Sermon preached by the Rev. Wendy Cliff from Braid Mission on Sunday October 1, 2017
Readings for Proper 21 A
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. 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, 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. 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. 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.
This is what we strive to do at Braid Mission. 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.