Monthly Archives: March 2014

small interventions of grace

Once, you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are in light.

Every year on Good Friday we offer an afternoon service with spoken and musical meditations on the Seven Last Words from the cross. When I was new to the church, I had heard this phrase, “seven last words,” but I always thought the seven words were “my god, my god, why…” and I’d have to count off on my fingers and figure I could make it work if I only used one “my god,” rather than two. Later I learned that the seven last words refer to the utterances attributed to Jesus from when he is on the cross. (Come on Good Friday to find out. It’s worth taking the afternoon off.)

There’s another interpretation about the seven last words of the church.  “We have always done it that way.” Or: “We have never done it that way!”

We have all had our turn to experience or witness a change we didn’t like: singing the psalm instead of saying it, pancakes versus tacos, changing from the old prayer book to the new prayer book. With my diocesan hat on, I’m working with another church that is trying to move from being consumed with anxiety about survival to joyful, frightening, new mission. (That should sound familiar to those of you who have been around here for a while.) To do this, that parish must move from saying “We always do it this way” to drawing a line in the sand that says: “That was then; this is now.”

In the “now,” things are different from the “then.” In the rest of our lives, we know that, right? Kids grow up and move away, jobs change, neighborhoods change, people die, and we understand this as the circle of life. But in our religious institutions, nothing is ever supposed to change. When we close ourselves off to change, we miss out on the new ways of seeing that God may have in store for us.

In today’s gospel, the religious authorities are upset with Jesus’ actions because that is not the way they do things around there. I’m not sure which was more offensive: healing on the Sabbath, or healing someone whose blindness they believed was a punishment from God. For everyone involved, that was then; this is now. And Jesus is now.

mudFor no one in the story is this as true as it is for the man born blind. He has experienced amazing grace. I was blind, but now I see. Can you imagine? That was then, that blindness. This is now, seeing. It is not the moment of transformation that is the miracle in today’s gospel, but the movement from one way of seeing to another. As fascinated as we may be by the description of the paste of mud that Jesus puts on his eyes, that is mostly irrelevant. The man born blind has inhabited a different world his entire life, a world without sight, and his experience of grace is dramatic: he leaves that world and enters another.

More often, transformation—leaving one world and entering another, with new sight—takes time. In the fitness world, one sees a lot of before and after photos, reminding us that while always miraculous, transformation rarely happens overnight. Transformation is always happening.

blindnowseeAmazing grace, how sweet the sound. The gospel—today’s gospel and the whole of the Good News—is about grace. Grace needs no reason. The man in today’s gospel was not punished by blindness, nor was he given sight as a reward for righteous behavior.

Not only that, but he did not even ask to be healed. He is just sitting there by the side of the road, the subject of a dialogue between Jesus and his followers about sin and God. From the perspective of the man blind from birth, this healing just happens out of nowhere. Grace is like that.

On Friday, Mark and I saw a fabulous movie which I recommend to all of you, called The Lunchbox. Anybody seen it? The setting is Mumbai’s unique dabbawallah system. Individually prepared and packed lunches are delivered to businessmen—mostly men—all over the city by a complex process and a faithful corps of deliverymen in white coats. The lunches are usually made by a family member, or, if the businessman is single, a restaurant. Well, in the early moments of the film, there’s a one-chance-in-a-million mix-up, and someone ends up with the wrong lunch. This is the beginning of a story that involves, ultimately, as much transformation as we read about in today’s gospel.

The characters in the story are changed by new ways of seeing, and I, too, saw things differently as a result of seeing the movie. For one thing, I saw that I really craved Indian food. I began to wonder whether the Indian restaurants around here might deliver individual lunches to people who work in SE Portland. But another, more significant transformation—and I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to give anything away—is that I came to look at aging, and the way I see the second half of life, differently. Sometimes, someone else’s story about seeing differently can become our story, too.

We are changed, not only by dramatic intervention of grace, but by small interventions of grace. How do you see differently as a result of hearing this morning’s gospel? When has listening to a piece of music or watching a movie or seeing a painting changed you? Grace enters our lives and opens our eyes over and over again. How will you be changed by the stories we will hear in Holy Week, and on Easter? As we continue our journey toward the cross, I pray we will be ever more aware of the grace that travels with us and opens our eyes.

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Go to Samaria. Drink the water.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.

Many of you know that a significant piece of my work in my first few years as a priest was to help start a much-needed ministry called Rahab’s Sisters. Rahab’s Sisters, now in its eleventh year, offers welcome and no-strings-attached hospitality on Friday nights to women on 82nd avenue. Most of these women are on the street because they are sex workers, or homeless, or drug-addicted or, usually, a combination of all three. When we started Rahab’s Sisters we knew we were welcoming outsiders to come inside. We wanted to do good, and we hoped to help. But we also knew we would be changed by each encounter. For the first few months, we had a chaplain who prayed with us at the beginning of each Friday evening: God, give us eyes to see those who are not seen. Help us to remember that every encounter with a stranger is an encounter with you.

6-SamaritanWomanAtTheWellWe had lots of conversation in the early days about rules to adopt so our new ministry would run smoothly. We also learned that sometimes we needed to break the rules. Sometimes we needed to give a woman an extra plate of food to go, even when we knew she was going to give it to her pimp. Sometimes we decided to let someone sleep on church property, even though we had promised the host church’s vestry we wouldn’t. Once we changed someone’s bandage and provided wound care, even though we knew this would horrify the diocesan insurance administrator. God, help us to remember that every encounter with a stranger is an encounter with you.

Last week, we heard John the Evangelist’s famous words: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. God so loved the world. This can—and should—be heard in a multitude of ways. The world God loves includes all of creation. It includes the hard, gritty realities of the world of 82nd Avenue or any number of other places where many of us have lived or worked. The world God loves includes people or places we’d rather turn our back on. The world God loves includes the intangible realities of grief, greed, self-centeredness, depression, and despair. All of it. The world God loves includes strange places on the map inhabited by long-ago enemies whom Jesus’ followers considered foreigners and apostate. Places like Samaria.

Jesus breaks a whole lot of rules in this story. A devout Jew, he speaks to a woman alone in a public place. He speaks to a Samaritan. One of God’s chosen people speaks to one of God’s rejected people. The Jews of Jesus’ time saw Samaritans as outside the circle of God’s grace, having separated themselves from the Israelites over a number of centuries. The most acute sticking point in the first century was that the Samaritans did not recognize Jerusalem as the holy temple site, but instead worshiped elsewhere, on Mt. Gerazim. It is near Mt. Gerazim that Jesus stops for a drink.

woman detailThe woman who comes to the well while he waits there knows Jesus has something to offer, so she brings him a major theological problem: Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, she says, but you say that people must worship in Jerusalem. Jesus doesn’t respond in defense of Jerusalem, but rather points beyond a particular time and place. The hour is coming and now is, he says, to worship God in spirit and truth.

The result of the woman’s interaction with Jesus is that she is not just educated, she is transformed. She comes to the well as an outsider, a stranger, and becomes an evangelist and a minister of the gospel. She drops her water jar and returns to the city empty-handed, armed only with the experience of Jesus. She tells everyone she can find: Come and see. And they do.

The woman at the well is transformed because Jesus reaches across a chasm of difference and prejudice to offer her living water. She reaches across the same chasm to talk theology with him. She is truly heard and truly seen by him, and this convinces her that the messiah is alive and well. This is the good news she shares with her community, reaching across another great divide when she returns to her village, not to bring water from the well but to bear witness to the Gospel.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had experiences like this? The challenge for us, I think, is that while it is all well and good to reflect upon gospel stories where people are transformed by encounters with Jesus, how often do we meet Jesus at the well? Don’t we all too often feel like the thirsty ones, with no one around to offer us living water?

I believe that we meet Jesus at the well whenever we reach across a divide to connect with something or someone from whom we feel separate. Who are the foreigners in our life? From what or whom do we feel divided? We may be alienated from those who differ from us in small ways or in big ways. Sometimes the way we connect with these people is to ask for help when we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. I’m thirsty; I need something to drink. I don’t understand your views; please help me understand. Jesus connects with unlikely people in unlikely ways, as he does in today’s gospel. When we do likewise, we join Jesus on the journey. Sometimes, we may need to break some rules.

God, help us to remember that every encounter with a stranger is an encounter with you.

Lent I: accepting gifts, embracing weakness

On Ash Wednesday, I spoke about being at a workshop recently where I learned the three rules of improvisational theatre: 1) notice things, 2) if someone offers you a gift, take it, and 3) be fit and well. On my mind today is the second rule: if someone gives you a gift, take it. Sometimes this is cast simply as “say yes.”

In improv (I learned with my very brief and probably superficial introduction), “accept the gift” basically means to be ready for anything, and see everything as gift. Incorporate everything God throws at you into who you are and where you are going.

All of our readings today are about gifts. God gave the garden of Eden to the first man and woman he created. Then he gave them the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He sort of gave it to them. They ate of the fruit from this wondrous tree and their eyes were opened.

Some consider this opening of the eyes to be original sin the beginning of all pain and struggle. And yet, I think I would get bored in the Garden. Not at first, mind you, but at some point I’d be wondering about life beyond the river. God spared us that wondering and gave us all creation and all human experience: pain, loss, strife, failure, and temptation.

temptation_of_christ_10_3[1]In the desert, Jesus is offered gifts that are not gifts. At least, we don’t think they are gifts. That is, of course, always our discernment. Is this thing that is happening to me from God or not from God? Jesus chooses to stay the course. But he was tempted. Tempted in every way as we are.

We rarely have such poetic tempters as Eve did, or as Jesus did. The devil on our shoulder is most often simply a voice inside our head, completely indistinguishable from our own. The voice that says be perfect, or worry about that thing you can’t do anything about, or ingest whatever particular substance you might regret later.

Someone asked me this week what I was giving up for Lent.

I love hearing about what others are giving up for Lent or taking on for Lent. A few years ago some friends of mine were casting about for something to give up. They wanted to give up something easy that they would never want to do anyway. They decided to give up bowling, and were suddenly seized with an overwhelming urge to go bowling, which they did. They decided to give up reality TV instead—something that had never been a problem for them—and the same thing happened. It is easy to get somewhat far afield from the Lenten journey.

You can learn things you didn’t know about people by learning what they give up for Lent. Sometimes you learn things you don’t want to know about people by what they’re giving up.On Ash Wednesday, my seventeen-year-old son told me over dinner that he’s giving up lying for Lent. Really! I said. I didn’t know lying was one of your habits. He didn’t say anything.

 

I confess I am not a big fan of giving things up for Lent. At least not personally. In the past, I have given up things like sugar, meat, or caffeine. When I wasn’t thinking about what was right in front of me, I was either consumed by my own craving for whatever I was giving up to a degree that rendered me fairly useless to the rest of the world, or feeling so superior and pleased with myself for being so pure that I was equally useless.

Some of you heard James’ Ash Wednesday sermon, “Confessions of a Lent extremist,” in which he described making grand and sweeping sacrifices, or taking on impossibly impressive disciplines. My confession is that I am not a Lent extremist. Sometimes I wish I were, but we can’t all be.

I tend to take things on, rather than give them up, for the reasons I just mentioned. There are a few things I am taking on this year, and I share them with you:

I have a wonderful new fitness coach whose motto is “Embrace your weakness.” We all like to do things we’re good at; I want to accept as gift opportunities to do things that I’m not so good at. I want be more disciplined in embracing limitations in every area, rather than masquerading as someone who can do everything. I don’t think Jesus had much patience with followers who held back from making mistakes, or from making fools of themselves for his sake.

The other discipline I’m taking on is to stay as close as I can to the Lenten journey, the journey with Jesus to the cross. We all have our own ways of staying with the journey. For me it’s staying faithful to the daily office readings, and also—especially this time of year—reading ahead in our Sunday readings, the way you might read ahead on list of travel directions, a roadmap to be sure you are going the right way. I want to remember that Jesus has set his face for Jerusalem, for suffering and death.

When I began planning for Saturday’s live storytelling event, I wanted it to have a Lenten theme, even though it’s a fairly secular event. I suggested “Suffering.” My friend with whom I collaborated on the event, said “I don’t know if people will pay $15 to hear about suffering.” We talked about Lent for a while and settled on Tales of Uncertainty as an equally Lenten theme. Even though the journey to the cross has a familiar ending for Jesus, if we take it anew, each year, it is different for us each time, because we are different. For each of us Lent is, indeed, a tale of uncertainty.

We don’t know what the outcome will be. My hope is that it will be, for each of you, a gift, a gift to which you will say yes.