Fifth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

July 5, 2020

Lessons:

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-15
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

 

A reflection with four stanzas or, four movements. Let’s call the four Joy, Love, Confusion, and – because there is a symmetry in beginning where we ended – Joy again.

One. Joy.

Rejoice greatly, says the prophet Zechariah. These words are not phrased as a suggestion nor as an invitation. They are phrased as a command. Rejoice greatly, says the prophet speaking on God’s behalf. And maybe that suggests that joy is a holy act and a subversive act.

Dan Savage, the wonderful advice columnist and activist and champion of GLBTQ rights, has said homophobia and transphobia and all of their cousin phobias can more or less deal with gay folks and trans folks hanging out in seedy clubs and doing seedy things in the seedy darkness. But that what these phobias and their owners cannot deal with it, what really rots their socks, is gay and trans folks finding everyday joy out in the daylight: GLBTQ folks going about their lives, raising kids, washing dishes, riding bicycles, being startled by the beauty of sunsets, the list goes on. That is because it is in these everyday acts of joy that we discover our full humanity and the full humanity of our neighbour.

Similarly, in this season of moral awakening, a season in which we are, as a culture, are thinking deeply about racial justice, we are hearing an important reminder. And that is this: Yes, listen to stories about black pain. But also, equally importantly, listen and celebrate stories of black joy. Absolutely, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. But also read Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. Black joy matters for the same reason that GLBTQ joy matters. Because grief and suffering are part of being alive. But they are not the whole story. You need joy to have the whole story, to be fully human. When we honour our neighbour’s joy we honour their humanity, we see the image of God in them.

So rejoice greatly. And pay attention and celebrate as your neighbour rejoices greatly.

Two. Love.

The Lord is loving to everyone

says the Psalmist

Compassion is all over God’s works.

As the feminist theologian, Ellen Clark-King says, God’s love is promiscuous. I adore Ellen’s language for a lot of reasons, one of those reasons being that it reminds us that the love of God is neither safe nor neat. Rather God’s love is transgressive and even dangerous.

Sometimes we try to force God into safe and neat categories. We tell God: you belong in this building, but not outside; you belong with these people, but not with those; this is where, God, your holiness is properly contained. But God won’t go along with our plans. We are like children trying to do that thing where you try to hold water cupped in your hands. Try as you might, God’s water runs out. Not all of it runs out – your hands remain wet and holy – but so does everything else.

Now, a major caveat before we go any further. The promiscuousness of God’s love, the go-everywhereness of God’s living water: this is not some cosmic moral relativism, where God is totally okay with you and me no matter how much we harm creation or harm our neighbour or harm ourselves. No. It is precisely because God loves you and me and loves us beyond limit that God confronts us in our sin.

Now, I realise that sin is a loaded word, so let me be clear that when I use that word I am not referring to anything as trivial as masturbation or listening to rock and roll.

Rather, what I mean by the word sin is basically the same thing that I mean by the word:

selfishness.

More on that in a second.

God loves you. And God wants you and me to be allies with God in sharing God’s promiscuous love, to participate in the compassion that is all over God’s works, in letting the waters of justice flow everywhere. If we allow it to be, if we put down our selfishness, our efforts to hoard God’s love, this might just be good news.

Three. Confusion.

I do not understand my own actions.

says Paul

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Paul has a number of really famous lines. This particular one probably makes the top ten. Paul never says what the thing he hates is, never names what he elsewhere calls the thorn in his side, and so he has left room for generations of people to identify their own struggle in his struggle. You will meet alcoholics who are convinced that Paul was an alcoholic, compulsive gamblers who are convinced that Paul was a compulsive gambler, gay men who are convinced that Paul spent his life stuck in the closet.

This is not, by the way, a deficiency in anyone’s reading of scripture, nor is it a deficiency in Paul’s writing. Rather this is the genius of Paul. Whatever your struggle is, whatever your sin or your selfishness is, Paul is talking to you.

Because I don’t know about you, but there sure are times when I don’t understand my own actions, when I do they very thing that I hate.

I don’t understand why it is that I study and pray with the Gospel and yet I tolerate what Dorothy Day called the dirty, rotten system. I don’t understand why I tolerate the dirty, rotten system in my neighbour must sleep on the street. I don’t understand why I tolerate the dirty, rotten system in which my neighbour’s encounters with the police are regularly terrifying. I don’t understand – and I speak these words as the owner of shiny new iPhone – why I tolerate dirty, rotten the system in which my neighbour who built that iPhone is working in conditions straight out of the horrors of a Dickens novel.

I don’t understand why anyone tolerates a dirty, rotten system that is more or less okay with a pile of more than a hundred thousand bodies from COVID-19 so that we can tell stories of facile economic optimism.

Just like Paul, I am hurting. Just like Paul, I am confused.

Four. Joy.

This is where we began.

The Son of Man came eating and drinking,

says Jesus,

and they say,

Look,

a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!

This is one of my favourite things that Jesus ever says in scripture. This is the moment when Jesus reveals that likes going to parties so much that his critics give him heat for it. This is the moment when, all of those oil paintings and sculptures of super-serious Jesus notwithstanding, we discover that Jesus loves wine and bread and being with you and being alive.

Jesus is a party animal.

Amen.

This is not a triviality. Because joy, delight, curiosity, wonder, playfulness – they will change the world. The dirty rotten system that I was talking about a second ago – the system of sin and selfishness – cannot deal with joy. Because joy asks it dangerous questions.

The system relies on the God damn lie that our neighbours are less than human, that they are something less than the very image of God. But joy will have none of that. In sharing a party, in sharing in the holiness of a meal, joy sees us bonded together in delight. Our mutual humanity becomes inescapable, undeniable.

The system relies on the God damn lie that the exploitation of the earth, of its creatures, of our fellow human beings is the price of admission for a healthy economy. But joy laughs at that. And the system, just like the devil, withers before laughter. Joy knows about mutual thriving and vitality without exploitation.

The relies on the God damn lie that that it is inevitable, that it is like the sun rising in the morning, that there is no way that things could be different. But joy, delight, playfulness ask that childish and wonderful question:

Why?

Why do things have to be as they are?

Joy dreams of another world.

Jesus is at the table. There is a feast all around him: bread and wine and more. He is there with the tax collectors; with the sinners; with the people you saw sleeping on the street, homeless no more; with the immigrants, with the guy wearing the MAGA hat – who is seriously confused as to what he is doing at this party, but who is starting to have fun in spite of himself – with the trans kid, looking fierce and fabulous in her new dress; with your lonely neighbour; with everyone.

If you want, with you. There is a place for you at the table.

Jesus is drinking and eating and telling and listening to stories and laughing hard.

There is joy. Joy enough for everyone.

 

 

 

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

June 28, 2020

Lessons:

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4,15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

 

Just before the climax of a great many books and movies and plays, there is a speech that changes everything.

The speech comes at halftime at the big game or on the eve of the final battle or as the ragtag bunch of misfits are about to descend into the cave or the dungeon or the sewer and face the monster. Morale is low, our protagonists are figuratively and sometimes literally on their knees. And the speech – given by the coach, the queen, the least socially awkward of the misfits – is what allows them to get up and continue.

Jesus gives a speech like that today. There are twelve people in Jesus’ gang of misfits, twelve people plus Jesus himself to make a Messiah’s Dozen. Let’s imagine that you and I are each one of the twelve. Jesus gathers us in the locker room – if you’re following along at home, we’re at the very beginning of Chapter Ten in Matthew’s version of this story – and he stands up on one of the benches, he takes a breath, and he proceeds to give us a speech so alarming and strange and beautiful that it would get a lesser coach fired, fired even before he stepped down back onto the locker room floor.

The speech begins this way, with two instructions:

First, Jesus says, you have authority. You have authority to cast out demons and to heal everything and everyone and to raise the dead.

Maybe we look at each in confusion. Do we have that authority? These kind of seem like varsity level miracles. But before anyone can put their hand up to ask a clarifying question, Jesus keeps on going.

Second, do not get ready. Don’t take money, don’t take a change of clothes, leave your smart phones at home.

Now, if any of you were Boy or Girl Scouts you will know that even though the speech has barely begun, Baden Powell is audibly grinding his teeth right now. Do not be prepared, Jesus says. Not even a little bit.

Unprepared, Jesus says, you are to go. You are to leave this building, go outside, go into the community, and there you are to proclaim the good news. You are to say:

The kingdom of heaven

has come near.

Now, if folks welcome you, let your peace be upon them. But if they don’t welcome you…

And maybe some of us start rubbing our hands together now, because if Jesus has given us the authority to heal and cast out demons and raise the dead, then Jesus must also be giving us the power to destroy anyone who crosses us. We’re waiting for him to give us laser vision and Spiderman webs enough strength to lift someone in the air and huck them into next week. We are going to mop the floor with these suckers.

If folks don’t welcome you, Jesus says, then clean off your shoes. Shake the dust off of them. And then keep on going. There will be judgment. But that is God’s work. Not yours.

And then Jesus keeps on going:

You are going to be handed over, Jesus says – handed over meaning being put into the back of the truck or the train or into the room without windows, the bolt in the door sliding hard into place behind you. Handed over meaning that control over your life belongs to someone else. You will be beaten and dragged before the authorities.

And then Jesus repeats the instruction:

Do not get ready. Do not be prepared. You might want to prepare a defence, but don’t.

You don’t need to. The Spirit of your Father will speak through you.

Do not be afraid, Jesus says.

But then he adds something that, maybe, sounds less than reassuring.

Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, nothing is secret that will not be known.

Again we look at each other: Nothing? Including that time that I…

Jesus, Is this good news?

And Jesus says: Do not be afraid.

You might think I have come to bring peace. I haven’t. I have come to bring brass knuckles, a gun, a sword. I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. If there is a relationship in which one person has power over another, I am going to turn that into a fight.

This is the part of the speech that changes everything in which Jesus’ voice is getting louder, his gestures more animated, the spit leaving his holy lips with greater velocity.

Take up your cross.

Take it up. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.

And then, after all of that, here comes the climax of the speech. Jesus says this part quietly.

Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones – they will never lose their reward.

These are the orders. This is the end of the speech.

This speech is alarming and strange and beautiful. It is so, so confusing. And here at the end, it is so, so simple.

Could it possibly be that simple?

Could it be that the test for whether or not you and I are following the Gospel is really as simple as the question: Did we give a cup of cold water to the little ones? Did we give a cup of cold water to the ones who thirst?

Jesus steps down off the bench and walks out of the room. He leaves us there with the echo of his words. Jesus has given the speech that changes everything. And now. Now you and I have to decide if we will do as he has told us.

Trinity Sunday by The Rev. Martin Elfert

June 7 Up

June 7 Down

Lessons:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Matthew 28:16-20

Psalm 8

 

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted.

I am physically exhausted, emotionally exhausted, spiritually exhausted, full of grief. There has been so much loss and hurt and anxious uncertainty during this pandemic. To use the particular example of church, the appearance of Covid-19, partway through this past winter, forced us radically reinvent our models for community. Suddenly, without really any runway to work with, Jeanne and you and me were asking the question: what does being church right now look like? It’s been cool to answer that question with you. And it’s also been one of the most intense things that I have ever done, certainly the most intense thing that I have ever done in and around a church.

And then the reappearance of the America’s ancient pandemic, which is racism or white supremacy, added another layer. Well, that last sentence is probably inaccurate, because reappearance implies that white supremacy went away for a while. And it did not. What we had was a forceful reminder of America’s ancient pandemic via George Floyd’s murder, via the subsequent protests, and via the violence which so many of those protests have been greeted.

I’m going to admit that I am a little nervous about sharing my exhaustion with you, my grief with you. I am nervous because I am someone who really likes to appear to be calm and in control, and to visibly be neither of these things is hard. And I am nervous as well because I hear and applaud the activists who say: White people. Don’t you make this moment about you. Amen. Folks like me mustn’t do that.

There are three reasons that I am choosing to fight through my nervousness and name my exhaustion with you. First, my sense from talking with so many of you is that this exhaustion is something in which a lot of you share. One of you this week, when sharing with me about the experience of watching the police raining tear gas down on protestors, described your feelings of helplessness. I know about that helplessness. Another one of you spoke of the fear that you are feeling. I know about that fear. Still another one of you spoke of your grief. I know about that grief. Many of you have spoken about your anger at watching still more violence against black bodies. I know about that anger. And equally many of you have told me about the loss that is to unable to touch, to hug friends or children or grandchildren. I know about that loss.

We have a deep need as human beings to know that our hurt is seen. And I see your hurt. I see you.

Second, if my experience is anything like what is typical, you may be feeling confused or conflicted or even embarrassed about your fear or your grief or your helplessness. My colleague Sylvia is an inveterate youth minister, and she spent a number of years working with youth in a thoroughly privileged context. And what Sylvia says is that a number of the youth with whom she worked became depressed and they had this double challenge that not only did they have to battle depression but they had to battle the shame that they felt about their depression. They were aware that they were privileged and, indeed, radically privileged, that there were millions if not billions of people in the world who did not have the resources that they had. How silly, how pathetic, they thought to themselves, that I have all of this and I am depressed.

Maybe, if you are like me, you are experiencing something similar now. I am well fed, I am financially stable, I am about as safe as it is possible to be. Is it pathetic or unworthy of mention that I am exhausted, that I am encountering grief and anger and helplessness? Maybe this is stuff about which I should just put away, that I should just keep to myself.

Except – and I say this at just about every funeral at which I have the privilege of serving at – trying to put away grief never, never, never works. The idea of achieving closure on grief is one of the most destructive notions circulating in our culture. You cannot close a box on grief.

Perhaps you had the experience as a child of being at a swimming pool or in a lake or the ocean and trying to hold a ball underwater. It takes all of your effort, all of your concentration, to hold that ball down. And the instant that either your focus or your grip slips, that ball will go ballistic and smack you in the face. Trying to deny our exhaustion, our grief, our anger – trying to achieve closure on it – is just the same. We will end up a prisoner of our exhaustion and our grief. What if, therefore, naming our hurt is not an impediment to participating in working for justice but is actually a prerequisite for it? What if doing the work of grieving is what is going to permit us to let go of that ball, let it float to the surface, so that we can focus on what matters, which is declaring and insisting that black lives matter.

Third, and last of all – and here I am drawing on the wonderful Jesuit Priest, James Martin – what if our anger, our sadness, our grief, our exhaustion is something holy and, therefore, something worthy of our attention? What if what we are hearing through this emotion is our conscience speaking or, if you prefer, is the Holy Spirit speaking, is God speaking?

When you see something deeply unjust, it is a risk that we will slip into despair. But what if the heavy emotion that you feel – and that millions and millions of other people feel – is the emotion of God. What if that is evidence that God is with us?

There is a famous icon of the Trinity. I’ve shared this with you before, but it bears repeating on this Trinity Sunday. It is an image of three people, all but identical. In some understandings or readings, these are the three who visit Abraham and Sarah in their tent. In every reading, these three are the Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, and Friend; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Infinity, Immanence, and Intimacy.

In the lower part of the of the icon there is a patch of what some folks think is glue. And there is a guess that what was glued upon it was a mirror. If that’s right, then there is a fourth member to the Trinity. And that is you. And me. And everyone else.

Look into that mirror and see. That God is with us. That God shares with us in our exhaustion and grief. That our divine shared hurt is evidence of God’s longing for wholeness, for love, for justice, for what the Kingdom. That they are proof that God is with us and that, as we act to bring justice nearer, to bring the dignity of every human being closer to reality, to insist that black lives matter, that God will act with us.

Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

May 31, 2020

Lessons:

Acts 2:1-21
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23
Psalm 104:25-35, 37

 

It is the Feast of Pentecost and it is an overcast day in Portland, Oregon. The sermon that you are about to hear is one that I recorded several days ago and that I wrote several days before that. And while there is lots that is awesome about pre-recording things ­­– as you will see in the sermon, you can do things when you pre-record that you can’t do in real time ­– there’s also some limitations built into it. And one of the big limitations is that you are preaching from the past, you are not speaking in the present moment.

And because in the sermon I am preaching from the past, I do not explicitly mention the murder of George Floyd, nor do I explicitly mention the subsequent protests against police violence, against white supremacy in our culture. And that’s something that I would do if I were giving this sermon in real time with you this morning, I’d make some real-time edits to it to speak to those subjects that are so much on my heart and so much on so many of your hearts right now.

I think in many ways these subjects are present in this sermon: it’s a reflection about trauma and about loss and about grief and about injustice and about how God is present in these things. But it doesn’t speak to George Floyd explicitly or police violence explicitly, and I wish that it did.

One of the great prophets of or time is Austin Channing Brown. A prophet being, in the Biblical sense, not a fortune teller but a present teller. And she shared something recently that I’d like to share with you this morning. It’s a little reflection called Trouble the Narrative. And it goes like this:

If you think all we need for this moment in history is to ask “What would MLK do?” It’s time for you to trouble the narrative. It’s time for you to move beyond simplistic, convenient narratives and wrestle with complexity and nuance. It’s easy to believe that the 1960s had only one leader, MLK, and that he led the perfect protests and that those protests are what led to change. And as much as I honor King, that is entirely ahistorical. The 1960s were filled with protests like King’s but also rebellions (riots) like the ones we’ve seen over the last few years. Both forms of protest put pressure on politicians. Both forms of protest were covered by media. Both forms of protest were in a tug and pull with one another. Both forms of protest were met with violence. Both forms of protest have always existed- together, in one exhale of the Black community. It is, quite frankly, lazy to accept child-like answers to questions like “what would King say?” Or “what would Jesus do?” Or “but isn’t violence always wrong?” Or “does the gospel have anything to do with race?” Or “but aren’t we all just human?” Or “but why can’t they just xyz?” TROUBLE THE NARRATIVE. King was human- growing, learning constantly. And since MLK was assassinated we have no idea what he would think about the fact that cops are still killing Black civilians in 2020. Trouble the narrative. Jesus held a one man riot over capitalism in the temple, but you think he’d be calm about George Floyd? Trouble the narrative. You find violence intolerable when it’s poor Black folks, but not when it’s white folks after a football game? Not when it’s America’s wars? Not when it’s stand your ground? Not when it’s ICE or patrols at the border? Trouble the narrative. History, Scripture, Social Revolutions, Black Struggle cannot be boiled down into one convenient sentence. It’s condescending, lazy, and uneducated. It’s thoughtless. And thoughtless isn’t what we need right now. Trouble the narratives of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Or else we will keep repeating this cycle.

Amen.

[A pause. Then.]

In the list of universal, or close to universal, human experiences, lying on your back in the summertime has got to be somewhere near the top. The warmth of the ground, the hum of the afternoon, the song of the birds, the buzz of insects. Maybe, if you listen closely enough, even the heartbeat of the earth, far below your body.

Sometimes, when I do this, when I lay on my back in the summer, I imagine that I can actually feel the spinning of the globe. And so I hold on to the sod, lest the centripetal force hurl me up, up and away. Even in the stillness of the grass, this holding on is just a little bit thrilling.

And then there is the sky above. Our ancestors – some of them – anyway, reckoned that they were looking at a great body of water in the sky, an ocean above them. This is why the creation story at the start of Genesis speaks of the waters above in addition to the waters below. The waters above are held in place by a great dome. Except sometimes, the dome leaks a little, and rain falls upon us.

Every day at dusk, the waters drain out of the sky, and the sun, maybe in a chariot, rides to the far side of the mountains and the far side of the waters below. And we are left with the new mystery, which is the night sky and the stars.

But right now it is neither raining nor nighttime. Right now is the warmth and the still of the summer day.

Underneath the dome but still above you and me are the clouds.

That one looks like a dog.

The one looks like a dragon. You can see the scales on its tail.

If I am right in guessing that this experience is universal or almost universal, then Jesus did this very thing, lying on his back in the grass looking up at what are sometimes called the heavens. And Jesus’ friends did it too: Peter and John and James, the sons of thunder, and Martha and Mary and the other Mary. Up they looked. Together.

Until one day, after the resurrection, all of the friends looked up and, as they looked, they realised that Jesus was gone from their peripheral vision. The indentation that he left in the grass was still there, but Jesus was not. Had he gone for a drink of water? Gone for a walk? Or just plain old gone, disappeared the way that Jesus sometimes did.

He had been disappearing a lot since the morning when they found his tomb empty.

But then one of them spotted him.

Up.

At first he was just a handful of yards up in the air. But then more, and more, like he was holding onto those great cluster of helium balloons like they have in comic books. As he rose, Jesus didn’t talk and his friends didn’t talk. His friends lay there and they watched him get smaller and smaller and smaller until, maybe, he was even with the clouds and then passing through a cloud, slipping out of vision and then back into the blue again. Until finally they could not see him at all.

Oh.

In music, they speak of the reprise of a theme. Sometimes the reprise has variations. One of my favourite pieces of music is Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Do you know it?

[Music.]

It goes like that. The theme is simple enough. But then the piano and the wider orchestra does one amazing thing after another with that first handful of notes. These variations are beautiful and new again and again and again. The original theme is always preserved – the variations are like turning a crystal in the sun and seeing light upon light.

The Ascension of Jesus followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit is a kind of reprise or variation on the cross and the resurrection. In both Luke and Acts – two books that are written by the same person, Luke being the only of the Gospel writers who felt that the Gospel needed a sequel – the same sequence or pattern takes place around both events.

In both cases, Jesus has this conversation with his friends in which they ask when he is going to restore Israel’s fortunes, when he is going to put things right, when he is going to lead a revolution. In both cases, Jesus replies with a mystical and a strange and an unsatisfactory answer. Jesus is then lifted up – first, onto the cross, second into the air – as his friends watch in confusion and horror: We can’t be losing him. In both cases, the friends in their grief focus on the place where they last saw his body: the tomb, the sky. In both cases these two men in white robes appear. And they say: Why are you looking for him here?

And in both cases, a little time passes then. Until one day, not so long after Jesus left and the men in the robes appeared, Jesus’ friends encounter God in a new way. First in the raised and contradictory body of Jesus – murdered and yet alive, instantly recognisable and yet not recognisable at all, eating and drinking and yet passing through doors. And then second in the coming of the Spirit. The Spirit which is like a violent wind, which is like fire, which is like being filled up, which is like being able to communicate without limitation, which is like blood and fire and mist, which is like prophecy, which is like dreaming dreams, which is like being drunk at nine in the morning.

The Spirit which is like holy possibility.

But the Disciples don’t know any of that as they look upon the cross and then look up into the empty sky. On these moments, all that they see is loss, all that they know is grief.

Very truly, I tell you,

Jesus once said to them,

unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain;

but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

So much has changed. We have lost so, so much. What if this moment, as we look into the blue emptiness, is when God is doing a new thing? What if we will look back on this day and we say, that is the day when the wonder began, that is the day when the Spirit came among us?

 

Easter Vigil by The Rev. Corbet Clark

Lessons:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation]
Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 [The Flood]
Genesis 22:1-18 [Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac]
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea]
Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all]
Baruch 3:9-15, 3:32-4:4 or Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6 [Learn wisdom and live]
Ezekiel 36:24-28 [A new heart and a new spirit]
Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones]
Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God’s people]

May God be with you this holy evening.

The Easter Vigil liturgy always begins in darkness. We are all now in a time of darkness, as a nation and as a world community. We know the darkness won’t last forever, but while it does, it’s hard for us to see the light and find our way.

I had an experience of total physical darkness many years ago, on an overnight school faculty retreat at Silver Falls State Park. Teachers were socializing in a common hall in the evening, and when I left the hall I was alone and without a flashlight. We were in the woods, it was a cloudy night, and as I walked out onto the road to go to my cabin I got to a point where the lights from the common hall were completely obscured, and I couldn’t see any lights on the cabins.

It’s a rare thing to be in total darkness outside. I had the eerie feeling that the night was
closing in on me – I could almost feel it. It was very disorienting. I stopped and thought about trying to turn around, but realized I couldn’t find my way back. I had no choice but to go forward. There were night sounds of the woods but no human sounds. I waited for a while, listening and hoping someone with a flashlight would come along. But I finally decided to feel my way along what I knew was the road (I could feel it underfoot).

Stretching my hands in front of me, I moved slowly ahead. After a time, I saw a faint glimmer from a light on one of the cabins ahead, and it was just enough for me to navigate forward with more confidence.

This is the night when the people of Israel began their escape from slavery in Egypt. I can
almost imagine how they felt that night, as Moses led them away from their homes in Egypt, away from their old lives, into the darkness, into the wilderness, with just the light of God to lead them. And I try to imagine what he might have been saying to them:
“We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know how we’re going to get there. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us. But we know that we’re not going back. We won’t go back.

We can’t go back. And we know that the Lord has promised to guide us forward. So we’re going forward. And we know that wherever we’re going, it won’t be like the home we’ve left behind.

We pray it will be better. The way will surely be hard, but we will stay together, we won’t leave anyone behind, no matter how slow and weak they might be. And when we arrive at a new place, wherever it may be, we will find ourselves a new people.

That’s what I imagine Moses saying.

And I can imagine Jesus’ followers keeping vigil on the dark nights after his death and
burial. They have experienced an unexpected catastrophe. They have no idea what to do or where to go. They fear for their own lives. Even after Jesus’ appearance to them on Easter Day, and their experience of joy and hope, they still don’t know what to do.

According to Saint John, they go back to their lives as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee – until Jesus comes to them and gently reminds them that there’s no going back, no return to their old lives, they need to go forward to continue his work, God’s work, to care for God’s people. The way will be hard and the future uncertain, but God’s Spirit will guide them.

So, like the people of Israel, pursued by a dangerous enemy, and like Jesus’ followers,
stunned by a disaster they didn’t foresee, we, too, move forward, feeling our way along a dark path, trying to find the light that we know will guide us, trusting that the Lord is with us, but uncertain about where God is leading us.

It may be that in six months or a year, we will have gotten “back to normal,” as a church, as a city, as a nation, though I rather doubt it. But even so, I don’t think we will be the same. I don’t think there’s any real going back. I think we will find ourselves changed, in ways we never expected. I think we will find ourselves in a new place, thinking and acting in new ways.

Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the darkness of the Civil War, said this in an address to
Congress, as he prepared to move the nation forward in an entirely new direction, by abolishing slavery: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present.

The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

We are indeed beginning to rise – to think and act anew, both as people of faith and as
members of our communities. To find the way forward will not be easy, but we as a people have done this before. We trust that God’s light is with us. We know we need to stay together, not to leave anyone behind, especially the tired and the weak, to seek out and care for those in need.

We know to follow the light wherever it leads, to expect that the Lord is leading us through this dark wilderness to a new place, where we will be renewed as God’s people.

I’d like to close with a prayer from Iona Abbey, that appeared in our Lenten Cookbook:

     May you be out of your depth –
     As the deeps of the night sky
     Contain but cannot explain God’s mystery.
     May you be in the dark –
     As the moon is eclipsed, but held safe,
     With all that is, in the palm of God’s hand.

     May you be lost for words –
     As the Word is spoken
     In the silence of the night,
     In the beauty of God’s creation.

     The loving blessing of God,
     Creator,
     Healer, and Holy Spirit,
     Be in us and around us tonight,
     Tomorrow,
     And all our nights and days.

Amen.

Fourth Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

March 22, 2020

 

Lessons:

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Ephesians 5:8-14

John 9:1-41

Psalm 23

 

Click here to watch and listen to the sermon.

 

Jesus heard that they had driven the man out, and when Jesus found him, he said,

Do you believe in the Son of Man?

The man answered,

And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.

Jesus said to him,

You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.

He said,

Lord,

I believe.

This year in Lent, the lectionary – the schedule of readings that we follow across the year – gives us a series of questions posed to Jesus. Two weeks ago, Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark, in the night, and asked:

How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?

One week ago, the unnamed woman at the well came to Jesus in the day, at high noon when there is most light, and asked:

Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?

Next week, as Jesus gets ready to go to Bethany, where Mary and Martha and Lazarus in his tomb await, the disciples will ask Jesus:

Rabbi, the crowd was just now trying to stone you. And are you going there again?

 And today, the disciples ask a question with which you and I may be familiar:

Whose fault is it?

Whose fault is it? being an ancient question, a question as old as human beings and as old as language. This time, whose fault is it? takes the form of a question about theology and about disability:

Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?

Given that whose fault is it? is an ancient question, given that it is wired into the human condition, I’m going to venture that every one of us knows a bunch about this question, that every one of us has asked it more than once.

I grew up in Canada and, therefore, I am constitutionally required to dream of playing professional hockey. Whose fault is it that I have neither the skill not the physique for that dream to ever come true? I spent high school secretly in love with Christy Crookall. Whose fault is it that we never went out on a date? (Well, maybe that’s a bad example. I have some idea whose fault that is.) When I started as Grace’s Rector almost five years ago, I thought that I would have access to all of these mentors, all of these elders who had been in my life for years and who had shared their wisdom and experience with me for years. But then one after another of them died: my friend Chris; my father-in-law, Bob; my teacher, Don. Whose fault it is that they died?

Or to choose the example that we are, all of us, living right now: Whose fault is it that we are enduring a global pandemic?

The disciples come to Jesus and they ask: Whose fault is it? Who sinned? And Jesus says:

Nobody sinned. Neither the man nor his parents.

And then having answered the question in with these words, Jesus goes on. He says something more and he does something more. He says:

The man was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.

And then in a startlingly intimate gesture, one that is probably shocking in our regular, 21st-Century understanding of germ theory and that is especially shocking during these days of social distancing, Jesus makes a paste out of dirt and his own spit and massages it with his fingers onto the man’s eye. Go and wash, he says (just like past two weeks, here is water: remember Nicodemus and the water of birth, remember the Woman and the water in the well) and when the man comes back, he can see.

The end. And they lived happily ever after.

Except that isn’t the end. Unlike the Gospel of Mark, where the story tends to move on from miracle to miracle in an almost breathless way, John keeps the camera lingering on this scene. And as John does, we see that the follow-up to the man’s healing is hardship, it is scepticism and accusation. The man gets cross examined, his parents get cross examined. The religious authorities can’t believe or, maybe, they can’t tolerate that Jesus has performed an unscheduled and unauthorized miracle.

Even though there is healing, even though Jesus is present, brokenness and hurt remain. Jesus gives us something more difficult and more complicated than a happy ending.

What if.

What if we decide that this story is about us right now? We come to Jesus, and we say:

Whose fault is it?

Who sinned that there is a pandemic rewriting our economy and our lives?

And Jesus replies:

Nobody sinned. Not you, not your parents. This happened so that God’s work might be revealed.

And then he heals us.

And then, notwithstanding the revelation and the healing, things stay difficult and complicated.

What might that mean? How might that be good news?

Now, two caveats before I go on. First, there is no question that there are things our leaders could have done better, things that we as a society could be doing better right now. Our response has been too blasé and too selfish for too long. For five Senators to be briefed on COVID-19 and to use that information to sell their personal stocks – well, that is pathetic and selfish and unethical in equal measure.

Second, I don’t want to suggest that God caused this pandemic, that God dropped COVID-19 upon us like frogs onto Egypt. God does not introduce suffering into our lives. But, as Richard Rohr said just a couple of days ago, I am convinced that God does use our suffering to teach us.

Those two caveats named, this whole thing is no one’s fault. As far as we know, there is no Pandora who found a can labelled COVID-19 with big red letters on the top that read, Do not open, and said to herself: I wonder what happens if I open this?

Nobody sinned, not you nor your parents.

Here is how, maybe, Jesus is healing us and will heal us, how God’s work is and will be revealed in this time of crisis, and how things will remain messy and complicated anyway. I’m going to focus on five heavily overlapping categories. Let’s call them justice, humility, lament, community, and sabbath.

Justice. As with so many crises – think of the hurricane that hit New Orleans fifteen years ago – the crisis that is COVID-19 is most magnified for those whom Jesus calls the least of these, our siblings. To have access to health care is a privilege. To have the kind of job, as I do, in which working remotely is possible is a privilege. To have a home and to be able to stay in it when I feel sick is a privilege. Many people have few or none of those privileges. And one of my hopes for this time is that we will remember our duty – and duty is an old-fashioned word, but it’s the one that fits right now – to those with few or no privileges.

I am enormously encouraged that, after being stalled out for 16 years, the federal government has passed legislation mandating sick leave for employees. Now, those who study legislation say that it doesn’t go far enough, that there are too many exceptions. But it remains a meaningful step closer to justice. And even if you don’t particularly care about justice, it remains a meaningful step closer to a less icky world. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be at a restaurant in which the chef is there and cooking even though they have a gastrointestinal complaint because they can’t afford to stay home.

In a similar vein, I am so heartened by the sudden and radical reduction in pollution above the factories of China, a change that we might call justice for God’s creation. What if this whole thing were a reset button and we decided that we didn’t want to go back to frantic pollution? What if this whole thing were an invitation into deeper justice, into remembering the dignity of every human being and of all creation?

Humility. As Paul famously says, there is a deep temptation to look upon those outside of our family or city or state or country, maybe even those outside of ourselves, those who aren’t me, and say to them:

I have no need of you.

I can do everything I need on my own. And by that what we generally mean is that there is credit limit enough on our Mastercards to pay our bills. And so we move through the world a little bit like gods, independent and in no way interdependent, in no way reliant on one another or on God.

A crisis like this one reveals that such a story was always high fiction, that autonomous individualism was always a God damn lie. We are here for our sojourn on this earth thanks to God’s pleasure and thanks to the cooperation and support and generosity and kindness of our neighbors.

May we humble enough to recognise that and say thanks for that.

Lament. We live in a culture that is profoundly uncomfortable with grief. That is in a mad hurry to get over loss, to get back to mandatory optimism. And there is a huge cost to living in this way. We are deprived the gifts of grief.

Our own John Hammond, who is one of the kindest and happiest and most loving people I know, describes himself as being in an apprenticeship with grief. I want to suggest that his apprenticeship correlates heavily with his kindness and his happiness and his loving nature. By giving full expression to his tears, John is able to give full expression to his joy. The two: they are inseparable. Grief is the price of admission for love.

The ancients new this. A full third of the psalms are psalms of lament. These are psalms in which people of deep, deep faith say: why? Why is the world like this? Why, God, aren’t you doing your job? What if we could express that kind of lamentation? Maybe we might discover a little bit of the joy that John knows.

Community. And this one overlaps pretty heavily with justice and humility – what if we rediscovered that we live in neighbourhoods? What if we rediscovered our vocations as neighbours? Here at Grace, we have created Circles of Caring, inviting us into to stay in community and to move deeper into community as we weather this storm. It is my hope that some of the friendships that we discover during this crisis will remain come its conclusion. And where we live, what if we found deeper relationship with the people who live next door and down the street? What if, both inside and outside of church, we asked the questions that my colleague Alissa Newton crafted and that Jeanne shared with us this past week:

  • How is the Physical Health of your Household? 
  • How is the Mental Health of your Household? 
  • What do you need? 
  • What can you offer? 

 

Sabbath. There is a beautiful poem that more than one of you have sent my way. It is by Lynn Ungar and it is called Pandemic. It begins this way:

What if you thought of it as the Jews
consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of
times?

I’ve lost track of how many people have told me across the years that some unwelcome and unchosen event – a car accident, an illness, a job loss, some other tragedy – was the first time that they had slowed down in years. I didn’t want it to happen, they say, I wish it hadn’t happened, but in a funny way, that time in the hospital bed was a gift. I was still enough, silent enough to understand things about myself and about the world andabout God.

What if this unwelcome and unchosen event were something that kind of gift, if it were something like a sabbath for our whole culture? An opportunity to be still and to know God?

So: justice, humility, lament, community, and sabbath. Five ways, maybe, that Jesus is healing us and that Jesus will heal us. Five ways, maybe, that God’s work is being and will be revealed. The messiness remains, the hurt remains. But even in Lent, Alleluia, Jesus is in the middle of it. Even in Lent, we kneel before him and say, Lord, I believe.

 

Third Sunday in Lent by Suzy Jeffreys

March 15, 2020

Lessons:

Exodus 17:1-7

Romans 5:1-11

John 4:5-42

Psalm 95

The Samaritan woman can see someone at the well as she approaches…a man, she realizes, as she gets closer. The text doesn’t say, but given the time of day it’s not unlikely that they would have been the only two people at the well. Most would’ve already done their water fetching in the early, cooler hours of the day. Why is she there? Based on what we “learn” about her life later in the passage – that she has had multiple husbands – she may be a scorned woman on the margins of society. It’s not necessary to extrapolate from this that she would have been seen as a loose woman or even a prostitute, because in first century Palestine a woman couldn’t initiate divorce, so her five former husbands must either divorced her or died, leaving her possibly with no stability or support in a deeply patriarchal society. And here sits another man, and not just any man, a Jew. Why is she there?

Jesus can see someone approaching the well as he sits, resting his aching dusty feet. It’s a woman, he realizes, as she gets closer. He knows he’s in Samaria so the fact that she’s a Samaritan woman doesn’t surprise him the way his Jewishness surprises her. We know why Jesus is at the well, because the text does say. He’s tired and thirsty, and he’s alone because his disciples have gone to find food. But why is he at this well? In the two verses that come before today’s reading, John tells us that, “[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had go through Samaria.” Judea, in the southern kingdom, inhabited historically by Jews, with the capital city and center of worship in Jerusalem. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, where worship centered on Mt. Gerizim. And Galilee, up here. So of course Jesus had to go through Samaria to get there. And yet, the animosity between Jews and Samaritans  in this time was so deep, so imbedded – for centuries’ worth of reasons that can be summarized as, “They worship God wrong” – that most Jews would say, “I’m going to Galilee but of course I have to go around Samaria, over the Jordan, through the Decapolis and back over the Jordan into Galilee finally. You know how it is.” But Jesus, a Jew, had to go through Samaria. So why is he really there?

Why are they there, together?

They are there for a conversation.

Last week’s Gospel reading was also about a conversation, between Jesus and Nicodemus, and when we have back-to-back stories with a similar setup – a one-on-one conversation between Jesus and another person – there’s an opportunity to ask what we can learn, not just from today’s story but from comparing it to last week’s. There are two things in today’s story that I want to highlight.

First, the questions. Nicodemus opened his conversation with Jesus with a statement. The Samaritan woman opens with a very cut-to-the-chase question: how are you talking to me? And the questions continue, from the minor – how do you plan to get water without a bucket? – to the major – should we worship in Jerusalem (remember, where the Jews worshipped) or Mt. Gerizim (where the Samaritans thought worship should be centered)? And finally to the most incredulous question of all, the one she asks not of Jesus but of her fellow villagers – “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She is curious and persistent; she wants to know. In addition to the contrast with Nicodemus’s statements, there’s a contrast with the disciples who, when they return with food, are, reasonably, shocked to see him speaking with a Samaritan woman but who keep their mouths shut, who don’t ask the question that John tells us is running through their heads – “Why are you talking to her?” Imagine what they might have learned from Jesus about crossing boundaries, about the inclusivity of the good news, had they asked. But their lack of curiosity kept them from knowing more about Jesus and more about God in this moment.

The second distinction in this conversation is their vulnerability. Jesus is naturally vulnerable – he needs water, something the woman can get for him. As a woman alone with a man, the Samaritan woman is culturally vulnerable. In order to make his point about living water, Jesus needs her questions; he’s vulnerable to how she interacts with him. And, as her eyes are opened to the living water Jesus offers, she shows her vulnerability in how deeply she needs it, saying, “give me this water.” As Jeanne told us last week, Nicodemus is also in a vulnerable position coming to Jesus. He’s well-respected, in a position of influence among the Jews, and Jesus is a radical. But rather than embrace this vulnerability, he diminishes it by coming to Jesus under cover of darkness. This is such human behavior, it’s so relatable. Feeling vulnerable, we hide in order not to be exposed, not to be truly known.

And yet, when the moment of greatest vulnerability comes – when Jesus tells the woman that he knows about her husbands – she doesn’t flee, she doesn’t accuse Jesus of being wrong, she doesn’t defend herself. She has been exposed, and yet because Jesus too has been vulnerable, and because she has practiced vulnerability already in this conversation and had it rewarded with more conversation, she gets the gift of knowing and being known.

She is known to Jesus. He knows about her husbands, yes, and about her current living situation, yes. And at the risk of being flip or even sacrilegious, Jesus knowing that is sort of like a “cool Jesus trick.” But it’s how he responds to knowing this about her that really shows us and shows her who she truly is. She is known to Jesus as one deserving of this living water. I’m so glad last week when Jeanne read John 3:16 during her sermon that she didn’t stop there but kept going through John 3:17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus’ knowledge of this woman leads not to condemnation but to the offer of eternal life, living water, Godself.

And then Jesus is also known to the woman. There’s a Greek phrase ego eimi, and while it’s typically translated “I am” its meaning is something more like, “I always have been, am and always will be.” Capital I, capital A, capital M. John, as the Gospel writer most explicit about Jesus’ divinity, has Jesus speaking this phrase 24 times in his Gospel, considerably more than any other Gospel. And the very first time it appears in John is here when Jesus responds to her saying “I know that Messiah is coming,” by saying, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” This way of saying “that’s me,” (ego eimi) would be familiar from the Torah – for example, Moses encounter with God in the burning bush – and the writings of the prophets like Isaiah. Knowing now what she does, she leaves her water, the reason she came there in the first place, to share this knowledge.

As Jeanne mentioned last week, John loves a metaphor. And there may not be a better metaphor for the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ – the knitting together of spiritual and earthly – than the simple act of communication. Sitting face to face with another human, over a well in the hot sun, in a hallway at work, in the dark, over dinner. Talking gives embodiment to our thoughts and feelings and instincts. It takes all of those things, none of which are tangible, all of which are spiritual, and turns them into words that another person can hear and share in and by which we are known. When the woman leaves the well, without her water jar, she has not had her physical thirst quenched. When the chapter ends, Jesus has not eaten the food the disciples brought back. Perhaps John is telling us that they have been filled by these encounters.

A final word that needs to be said in a sermon about how conversation makes us known to each other, in the midst of a global pandemic, which we now know requires us to stay apart, to keep our bodies away from each other. I’d like to suggest two things. When you do have occasion to safely talk with someone ask questions and be vulnerable. Are you feeling worried? Lonely? What are you missing, and how are you staying connected? Get to the good stuff; let deep conversation become as second-nature as singing happy birthday twice while washing your hands. Stay known to each other. And second, talk to God, pray, meditate, write, whatever that looks like for you. Become known to God and yourself as one deserving of living water.

 

The Second Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

March 8, 2020

Lessons:

Genesis 12:1-4a

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

John 3:1-17

Psalm 121

 

Life begins in water.

Life begins in the dark.

This is true biologically. Our lives all begin in the water and darkness of our mother’s bodies. We are water creatures first, floating with eyes sealed shut as our bodies are knit together cell by cell, being prepared for the first sharp intake of breath that is our very first act on this earth.

Life begins in water.

Life begins in the dark.

This is true biblically. The first creation story in Genesis describes darkness over the face of the deep, with God’s first creative act the sharp exhale of breath which inspires and inspirits cosmos.

Today’s Gospel begins in darkness. We are not accustomed to encountering Jesus in the dark, especially in the Gospel of John in which, from the very first verses of the prologue, Jesus as the very essence of God is described as the light of life, a light which the darkness would not overcome.

But Nicodemus arrives in the dark. Certainly there may be practical reasons why Nicodemus seeks out Jesus in the night. He is a prominent and well-respected leader and perhaps he does not want to be associated with this radical teacher who just created chaos in the temple, upending tables and chasing people with whips.

Maybe, and I like this more generous reading of one scholar, Nicodemus is a dedicated and diligent scholar and teacher who took seriously the rule of his community to study always, even in the darkness of night as others slept

And because this is the Gospel of John and the author never met a metaphor he did not like, the darkness might symbolize Nicodemus’ lack of understanding, his confusion about who and what Jesus is.

But honestly, it is hard to understand why Nicodemus is there that night. And maybe he does not know himself. Something called Nicodemus out in that night, maybe an itch, a sense that this man, this strange shaggy man from Galilee has something to offer him, a well-respected teacher. Maybe Nicodemus had heard or seen firsthand this Jesus: seen a dove alight on his shoulder or was a wedding guest at Cana and had sipped an extraordinary vintage and marvelled at the story of where it had come from.

I suspect even Nicodemus did not know why he came. He opens the conversation with a statement not a question, and does not even seem to be speaking for himself. “We know you are a teacher who has come from God” he says. I wonder if he is afraid to ask what is really on his heart. Afraid to own his own wonderings.

Nicodemus does not ask a question but Jesus seems to sense his yearning. And there is a wildness and poetry to Jesus’ responses here, like he has been waiting to start sharing about how everyone is invited to experience the kingdom of heaven. “Amen” he says, “no one can see the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.”

But Nicodemus does not follow, he can not keep up. He responds to the poetry and metaphor of Jesus with literalness and fact. And I get it, I really do, I understand Nicodemus’ dogged earnestness is trying to translate Jesus’ words into something he can grasp….into the physical experience of literally being born again.

And also, to be honest, there is something so radical in Jesus’ language that it is no wonder Nicodemus does not follow….eventually he throws his hands up with the response “How can this be?” when Jesus continues to double down on this image of birth as an explanation of how we come to have life in the Kingdom and life in God.

Because what Jesus is doing, quite remarkably, is painting an explicitly feminine image of God. Jesus does not correct Nicodemus for responding with the language of birth and wombs, but only corrects the literalness with which he takes Jesus. The metaphor still stands….that being born into the kingdom means being born of water of water and spirit of God just as we are born of water and breath of a woman.

So no wonder Nicodemus did not get it. I mean, given his cultural, social, and religious location and gender…why would he? And, when he responds “How can this be?” perhaps it is out of confusion and frustration, or perhaps it is out of comprehension and disbelief. Perhaps, at some level, he gets what Jesus is saying but it is so radical, so beyond his imaginings, all he can say is “How can this be?”. How can it be that being born into the kingdom, that being born as a child of God, can be at all like being born of a woman?

And while certainly I am employing a 21st century feminist lens to this reading, there are echoes of Jesus’ language in the Hebrew scriptures with Wisdom personified as female in the Book of Proverbs and images of God giving birth to creation in the Books of Deuteronomy and Job. In Deuteronomy God rebukes Israel saying “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.”

This birth language not only points to a feminine image of God, but an earthy one as well. John’s Gospel is often labeled as the most ‘spiritual’ Gospel, and certainly the author of this Fourth Gospel often describes Jesus as if he is already half-way back up to heaven.

But I would suggest that what the Gospel writer might be trying to do here, what Jesus might be trying to do, is to knit together the heavenly and the earthly, the spirit and flesh, and suggest that it is in our very earthiness, in these very bodies, that we encounter God. Like we are born of through water and woman we are born through Spirit and God.

When our son Seth was born it seemed he never stopped crying. While he was born full-term, it always seemed to us that the harshness of this world was too much for him and he could have used a couple of extra months in the womb before he came into the world.

But in the world he was and he was none too happy about it. The best way I found to comfort him and end his tears and screams was to take him into the bathroom and turn out all the lights and turn the tap of the bathtub on full blast. Somehow the combination of darkness and the sound of water was familiar to him, reminded him of where he came from and there he found peace.

Maybe that is what Jesus was doing in today’s Gospel, trying to remind Nicodemus where he came from, from the womb of God and to get him to feel that in his heart and in his body, not just try to reason it out with his mind. Jesus is calling Nicodemus, calling all of us, to encounter God in the physicality of this world, of our bodies.

And maybe that is why God gave God’s only son, to paraphrase John 3:16, not so that Jesus could atone for our sins and guarantee a place for us in the afterlife but rather so that we could physically encounter God in flesh and bone and learn that what is Spirit and what is flesh is inextricably knit together.

I think Nicodemus learns something of this. We encounter him two more times in the Gospel of John. A few chapters from now Nicodemus, in the light of the day and in front of his fellow leaders, defends Jesus and calls for a fair trial for him, a trial he never has.

And finally we encounter Nicodemus in the most unexpected of places, the foot of the cross. He, along with Joseph of Arimathea, take Jesus’ body down from the cross. The Gospel tells us that Nicodemus brings 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. I imagine them, together, washing Jesus’ body so tenderly with water

Life begins in water.

and then burying him in the darkness of the tomb.

Life begins in the dark.

 

 

 

 

The First Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Mar. 1 2020

Lessons:

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

Psalm 32

This is the story of the man, the woman, the snake, and God.

God has set up this garden, this paradise. In it, there is everything a human being could need, everything that a human being could want. The weather is so pleasant and the conditions otherwise so favourable that it doesn’t even occur to anyone to wear clothes. And the food! If you want a carrot, just pull it out of the ground. If you want a smoothie, pluck a mango and turn on the geothermic-steam-powered blender. If you want a BLT, go to the bacon bush.

But God says: Do not do one thing. Everything but this one tree you may touch. This tree, you must leave alone.

But our heroes can’t do it, won’t do it. In what is officially a staple of folk tales and horror movies – don’t look in the room in the back of the house, don’t open the box, don’t read out loud from that alarming leather-bound book that you found in the cabin’s basement – the delay between God’s command and humanity’s breaking of that command is measured in minutes.

The serpent shows up and says: God doesn’t want you to touch that tree, to eat of it, because God knows how awesome it is. And God doesn’t want to share that awesomeness with you. Which is totally selfish of God.

To which the woman replies,

But God said that if we ate of that tree, we would die.

The serpent smiles in a serpent-like way. You aren’t going to die.

You’re just going to know things.

And so the woman eats. And she gives the fruit to the man and he eats.

Thanks to oil paintings, this is the moment in the scene when we maybe hear the crunch of apples. But actually, the text just says fruit tree. If you want to imagine the man and the woman peeling oranges or the juices of cherries running down their chins, you totally can.

They finish eating. They look at one another. And everything changes.

The serpent was telling the truth. But he wasn’t telling the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Our heroes do indeed know things now. And they don’t die, not this instant. But they do know about death and they know that it applies to them. And this knowing itself is a kind of death. And they know as well that they are naked. And so they sew themselves clothes out leaves.

This is the beginning of fashion. It is the beginning of shame.

What is the moral of this story?

Here are three possible morals.

One. This is a story about the origins of sin.

Maybe you know how this one goes. This is the moral that you will get if you are hearing this story while sitting on Saint Augustine’s knee. In Uncle Auggie’s telling, this is when sin shows up, even though that word appears nowhere in the text. Even more specifically, this is when original sin shows up.

Things were perfect. And then through our sin we ruined it. Or if you’re feeling misogynistic (and let’s tell the truth, the institutional church knows a thing or three about misogyny), things were perfect and then the woman ruined it. Either way, God leaves this wonderful tree, this dessert, in the middle of the garden. And like a kind of crappy, passive-aggressive parent setting a test-slash-trap, God leaves the room and says:

Don’t touch the dessert.

But they do touch the dessert.

And because we are reading this story paired up, thanks to the lectionary, with Paul talking about sin and with another story in which Satan tempts Jesus, we get point and counterpoint. Adam and Eve, the dessert eaters, are the problem: Jesus is the solution.

Now, lest we be too, too hard on Augustine, there probably is something to this reading. (Not the misogyny part but the sin being loose in creation and Jesus being the solution to that part.) This world is not as it ought to be. Most of us, maybe all of us, sense that. I was in a waiting room on Thursday morning and I glanced at a newspaper, the headline of which announced that there were children fleeing Syria who were freezing to death in refugee camps.

That kind of horror: it ought not to exist.

And maybe we need a story that explains how the selfishness and violence that makes that horror possible came into being. Augustine has an answer for us: the very first people broke things and their very first sin is still echoing through the world.

Whether or not we need that explanation, we assuredly need to know that Jesus is present in that refugee camp with those children. We assuredly need to know that Jesus is, indeed, the solution, that as Jesus’ hands and feet in this hurting world, we can change things. There is something unexpectedly and profoundly moving about that old icon in which Jesus, who has descended to the dead just like the creed says, is grabbing Adam and Eve by the wrists and pulling them, like two people on the verge of drowning, out of death and into life.

But.

But let’s also acknowledge that this reading is a huge trip hazard for a whole lot of folks, that for many people this is the reading that makes Christianity incoherent. Why did God put this tree in the garden which, as the text tells us, the man and the woman desire? And what does it mean that once they eat they discover nakedness? Throw into the mix Augustine’s understanding of sin, and many people’s understanding of sin, which is to say that sin overlaps heavily with sex, and you can see how God and God’s church don’t come out of this story looking very good.

As the wonderful singer-songwriter Josh Ritter puts it:

Eve ate the apple because the apple was sweet

What kind of god would keep a girl from getting what she needs?

That’s a fair enough question. And if Augustine’s moral is right, it may be a question that proves the antitheists right when they say that we should shake off the handcuffs that are belief in God so that we can get on with enjoying our lives and enjoying our sexuality in particular.

Two. This is a story about God, about the one whom Jesus will one day call Father, acting like the most loving of parents.

There is probably nowhere in the Bible where God is more like a human being than God is at the beginning of Genesis. Later on in the Bible, God is a pillar of cloud, a burning bush, a whirlwind, a still small voice, a sound from the sky that might be words and might be thunder. But at the beginning of Genesis, in one of the most beautiful images to be found anywhere in scripture, God walks through the garden in the cool of the day, just the way that you or I might. God is enjoying God’s creation, with all of its beauty and wonder.

And God, for reasons that make sense to God and may or may not make sense to us, God has allowed danger into creation, evil into creation. And into this world, God has brought children.

To bring children into the world is to have no fewer than two goals in tension with one another. The one is that you want your children to have a good and a complete life, full of love, meaningful challenge, friends, learning, and so on. We want, in other words, our children to know the world, know themselves, know God. The other goal, the one in tension with the first, is you don’t want your kids to get hurt, whether hurt means the bruising of their bodies or the bruising of their hearts.

And so we try to insulate our kids from hurt or, at a minimum, to delay as long as possible the time when hurt will come. We try to see if we can postpone the day of disillusionment or disappointment. That’s because we know that, when that day comes, something breaks. When the day comes, for instance, when a child understands that their parent cannot solve every problem there is, it is the end of a kind of beautiful innocence.

What if that is what God is doing when God says, Don’t touch that tree, the one that will tell you about death? What if God is saying to the man and the woman, I just want childhood, your childhood with its fleeting, fragile innocence, to go on a little longer?

Three. This is a story about the importance, the holiness even, of accepting boundaries and limitations.

Earlier, we talked about how the man and the woman desired the tree – or, in the strange, passive voice that the New Revised Standard Version gives us, that the tree was to be desired. But here’s the problem with reading stuff in translation. The very best translatuins give us, maybe, 85% of the sense of the original text. The English translation of this story doesn’t let us know that the Hebrew is full of puns, so that this story in origin has a whimsical, playful feel to it. And other nuance gets lost: the word that the NRSV renders as desire in this passage, nehmad, is precisely the same word that in the final of the ten commandments, it renders covet. As in:

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s spouse, nor their servants, nor their animals, nor anything that belongs to your neighbour.

You shall not nehmad these things.

The tree was nehmad.

So, if we are going to use the same translation here in Genesis as in the tenth commandment, the tree was coveted. Or, in less awkward English, maybe something like: The man and the woman coveted the tree.

God says to the human beings: Here is paradise. Here is abundance. Here is enough.

And then God adds: But if paradise is going to work, if you and everything else are going to thrive, you must be content with enough. You must not take too much. You must not cross the boundary into covetousness. You must not nehmad.

Suddenly, this is a story for our time. For you and me, right now. Because there is enough on this earth for everyone to live, for everyone to thrive. Be content with that, says God. Be happy with that. Because what there is not are the resources for everyone to have too much. Do not nehmad more than you need. Or you will bring death into this world.

But the snake, who these days goes by the name consumerism, smiles and says: God is just kidding. God knows how much fun it is to nehmad. And God doesn’t want you in on that fun. Go ahead and eat. And if you break the tree or something else in the process, never mind. You can always buy another one. It might even be covered by warranty.

And we have eaten. And we have brought death into this world by doing so. We are perilously near to breaking this earth and breaking ourselves. It is not too late to make a different choice. But it is dangerously close.

Three possibilities. A story about sin, a story about love, a story about healthy limitation. Probably a story about still other things. Assuredly a story about us. A story about how God has given us paradise and said, This one tree you must not touch or you will die. A story that offers us a choice between the advice of God and the advice of a snake. A story that asks you and me the question, whose advice will we take?

 

Ash Wednesday by Holly Puckett

Ash Wednesday

Lessons:

Joel 2:1-2,12-17

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Psalm 103

Have you ever had the chance to work with an improv group? They have this technique for working together, a way to communicate and support each other live onstage in order to move the action forward. It’s called YES AND. Let me give you an example. Two people walk onstage and one of them says “well here we are at the grocery store!” and looks expectantly at the other person. The other person can do one of two things – first, they can stop everything in its tracks. What would that look like? They can say, “no we’re not! We’re at the zoo!” and then the first person either has to double down on being at the grocery store (and then the improv becomes a power struggle for determining the reality of the scene) or change everything and suddenly be at the zoo when they and the whole audience thought they were at the grocery store. This is not the preferred way to engage in improv. The preferred way is YES AND. “Here we are at the grocery store!” says person 1, and then person 2 says “Yes, and we better get to aisle three right now!” To get through a good improv, you have to let go of control and look and listen to what’s going on around you.

Every day we have the opportunity to say YES AND within the world around us.

Here is a difficult truth that I am asked to recall every once in a while: remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. In a moment, a priest will take ashes and make the sign of the cross on my forehead and I will need to respond to this in some way. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” No, I do not accept that I’m going to die, just as Christ died? Or YES AND? Reality calls me to respond to what I have been given with YES AND.  SO here’s my yes and:

I’m not sure exactly where this happened, or how this happened, but at some point in my faith journey, a priest made the sign of the cross on my forehead and said to me “remember your baptism and that God has always loved you”

Remember your baptism and that God has always loved you. We must suffer and we must die. YES AND we don’t have to do those things alone. God has always loved you. Look around you. We face this together. This is our YES AND.

Let’s switch focus for a moment and talk about healing.

I see the idea of healing conflated with the act of getting rid of a lot.

The medical model, which is dominant in western healthcare, treats human conditions through a process of assessing, diagnosing and treating, so maybe that’s why we think healing means locating, targeting, and making go away.

Sure we assume our lives will be better for it, but to an extent we still treat the process of healing as something that has to involve rejection and destruction. There is a problem, we want it gone. Sin comes to mind. Even as we say words like acceptance and surrender and compassion, the energy with which we speak them exposes an undercurrent of will, dominance and control.

At the other end of the spectrum there is an option to think about healing as generative, constructive and life-giving.

So rather than seeking to impose our will over the things we struggle within ourselves and others, we aim for a kind of intentional participation with those things. YES AND is not just for improv. YES AND is what we are doing when we say yes to God, when we say yes to our neighbor, when we are paying attention to the world around us.

We can get what we need to live, heal, die and transform but only under one condition: That we learn to listen and receive. The great work that is before us is about moving toward peace, alliance, harmony and collaboration with life, with God, and with one another. We don’t get to set the scene. In many ways we are not in control. We have to find a way to relate with what reality gives us.

what is. Rather than seeking to bend the world to our will we should approach life from a stance of curiosity. Rather than exclaiming, “I’m sorry I was told we were going to the zoo, and I must insist, here in front of a live audience, that you are wrong, and that we will not go to the grocery store” Instead we ask, “what’s being offered, here?” YES AND is constructive, not destructive.

Let us take the proper time to understand what is happening. Maybe 40 days where we, as our verse said earlier, we rend our hearts and not our clothing.

Let us grapple in this holy Lent with our ability to open our hearts and minds and to be receptive to what this soul searching provides. The good. The bad. The deeply delightful, the hideously grotesque. All of it in ourselves, in others, in the world.

You’re probably thinking, be receptive to the bad, hideous and grotesque? No thank you. I mean, what kind of world would it be if we all received the fruits of hatred, violence and oppression with arms outstretched? If we smiled lovingly at our hearts when we were greedy or petty or controlling, when we moved in fear and not love, when we were harsh or critical or downright mean. Would we not just be reinforcing destructive, antisocial and all around bad behavior?

Those concerns are legit if receptivity is synonymous with passivity and resignation, but it isn’t. Not here. Here, receptivity is the state from which acceptance is possible.

Life is dialogue, not monologue. We step onto the stage, the scene is set, and we say YES AND…

That means that part of it is speaking, but part is also listening. If you are not listening, you are not able to receive. If you’re not able to receive, you’re not able to accept. If you cannot accept, and you cannot receive, then you cannot do your part right. Your capability to speak and act appropriately is compromised.

Life is not that different. How many times do we refuse to listen to what’s really going on around us, take zero cues, and then grow indignant when we’re not cast in the roles we want?

Reality has to be the context in which you do what you do. If it isn’t, it’s because you haven’t accepted what you’ve been given.

Remember that accepting doesn’t mean liking or agreeing with. It means giving yourself permission to move forward properly, which is a lot more likely to happen when you have accurate information.

You get to take part; you do not get to take whole.

So with that, Lent begins. YES AND what does that mean for you? What is your part in these holy mysteries? You have some time to think about your answer. You have 40 holy days to pray and to fast and to remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. All things come to an end. Don’t they? Yes. And, all things come to a beginning.

Let’s get ready for it.