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.

 

Two Minutes for Stewardship by Suzy Jeffreys

Good morning. This is the third time over the past number of years that I’ve had the privilege of standing up here and sharing personally about what stewardship means for me. But this is the first time I’ve done so since having kids, and so when Father Martin prompted me to answer the questions, “What stories about money did I learn growing up, and do I still want to tell those stories or might I choose to replace them?” I started to think explicitly about which stories about money I am telling and want to tell my own kids.

My parents managed to somehow communicate two messages about money, both of which I still believe to be true and which are somewhat contradictory. And since parenting decision-making in general feels like walking a balance beam, why should this decision – what stories will we tell about money – be any different? So the two things I try to balance, in imitation of the balance my parents struck are:

First, money is neutral. Having more of it doesn’t make you more worthy of love. Asking for financial help doesn’t weaken you, doesn’t add “screw-up” to your identity. Giving financial help shouldn’t make you more powerful. The more you can give shouldn’t impact the influence you can have.

And second, money is deeply personal and how you choose to use your money says as much about your values than anything. My parents had this funny rule for us when we were kids, that in order to participate in communion we had to first prove our responsibility by showing we could sit through most of a church service holding our offering coins without dropping them. What I think was going on was quite practical – a dropped quarter makes no mess, a dropped cup of grape juice (we were Baptist) does. But I’m glad that with our kids at Grace we’ve flipped that. They receive first, they participate in the Eucharist, but we haven’t yet given them their own money, or the choice about how to use or where to give their money. And that’s because with that decision comes great responsibility to stick to one’s values when it comes to money…which can be really hard.

And finally, if how we choose to use our money is deeply personal and value-driven, then how we choose more specifically to “give” our money is even more deeply spiritual and values-based. The theologian William Cavanagh writes, “In a capitalist economy, the recipient is passive and the giver experiences giving as a removal of property. In the divine economy of gift, the giver is in the gift, goes with the gift.” This is never more clearly demonstrated than in the eternal giving of the Son and the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, “eternally begotten of the Father” and the Holy Spirit, “who proceeds from the Father and Son.” Inherent in the triune God is the gift of being, and we mirror this when we give.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost by Suzy Jeffreys

Sept. 22, 2019

Lessons:

Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Do you know what a grappling hook is? Most of you probably have a vague enough notion that if we launched into a congregation-wide game of Pictionary, you could sketch one out well enough that someone in your pew would guess correctly. Or you would do what I did, when my five year old asked me, “Please please please can I have a grappling hook like Batman,” Google it, and then wisely answer “Maybe for Christmas,”…and hope he forgets.

A grappling hook is – no surprise – a hook with multiple prongs attached to a rope and it’s used to grab objects. Its original use – by the Romans, who invented it around 300 BC – was actually as a way to catch the rigging on an enemy ship so that it could be brought close and boarded. And hence we have verb, “to grapple,” to be engaged with the complications presented by something. While you will leave here today knowing exactly what a grappling hook is, I cannot promise you’ll leave knowing exactly what the notoriously tricky Parable of the Unjust Manager is all about. And this is, in fact, what Jesus intended for his listeners – and now for us – when he spoke in parables. Had he wanted to be crystal clear and singular, he would have chosen – and often did choose – a different means of teaching. In choosing to speak in parable form, Jesus was inviting his listeners to engage, to be surprised, to question each other and themselves.

So, picture your grappling hook, and imagine throwing it at today’s unwieldy parable, gripping it tightly and bringing it close so we can grapple with it.

The rich man finds out that his household manager has been either untrustworthy or incompetent. Whichever it is, he seems to have lost his master some money. The rich man makes it known to the manager that he’s on the chopping block. The manager, while he still has some power and in the hopes of securing some friends who he can turn to when he’s fired, does a favor to some of the families who owe money to his master and forgives part of their debt. We are not told, but we assume, that they are elated and relieved to be out from under the burden of some of their debt. What is surprising is how elated the rich man is. He commends the manager for being savvy and for making friends by dishonest means. Luke follows the telling of the parable with a number of sayings, ending with one very familiar to us – “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Grappling is, I think, the right approach with parables, because not doing so is fraught with pitfalls and temptations. And I want to talk about a few of those and how to avoid it.

First is the temptation to allegorize parables. This reminds me of an old church joke – A pastor was talking to a group of kids in her congregation and said, “I have a riddle for you. What’s brown and has a big bushy tail and eats nuts,” to which one little kid raised his hand and said, “I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel.” When we allegorize a difficult parable to bring meaning to it, we assign a character as God, another as Jesus, maybe another as “us.” The problem, of course, is that many of Jesus’ parables’ characters are morally complicated, so we find ourselves manipulating and twisting a parable to fit the tidy allegory. Instead of this approach, what if we identify the place where the allegory starts to fall apart, recognize that as the “surprise” of Jesus’ teaching and start our search for meaning right there. In this parable, that spot for me is when the rich master praises his manager for going behind his back to protect his own interests over his masters’. We don’t know for sure, but the master could be responding to any number of things – the basic morality of the managers’ mercy toward the debtors, his pride at hiring a clever manager, his realization that the debtors are more likely to be able to actually pay him back, thereby bringing more wealth into his coffers. When we stop at this point in the parable, this point where it becomes trickier to identify the manager as Jesus or the master as God, it may be because we find ourselves asking if we’re called to act shrewdly and, if so, feeling uncomfortable with that. But this concept of acting shrewdly is not isolated to this parable or to the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew when Jesus sends out his disciples, he says, “See I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

So finding the surprise in the parable, and not shying away from it, leads us to this idea of shrewdness. We might be tempted to immediately ask what shrewdness looks like for us as Christians. But before we answer that question, we need to make sure to avoid a second temptation in interpreting parables – to start looking for the lesson for us today before understanding what was going on then, the context. Have you ever Googled a really remote place? For example, Christmas Island. On Google Maps you have to zoom out six times from Christmas Island before catching sight of any other land, in this case Java, before you’re able to place where exactly Christmas Island is located. Without that context, it would be foolish to set out in a boat looking for Christmas Island. When we look at Jesus’ parables, one of the most important and constant pieces of context for us to remember is Jesus’s Jewishness. Jesus was a Jew. He would have been familiar with the words of the prophet Amos we heard this morning. He would have known that during the time Amos was active many Israelites were living prosperous lives built on deceitful practices and enslavement, just like the rich master lived in Jesus’ time. Jesus would have also known that in this setting the manager was likely an enslaved person as well and therefore himself indebted and without options had he not acted shrewdly. He also would have known that there’s a strong possibility that the portion of debt the manager forgave was actually his “cut,” the amount he’d added to the debt to line his own pockets…hence Luke’s reference to “dishonest wealth.” Finally, for us as readers of Scripture, there’s also the context of Luke’s gospel, which includes a great deal of attention to wealth, poverty, and the reversal of fortunes. So now, we can see the commendation of shrewdness not in isolation or for its own good, but in the context of the inequality, enslavement and corruption of the day, set against Luke’s emphasis on the forgiveness and mercy of the Kingdom of God

So by zooming out to capture the context, the question becomes something different, not just should we be shrewd, but what would it look like to be shrewd with our wealth – even with our dishonest wealth – in the service of the Kingdom of God? By invoking “dishonest wealth,” I’m not suggesting we all have made our living at the expense of others or through corruption. But many, I’d reckon most, of us benefit from dishonest wealth – from the land we live on gained through the genocide and destruction of Native Americans to the privilege and power afforded to those of us with white skin, because of the unjust underpinnings of the concept of race. When faced with our own complicity in this dishonest wealth, we may be tempted to throw up our hands in helplessness, smash all our electronics, get off the grid and hide our money under our mattresses. But this parable calls us surely to something else – to grappling, to wrestling with the complicated and nuanced aspects of living in our world and asking how we can use those aspects to bring about the Kingdom of God – free of oppression and debt, full of mercy and forgiveness – here in our world.

Finally, especially for the preacher there is the temptation to come up with a single, pithy lesson that ties up all the loose ends neatly. Amy-Jill Levine, a scholar who describes herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist,” writes about the surplus of meanings that abound in parables. She says that not only can many meanings emerge from parables, but to reduce parables to just one meaning destroys their potential, that parables work because not in spite of the fact that multiple meanings emerge. She cautions that if we read a parable and think, “Oh yeah, that’s it, I got it!” and move on, we probably don’t, that we should go back again and again, even to the “easy ones,” and search for more meaning. Upon another reading of the Unjust Manager, for example, I noticed something about intention and impact. Jesus includes in the parable the fact that the manager was primarily motivated by self-interest, by making sure he had people to rely on in his upcoming period of unemployment. Does the manager’s selfish intention change the positive impact on those whose debts were partly forgiven? No. Does it change how we view the rightness or morality of that manager’s debt forgiveness? Maybe, maybe not. On Friday, people around the globe participated in the Global Climate Strike, demanding climate justice for all. Sixteen year-old Greta Thunberg is one of the young people behind the Strike, and when she was asked by Trevor Noah of The Daily Show, “Why do you think young people are so focused on climate change now?,” she said, “I think it is because we know that these consequences will face us during our lifetime.” Sixteen year-old Isra Hirsi, the co-founder of the US Youth Climate Strike and daughter of Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar, talks about how the turning point for her own advocacy around climate change was when she – a young, Black, Muslim woman – became aware that climate change threatens to affect communities of color the most.

In these two cases, Ms. Thunberg and Ms. Hirsi are saying that it is because they have the interest of their selves – and others like them – in mind that they have become such passionate and committed activists for moving away from the age of fossil fuels. When they attest to this self-interest, this doesn’t make me see their actions as any less moral. In fact it fills out my understanding of why they protest, because the interests of their planet, the interests of their fellow humans, the interests of their particular communities, and the interests of themselves intersect.

And so we come to yet another, deeper – not final – layer of meaning in this parable: In grappling with how to use our wealth to bring about the great reversals of the Kingdom of God, we too will be set free…and the desire to see ourselves included in those who are set free is a powerful, valid and commendable desire.

 

 

 

Third Sunday in Lent by Suzy Jeffreys

March 24, 2019

Lessons:

Exodus 3:1-15

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Psalm 63:1-8

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

When I told my husband that I was going to talk about darkness this morning, he said, “You’re not going to make it one of those interactive sermons where you ask everyone to close their eyes, are you?” He’s not a big fan of audience – or congregation – participation, if you couldn’t guess. If you’re like him, rest easy. I am not. But I am going to say something that as a young person going to church I would’ve loved to hear a preacher say – feel free to close your eyes during this sermon. As I was preparing for today, sitting on our couch at home in the evening, I found myself frequently looking out our front window at the darkening night sky as I considered how we talk about darkness, how we behave when we come upon it and what we might be missing when we behave that way.

In our western, technologically-developed, white-dominated society, when we say darkness, we often, almost always, are speaking of something negative. We talk about dark moods, being afraid of the dark, people who are the “black sheep” of their family. And like no one else in the history of our world, we push the literal darkness out of our lives. We yell to our kids to “come inside, it’s getting dark.” Even after we close our eyes, we leave nightlights on to show us the way, our electronics blink in the corner of our rooms, in my room the humidifier and the baby monitor both shine bright. If I got to the kitchen for a drink of water, the microwave and oven clocks provide all the illumination I need. That is the absolute totality with which we, in our society, have shunned darkness, because we believe about darkness being inherently scary or evil.

So if that’s a baseline for how we talk about darkness, it’s no wonder how we typically behave when we encounter it. We run, we turn our backs, we lock the doors, we pull the covers over our heads, we ask our parents to reassure us that everything will be ok. I don’t know if this is just me, but man can I literally let my own thoughts about darkness, not even the darkness itself, terrify me. I’ll be going to bed, slowly turning out lights as I head toward the bedroom where my husband is already asleep, and my feet will start to move quicker, my heart rate goes up, my gut just tells me to move through the darkness quickly and get to my bed, to my little reading light.

That’s why Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in this morning’s reading is so unusual to me. Now a story about a burning bush in what may have been the middle of the day may seem an odd reading to provoke a conversation about darkness…but I’m going to use the definition of darkness that Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor gives in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark. She writes, “darkness is shorthand for anything that scares me – that I want no part of – either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out.” And there’s no doubt that fire is one of those things that invokes fear, whether it’s opening the oven to flames to just smelling smoke somewhere it shouldn’t be to the absolutely devastating and terrifying impact on life and livelihood we saw in the California wildfires last year…and in the Gorge the summer before. Fire is a force that, rightly, makes us turn and run. It is a powerful darkness.

So we might expect Moses to behave the way we humans typically do when we encounter something terrifying…turn and run, possibly even leaving behind our flock that our father-in-law had entrusted to us. In the grips of fear, we take flight and put as much distance between us and the darkness as we can. But Moses didn’t do this.

First, we hear that “the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed,” which suggests that the fire maybe didn’t look like a typical brush fire. No, this blaze is described as being different, as not consuming the thing that it was burning. That gives us the sense that something strange, something unknown, something maybe to fear, was present. And yet Moses’s response is “I must turn aside and look at this.” While he would go on to have many more direct encounters with God, this was Moses’ first. It’s not like this was a common occurrence for him, God showing up in dazzling form. It’s not like Moses knew what to expect, or that he could assume from past experience of God’s presence that he ought to investigate. We get the sense from the reading that Moses was compelled and curious, and it’s at this point – when the Lord sees that he’s turned aside to approach the burning bush, that God then speaks to Moses, calls his name. And then Moses is afraid and he hides his face.

There is a lovely children’s book by the author Lemony Snicket called The Dark that I read to our kids about a young boy named Laszlo who we’re told at the start is afraid of the dark, the dark that lives in the same house as Laszlo, in the closet, behind the shower curtain, in the basement and, at night, across all the windows and doors of the house. Every morning Laszlo opens the basement door, stands at the top of steps and says “Hi” down the stairs to the dark, hoping that by visiting the dark in its room, the dark won’t come to his room. And then one night the dark says “Hi” back and tells Laszlo it wants to show him something. So Laszlo follows the dark around the house, finally down into the basement, where the dark shows him a chest of drawers full of lightbulbs. Laszlo says thank you, and, as Lemony Snicket writes, “The dark kept on living with Laszlo, but it never bothered him again.”

Who of us, if we heard something in the dark – the dark itself – asking us to follow it to show us something, would go along? Who of us, if while out walking alone saw a bush consumed by a strange blaze would get closer to investigate? And if we chose not to, who of us might miss the voice of God? Might miss hearing God call our name? Might miss being given a gift to help us understand and see our darkness. Might not see the “the way out” that Paul writes to the Corinthians about in his first letter to them that we heard from this morning.

There’s a lot in that passage we heard from 1 Corinthians. First, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of their heritage in the Israelites who were led into the wilderness by God through Moses, a journey that began with Moses encountering God in the burning bush. Second, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the destruction and death that befell thousands of those Israelites, their ancestors, because of their turn toward evil. Why bring this all up? Why remind the Corinthians of these terrifying ends that many Israelites met at the very hand of God? Because, as he says in the final sentences of the reading from this morning, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” He is reminding the Corinthians that despite the centuries they have on the Israelites, they have not somehow succeeded in separating themselves from the darkness of temptation, whether through special knowledge or spiritual awakening or even proximity to Jesus Christ. They are still confronted by darkness too. And then Paul writes – in one of the most perplexing statements in his writing – and there are many – “God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.” That verse has always sent my brain into spirals.

Paul says God will not test you beyond your strength. What would it look like to be tested beyond your strength? When my mom died in 2012 after seven months with brain cancer, I was not enduring. I felt tested way beyond my strength, and so I did two things – I drank a fair bit of wine and I slept a lot. All I could do for months was avoid the darkness of her death, and alcohol and sleep facilitated that avoidance.

I’ve often fixated in those verses on the idea of God “providing a way out” and asked what that looks like. But I think maybe it’s the “ability to endure” that is the way out. In the Greek the word translated as “ability to endure” has the connotation of “to carry on under,” which is to say to be burdened by, to feel the weight of the burden, the weight of the darkness, of the temptation. For me and the death of my mom, it was finally feeling the weight of the darkness – picturing my mom ill, recounting conversations we’d had in her final months, thinking about my own immortality – that was the way out. The way out was to go further in.

There is a risk here in romanticizing darkness. In terms of literal darkness, the places on our planet that are best lit are not the ones that are most populous only but the ones that are most populated by the wealthy. Many people on our planet do not have or have been denied access to electricity, and therefore to the ability to light the darkness, and in many places and many ways this contributes to poor health, to oppression by those with resources and power, and to individual harm. In addition, we risk ignoring that there are privileges in whiteness, in seeing and in mental health that allow some of us to simply to explore the dark areas of our lives and the world when it’s most convenient for us. I think we combat this by practicing darkness in the way we do the spiritual practice of prayer or meditation: by saying yes to exploring dark things when they become known to us, not just when we choose. By making attention to darkness an everyday part of our lives. By believing and amplifying the voices of those whose skin color, whose mental health, whose life circumstances, mean that they experience darkness regularly and without warning or without their choosing.

Lent means, literally, springtime. The sun is out, at least it was, the days are longer. But our rebirth in Lent must necessarily come out of the darkness of winter. There are wonderful opportunities in Lent still to explore both darkness and rebirth, to accept that God may inhabit the darkness in our lives and to go to God there. I wish I could say that when I went deeper into that darkness of losing a parent, I discovered a loving and kind God of comfort. I didn’t. I discovered that I believe fewer things about God than I once did, but that the ones I still believe I do so more deeply and fiercely than ever. Was that worth it? No. I would rather have my mom alive. But I can say that to the God I know now, the God I would not have met had I not gone into the darkness.

 

 

Third Sunday after Pentecost by Suzy Jeffreys

Lessons:

1 Kings 17:17-24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

 

 

If you are a user of the internet, particularly of social media, you might be familiar with the blog called “Humans of New York.” Humans of New York is essentially a collection of interviews of people on the streets of New York City. It began as a photography exhibit – photos of people – faces, full bodies – accompanied by quotes and short stories about their lives. The now blog posts new stories – just a photo and a quote – weekly. Sometimes they’re incredibly brief, a line or two that illuminates some piece of that person’s life, and sometimes they’re lengthier & in a serial form…the quotations from individuals are posted as paragraphs one at a time throughout the day to highlight the drama of the story unfolding. Occasionally the blog focuses on specific groups rather than just capturing the stories of random people encountered on the street, and most recently that specific group was adults and children in the pediatrics department at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Here are excerpts from two longer stories that were part of that series:

First…

“I used to be a really happy person. I really was. I was the person who would walk outside and say: ‘Isn’t everything beautiful? Isn’t life wonderful? Aren’t we so lucky?’ I don’t have that sense of joy anymore. I remember the Mother’s Day before Max was diagnosed. It was four years ago. We were in this same park. On the lawn over there. It was beautiful. All three of us were there. Irene and I were in love. And Max was lying on my feet and pretending to fly in the air. And he was laughing so hard and I remember feeling so happy and full of life. It was the last moment that I truly felt joy.”

Second…

They called me in the office to give me the results. They told Grace to wait outside. I was so nervous. I could barely stand. When I walked in, nobody was saying anything at first. I thought: ‘Oh, God. They don’t want to tell me.’ Suddenly they said: ‘This is amazing. It’s never happened before.’ And they held up her scan and the cancer was gone. It had been everywhere: her pelvis, her skull, her bones, her arms. And now it was gone. All of us started crying.”

Imagine the parents of those two children meeting in the halls of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, pacing late at night, unable to sleep maybe, sharing the stories of their children and their prognoses, knowing that these stories – their stories – will likely end very differently. What does the story of healing say to you about who we are – parents, children, oncologists, nurses, research scientists? What about the story of the loss of a child’s life. Does that say something different about who we are? And what do these stories say about who God is?

Today’s Old Testament & Gospel readings also tell two stories, but in this case both stories end with healing. Last weeks’ Gospel reading – about Jesus healing the centurion’s servant – also ended with healing. And while the writers of the Gospels in particular are telling us something about Jesus when the recount these stories, we know that people were also dying, untouched by Jesus’ healing hand, and so the same questions – about what these stories tell us about who we are and who Jesus is and who God is – can be asked.

Before delving into the work of interpreting a piece of Scripture, I usually try to remind myself of a couple guiding principles for interpreting the Word of God. That in itself – how do we interpret Scripture – is a question for another day, perhaps a question for Father Martin, but today I think there are two concepts that can help us understand our readings.

First, the Bible is full of complication and discord. The overarching narrative – the meta-narrative if you will – is the salvific love of the Triune God. But not every story in the Word of God points toward or furthers that narrative. Some seem to flat-out contradict or even reject that narrative. To steal a phrase from the Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann, when we encounter one of these “little stories” that doesn’t match the “great story,” what do we do? Ignore or discard it? Make it fit? I love how Walter Brueggemann encourages us not to just “make it fit,” saying that doing so dismisses the text and denies us access to the oddity of the text, the oddity of God and the oddity of life in the world. Despite the fact that today’s readings seem to fall into line with the great narrative of Scripture – the narrative of life – there are some oddities for us to notice and consider.

Last week’s Gospel reading told us the story of Jesus healing the servant of a Centurion and this week’s Gospel reading tells us a similar story, of Jesus bringing back to life the only son of a widow, as does our Old Testament reading of Elijah raising from the dead another son of a woman. Fairly straightforward, similar stories of healing. The odd thing is that the ones asking for healing couldn’t be more different. The centurion played an active role in his story. He sent elders to Jesus on his behalf, elders who appealed earnestly to Jesus for help, who spoke highly of the centurion’s faith. He showed his reverence by saying he wasn’t worthy to have Jesus enter his house. He showed an understanding of Jesus’ authority, saying that Jesus would only have to speak and his servant would be healed. The widow? She’s practically a bystander in her own story. Jesus simply looked at her and, knowing her misery, had compassion and acted. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask for anything, does nothing to “prove” her worthiness of Jesus’ healing, and yet she receives that grace. And then we have the woman in Elijah’s story, who is outright hostile toward Elijah for what she sees as his bringing illness into her house and onto her son. Not only doesn’t she ask Elijah to heal her son, not only doesn’t she demonstrate belief that he can, she accuses him of being the reason her son is ill. She says to him, “You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

The story of the widow shares another oddity both with the story of the centurion and with our Old Testament reading today about another healing – Elijah’s bringing to life the son of a woman. In all three stories, the one healing brings upon himself what the Jews & Israelites of the day would have considered defilement…by physical contact with something unclean. Jesus touches the bier, the plank basically, that the widow’s son is lying on. And in 1 Kings, Elijah takes in his arms the body of the dead son, carries him to his own room and lays on the body. Even in last week’s story of the centurion, Jesus is on his way and intending to enter the house of a Gentile, a breach of Jewish purity law.

A final oddity. The healing of the widow’s son in Luke is followed by these words – “Fear seized all of them.” Those are words we hear regularly in Scripture and I think we conceive of that fear as something like awe. We imagine the shepherds on the hill being greeted by an angel at Jesus’ birth and we envision a light, something starling in its brightness and power and majesty. But put yourself for a moment in that scene. The son has been dead, for some amount of time we don’t know, but the widow and villagers are sure enough of his death that they have begun the procession of mourning and burial. His body has been on a plank and covered with a shroud. His life is gone. And here approaches a man, a man unknown to them, who within minutes, seconds maybe, has upended death. I think – before it turned to awe and glorification – they were legitimately terrified. As the passage says, “seized by fear” which implies a tenseness, an inability to move, being struck, without words.

Once they recovered – at least momentarily – from their fear at what they’d just witnessed, Luke tells us that the villagers of Nain said, “A great prophet has risen among us!” It’s an interesting way to make sense of what they’d just seen, and it wasn’t an uncommon way. Matthew & Mark also both describe in their gospels how Jesus was thought by some to be the risen project Elijah. I doubt quite seriously we would verbalize our awe in the same way now – the word “prophet” doesn’t hold a lot of tangible meaning for us today. We don’t call people prophets in a serious or respectful way. But for the villagers of Nain, there was history they were referring to in calling Jesus, this man otherwise unknown to them, a prophet. In the English translations we hear the exact same phrase in each passage describing what Jesus & Elijah did with the now risen son – he “gave him to his mother.” But the fact that the wording is verbatim isn’t just coincidental or just in our English New Revised Standard Version. When Luke writes the words “gave him to his mother,” he is quoting verbatim the wording used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, of that story in 1 Kings. The Septuagint was the version most often used by the apostles when they cited the Old Testament, and as Greek or Hellenistic culture spread throughout the Middle East, it’s quite likely that many Jews were also familiar with the Septuagint. For those steeped in it, this similarity may very well have occurred to them, hence their exclamation, “A great prophet has risen among us!”

The simple fact of these stories being about healing fits easily into the greater story of the Scriptures, the story of love & salvation. But these oddities point to something a little darker, something captured in all of the stories from the Humans of New York series I referenced, even those that ended with healing – the proximity to death, literally and figuratively, the passing into death & back, the fear, the power and authority unleashed by Jesus, dare I say the capriciousness of God – to attribute healing to faith in one instance (the centurion) and in the others, to have faith play no role. It’s a bit unsettling, especially if we like the idea that because Jesus was human we can understand him a bit better than, say God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. In the wake of Trinity Sunday a couple weeks ago, these stories remind us of Jesus’s divinity, of Jesus’ authority, and of Jesus’ unknowability. Luke has brought his readers to a point in the gospel where is now ready to pull back the veil and demonstrate the authority of Jesus. This is the first time in his gospel where Luke refers to Jesus as Lord. Luke is saying, “things are not as they seem.” And they’re still not as they seem, and there isn’t comfort in that.

An early – 2nd & 3rd century – scholar & Christian theologian, Origen, dedicated much of his thought to interpretation of Scripture, with particular attention to the contradictions in Scripture, the oddities to use a modern word. Origen wrote, “The Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and have meanings, not as they appear at the first sight, but also others, which escape the notice of most. For those (words) which are written are the forms of certain mysteries, and the images of divine matters. And so, if at times we do not understand what is said, we shall not lessen our obedience or subside to easier material explanation, but wait for the grace of God to suggest to us an answer to our question, whether by direct enlightenment or through the agency of another.”

If we believe the Word of God is alive, then it must mirror life – the oddities, the mysteries, the unexplainable, the conundrums, the unfairness. There may not be comfort in those mysteries when we encounter them – mysteries like the Trinity, mysteries like why one child lives and another succumbs to cancer – but we are not alone. The mysterious, odd Word of God, is with us.

Third Sunday after the Epiphany by Suzy Jeffreys

Lessons:

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Luke 4:14-21 

 

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

If you’re a movie watcher, I want you to think of one of the following movies: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Amadeus or Sunset Boulevard. If you’re more of a reader, one of these books: Ethan Frome or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And if I’ve missed you altogether, I’ll move through this opening quickly so you don’t feel left out.

One of the things those five narratives have in common is structure – sometimes referred to as a fragmented narrative or a frame narrative. We don’t start at the beginning and end at the end, chronologically that is. Maybe, as in Amadeus and Frankenstein, we start at the end and are taken back to the beginning through the telling of the story by one character. Or, as with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the narrative jumps around and we, as the reader/watcher, suffer a bit of mental whiplash.

Well today with our Old Testament reading, we began in essence at the end of Nehemiah’s story, with a time of celebration for the completion of a significant undertaking – rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. If we go back, though, and learn where the story began and where it’s been we see a much more complicated picture.

Nehemiah was a cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia in the fifth century BC. At first glance, not a great job, perhaps, especially if the king for whom you bore the cup had a long list of enemies. But while occasionally a cup-bearer might be called on to first drink from a cup to be served to the king to ensure it had not been poisoned, the essence of the position was to guard the king’s cup. The position brought with it a nearness to the king, a proximity to the king’s ear.

We first meet Nehemiah in the Bible when he introduces himself in the first verse of the book of Nehemiah. Reading from that first chapter: “The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, ‘The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.’”

Let’s go back just a little bit further, and then we can finally start moving forward again. In the late 6th century BC, Jerusalem was laid under siege three times, resulting in the exile of Jews to Babylon each time and ultimately to the destruction of the temple in 588 BC. Fifty years later, in 538 BC, the Decree of Cyrus allowed Jews to finally return to Jerusalem. Nearly a hundred years after that, sometime in the middle of the 5th century BC is when we meet Nehemiah.

So, Nehemiah, his heart heavy from the news his brother brought him of the Jews that survived exile and returned, himself returns to Jerusalem, now governor of the province, appointed by the king. The task he has set himself is to rebuild the walls surrounding Jerusalem. The task is immense. The walls are in ruins. The gates have been burned. On a midnight survey of the walls, Nehemiah reaches a point where the destruction is so total that the animal he is riding can no longer continue. From enemies outside the walls – Ammonites, Samarians and Ashdodites – Nehemiah faces accusations of treason, attempts to slander his character and taunts…Tobias the Ammonite tells them, “That stone wall they are building – any fox going up it would break it down!” So the task is huge in scope, the threats from without are near and constant, and, then, perhaps most demoralizing, in chapter 5 we hear about an outcry among the Jews against many of their own relatives, those in power and with great wealth who are lending money on high interest, enslaving their sons and daughters, and taking possession of their fields and vineyards.

I have to tell you, as the director a non-profit, this is about the point where I would put in my two weeks notice. The cup-bearer job had to be looking plush to Nehemiah at this point. But we know, because we began at the end of the story, that Nehemiah had more conviction than that. He foils the plots of the Samarians and Ammonites, he gets a promise from the officials who were oppressing their own Jewish kinsman to cease their exploitation, and in 52 days the wall and its gates are rebuilt.

And so we arrive now at the end…of this part of the story at least. The scribe, Ezra, brings out the book of the law of Moses into the square where all the people are gathered and he reads from it from morning to midday. In the passage we heard this morning, I think one phrase rings out – “all the people.” It comes up eight times…about once a verse. “All the people were attentive,” “All the people stood up,” “All the people answered ‘Amen Amen.’” It sounds like church. Maybe more of a mega-, mega-, mega-church than our less-than-mega parish, but the image is the same…together, we all stand up, we are all attentive (more or less), we all say Amen. But contrast this with what Nehemiah was dealing with just weeks earlier – division, oppression, threats…within that same “all the people.” The wall took under two months to build so we’re not talking about years of reconciliation here. And they were busy, really busy, working. One whole chapter of Nehemiah just lists the names of the people and the tasks they undertook – repairing a thousand cubits of wall (admittedly I have no idea how much that it, but it sounds like a lot of work, right?), setting up doors, bolts & bars on the gates, laying beams. How did they find time to talk it all out, to become “all the people”? Was it really just as simple as it’s described in chapter 5? – Nehemiah spoke with those who were exploiting and oppressing their fellow Jews, and asked them to promise not to do so. And they did. A sneak peek ahead at the last chapter in Nehemiah suggests that no, this promise to turn from oppression did not end and flared back up as certain groups of people were not given their due and sent back to their fields. So was this “all the people” throughout the story? From conflict and hurt, through celebration and glorifying of God, and back to division again? I think so. And as much as the repetition of “all the people” in today’s reading reminded me of the church, so to does this cycle of togetherness and disunion. So how then do we live as the church – the body of Christ – if brokenness is always going to be a part of it?

For now we just keep moving, forward again, almost 2,500 years this time…to today. Just over a week ago, the majority of primates in the Anglican communion (the worldwide Anglican church, of which Grace and the Episcopal Church USA are members) agreed that for three years the Episcopal Church USA will not represent the Anglican communion, be appointed to its internal committees or take part in its decision-making. This in response to the Episcopal Church’s inclusion of LGBTQ people in the full life of the church, including the sacrament of marriage.

In response to the Anglican primates’ decision, our Bishop Michael Curry wrote, as Father Martin shared with us in last week’s email – “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.” Bishop Michael when on to say, “The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.” I also love the church, and I struggle with the notion of unity in the face of such deep discord. How do we feel like part of “all the people” in the face of this? Can we? What other option do we have? Do we care? How could we not care?

These questions are more easily asked than answered. And they are more easily asked by me, someone with the privilege of not being directly impacted, in my own self, by this decision, than they are by those who are impacted, including LGBTQ Episcopalians, and the priests, bishops and other leaders of our church.

I know there are many who have asked these questions for many years, and I don’t presume to suggest any or even one answer this morning. I do hope to offer a few thoughts based on what we heard in the Word of the Lord this morning, thoughts about how we might continue to love the church in the midst of division, though our minds & hearts may not feel that possibility right now.

First, let us remember that as members of Christ’s body we live in the tension between the joy of the coming of the Kingdom of God and the pain of brokenness, as did Jesus Christ. We are called to be with one another in both of these times. Going back to Nehemiah, there is a stark contrast between Ezra the scribe’s injunction to the Jews at the end of the reading today – “do not mourn or weep…go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine…do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength,” and Nehemiah’s words to God at the very beginning when his brother brings him the dire news of the returned exiles and their city. Nehemiah weeps, mourns, fasts and prays for days. He prays, “O Lord God of heaven, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray for the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you.” Both the injunction and the prayer are corporate – do this together, we pray for all of us. But what is it supposed to look like to “be together” with those with whom it is hard to be together. And further, what does that look like when the thing that separates us is not an obtuse theological difference that has little felt impact on us but is in fact a very questioning of the full dignity of some of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I will be the first to admit that the hardest people for me to be together with are often my fellow Christians with whom I hold stark difference on matters of theology, biblical interpretation, politics or the Christian life. As an example, I am part of another Christian community, in a sense, that I experience a strong desire to distance myself from – students, faculty and alums of Wheaton College. Part of this community – the institution – has, over the past several years taken positions on a number of issues that are profoundly important to me, positions that are contrary to those I hold. I have found it hard to love both the community and the individuals in the community with whom I disagree. I get more deeply worked up thinking about these differences than I do any others. There is only one thing that unites us now – the feeling of pain, hurt, frustration, anger. I lament in fellowship with others who feel the same way I do. I assume those with whom I disagree lament as well. Is that enough, our shared lamentation? I hope there will be a sharing in joy in time to come. There may not be. Our shared joy may be a thing of the past. But we are united – as long as we so choose – because we are together in the conflict and in the brokenness that results from the conflict.

Second, I suggest we understand the church, as the Episcopal priest Ephraim Radner says, less as a loveable body – though many of you are very loveable – but as a body that is loved. We heard a common metaphor of the church – as body – in the reading this morning from the first letter to the Corinthians. The description begins in quite a lovely way: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” And then it gets a little weird – imagine as a child hearing these words – “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body,” or “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” or “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” My mind at least conjures up something resembling Frankenstein, something not particularly lovable, desirable or ideal. I think the letter writer is describing for us both the ideal – the unity of the body of Christ – and the actual – the dominance at times of some over others, imbalance, difference. And the author concludes that in God’s love, God has so arranged the body that, ideally, “the members may have the same care for one another.” Notice the letter writer does not say that God so arranged the body of Christ that they may all come to agreement and vote unanimously on the issue at hand. No, the body of Christ is formed such that, again from first Corinthians, “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” We are loved – by God and by one another.

And finally, I am reminded of two aspects of our liturgy that speak to this tension in the church – the prayers of the people, in which we pray corporately, and the breaking of the bread. We take the bread which is broken for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins, as a reminder of the broken body of Christ. And we pray the prayers of the people with our voices aloud together, here at Grace, at other Episcopal parishes in Portland and the diocese, in our nation and in the world…prayers for reconciliation & healing, that wrongs will be made right, for forgiveness, in gratitude and thanksgiving. Implicit in the fact that this prayer is corporate and is being prayed in all times and in all places is the prayer of Jesus himself – that we all may be one. Amen.

Consecration Sunday + Last Sunday after Pentecost + Christ the King by Suzy Jeffreys

Lessons:

2 Samuel 23:1-7

Psalm 132:1-19

Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

 

The year is 1985. I’m eight years old, my brother is six, and it’s Christmas morning. We live in a small village on the west coast of Borneo where my parents were missionaries for over a decade. It’s early in the morning. My dad is filming (probably the most definitively 80s thing about this scene is how large the shoulder-mounted video camera was.) He’s narrating the events transpiring before him, his voice is deep and groggy with sleep. My mom sits in her bathrobe over her nightgown in a chair off to the side, clutching a mug of coffee like it’s the most important thing she owns. Chris, my brother, and I are levitating with excitement. Behind us the fake Christmas tree (kudos to my parents for bringing that over with them) is lit up and gifts are scattered beneath it.

I have only fleeting memories of some of the gifts we received that or any Christmas in Indonesia – a book about flying for my brother, chapstick and gum in our stockings, astronaut Barbie for me (it was the 80s). But I have a lasting, vivid memory of one present. It was given to my brother and me together – not usually a welcome scenario, but in this case we didn’t care – and it was one of many of these gifts we received over the years for Christmas and birthdays. It was a gift “from the kitchen,” which meant it was a gift from our nanny/housekeeper Afa, an Indonesia woman who lived with and helped take care of us and the household. Though its contents varied, the “gift from the kitchen” was always an unwrapped box stuffed to the gills with an assortment of items – a bag of rice, a cluster of bananas or a durian, a string of date candies, a few of the plastic fold-up hangers that came with every box of Rinso laundry detergent, a made-up board game drawn on a piece of paper – and we adored it. We thought it was funny and we felt so loved by it. It was Afa in a gift, and it Afa’s love for us in a gift.

As I began thinking about what I would share this morning and about what we as a family would pledge to give to Grace this year, I reflected on the gifts I’ve received over my lifetime. There have been many, but the gift from the kitchen is especially etched into my memory, so I want to use it to talk about a couple of ways we are thinking about giving this year.

Afa’s gift from the kitchen was a reflection of what she had – the full bounty of the kitchen – and it was also a reflection of what she had to give. Day in and day out, she helped feed us, clothe us, keep us clean…she gave so much to our family. And what she gave in the gift represented that; it was, as Father Martin wrote in a letter I hope you all received and read a few weeks ago, a gift that was proportional to what she gave otherwise.

There was something revolutionary in that letter from Father Martin…the idea of giving proportional to spending. When you hear church and giving and money, what word comes to mind? Tithe? I suspect that would be at or near the top of the list if we polled everyone here. Tithing is a concept we are all familiar with, if also a bit anxious about. It speaks to the portion of our income we give, and it establishes a baseline of 10%. But how often do we look at the proportionality of our giving not from the perspective of what we have or what we earn, but from the perspective of what we spend? What we earn doesn’t necessarily say something about our values, but it’s impossible to deny that what we spend says everything about what we value.

We are tempted, cajoled every day, sometimes every hour, to spend our money in a particular way. On the internet, ads pop up that are directed right at me –Suzy Jeffreys, my particular interests. I get coupons in the mail to buy one get one free of something I don’t need one, let alone two, of. These requests are not all consumerist; this time of year nonprofit organizations doing good work in our community and the world make their case for year-end donations. And technological advances have made it so easy to separate us from our money. We sign up for free trials that turn into life-long subscriptions, we set up automatic renewals for services, I can’t think of the last time I had to have cash to buy something. The exchange – of money for a product or a service – is detached; swiping a card means we don’t feel the loss of resources….at least not right in that moment. It’s not realistic to expect that every time we buy something we would carefully consider how this particular purchase reflects our values or doesn’t. That’s why we create budgets, because they give us a framework that does reflect our values…and, ideally, we act within that framework. As we prepare our pledge cards a bit later in the service, I encourage all of us to think about how our pledge fits into how we spend our money in the world.

Second, as thrilled as we were to receive the gift from the kitchen, Afa’s happiness surpassed ours. She loved watching us pull items out and laugh at them. She’d watch expectantly, smile and scoop us up for a hug. The impact of giving on Afa was an increase of joy in her. That’s a pretty common experience of giving. The giver is happy because she is an intimate part of someone else’s experience of joy. Giving to the church should certainly bring us joy, but we should be actively pursuing the possibility that it will have a deeper, more complex impact as well.

A dear friend of mine teased out some of the potential complexity of giving several years ago when she was named the beneficiary of her mother’s retirement fund and came into a few thousand dollars when her mother died. She decided that every day for a month, she would give a $100 bill to an individual she came across in her daily life and that she would write about it. Why? Because, as she wrote, “More than usual, I’ve been thinking about money and the role it plays in my life. My mother lived with a deeply held conviction that life was defined by scarcity and want. She taught me to be frugal, and modest in my desires. I consider myself a generous person and make it a priority to give to causes I care about. Yet I worry one day that I am not giving enough away, and the next that I might not have enough for myself and my family. This project is about making a difference and about exploring my money and giving issues.” There were straightforward interactions between giver and recipient that were marked by gratitude and surprise, and there were complicated ones that stretched and challenged my friend’s thinking about generosity and deservedness. At the end of the month, she wrote, “I struggle with my own brokenness. Miserliness was etched into my DNA long before I had anything to say about it. It’s not a fatal mutation; I see that now. And it needn’t keep me from living a full and generous life, although that will always be hard work.”

There is no doubt this practice – and, though short-lived, it was a practice, something she did consistently every day – changed her, because she went into it seeking change. She actively plumbed the depths of her heart and mind looking for insight and ways to shift her thinking. She didn’t wait to see what would happen; she took the initiative to explore her fears and discomfort and to reflect on her growth.

There is another encouragement here for us as we consider our pledges to Grace. Rather than expect that giving will make us feel good and leave it at that, let’s stretch. Let’s identify ways that we hope our giving will change us, and then let’s pursue those actively. If you tend to focus on scarcity, that might mean giving a bit more each month as the year progresses and observing in yourself how it feels to give more than you thought you could. If you would like giving to become a regular habit, maybe that means breaking your pledge up into weekly amounts and bringing your gift physically to church each week to place in the offertory. Whatever it is, the idea is that giving can and should be active, not simply a passive depletion of our bank account and not even just an activity that makes us feel good, but an intentional choice to be changed.

Even as we work to make our giving to Grace proportionate to our other giving in the world, as we work to connect how we give to how we grow as individual Christians, we know that there is something deeper going on when we give to the church, something that separates it even from our other charitable giving.  Our readings from the Word this morning point to this in speaking about the Kingdom of God. We heard Jesus say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.” In Psalm 132, the psalmist moves from describing both a physical resting place for the ark of the covenant and the throne upon which David and his descendants will sit to speaking of an eternal kingdom – a “resting place forever” for the Lord. Our gifts to Grace build the church physically, yes…they enable our clergy and staff, our Vestry, our congregants to minister in the world, near and far. But even more so our gifts to the church reflect the economy of the Kingdom of God, which is starkly different than the economy of the world.

Theologian William Cavanagh writes, “In a capitalist economy, the recipient is passive and the giver experiences giving as a removal of property. In the divine economy of gift, the giver is in the gift, goes with the gift.” This is never more clearly demonstrated than in the eternal giving of the Son and the Holy Spirit, what we will speak of in the creed in a few moments…when we say, of Jesus Christ, “eternally begotten of the Father” and, of the Holy Spirit, “who proceeds from the Father and Son.” Inherent in the triune God is the gift of being, and we mirror this gift in many ways, one of which is through our own giving of ourselves and our resources. In doing this we are, as we heard spoken in the reading from Revelation, “made to be a kingdom.”

A bit later during the service you will have an opportunity to pledge your gift to Grace for 2016. You should have received a pledge card from the ushers on the way in today; if you didn’t the ushers will have them during the offertory, so indicate at that time that you need one. If you consider yourself a member, regular attendee or friend of Grace, please take some time to consider your gift and fill out the card. Then, after the usher brings forward the offertory to the altar and returns to the back of the sanctuary, please walk forward when you’re ready and place your pledge card in the bowl at the altar. If you are visiting for the first, second or tenth time…if you are a visitor or guest today, welcome. We hope you’ll join us after the service for our Consecration Sunday lunch (more on that later) but we are not asking you to pledge or give to the parish.

Many years have passed since our last gift from the kitchen, almost 30 years actually. A month ago my brother Chris and his wife Lacy had their first baby. They live in Alabama now, and they got an email shortly after Leo was born saying that Afa had brought a gift for Chris to an American doctor in the village to send back to the States. I cannot tell you how much I’m hoping it’s a gift from the kitchen, a gift that will carry Afa with it across the ocean…as we will carry ourselves with our gifts this morning.

Amen.

Consecration Sunday + Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by Suzy Jeffreys

Lessons:

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Matthew 22:34-46

 

Good morning.

As a kid I was very interested in the concept of opposites, and now as a new mother I understand perhaps part of the reason why – children’s books are peppered with references to opposites. I suspect my fascination also had something to do with my desire – then and still – to categorize and organize things. As I grew up, I realized of course that not everything is that black and white; not everything has an opposite. Nevertheless, I do still find that when I need to consider a complex idea or concept, it sometimes helps to think about how it’s different than something I’m more familiar with. So that’s where I started in thinking about Consecration Sunday.

I work as the Director of a non-profit, where I’m responsible for, among other things, fundraising. I do a lot of thinking and reading about the best way to ask for money. While charitable giving shares some key things with giving to church – namely that the gift is motivated by something personal and that the gift is used in the service of a mission – there are some significant differences in how we give to Grace compared to how we give to a non-profit or cause.

Charitable giving to a cause or non-profit is part of the economy of the world. It’s motivated by altruism but it’s nevertheless part of how we spend our money in the world. I often write appeal letters that talk about what a donor’s gift can “buy.” I work in healthcare, so, for example, a $40 donation will buy a year’s worth of prescription medication for one of our patients. Or we talk about reaching a budgeted goal. I suspect anyone who regularly tunes their radio to OPB knows what I’m talking about – we have fifteen minutes to reach our goal of $5,000 this hour…and your donation will get you a tote bag or a pint glass or the newest season of Downton Abbey before anyone else. The language is about what the organization or its clients need.

When we give to Grace, we are participating in the economy of the Kingdom. How is that different? Well the question of whether and how much to give is not only a question you answer, but it’s a question about you, not about Grace. The question is: What is God calling you to give? And why is God calling you to give? How will your relationship with this community and with God grow and change as a result of your giving?

When I was in graduate school, we had a visiting professor, Jamie Smith, from Calvin College in Michigan. Dr. Smith was sharing with us about the challenge of parenting in our consumer-driven culture. Even if he had wanted to keep his kids from being subject to the consumerist world, which he didn’t, there was simply no way to do so. The messages of the market were ubiquitous, and this was pre-Facebook and pop-up ads. So he turned to the power of language. The example he shared with us was that while he would happily drive his kids to the mall when they asked, he asked in return that they refer to the mall as the “temple of stuff.” He wanted them to acknowledge that visiting the mall was, in a way, an act of worship in the economy of the world, an economy that was very different from the economy of the Kingdom. While I suspect this was lost on the kids, the message of it really stuck with me and reminded me of the importance of the language we use when we’re talking about something – money – that plays a role in both economies – the economy of the world and the economy of the Kingdom. So while we use some of the same language in talking about giving to Grace as we do in talking about our other types of giving – donation, pledge, gift – we also use some language that wouldn’t be familiar in the world economy, and I want to finish by talking about just a few of those words and phrases.

Consecration. Today is Consecration Sunday…it’s not our fall pledge drive. To consecrate is to take something ordinary and material and to make it sacred. We’ll have the opportunity today to physically enact the act of consecration by walking our estimate of giving cards up from where we’re sitting to the alter.

And then there’s the “t” word – tithe. When I started preparing for today I thought, “Whatever you say, don’t utter the word ‘tithe.’” But as I gave more thought to it I realized that tithe is absolutely the right word because it refers to the percentage of what we’ve been given that we feel called to give to Grace, to this community. Again, it’s not about the percentage of the budget that Grace needs to bring in from pledges. It’s about the percentage that each of us feels called to give.

Finally, we refer to giving as a spiritual discipline, not a recurring or monthly donation. The act of giving does something to our hearts on an individual basis yes, but as we all do it, it becomes a collective act. As we walk forward at the end of the service, look around – what you’ll see are individuals giving of themselves and in doing so forming the church, this community we love. As the letter to the Thessalonians we heard earlier says “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”

Amen.