St. Hilda and Maternal Grace

Readings for the Feast Day of Hilda, Abbess of Whitby

Proverbs 6:20-23

Psalm 113

Ephesians 4:1-6

Matthew 19:27-29

There is a rich spirituality of motherhood in the English tradition. In his prayers and meditations, Anselm of Canterbury fervently addresses Jesus and even St. Paul as “dear mothers” who hold him and pray for him in the midst of his inner conflicts. And Julian of Norwich experiences each person of the Trinity and the Trinity as a whole as her “loving Mother” who holds her through her fears and unanswered questions. And before Anselm and Julian, there was St. Hilda who embodied the sacred qualities of motherhood in her life and work as the abbess of the monastery at Whitby. According to Bede, “All who knew Hilda called her mother, because of her outstanding devotion and grace.”

Hilda, who never raised biological children of her own, exemplified motherhood, specifically in her ability to hold tension and conflict with patience and prayer.  This ability is profoundly maternal. Any mother, especially any mother of more than one child, learns to be an expert at this.  I know my mom had this gift of holding tension (or at least developed it very quickly) as she prayerfully and patiently held my brother and me through our many arguments and fights growing up.

When the English Christians of seventh-century Northumbria found themselves caught in a divisive and potentially disastrous feud, they needed a mother. The Celtic Christians (the spiritual heirs of the Irish missionaries to England, including St. Patrick, St. Columba and St. Aidan) were in conflict with the Roman Christians in England (those who traced their spiritual heritage to Augustine of Canterbury and the other missionaries sent by Pope Gregory the Great).[1] Those in favor of Celtic customs held strong and deep-seated attachments to their traditions while those in favor of the Roman practices felt similarly convicted that their traditions were the catholic and therefore correct customs. So when King Oswiu called the meeting to decide which customs the Northumbrian church would follow uniformly (a meeting that would be a source of anxiety, altercation and painful division), he made the wise decision of holding it in a place of deep prayer and grace. Hilda’s abbey had cultivated a sacred space of prayer, marked by maternal devotion, and was therefore up to the task of holding the disparate parties in a way that could maintain relative peace and harmony.

Although Hilda herself was partial to the Celtic customs, which did not win end up winning the day, she held her own preferences lightly in order to keep the meeting within a matrix of prayerful openness. The maternal devotion and grace that Hilda demonstrated at the synod of Whitby are at the foundation of the English church and are qualities that are not only maternal but also Anglican: holding diversity and even division in such a way that unity is maintained, unity in diversity. This is what the author of Ephesians is talking about when he describes the life to which we have been called, which involves “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

And when Peter asks Jesus, “What are we going to get since we have given up so much?” Jesus does not say you will be given recliners so you can sit back and order others to do your bidding. No, Jesus says you will be given judgment seats: “You will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” And being a judge involves holding conflicting parties in love and prayer and maternal care just as Jesus longed to hold Israel as a mother hen holds her clutch of chicks. Hilda invites us to practice the maternal and Anglican qualities of devotion and grace which help us to hold prayerfully and patiently the conflicting tensions in our own personalities, in our own lives, and in this community; and to uphold the diversity that gives new fullness to our understanding of the one hope to which we have been called: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Mother of all. Amen.


[1] The conflict revolved primarily around the dating of Easter, which differed significantly between the Celtic and Roman Christians. Although “there is always more beneath the surface of the topics discussed,” this was an important issue: Easter, the chief holy day of the church year, is the day when eternity and earthly time collide and there needed to be agreement about that day.

The Beatitudes of Baptism

“Lord, give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” Amen.

In Thornton Wilder’s famous play Our Town, one of the main characters Emily Webb dies and enters an afterlife in which dead souls sit and stare blankly into nothingness, indifferent to earthly events. Emily wants to relive one more day of her earthly life before permanently taking her seat in this detached afterlife. She is given this opportunity and, as she relives one particular day (her 12th birthday), she realizes the beauty of each moment and she sees how blind humans are to the wonder that is all around them. She finally can’t bear it anymore and says, “I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” Then she looks at the Stage Manager and asks him, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager answers, “No.” (pause) “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.” Then Emily says, “I’m ready to go back.” And then she takes her seat permanently in the afterlife, where she will grow more and more indifferent to the things that she once loved.[1]

As Christians, we (fortunately) believe in an afterlife that is much less dull than Thornton Wilder’s. However, his play is effective in challenging us, in a sad and somewhat troubling way, to be present, to find joy and wonder in all of God’s works and to realize life while we live it, because most people don’t. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some. And those are the people whom we celebrate today, those saints and poets who learned to see the holy blessedness and wonder of every moment, who realized life while they lived it— every minute.

And the Gospel we just heard reminds us that we don’t celebrate the saints by putting them on a pedestal and idolizing them. We celebrate them by learning how we can emulate them in our own lives so that we can realize our own life while we live it. That’s why the Gospel does not give us a list of saints whom we can only dream of imitating in some meager way. In the Gospel, Jesus provides us with certain characteristics of those “saints and poets” who have realized life while living it: humility, vulnerability, thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity and peace. These characteristics are called the Beatitudes. I like to think of them as “Attitudes that help us Be,” attitudes that help us be present to the fullness of being human, attitudes that help us be receptive to and grateful for the gift of joy and wonder in all of God’s works. Jesus concludes the Beatitudes by saying, “Blessed are you,” thus inviting us to adopt these same characteristics ourselves, inviting us to adopt these Beatittudes, these attitudes that help us be here now.

There is much to celebrate and be present to in this moment right now: the 60th anniversary of this beautiful congregation named after Jesus Christ our Redeemer, whose love redeems and liberates us so that we can be fully present to each other, to Christ among us, to the simple yet profound act of eating a piece of bread and drinking a sip of wine; so that we can be more fully present to our neighbors in Glenwood, San Rafael and the world; so that we can be hospitable as we can make room for others in the mansions of our hearts. Let us be present now to the ways in which this community has been a gift to each of us, over the years.

Today, let us also celebrate and be present to the welcoming of a new member into the Body of Christ through the sacrament of baptism. As a sacrament and symbol, baptism works on multiple levels, brimming with many rich layers of meaning. I encourage you all to read about baptism in the Catechism within our Book of Common Prayer on page 858. Baptism is a sacrament by which God adopts us as his children. “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us that we should be called the children of God!” Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection; it is birth into God’s beloved family the Church; it is a symbol of purification and forgiveness of sins and it is new life in the Holy Spirit. Baptism is also the most tried-and-true way that we receive and start to become fully present to the gift of our belovedness in God’s eyes.

Baptism is the most tried-and-true way that we receive and start to become fully present to the gift of our belovedness in God’s eyes. My message and invitation to this community (Redeemer) for over a year now has been “Find your deepest freedom in your belovedness.” Your Redeemer (your Liberator) loves you and frees you by his love so that you can be your true self. We receive that love through the sacraments. We enter into the flow of God’s love at baptism and we grow in that love through the Eucharist. In other words, Baptism is our entrance into the river that flows into the very heart of God; and we give ourselves over to the currents of the river every time we participate in the Eucharist.

The beginning and foundation of Jesus’s ministry was a profound experience of his belovedness in the Father’s eyes. At his baptism, Jesus was drenched by love and grace as a voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” At our baptism, we all entered into that same belovedness, we all became God’s beloved sons and daughters. “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us that we should be called children of God.” Even if we don’t feel any goose bumps or warm fuzzies, we are still caught up in the love of God through Baptism and the Eucharist. As our Catechism says, the sacraments function as “sure and certain means by which we receive grace.” Through baptism, we can be fully confident that we are drenched in God’s love and sealed by his grace forever.

And today is the day of Ryan Cutchin’s birth into God’s belovedness. Obviously, God already loves Ryan tremendously, more than any of us can ever know. But today, we perform a sacrament that functions as a “sure and certain means” by which he receives the gift of God’s grace and love so that there can never be any doubt that he is part of God’s beloved family now and forever. [I learned that the Gaelic meaning of the name “Ryan” is “Little King” which is appropriate because today he shares in the royal priesthood of Christ. Today, Ryan becomes a little Christ King.]

As part of his baptism, we will pray that God gives Ryan an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and persevere, a spirit to know and love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. With this prayer, we pray that Ryan and all of us remember and know in our bones that everything is gift. Every beautiful moment of our lives which we so often take for granted is a gift from God and an expression of God’s love for us. Baptism is how we receive this gift of love and give ourselves over to the strong current of the river that leads to the very heart of God. We give ourselves over to the river’s current by making vowing in our baptismal covenant to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. We give ourselves over to the river’s current by persevering in resisting evil and whenever we fall into sin, by repenting and returning to the Lord. We move deeper into the heart of God by proclaiming the Good News of Christ by word and example, by seeking and serving Christ in all persons, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, by striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being. In our baptismal vows, we commit to cultivating the Beatitudes, the attitudes that help us be, attitudes that help us be fully present to the here and now, to the beauty and wonder of each moment and to our belovedness in God’s eyes so that we are free to be our true selves and become like those saints and poets, who realize life while living it, every minute. Amen.

[1] Thornton Wilder, Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (New York: HarperPerennial, 2003), 108.

 

The Name Above All Names

Eight weeks ago, we began our journey through the book of Exodus, which recounts the dramatic story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, their subsequent journeys through the wilderness and the establishment of a covenant with their God rooted in the Torah. Throughout this journey, we have been attending to the names in Exodus, since we learned that in Judaism, the book of Exodus is called Shemoth, which means names.

We first considered the name “Moses” which means “drawn out from the water.” We saw Moses live up to his name by delivering the Israelites from slavery and drawing them out from the waters of the Red Sea. This drawing out from the waters reminds us of our own experience of being drawn out from the waters of baptism, a sacrament that has historically been connected to the naming of a child; and a sacrament that we will perform together here next Sunday, as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of this congregation; and a sacrament of which I remind you nearly every week when I asperge you all with holy water.

I also connected Moses’s name with a very important image in the Hebrew Scriptures: the rainbow, which was drawn out from the waters of the receding flood to stand as a promise of God’s love and protection. Moses lived up to this aspect of his name every time he reminded his people (and at times even had to remind God) of God’s love and protection. I invited us to reflect on how our individual names and our collective name (Redeemer) call us to embody the rainbow of God (the promise of divine love and protection) in San Rafael and the world.

And the way that we reflect on this most effectively is through prayer and action. First, we pray and make ourselves at home in God’s presence just as Moses did at the burning bush, where the Name of God was revealed (Eyeh Asher Eyeh). We learned from Moses’s early mistakes that faith without action is dead, but action without faith can be even more dangerous. However, once we receive direction in prayer, we need to get up off our knees and take action, moving forward in faith and courage, even when the obstacles might seem insurmountable. Our role model for this bold and prayerful action was the Hebrew character Nachshon who, according to Jewish midrash, stepped into the Red Sea before the waters parted. Nachshon’s name refers to a “stormy, tidal wave” and he lived up to his name when he walked boldly into the dangerous waters and stirred up a tidal wave of freedom and deliverance. How are we being called to take action like Nachshon? How are we being called to live up to our name: Redeemer?

We then journeyed through the wilderness with the Israelites and learned again the meaning of the name “Israel,” which means “struggles with God.” Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls these struggles with God “genuine covenant interaction,” interaction that often includes honest complaining and kvetching. And according to Exodus, how does God respond to our complaining? With grace! With grace that saves a kvetch like me. Moses says, “Draw near to the Lord for he has heard your complaining.”

When we read about Moses making water come out of a rock, the Rev Wendy Cliff invited us to do a little spiritual dowsing, asking us, “Where is God calling you to find water, to lead those who are thirsty to renewal and hope?” She reminded us that we all have the authority to lead others to deep spiritual refreshment. We have this authority and responsibility by virtue of our baptism. And some of us have responded to Wendy’s invitation to support her beautiful ministry at Braid Mission which offers hope, love and refreshment to youth in foster care. I hope we can continue to support Braid through our time, talent and treasure.

As destructive wildfires ravaged through the North Bay, we read about God’s relentless invitation to be in friendship with each of us. God persistently invites us to be friends with him, just like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, by continuing to pray and serve those in need, especially our neighbors up north. And last week, the book of Exodus invited us to remove our masks and open our eyes to see the image of God shining gloriously on each of our faces. We all are part of what Desmond Tutu calls the “Rainbow People of God.” Each of our individual faces makes up a part of God’s beautiful Rainbow of Love. And each of our names calls us to embody that love in our own unique way; and we learn how to do that through prayer and service to the poor. And we all have the power to do that by virtue of our baptism.

We all have the power to be God’s Rainbow in this world; the power to be the Church of the Redeemer that San Rafael needs us to be; the power to liberate others by proclaiming the love of God; and to power to discover our own deepest freedom in our belovedness. By virtue of our baptism, we all have this power.

Yesterday at the Diocesan Convention, I had the privilege to speak with and listen to the Right Reverend Barbara Harris, the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the Anglican Communion; and in fact, in any mainline denomination. She recalled the words of a Pentecostal minister who preached a farewell sermon for her in Philadelphia before she left to be the Bishop Suffragan of Massachusetts. The Pentecostal preacher told Barbara to stand up and said to her, “If you don’t remember anything else I have said today, remember this: the power behind you is greater than the task ahead of you!” Bishop Barbara then said to all of us at the Convention, “Let that be our watchword for everybody and everything that we need to do in Christ’s Name to bring in the just kingdom of God: The power behind you is greater than the task ahead of you!” By virtue of our baptism, we all have the power to bring in the just kingdom of God in the Name of Jesus Christ.

And that brings us to our readings this morning. (That was all basically a review of the last 8 weeks, but don’t worry the sermon is not going to be much longer.) The reading from the Hebrew Scripture this morning contains the most important name of all, for Christians. The Name above all names. Although the reading is no longer from the book of Exodus (Names), it still continues the story of the Exodus and includes many colorful, familiar and crackjaw names: Moab, Nebo, Pisgah, Jericho, Naphtali, Ephraim, Negeb, Zoar, Beth-Peor, and our old friends Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and Pharaoh. But by far, the most important name, is the name of the son of Nun: Joshua. Joshua “was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him.” Indeed, the power behind him was greater than the task ahead of him, which was a daunting task indeed: to conquer and possess the Promised Land.

Moses was the Redeemer who liberated and redeemed the children of Israel from Egypt but he could only take them so far. The people needed another redeemer to bring them into the Promised Land. And why is the name of Joshua the most important name in the book of Names and in all of the Hebrew Scriptures? Because that is the name that God chose to give to his Son who offers redemption from sin to all people and who leads us all into the Promised Land, the just kingdom of God. Joshua is the English translation of the Hebrew Yehoshua, which means “God is my Salvation.” Yehoshua is abbreviated to Y’shua which in Greek becomes Iesous, which in English becomes “Jesus.” Jesus is the Redeemer who empowers us all to be God’s beautiful Rainbow of Love in this world. Without Jesus, our baptism is impotent and meaningless; but with Jesus, we are empowered by our baptism beyond our imagination; and the power behind us is indeed greater than the task ahead of us.

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus (Yeshua) explains how the Hebrew Scriptures are consistently pointing to him; in this case, in a Psalm (Psalm 110) in which King David says, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand…’” Once again, this does not mean that our Jewish brothers and sisters are no longer the chosen people of God. They are indeed; and their readings of the Hebrew Scriptures remain valid. What it does mean is that, through Jesus Christ (through Yeshua HaMoshiach), we all can participate in that chosenness. And in light of the Gospel of Christ, we can look back at the Hebrew Scriptures and see that our participation in the choseness of Israel was part of God’s intention all along.

In the Name of Jesus Christ, we are also the chosen people of God. The Name of Jesus Christ is impressed upon us at our baptism so that we are empowered beyond our imagination to live up to our collective name here (Redeemer), to see and be the image of God in the world, to embody God’s beautiful Rainbow of Love, to bring in the Promised Land, the just kingdom of God, knowing that the power behind us is greater than the task ahead of us. May that be our watchword here in Redeemer for everything that we need to do in Christ’s Name to bring in the just kingdom of God: The power behind you is greater than the task ahead of you! Amen.

Walking Around Shining Like the Sun

 

In a few weeks, many of us will greet a variety of familiar and perhaps frightening faces at our door, ranging from Wonder Woman to Spider Man, Darth Vader to Harry Potter, Jon Snow to Donald Trump. I’m talking, of course, about Halloween, when children of all ages dress up and wear masks in order to take all your candy.

Whether you’re 9 years old or 90 years old, wearing masks and taking on new personas can be a fun and liberating experience. Some of us do this everyday in more subtle ways when we hide our true selves behind superficial roles and identities. We might hide our true faces behind our job titles: “I’m a lawyer. I’m an accountant, doctor, student, teacher, priest, etc.” or our social roles: “I’m a mother, a brother, an uncle, a grandfather, etc.” or even behind our social media identities and profiles. And although those are appropriate ways to present ourselves to the world (and they’re partially true), they’re not really who we are. And if we remove all those titles and facades, then who are we, really? And the answer can be so powerful that it actually starts to make sense why we continue to wear our masks.

In today’s reading from Exodus, God is very aware of the power of his true face. He says, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” The glory of God’s face is so potent that human life itself is consumed and extinguished by its very presence.  God, in a sense, has to mask himself in order for Moses to see Him and not die.[1]

In the following chapter in Exodus (Ex 34:29), Moses descends from his mountaintop theophany at Sinai and returns to the children of Israel, who become afraid of him. Why? Let’s look at Exodus chapter 34 verse 29 because “the skin of his face shone” or “sent forth beams.”[2] Moses’s face was radiating so much after his encounter with God that the others could not bear it. So Moses, out of compassion for them, put on a mask. Moses’s face shines like the sun so intensely that Moses had to walk around with a mask in order to keep others from looking away or running away. Unlike trick-or-treaters, Moses wears a mask in order not to scare others, because his true face was apparently overwhelming and intimidating in its radiance. When we take off our masks, who are we, really?

When it comes to today’s Gospel, one might say that the Pharisees and the Herodians were wearing false masks by complimenting Jesus when really they were just buttering him up in order to trap him with their question about paying taxes.[3] They knew if Jesus said yes to paying taxes he would risk losing support from the people, but if he said no he would risk treason against the state. The Pharisees say something to Jesus as they’re buttering him up that is actually profoundly significant (and is very much lost in translation). They tell Jesus, “you do not regard people with partiality.”[4] The Greek, however, when translated literally, reads “You do not look at the masks of people.” Most translators interpret this as a colloquialism, which means, “you are not partial.” But that’s not what it says. It says, “You do not look at the masks of people.”[5]

Jesus responds by essentially saying, “Yes, you are right. I do not look at the masks of people. I look through the masks.” And what does Jesus see when he looks through the masks?

Jesus answers their question about the taxes in such a way that he intrigues the crowd and flummoxes the Pharisees.  He acknowledges the “face” and “image” of the emperor on the denarius coin and says, ““Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Not only does Jesus answer their question, he also teaches them (and us) a potentially life-changing truth. I’m not talking about a call to separate church and state, or to resist the government. I don’t think that is necessarily what Jesus is talking about either. One of the earliest interpretations of this teaching is from the African Church Father Tertullian (160 – 220 AD) who interprets Jesus as saying, “[Give] the image of Caesar, which is on the coin, to Caesar, and the image of God, which is on humanity, to God.” Jesus is teaching them (and us) what he sees when he looks through our masks: He sees the image of God.

Jesus essentially says, “You are right. I do not look at the masks of people. I look through the masks and I see the image of God. I see the skin of your faces sending forth beams. I see you all radiating with divine life. I see heavenly potential in all you, but I also see you smothering it at times with your attachment to your masks and your false images. Let go of all of that. Let Caesar have it. Then you will start to see what I see: the image of God impressed on your face as your face and on the faces of all those around you.” Just as Caesar put his face on the coin so God put his face on us. Our face is the image of God. It’s actually overwhelming if you think about it; and it makes me realize why we tend to wear masks so often.

In Louisville, Kentucky, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton “stood in the center of a busy shopping district, and was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that” everyone he saw was radiating with the image of God. He wrote about the experience, saying, “It was like waking from a dream of separateness […] There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where [no] sin […] can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.[6]

Thomas Merton experienced in Kentucky what the children of Israel experienced when they saw the beaming face of Moses when he came down Mount Sinai and what the three disciples experienced when they saw Jesus transfigured on top of Mount Tabor. It’s an overwhelming experience and perhaps one that we cannot experience too often lest we be overpowered by all the beauty. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “The Truth must dazzle gradually [lest] every[one] be blind.”

In perhaps his most famous sermon “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis said, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. It is in [this] light…that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”[7]

I invite us all to practice seeing the image of God in each other’s faces, even in the faces of strangers. We don’t have to be creepy about it, but we can be intentional. And I invite us also to be aware of the masks that we put on at work, at church, even perhaps on Halloween. Sometimes it might be appropriate and necessary to put on masks like Moses did, but when we do, let us remember not to smother the image of God beneath our masks. And let us remember that God sees the “secret beauty of [our] hearts…where [no] sin […] can reach” and that God invites us to see that in ourselves and in each other. Even today. Even now.

Horns-of-Moses-2

 

[1] In the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai explains how the people in the Torah were able to have visions of God without dying when he said, “All the prophets looked into an opaque glass (seeing but a reflection of the Divine), but Moses looked through clear glass” (Yevamot 49b). According to the rabbi, the prophets saw God through opaque glass, which suggests that they were seeing reflections of themselves and therefore seeing God within themselves. Moses saw through clear glass, but it was glass nonetheless. The glass was masking God and protecting Moses from God’s raw and all-consuming glory.

[2] In the Vulgate, St. Jerome mistranslated the Hebrew verb karan (“send forth beams”) as a form of the Hebrew noun keren, which means, “horn.” So, according to the Vulgate, Moses grew horns after seeing God. This misunderstanding contributed to the absurd and frankly anti-Semitic idea that Jews had horns. Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome actually depicts the prophet with horns.

[3] I have heard many sermons condemning the Pharisees for their devious ways. Not only do I find that condemnation banal, I actually find it problematic in that it can and has led to Christian anti-Semitism, since the Pharisees are often seen as the predecessors to the rabbis, who have shaped modern Judaism.

[4] The first verse of Mishnah Avot conveys a similar idea: “Be deliberate in your judgment” (Mishnah Avot 1:1)

[5] The Greek word for mask is actually prosopon, which the Church Fathers eventually used to describe the three “persons” of the Trinity. οὐ γὰρ βλέπεις εἰς πρόσωπον ἀνθρώπων. ou gar blepeis eis prosopon anthropon

[6] Merton, Thomas, Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 53-55.

[7] Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.

God’s Relentless Invitation to Friendship

The readings this morning can be interpreted as conveying a wrathful and violent God hell bent on consuming and burning down a city or a people that reject or offend him. In Exodus, as the Israelites worship the golden calf, God says to Moses, “Let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” In Jesus’s parable of the wedding banquet, the king (who is often understood to represent God) becomes deeply enraged with those whom he initially invited to the party and orders his troops to burn down their cities. This interpretation of a wrathful and fire-y God is deeply troubling, especially as many of our friends, family members and loved ones are suffering tremendous loss and trauma as a result of the many devastating wildfires that are burning through the North Bay. Fortunately, we know that this ‘fire-and-brimstone’ interpretation of a wrathful God is not only superficial but also antithetical to the God who is revealed to us in a loving, self-giving and vulnerable healer and teacher named Jesus of Nazareth. In light of God’s self-revelation in Christ, we see that these readings are actually about God’s relentless invitation for each of us to be in friendship with him.

As we continue reading through the book of Exodus, we see God as vulnerable and deeply hurt by his people’s rejection of him. Moses reminds God of God’s loving commitment to his people by doing some very effective “name-dropping.” Remembering that the book of Exodus, in Judaism, is called Shemoth, the Book of Names, we are wise to look at and attend to the names mentioned, especially in Moses’s dialogue with the divine. Moses says to God, “Remember your servants and your friends, Abraham, Isaac and Israel; and remember the promises you made to them.” This is where Moses again lives up to his name (which means “drawn out of the water”). Like Noah’s Rainbow that was drawn out of the water after the flood, Moses functions as a living reminder of God’s promise to always love and protect his people, no matter what. Moses and the Rainbow remind us and God of God’s promise of love and protection; and Lord knows we need a reminder like that now, in the midst of all the devastation here in California.

Moses reminds God of his love by specifically naming his friends Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Abraham’s name means “Father of many people.” Do you remember what Isaac’s name means? Isaac means “laughter.” Do you remember what Israel means? Israel was the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with God by the river Jabbok. Israel means “struggles with God.” So by dropping these names, Moses reminds God not only of his intimate friendship with these patriarchs but also of his commitment to his people in times of joy, laughter, disbelief and struggle. Now we might be wondering, “Wait a minute. Isn’t God all knowing? Does God really forget his love and actually need reminding?” If we are wondering that, then I would remind us that this is the Bible’s poetic and engaging way of communicating, through narrative, God’s relentless commitment to God’s people; and God’s consistent and persistent invitation for us all to enter more deeply into friendship with him. Through baptism, we are all children of Abraham, Isaac and Israel and even if we temporarily snub or reject God, God remembers his commitment to us. God remains faithful because we are children of his closest friends and he longs to grow in friendship with us as well.

In Jesus’s parable, we see God’s invitation to friendship presented as an actual invitation to a wedding party. After the first guests reject the invitation, the host invites everyone off the streets, both good and bad, to the wedding banquet, so that the banquet hall is packed full. When the host notices a man not wearing a wedding robe, he approaches him and calls him “Friend.” However, the man remains unresponsive and is thus thrown out of the party, “into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus does make clear that there are indeed consequences for rejecting God’s invitation and friendship. It’s not that God desperately wants friends and punishes everyone who refuses his friendship, like a violent and spoiled little boy. It’s more that God respects our free will and our choice to reject a relationship with the One who is our source of being. We remember that God revealed his name to Moses as Eyeh Asher Eyeh (“I am what I am”)which for Christians has meant that God is not just another powerful being, but rather God is Being itself or what Paul Tillich called “the Ground of Being.” So if we reject God, we are actually rejecting the gift of existence; and the Bible again uses poetic imagery to describe this state of non-existence: darkness, weeping, gnashing of teeth, etc.

However, the Gospel of Christ makes clear that even in the state of non-existence, God remains relentless in his invitation to friendship. That is the meaning of Holy Saturday, when, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, Christ descended to the dead to continue extending his invitation. Psalm 139 also makes this clear when the poet says, “Even if I make my bed in hell, you O God are still there” (v. 8). God’s invitation is eternal, extending all the way to the darkest pits of hell. And Christ remains in perpetual, loving solidarity with all who suffer, including those who suffer in hell or in what feels like hell.

Although Christ’s love does indeed extend to all (no matter what), we still want to know how we can accept God’s invitation to friendship; how we can emulate God’s dear friends Abraham, Isaac and Israel; and how we can join the wedding banquet, appropriately dressed in the wedding robe.

The great early Christian theologians (St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Gregory the Great to name a few) all essentially agreed that the wedding robe represents love, specifically love for God and love for neighbor. And we embody that love through prayer and service to those in need. That is how we begin and deepen our friendship with God, by spending quality time with him, daily in prayer and consistently in service to those in need.

We formally accept friendship with God at our baptism, which makes us heirs and children of God’s buddies Abraham, Isaac and Israel. And at our baptism, we vow to cultivate that friendship by praying and serving Christ in all persons; and also by gathering here, every week, as the Body of Christ. As Anglican lay leader Robert L. Neal from the diocese of Chicago says in a little book titled 101 Reasons to be Episcopalian, “Anglicans do good deeds to increase understanding of God [and to grow in friendship with God], not out of fear or to earn admission to heaven.”[1]

The Scripture readings this morning call us to grow in friendship with God, to respond to God’s relentless invitation to friendship by praying and serving those in need. Many of our neighbors up north are in desperate need. I imagine many of them felt like and still feel like they have been in hell this last week, in the midst of these terrifying infernos. We can respond to God’s invitation to friendship by praying for them and then by taking action, taking action like Nachshon, our old friend Nachshon, who stepped boldly into the Red Sea before the waters parted. And let us also remember to pray before taking action because taking action without first drenching ourselves in prayer can sometimes do more harm than good. Remember what happened to Moses when he tried to protect the vulnerable before making himself at home in God’s presence? It did not work out well for him.

The more I have worked with professional relief organizations, the more I have learned from them how overwhelming and difficult their job becomes as a result of people who are so eager to take action and help but not necessarily willing to do what really needs to be done or to give what really needs to be given, which is most often money. So what actions are we called to take in order to help those in need, after we have first made ourselves at home in God’s presence and prayed for his direction? Are we as eager to take action, am I as eager to take action, if that means opening up my wallet?

We deepen our friendship with God through prayer and service to those in need. This is how we participate in the wedding feast and wear the wedding robe and become God’s buddies along with Abraham, Isaac and Israel, deepening our friendship with him in the midst of joy, laughter, sorrow and struggle and even during times that might feel like hell. It is in these difficult times that our friendship with God often grows stronger and deeper as we remember, in the words of St. Paul, that “the Lord is near.” And it is St. Paul’s closing words to the church in Philippi that perhaps most beautifully describe how we can respond to God’s relentless invitation to friendship by praying and serving those in need. He says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on [taking action and] doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and [your friendship with God will deepen and grow, because] the God of peace will be with you.” The God of peace will be with us. May it be so. Amen.

[1] Louie Crew, 101 Reasons to Be Episcopalian (Morehouse Publishing: Harrisburg PA, 2003), 9.

The Empathy of St. Francis

 

There was a discussion in a First Grade religion class focused on St. Francis of Assisi. After school, a First Grader came home very excited about what he had learned and blurted out to his mother, “Guess what, Mommy? Today, I learned that St. Francis was a sissy!” Now one practical way to ensure that we don’t go home thinking that St. Francis was a sissy is to practice the proper pronunciation of the saint’s hometown: Not “Asisy” but “Aseesee.”

However, even with the proper pronunciation of his hometown, I wonder if many of us still do think of this saint as perhaps a little too kind and too gentle for his own good. He was known to have cried every day, he preached sermons to birds, he rubbed sticks together as if he were playing the violin, he called the sun his brother and the moon his sister, and he sang so many French songs that some people think that that is why he was called “Francis.” And today, most of us know him as “the birdbath saint.” I actually used to think that it was a requirement for all Episcopal churches to have a birdbath statue of St. Francis.

My sponsoring parish in San Gabriel CA used to boast about their most famous former parishioner, General George Patton. Perhaps the most successful field commander of any U.S. war, Patton, who earned the nickname “Old Blood and Guts” for his outspoken ruthlessness, was definitely the antithesis of a sissy. The funny thing is that the church displayed a life-size statue of Patton in the courtyard, only yards away from their birdbath statue of St. Francis, thus creating a challenging and ironic juxtaposition: the gentle birdbath saint and “Old Blood and Guts.” Honestly, St. Francis looked kind of like a sissy next to this huge Army General who epitomizes American military machismo.

Now I could argue that St. Francis was not a sissy by describing: his own participation in war during his youth, his resistance to violence and consumerism as a young adult, his radical embrace of poverty and his courage in crossing enemy lines weaponless during the Fifth Crusade to speak with the sultan of Egypt about peace (something Patton would, of course, never do).

However, because St. Francis was such a radical in his tendency to challenge the cultural mores of his time, I am sure he would rather challenge the categories of sissy-ness and manliness than argue against being a sissy. He would probably turn those categories on their head or gladly embrace the lowly role. He had no interest in fitting into any cultural categories. And he had no interest in proving his manliness by employing weapons of warfare. However, this saint wielded one particular weapon, which gave him the power to heal sicknesses, to cure lepers, and to tame wild animals.

This weapon, or this quality, of St. Francis is something that all of us have the potential to develop within ourselves. This quality finds powerful bodily expression in St. Francis in what is known as the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s hands and feet and side appearing as real wounds on the hands and feet and side of St. Francis. The stigmata originates from the words of Paul in Galatians 6 which we just read, “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” Earlier in this same chapter, Paul encourages his readers to “carry each other’s burdens.” The quality that Paul is talking about, the quality that is expressed bodily in the stigmata of St. Francis, the quality that made St. Francis able to commune with all of creation, and made St. Francis more powerful than Patton, is the quality of empathy. Empathy is the capacity to share in the suffering (the pathos) of another sentient being; in other words, the capacity to share in the suffering of anyone or anything that has the capacity to suffer. Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr says that empathy is “the integral part of Franciscan spirituality.” [1]

If we can see beyond the medieval preoccupation with blood, we can see that the stigmata was a powerful expression of St. Francis’ empathy for Christ and for all who suffer. Francis was able to share in the sufferings of the poor and the lepers, but he didn’t stop with humans. He shared the sufferings of animals and they responded to him, they listened to him. When a ferocious wolf was terrorizing the city of Gubbio, St. Francis saw beyond the wolf’s violence and into its hurt and hunger and neglect. The wolf felt the saint’s empathy so deeply that it became as gentle as a lamb in his presence and even made a pact with its paw to never terrorize Gubbio again. The empathy of St. Francis even extended to the sun, the moon, the stars, the wind, the water and all of creation, which were all brothers and sisters to him.

It was St. Francis’s empathy for creation that inspired Jorge Mario Bergoglio to not only take his name when elected Pope but also to name his recent Encyclical on environmental justice after a phrase from Francis’s beautiful Canticle of the Sun; which invites us to have empathy for our sister earth, who, according to Pope Francis, “cries out to us of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” Pope Francis continues to embody the empathy of his namesake by easing the burdens and lifting the yokes of the poor, the sick and the vulnerable.

When people were around St. Francis and his empathy, they felt this lightening of their burden because they knew (they felt deeply) that someone was sharing the load with them. They found rest for their world-weary souls in a similar way that the followers of Jesus found rest in his empathetic presence.

The beauty of this quality is that we do not have to be especially intelligent or wise or wealthy to cultivate it. In fact, according to the Gospel, this quality often eludes the wealthy and the wise. Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” The Greek word for “infants” is nepios, which can also be translated as someone who does not speak or someone who needs training (which sounds kind of like our pets).

Empathy is a quality available to all and is often found among those from whom we least expect it (or don’t expect it at all). Empathy is available not only to humans, but to all sentient beings (Francis might even say to all of creation). Personally, one of my most profound experiences of empathy was not from a human. Several years ago, my cat, Frisky London, passed away at the ripe old age of 20 (which would be equivalent to about 96 in human years). Before she passed away, she comforted me. The last time I said goodbye to her at my parent’s house, I cried, knowing that I might not see her ever again. She was not really eating or drinking and was very unresponsive. But when I cried, I cried into her beautiful fur coat. And as I was oozing out my sadness onto her, she responded by licking my tears. And, I felt, very powerfully, that she knew she was going to die and she knew that I was going to miss her and she showed me empathy and she comforted me and she eased my sadness. Frisky was my St. Francis.

Empathy has the power to heal, to connect, and to lighten our load. St. Francis was a master of empathy and because of that, he is considered the most beloved saint in all of Church history. And Francis was a master because he studied under the greatest Teacher of empathy, the One who invites us to share our burdens with him and who promises rest in the midst of suffering. The One whom we believe to be God incarnated as a human in order to empathize with us.

So as we pray for another, let us practice empathy for each other, for those who lost family and friends in the shooting in Las Vegas, for those who have lost their homes in wake of the many recent Hurricanes; for the poor, for the vulnerable and for all of creation. And as we bless our animals today, let us rejoice in the love that God reveals through them. And let us thank God for St. Francis of Assisi whose earthshaking empathy alleviates suffering for all of creation even today and makes General George Patton look kind of like a sissy.

[1] http://www.malespirituality.org/sadness.htm

Finding Water (Sermon by the Rev. Wendy Cliff)

Sermon preached by the Rev. Wendy Cliff from Braid Mission on Sunday October 1, 2017

Readings for Proper 21 A

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

So Moses makes water come out of a rock today.  That’s really quite a feat!  The Israelites have just arrived at their new campsite and no water is to be found, so they whine and complain, which then causes Moses to ask God for help.  So God tells Moses to take his staff and some other adults from the community, and go to the place where God will be waiting.  Once he gets there, Moses strikes his staff on a rock and lo and behold, water comes gushing out!  Water appears from the most unlikely place.

This whole episode reminds me of water witchers or dowsers.  Have any of you ever heard of or worked with a dowser?  Back in the 70s when there was that last big drought here in California, my parents wanted to drill a well on our property so they hired a dowser to help them find the spot.  I still remember walking around our property with this nice looking gentleman in khakis and a button down shirt as he held a forked branch and waited for it to dip down, pointing to where we should drill the well.  When it came time to drill, we actually did strike water in the spot he found.

The US Geological Survey has a 14-page document about dowsers.[1]  They reference African cave paintings dating back 6-8,000 years that depict water diviners, as well as other evidence of the practice in the ancient Middle East and medieval Europe.  Ultimately though, the USGS says there’s no scientific evidence to support the validity of dowsers’ claims other than their ability to read the topography, rely upon the prevalence of ground water everywhere, and their knowledge that other wells are functioning in the area.  Although dowsers are almost always successful and peer-reviewed scientific studies have been done to show this[2], the USGS still questions their authority.

The question of authority is a great topic.  And it leads us to what Jesus and the chief priests and elders are debating in today’s gospel.  The chief priests and scribes ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23)  This question is still debated every day in churches around the world, especially in traditions like our own that ordain people to specific leadership roles.  The question remains, “By what authority does anyone function in the church?”

Well, I have to tell you, no Christian denomination answers this question better than the Baptists.  There’s a New Testament professor at a Baptist seminary who published a book called, Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, and You: Church Leadership for Non-Leaders.[3]  The author, David May, took his title from those lines in today’s gospel where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.” (Matt. 21:31) Turns out, David May spent 25 years working for the Florida Department of Children and Families Services, including time as the Child Welfare Administrator for the state.[4]  He knows of what he’s speaking – he’s worked in the foster care system and all aspects of programs that are supposedly set up to help people of all ages who struggle in our communities.

And as a person of faith, May believes the church is called to work in those areas of our communities that are most broken, where the pain and suffering are the greatest and the pits of despair are the deepest.  On the back cover of his book he writes,

Church leadership is not about committee meetings, goals, plans or dynamic speakers.  It is instead about people of integrity seeing what needs to be changed in this world and setting out to change it.  Jesus used prostitutes, tax collectors, fishermen, insurrectionists, and reformed religious leaders to carry on His work…. We are now His people here and it is our job to lead [others] in solving the problems He identified: hunger, thirst, sickness, imprisonment, and immigration.[5]

This is what we strive to do at Braid Mission[6].  We train adults to be mentors to youth in foster care, building community around middle school youth whose experiences include deep trauma.  We help the mentors develop their authority in a broken landscape.  We give them the tools and framework to be agents of hope, communion, recreation, and presence in one of the most dysfunctional and broken systems in our country.

Some foster children might stay in one foster home for many years, but most bounce around to multiple placements, with reports of many youth being placed in over 25 different homes before they aged out of the system at 18.  Some might be reunified with their birth parents or live with a relative, but we know that most of them will ultimately end up either on the streets where our offices are in the Tenderloin, or become one of the growing number of human trafficking victims, or end up in prison.  As the crow flies, San Quentin sits just 4 miles away.  Did you know that an estimated 70% of its inmates are products of the foster care system?

So at Braid, we work with adults of all ages and backgrounds to be the vehicles God uses to stop this negative spiral.  Every youth we work with receives three mentors who work as a team with a facilitator.  Some of our mentors are based in Episcopal congregations, but most have no religious affiliation or leanings.  All they have to be is willing to spend one hour a week with a foster child.  And in return, we teach them how to trust that they have all they need to be a sign of hope and communion for some of God’s most vulnerable children.  Or as Paul is trying to reinforce with the Philippians today, we remind them that: “it is God who is at work in them, enabling them both to will and work for God’s good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13) We believe that by simply being a loving, consistent presence for one hour a week, these mentors can break the chain of trauma and open the way for God’s healing grace.  We ask the mentors to just show up every week and play or hang out with their foster youth.  By engaging in recreation they can recreate the worldview and self awareness of these kids, and maybe even their own, too.  The mentors, without ever mentioning the word Jesus, help the youth hear the words that Jesus heard when he emerged from the waters of the River Jordan and God said, “You are my beloved [child] in whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 17:5) The message these mentors give to these children whose souls are desperately parched is “you are worthy of love and destined to thrive.”

In a sense, the mentors are dowsers, searching for water.  They walk with their foster youth through all sorts of terrain – rocky home environments, muddy middle school dramas, and the arid deserts of their traumatic background stories.  And along the way, they patiently, compassionately, and humbly point their youth to refreshment, resources, healing, and wholeness.

Their work might mean setting aside their original plans for the visit and instead waiting patiently as the child has a meltdown or refuses to participate.  One of my favorite stories is about 2 mentors who went to the home of their foster youth to pick him up and take him on their outing.  When they arrived, the boy insisted that he didn’t want to have the visit.  Now, his bedroom was actually a tent in the middle of the living room of a crowded apartment and he sat inside the tent and zipped the door shut.  Not unlike the desert-weary Israelites that we heard about in Exodus today, this boy could have looked like he was quarreling and complaining, but subconsciously, he was really just testing to see if the mentors were going to dessert him or not.  Just like those Israelites, I think the boy was asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17:7)

When this boy refused the visit, the mentors knew that this was an invitation to demonstrate faithful presence, unconditional love, and patience.  So, undaunted, the two mentors simply sat down outside the tent and assured the boy that they understood and respected his choice and he didn’t need to come out.  However, since they’d already set aside the hour to be with him, if he didn’t mind, they said they’d just sit quietly outside his tent and hang out.  The two mentors did sit quietly, but also chatted a bit together, and soon, the zipper came down and the boy emerged, ready to have his visit.

I bet this is exactly what the father did today in the Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew’s gospel.  When his first son refused to go out into the vineyard to work, the father probably said, “No worries; whenever you’re ready; I’ll wait.  And I won’t stop loving you.”  And sure enough, the recalcitrant son eventually did the activity he’d been invited to do.

Not all visits for Braid mentors are that challenging.  More often they’re easy going, joy filled adventures like getting manicures, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, learning how to cast a fly rod in Golden Gate Park, going to their first ever Giants game, or going on a fast paced scavenger hunt throughout San Francisco to find Little Free Libraries like the one outside this church here.  Some of our youth even spent a week at St. Dorothy’s summer camp this year.

And almost every single visit the mentors have with their youth seems to include some food or drink, be it frozen yogurt with extra gummy worms and cookie crumbles, or trying out Indian food, or tracking down the elusive Starbuck’s Unicorn Frappuccino.  This is how they share communion every week.  These mentors are like dowsers, like Moses they “split the hard rocks in the wilderness and give them drink as from the great deep” (Ps. 78:15).

In the end, our readings today ask us all to do a little spiritual dowsing.  Where is God calling each of us to find water, to lead those who are thirsty to renewal and hope?   I’m here today with the Rev. Rebecca Edwards who, with her Co-Director the Rev. Christopher Chase, founded Braid Mission three years ago.  I’ve had the privilege of working with them to launch mentor teams throughout the Bay Area.  We’re even ready to launch a second team here in Marin if we get a few more mentors and someone to facilitate their team.  We’ll tell you more about Braid during coffee hour.  But no matter how and where you feel called to find water for others, first know that you have the authority to do this work; you gained it at baptism.  And secondly, may you always know that God is at work in you, offering you hope, recreation, communion, and presence.

  Amen.

[1] https://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/water_dowsing/pdf/water_dowsing.pdf

[2] http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/a3199/1281661/

[3] https://smile.amazon.com/Prostitutes-Tax-Collectors-You-Non-Leaders-ebook/dp/B004GNFO76/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1506030205&sr=8-1&keywords=david+may+prostitutes+tax+collectors+and+you

[4] https://smile.amazon.com/David-May/e/B004FF5X94/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1

[5] https://smile.amazon.com/Prostitutes-Tax-Collectors-You-Non-Leaders-ebook/dp/B004GNFO76/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1506108915&sr=1-1

[6] https://braidmission.org

St. Michael, All Angels and Imagination

Readings for the Feast Day of St. Michael and All Angels

Genesis 28:10-17

Psalm 103:19-22

John 1:43-51

“The true sign of intelligence,” according to Albert Einstein, “is not knowledge but imagination.” The presence of angels in the Scriptures invites us to develop this intelligence by exercising our imagination, pushing us to see beyond the boundaries of finite reason. For English poet William Blake, imagination is another lens through which we can see realities that are far more real than those accessed through our five senses. So, according to Blake, the angels we imagine in this room are more real than this pulpit. Although this way of seeing could potentially lead to schizophrenia and psychosis, it also invites us “to see,” in the words of Blake, “the world in a grain of sand, and… heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.” And imagination also invites us to see the angels ascending and descending and to hear the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven sing “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might.” Angels are the forces that tug on our imaginations in order to expand our vision not only to see heaven at work on earth but also to see beyond our petty rivalries and egocentric fears.

In Genesis, Jacob has stolen his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing and proven to be the victor of their sibling rivalry. However, now he flees in order to avoid becoming the victim of murder since Esau is now hell-bent on killing him. In the midst of all the deception, competition, anger and fear, Jacob dreams of angels. And in his dream, Jacob imagines a world in which God will protect and provide and bless him with abundance. Upon waking, Jacob realizes that what he saw in his dream and imagination was not a mere illusion or fantasy. What he saw was real, perhaps more real than his stone pillow. He says, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!” What his bodily senses dismissed as one place among many to take a nap, his imagination saw as the house of God and the gate of heaven. Overwhelmed with awe and reverence and holy fear, Jacob exclaims, “How awesome is this place!”

The angels, however, are not done with Jacob and keep tugging at his imagination in order to broaden his vision. According to Jewish Midrash, it is the angel Michael who wrestles with Jacob all night before his eventual confrontation with Esau. The angel wrestles with Jacob’s fear and terror and pulls out of Jacob some of his most bold and honest prayers for God’s blessing. This divine and angelic yanking of humanity out of small and fearful thinking into a broader vision of blessing and abundance proves central to the identity of God’s people, which is why Jacob’s new name, Israel, becomes the collective name for all of his descendants: The One who Wrestles with God. The One who is tugged out of limited egocentrism and into broader vision.

In the Gospel, Jesus calls Nathaniel a true descendant of Israel, a spiritual heir of the One who is wrestled out of small vision and into abundance. Jesus calls him a true Israelite in whom there is no guile. The Greek word for guile is δόλος, which means deceit or trickery or propensity to manipulate. It is the same word that Isaac used to describe Jacob when he dressed up as his brother to steal his blessing. Nathaniel certainly needs to be wrestled out of his limited thinking but, unlike Jacob, he is not hiding his true identity. In other words, he speaks what is on his mind. When Philip tells him about the promised prophet from Nazareth, Nathaniel reveals his small-mindedness and prejudice when he says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Tell us what you reallythink, Nathaniel.

We learn later on in John that Nathaniel is from Cana (21:2), which is another small town in Galilee. Often, the more similarities there are between individuals or communities the more potential there is for rivalry and animosity. There is no outside evidence of rivalry or animosity between Cana and Nazareth, but Nathanael’s question seems to suggest that some people in Cana did not think too highly of the neighboring town of Nazareth.[1]

One easy way to feel good about ourselves is to put others down. We do this all the time, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We do this with rival schools, towns, cities, states, regions, and countries; and history has shown how much we have done this (and continue to do this) with race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, background and so on. This kind of prejudice reveals a lack of healthy imagination and is connected with our need to blame someone or some group of people. Prejudice is essentially blaming others for our own self-hate. We put others down so that we can hate ourselves a little less.

Nathaniel reveals his prejudice, his lack of healthy imagination and his self-hate when he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And Jesus responds, as a victim of Nathaniel’s prejudice, by essentially saying, “Here is a true descendant of Israel who says what is on his mind, an Israelite who is brutally honest about his lack of healthy imagination and self-hate.” Nathaniel knows he is someone who speaks his mind but he does not know how Jesus learned this, so he asks, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus says, “I saw you when Philip called you and I heard your snarky reply to his invitation.” Nathaniel is embarrassed and aghast but even more blown away by how Jesus seems to respond without the slightest hint of threat or offense and even seems to appreciate Nathaniel’s honesty. Someone with this kind of equanimity and inner peace, Nathaniel thinks, must by Anointed by God. By responding in this way to Nathaniel’s prejudice, Jesus is already tugging him out of his small-mindedness and self-hate and showing him a new and wider way to imagine the world. Then Jesus says, “If you feel like your vision has expanded because of my response to your prejudice, then just wait! You are going to see heaven open and angels tugging the whole world into a wider vision as you see how I respond to the most brutal violence of the most powerful empire in the world.”

Theologian James Alison writes, “Here at the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus explains to a group of witnesses what will be the centerpoint of their experience…by accompanying him they will learn to see heaven open and angels ascending and descending on Jesus. His whole project for them is explained in this line…The opening of heaven will be the making accessible of the Father who knows not death and the presence of Jesus as risen victim, by means of whom heaven stands open and there begins that flux of heavenly riches and abundance for those who perceive him as the access to the Father.”[2]

Jesus and the angels work closely together to expand our imagination and lead us into abundance, so closely together that one Anglican Bishop Robert Clayton proposed that the Archangel Michael is the Logos, the pre-incarnate Christ. What the Bible makes clear is that Jesus is our gate to heaven, the One towards whom the angels tug us. Jesus embodies the expanded imagination and pulls us into the broader vision through his non-violent response to our prejudice and small-mindedness. And St. Michael and all the angels tug us all along the way, with all of our prejudice and self-hate, so that we may imagine and forever enjoy “the flux of heavenly riches and abundance.”

[1] James Alison says, “This Nathanael was a good Israelite, a little grumpy, half incredulous, to judge by his few words” Raising Abel, 78.

[2] Alison, Raising Abel, 78 – 79.

Grace That Saves a Kvetch Like Me

By now, you know how much I like to glean wisdom from our Jewish brothers and sisters, especially when it comes to reading the Hebrew Scriptures. This is partly because I have Jewish background on my father’s side. My great grandfather grew up in a shtetl in the Ukraine and I have memories of colorful Yiddish words and phrases that my grandfather would frequently use. Whenever my grandpa found himself doing something that he thought was boring or useless he would say he was “shlug zich kop in vaunt,” which means, “banging his head against the wall.” And whenever my dad complained or whined to my grandpa, my grandpa would tell him “don’t hak mir in tchainik” which literally means “stop banging my tea kettle,” but is a colloquial way of saying, “stop making a tempest in a teapot.” And if my dad would persist in his whining, my grandpa would tell him to stop being such a “nudnik,” which is someone who is so annoying that it is becoming boring. My dad recalls his uncle referring to him and his sister as “nudnik” so often that he’s not sure if his uncle ever really knew their real names (!).

There are many popular Yiddish words my grandpa would often use, such as “klutz” and “schlep” and “mensch,” but there is one paritcular Yiddish word that I want to offer for some reflection this morning; and that is the word “kvetch”, which means “to complain, whine or fret” or “someone who tends to complain.” In today’s readings, there is a lot of kvetching. The Israelites kvetch about not having enough bread in the wilderness, the day laborers kvetch about not getting paid more than those who worked for only an hour, and even Paul kvetches a bit about his suffering and his struggle. The other optional readings for this Sunday have even more kvetching with the bitter and melodramatic complaints of the self-pitying prophet Jonah. Ironically, the one reading that has the least kvetching is the Psalm, which comes from the book most replete with complaints. But even the Psalmist describes the kvetching of the Israelites (somewhat euphemistically) in saying, “They asked, and quails appeared, and [God] satisfied them with bread from heaven” (105:40).

And here is what is so fascinating to me about all this kvetching: Instead of God sternly demanding everyone to stop whining and start being more grateful for what they already have, God responds to all the complaining with profound grace, bestowing gifts of physical and spiritual nourishment. God does not necessarily encourage the kvetching, but God does seem to create a space for it, to accommodate it and to respond generously to it. God displays an amazing grace that appears to save all of these kvetches. And I’m personally comforted by these lessons because they encourage me to believe that God’s amazing grace could save a kvetch like me.

After all of their complaining, the Israelites receive the divine invitation to “Draw near to the LORD for he has heard your complaining” and then they receive a divine vision: “they looked toward the wilderness and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.” And then they receive their fill of meat and bread because, as the text says multiple times, the LORD heard their complaining. The Lord heard their kvetching.

In the Gospel, the day laborers also grumble. In fact, the Greek word for grumble is rather onomatopoetic (sounds like the act it conveys): gogguzw (gong-good-zo), which is the same word used in the Septuagint for the “complaining” of the Israelites (gong-good-zo, almost as fun to say as “kvetch”). The day laborers are frustrated and for good reason. They have received the same pay as those who only worked for an hour! They worked and sweated through the scorching heat and, as a result, do not want to be considered equal to those who worked for a brief hour in the coolness of the evening, so they bring their complaint to the landowner. And the landowner responds to their complaint not with harsh judgment, not by calling them “nudniks,” but by calling them “Friends.” If we see the landowner as God, then already the laborers have received a great honor in being called “Friends.” In this light, the parable reflects the words from the Gospel of John when Jesus tells his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). The landowner then assures them, “I am doing you no wrong” and then proceeds to offer them deep spiritual wisdom about his scandalous generosity that will nourish them for a lifetime.

In the readings, humanity complains and God responds with grace and love. As the Psalm says, “They complained and God satisfied them.” Now I am not encouraging us all to think of things to complain about. Giving thanks and praise to the Lord is a right and good and joyful thing for us to do as the Psalms and our Prayer Book attest. However, when we do have justifiable reason to complain (loss of job, apparent injustice in the work place, loss of loved one), God would prefer our kvetching to our cold indifference. Now I am not talking about complaining to one another or to our supervisors or to our priests. I am talking about complaining to God in our prayer.

Biblical Scholar Walter Brueggemann explains that our failure to bring our complaints to God in prayer leads to “both psychological inauthenticity and social immobility.”[1] By not confronting God with our frustration, we lose our voice and our capacity for what Bruegemann calls “genuine covenant interaction.[2] We also lose “the ego strength that is necessary for responsible faith”[3] and our prayers become “a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense.”[4] If we fail to be honest with our frustration and refuse to bring our complaints to God in prayer, we fall into “civility …docility…grim obedience and eventually despair.”[5] But if we are honest with our frustration and bring our complaints to God in prayer, then we will experience the generosity and love of God in response.

Throughout Scripture and throughout the history of Christian spirituality, those who complain to God tend to draw closer to God as a result. Draw near to the LORD for he has heard your complaining. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was asked if he still believed in God after experiencing the horror of the Holocaust. He said, “I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason.” When it comes to major tragedies, the word “kvetch” feels wholly inappropriate and inadequate to describe what we want to do and what we want to say to a God whom we expect to be ultimately in charge. Literally, the word “kvetch” means “to press or to squeeze,” which is what Jacob was doing to the Angel with whom he was wrestling; he squeezed and refused to let go of the angel until he received a blessing. Eventually, God gave him a blessing as well as a new name: Israel, which means “The one who struggles with God.” When it comes to major suffering in our lives or in the world, our kvetching turns into wrestling and serious struggle. St. Paul, who was no stranger to tragedy, (who was, as he said, “hard-pressed”), speaks of this struggle as a privilege because he knows that such struggle drew him closer to Christ. God can handle whatever anger or frustration we bring to him, whether it be profound sorrow caused by deep loss or kvetching about some apparent injustice. God can handle it (and will handle it) and then transform us in the process by pouring down nourishment from heaven.

When we complain, God does not say, “Quit banging my tea kettle” or “Stop being such a nudnik.” Instead God calls us “Friend” and holds us in our anger and frustration the way a parent holds a child who is screaming or throwing a temper tantrum. Even as the child is kicking and screaming, the parent still holds the child lovingly, knowing that the child does not (and perhaps cannot) understand. Although I myself can be a real kvetch to God in prayer, I have found that, through all my grumbling, God remains patient and loving. And I actually grow closer to God, maybe even because of my honest complaining. So I invite you to be honest with God in your prayers, to engage in “genuine covenant interaction” with your Lord. I invite you to draw near to the LORD for he will hear your complaining. Draw near to the Lord for his amazing grace continually saves a kvetch like me.

[1] Brueggemann, The Psalms & the Life of Faith, 111

[2] Ibid, 102

[3] Ibid, 103

[4] Ibid, 100

[5] Ibid, 102

Taking Action Like Nachshon

Three weeks ago we began our series of readings from the book of Exodus or from what our Jewish brothers and sisters call the Book of Names, Shemoth. I invited us to consider how our individual names and how our collective name (Redeemer) call us to embody God’s love in San Rafael and the world. Just as the Hebrew understanding of the name “Moses” recalls God’s rainbow promise of love and protection to Noah so too do each of our names call us to express the rainbow diversity of God’s love. We are what Desmond Tutu calls the “Rainbow People of God.”

We live into our own particular expressions of God’s rainbow by first immersing ourselves in prayer. We learned from Moses that, without a prior commitment to prayer, our attempts to protect the vulnerable and resist oppression can often make things worse rather than better. It was only when Moses made himself at home in God’s presence (and rested in the Ground of Being) that he was able to align himself with the redemptive mission of Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh and to effectively liberate an enslaved group of immigrants from the dogged grip of the world’s most powerful empire. Service to the poor and the oppressed is most effective when rooted in prayer. Faith without action is dead, but action without faith is deader.

The Exodus readings from last Sunday and this morning echo this call to embody God’s love and live into our own unique expressions of God’s rainbow through prayer and service to the poor. However, the emphasis in these readings is not so much on the prayer but rather on the courageous action that one must take after receiving clear direction in prayer.

Last Sunday’s readings included detailed instruction on how to observe the Passover Feast. God says to Moses, “This is how you shall eat the Passover lamb: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly” (Exodus 12:11) Now as someone who lives in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, a few doors down from the world famous Slow Food Movement restaurant Chez Panisse, I am a proponent of eating mindfully and slowly. According to Exodus, however, the Passover meal is not to be eaten slowly, but rather very quickly. In fact, one commentator refers to the Passover feast as the first “fast food” meal. It is not a time to prayerfully savor every taste and texture of the food. It is to be eaten in haste, with staff in hand and sandals on feet because God may call you to action at any moment.

The reading this morning recounts the most dramatic event of the Exodus story: the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. As I read this passage in light of Jewish midrash, the message is once again not so much a call to prayer but rather a call to courageous action after receiving clear direction in prayer. There are some gaps in the biblical narrative and whenever there are gaps, the rabbis tend to fill them in with creative details and stories, called midrash. When it comes to the crossing of the Red Sea, the rabbis emphasize a character who is actually not mentioned in the story itself. They emphasize a character who is named earlier in the book of Names, in chapter 6 (verse 23); a character named Nachshon. Nachshon was a young prince of the tribe of Judah who was in his early 20s during the Exodus; and it is because of the courageous action of Nachshon that the Israelites successfully crossed the sea. So what is the action of Nachshon?

We first need to look at verse 10 of chapter 14 in your pew Bible when the Israelites cry out to the Lord in great fear as Pharaoh’s army approaches. However, the Israelites cry out to the Lord mostly by doing some serious kvetching to Moses: They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13 But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

And then according to the rabbis, Moses starts to pray to God. Moses makes himself at home in God’s presence and rests in the Ground of Being; and Moses invites all the people to keep still and rest in God’s loving presence. But, even though stillness and contemplative prayer are necessary, this is not the time to keep still. This is a time for courageous action. God makes this clear to Moses when he says in verse 15, “Why do you cry out to me? Why are you sitting still in prayer? And why are you telling the people to keep still? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” Now is the time for action! Bold and courageous action. Although the action is driven by and drenched in prayer; the action does not involve sitting still, but moving forward in faith.

There is a powerful song by the rock band U2 titled “Please” in which Bono sings poignantly to Christians who use prayer as an excuse for not taking action. He sings, “Please, please, get up off your knees.” That’s what God says to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Get up off your knees, take action and move forward!”

So while the Israelites are complaining and Moses is still crying out to God, Nachshon takes action and steps into the water. He continues walking as the water comes up to his knees, then his waist, then his shoulders, and then his neck. And the Israelites see him and stop their complaining. Moses stops crying out to God. And as the waters cover Nachshon’s mouth and nose so that he can no longer breathe, Moses finally takes action and does what God has been telling him to do all along. He lifts up his staff and the sea splits so that all the children of Israel can move forward and cross the sea on dry ground. All thanks to the courageous action of Nachshon.[1]

The Book of Names calls us to first root ourselves in prayer, but once we have received direction in prayer, there comes a time when we have to get up off our knees and take action like Nachshon and move forward in faith, even when the obstacles might seem insurmountable.

How is God calling us to take action like Nachshon? When we pray together in a few minutes, let us listen to how God is calling us to take action for those for whom we pray. We can take action like Nachshon by donating money to Episcopal Relief and Development to help the many victims of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Jose. Maybe God is calling you to take action by spearheading the Rise Against Hunger packaging event that we did last January and hope to do again. Maybe God is calling you to take action by participating in the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy Wellness Gatherings on Tuesday nights at 5 PM at the First Presbyterian Church in San Rafael. You can join us in October when the Youth Group serves salad and cookies to the hungry and homeless. Maybe God is calling you to take action by helping Redeemer Preschool find a new teacher. How is God calling you specifically to take action like Nachshon?

Let us pray and listen; and again I invite us to consider how our individual names and our collective name (Redeemer) calls us to take action. The name Nachshon is connected to the Hebrew word Nachshol which means a stormy tidal wave. Nachshon lived up to his name by walking courageously into the dangerous waters and thus stirring up a tidal wave of freedom and deliverance. The name Moses means “to draw out from the waters.” Moses lived up to his name by drawing the children of Israel out from the waters and also by reminding God of the rainbow that was drawn out from the waters as a promise of divine love and protection. How is God calling you to live up to your name? How is God calling Redeemer to live up to our name? How is God calling us to take action like Nachshon?

[1] Exodus 14:21, Mekhilta Beshallach 6, I 234. See The Classic Midrash: Tannaitic Commentaries on the Bible, trans. Reuven Hammer (Paulist Press: Mahwah NJ, 1995), 92.