Category Archives: Sermons (after a fashion)

“For nothing will be impossible with God”

—By Linda Goertz

Last year at Advent time, I went to an evening service at St. Paul’s in Oregon City, where they had laid out a labyrinth pattern on their parish hall floor, and we walked that path in silence.  Beforehand, each of us had received a little piece of paper with a message.  Mine, which I still have tacked up on the wall at home, said, “I want to be born in you this Christmas.”

Those words went straight to my heart that night.  It’s been decades since LeRoy and I had to face my inability to have children, but that loss is still part of who I am.  So that loving reminder that Christ longs to be carried in and birthed through each one of us was, for me, a miracle that is both old and new.

I’m astonished at Mary herself.  I don’t think she, as a young, not-yet-married woman, was saying to herself, Oh, I sure hope I get pregnant soon! – let alone, I hope a messenger from the Most High God suddenly appears before me!  The Scripture translation we have says she was “much perplexed,” but I think that must have included an element of terror; because right away the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

Throughout the story of Jesus’s arrival in this world, angels are always telling people, “Don’t be afraid.”  They tell Mary, they tell Joseph, they tell the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.”  Because, really, a Word from God, a message, a call from God is scary; it can sound impossible.  “How can this be?” we say along with Mary, “since I’m” . . . since I’m just ordinary me, not smart, not powerful, not someone important in the world.  Since I don’t know what to even say when hatred and violence are screaming; since I feel powerless in the face of systemic oppression; since the bad guys sometimes seem to be winning.

So the angel, the messenger from God, tells us that the Holy Spirit will come upon us, will overshadow our inadequacies and the world’s failings, with a power that’s not our own.  That nothing is impossible with God.  Nothing.

God’s desire, God’s intent for us is always healing, always a wholeness beyond our imaginings.  Not just, “We’re going to get some encouraging information from God to improve our lives,” but we will be transformed.  Mary was never the same after this – she lived out exponentially more joy and more great sorrow than the little just-betrothed Mary of Nazareth ever dreamt of.  Because God intended her to be fully herself, and she had the boldness to say YES, to say, Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.  Not according to her best imaginings and plans, but according to God.

In our Old Testament reading, King David had a plan ready, too.  He was grateful for his victories, he loved God, and he proposed creating a sign of that love and gratitude: he decided to build a temple for God.  And his trusted advisor Nathan — the prophetic Nathan who doesn’t hesitate to tell David when he’s sinning – agrees.  What a great idea, a dwelling for God; it’s so totally what good people of faith all over the world have been doing, in honor of the God who saves and guides and loves us deeply.  Build a beautiful sanctuary for God.  Right?

Not according to this story.  God tells Nathan – who then has to go tell the king, remember – God says, I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about . . . did I ever speak a word . . . saying. ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’

What we think God wants of us may not always be what God wants most for us.

Creating a place of beauty where we can come and worship God is good; I believe that God loves it when sisters and brothers come together and celebrate our joy at who God is.  I think the delight and awe we express when we prepare for a feast like Christmas, when we decorate the church and make it lovely – like some folks are going to do after church today – I think that’s a good and delightful thing to do.  But we can’t be only in this building – not while God’s own Self is moving in the world.

In the passage from Samuel, God is so emphatic: I took you from the pasture…I have been with you wherever you went…I will make for you a great name…I will appoint a place for my people…I will give you rest.  And then the biggest declaration: the Lord will make you a house.

God receives our love and our homage and our worship – but not our trying to place the Holy in a box with a roof.  God makes the dwelling place by being God.

At St. David’s, we’re going through a transition in leadership and many of us have that wild mix of feelings that comes with change.  We have new ideas and plans and hopefulness but sometimes we feel anxious enough that we really, really just want to nail things down.  Maybe we want certain things in our worship or our outreach work to change, or certain other things to stay exactly the same, or that one person on the committee to do what we want . . . we can get pretty busy building God’s house according to our own ideas.

But meanwhile, God is moving around, here, there, outside, in unexpected places.  God is sitting on the curb beside a man who smells bad, God is at a used car lot with the woman who doesn’t have enough money for even an old clunker.  God is in Syria and North Korea and Sierra Leone and Jerusalem, in downtown Portland marching and in the solitary confinement cell of a prison, and out on the mortgaged family farm and with the student whose loans are due and the teen who feels life isn’t worth living.

God is moving, and our privilege is to step outside and join God as we hear the call.  There will always be time to gather here, and we need to do that regularly, but that messenger of God – the one who tells us not to be afraid – is calling us now, calling us outside, telling us that nothing is impossible when the Holy Spirit empowers us.  So if you’re feeling a nudge, listen to it, for it may be God’s call to come outside.

And you know what we say in reply to that call, don’t you?  We say, Here am I; here we are, servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word.  Amen.

Stand Here Beside Us!

Sara preached this sermon on All Saints Sunday. Our worship opened with the community praying and singing the Litany of All the Saints.

Almighty God…give us grace to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living.

slide-5-communion-of-saintsI love this feast day. (Yawn. She says that every year, about so many feast days.) But it’s true. I was officially welcomed into the first church I joined in Portland on this day in 1986. I love the saints, the great cloud of witnesses. Questions about saints are among the most common I get from people new to the Episcopal Church, and I love to answer those questions. And I’ve done many baptisms on All Saints Day, all of which come with special memories.

All Saints is one of four baptismal feasts in the Church year. Now, I always ask this and I’m going to ask One   Last   Time: who can name the other three baptismal feasts in the Church year?

As I said to a group of parents and godparents two weeks ago, baptism is a sacrament of vocation, it is a sacrament of identity, and it is a sacrament of belonging. It is a sacrament of vocation in that it is like ordination for all Christians. When our previous bishop, Bishop Itty, was ordained in 2003, the preacher (former presiding bishop Edmond Browning) talked about what a grand event it was, the Episcopal Church at its ceremonial best, and how it was going to be in all the papers the next day, and he was right. Then he reminded us that really, we should make an equally huge deal with every baptism. Baptism is the sacrament of our vocation, our calling to be followers of Jesus.

But…enough about baptism! I know you’re all waiting to learn who the Saint of the Year is. Lindsay, may I have the envelope please…..? [Drumroll]

This year’s Saint of the Year is….every single one of you!

  • The 2009 Vestry who took a huge risk and said sure, we’ll spend all our savings and we’ll let you try any crazy stuff you want. You’re the saints who stand here beside me, beside us.
  • Those of you who came last week or this week for the very first time, when walking through the doors of an unfamiliar church can be a daunting task. We hope you’ll stand here beside us.
  • The children being baptized on this day: Marion, Lucia, Matilda, Theo, Clara, Jane, and Eleanor. Stand here beside us.
  • Their parents and godparents who stand with them and behind them. Stand here beside us.
  • All the people who have shown up week after week for a whole month or a year or a decade or half a century to pray and share blessed and broken bread, stand here beside us.
  • All of you who make all of this possible by offering your time and your treasure, you who have filled out pledge cards already and you who will fill out pledge cards this morning, stand here beside us.
  • The altar guild, ushers, readers, Eucharistic ministers, prayer-sayers, Coffee-makers, bread bakers, clay shapers, tambourine shakers, and all those whose presence and work is part of our worship each Sunday, stand here beside us.
  • The choir and musicians and our astoundingly talented leader, Ben, stand here beside us.
  • The piano students, artists, music teachers, therapists, dancers, stilt-walkers, preschoolers, fiddlers, pickers, yoga practitioners, saxophonists and cellists who grace our building with their presence, stand here beside us.
  • Those who teach Sunday school and those who learn, those who help out and those who hang out, nursery moms, dads, kids, and staff, stand here beside us.
  • Jumble-sale planners, pricers, writers, drivers, sorters, buyers, sellers, bakers, takers, sign-makers, and miracle-makers, stand here beside us.
  • Money-counters, check-writers, bill-payers, room-schedulers, building cleaners, leaf-rakers, weed-pullers, kitchen towel-washers, and fridge-cleaners, stand here beside us.

These—including all the ones I’ve forgotten—are the saints-with-a-small-s who may or may not ever be remembered for what they’ve done but they will always stand here beside us. Every community is built—continually building—upon the great cloud of witnesses, the royal priesthood of which each one of us is a part.

Baptism, as I said earlier, is a sacrament of belonging. Think about “Stand here beside us” as both a prayer of belonging and an invitation to belonging. Standing beside one another is how we belong. On this holy day, we promise to stand beside Eleanor, Jane, Clara, Theo, Matilda, and Marion as they grow into their Christian identity and vocation.

When Amy and I first talked about Jane’s baptism I asked whom she and Sarah had chosen as godparents. Amy said: “we don’t want godparents because we think of the whole community of St. David’s as Jane’s godparents.” I invite all of you to think of yourselves as godparents, to these children and to one another. Stand here beside us.

Baptism is a sacrament of identity. Baptism is how we become Christian. Christians have had a bad name for the last forty years or so. Some might argue we’ve had a bad name since the Crusades. I’ve always refused to cede the C-word to Christians who don’t speak for me in the press or in the public square. I am a follower of Jesus as much as anyone else. And so are you. Here’s an exercise. It’s going to make some of you squirm, I promise. Turn to the person sitting next to you, or in front of you, or behind you, and practice saying “I am a Christian.” And then turn to the person on the other side of you and say it. When someone says it to you, say “Hey, so am I!” or “me, too!” Just do it. We won’t tell. (I do know that a handful of you are Jewish or Buddhist, and that’s okay, too. Here’s your chance to claim that out loud.) Okay…now go.

So how do you live out your identity as a person of faith and a follower of Jesus? When we celebrate baptism, we celebrate a sacrament of vocation. As I hope my local All Saints Litany shows, our vocations as followers of Jesus differ from person to person. The bones of this calling are spelled out in our baptismal covenant, the covenant we will affirm together in a moment. As we renew our baptismal covenant, think about what flesh you will put on those bones. How will you stand beside us as one of the saints of God?

God’s Economy – Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46

Preached by Sara on October 5.

Everlasting God, you always give more.  

If you have ever spent time in wine country, ideally on foot or on a bicycle, you will easily understand why, in biblical times, the vineyard was a sign of divine blessing.  The cultivation and harvest of grapes, with their finely tuned dependence on the sun and the rain, the temperature and the topography, smacks of a grand design. The vineyard was the sign of Noah’s re-establishment after the great flood, the sign that life on earth was going to flourish under God’s protection. Noah was the bible’s first vinedresser, and the bible’s first alcoholic, so I would venture to say that the vineyard is also a sign of the choices that God sets before us. Matthew’s parable of the Wicked Tenants tells a story of bad choices and the misuse of God’s gifts.

This vineyard story comes on the heels, as it often does, of the celebration of St. Francis, whose feast we observed yesterday. Francis is the saint who more than any other is associated with nature, and with the love of all creation. Francis was in tune with God’s circle of life, and with humanity’s right relationship with God and creation.

As we explore this gospel story about the misuse of God’s gifts, I cannot help but share a conversation, transcribed by God knows who or when, between St. Francis and God:

God says to St. Francis, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

  1. FRANCIS: It’s some of the tribes that settled there, Lord. They started calling your flowers weeds and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these tribes really want all that grass growing there?

  1. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make them happy.

  1. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it, sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

  1. FRANCIS: Not exactly Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

  1. FRANCIS: No, sir — just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

  1. FRANCIS: Yes, sir.

GOD: These humans must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

  1. FRANCIS: You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. Trees are a sheer stoke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. As the leaves rot, they form compost to enhance the soil. It’s a natural circle of life.

  1. FRANCIS: You’d better sit down, Lord. As soon as the leaves fall, the humans rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No. What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

  1. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

  1. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

And so on…

This may seem like a rather whimsical story somewhat removed from today’s readings, which are anything but whimsical. But it is about our relationship to God’s love and our right use of God’s gifts, God’s abundance. We always do well to ask ourselves: how do we make the best use of God’s abundance? How do we use God’s gifts in a way that reflects our relationship with God and with our neighbor?

At the time of the Exodus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob set himself apart from any other god by giving the people the ten commandments, spelling out not only right relations with God, but also with our neighbor.

The commandments set in motion the formation of a new world order. In the story of the Wicked Tenants of the vineyard, this order, which holds our love of God and neighbor, gets broken.

Like the mythical conversation between God and St. Francis, only much more painful, this is a story of bad stewardship, a parable of people who forget that all that they are and all that they have belongs to God, all the time. The story has been described as being about the difference between stewardship and ownership.

And now a commercial: This happens to be the season here at St. David’s where we explore the use of the abundance God has given us, both individually and corporately. I know that all of you have or will very soon—like today—sign up to attend one of the small group gatherings being held this month. How you participate, not just with your pledge but with your presence and your voice, is very much connected to how the future of St. David’s unfolds in the next chapter of its wonderful life.

Back to the Gospel. When we are more focused on ownership than stewardship, greed happens. Greed is part of our humanity, whether we’re talking about corporate greed or national greed or personal greed.

Most of us do not suffer from greed in such a degree as the folks who make headlines in the Bible. But many of us do suffer from selfishness, fear, anxiety, or the longing to have more control of our surroundings. Those guys in the vineyard suffered from those things, too. All of that—the greed, the fear, the drive to control and own the world around us—all of these things separate us from the love of God. Like it or not, we call this separation sin.

God’s intent for us, God’s longing, if you will, is not separation, but closeness. Not sin, but enjoyment of God’s abundance. What is God’s intent for us? This is something I always pray about, both for myself and for our community.

The good news is that our own desperate acts, driven by selfishness or fear, point to our utter dependence upon God. The good news is that as we awaken to our dependence upon God, God is indeed there; God will renew our strength. God does not destroy the vineyard. The vineyard is the kingdom to which we are continually invited and in which we live life to the fullest. It is always there as a sign of divine blessing and a source of God’s extravagant abundance. What will you do with this abundance?

Core Strength

Preached by Sara on September 7.

Owe no one anything, except to love one another.

Even though the church calendar says we’re in the same season that started in June and that runs through November 23, even though the Farmers’ Almanac says it’s still summer until 10:30 pm on September 22. We all know that summer is over and fall has begun, regardless of this ridiculous weather. It is the time for starting new things. It is the time for the end of life as we have known it for the past few months, especially if our lives are such that our rhythm changes in the summertime—not everyone’s does.

It is also the end of a season at St. David’s, a long season. Most of you are aware by now that the season of me—I like that…the season of me!—as your rector is ending. But that season doesn’t end right now; you’re stuck with me until November 23, the end of the Church year.

Transition can be a rich time for a community and I’m excited for you all. A transition like this is a time for you all to articulate and claim your corporate identity as followers of Jesus.

sermon-wordle-2008-09-07Today’s readings from the New Testament, from Romans and from Matthew, have much to teach us about community identity as followers of Jesus.

A few weeks ago I talked about our missional identity as followers—even though a writer whose work I respect a lot says don’t ever use the word “missional” in a sermon—this week I want to talk about how we function within community. This is always important as followers of Jesus—for everyone anywhere, really, but especially during a time of transition. As Jesus traveled from village to village, and taught others to do the same, I’m sure he, and later Paul, and Barnabas, and others, left people who stood there on the edge of town scratching their heads and saying “gee, I wished he’d stayed a little longer. Hm. What do we do now?” How do we live in community without Jesus or James or Timothy to remind us how it’s done?

Jesus and Paul give us the answers in today’s readings.

All of the eighteenth chapter of Matthew is about potential pitfalls of community life. It is in this chapter, a few verses prior to today’s reading, that we hear “if your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.” This is how seriously Jesus takes community life.

Paul describes the building blocks of community life as living in love with one’s neighbor, setting aside quarreling, jealousy, drunkenness, etc. The bottom line is for Paul, as a guide for community life, the ten commandments never go out of style.

The first verses of today’s gospel provide, in very specific steps, a conflict resolution plan for Christian community. If you have a broken relationship with someone in the church, go and talk with them about it. If you feel heard, that’s good. If the person won’t listen, take one or two others along to try again. If that doesn’t help, tell the church—by which I assume the writer means the elders of the church—and if the offender still won’t listen, then that person essentially ceases to function in the community. I’m not talking about this because we have a lot of conflict here at St. David’s, nor am I saying that conflicts resolved according to this—or any—process are always resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. As the longtime Portland Trailblazer announcer Bill Shoneley used to say: “no one ever said it was going to be easy.”

The core of discipleship is this vigilant, reconciling work that begins in our hearts and moves from there out into our own community of disciples. The kingdom of God is a full-service community, serving up not just the good news of healing and economic justice, but also healthy communities equipped from the inside out to proclaim Jesus’ love to the world. This core of community health is kind of like core strength in our own bodies. Ever thought about or begun working out with weights? Most people who start lifting weights do it because they want to get bigger muscles. (I have a theory that this is even true for women who say it isn’t.) People often start lifting weights because they want to have bigger biceps or shoulders or quadriceps, whatever. No one wants to be told that they really need to work on core strength first, and always. No one wants to be told that unless they have a strong core, they will eventually—pretty soon—hit a wall with all their other training. It doesn’t mean that the other stuff like intervals and weights and cardio isn’t important, it means that we need to be strong at the center in order to keep getting stronger in everything else. There are limits to what we can do without this core strength. And this is, of course, true of communities of Jesus-followers.

Our core strength is our own healthy gathered community, and what we do here in this space when we gather. Our ritual meal—like the ritual meal of the people of Israel we heard about in the first lesson—looks backward in time and forward beyond time. In every Eucharist, we look back to the meal where Jesus broke bread with his disciples and asked that they do the same in his name. And we look forward toward the time beyond time, the time that is right now and forever, toward the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God.

As we gather around this table, I hope the holy food and drink you find here will nourish and strengthen you for your discipleship journey, in our community and in the world God loves.

 

Only drowning men can see Him

boat

Peter was a fisherman, raised on the shore, every day spent casting nets, every night repairing them; like his father, and his father’s father, hauling catch after catch. He thought he had seen all the fury the sea could summon, he thought he could weather any storm with his strong hand on the tiller.

That night the screams of the others were drowned in the pitch of the wind and the crash of the waves against the hull. The fear on their faces needed no voice. They pleaded with Peter, who stood surer on water than on land, to save them.

He had seen things that day he could not comprehend. He had seen bread and fish, barely enough to fill the bellies of the twelve, satisfy the hunger of thousands. He had seen the rabbi, who had at first sought refuge from the throngs embrace them and feed them one and all. It had been a good day, it had been a miraculous day in a string of miraculous days.

Yet here they were, in the ravages of the storm, the calm and fellowship and comfort of just a few hours before a like a distant dream.

Through the rain stinging his eyes, through the howling of the wind, he can see a figure on the sea. “We must have gone down, we must be dead”, he thinks. Then a flash lights up the sky like 1000 torches and Jesus’ unmistakable face comes into focus.

“How can it be?” Peter screams into the wind, “And how can you ask me to not be afraid? You must show me Rabbi, you show me how!”. And then Jesus beckons to Peter to join him in the storm.

Peter thinks: “Why, oh why must this always be so hard Rabbi? Why must I make this choice again and again and again. Why do you ask me to step from this boat, to ignore all the rules I have known and all the things I have been sure of and leave my boat?

My father built this boat, shaped it with his sure hands. I see you there, doing the impossible, asking me to do the impossible too”.

Peter swings his leg over the side stepping into the blackness and chaos below.

___________________

In last week’s Gospel following Jesus was, literally, a picnic. The loaves and fishes, the giant Eucharist Jesus presided over just last week is now lost in a torrent, drowned out by claps of thunder and the wind howling in our ears.

Today we are reminded that we can not sit on our blankets in the sun and wait for God to come to us, to bring us what we need. Following Jesus means stepping out into the storm, the storm that surrounds us or the storm that rises within us. Following Jesus does not mean waiting for him to calm the seas.

Sometimes to find Jesus we have to wade through a sea of doubt and uncertainty. We have to enter those places that make is anxious and uncomfortable. We have to sit with someone who is grieving. We have to revisit old wounds to find healing. We have to learn the name of the woman on the corner who asks for spare change, those are the places where Jesus lives.

Sometimes following Jesus means leaving the picnic and walking into the hurricane. Sometimes following Jesus means you must keep walking forward even though you can only catch the faintest glimpse of him through the storm. The storm can be fear. The storm can be the kind of envy we heard in the Old Testament today in the story of Jacob and his brothers. The storm can be unexpected change or anxiety of addiction or illness or failure. The storm can happen to us or originate within us. The storm is all those things that make us want to close our eyes and cover our heads and retreat from God and each other.

But today’s Gospel teaches us that we have to resist that impulse, leave behind our fear and be courageous, we must loosen our hands from the gunwales of our boat and lift our head and look out into the fury that faces us.

We must try to leave behind the boat, we must try to resist the urge to hunker down in the face of the storm because otherwise we miss Jesus, who is standing with his hand outstretched ready to help us do the impossible.

Sometimes only when we are drowning can we really find faith, can we really see Jesus. I could not get Leonard Cohen to join us today, and did not want to subject you all to my poor attempts at rendering the song “Suzanne”, so I have asked Matthew to help me out on the audio portion of our program:

“And Jesus was a sailor

When he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching

From his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain

Only drowning men could see him

He said ‘All men will be sailors then

Until the sea shall free them’

But he himself was broken

Long before the sky would open

Forsaken, almost human

He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him

And you want to travel blind

And you think maybe you’ll trust him

For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.”

Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”

And although I love the comfort and peace of the picnic, sometimes the faith that is forged this chaos is deeper and richer. In “Mortify our Wolves” Christian Wiman writes of the faith that we often find at our darkest moments, he says: “It takes a real jolt to get us to change our jobs, our relationships, our daily coffee consumption, for goodness sake—or, if we are wired that way, to change our addiction to change. How much more urgency is needed, how much more primal fear, to startle the heart out of its ruts and ruins. It’s true that God comes to the prophet Elijah not in the whirlwind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire that follows, but in the “still, small voice” that these ravages make plain. But the very wording of that passage makes it clear that the voice, though finally more powerful than the ravages it follows, is not altogether apart from them. That voice is always there, and for everyone. For some of us, unfortunately, it takes terror and pain to make us capable of hearing it”.

God is as much part of the storm as he is part of the picnic, but the God we find in the storm is sometimes harder to see because we have to dive into the chaos to find his hand.

It is love, and deeply profound faith, that gets Simon Peter to take that first step over the side of the vessel that represents all the reality he has ever known. It is faith, and love, that allows him to see the figure in the storm for what he truly is.

And yes Simon Peter falters, the winds of his old beliefs, his old life, rattle the connection to the man across the water. But Jesus is there, extending his hand.

________________________________

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.

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.