Holy Dance + Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver

Lessons:

Job 38:1-7, 34-41

Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

I arrived at Grace during the middle of the day in the middle of July in 2006.  There were kids everywhere.  And so were kitty litter cubbies and left-behind shoes and remnants of lunch……… and in the parish hall a Greek music CD was playing and a few young people and adults were dancing with some children.  So I joined them and we danced together. And I have been dancing with all who cared to join in the dance at Grace Memorial and Grace Institute ever since.

Perhaps that is why I have loved being a part of Grace.  Grace understands the nature of dancing, metaphor or not…… and when to join in the dance.   Sometimes we simply sit and enjoy it from the sidelines, to be sure, but we do recognize joyful creativity, pensive expression, letting go, entering into and emerging……….knowing when to hold on to old traditional steps and when to reinvent…….how to keep the center whole while being made new.  As part of the body of Christ, we recognize that the liturgies of the year form the choreography of our lives together and we allow ourselves to live into it fully and completely.

The dance is circular much like life.  There are beginnings which emerge out of other endings…….and eventually their inevitable endings simply slip into new beginnings.  And within each dance of living, we find our place in the choreography of it all as we are called upon to contribute to it……. to be the servant of all who dance with us and of all those who long to. The dance emerges out of a particular communal dedication to servitude …each contributing to the whole.

The concept of servitude – of entering into the choreography of creation, seems to be lost on the disciples we hear in Mark’s Gospel. The squabbling disciples, all jostling to be close to Jesus………. to be lifted up as the “heir apparents”…….. seems to indicate they have missed the sense of ministry as emerging out Jesus’ vision for God’s Kingdom…….amazingly, they seem to have missed the  meaning of true ministry altogether.  They are each working for themselves rather than the communal whole.  Their concept of leadership is caught up in their worldly notion of power and status.

All the disciples must have been talking among themselves about a special kind of recognition……about who’s going to take over top spot in their community of ministry alongside Jesus.

James and John, sons of Zebedee,  having held some confidence with Jesus in the past are now jostling for a more formally recognizable position……demanding that Jesus do for them whatever they ask. Jesus responds by having them try to explain what it is they want.  They reply that they want to be one with him at his right and at his left.  I can’t begin to imagine what Jesus must have thought at that moment. Their inability to even begin to grasp the enormity of what true discipleship means…was astounding given all they had seen and witnessed by already being so close to Jesus.  Jesus warns James and John that they do not know what they are asking when they demand that he grant them special status

The rest of the disciples are angry at the possibility of being left out of Jesus’ inner circle and Jesus is led to remind them that the world’s concept of leadership and greatness in the world, where one rules by tyranny or lording it over everyone is the exact opposite of that in God’s Kingdom.

The disciples are demanding answers to questions they don’t know how to ask or don’t even understand.  They are motivated by their lack of understanding and their fears.  In a way, they are asking Jesus, what is to become of us?  What’s next? ……hoping to hear an answer which will direct them to a happy outcome.

And what of us….in our world……..what does it cost us to be servant of all?   Who is first and who is last?   And if we want to be first….want to be at the right hand of greatness, then how do we know what being first will bring with it.  What is its cost?

Unlike our world, where visibility means everything……..true greatness in God’s Kingdom renders one invisible in the eyes of the world …..even as it exalts one in the eyes of God.   True greatness in discipleship is often hard to see….it is mere wind beneath wings …..a hidden source of true leadership which is witnessed for its simple doing without the need for recognition.

So….what would we ask if God showed up among us?  Would we point out our good works and ask to be given special status?  After all, don’t we all want the best seats in the house? What would be our questions?  What is our need to know? What is it we are seeking or hope to gain by that seeming status?

Like the disciples before us, would we demand to know what we cannot know now?  Our self-absorption may not show itself as overtly as did that of James and John and the others, but don’t we all spend a good part of our lives thinking about some level of privilege that might be attained in one way or another……..the one who holds the information, the answers all the rest of us would love to know.  Don’t we all have a little of the sons of Zebedee in us as well?

Last week I was in Florida for a week long clergy retreat and we were tasked with serious introspection.   I found myself asking God what’s is to be next in my life…….. waiting impatiently for God to answer.  I felt the weight of the cross in my “need to know”, weighing more and more as I thought about coming to the end of my ministry at Grace.  So I decided to walk the large brick labyrinth available at the center. And I made the decision to make my way to the center with a very slow meditative walk.  This is a meditative walk used in tai chi.  Each single step takes about 20 seconds to complete or 40 seconds for both feet to completely move forward.  The cross that I carried with me on that very slow walk, was heavy with my questions of what was to be next for me and, as I walked, recognizing my own impatience to hear concrete answers, I asked God to take the cross from me.

Time went by painfully slowly as I walked toward the center of the labyrinth.  I was aware of the cross becoming heavier still, as I became anxious over what time it might be, whether or not I was missing lunch, what if people thought I was crazy creeping along like that.  I continually worked to check these thoughts and, with intention, focused on coming back to my conversation with God. But I still sounded like the disciples.  I want you to do this for me, Jesus!  I want you to tell me exactly what’s next! How long will I have to wander the wilderness?  Who am I?  What is my purpose?  What is it you know about me………..that I am yet to discover?

The answer seemed to add yet more weight to my cross….”you do not know what you are asking……are you ready to willingly walk into the wilderness like me?  Willing to take up the cross of faith like me?” Willing to bear the burden of whatever direction your faith takes you?   Sensing the test of these words, I seriously considered giving up the whole idea of walking silently with God and heading for the swimming pool, but the Spirit compelled me to keep on walking and walking.  It took me just over an hour to reach the center.  And there I stood.  I felt relieved yet vulnerable to my own weaknesses….would the journey have been worth my time and yes…..would this long walk to teach me anything beyond a little patience……even when I had the time for it?

Then, from deep within, the still small voice of the Spirit whispered, “Lead with your gifts, not your anxieties.   Will you not trust in me enough to lead with your gifts I gave you?  Lead with your gifts.”

I was amazed at the simplicity of the answer and realized in that ….just as the answer is true for me……so, too…. the answer is true for all of us just as it was for James and John and the rest of the disciples.

We are called to lead with our God-given gifts……. not our fears.   To allow our gifts to step in front of our fears is a call to real discipleship which is not easy living in our contemporary world of war and violence on the world stage, upheaval in our communities, and in our families.  We are fearful that our homes are not safe, our churches are fading, fearful that we will lose our security and peace wherever we seek it, fearful that we won’t be recognized for our good works.

We can articulate our anxieties and address our fears which are very real, but they are not meant to guide us.  We are to keep on keeping on with all the amazing and beautiful particularities given to each of us by God.

We are to quiet the din of voices that try to pry us away from simple faith in ourselves and faith in the gifts God gave us  for successful living.  Jesus teaches us to remember God’s perspective as he asks the disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  Linking baptism, the Eucharist and the way of the cross, Jesus is asking us, just as he asks the disciples, what is the nature of your cross and are you ready to pick it up?  In order to sit at the right hand of God we are compelled to do so.

We can’t just lay our cross down…..we are to willingly climb on to it in order to allow our fears and insecurities, our egos and self-glorification, and all that we know to be born of fear….. to die there.   Jesus links our destiny to his own and makes sure we understand this is the way to come closer to God.  It is not desire for leadership that is anathema to God…….it is misplaced motivation behind our desire for leadership that can get us into trouble.  When leadership serves as a mask for our insecurity, or as an avenue toward recognition, serving only to bolster our egos, then we have missed the opportunity to discover the joy of selfless contribution to God’s Kingdom and to finding new life in Christ.

As people of God and as community we are called to consider our own self-sacrifice; of ego, of jockeying for first place.  To embrace the notion of self-sacrifice does not mean that we are to deny ourselves of the joys of life….far from it.  But it does mean that to enter into the holy dance of true discipleship, we are to serve something far beyond ourselves.

If we are not careful, our fears and anxieties can get interconnected and entwined with our tendency to self-glorification…..leaving God completely out of our thought processes as we imagine ourselves wise and powerful as God.  We forget, that even though each one of us is God’s beloved, so is every other one of God’s creatures along with the rest of the world in which God takes great delight.  We are each of us made in God’s image, but as God’s message to Job point out, we are all part of God’s world of abundance,  not ours alone.

If we can understand our relative importance amid the unending magnificence of creation that is God’s and beyond our knowing, we can begin to understand God’s knowledge of each of us as individuals and as part of community.    Mary Oliver expresses that perspective in her poem “Wild Geese.”

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on……meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again….” [1]

The Good News of the Gospel is that in sacrificing ourselves for the other, our better selves will be given new birth and the reign of God propelled forward.  What I learned from my walk on the labyrinth, was that I was of far more use to God by leading with my gifts than by hiding my faith and trust behind my fears.  When we can live free from our fears ….. we can become whole and ready to serve rather than to be served…….

Leading with our gifts becomes a powerful antidote to new fear and newly imagined insecurity……a powerful continuation of renewal and resurrection.

It is a time of strength….a time when transformation happens.

It is when we look at each person here today and thank God for their gifts.

It is what it means to enter into the dance of God’s continually evolving creation.

It is out of this context of faith and trust that God speaks to each one of us and calls upon our gifts freely given to us for the building of God’s Kingdom.  As members of this priestly servanthood, this divine humility before God……. we are empowered to be all we are called to be, with vision and with grace, not because we are first or best, but because we are willing to stand firm with faithful hope in the midst of the world’s brokenness.

How we view the future and how we view the gifts we bring to bear, rather than our differences, can move us to amazing possibilities for building community and can have a powerful impact on future ministry and mission. We can recognize that regardless of our circumstances, the world and all its gifts….all its possibilities…. are ours to embrace.  We can begin to picture our lives in the future as a desirable outcome of the decisions we make today.

Good people of Grace, may you be filled with grace-filled questions and answers.…..  where there is no first or last under God…..only the joy only of using all your amazing gifts for service…. with no expectation of anything other than joyous participation in the compelling beauty of God’s great vision for creation.

May your doors always be open…..so that God’s gifts may find their way through them and then find their way to serve out in the world.

May the clouds be your chariots and may you have the courage to ride on the wings of the wind.

Make the winds your messengers, the fire and flame of faith and trust in God your ministers so that your work to set the world firmly on the foundations of God’s intentions for it, will never end.

Above all, may you be always willingly take part in the dance God has invited you to join.  It is a holy dance…..where the steps aren’t complicated but are difficult to sustain……where choreography belongs to God who calls upon you to complete the whole.

May you always be bold and fearless enough to accept the invitation……..may you always look forward with joyous anticipation and hope built on confidence in God’s gifts in you……and may you never forget that words and actions are meant to build bridges ….create and hold on to relationships…….that to serve and not be served is to love in humility and in peace.

May you always gladden the hearts of those who walk along side you, lifting up to build in the face of all that would tear down, living into the holy dance of the resurrection story….allowing what must die, to die so that what must live, may live.  Above all, may you never forget to love one another as God loves each of us….never forget to forgive yourself as you forgive all others, never forget that the way to peace is not to understand, it is to love.

I give thanks to God and to all who have listened with the ear of their hearts, as I bid this pulpit farewell.  It has tested me, upheld me, propelled me and insisted on the truth of my convictions.  It has brought me to my knees in confession in the face of my own frailty.  It has made me face my own mistakes and has heard my call for absolution.  It has called me to be prophetically courageous, has insisted that I walk the walk that I talked and above all, it has taught me to serve.  I pray that all the words of my lips and the meditations of my heart were acceptable to God, my strength, my redeemer and my inspiration.

Amen.

End
Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver
October 18, 2015
Final Sermon at Grace

[1] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 110.

The Flowers in the Desert + Fifth Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver

Lessons:

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 51:1-13

Hebrews 5:5-10

John 12:20-33

By the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the shadows of the cross spread like cold ash across the wilderness landscape…..and yet, at this same time……desert wildflowers are in bloom.  At this same time, the floor of the desert becomes, for one brief moment carpeted with the color of a thousand different blooms.  Where it seemed there was nothing, now shows that there was always something.  Indian Paint Brush, Desert Lily, Sand Bells, African Daisies, Sand Verbena and scores more.  What seemed barren and colorless…..harsh and challenging….now proclaims renewal of life with a mighty show.  Perhaps it is fitting that at the height of what we might perceive as the most fatiguing part of our Lenten journey across the desert……. becomes the most forgiving time in the desert wilderness.  And although it is not a field of poppies to run through, and we feel the harsh rocks of the world below the colorful cover of the landscape ……. we witness and experience a sign of hope along the way. The desert flowers remind us of our trust and hope in God’s constancy and presence and keep us keeping on.

We hold trust and hope in God’s covenant with us, even if we have broken our covenant with God. The Prophet Jeremiah reveals that God does not break covenants, it is we, God’s people who do.  Even in the midst of the mess we make of our lives at a personal, national and international level, God is willing to be true to God’s covenant to love God’s people.  And not only is God true to God’s covenant, God is willing to keep trying to reach out to us until we understand beyond a superficial level just what a covenant with God means and  what God wants of us

Jeremiah reminds us that we have the capability to know God in a new and deeply personal way, and God desires us to know God so much that God is ready to make a new covenant.  It isn’t like the old one…the one that was static, written in stone, carved on tablets, and on temple walls so that we could all see it and disobey it. It’s a new covenant…..this new law is not written in stone, it is written in our hearts and can be there for all to see in our daily living.  The new covenant isn’t just about knowing about God and God’s laws…… it’s about knowing God.

We don’t have to interpret it….or analyze it……we are simply free to experience the joy that comes with the kind of freedom we experience when we love.  A similar feeling one might feel when falling in love in a human way…….when our hearts and souls are filled with love for the other and there is a sense of perfect freedom of being totally at peace with oneself and with another who love us too.

When we experience that kind of knowing God and loving with God, we are free to be who we really are with God………it is like falling in love with God……and our joy can transcend into a kind of divine euphoria……as we put our hearts into being the best that that God could ever hope we could be.  Rather than trying to intellectualize it, we are called to experience it and move into it with a new level of passion.

During Lent we work hard to reach it.  We stumble through the desert trying to turn away from all that separates us to God….toward all that brings us closer to God….and in our falling and rising, our failures and our new attempts, we are to remember God’s covenant.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” says the Lord. “The least of these and the greatest will know God” No one is excluded from knowing God.

God is right there with us, writing God’s oath on the core of our being.  Our steps cannot help to feel lighter…..more swift.  How can we fail to notice the flowers along the way?

To know about God is a heady thing….something we intellectualize.  But to know God is heady in a different way….a joyful, unfettered way.  To know about God is conditional and superficial.  We know all about the scriptures, the theology and the doctrine.   We know about the other. We know about the people down the street. We know about the people suffering around the world, but do we really know them?  Are they written on our hearts?

As if in answer to our questions,  God makes a vow to us that is as filled with wonder and hope as a desert turned from desolation to flower-filled beauty…..I will remember no more their sins and forgive my people completely.

Just like the hidden possibilities that lie beneath a desert floor, God is always at work, watching, renewing, creating and loving.  And when God acts, new things happen.

It’s a new kind of covenant….different than the old….not negating the old, but perhaps extending it….enhancing it…..bringing it from the outside to the inside….from the impersonal to the personal….the superficial to the heartfelt.

During this Lenten season we have heard the voice of the new covenant.   A Muslim voice, a Jewish voice and others who carry God’s law written in their hearts.  They are voices that seek not just to know about us, but to know us by offering their hearts to let us look inside, so that we will know them.

Herein lies the hope and herein lies the lesson we are to learn as we walk these last steps toward the foot of the cross.

We have had the time to think and now it is time to take stock as we come closer to Jerusalem.  To take stock of our repeated errors…to recognize that there must be a new way to approach our situations.

Instead of reacting with our heads, we can now react with our hearts – the meeting place of the divine and the human. Surely with God’s words written in our hearts, our reactions will lead us to new solutions.

“Make me an instrument of your peace,” says the Prayer of St. Francis. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”  Where there is discord between two people, we can react in the old way, forgetting the law of the ten commandments completely, as we lie, judge, and kill…..the body, the soul or both.  But God’s new Covenant calls for a new kind of passion to stir and spring up, a freedom to love…..as we know we are loved….. through the power of forgiveness that streams from the Cross……and the freedom to move our love into the world propelled by the Holy Spirit…… bringing with us…….reconciliation and a desire to give rather than to take.

We consider the state of the world, rife with cultural clash and division, carrying death and destruction into our living rooms and into our communities.  It is a world System that lies outside of the heart…..where self-righteousness and the need to be right, deafens ears and deadens reason.  We can create a list of transgressions….between each other, between different denominations of our own church, between faith traditions, between our consuming desires and environmental destruction…the list goes on.

Walter Wink suggests that the “myth of redemptive violence” is the primary myth of the System.”  According to this myth, we only succeed in bringing order out of chaos “through defeating the other.” [1]  We take care of our enemies by eliminating them, just as the System tried to eliminate Jesus.  And I am not just referring to ISIS or other extremist groups. The myth starts working on its domination of us early in life and follows close behind us throughout our lives…..through our interactions between each other, our priorities and our preferred consumption, demands and expectations – so much so that we are often simply at a loss as to how we are to avoid its powerful hold on our lives especially when it escalates from simple fulfillment of selfish desire to meanness to fear mongering and to terrorism.

Would that a new law of love be written on those hearts so that peace could find its foothold.   Would that the passion that drives to misguidedness, be driven by God’s law of love in the heart.

There is no need for a clash of cultures when God’s law replaces the law of the World…in the Greek understanding…the kosmos…….the System.   No need to fight for perceived right – no need for pride or mid-guided ambition, no need for judgment, suspicion and malice, no need to claim one’s own virtue and the other’s blasphemy.  There is only openness.  Openness to the Spirit.  Openness to God’s desire for each of God’s children to bloom like a desert flower rather than self-destruct and fall, like ashes back onto the desert floor.

So as we continue on toward the desert horizon…… we understand what we have to examine.  What part of the world rules us to the detriment of all around us?  What is the System demanding of us…..what is holding us captive? Living under the law of the System….who…in our lives…. are the winners and who are the losers?  Why do we continue to desire to dominate….to win through violence to the body, mind and spirit?

Like Jesus, we are to walk in fearless freedom from the myths of the System, refusing to buy into judgment, punishment and threat.  Jesus called it when he was brought to face Pilate.  “My kingdom is not from this world” [2] (translate System.)  He foresaw his crucifixion and used it to expose the violence of the System in its need to be rid of him. Jesus teaches us that through His resurrection, we will be front row seat witnesses of the way of the System, it will expose itself for what it is….a violent affront to all that God wants for God’s Kingdom. Once we recognize the violence that the world imposes,  we will recognize those parts of our lives shaped by the System which must die …….allowing newness of life to be free to live in a new way…..in the way of Jesus. “Surely,” says the Centurian, standing beneath Jesus at the moment of his death “This was the Son of God

When God speaks, do we hear God’s words?  Jesus prayed, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say….. ‘Father, save me from this hour?  No, it is for this reason I come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ ” [3]  Jesus held God’s words written on his heart…  “I have glorified it and will  glorify it again.”

God’s words are spoken, teaches Jesus, for us…… more than for himself. ……So that we can love rather than be at war.

So that we can forgive ourselves instead of succumbing to self-hatred and guilt…….. so that we can forego envy and jealousy and love our neighbors as ourselves, being openly accepting of the other……loving our earth and all that lives in it.  What would it be like to act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.  Is it nothing less than our God requires of us? [4]

What are the ways in which we need the law of love to be written on our hearts?  How do we prepare ourselves to make room in our hearts for the power of the resurrection, so that we may be made new and…… our lives….our way of living and  the livesof all those we know …….will be made new because of it?  We know there is much to distract us and to live in such a way is not easy in a world that can be so unkind.  Much of the world will want us to live by a different law but this is ours to resist.

We resist because we have come a long way and we must keep moving toward a destiny of love of peace that the world so desperately seeks. It is the covenant we made with God and God with us.  To love God with all our heart and with all our soul and all our mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The words are not just to be written in our books.

Like flowers of the desert, rising out of the desolate…….they are to bring living proof of the renewal of life….and they do…..because they are written in our hearts.

End
Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
March 22, 2015

[1] Walter Wink: Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992,) 13 – 31, 51-59.

[2] John 18:36

[3] Mark 15:39

[4] Micah 6:8

The Name of Faith + Second Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver

Lessons:

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Psalm 22:22-30

Romans 4:13-25

Mark 8:31-38

The Ella Brown Room is filled with crosses. And there are crosses in the glass case in the hall outside the chapel. Each is treasured enough to be shared and each carries a story that partly defines the one who lives with it… and defines a particular perception of what it means to walk with Christ……what it means to be a Christian. We brought our crosses for all to see and in the doing so, we had to ponder if we should…..as we gently took them off our own walls or shelves and carefully brought them to another sacred place for about 40 days. During the period of those 40 days, they represent to the world our faithfulness and our obedience to God and our trust in God’s promise to love us unconditionally, a covenant made to us through our forefather Abraham and brought to fulfillment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They bring us to a poiint of our walk through Lent in a way that is difficult to explain to the uninitiated….. ……the mainstream secular culture of our times. They bring us a reminder of our own burdens to be carried…..our personal crosses made far too heavy to hang on a wall, almost too heavy to bear. At this time of Lent we come to the moment where our work becomes harder and more profound as we are called to lift our own cross and carry it just as did Jesus. It is the time for our own heavy lifting….of our self-denial and our self-disclosure. And in the carrying, we come to a time when we decide what part of us must die and what part of ourselves will will rise from the ashes left behind.

After all is said and done, when the time comes for us to look back at the 40 days of Lent and how we spent them, it would be good to know that we have done the best we could with this important work. We can begin by asking ourselves “What does it mean to me to be a Christian?” Did my vow to give up chocolate, or wine, or some other desired fruit that tempts, inform an answer? Did my decision to take on a particularly challenging task inform an answer? If so, then indeed we enjoy some measure of success. However, it might be helpful to take time to be sure we have the right task and thus, the right answer.   There, God. I gave up chocolate for Lent and didn’t enjoy one single nibble. There, God. Am I not the better person for it? Am I not a good Christian?

As we ask the question, we ask it in relation to the times in which we live. We are surrounded by deep sin…war and cruelty….neglect ….abuse to the highest degree…here in Portland and all over the world. When we compare ourselves to these extremes, we come off looking pretty good. At least to us. We don’t murder or create mayhem, so how could God possibly think of us as sinful? The price of giving up chocolate seems appropriate to the degree of our perceived sins. Yet, the reverse also often seems true….. we are prone to cast ourselves into a pit of guilt over the slightest perception of personal sin. The way we raised our voice, the way we felt slighted, the way we judged, silently and aloud…..we add them up and feel hopelessly lost in our sins and feel defeated by them…..feel a sense of failure.

Yet……as Paul reminds us…… through the grace of God, our sins are already forgiven. And Cornel West reminded us, too, in his speech we heard on Wednesday evening….we are to “fail better!” We only fail when we try…..and the harder we try, the more opportunity we have to fail, and we are to be unafraid of our own failure……we are to fail better in our work toward true discipleship. God is far less interested in totaling up our failures and more interested in our desire to be more than we thought we could be……. Faithful and trusting in God’s love and forgiveness. Like Abraham, we stumble on our doubts, like rocks stumbled over in the desert, but…..as Christians…… we are to stumble on in faith, obedient to God’s call to us. It is with faith and with trust in God’s faithfulness to us that we will come to sacred understanding of who we are and where we are called to go.

And as we make our way, we other questions occur to us…… “What does it mean to be faithful?” “What does it mean to be a faithful disciple of Jesus?” How do I define myself as a Christian? How am I defined by others? How am I defined by God?

If God were to rename you today, how would you be named….how would you be defined? In what newly defined direction would that name lead?

Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness asking himself similar questions. The answers came clearer for him through his faithful obedience to God and he began to understand the direction he was to take and where it would take him…..to great suffering and rejection and ultimately to death and to resurrection. So clear was he in his direction that he wanted to let his disciples know so that they could set their own. However, the direction he was describing did not ring true for those listening. Peter tried to set him right, rebuking him for how Jesus was describing his destiny. The others there were probably equally perplexed by Jesus’ words.   If Jesus was the Messiah, then surely his direction would gather power, money, privilege and prestige…..would oust the Romans, would give presence to the underdogs and triumph to the working poor, Isn’t that what Messiah’s do? What’s all this about a cross? Death….resurrection. Did we really hear that?

Peter is listening to Jesus from his own pre-conception of what a Messiah should be and what a Messiah should be out to accomplish. Jesus’ words were so outrageous, that he simply didn’t acknowledge them. And in his haste to bring things back into perspective on human terms rather than those of the divine……Peter missed the most important part of the story…..the story of the cross.   It was the cross which was at the heart of everything. It was the cross that would turn the world upside down, and not the sword. It would be the humility and obedience offered on the cross that would ultimately triumph…… not judgment and punishment of others. It would be ultimate faithfulness to God, above all else that would define Jesus’ life.

Just as Jesus called his disciples then to understand his direction, and thus define their own……as modern day disciples, we too, are called to examine our preconceptions about how our lives should be defined.

God asked the same of Abram and Sarai and they were given new names by God…….. Abraham and Sarah. It doesn’t seem like much, we think. Just because their names have changed, how does that change them? But, they have been redefined by God and they are blessed by God for a particular destiny, even as…. in their older years….. they have been asked to do what seems impossible. In faith, they take on the new definition of themselves and do what God has asked them to do with trust and with faith.

In return, God makes a covenant with them….a covenant of hope for the future and future generations. It is a covenant that is connected to the continuation of creation, and it is through this covenant that all God’s people have been given the gift of hope and all God’s people are to define themselves through the lens of this covenant. The Covenant between Abraham and God echoes down through the ages to David to Jesus and to the disciples of Jesus….the faithful people of God. In our Magnificat we sing of “The great promise God has made to our forefathers, Abraham and his children forever.” [1] That’s us.

And, just as Abraham and Sarah set out across the great unknown, now it’s our turn to show the measure of our faith as Christians. Our turn to be redefined by God. Like Abraham and Sarah, we know it is hard and that we don’t always measure up in the way God would like.   Yet, the promise of hope in God’s covenant with us doesn’t depend on the degree of our faithfulness toward God. God will continue to be faithful to us regardless of our disregard.

Lent affords us time to contemplate our circumstances, time to sort through some important aspects of who we are…….our wounds and the wounds we have inflicted on others. We reflect on our shortcomings and seek to redefine them so that they become our strengths. Our thoughtlessness to become thoughtfulness, our neglect to become awareness, our inaction: action, our unkindness: kindness, our selfishness: unselfishness, our judgment to become loving acceptance.

It is how we have been defining ourselves and what we need to redefine…..who we really are and who it is that God wants so desperately for us to understand about ourselves and who we could become.

It’s far harder work than giving up chocolate……it’s the hard work of Lent…..repentance. It is the measure of our faith in the way of the cross.

There is no freeway through the wilderness we are to traverse during Lent, only a long, sometimes very lonely path.   Taking time for self-reflection, realigning our priorities, redefining our identities,…….., we walk with measured steps, lest we slip on a stray rock on the way.

If we fall, we get up and continue on, because that is the only way we will begin to understand how we are defined by God. As God’s people we each need to ask ourselves what God’s covenant means to us and how does it inform our faithfulness to God and our trust in God? What is it we need to do……..or not to do in order to become even more intimately involved with God and God’s promise to us.

In this Second Week of Lent, we continue to make our way to the cross, carrying our own toward the glory of Easter Day. The meaning of the cross will be meaningless for us if we don’t work to define ourselves as a reflection of God’s love and faithfulness toward us and if we don’t carry our own.

We are following in the way of Abraham and heirs of a covenant that has no end and which has been fulfilled in a real and human way through Jesus Christ. And this is the faithful strength that defines us as Christians as we make our way in joyful obedience to Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we are well informed about our relationship to God and to Jesus Christ. At our baptism we were redefined as “reborn…..and we are received into the household of God to share in Christ’s eternal priesthood.” [2]

We have “graciously been accepted as living members of God’s Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.” [3] And so, as faithful Christian disciples, we do the work in preparation for our opportunity to experience the death of one definition of ourselves so that we can rise into a new definition of all that seems impossible to accomplish and yet is possible.

As darkness falls over the dry desert wilderness, the nature of the cross we are to carry will be revealed to us, and we know full well, it will be much heavier than the crosses we brought to hang on a wall. It may become almost too heavy to bear, but we carry it joyfully, all the way to the place where we can lay ourselves down at the foot of the cross and leave the burden of all our sins to die there. Then and, only then, ….. with the love which knows no bounds……the love that forgives all sins…….He will raise us up……..and we will…. ……. with God’s help …….. be made new.

End
Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
March 1, 2015

[1] BCP S247 Magnificat

[2] BCP Holy Baptism. Pp 299 – 314

[3] BCP Post-Communion Prayer P. 365

A Place of Stillness + Ash Wednesday by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver

Lessons:

Joel 2:1-2,12-17

Psalm 103:8-14

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

There comes a time for stillness. A time to stop. To assess. To look around what is on the outside of us and what is on the inside. A time to focus. A time to peer into with intention.

It is a time of awareness.   When we have courage enough and allow ourselves to truly act as witness to our own thoughts and actions toward ourselves and toward others. To go into a place of quiet, where there is just room enough for one’s self and God to ask a question to which the answer will always be true.

Who am I? Am I whom I perceive myself to be. Am I truly who others think I am. Just as Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” Jesus is asking us to ponder the same question.

It is not an easy one.   The answer to the question cannot truly be found in easy conversation with a group of friends over dinner, no matter how long you’ve known one another. It cannot be found by reading books, or even, may I say, listening to sermons. All they can do is lead to you find your own quiet place…a place of stillness, where all can be asked, all can be heard, all can be explored and where truth is given perfect freedom. As we find ourselves bowed down by the transfiguring light of that truth, we might, if we have the strength, the courage and the will to do it…..change.

What is it we would change? We can probably think of much we would change about ourselves and the world. We all wish we could change the world in some positive direction. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we are prepared to do that, even in a small way if we have not yet created positive change in ourselves?

And so….we have a need to stop and ask ourselves, how much are we influenced by the world in which we live? How important is it for us to be seen succeeding by all the politically correct, to conform to the latest trend in order to be viewed as au courant? Why do we need to be the first and the best?   If this is what the system under which we live demands, then to fly in the face of it is to bring about great disappointment in us by others, and in ourselves and we become angry, frustrated, or judgmental, blaming and bitter. Sadly, when we don’t believe, or when others don’t believe that we have measured up to the demands of the system, we are hardly in a position to create positive change in ourselves or in the world.

To give the outward appearance of creating positive change purely for the reason to be typecast as “good,” in order to satisfy the system, is probably to reach the highest form of sinful arrogance in God’s eyes.

We hear God’s remedy for such arrogance in Jesus’ words to us today. Before you can bring about any kind of change….in yourself or in the world….. go inside. Go into a place of stillness and meet God there. And not just once, but more and more until the place of stillness becomes familiar….like home. All that you find there, you know well.

You can probably picture your home now and know where all those pieces of yourself that you treasure are located. A piece of driftwood from the beach, a rock from the side of a mountain where you prayed early one morning, a feather, a lock of hair. They are where your heart is, and you know where they are.

And so it is in your place of stillness. Perhaps it is harder to locate all that you treasure there. Perhaps it is harder to acknowledge that the treasure there is real….and really a part of you…..for good or for ill.  Yet, just like any other activity that is difficult at first, the more you visit it, the more familiar it becomes and the easier it will become for you to recognize that which does or doesn’t belong there.

I have a Tai Chi teacher and I tell him, I’m too busy to practice every day. He looks at me in response and I see the eyes of Christ and hear his voice in my teacher’s gentle words…..just a few moments a day will bring the change you seek. This will be one Lenten discipline I will undertake in order to bring about positive change in my life.

As Brian McClaren points out in his book, “We Make the Road By Walking,” [1] if you suddenly decide to run twenty miles but you haven’t even tried running round the block, no matter how good your intentions are, it isn’t going to happen. But you can do it if you practice. You can start out running a little bit each day and before you know it, you will be running twenty miles. As McClaren states, it’s not that practice makes perfect, it’s that practice makes habit.

In order to change from a way of being that we know is displeasing to God toward a way that may be less pleasing to the system but worthy of God’s pleasure and praise, we have to practice stillness, practice searching for reality and truth in that place. And we discipline ourselves, with God’s help, to go to this place more and more, until going there is habitual….. and our hearts become welcoming and hospitable toward our presence.

Beware if we don’t, Jesus tells us. Beware of your own brand of personal hypocrisy – it can, like a spiritual cancer – kill your own spirit and your capability for positive change.

Whether it be piety, good works, charitable giving, prayer or fasting, we are called to approach each with humbleness of heart, to offer these as truth from a place of stillness, from an encounter with the holy. Jesus asks all this of us, but asks us to find the motivation for our prayer and fasting, our giving and doing from a place deep within. Jesus asks us to be who we are outwardly as a result of who we are inwardly. To make an outward show of these solely for one’s own appearance is to lose a holy opportunity for change.

One might ask, if Jesus asks us to hide our piety, why is it that on this day we wear ashes out into the world? After all, it’s a wildly countercultural act, isn’t it? Or is it? Or, according to the world we live in, just how countercultural is it?

Some of us received ashes earlier in the day. Were the ashes left there on their foreheads all day long? And if so, why? And if not, why not? Here, in Portland, the system is such that we are allowed to display our piety in such a way or not. To do so, however, proclaims to the world that we are part of a radical faith tradition. We are Christians. And Jesus is urging us to go into a place of private stillness, to ask ourselves what it means to be a Christian.

There are fellow Christians all over the world, part of the body of Christ to which we belong that will receive the imposition of ashes today. They live in places where it is dangerous to identify themselves as Christians, living in fear of violence and persecution, in places like N. Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, parts of Africa and more, most recently Egypt, that is as real and terrifying as it was for the early Christians under Roman rule.

Knowing this, perhaps the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is my commitment to Jesus Christ? What does my Christian faith mean to me and how is it made manifest in the world and in the eyes of God. What is the strength of my courage and my desire to be faithful in the face of a world that demands a different order?

What do you desire more than your desire for God? What do you long to be in the eyes of the world more than in the eyes of God? What is the meaning of living for you?

As we still ourselves more and more in order to listen God’s direction, our awareness of God being at the heart of all creation….of all God’s people and thus at the heart of all we are called to be as part of ………. the easier it becomes for us to freely acknowledge God as at the heart of the holy mystery we call life…..at the heart of our coming in and our going out…..into a place of stillness…out into the world at peace.

With time and with practice, what we desire becomes more and more attuned to that which God desires for us and for God’s creation. We desire more and more to change the world, not for our own interests but for God’s.

Today, on this Ash Wednesday, we come face to face with the urgency to listen to Jesus’ words. It’s not about a quick forgiveness fix…not about momentary absolution. God wants us in for the long haul…wants us to go into the wilderness of our own heart and soul to find the path to true forgiveness so that we can become instruments of reconciliation, working to create an atmosphere of forgiveness and reconciliation in an angry world.

With time and practice we begin to understand our sins….and are able to openly identify and name them….even as God already has. We are able to ask God directly for forgiveness and pray for the strength to seek reconciliation with God and our neighbor.

Ash Wednesday brings us to the threshold of Lent …..the point at which we must choose the path we will take to make our way through the maze of our foolish and false self-perceptions. Our goal is to find a way to work in our corner of the world…., a world filled with destructive ideals, knee-jerk reaction, punishment, misplaced judgment….. to reconcile our faith journey with hope.

It is the work of Lent. With unabashed faith in God….to go into a place of stillness …seeking the strength to change…..seeking the strength to face all our iniquities…..seeking strength to hope…… for ourselves, for our daily living and for our suffering world.

Ash Wednesday is more than a reminder of our physical mortality, it is a reminder of our spiritual life.  God said, “Be still and know that I am God.” It is in the place of stillness…alone with God, that we glimpse the entrance to a path that will take us through our personal Lent to a place where we can experience a particular freedom of recognizing the treasure of our own truth. Then, having found it… we can live to enjoy it…….presenting to the world through the eyes of God the good news of renewed hope and joy.   And from deep within this secret place of stillness…… we are propelled into an exciting newness of spirit…not just for one day….or for 40 days…but for a lifetime.

End
Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
February 18, 2015

[1] Brian D. McClaren, We Make The Road By Walking, Jericho Books, New York, NY. 2014. p137-9.

Deciding Yes + Third Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver

Lessons:

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Psalm 62: 6-14

1 Corinthians 7: 29-31

Mark 1:14-20

In this scenario…..it is four o’clock in the afternoon and it’s still a busy day. You have been working through a multi-layer of tasks and yet sense only a little headway. You didn’t count on that long phone call, that need to attend to the dog, the long wait at the doctor’s office, the long unscheduled conversation…. and you still have a lot to do before you can say your work is done for the day…..whether you are at work or at home. And then someone walks in and, with a great sense of urgency, says “you have to come and see this….right now.” And you do…and you drop everything you are working on to go and see. Or you say….. “it will have to wait….I have work to do,” and you do not go to see.  We all probably recognize elements of our own experience in this little scenario and there have been times when we made the right decision to keep our heads down and keeping working, or “going and seeing” turned out to be the best decision we could have made……perhaps to catch a beautiful sunset, or witness an accident in the street…..opportunities to see or not see an infinite number of happenings beyond ourselves.

It’s our own decision to make. We decide yes…or no.

I can share another scenario from my own life which you, too, might recognize. The family gathers, as did mine, at Christmas time. We enjoyed a lovely time together and vowed to gather more often in the coming year than we did in the year past. We all carefully found space in our calendar’s for times that seem to work best for us all. As I turned to the times that seemed best for us all, the pages of my calendar looked pristine….without a mark suggesting that there could be a conflict. Nothing, I vowed, not one thing would erase my writing on those clear pages….dinner with family. As time goes on, more and more entries appear on those pages. And…..as we come closer and closer to the date, the original entry, so neatly written “dinner with family” becomes harder and harder to find as more and more writing edges in….surrounding it with the shapes and shadows of changes……additions and subtractions…..and perhaps, an overarching obligation …..an event that cannot be avoided……that obliterates the entire page.

And we find ourselves at another place of decision. What will our decision be? How do we prioritize what we want to do, what we should do and to what we are called when there is urgency or deep importance in each direction we are called to move.

It is ultimately our decision to make. We decide yes…or no.

So it must have been for the disciples Simon and Andrew, James and John as they worked…fishing and mending nets.   Their survival depended on their daily work schedule and the efficiency of the tools they needed for the job…their nets. Their day was probably finely timed with the coming and going of the tides and they needed to be ready. Their families waited at home for food and they depended on the market times for selling their catch of the day. Perhaps there was a special religious celebration scheduled, or a birthday….a birth….a wedding….an illness…..a homecoming of relatives….or many other events and activities they knew to be part of their day. So, while they may not have had a shared Google calendar or even a calendar made of paper, they most certainly had a schedule of events that needed to be counted upon.

And yet, for all these possibilities, when Jesus walked by Simon and Andrew and said to them “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” they left their nets and followed him.  Likewise, when Jesus encountered James and John, mending their nets and called them, they simply left Dad in the boat with the hired men, and followed Jesus.

How could they just leave their nets…how could they leave Dad in the boat? Could we do that? Leave Dad in the boat? “See you later, Dad. You’ll be OK with Hank and Billy….but I’ve got to go now. Let everyone know at home that I don’t know where I’m going or why, but I won’t be home for dinner.”

Typical of Mark’s Gospel the sense of urgency is palpable. There is no stopping to consider consequences…no weighing of the pros and cons…no wondering about how others might perceive decisions made…no sense of obligation to anything other than the call that they heard from Jesus.

The same urgency is heard in Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth. “The appointed time has grown short,” he writes. “The present form of this world is passing away.” So no need to worry about all that worldly stuff, like marrying, mourning, shopping for new furniture…..all that is very, very yesterday.  And when God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah set out and went….albeit God had to ask him twice.

So it’s pretty clear from all our scripture readings today and from God that when we hear God’s voice calling us to act in some way we have a decision to make. Do we analyze the conversation or do we simply drop everything, in order to respond and follow the call. Sometimes we need to heighten our awareness of when and where the call comes. Are we called to begin something new? Or to be a part of something new? Are we entering into a deep unknown? Or do we have an idea of where our decision to go might take us?

And what is the price we pay to ignore God’s call? What will we miss and will our decision to forego the call leave us feeling somehow left behind?

When Jesus called to the disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he was just beginning his ministry. Just starting out. He had a good sense of God’s call to him and the direction his ministry was to take, but the disciples did not. Yet, somehow, Jesus was able to convey not only a sense of direction and focus, but a compelling urgency to act on God’s call rather than the world’s.

Jesus picks up the baton from John, now exited from Mark’s stage, with the proclamation of God’s good news. Jesus picks up the theme of repentance and the need for an urgent response to the theme. Jesus’ preaching highlights the kingdom of God and the urgency of our need to repent, or turn away from our worldly “yes” decisions to answer “yes” to God and God’s decisions.

In our world we might feel that our regular attendance at church on Sunday mornings is, indeed, a response to God’s call for our attention. Perhaps, however, we can look at this in a different way. Perhaps we are called to gather in community on Sunday morning so that, as a community, and individually, the voice of God is made more audible. Perhaps we come in order to hear God’s voice, rather than attending as a result of it.

Perhaps our attendance this morning is more about taking the opportunity to find out what God is calling us to do and less about thinking that, by our being present here this morning, we are fulfilling God’s call to us. The end.

No, my friends. It is not the end. Just as it was for the disciples who were found by Jesus at the edge of the sea….in the midst of their daily work….. so it is for us….a new beginning.

Sunday morning is just a part of an eternally evolving new beginning for us. New insights, new directions, new decisions, new growth into the Kingdom of God. As we grow into and become more part of God’s kingdom, the world’s hold on us lessens.

End
Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
January 25, 2015

Wake Up Call + First Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver

Lessons:

Isaiah 64:1-9

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Mark 13:24-37

When we come to the end of the liturgical year and begin a new one, it seems to come with a bit of a jolt. We always know that it’s coming….we expect it…..even plan for it. We know the colors will change from the green of Pentecost to the blue/purple of Advent, the world’s mood will change from summer vacations….. through back-to-school thinking and raincoats…… to a time of preparation for winter weather and Christmas. Time seems to speed up and our multitasking becomes more intricate with school finals, gift buying, house decorating, intricate family planning, Black Friday, and yes….extra events and special services to attend at church. There is barely enough space to fit it all into our busy schedules.

Advent has a way of arriving a little sooner than we expected, and….that’s not all that surprises us. No matter how often we’ve arrived at First Advent, we are still a bit taken aback by its tone. With some measure of liturgical avoidance we rely on our knowledge of its change, but we forget or deny the reality of God’s sudden demands of us after being lulled by the stories of miracles and parables during Pentecost.

We tend to think of Advent as a time of waiting and that’s true, but we fool ourselves into thinking of that waiting as a passive activity. In a way we’ve become too used to its predictability …..and so we become immune to its urgency to give it the kind of attention God demands. We allow ourselves to become so caught up in the world’s anticipation of all things temporal, that we tend to fall asleep to all things spiritual. We become deaf to the sound of Advent and its message slips by us…… so used have we become to it as a staging time for Christmas. And in the midst of missing all things spiritual for the sake of all things secular………the true message of Advent could face a real danger of being completely lost, were it not for a strong wake-up call to us from Jesus to keep alert and pay attention to it.

Entering into the Gospel of Mark we hear a strong and stern warning from Jesus to be ready at all times for His arrival, because we never know how or when the Messiah will be made present to us. We’ll hear similar texts throughout Advent, moving us into an acute awareness of the need to be ready, the need to be thinking outside of ourselves and living our lives in a state of readiness of Christ. This is nothing less than the voice of God wrestling our attention away from the secular whirlwind kind of preparation that surrounds us so that we don’t lose our central focus on God.

Yet for all its severity, it does not carry with it the kind of driven anxiety that the world imposes in the name of Merry Christmas……nor is it the kind of waiting that carries a dread of what we might hear on the news in the morning. It’s not a message about waiting for Christmas or about waiting for the next ball to drop…….it’s about waiting for Christ…..waiting for Hope….waiting for Love…..waiting humbly for our God to come again…..waiting and watching for Christ’s presence in our midst.

We all know when Christmas will come and what we have to do to wait for it….. we have it on our calendars and we know how we will move to meet it and experience it but waiting for Christ….waiting to recognize and experience Christ in our midst again is very different. It requires a different kind of waiting…..a waiting filled with expectant intention and awareness….a kind of watchfulness that is not passive, but keenly intuitive and alert, because we can never be sure when Christ will appear in our lives. It’s an active kind of waiting, filled with expectation and possibility.

We can think about the gardeners among us…..waiting passively through winter for Spring to come again and when it does, we plant seeds in the rain-softened earth and wait with an active expectancy as we watch carefully for the first signs of new life in the small green shoots that appear.

This is the kind of active waiting that Jesus is asking of us….that expectant kind of waiting….filled with curiosity, open anticipation and enthusiasm.

Jesus’ potent message of His coming again holds within it an already/not yet essence which can seem confusing. Within Advent’s divine drama, Jesus has already created the means for us to be in relationship with God, but our human weaknesses keep us from complete communion with God. So like the seed we planted deep in the ground and which we know is there……so the Realm of God is already made evident. And yet, as that seed does not yet reveal itself completely until it is nurtured by the creative hands of the gardener………..so the Realm of God is yet to be fully established by the people of God. We have to wait it out…..to live in the space of time between what is present and what will be…..what is already and what is yet to be.

Jesus warns us that this is the time to sharpen our awareness of how we are living our lives in accordance to the Risen Christ…. so that we will be spiritually ready to enter into and embrace the realm of God when it is finally realized…….. even as we recognize the signs of it in the here and now. There is an essence of presence but yet a presence that is yet to be. We are to be the stewards of God’s Kingdom. The seeds have been sown through our Baptismal Covenant, and it is through our stewardship that we can become co-creators with God.

Here at Grace, we have experienced this entry into Advent in a very real way with the departure of Father Stephen and Ann. We knew the Advent of their departure was coming, we expected it and planned for it for months. But the time that seemed far off came much quicker than any of us realized and suddenly our passive waiting was exposed by the reality of our farewell events for them last weekend. Suddenly our life experience here at Grace and, even in this sanctuary, has changed. There is a different look, a different sensibility, a different tone. But it is….and we are……. still Grace.

Father Stephen and Ann, each in their own way, created a large presence here for over two decades. So it is not surprising that we can all still sense and feel that presence today. We look at the Altar and we can still imagine that Father Stephen has simply stepped away and will return in a few moments. Those of us with young children can still imagine that Ann is downstairs in the parish hall, spending time with them. We can still sense their lingering presence in the sounds and sensibility of the liturgy, in various events of church life and in familiar places like offices and hallways.

Each went about doing Christ’s work in this place and each found the presence of Christ as they worked…and so it is not hard to imagine that they are still here.

To bring this awareness into focus, let us take just a moment or two, to honor that presence which still lingers and find Christ in that presence.

Last Saturday and Sunday, our months of planning and preparation culminated in an unforgettable evening and Sunday morning experience for Father Stephen, Ann and their family. They have expressed this pivotal event in their lives as a sendoff they never imagined could be so perfect. It is because it was a weekend of quintessential Grace, large G, filled with grace, small g. It was filled with love and appreciation, gratitude and yes….sadness. And Christ was present for it all. God, and the Holy Spirit were easy to notice in our voices and in our hearts, even as Christ was waiting to come again.

And then the time came for Father Stephen and Ann to leave. They left because their work at Grace was completed and because they are human. And God is with them even as God remains with us here at Grace. God remains. The Holy Spirit remains and Christ remains. God is moving with them as they walk into a new life and God is still moving in the lives of all of us here at Grace who let them go.

And so on Thanksgiving Day, I found myself alone for the first time since arriving at Grace almost 9 years ago, at that sweet event that Father Stephen and I loved so much, serving together at that little Altar. Yet, happily, for the first time, we were able to put the lectern up near the Altar, to create more room. But, even so, I missed him. And today, it seems a bit lonely at this Altar and I half expect to see my friend trying to make eye contact with me so that I could read his mind about what was to happen next. I miss him today, but he is not here…he has taken another road just as God as called me onto my own.

He is not here because he has taken the opportunity to walk in a different direction. Ann is not in the church school today, she is not here and it is time now for her to do the same. So we acknowledge their absence. Let us now take a moment or two to honor that absence and to be aware of Christ’s presence in their absence and Christ’s presence which remains with us.

Father Stephen and Ann loved being at Grace….and why not. Grace is a singular parish with a diverse, interesting and interested congregation. We are a church for all people, a church where open hearts and open minds thrive and grow in the love of God and neighbor. We are a church that welcomes and tries to understand the concept of via media. As part of the body of Christ, we belong to a larger Church that understands how to love and let go.

In each of our lives there comes a time when we are ready to embrace change, when we capitulate to God’s desire for us to take a fork in the road, not only for our own good, but for the good of those around us. Life is precious and fleeting and we are to spend it in the realm of new opportunity and discovery. And now it’s time for us to open our hearts and minds enough to let Father Stephen and Ann go into that realm of new opportunity and new discovery for how to use their gifts.

So let us take a moment or two to become alert to our own feelings and awake to God’s desire for Father Stephen and Ann to move freely toward all the new possibilities that await before them. And let us be aware of Christ’s presence to them as they journey into that future.

It’s an Advent kind of thing, this kind of change and it’s happening here to us in a very real and undeniable way. Father Stephen and Ann are already embracing a new sense of being and we, too, are being called by God to continue on embracing a new way…… with a new sense of being.

It takes courage and intention to live into Advent on God’s terms by being awake and alert to Christ’s presence…….even as we make our earthly and spiritual shifts within this season…..to recognize that presence when it is right in front of us. Christ’s continuing presence was made evident to us immediately last weekend, when we learned about a new baby born to one of our own, Maya Crawford, baby Muriel, born in our midst during our farewell weekend for Father Stephen and Ann. As we ponder about our way forward…… we see Christ revealed in every new baby born among us……. We see His presence in every new member who walks through our doors each week…..every new baptism….every new confirmation with which we share and in which we find joy. Christ is with us as we embrace each other and each of these moments of renewed hope and anticipated joy…..and Christ is with us as we embrace all that Advent offers us. It is within this loving embrace that we find Christ.

We won’t find Christ in regrets. We won’t find Christ in clinging on to what might have been. We won’t find Christ in complaints or judgment about the change that has come about at Grace. We will find Christ in our communal embrace of mutual possibilities and in our courage to allow ourselves to let go and to be let go in return. We will find Christ in the work in which we are about to embark…searching for a new Rector, for a new era…..a new chapter in the life of Grace.

And so I need not feel alone at the Altar. We are all here together. We can go forward with joyful anticipation through these Advent weeks of waiting for the gift of Christmas…..new hope, and renewed faith in new possibilities in the world around us and in the world of Grace.

Just as the beautiful flowers which covered the high altar last weekend are slowly fading away to make room for these beautiful greens of Advent, so we too, make our graceful transition from one way of being to another.

Barbara Brown Taylor, an editor of the Advent Companion, says it well, “Advent is a time for God’s people to find the courage and spiritual strength to remember that the holy breaks into the daily. In tiny ways, we can open our broken hearts to the healing grace of God, who opens the way to peace. May that peace come upon us as a healing balm, as a mighty winter river, gushing and rushing though the valleys of our prideful fear and our own self-righteous indignation.” [1]

So let us join together as we make this journey through Advent and beyond. Let us heed God’s wake-up call. Let us make ready, be alert….for all things on heaven and earth may pass away, but the words of Christ will endure.

And let us remember that Advent is not about us…..it’s not about worldly chronos time… …..it’s about God’s kairos time.   Our earthly problems are human…..our earthly choices are human….our earthly decisions are human. But when we are alert to God’s desire for each of us and for our community, our decisions, our choices and our desires reach a spiritual realm….and, as Paul says, we are not lacking in any spiritual gift and we are given a glimpse into what could be.

God’s wake-up call makes us deeply aware that we are not only entering into a new liturgical cycle called Advent…..we are entering into a new time at Grace…. ……a new era in which new possibilities will be showered upon us as gifts. We just need to be prepared and alert enough to receive them.

End
Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
November 30, 2014

[1] Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion. Bartlett, Taylor, Long, Editors. (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.) 2014. p ix.

Treasure on the Mountain + Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver

Lessons:

Judges 4:1-7

Psalm 123

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Matthew 25:14-30

There is a cross high on a mountain along the Colca Valley in Peru.  You can reach it by bus which will take you to the top of the mountain at 17,000 feet until you come to it on the other side…. sitting close to the top of the mountain at about 12,000 feet above sea level.  I know it’s there, because I laid it out myself and left it there with your name on it.   It’s made of rocks….the same kind of rocks that people have picked up for generations, building thousands of miles of terraces through time, even to today.  The cross lies on the ground, and next to it, the word “Grace” fashioned with smaller rocks of the same kind.  It was just about a week ago that I wrote the word made of rocks and I thought of all of you, how far away you were, and I longed to be back with you even as I was compelled to spell our name as an offering to God high up on that mountain. And I gave thanks for the privilege of doing so, even as I asked again in prayer to understand God’s purpose in bringing me to that place and why it had to be so hard.

The place is Casa Chapi, an orphanage and school for children who posses absolutely nothing except a growing capacity to love.  Some are without even a real identity.  They are Casa Chapi kids, rescued from neglect, abuse or absolute abandonment…….who now live with a measure of security, thanks to the tireless efforts of a non-profit group, founded by Christian alpaca breeders, from Portland, Oregon, and now an international organization called Quechua Benefit.  Quechua Benefit, along with the Catholic Church in Peru and various strands of Peruvian government, ensure that each child has a bed, hot nourishing meals, a loving house mother, and caring teachers helping them to learn about themselves and the world they live in.  Many of the children don’t realize it yet, but they are being prepared for the time when they will need to leave Casa Chapi to make their way into the world………and we pray they will take their experience and multiply the opportunity God brought into their lives tenfold so that other children might find the same safety….the same chance to live richly and fully in the world.

We know that,, in some way, all will reflect the story of the man in Matthew’s Gospel, who, going on  a journey entrusted his property to his slaves, giving one five talents, one two talents and another, one talent, giving to each according to his ability. God gives the children of Casa Chapi the same opportunities to take their gifts received and do something valuable with them in the world. We know from experience and statistics, that….just like the extremes of the world in which they live, some children will grow to be great leaders and will dedicate their knowledge, skills and passion to bettering the lives of those coming behind, giving thanks to God for their opportunity to do so.  Others will assist in that cause to a lesser degree and still be successful, productive people in the world and some will hold on to enough fear and mistrust to bury their gifts and avoid the risk of opportunity.  My heart breaks to think about the possibility of such misery and pain and we pray this number will be low to zero.

In the same way the God entrusts the children of Casa Chapi, God entrusts those called to serve them and all God’s people who suffer…..here at home in the streets of Portland and others all over the world. God hands each of us precious gifts and requests only that we use our gifts with boldness and courage, without fear of risk or ridicule, with faith and determination and with vision to co-create with God an evolving world of harmonious living, of peace and reconciliation.

And so it was, that during the year that Grace Art Camp embraced the culture of Peru, I came to meet Mike Safely, Founder of Quechua Benefit.  Mike began to introduce me to the work of Quechua Benefit.  It was that same year, that Mike noticed the work we accomplished in Kenya, bringing an art camp experience to a small village up near the Uganda border.  He knew immediately that this could be a perfect project for the children of Casa Chapi.  So I was called to invite people to share their own particular gifts with the children of Casa Chapi and with the people who care for them and subsequently…..a team of 15 Grace Parish and Grace Institute artists and young people serving as counselors…… five of the team from Grace ….entered into the experience of sharing their artistic talents with artists and their leadership talents with young people from Peru.  A mirror Peruvian team was gathered by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture and, like the US team, all volunteered their time….leaving jobs, school and family to do so.  All came together to create an art camp experience for the children of Casa Chapi and all received a ten-fold return on the investment of time and talent they gave.  Some of them told me their experience was transformational, inspiring, had changed them forever and that they vowed to return next year to create their own art festival on behalf of the children of Casa Chapi. I began to glimpse God’s plan that went far beyond the dreams and visions that any of us mere humans dared to embrace….I saw and felt the divine hand working into the future of the lives of little children at Casa Chapi and beyond. Now the Ministry of Culture has embraced the model concept of art camp and plans to produce an art camp in Arequippa for the poorest children in the surrounding mountains.  They will use the camps to reintroduce these children to their Quechua roots….allowing the children to find their true identity and traditions via the arts, via caring and fun.  We were called to plant the seeds…..to begin a movement that will reach far beyond us and yet be accessible to us and to you in all the years to come.

Not all are so called……but some are.  We are not all called to Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, but some are.  We are not all called to the Holy Land, to Syria, or Sudan, or Afghanistan, but some are. We are not all called to work for the homeless in Portland, but some are.  Regardless of where and when…..we are all called to use our God-given gifts for the benefit of God’s people, God’s creation… to build up…..not tear down God’s Kingdom.

To not use our gifts is a sad and sorry waste.  We become like the slave who dared not consider the possibilities before him when presented with a great gift, and simply buried it along with his own sense of fulfilment and contribution.

And….so some of us were called to the mountains of Peru.  In all my travels around the world, never in my wildest dreams, was Peru on my list of places to find myself ….not once, and, certainly, not twice ….not for any reason, as beautiful as it is.  When I first visited the country earlier this year, I wasn’t sure why I found myself conducting a feasibility study for a possible art camp…….it all seemed a bit surreal and beyond my capability at the time.  It was during this second trip that God began to reveal to me the reasons I found myself there again….at The Casa Chapi Children’s Home and School.  Casa Chapi lies about a mile from the small town of Chivay, in the Colca Valley in the Arequipa region of Peru.  It is located at about 12,000 feet above sea level and lies upstream from the amazing Colca Canyon which is three times as deep as the Grand Canyon.  The town is a stopping point for tourists making their way to the famed Condor Cross or Cruz Del Condor, where, early in the morning, condors with 8-foot wing spans, can be seen rising up out of the canyon as they catch the morning thermal uplifts.  It is a place of great beauty, great extremes and great challenge.

Strangers to these altitudes are affected in various ways of discomfort.  The days are hot and bright and the nights are cold…..with no hot water….no flushing toilets…..and only bottled water to drink.   Not for the squeamish or infirm……where the environment makes no distinction between young or old………even the strongest and youngest of all the members of the team felt the effects of altitude sickness in various ways …..……headaches, nausea, shortness of breath…..and to various degrees at unexpected times. I, myself…..fatigued and not completely well when I left Portland found that during this visit, my compromised physical condition was hit hard by the altitude.  I lost one night to oxygen depletion, another night to food poisoning and more nights to an allergic reaction to the dust, altitude and extreme temperatures.  My throat was swollen, my eyes red and my breathing shallow.  These afflictions were far worse than those I experienced on my previous trip and I wondered why God insisted that I return to this place no matter how beautiful it appeared.

Then one day, during a break time from working in the printing studio, and following meetings with Peruvian artists and staff leadership, I felt compelled to walk up to the top terrace of Casa Chapi…..to a quiet place…….an alone place……a place where Mike Safely, the founder of Quechua Benefit, had explained he wanted to build a chapel. It was there I knelt to pray and cry.  Why, I pleaded to God, why must we suffer in order to give?  Why must we sacrifice in order to serve? Does serving God and God’s people mean we have to be uncomfortable?  I was, at once, pleading for answers, negotiating with God and letting God know that I wasn’t thrilled with the arrangement thus far. Why, I asked God, did all my planning, all my dreams come true only to have me compromised in the execution of those dreams.  I felt I could glimpse into the very heart of Moses as he came to the gates of Canaan…..and was not allowed in.

The answers to my prayers and pleas were fast and direct.  Feed my people. It is not about you or your difficulties….it is not whether you feel healthy or whether you feel ill….it is not about whether you feel you have done a good thing….it is not about you.  It is about what you do with the gifts I have given you to tend my sheep.

In hearing God’s message I remembered the meaning of “call.”  When I was called to the priesthood, it was not about personal choice.  It was a non-choice.  There was no choice.  I was compelled to accept God’s invitation to serve God’s Church. I recognized the same non-choice acceptance of God’s call to serve in Casa Chapi and I realized that I was not alone in this call…that my gifts were being used to allow others to utilize their own gifts and that all of us here at Grace were being called as well.  I realized that the work would continue for some among us here at Grace, without us knowing really why, but that all we will be called to do will be for the right reasons…God’s reasons………the reasons our hearts tell us are right.

We are not called to hide our gifts under the ground and to put our heads into the ground with them.  Our responsibility to use them goes far beyond ourselves.  Matthew’s Gospel parable hits directly at our tendency to live only for ourselves and our own wants, needs and desires.  It calls us out for clinging only to our own personal security.  It reminds us that we are part of some thing far larger than our own sphere of comfort.  We are called to examine our gifts and, with great celebration and joy, use them as a contribution to God’s desire for God’s evolving creation.

To understand this is to begin understanding our true purpose in life. It is not enough to recognize, use or develop our gifts…it is ours to use them to serve God.  It is in this path to servanthood that our petty differences fall away…..the blessings of our accomplishments for God’s good allow us to put away childish squabbles and resentments.  Our purpose becomes God’s purpose and the doors to joy and celebration will fly open.

Hear the words from an old hymn which cements this message of God as the source of our gifts:

We give thee but thine own

Whate’er the gift may be:

All that we have is then alone,

A trust O Lord, from thee.

A “trust” is held for the benefit of another.  The kingdom of heaven is made possible by nothing less than divine largess as if a man has entrusted with great extravagance…….. extraordinary wealth, freedom and powerful possibility to others who least expect it.  The man in the Gospel gave talents…..one talent being worth 15 year’s salary.  That means that five talents is enough for a lifetime salary.  A huge extravagance and a huge entrustment.

That’s how wide God’s extravagance of gifts to each of us is. Beyond our wildest dreams…beyond our little square boxes of thinking…..taking us by surprise and leaving us to wonder….how and why we might find ourselves on top of a mountain in Peru.

Don’t ever think you have you gifts.  As God’s own creation, you have been entrusted with the seeds of immense gifts.  They may seem simple and unimportant, or they may be readily visible and seemingly more important than others…….it doesn’t matter.  As the parable tells us….even the smallest gift is significant…..a privilege entrusted to you….a privilege which carries with it the responsibility to use it.

We have no choice but to accept God’s direction about how we use the power of our gifts and the very real consequences resulting from the way we freely use them.  What we do with them and how we use them will have a direct impact on the world around us…..close by and far away.

So….we find a new urgency to discover the gifts we are to use for God’s glory knowing full well that using our gifts in God’s way will lead us to be stewards over something far greater than our own lives. It is ours to trust God and to pull deeply on our faith as we step outside of our comfort zone to take risks.

I learned on that day, kneeling on the stony ground amid cacti and quinoa…… that regardless of how we feel…physically, mentally, emotionally…..spiritually……. to not risk …..to not feel deeply enough to act…..to not feel passionate enough to care beyond ourselves……to be too fearful to invest ourselves in the work of the Kingdom in the way God wants us to…… is the greatest risk of all.  The greatest risk of all is to stay on the safe side of life……to please and impress…..feeding one’s ego and pride.

So we  are to bring our heads up out of the ground in front of us and stick out our necks a little further than we’d like and, by doing so…… we avoid one of the ancient church’s seven deadly sins….that of not caring, not loving, not living  up to our potential for loving our neighbors.  Jesus teaches us that by playing it safe…..not caring….not loving passionately….. not risking or giving all of ourselves …it is as if we were cast into the outer darkness, where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Knowing this, and failing to act on this knowledge….not being willing to share ourselves and our gifts with others is just the same as knowing where there is great treasure buried deep in the earth and leaving it there undisturbed.

But knowing this and acting on what we know to be true…..we can put away our fears and our indifference, put aside our discomforts and sacrifice, and find the strength and determination to dig it up all our buried treasure……..even if we find it on the top of a mountain…….. and share all that we find there with the world.

End
Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
November 16, 2014