can all of that possibly lead but down?  
But John Lewis has advice for us here, too.  “In the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being….  [W]hatever you do, whatever your response is, is with love, kindness, and that sense of faith. Hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
The problem with my third sermon became evident when it led to a heated discussion with my husband who reminded me that many people aren’t in a place where they can hear that message as anything but Pollyanna nonsense.  (Except his words weren’t quite so polite.)
And so my fourth sermon was about how hard this call we have as Christians is to be salt and light.  That this Christianity business isn’t for wimps.  That Jesus and his disciples had hard lives and we are called to the serious work of discipleship.  And that it won’t come quickly or easily but is a calling that we grow into over our lifetimes, if we’re lucky.  And that probably if we think we have it figured out and it’s going swimmingly, we are headed in the wrong direction.
And John Lewis spoke to that too.  “First of all, you have to grow. It’s just not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence…. [It’s] love as steadfastness.  Not just an external stance, but a fundamental shift inside our own souls.” 
The problem with my fourth sermon was, I’m sorry to say, my complete lack of authority to speak as if I know what I’m talking about.  My Christian life has always been fairly easy.  I’ve never had to give up much for it.  I get paid to be a Christian.  I have the best job on earth, with a rector who supports me as I figure out my ministry, and a parish that forgives me just about anything, as far as I can tell.  Who am I to preach about how much Christianity requires of us?
And then, just as I was starting to think there was no way to make any of this work, and beginning to imagine myself up here reading you all The Butter Battle Book or something, it hit me that these four sermons are all one.  These four sermons are the slow, hard, frustrating work of me figuring out what it means to be salt and light in this complicated, nuanced, fraught time we are living in.  Tensions are high, fears are real, relationships can easily be upended, our words and actions have consequences, and that’s exactly why being salt and light matters now more than ever.  Our faith is critically relevant to our walk in the world.  And we are in the midst of learning as we go how to walk in love, just as Jesus’ disciples did in their time, and John Lewis and his compatriots did in theirs, and as Christians throughout the ages have had to do in their own times and places.  How we go forward together is part of how we live as salt and light.
And maybe at this moment figuring out what that looks like is the most valuable gift we can give the world. 
Because, when you think of it, both light and salt get their value largely because of their relationship to other things.  The way they transform or affect something else.  Our calling to be salt and light isn’t something we do within ourselves, or something we do only with people that agree with us, or with people that make our lives easier.  Our salt-seasoning and light-bearing mostly happens out there, amongst other unpredictable people, in the wide, diverse, unruly world.  
And it isn’t even optional, not really.  Jesus doesn’t tell us we ought to be salt and light.  He tells us we already are salt and light.  That is who we are created to be.  Each one of us is of great value – and we are created to give our distinctive flavor and bring our unique light to all of our lives, so that by our presence and witness we transform the world around us.  We are created to live courageously and generously.  No matter what we do or where we live or who we know, this is our vocation, our identity.  To show God to the world and to help the world see the way out of fear and hatred.

But that’s another sermon.  Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Adventure of a Lifetime

January 22, 2017
Matthew 4:12-23 

We are now several weeks into the filler season.  It doesn’t even have its own name; we just call it The Season After Epiphany.  The miraculous stories of Christmas are over and we have ages before anything exciting happens.  There’s a whole month and a half until Lent when we start getting ready to come close to the mystery of Easter.  So here we sit in this in-between time, which the Church used to call Ordinary Time.   Which certainly doesn’t sound very exciting, but at least it’s honest.  
But we’re in luck, because today we are being invited to escape this ordinary time and head out on an adventure! 
Today we see disciples-to-be Peter, Andrew, James and John doing what they did before Jesus - casting and mending their fishing nets.  The waves are lapping at the shore, the stench of yesterday’s catch still lingers.  They are in the midst of their ordinary world, with their ordinary relationships and responsibilities. 
And then Jesus walks by and sees them.  “Follow me,” he calls.  And after that, nothing will ever be the same.
I love these stories about Jesus calling his disciples.  I love that he finds these unremarkable people in their mundane places and invites them to join him just as they are.  I find these stories so easy to relate to, with these imperfect, foible-laden disciples.  I can imagine myself into these stories more easily than some of the more miraculous stories of Jesus’ ministry.
And so I was thrilled when I was reading about this passage and came across a writer who mentioned that Joseph Campbell would have talked about this moment of Jesus’ coming upon the disciples and inviting them to follow him as the disciples’ Call to Adventure.  The moment when something shakes up their ordinary world and invites them to some kind of change.
This definitely caught my attention.  I love adventures!  I’m constantly proposing adventures to my kids when we have a free day.  It might be a new waterfall, a hike in the woods, an interesting installation of wacky art, or a picnic.  Anything that is outside our ordinary routine, that makes us get out of the house and try something different.  Apparently, I propose adventures so often at home that it has become something of a joke.  On a day off recently, my son Dylan asked if I was going to make them go on one of my “adventures.” (He even used the air quotes.)  
So, I say, lucky for Peter and Andrew and James and John!  They are being invited on the adventure of a lifetime!  And better yet, we already know they say yes and it changes everything for them!
This is just what we need right now too, don’t you think?  To escape the dreary weather, the political climate, our fears of the world.  To run away from everything and head out on an adventure that will make us forget it all!  To break free from the Ordinary!
Yesterday I brought my older daughter for an adventure into DC for the Women’s March.  
We wore our St. Aidan’s “Walk in Love” shirts and joined the throng of folks gathered on and around Independence Avenue.  
It was neat to be there in the sea of pink, reading the clever signs, listening (when we could hear) to the urgings of a slate of famous women.  There were more curse words and R-rated references than perhaps are ideal for my 13-year old, but there wasn’t a single person to be found that was anything but joyful, kind, helpful and friendly.  Walk in Love seemed to be the theme of the day for more than just Sophie and I.  While inspired by events of the recent past, the focus was largely on the future — how could we stand together to protect women, children, people of color, immigrants, gay people, the environment.   It was definitely an adventure, and I was glad to be there, but when it was all over, I couldn’t help wondering whether it would eventually mean anything.  Would it be more than some pretty incredible photos in the next day’s newspaper?  Would all of these well-intentioned, caring people be up for more than a one-day adventure?  Would we be able to really delve in to work on the harder but perhaps less inspiring everyday challenges that await us? 
That is always the rub of an adventure.  Even for a total adventure seeker like me, my interest sometimes lags and my enthusiasm depends on what kind of adventure it is and how long it takes.  
My chosen adventures are interesting, but fairly safe.  I want a fun chance to explore and learn new things, but I’d sort of like to eventually come back pretty close to where I started.  I prefer an adventure that I have some control over.  One I can prepare and plan for with the right maps and snacks and water bottles.  Truth be told, my kind of adventures give plenty of fun memories and great photos and some fodder for my journal — but they don’t completely upend things forever.
So I have to admit that many of the “adventures” in the Bible aren’t always the kind I’m looking for.  Like the adventure Moses had leading the people in circles in the desert for 40 years. 
Or like the adventure Jesus had in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  
And, when I think about it, maybe even like the adventure these disciples begin in our story today - leaving their families and careers and homes and creature comforts and pretty much everything they have to start out on an unknown path with a fairly unknown guy.  If we’re honest, probably few of us would envy them the adventure they end up on.
Maybe, in truth, today’s story isn’t offering so much an escape from the ordinary, but a delving more deeply into it.  Like last week’s story, where Jesus asked two disciples-to-be what they were looking for and invited them to “come and see.”  I don’t think any of these disciples when they met Jesus knew what they were looking for or what he had to offer.  Maybe they just had a feeling they were missing something.  Or had a feeling they weren’t quite the person they were created to be.  Maybe they longed for something they couldn’t quite put their finger on.  And then they met this person who was unlike anyone they’d ever met.  Who met them where they were and loved them as they were and just by his example and his presence called them to be more and better than they ever imagined possible.  Who upended their lives completely - not to make them easier, or safer, or more fun, but to make them deeper and more meaningful and life-giving.
Maybe this ordinary time is when the real work happens.  When we delve in to the truly life-changing adventure that never ends.  The call to adventure isn’t just for Peter, Andrew, James and John, but for all of us modern disciples.  Maybe this is when today’s story really starts in earnest, for all of us.  Jesus isn’t asking for us to make some once-and-done grand show of fealty but to shake up our ordinary world by continuing to do the hard work of walking in love with each step every day.  This is the only way to make any headway to the place where we long to be -- the place of our deepest desires and most daring hopes, the place where there is justice and peace among all people and the dignity of every human being is respected.
The disciples had the courage and wherewithal to keep coming and seeing, to keep following.   To continue their daily walk on this completely different kind of adventure, without really knowing where it would lead them.

I wonder if we do too?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Redeeming The Time Being after Christmas

January 8, 2017

This always feels like a strange time of year, this season after Christmas.
It’s only been two weeks, but it feels like forever since we gathered in here on Christmas Eve, candles lighting up our faces as we sang Silent Night.  You could almost feel the angel chorus joining us.
But now the world around us feels grayer.  All the planning and wrapping and cooking and gifting is done.  The pageant costumes are folded carefully in their plastic tubs.  Christmas trees line the streets in lumps.  The decorations have mostly returned to basements and attics.  If you’re like me, your New Years resolutions have already been broken more times than kept.  We’re back to work and commuting and homework and school-lunch making.  It’s a different kind of busy-ness.
We’re back to regular time.  The time when it’s harder to feel God with us.  It’s harder to believe that the mystery of back then is still a part of now.  After Christmas is said and done, it always feels strange and anti-climactic to me.  But this part of the story, though perhaps not as miraculous and angel-strewn, is an important time too.  Because, truth be told, this in-between regular time is where we mostly make our home.
W.H. Auden describes this post-Christmas season perfectly in his poem For the Time Being:
“To those who have seen The Christ Child, however dimly, however incredulously, The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all. …Remembering the stable where for once in our lives everything became a You and nothing was an It. … But in the meantime, there are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem from insignificance.”
How do we redeem our Time Being from insignficance?  How do we find sacredness in the mundane?  How do we find God-with-us, Emmanuel, still with us even in the midst of the ordinary?  
It’s a quest worthy of our best efforts.  And we aren’t alone on this journey.  
Today our particular forebears are the magi.  They usually get lumped into the pageant so you may feel like you’ve already seen them come and go.  They provide, after all, a chance for glittery costumes, the beautiful cinematic star, and a few more speaking lines.  And so we cobble today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel together with the rest of Jesus’ birth story from Luke’s Gospel.  But in reality, like us, the magi likely arrived late to the party.  Like us, they probably missed the angels’ singing, the shepherds’ gathering.  For all we know they came when Jesus was crawling around, the manger scene and the joyful celestial tidings a distant memory.
And so we can learn from these sojourners from the East.  We can learn a lot.  Especially during this Time Being.
Like, how to pay attention.  The magi noticed that star.  They didn’t get something magnificent and startling like a chorus of angels, or even something bold and directed like a prophecy.  They got a star, one in a million.  These magi were out doing what they did - star gazing.  Gleaning information from the night sky - weather patterns, the right time to travel or plant crops.  And in that natural and ordinary undertaking, something signaled to them.  A sign, seemingly unnoticed by anyone else.  And they paid attention.  
How do we pay attention, how do we open our eyes to the potential of God’s presence around us, even in the midst of our ordinary doing and being?
But the magi didn’t stop with noticing.  If they had, we wouldn’t include them in the story.  They acted.  Even though they had no real idea what the star meant, if anything, or where it would lead, if anywhere, they were willing to set out on a journey, to go exploring.  They felt a stirring, a calling, and so they started off.  They didn’t have it all perfectly planned out first.  In fact, it must have felt wildly inconvenient.  To everyone around them, it must have looked completely nonsensical.  And yet, the magi head out, traveling the path that they think is before them with no assurance of results.  They act.  
Where might we be called to act in some way, to journey out beyond our comfort zone, to try something new, or to try a new way of being in whatever old place we find ourselves?
But the magi’s goal isn’t immediately obtained with that first action. They continue discerning along the way, always open to new possibilities.  When the magi hit snags - and they do hit snags: their run in with the tyrannical King Herod; a clear sense that the palace, the city of Jerusalem, is not where they should be - they continue journeying in a new direction.  Even when it leads them to a small, fairly irrelevant little town, and to a dirty, fairly smelly little manger.  Even when it leads them to a baby of no earthly consequence.  They remain open.  
How can we keep our hearts and minds open to the possibility of a new path when we have grown comfortable or attached or complacent right where we are?
And the magi give gifts.  They don’t just arrive on the scene, take it all in, and leave without giving something of themselves.  They rejoice and they kneel and they worship and they give gold, frankincense and myrrh.  
How might we lend our joy, our reverence, our gifts to the world around us?
And then the magi return home.  It’s a different path home; it almost always is.  We can rarely return exactly the same way.  But they arrive again in the familiar, in the Time Being, with people that think they know them, and situations that push their buttons, and work that feels mundane.  But they bring back with them all that they have seen and felt and experienced.  Maybe these will become new gifts they can offer.  Because even though they return to their Time Being, that doesn’t make it any less full of possibilities and surprises.  Who will the magi be now, knowing what they know?  How will they live now, having seen what they’ve seen?  What will matter to them now, having come so close to the presence of God?

For us too, after the glitter and adventure of Christmas we return back to where we were.  So what will we do now?  Will we stow God-with-us in our tubs of Christmas decorations to open as a pleasant, but not particularly life-changing, surprise next December?  Or will we pay attention, act, remain open, and share our gifts as we live into our Time Being?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Yoga mats, Improv, and the Miracle of Christmas

December 25, 2016
John 1:1-14

This year I’ve been doing a preaching fellowship at the seminary.  We have monthly small peer group meetings and a couple residencies scattered throughout the year where we all gather together.  Our main leader/teacher/mentor is the preaching professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, Ruthanna Hooke.  Her background is in theatre, so one of her main pushes is always to have us find ways to expand our preaching so it isn’t just about theology and research and careful wording but also about our whole selves, including our bodies.  And so all kinds of interesting and surprising things are part of our time together.  Yoga, improv, good snacks.  And lots of body and voice techniques.  
She has us take deep breaths and sigh out noisily, sometimes while letting our heads fall forward.  Or she'll have us stretch out as far as we can and then relax different sections of our bodies.  Or we'll hum from deep inside, feeling the vibrations in our heads and cheeks.  She taught us how to stand squarely and planted, not leaning forward or backward or to one side.
Another emphasis of hers is really being present as we preach - not within our selves, or just acting to the outside world.  She encourages us to take off our shoes when we’re in the pulpit so we can really feel the ground beneath us. 
But my favorite, the one I’ve been most conscious about trying to do, she taught us near the end of our time together.  We were gathered in a big circle around the room - shoes off, yoga mats scattered everywhere.  We all took turns looking into the faces of each person gathered with us in the circle and saying, “I am here, in this place, with all of you.”  
Ruthann encouraged us to at do that (at least in our heads) every time we stand up to preach - to step into the pulpit and look with love and empathy and imagination at the people around us.
I am here, in this place, with all of you.
I think that is exactly what Christmas is all about.  That is what we are celebrating God doing today.  On that first Christmas, God took a deep breath, made God’s self present with all of humanity, looked each one of us in the eyes, and announced, “I am here, in this place, with all of you.”  I am not a distant, removed God.  I am a God that feels what you feel.  I am a God that suffers and hurts when you suffer and hurt.  I am a God that knows how hard and how beautiful all of this can be.  I am here, right here, in this place, with all of you, and I love you.
John’s Gospel that we read this morning places Jesus, the Word, in the beginning with God with his hand in every iota of creation.  Even then, Jesus, the Word, was light and life, shining in the darkness.  And then the Word became flesh and lived among us.  Or you might be more familiar with the old fashioned King James version, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  But they are both a little more high-brow than what might be a more literal translation.  The Word became flesh and “pitched a tent among us.”  At the incarnation God set up camp, right here, in this place, with all of us.  Our God goes where we go, is who we are, and is completely committed to us in all of our messiness and imperfection.  We matter to God. 
This is the miracle of Christmas - not the virgin birth or angel appearances or guiding stars.  It’s God becoming flesh - letting there be no mistake that God chooses to be part and parcel of our human story, in this place, with all of us.
But Christmas doesn’t stop there.  Christmas won't be over when the trees is gone or the decorations are stored away or the toys are all broken.  Christmas is a promise from God to be present in the specific moments of our lives, our communities, our world.  Every moment is a chance to encounter God with us, Emmanuel.  Every moment is a chance to be on the lookout for heaven and earth being joined, the Word being made flesh, God pitching God’s tent in our midst.
And, every moment is a chance to participate in the miracle of incarnation.  To pitch our own tents.  To take a deep breath, look at the faces of the people around us (or to imagine the very real faces of strangers far from us), and announce in whatever ways we can, “I am here, in this place, with all of you.”  And suddenly earth and heaven unite — there is God made flesh, there is the light shining through the darkness.   And the darkness will not overcome it.  Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Brooding over the chaos

November 13, 2016
Isaiah 65:17-25

If you feel like you’re teetering on the edge of an abyss right now, if you’re having trouble seeing anything but darkness — Take heart.  We’ve been here before. 
In the beginning, in the very beginning, before God created the heavens and the earth, there was chaos.  One of my favorite renderings of the creation story puts it this way, “Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.”  And over the chaos of this watery abyss, God’s Spirit brooded.
In the beginning, everything was tumult and messiness and darkness, and God sat right there over it for a while, just brooding.  But then God breathed.  And God began to imagine.  And God began to bring life out of the chaos.  And even before creation was finished, even while the life and light were just beginning to show through, God was able to see and pronounce the goodness that was there: “It is good,” God promised.  Even knowing creation was going to do a whole lot of turning away from God, in ways both small and incredibly dramatic, God was able to point to the goodness.  God saw through the messiness, knew it was part of the process of bringing life and light out of chaos.
God’s beautiful creation started so well.  The Garden of Eden with humanity and God in perfect relationship, with all things needed for our satisfaction and delight.  But hardly a minute passes before we start to see that the inky blackness of chaos was still swirling.
There’s that tempting fruit and the villainous snake and Adam and Eve banished from the garden.  Another minute before Cain kills Abel. Then the tower of Babel with the people wanting to prove themselves better than God.  Slavery and wars and golden calves and disappointing heroes and exile.  And so it goes.  We’ve been here before.
Our beautiful Old Testament reading today takes place in a time of great chaos as well.  The Israelites who had been scattered and living in exile after a bunch of wars had finally returned to Jerusalem.  But they were finding that their return wasn’t the miraculous quick fix they’d been expecting.  The city was sacked and the temple ruined.  Economic and social conditions were desperate and they’d lost hope for their future.  Rather than the glorious kingdom they’d dreamed of, there was nothing but upheaval and uncertainty and fear. 
And into that chaos came God’s promise: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” “No more shall the sound of weeping be heard, or the cry of distress.”  “Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be.”  “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.”  “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together.”  “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
And so the people of Isaiah’s time brooded over their chaos for a while.  And then they breathed and began to re-imagine that new earth along with God.  And they began slogging through the messiness, working with God to slowly bring life and light out of what felt like a watery abyss.
Today we find ourselves again in chaos.  
For many of us, it feels like everything has gone to pieces.  We are mourning over policies that matter to us that seem to be slipping away — things like environmental stewardship and gun violence prevention and immigration reform.
And many of us are fearful.  As a woman I feel more physically insecure and less valued than I felt last week.  I’ve heard from a Muslim friend who has been avoiding public places, and a Jewish friend who can’t stop looking over her shoulder.  A gay friend is worried that his marriage and parenting rights are in danger.  A Latina friend says that her body tenses up when she drops off her son at school and she doesn’t feel like she can really breathe until she picks him up again.  
For many of us, the result of the election feels like a validation of what Trump has said and done.  Like his ugly words and threats have been legitimized and might unleash the unthinkable.  And that makes many of us feel less safe.  I know, we all know, that most people voted for Trump despite these things and not because of them.  But it is still going to take real work to heal those divides and to assuage those fears.
On the other hand, it has become increasingly clear that there is a whole segment of the population that has been feeling far more distressed and frustrated and unheard than most of us ever imagined.  It is going to take real work to make sure that they get included when we think about the vulnerable among us.
The truth is that wherever we stand on any particular issue, we’ve all contributed to this chaos.  This election revealed a shadow side to our democracy.  A shadow side, even, to all of us.  We surround ourselves with people who agree with us and “de-friend” them when they don’t.  We assume bad motives for people that differ from us.  We don’t empathize with people we don’t understand.  We lose our civility in conflict.  Our understanding of who is worthy of our care and support is too small.
And here we are, less than two weeks from Thanksgiving when many of us are going to find ourselves across the dining room table from people with whom we feel so bitterly divided!  If the wolf and the lamb from Isaiah’s vision sit down to feed with us now, it’s a sure thing one of them will end up the main course.  So how can we bridge the incredible chasm between where we are and God’s promised new earth?  It’s hard not to feel hopeless and worried and fearful of the road ahead.
But, remember, we’ve been here before.
One of my friends who is a few decades older than me wrote a Facebook post urging perspective for her younger friends in their post-election funks.  She recounted how she was a teenager when President Kennedy and then MLK Jr and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  The world seemed to be shattered again and again.  It was a long season of grief and fear.  “Our hearts were broken,” she wrote, “but our nation survived.”  During that period she also saw terrible violence as old power resisted the civil rights movement.  “We -- black people and white people -- were afraid and at many times hopeless,” she wrote, “but our nation survived.”  And then she was in college when her peers were drafted to fight for a war many didn’t believe in.  Anti-war protests and returning veterans alike were met with violence.  Many people were afraid.  But our nation survived.  She watched the Watergate scandal reveal deep corruption in the highest places and test our integrity as a people.  A President resigned, but our nation survived.  “You can fill in the rest from your history books or your own experience, but you get my point,” she concluded.  “We are stronger than our disappointment over the current election. We are braver than our worst fears.  We will work, and we will love.  And our nation will survive.”
We’ve been here before.
Creation is messy and it’s painful.  It has far more chaos than we’d like.  And yet those beautiful glimpses of goodness still shine through even while the work is unfinished.  God continues to mold life out of the muck.  As Martin Luther King put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
So hear again God’s promise in the midst of our chaos: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” “No more shall the sound of weeping be heard, or the cry of distress.”  “Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be.”  “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
That’s better than any of us could hope for in any political platform: Peace, security, harmony, reconciliation, long lives for our children, plenty for all, perfect intimacy with God.  
We’ve been here before.  We know what we need to do.
First, we brood for a while over the chaos.  This in-between time, when it’s hard to see beyond the abyss and the muck, is an uncomfortable and painful time.  And so we sit right here for a while and we brood and we wrestle, because until we do that we won’t see the creative potential of the chaos around us.  
And then we breathe.  Oceans rise, empires fall.  But Isaiah promises that no matter what happens to the world around us, through it all, the promise of God’s holy mountain stands tall.  All of creation is being recreated from the muck into something new and unfathomably wonderful.  All of it.  Nothing is beyond God’s touch, God’s capacity to change — not death, not sin, not regret, not oppression, not grief, not fear. 
And then, after we brood and breathe and remember God’s promise, we imagine.  We expand our vision about what the world could be.  Now it’s our turn to begin to work with God to bring life out of this chaos.  Today and every day, God’s promised Kingdom is a choice that lies before us.  It isn’t a distant and unattainable promise, but a vision that can shape how we live in the world right now.   We are invited to be co-creators of this vision.  God’s creative powers are in each one of us too.

We don’t need to accept things as they are.  We are called to challenge the unacceptable and stand with the vulnerable.  And participate with God in the creation of the new earth.  With God we can do this.  We’ve been here before.  Amen.