Saturday, February 10, 2018

Coming Down the Mountain, On a (Chicken) Wing and a Prayer

Transfiguration Sunday
Mark 9:2-9

Have you been to the mountaintop?  

In our gospel story, Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain and is transfigured before them — “his clothes became dazzlingly bright, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”  And suddenly the religious biggies appear with Jesus - Moses and Elijah.  They look in awe and wonder at their teacher, leader, and friend.  This experience gives the disciples a new understanding of how Jesus fits into the story of God, and maybe even a new understanding of how they fit into that story too.  They are forever changed by having been invited into this moment.

But there are lots of ways of getting to the mountaintop, and there are lots of different experiences up there.

I think of the speech Martin Luther King gave about his mountaintop experience.  In the midst of all the trouble and confusion broiling around him, in the midst of death threats and uncertainty, he spoke of having been to the mountaintop, of looking over the edge and seeing the Promised Land.  What he saw on that mountaintop was the cumulation of all of the strikes and sit-ins and voter registrations, all the prayers and marches and imprisonments and deaths, all the blood and sweat and tears.  A vision of hope for the future that sustained him through it all.

But mountaintop experiences don't always involve visions of dazzling light; they aren't always remembered and replayed 50 years later.  Often they are just times when you feel close to God, or are caught off guard by unselfish love, or catch a glimpse of meaning that changes how you see the world.  It might be as simple as a quiet walk in the woods that puts things in perspective, or a poem that makes new meaning, or watching a child discover some fascinating piece of their world, or discovering some new passion.  We've all been to the mountain top in some way or another

I’ve had mountaintop moments along the way but none as prolonged as during my sabbatical.  It was a time of discovery and learning and prayer.  A time when scripture came alive and God was with me all over the place.

And I was feeling great coming back.  I was fed and renewed by those months of prayer and sabbath.  And confident that I would be able to keep all that going as I moved back into work, and the regular business of juggling that is ordinary life.  I was going to keep that fulfilling prayer life, keep my sabbath time, keep my relative peace and patience in parenting.  

I was planning to stay up there on my mountain, thank you very much.  Just like Peter and the other disciples in our story this morning, I was going to hold onto that special transfigurative time with Jesus in the clouds.  Like Peter, I was out there with my measuring tape, ready to build a permanent dwelling to mark the experience.  A place where I could plunk down and enjoy the view whenever I wanted.

But just like I think we’ve all had some kind of mountaintop experience, I think we also all know how fleeting they can be.

As you can see, I fell down my mountaintop.  Literally.  5 days after starting back at work I fell while hiking down a hill and broke two bones in my arm.  It was painful right from the start, but the worst part came a few days later when that continued pain combined with lack of sleep, inability to exercise, frustration of not being able to do anything useful, and the prospect of Holden going out of town for a month for a work training.
All the beautiful spiritual practices that had been sustaining me so well during sabbatical failed me.  I couldn’t walk, which had become one of my primary prayer times.  I couldn't draw, or write in my journal, or even read very well with just my left hand.  I couldn't sit in silence without focusing on the pain.  I was horrified by how easily I could lose my grounding, even after shoring it up over the last four months.

And it was all made worse by my knowing how silly it was, in the long run.  It was broken bones, not the death of a loved one or a sick child or a chronic disease or a spouse deployed to a war zone.  Nothing that time won’t heal. 

But sometimes it isn't about rationality - you just feel how you feel.  And I felt overwhelmed. Finally one day I found myself breaking down and sobbing in front of pretty much everyone that asked me how I was.  My family, John and Eileen, Peggy Trumbo, Lisa Richard, my next door neighbor, and friends at school pick up.  

You all know this, and I can definitely attest — it’s no fun coming down the mountain.  At best, it’s a let-down returning to normalcy.  At worst, it’s a time of real struggle and test.

It was the same for the disciples.  In Mark’s Gospel, this story is the turning point for Jesus as he gets closer and closer to crucifixion.  Jesus is going to die and he knows it.  He's been predicting his death to disciples who have been fighting that news with all their strength.  Hard times - impossible times - are waiting for all of them at the bottom of the mountain.  Sure enough, when the disciples hike back down they go back to arguing, and failure, and misunderstanding. In fact, right after this story, they are confronted with a boy convulsing that they are unable to heal.  And it only gets worse before it gets better as they see their beloved Jesus arrested and tortured and killed.  

And of course it was the same for Dr. King, assassinated the day after his mountaintop speech.

And yet, down the mountain they all came.  

But they didn't come down alone.

It took me a while to catch on to that part.  It took about a week of exhaustion and self-pity and teariness.  But then, with a little distance, and a little less pain, and a little more sleep, I could begin to make out the edges of the dazzling brightness still surrounding me even at the bottom of the mountain.

I could begin to appreciate the grace even in the unexpected — and certainly unwanted — chaos around me.  After a while, I was able to see that Jesus had indeed come down the mountain with me.  The light was dimmer down here, sure, more diffused.  But still, signs of God’s love were everywhere.
In the sympathy and helpfulness of my children
In strangers rushing to open doors and pick up things I drop
In the meals you all have brought for us with such care
In the outstretched arms of needed hugs
In kindness from people I wouldn't have expected
In the help I was too embarrassed to admit I needed
Even in the vulnerability, the honest to God powerlessness and humility
Jesus was in all those places — shining in the dark and fearful places in my life just as surely as in those moments where everything was going along swimmingly.  The Kingdom of God was unfolding all around me.  It just took me a while to see it.

The truth is, most of life is lived in the valleys, not in the peaks.  But we aren't ever down here alone.  Our God isn’t limited to mountaintop experiences, or to particular places or times or people. We have a God who came down from the mountaintop of heaven and became human out of love for us.  A God who shared our experience of pain and frustration, and walks next to us as we hike — or sometimes careen madly out of control — down the mountain.  That’s what Jesus does.  That’s who he is.
And maybe that’s who we can be to each other too. 

As much as we might like to stay safe above it all, those mountaintops are just resting places, giving us strength for the journey down below.  We are needed "down here.”  We take what we’ve found in the mountaintops and we bring it down into the trenches of every day life.  Into the messiness and pain and imperfection of this often overwhelming world.  We learn to recognize the bright light of God shining through all the other broken, hurting people around us.  And hopefully, slowly but surely, we even begin to believe the truth that we too are the filters through which God’s light shines.  Amen.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sabbatical Glimpses

January 28, 2018
(With screen shots from slideshow)

     Our Psalm this morning tells us to:  “Praise the Lord!  I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.”  Today, I want to give thanks, with my whole heart, in the company of this (very upright) congregation.

     If you were here just before I left, you might remember that I preached about my hopes and plans for my sabbatical, but that it had just occurred to me that the origin of the word “sabbatical” came from the word “sabbath”.  Sabbath, meaning, most importantly for my purposes, a time of rest.  And true sabbath rest-taking, as I confessed in September, is not really my strong suit.  So when people ask me what I did on my sabbatical, part of me would really love to be able to answer with impressive accomplishments.  Like writing a book, maybe, or walking the Camino, or running a marathon, or something equally impressive.  But the truth is, I didn’t really accomplish much.  But I do feel like I’ve had a sabbath - a good, long, beautiful, healing, prayer-filled time of rest.

And that, at the end, is what I most needed, and in my heart of hearts, what I was most hoping for.  Since this wonderful parish so graciously encouraged me and supported me on my way these past few months, I wanted to give you a glimpse of this time of rest.
    Probably the oddest part for my whole family was not being here on Sunday mornings.  We were like church shoppers who weren’t actually looking for a church.  I’m always curious about what the other folks are up to, so we went to a fair amount of Episcopal churches.  And what I learned is that while they are all fine places in which, I’m sure, their people are very happy, none of them carries a candle (in my opinion) to this place.  I come back feeling incredibly blessed to be doing my ministry here in this place, with all of you.  You are so welcoming and so full of fun; our building is so most radiant in its simple, natural beauty; John is such an open and supportive mentor and colleague, children are honestly cherished.  So thank you all for making St. Aidan’s the warm, comfortable, enjoyable, unfussy, spirit-filled place it is.

We also went to a fair amount of non-Episcopal worship in my time away.  I loved worshipping with other local communities that I’d heard about but not spent time with.  I loved the patient silence and openness of the Quakers.  (Although - man - an hour of total silence on a wooden-backed pew is a long time!)  I was glad to share a meal and be in conversation with our Jewish brothers and sisters at the synagogue across from the seminary.  I was challenged by the diversity and sheer numbers at the movie theater church.  But I came away from all of it so glad to be an Episcopalian, with our openness to questioning, and our middle way of finding a path through conflict, and our 3-legged stool of scripture, tradition and reason.  (My bishops will, I’m sure, be pleased to hear that.)

This next part I hate to talk about because I certainly don’t want to be an advertisement for skipping church and staying home.  But our most meaningful church experience over the last four months was definitely our Rees-Hoofnagle Home Church services.  We lit candles and talked about scripture and shared our highs, lows, and God-moments, and sat in silence, and gave each other blessings.  In this holy time together, I knew that the kids’ enthusiasm for church participation and their confidence in leadership came in large part from their life here at St. Aidan’s.

I did a lot of reading over my time away.  I will be super-prepared for the next time Peggy Trumbo asks me for book suggestions for the St. Aidan’s book group.  I read books about theology, and books about prayer, and books about living faithfully.  

And I read lots and lots of non-church-related books.  What a luxury!  I read fiction.  I read books out loud to the kids.  I read parenting books.  And with pretty much every book I read, I jotted down ideas for future sermons.  Which just goes to show that nothing is really secular.

During my sabbatical I continued my monthly meetings with my spiritual director, who asks great questions, keeps me honest, and lowers my self-expectations.  She helped me to see the holiness in all of the diverse experiences of these last four months and to keep recommitting to sabbath and letting go of accomplishment. 

My most important spiritual times over my sabbatical were definitely my retreats.  I come away realizing that periodic spiritual retreats are absolutely critical to my growth in faith.  

    Best, and most life-changing, was my first retreat, that I thankfully had the forethought to schedule for my first week of sabbatical.  I spent 8 days in silence at Eastern Point Retreat House, an incredibly beautiful and soul-quenching place on the coast of Massachusetts.  Every day I met with a spiritual director, walked for miles in the woods, and spent hours sitting on my favorite rock perch over the crashing waves with my journal and my colored pencils.  Scripture came alive to me during that week.  God walked closely with me.  My joy in Jesus overflowed.  It will be a touchstone for a long time.

The following months, I took short retreats — times of walking and prayer and reimagination.  I went to Shrine Mont and Roslyn (our two Diocesan retreat centers) and to a tiny one-person hermitage set in the woods behind the Franciscan Monastery in D.C.  Being short and self-directed, these didn’t have quite the richness and life-changing feel of my first retreat, but they were each holy and strengthening.

    One thing that physically remains with me after my sabbatical is my new prayer space.  I took a little unused office nook in our house and cleaned it up to use as a place for prayer.  I filled it with photos and icons and favorite books and art supplies.  It’s a place I look forward to going with a mug of tea when I have some quiet minutes alone.  I sit in silence, or imagine myself into scripture, often along with an Ignatian book of meditations that provided fodder for most of my sabbatical.

    During sabbatical I finished a journal.  It’s full not just of thoughts and feelings and prayer, but also art and poetry that I worked on over the months.  It’s been a very creative time. In addition to spending quiet time in my new space, when the weather was good I took walks along the river or in Fort Hunt Park, often listening to the daily scripture meditation on the Pray-as-you-go App

Something that felt very Sabbath-y to me was time I got to spend in museums.  I wandered around the National Galleries, the Hirshhorn, Freer, Sackler and African Art Museums and the Fine Arts Museum in Richmond.  It was such a treat to have that unhurried time to wonder and gaze. 

I was also able to be part of a few of the free writing and art salons at the National Gallery - amazing opportunities to spend a few hours in creative making in the midst of the art. 

On the arts front, something I’ve always loved but haven’t gotten to do much of in the last decade or so is theatre.  Thanks to the Lattus, Maya and I went to see The Nutcracker at the gorgeous Warner Theatre.  And Holden isn’t a big fan, so I took Sophie to see Mean Girls and Les Miserables at the National Theatre.  It was my 4th time seeing Les Mis, and, as in the past, it felt like a spiritual experience.  Once again, I got chills at the line that has stuck with me from my first viewing 30 years ago: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”   As theology, that is just about as good as it gets.
Things were much simpler during my sabbatical months.  I announced to my kids that we wouldn’t be signing up for any sports in the fall.  And so, for several months, rather than schlepping kids to different practices and games 5 days a week, we had dinners together and read books together and sat by the fire.  Holden and I even had a few date nights!  One of our favorite new family activities was a take on the “Chopped” cooking show, if you’ve seen that.  We’d pick a few ingredients and break up into teams to create interesting food for each other.  Basketball has started for all the kids now and I really miss the spaciousness of those unstructured months.

    Since we didn’t have the usual sports or church responsibilities, it was easier to go away.  We had a great family trip full of adventures the week before Christmas - a time that is usually too busy for me at work to do much.  We did some hiking in the Shenandoah mountains and tried skiing (the first time for the kids and Holden), among other things.

    I also had some great weekend trips and chances to reconnect with friends.  I went to my seminary class reunion and had a weekend with the hallmates from my freshman dorm.  We went to visit Dylan’s godmother in Richmond and my niece at Duke, and we cheered Holden and some other friends on during their marathon in Philadelphia.   Having time to enjoy and deepen these relationships was wonderful.

    Sabbatical is an incredible luxury for which I am, again, so very thankful.
Beyond just the wonderful adventures I was able to have, this time apart reset my prayer life and deepened my relationships.  I come back to you all here at St. Aidan’s with so much love and energy for this wonderful place and you amazing people.  

“Praise the Lord!  I give thanks to the Lord, with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.”  Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

That Pesky 4th Commandment

September 10, 2017
Romans 13:8-14

I’ve started the count-down to my sabbatical.  Nine days from now I’ll start with a week at an Ignatian retreat house on the coast of Massachusetts where I’ll be immersed in silence and imaginative prayer and beach walks.
I’m super excited, and also very aware of how much I need this time, although I’m going to miss this place, and all of you, a lot.  But as excited as I am, and as much as I know I need this time away, as it gets closer, I’ve discovered that I feel a little sheepish talking about my sabbatical, especially with people outside the church world.  This open time in front of me is such a rare and wonderful thing.  How is it possible that I not only have the best job but also am part of a profession in which sabbatical time is built-in and understood? 
So as people ask me what I’ll be doing during my sabbatical, I’ve been feeling this pressure to have something really impressive to announce.  Surely during this time I should be Accomplishing specific things and Learning important things and Getting Holier.  So for about a year I’ve been collecting ideas for what I could do during sabbatical.  My options are a little bit limited by virtue of my having three kids, taking the 4-months-in-Europe idea off the table.  And so I’ve been researching do-able places to go, things to learn, books to read.  I’ve had lists going on my phone, on my computer, on scraps of paper on the side of my bed.  I don’t want to waste a minute!
Finally, a couple weeks ago I put all of these notes together and tried to organize them.  What emerged was a 10 page single space document now living imposingly on my computer titled “Sabbatical”.  It is organized - with 8 sections, and many more subsections, so there’s that.  But it is, admittedly, ridiculous in scope.  
There are so many ways I want to deepen my faith - I have a list of at least ten different prayer practices I want to spend time with and all kinds of books in addition to retreat time.
And there are so many things I want to learn - some church-related and some not, like getting back to my Spanish and piano-playing.
And there are so many people and places I want to visit while I have weekends open, friendships that have been neglected for much too long.  
And there are so many pieces of myself I want to improve - get in shape, be a more patient parent, build more regular date nights into my marriage.  
My sabbatical hasn’t even begun and already I’m a little frantic about how little time I have to get through my list.  The days will be so short and they’ll pass so quickly!  Already I’m confronted, and disheartened, by the impossibility of accomplishing all of these wonderful things.
Oddly, it was only when I started thinking through our reading from Romans for today that I realized that, thankfully, while all the things on my list are good and worthy, Accomplishing specific things and Learning important things and Getting Holier are maybe not the real point of sabbatical.
Today, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we hear Paul breezing through some of the 10 commandments and explaining that they can all be summed up with one word — love.
These are not just rules for the sake of having rules or keeping us in line or even making community work well.  These are, as we say in the Godly Play classroom, “the 10 Best Ways to Live” - they are God’s gifts to us that can help us live into love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor.
Walter Brueggeman (Bible interpreter and ordained UCC minister) writes about how each of the 10 commandments are counter-cultural, kingdom-reversing commandments in their own way.  They are forms of resistance; to Pharaoh at the time — inviting people not to be seduced and deceived by Pharaoh and his way of living.  And, when we take them seriously, they continue to be forms of resistance to all the worldly powers of our own day.  But maybe the most potent form of resistance in our time - as we are surrounded by untold opportunities vying for our time, our money, our loyalty, our love - is the 4th commandment of the ten:  
“Thou shalt remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.”
We are commanded to make time for Sabbath.
This regular, set-aside time where we rest instead of work, give thanks for creation rather than consume it, deepen our relationships rather than take them for granted — this time assures us that our worth is not established by our productivity, our wealth, our consumerism, our busyness, or our exceptionalism in the world.  Instead, our worth is found in God’s love for us and in our love for God and all of God’s creation.  Living into sabbath requires a completely alternative imagination.
Now, I don’t know how many of you are good at Sabbath.  But I am terrible at it.  
I generally do pretty well with the other commandments (although my dad would definitely be able to tell stories of plenty of my dishonoring parents from my teenage years, and I have my moments of putting other [metaphorical] god’s before God).
But that Sabbath commandment?  I break that 4th one all the time.
“I’m much too busy for down time,” I self-importantly imagine.  (Even though God managed to find downtime while creating the world, and Moses managed it while freeing his people from slavery.)
Truth be told, it’s not that I don’t have time for Sabbath, it’s that I don’t know how to do it.  I don’t know how to plan my life to include it.  And when I do find open time, I tend to mindlessly fritter it away.  And even though I can sometimes look back and see that Sabbath time was there, I very rarely appreciate it in the moment. 
I’m not sure how I missed the obvious, but only this week did it occur to me that the root of the word “sabbatical” comes from the word “sabbath.”  The time when God rested after creating all things and calling them good.  The time that God commands us to set apart to rest and to enjoy the gifts of God’s creation.  My 10 page list is well and good, but maybe what most needs my focus is that 4th commandment.  I need to practice remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy, and in doing so, learning to rest in God’s love for me and open myself to more fully living into that love in the world.
While Paul doesn’t use the word “Sabbath” in this piece of the letter we read today, I think the purpose of Sabbath is what the second part of the reading is all about: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”  It’s even more explicit in the modern Message translation:  “Make sure that you don’t get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God….  Be awake to what God is doing!”

I hope that over the next four months I have some adventures and learn some new things and solidify my spiritual practice and come back here renewed and ready for more good ministry among you.  And I hope that this Church and all of you will benefit from my time away.  But even more than all of that, I hope that I will learn to immerse myself in Sabbath so that I become more awake to what God is doing.  At the end of the day, that will be more experiment than Accomplishment, more art than Learning, more love than Holiness.  Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Jesus' Implicit and Explicit Bias

August 20, 2017
Matthew 15: 21-28

         I’d originally planned to preach from the Old Testament this morning.  I love all the twists and turns of Joseph’s story.  But after the events in Charlottesville last weekend, after listening to the national conversation brewing around me, I realized that I had to start over and preach about the Gospel.
Because right now this story is our story.
Jesus and his disciples are on the move, visiting the region of Tyre and Sidon.  These two places have been repeatedly condemned by the prophets of old.  The Israelites were instructed to stay away from this region when they entered the promised land.  And while Jesus and his disciples are there, this Canaanite woman approaches.  The Canaanites were held-up as “enemy” by the Israelites, identified with idolatry and perverted religion.  Additionally, this is a woman, with no clout, status or voice.  So this Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon is at least trice marginalized — by her race, religion and sex.
This woman is pleading with Jesus to heal her daughter who is being tormented by a demon.  This is what Jesus does!  The stories of his healings have been told far and wide; that’s what attracts this woman to Jesus.  But does Jesus take this desperate mother into his arms?  Does he turn to her with care and concern as we’d expect?  No!  Jesus starts by completely ignoring her.  He sees her desperation, he hears her pleas, and he doesn’t answer her at all.
Like I said, unfortunately, this is our story.  This is how it began, and, as much as we like to think we’ve moved on to a fresh new chapter, this is how it has continued for centuries.  The names and faces have changed, but the story remains.  We’ve pretended not to see the pain of people who have been marginalized.  It’s easier to look away than to get involved.  
And so we write them out of our history books.  Pervert our science and political ideals to make them worth less.  Ignore their pleas for help. Create structures that allow us to see them only when necessary.  
        This is what allows the cancer to grow and spread.
When Jesus doesn’t respond, the disciples urge him to send this woman away.  She is such a nuisance, interrupting their work and their peace.  Not one of them suggests that Jesus heal her, even though they see her need and know first-hand the miracles that Jesus is capable of.  She is not one of them; her pain does not affect them.  And so they too become complicit, playing their own parts in this all-too-familiar story.  
They move away from her neighborhood.  Send their kids to different schools.  Avoid those kinds of places.
But it gets worse.  Without addressing the woman, Jesus coldly explains himself to the disciples.  He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Apparently she is outside his circle of concern.  
We’ve all heard, or maybe unthinkingly spoken, these sorts of defensive explanations before.  Some things are necessary to keep our children safe, to make our country great.  After all, there may not be enough for everyone.
It’s hard to know how the unnamed Canaanite woman feels about all this.  Possibly this sort of treatment is so common that she is numb to the hurt and exclusion.  
After all this time, she’s probably learned not to wear her hoodie pulled over her head.  Not to show emotion to police officers.  Not to go alone into bathrooms.  She knows where it is safe to shop in her head covering, and which restaurants will serve her without jeers, and which men can be trusted not to touch and hurt her.  
        She’s learned how to survive.
Maybe under ordinary circumstances she would have walked away, ashamed and embarrassed.  But her daughter’s life is at stake.  And so despite Jesus’ iciness and the disgusted looks from the disciples, the woman kneels in front of Jesus and begs him again: “Lord, help me!”  Now Jesus doesn’t just ignore her, he downright insults her by comparing her to a dog who doesn’t deserve the children’s food.
Often scholars and commentators try to explain away Jesus’ bad behavior.  Maybe Jesus was really putting on a show for his disciples so they’d see how ugly their behavior was.  Maybe Jesus was testing this woman’s faith.  Maybe this was a friendlier conversation that it seems – the Greek word for “dog” in this passage really means “pet dog” so the insult wasn’t so terrible after all.  Maybe this conversation is a later addition. 
Or maybe not.  Maybe this was Jesus.  A fully human Jesus that makes us uncomfortable because he saw this woman from the lens of his cultural and religious and racial background and perspective.  No one raised when and where Jesus was would expect God’s favor to extend to this woman.  And Jesus, it seems, was no different.  In his humanness, like us, he was subject to the bias, explicit and implicit, of his time and place.  Jesus hadn’t yet begun to see the extent of the unearned privileges that were his because of his sex, his race, his religion.
His religion didn’t stop his family from immigrating to Egypt to escape violence in their homeland.  No one assumes he isn’t qualified for his job because of his sex.  He could shop in the fruit and olive stands without being followed or harassed because of his skin color.
So the woman persists.  She knows that she needs mercy, and believes that Jesus’ God is merciful and compassionate.  And so she creatively answers Jesus and exposes his faulty reasoning: “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  It shocks us, but at this moment in time, the vision of the Kingdom of God of this foreign, impure woman aligns more closely with God than Jesus’ vision does.  
Peppered throughout the story of our country, there have been countless people like this Canaanite woman.  People bravely speaking up even though they are met with jeers and violence and sometimes even death.  People marching and writing and preaching and loving and imagining a more perfect vision into being against all odds.  People like Harriet Tubman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Deitrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King and now, tragically, Heather Heyer.
But the Canaanite woman doesn’t give up on her vision of a loving and compassionate God.  And so she ends up changing the scope of Jesus’ ministry.  She changes the story.  She knows Jesus, as it turns out, better than he knows himself.  This is a turning point for Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. 
That’s when the Jesus we expect shows up – the one who so lovingly tells her: “Great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  He listened to this woman and learned from her and was open to changing.  And from then on, we see his ministry expand to include all kinds of unexpected people — women, sinners, foreigners, and Gentiles — all within his healing touch.  This is when Jesus begins to fully understand that people that might be considered disposable to society are essential to God.  From then on, Jesus knows their story is part of his story - and part of God’s story - and part of ours.  This is the story that we are still writing with every fiber of our beings.
I’ll close with one of my favorite prayers from our prayer book, a prayer “For the Human Family”:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth, Oh My!

July 30, 2017
Matthew 13:31-52

At first, our Gospel reading from Matthew seemed like the perfect reading for me to preach about after two weeks spent several national parks in the wilderness of California.  Especially the growth-from-small-seeds part.   My family spent time among the giant sequoias at Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks and we were shocked to pick up the surprisingly tiny little pine cones that held the seeds to these unbelievably massive trees that my entire family of five’s arms outspread could not reach around!  It seemed impossible that the two could be related.  
So I was ready to hang with Matthew and his mustard seed with its explosive growth.  That little pine cone, so precious that signs everywhere told us we must not take them from the park, was firmly in my mind.
But then I read more closely.  And got to the part about the weeping and gnashing of teeth and the fiery furnace.  Really, Matthew?!  We are going on week three of that stuff now - enough already!  Two weeks ago doomsday Matthew gave us the Parable of the Sower with the evil one snatching away the good seeds that were planted in certain hearts.  Then last Sunday, he was at it again, with all causes of sin and all evildoers being thrown into the furnace of fire.  And here he is again!
Why today of all days, in this otherwise beautiful reading full of lovely and light parables that are all about abundance and value.  A small seed’s dramatic growth; a small amount of yeast lightening huge amounts of dough; a unexpectedly discovered treasure; a pearl worth everthing. The Kingdom of Heaven is like those things!  I can totally get on board with all of that!  Growth and goodness and provision and abundance and value.
So why this nasty addition, Matthew?  
“The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind….”  Now, if he’d stopped there, it’s perfect.  I love this image of an inclusive net, gathering up everything, just as God gathers us.
But then it starts to go downhill:
“… when [the net] was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”
This separation stuff is never my favorite.  But even then, I appreciate the point.  It isn’t for us to judge which among us are the good fish or to separate the good from the bad; that work is above our pay grade.  
It’s what happens next that really makes me cringe.
“…So it will be at the end of the age.  The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Really, Matthew?  Was that really necessary?
I asked John if by chance he would mind if I just snipped that piece off of our reading.  Because otherwise, it’s really all perfectly fine sermon stuff.  But John assured me that he already preached two weeks ago about how most commentators agree that these terror-inducing fire and damnation passages likely weren’t Jesus’ words, but the early Church’s.  So that’s good.  I can check that off my list of worries.  
But it turned out that John’s resistance to my request to edit this passage to suit my theology was a good thing.  Because while I don’t see that gnashing and fire language being consistent with the core of Jesus’ message, it did make me take a closer look at this passage.  It made me struggle and wrestle with it, rather than just letting it slide by, pretty and neat and fairly unremarkable.
And upon closer inspection, these parables are anything but pretty and neat and unremarkable.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…
Mustard.  Not some inoffensive pretty yellow flower like I first imagined, and definitely not some majestic kingly sequoia, but more like the insidious kudzu that takes over the tall trees along the highways in the south, the poison ivy that cunningly blends in along the edge of the trail along the GW Parkway, the dandelions that take over my grass.  
The mustard that Jesus talks about here was the menace that took over crops in his day, the stubborn nuisance plant that couldn’t ever be completely rooted out.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…
Yeast.  Not the useful dry little particles that we buy in neat packets in the store, but the rotten stench of dough gone bad that good religious people of Jesus’ time equated with death and corruption and impurity, and put out of their homes for their religious observations of Passover.  
The kingdom of heaven is like that.
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure in a field which someone found and then hid…
That treasure finder - not an innocent hiker happening by, but a trespasser, a thief, who, while digging around in someone else's field, came upon something so beloved and precious that it had been stored for safety underground and out of sight.  But, rather than alerting its proper owner, the finder obtained it by trickery and omission.  
The kingdom of heaven is like that.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant…
A merchant.  He sounds respectable and hard-working to our modern ears, but he would have been the equivalent of a used-car salesman or a telemarketer to Jesus’ hearers.  Someone looked upon dubiously because he so often tried to pass off mediocre goods as first-rate.  
The kingdom of heaven is like that.
These are compared to the kingdom of heaven!  These are subversive parables, with shady characters and disrespected items being used to describe God’s kingdom.  Not kings or respected leaders or life-saving substances or majestic sequoias.  Whatever the Kingdom of Heaven is, it isn’t just what we expect, it isn’t just what we find grand or remarkable or even acceptable.  The Kingdom of Heaven is present in the most ordinary, and even the most disruptive and disreputable places and people around us.  The Kingdom of Heaven is a radical challenge.
Seeing the underbelly of those parables is what makes the next one so important.  The one I wanted to cut out.
The kingdom of heaven is like a net that caught fish of ever kind…
Fish of every kind.  This net is inclusive beyond my comfort zone.  Not just the well-behaved and socially-acceptable.  Not just the pure and safe and successful and good-looking.  Not only does this net not discriminate, it goes so far as to gather up everything and everyone — no matter how despised — into the here and now and possible of the kingdom of heaven.  Together!  All swept up into the growth, the goodness, the provision, the value, the abundance of God’s kingdom.
And while I’d still happily take out the fire and teeth-gnashing stuff, even that starts to ring true.
Because we need to know that all of us — every piece of our being — including our less savory and presentable underbelly — is invited into God’s kingdom — where healing grows like weeds, and forgiveness spreads like mold, and our best parts can be unearthed no matter how deeply covered in muck they’ve become, and God can take whatever mediocre offerings we have and transform them into something of great price.  
And maybe we also need to know that every part of our experience, no matter how messy or disruptive or unwelcome or painful, no matter how much it makes us weep and gnash our teeth, can also be swept up into God’s kingdom.
Even those destructive and fiery parts.  
There was a wildfire raging about 20 miles outside Yosemite while we were staying there, much bigger than they’d seen so close in quite a while.  
On a bus ride up to Glacier Point in Yosemite, the driver was talking about the effect of fires on the forests.  I’ve always been taught about the terrible dangers of wildfires.  And everywhere you turn in the park there were, rightly, signs about the danger of fires and the dryness of the season.  Absolutely no smoking.  No campfires without permits and proper placement.  But our driver told us that the giant sequoias actually thrive in the wildfires.  Their thick outer bark protects their more delicate inner core from ruin. And the heat from the fire actually opens their seed cones and allows the seeds to be released onto the ground.  The destructive flames recycle nutrients into the soil to help the seeds grow.  And the fire clears the forest canopy so that sunlight can reach the young sequoia seedlings.
Maybe sometimes the kingdom of heaven is even like that.  Like a raging wildfire that causes us to unclench whatever we are holding onto too tightly so that unexpected new life can emerge into a once too-full space.
The Kingdom of Heaven is tucked into every nook and cranny of life.  It is as close as the next weed or patch of dirt or loaf of bread.  And its potential is present even in the pieces of life that feel scary and overwhelming and destructive.  God is forever invading our orderly sense of things.  All that we expect and everything we know has potential to be transformed by our surprising God.

Who knows where God will turn up next?