February 6, 2022
The River Breaks Up Every Year, and It’s Still Around
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
February 6, 2022
Shirley M. Banks
Grace-Memorial Episcopal Church, Portland, Oregon
In the name of the Holy One, Amen.
I come to you this morning at Martin’s gracious invitation. It was my intention to be with you today in Portland in person, but, well, you know why plans had to be revised, so I’m with you from my home in Anchorage, Alaska. You may not realize it, but your presence in the Grace-Memorial community, even if this is your first time worshiping here, means a lot to me. I live in Anchorage and work as a chaplain in a church-related edler housing community. I stumbled into Grace-Memorial in late February of 2020, when I was attending a class at Portland Seminary, in their program in spiritual direction. It was Ash Wednesday, so I looked online for a church. Grace-Memorial seemed like a good choice. The campus, the people, and the service were so moving, joyful, and reverent. I decided that having this place as a home-away-from-home would be good for my spiritual wellbeing. Little did I know that the pandemic would make it all the more important to have a way to connect with people remotely. I still plan to have Portland, and Grace-Memorial, as a place where I can go for respite in my ministry, once public health conditions allow. So thank you for being here.
In this season after the Epiphany, the church turns its attention to Jesus’ teachings and ministry, as well as particular moments in scripture where God’s glory is revealed. That’s no accident. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the embodiment of scripture, the Word made Flesh. The Holy One revealed in scripture is the Holy One who walks among us. That’s how the world is put together. That’s how the world is made up. That’s how God makes the world.
Today’s scripture readings tell us that the world– the word– breaks open to show us God. Breaks open to show the sacred. God breaks into daily life, and we may well get deeply re-aligned in the process.
Isaiah is minding his own business when God gives Isaiah a peek at divine glory, its astonishing otherness. Isaiah is broken open to his own sin and that of his community, yet a messenger cleanses him, and Isaiah responds by saying, “Send me.”
Paul reminds us of the Good News: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Nothing can stop God from being among us.
And then there’s Simon Peter. Poor guy. The name Peter means “rock.” It’s a sort of nickname Jesus gave him. Scholars debate the meaning, and maybe both are apt: was Peter solid and durable, or was he a blockhead with no subtlety? Today’s gospel reading from Luke shows Peter getting so many fish, his net breaks and his boat begins to sink. Peter is overwhelmed, just as Isaiah was, by the abundance of divine presence. He asks Jesus to go away.
So let’s look at how God might be overloading our sensibilities today, making room for something. Where are our patterns being disrupted? Where is there an opening to God to come pouring in?
You’ve no doubt heard versions of how to think about how big Alaska is, that you could pour Texas, California, and Montana into Alaska and have room left for Oregon. And because it’s not just big, but filled with topographic drama– northern lights in winter, midnight sun in summer, glaciers, volcanoes, earthquakes, dramatic terrain, many more caribou than humans, bazillions of fish– Alaskans think about Alaska a lot. Just the Alaska-ness of Alaska. And the Yukon River is a great symbol of Alaska. The Yukon enters Alaska in the northeast corner, from Canada, and traverses the state to the southwest, draining hundreds of thousands of square miles of spongy tundra, until it empties into the Bering Sea. This time of year, the Yukon is frozen hard enough to be a reliable transportation route for everything from heavy equipment and trucks to snowmachines and dog sleds. Spring break-up releases massive chunks of ice that redirect flow and re-shape the river.
There’s an Episcopal priest named Scott Fisher who serves the churches and worshiping communities of the Interior, the immense area drained by the Yukon. Scott has served the church in Alaska for decades, and he has a series of cartoons about church life in Alaska. In one, a character is standing on the banks of the Yukon. He is carrying a package, saying, “Here’s my gift to (the national) General Convention (of The Episcopal Church)! It’s a picture of the Yukon River. The river just keeps going the way God wants it to go. God made it, God keeps it going, and nothing can stop it. The Church is the same way, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to remember that at Convention.” In the next panel we see a word cloud of conflicting opinions about church controversies. In the last panel, two salmon are in the river, and one says, “People are worried about the Church breaking up,” to which the other says, “The Yukon breaks up every spring, and it’s still around.”
I think about that cartoon a lot. The Yukon breaks up every year, and it’s still around. A sort of koan about change. Isaiah was broken up when he saw God’s glory and heard the cry of “Holy! Holy! Holy!” Peter was broken up when he saw that God would give him enough fish to break his nets and sink his boat, which were, after all, his livelihood. Paul labored zealously to protect God by persecuting Jesus’ followers. Yet he too was broken open and re-oriented into the saving work of God. They were broken, but not for the sake of destruction.
No, the breaking open I’m talking about is a certain vulnerability to divine action. I can’t say what exactly that will mean for a given person. God calls some to leave everything and follow, and some God sends back home, restored, made new.
There was an opinion piece in the New York Times this week, in which a member of the clergy in another denomination called upon churches to discontinue online worship services because they prevented people, in her opinion, from doing the hard work of encountering one another. Also this week, Episcopal News Service reported on missioners within The Episcopal Church launching a Virtual Reality, Metaverse worship platform, with avatars as worshippers. An avatar is a sort of customizable puppet for your online persona. At this point in history, even sophisticated developers barely know exactly what virtual reality and the metaverse are. Maybe going to church in the metaverse will not be your cup of tea or mine, but maybe they will become part of daily life for billions of people. Grace-Memorial is ahead of the curve by having the Reverend Matthew David Morris as Digital Missioner. Maybe he knows what the metaverse is.
Two years ago I would have said that I’d have no real interest in online worship spaces, for all the reasons the New York Times columnist named. In fact, I think I did say that! But the past two years of pandemic isolation, and the love of God shown to me by you, the people of Grace-Memorial, have broken something open. How can we say where God will choose to enter our lives, or where God will send us? The river breaks up every year, and it’s still around.
Or, As Leonard Cohen sang, “ring the bells that still can ring/ forget your perfect offering/ there’s a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in.”
It’s tempting to want God to say and do the same thing every day. It’s tempting to corner God into one way of reaching us, one way of acting in our lives. Those habits can be very alluring. Some of us labor passionately toward social justice, some love beautiful worship and liturgy, some prize learned theology, some feel the sweetness of prayer, some cherish social bonds within the community. None of those are wrong, but none of those are God. The Holy One is always free to change us, to break our frozen hearts open.
The God who shows glory and mercy to Isaiah, who breaks Peter’s nets and sinks his boat in order to free him, who shows crucified and resurrected love to Paul, will surely flow into our broken places and renew us.
Readings: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany on Lectionarypage.net
Scott Fisher cartoon appears on p. 64 of A Century of Faith, Carol A Phillips, ed.Fairbanks: Centennial Press, 1995.