Sunday, August 31, 2008

Holy Ground, Holy Work: A Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15

“Holy Ground, Holy Work”
Exodus 3:1-15
August 31, 2008

The world is shot through with the holy. We never know where we might encounter it. We might encounter it…

* In a sanctuary on a Sunday morning, when a particular hymn takes our breath away, or brings tears to our eyes.

* At a 12-step meeting, when a grizzled alcoholic with 20 years of hard drinking followed by another 20 years of sanity, sobriety and service, speaks the truth and we hear it and know it, deep down in our hearts.

* On a hike in the woods, when we come upon an ancient and majestic tree, and realize it has been on the earth roughly 10 times as long as we have.

* In a hospital delivery room, when a nurse places a brand new human being into our waiting arms.

* At a concert, when we hear music that makes our heart leap in our chest, and we recognize that this is true, this is real, this has something or Someone behind it that we want to know better.

* Sitting around tables, bibles open, when the words on the page take up residence in our hearts, and we know they will never leave.

* Floating in the bright, clear, cold ocean, as the rolling of the waves holds us up and we abruptly realize we are in the presence of something infinitely larger than we are, something both dangerous and thrilling, both inviting and terrifying.

You can probably name other places and times and circumstances. The world is shot through with the holy. We never know where or when or how or with whom we might encounter it.

Moses had his meeting with the Holy at a time in his life when he was, perhaps, at a low ebb. You know the famous story of his early years. How the people of Israel sought refuge in Egypt during a time of famine. How they were suddenly, under a new administration, looked upon with distrust and dismay, as if these resident aliens, these immigrants, were dangerous… and so they were taken into slavery. You know how the Pharaoh decided that all Hebrew boys should be killed at birth, but he was subverted by the clever, fast-thinking Hebrew midwives. You know how, thanks to the wily and resourceful women in his life—his mother, his sister, and even the Pharaoh’s own daughter—Moses was drawn out of the water that might have been his death, and given another chance at life.

This adoptee seems to have been raised with an acute sense of the plight of his family of origin. Though he was raised by a princess, given every advantage as her son, he was tuned in to the brutality being leveled against the Hebrews. He impulsively intervened and killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. Because of that action, he himself became a refugee. He ran into the wilderness, to Midian. There, like other biblical men before him, he came to a well and met his future bride. And here we find him, Moses: born to an oppressed people, raised in the household of royalty, tending flocks for his father-in-law.

We might wonder what was going on in Moses’ mind before he came upon the unearthly sight of the burning bush. Was he thinking about the home he had lost? Was he remembering his royal family? Or, perhaps, did he have vague memories of the mother who cared for him until he was weaned? Was he remembering the moment when he took the life of that Egyptian? Playing it over and over in his head, wondering if things might have turned out differently? Or was he entirely engaged with the process of shepherding? Shepherding… not a job for sissies. The original tough guys, ready to beat off lions or poachers with their staffs at a moment’s notice. The original nursemaids, tending the weakest of the flock when they were injured. The original outcasts, since they were always “unclean,” and therefore unwelcome in polite society.

Whatever his thoughts, they must have evaporated in the presence of the bush that blazed and yet was not consumed. Here is the holy, dangerous and thrilling, inviting and terrifying. And Moses did an incredibly important thing at just that moment: he stopped. He stopped to look at that holy thing, to try to understand it. That is when he heard that voice… we know it from films as the voice of Charlton Heston… that voice issuing the double call, his name, “Moses, Moses!” Occasionally, in scripture, God calls to one of God’s people, and it is particularly urgent: That moment when Abraham has the knife poised at his son’s throat. That long night when Samuel is asleep in the temple, and God wants to draft him to clean up all the corruption. This is one of those moments. It is urgent. The voice of God calls Moses’ name twice, and Moses does what all these biblical characters do: he says, “Here I am!” Which means, I am ready, and I am willing. I am ready to hear what you have to say to me, God. And I am willing to do as you say.

God tells Moses, take off your shoes, man! The place where you are standing is holy! A friend said to me this week, I wonder how many times Moses had walked by that place before? How many times had he looked at that same bush, and seen nothing but… some shrubbery? How many times have I looked at my own children and not felt the holy hand of God in my life, just impatience that I walked in after work to a sink full of dishes? How many times have I taken a dip in the ocean and not felt the touch of eternity for all my pre-occupation with the discomfort of appearing publicly in a bathing suit? How many times have I been in the presence of the holy, and simply passed on by, busy anticipating the next meeting or the next phone call or the grocery list or the to-do list?

Of course, when we do slow down enough to notice that something holy is in our midst, we run the risk of God dumping into our laps one of those completely overwhelming, impossible tasks God likes to save for his special favorites. Let my people go! Build me a temple! Go to the ends of the earth to tell people the good news! Or, maybe, Raise this child for the next 18 years, keep her safe, and help her to become a good person! Or, Time to teach Sunday School—even though you’ve never done it before! Or, Why don’t you start a soup kitchen in your community? The kinds of jobs that sometimes, make us go, Oh, God, are you kidding me?

Which is, pretty much, exactly what Moses says. You want me to go where? And to whom? And do what? Are you kidding me? Me? Who am I? I can’t start a soup kitchen… I can’t even make soup! I can’t organize a league for the Boys and Girls Club… I have no earthly idea even where to start! I can’t go to Pharaoh… remember I’m wanted for murder in Egypt? What are you thinking, Lord?

God meets Moses’ objections with the one answer that cannot be discounted or refuted or ignored. When Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God doesn’t recite Moses’ resume. God doesn’t say, “Well, you were raised in the Pharaoh’s household, maybe you could use those connections to your advantage. And, hey, the Israelites are your people after all. And you were pretty brave with that Egyptian… and you’re a natural with the sheep!” God doesn’t do that. When Moses points to his own deficiencies, God points to divine sufficiency. God’s answer is simple and complete: “I will be with you.”

I will be with you. When we find ourselves walking on holy ground, and realize that God has given us holy work to do, we have the assurance that we aren’t doing it alone. God is with us. The success of the enterprise doesn’t depend on us, on our brilliance, on our strength, or on our determination. All it depends on is our willingness to hear God’s call and to respond in the affirmative. “Here I am.”

But there is something else to consider: When we find ourselves walking on holy ground, and realize that God has given us holy work to do, it is usually because God somehow requires human partners to carry out the divine plans. God chooses to work through human agents. I suppose, if God had wanted, God could have simply kept the Egyptians in a nice deep sleep and had the Israelites awaken to a new day of freedom, high-tailing it out of town. God, being God, can do that sort of thing. But that does not seem to be the way God works. God chooses human beings… often the most unlikely human beings… to be the conduits of God’s saving work. A fugitive from justice, sent to speak to most powerful and brutal ruler of the land—that’s Moses. A woman, born into slavery, who escapes and goes on thirteen separate missions to rescue more than 70 slaves—that’s the woman they called Moses, Harriet Tubman. I’m sure you can think of other examples of God choosing the unlikely, frail human to do the mighty, saving work.

The good news is: God isn’t calling most of us to rescue whole nations. But the sobering news is: God is calling us. Maybe not to the grand things that make the news, but certainly to the “Do-what-you-can-to-make-things-better” things that work quietly behind the scenes. Maybe you and I can’t solve the problem of oppressed people singlehandedly. But we can sign a petition, get involved with a reputable organization. Maybe we can’t solve world hunger or even local hunger on our own—but we can faithfully bring a couple of cans for CHOW every week, and volunteer at one of the local soup kitchens, while we’re at it. I invite you to ask yourself: what is the holy work to which God is calling me?

The world is shot through with holiness. The earth, along with everything that is in it, is God’s. Every tree. Every person. Opportunities to experience the holiness of God’s handiwork are, literally, waiting for us on every corner, each time we meet another human being, every time we look out our windows or take a breath. And the world, as I know you’ve heard me say many times, is both beautiful and broken. God is calling us… every minute of every day. God is calling us to take part in the work of mending creation, healing that brokenness. We who walk the holy ground are called to God’s holy work. Are you ready? Thanks be to God. Amen.

Image: "Burning Bush" Quilt by Gwen Jones, at Professional Art Quilt Alliance

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Hair Tale

When I was in the sixth grade my hair was so long I could sit on it. And I sometimes did! It was also heavy and hot and not exactly easy combing after a shampoo.

Near the end of that year, I began getting headaches. My mom began to suspect the headaches were related to the hair, the sitting on of which happened occasionally. I did not disabuse her of this notion. I'd been trying for something other than long, long hair since the second grade, but she had not budged.

There were other possibilities for the headaches as well. For example, my mom let me know in sixth grade that I was expected to take home the "General Excellence" award when I graduated from my elementary school. Which was in three years, at the end of eighth grade. Stress and anxiety were a possibility.

One day my mom, rather tight-lipped, said, "Alright. Let's get your hair cut." And we went to the salon next door, and they lopped off about fifteen inches, giving me a cut that was below the shoulders... still rather long-ish, but lighter, more fun.

In years to come, my mother pointed to that hair cut as the moment when all the troubles began. She said, my personality changed. I was not the same daughter she'd had. And she was frank about the fact that she didn't like me as much.

I think we can all figure out what else was going on in my life that year. Hormones were involved. I wasn't a little girl any longer; I was an adolescent. And, evidently, that was pretty hard on my mom. She was very jealous of my friends.... she did her best to break up my closest friendships (a project that lasted through my wedding, shockingly enough).

So I imagine I come to the issue of hair somewhat... fraught.

This weekend Petra went to an appointment (which I scheduled at her request) to have-- can you guess?-- fifteen inches of her hair lopped off for "Locks of Love," an organization that provides wigs for low income kids who lose their hair because of illness. Her dad took her; she's with him this weekend. At 11:20 this morning, as I sat in my office waiting for the commencement of a funeral luncheon, I received a text with the picture from my last post. Later, the picture above showed up on Petra's Facebook profile. (For a reminder of the hair that was cut, see this lovely shot from Table Rock on Peaks Island, ME).

It's gorgeous, it's hip. It gives me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I am not my mother. I love this girl, and I don't need to play out my childhood psychodramas on her. Right?


Who's That Girl???

Because, sometimes a girl needs a new look. That's why!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!!

Because we people who voted for the senator from New York in the primaries cannot tell the difference between a woman

  • with 30 years' experience in public service and policy;
  • who in the Senate serves on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the Environment and Public Works Committee, and the Senate Armed Services Committee;
  • who is consistently in favor of women's productive freedom;
  • who is consistently in favor of tough handgun regulation;
  • who had a front row seat for the policy-making for two presidential terms;
And a woman

  • who, after serving as mayor of a town of under 10,000, has completed less than half a term as governor;
  • who is a lifelong member of the NRA;
  • and who is anti-choice.
I can't tell the difference, can you???

OK, I'm done. But... did he really think we would fall for this?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

"We Are a Better Country than This."

So... it has finally come to pass. Another barrier broken down, another way in which we citizens of the US are just a little more... free tonight.

It has been an interesting Democratic Convention. Like many women of my generation and slightly older, I misted up at the sight of Hillary Rodham Clinton and gave a couple of whoops at various points during her speech. Ted Kennedy, on the other hand, completely undid me... the history behind that man's life of public service.

Joe Biden charmed me all over again with that brilliant smile of his... did any vice presidential candidate ever look like he was having so much fun?

But the week, and of course, the night, belonged to the Senator from Illinois. From the gracious gestures by which he sought to heal the rifts in the democratic party (including having the Senator from New York call for his nomination by acclamation-- beautiful) to his words upon accepting his nomination tonight, the man did what he needed to do. He showed that he has what it takes to lead, not only this country, but this nation.

The words that will stay with me for a long time are these:
You know, this country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that's not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that's not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that's not what keeps the world coming to our shores.
Instead, it is that American spirit, that American promise, that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.

The leaders and the policies of the last 8 years have not called us to be the best we can be. They have appealed to the lowest common denominators of human nature... and, friends, I'm a Calvinist. That stuff ain't pretty. Finally. Finally, we have someone willing and ready to articulate a possibility of generosity and not every one for himself in an ugly zero-sum game. A possibility of unity and not a cynical exploitation of us-vs-them. A possibility that we don't need to conform to one narrow definition of "patriot" or "citizen" in order to have some value in this land. My good sweet Lord, it is about time. High time.

Image: Todd Heisler, The New York Times

Monday, August 25, 2008

Aw, Mom, Do I HAVE To Go Back to Work Today???

That's how I'm feeling this morning. I'm heading back to the office one year minus one day from the day I preached for the call at St. Sociable. (First three posts... actually, last three posts, August 26, 26 and 25... from last August tell all about it). And... a lot has happened in a year.

Last year on this day, I was the preacher they hoped they might like. Today, I'm their pastor. I've gotten to baptize their kids and welcome them as members and marry them and stand at their sickbeds and over their graves. I've attended, oh, probably more than a hundred meetings with them, and done close to that many home communions. Last year all was hope and expectation. Today, all is "much to be done" and some measure of reality.

I still think there is a honeymoon aspect to our lives together, but maybe with a good match you still hear people saying they love you a year later. I'm not sure. This is my first practically permanent pastorate (they'll vote on that at some point), so I don't know exactly how these things go. But the feeling's mutual. Good friend MoreCows named her blog "You've Really Got to Love Your People," and that's a good mantra to carry around in the doings of my days.

So what gives? Why am I so... whiny today? I have been approaching the end of my vacation with funereal gloom. I feel bummed not to have more time. But, then, I went and re-read those posts from last August... remembered the delicious anticipation of the newness of the call. That was a wonderful thing to do. I feel again the joy of finding and being found, the thrill of being chosen. I am ready. Philippians 4:13 darling!!!

My prayer for today:

Author of all my blessings... my life, my loves, my children, my abilities, my call... Come upon me now. Fill me with the newness of each day, each challenge. Teach me to love my people. Teach me to meet the joys, the sorrows, the hornet's nests and the tastes of honey with equanimity and gratitude for it all. Grant me this one extraordinary privilege: that I may show, in some way, the enormity of your love. In your holy and unpronounceable name I pray. Amen.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

J and I

I'm home, as mentioned last time, from all my nomadic wanderings. It is always good to climb into my bed after any length of time away, and this was no exception. It was extra-wonderful to get to spend some quality time with two of my longest-standing friends, G and J.

J and I met our freshman year at Big Catholic U. I was a transplant from a coastal town in a mid-Atlantic state, and J was a native New Englander, complete with the elongated "ah" sound in her speech. (She takes Baahths. She cuts the donut in haahlf.) She came to my dorm room with one of my roommates, who explained that they were in Latin class together. She was adorable... quirky, well-read, with a vocabulary that made you feel smarter just to listen to her talk, beautifully Irish with brown-to-auburn hair and freckles.

She also came with quite a family history-- not my story to tell, but it broke my heart to hear of the way her parents let her down. Within a year or so, J and I were part of the same crowd-- a bunch of English and Theater majors (I was struggling along with Bio and Philosophy, myself) who lived, it seemed, from play to play.

Four girls and three guys, and the guys all shared the same first name, S. Everyone, it seemed, was in love with one or another S at some point. In the middle of sophomore year, I had a dream about one of the S's, and, reader, I married him. Eventually. J was there for it all. She was a witness.

J and I attended my first screening of the Rockly Horror Show together. J and I lamented together over the unavailability of our designated S's. J and I had birthdays that took place within a week of one another. For a description of my first ever grown-up dinner party, hosted by J, see the first paragraph of this sermon.

J made my wedding cake. J was Larry-O's godmother, when eventually he came along. J took me to my first non-baby-encumbered movie after he was born. J and I saw one another with great regularity (several times a month, at least) the entire time S and Larry and I lived near Beantown.

Eventually S's career took us away from that home and we landed here, in Carousel City. J and I still had contact, but less as the years went by. We celebrated one another's weddings, births, and we commiserated through one another's divorces. J was at my ordination.

These days, J is in a new phase of her life, having relocated to the tiny island she so loves. These last months have seen us talking on the phone more than we had in years. It is such a gift to think that this friendship can still be a part of my life, that I can have that exquisite experience of talking to someone who knows me almost as well as family-- no, better, if I'm honest with myself. And J has started a blog. So now I feel our check-ins will be even more regular, our contact with one another's lives even greater.

So, if you want to read some lovely writing by a woman who is working very hard at keeping it real... scoot on over to New Islander. Say hi to J. Tell her Mags sent you.

Photo by J.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Blogger Meet-Up!

A brief quiz:

Guess who is even lovelier in real life than in her fetching blog-shot? And who is utterly hospitable, serving a rockin' cup of coffee to vagrant wanderers (as well as maple syrup donuts)?

Guess who is even funnier in real life than in her fabulous writing? And whose son is going to be a kickin' drum major one day?

Home, and happy, after a wonderful time with J., long-term soul-friend, and a wonderful meet-up with the above-mentioned bloggers. * Happy Sigh *

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Island Memories

In 1987 I was pregnant with Larry-O, and married to Mr. Mags. We were just five years out of college, still living in the Boston area (newly moved to a small house located roughly in the middle of the commuter rail tracks in Wellesley), still very close to all our college friends. Among these were G., newly returned from two tours in the Peace Corps (Liberia, where he managed to weather both a revolution and malaria) and on his way to medical school, and J., easily my best friend. Beginning in our junior year in college we tried every year to vacation with college friends... a week at the cape, three times, then a summer where it didn't happen, then a week's rental in the house above, on Peaks Island.

I was 6 months pregnant, very big and happy about it all. Mr. Mags was an attorney with a Boston firm, and I was nearing the end of my attempt at a singing career. With us in the house, in addition to G. and J., were another J. and his fiancee K., not members of the college crowd, but part of a law school cohort that briefly cropped up. The house we rented was beautiful and spare, overlooked Casco Bay with a view of the Portland lights at night, and the sound of clanging buoy bells wafting in through the windows on the crisp island breeze.

Having grown up at the shore, I naturally wanted to swim, but discovered that even my polar bear nature had its limits: one brief dip was enough to last me the week. But we did ride bikes, and we cooked together, and we played games (Pictionary and Scrabble were great favorites).

I think my marriage was happy then. That's what I think. But I'm not sure. We were both overjoyed to be welcoming He-Who-Would-Be-Larry-O. But I did have a persistent emotional theme that told me I didn't quite fit in as a wife at the Firm (no Tom Cruise overtones intended). I had ongoing issues with my mother, who loomed large as an influence and as someone to defy, escape from, but never entirely successfully. My memory of that week is sweet. I did fall off a bike while out for a ride with G., who begged me to never ever tell Mr. Mags lest his life be forfeit (as if he personally had pushed me off). As far as falls from bikes go it was singularly unspectacular: I fell from a complete standstill, my pregnancy girth throwing off my balance. Embarrassing and hilarious.

This week I sat with G., now a doctor and married with three small boys, and J., a single mom like me, with children who are slightly younger (E., 13, and P., 10). J. had heard all about the divorce... I had kept in better touch with her than with G. He heard much of it this week for the first time.

It was odd to spin that particular yarn with these old friends, who know the Ex as well as they know me. It was odd to hear J. look at Petra, smile and shake her head and say, "She looks so much like her father. She is so much like her father." It was odd but healing, too, I think. I find that the story of my divorce is not so fraught with fresh pain as it once was. I can talk about Ex with some compassion and some realism, instead of as a victim... which, truly, I don't believe I am/ was. Though I would have chosen other ways for things to happen and work out, I am truly happy today, perhaps happier than I have ever been.

Where the seeds of our marriage's demise present in that little gray shingled house? Perhaps. Can I be grateful for the years we had together, as I am grateful for my life exactly as it is today? Yeah, I think I can.

Island walk 3

Island walk 2

Island walk 1

Island shots 6

Island shots 5... Voted best smile on the island

Island shots 4

Island shots 3

Island shots 2

Island shots 1

Monday, August 18, 2008

Vacation Part 1 Concluded; Part 2 Beginning

We stayed at my dad's house until Friday morning. The remainder of the week was quiet... good weather, but the three of us were so burnt by our one day at the beach we stayed inside reading. "Mom, we're indoor cats" Larry-O said to me. Indeed.

Each time I leave my dad I do so with a potent mixture of emotions. In many ways I find him difficult to infuriating. We disagree politically. We disagree on parenting. He harbors enormous anger and resentment about my divorce (directed at the ex Mr. Mags), which I don't find at all helpful. And while he dotes on Petra (he said about fifty times how beautiful she was) he can be quite hard on Larry, complaining about his eating habits, his clothing, etc. In fact, it seems to me that my father tries to work out some of his issues with my brother through his relationship with my son. Which, of course, isn't fair.

And my dad is angry. He can get very worked up over tiny slights, and he can be downright paranoid with regard to things like insurance companies and lawyers (of course, lots of folks would sympathize with both those sets of suspicions!). I mentioned to him that I think he like to fight, and he was very hurt and put out about it. But it's true. He was complaining about a dinner check, about the amount of money spent on sodas. I said, "Next time the kids and I can have water. No problem." His face fell. He said, "Don't give in so easily!"

But... he is my dad, he is my only dad, I love him and he loves me, and I know he loves my children (weirdness with Larry notwithstanding). And he is a few short weeks away from his 87th birthday. And, as I remind the kids, we just don't know how much time we have with him. His health is pretty good right now, but that sort of thing can turn on a dime.

So I hug him goodbye, with all this complicated relief and grief stirring around in me all at once.

Tomorrow Petra and I are off to Peaks Island, just off the coast of Portland, Maine. One of my oldest and dearest friends has moved there, and given an open invitation to stop by this summer. Another old and dear one will be there too... both people I've known since I was 17 or so. We'll just be there for four days. But we will take ferry from the mainland, and we'll hear the bells of the buoys clanging in the harbor, and we'll taste the seaspray on our lips. And I may... may... have a blogger meet-up to report upon when I get back!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Vacation Pix 3

Ocean sunset.

Vacation Pix 2

Petra, crisping up.

Vacation Pix 1

Larry, nobly eating ice cream.

Vacation Minutiae, With Mobile Pix, One Hopes

We are at the Jersey Shore, at my dad's house. (My house, though I didn't grow up in it...)

We arrived Sunday night in a violent rainstorm, complete with thunder, lightning, flickering power, and water pouring in a kitchen window. We promptly settled in to watch the Olympics (we who never, ever watch sporting events on TV unless the Red Sox are in the World Series). Dad was thrilled to see us, even moreso because we were a day earlier than I'd promised. But once church was over Sunday, we just got outta town.

Monday was spent, largely, sleeping... we are all exhausted, Larry from his exertions taking his summer classes, Petra, from being a world-traveler, and me, from... just from. I dozed on an Easy Boy in the living room much of the day, with a view of Casino City skyline over the bay and marshes. The water undulating makes beautiful reflections of light on the walls. It is utterly peaceful and delightful.

We had an early dinner Monday (a wonderful and elegant Chinese restaurant) and then we went to Ocean City. Hopefully some of those photos are showing up somewhere on this blog; I am in the midst of experimenting with mobile posting. It was another moment, for me, of recognizing how grown up my children are. No "Can we go to the water park Mom?" conversations. Not even a roller coaster ride. Simply strolling, enjoying the sights, the lights that twinkled on as the twilight progressed. I sent fudge and taffy to two organizations I support (ahem), ice cream was had by some, and we got in the car and headed home early (8 pm).

Tuesday more energy had us all heading out to Smithville, an historic village about a half hour's drive from here, walking around the pond there and browsing a lovely art museum that focuses largely on local artists. My dad came with us, which was a surprise, but a nice one. He seemed really pleased to be out and about. But we walked him off his pins, I'm afraid, and so he opted out of dinner. Last night we watched 3:10 to Yuma... see it, absolutely.

Today we went to the beach. I began reading a book I've been hearing lots about for months, and we finished that jaunt with a stop at a hamburger stand I frequented much as a kid.

Favorite moments so far:

  • Driving with all the windows down, in bathing suit and shorts, after leaving the beach... everyone's hair curly from the humidity, everyone slightly sunburned, listening to this:

  • Waking to the sounds of seagulls screaming.

  • Watching the look on my dad's face as Petra and I sing this

and Larry sings this

and Petra sings this

and I sing this.

Next: dinner at the Bonefish Grill. Good vacation.

Monday, August 11, 2008

In the Boat: A Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

“In the Boat”
Matthew 14:22-33
August 10, 2008

Think with me of a time when you were afraid.

There are many kinds of fear, many things we might be afraid of. Here are some times I’ve been afraid. I was afraid on the morning of September 11, 2001, like so many Americans… I was a seminary student, just about 9 miles north of the World Trade Center, and I’d heard the fire trucks roaring down Broadway all morning as I’d watched the unimaginable images on television. I wondered whether I was foolhardy, leaving my children home in Binghamton with their dad, while I went off to engage in what now seemed a selfish enterprise, getting my master’s of divinity so that I could be ordained. I was afraid on an airplane, taking my first flight after 9/11 changed air travel forever, not just for citizens of the US, but for the whole world. I wondered if the airways were really safe, wondered if this flight would reach its destination. I was afraid just before I had surgery, an emergency operation I had about ten years ago. Actually, I was more afraid the day before, during that period of time when I knew there was something very wrong, and two visits to the doctor hadn’t diagnosed it. I wondered what was wrong with me, how serious it really was.

These fears all have to do with physical safety and well-being, but I’ve been afraid in other ways, too. I was afraid when I knew my marriage was ending. I wondered if I would ever find happiness again, without that particular person by my side. I was afraid when I was between pastoral calls, when no suitable opening in a church came along for seven long months after I had finished an interim position. I wondered if I would ever be able to do this work that I love so much again, and I started to look at the want ads in the local paper. And just recently, I was afraid… just a little afraid… when not one but both of my children made plans to spend large portions of their summer living their own lives, growing and learning in ways that necessarily precluded the involvement of their mother. I wondered, what would life be like without them for three or four long weeks? I wondered, who am I, when I am not their mom?

Fear causes us to wonder, to ask questions, projected out into an unknown future, even more frightening than the scary present. Today’s gospel passage is about fear, and about responses to fear—ours and God’s. We pick up the story exactly where we left off last week… that long day on which Jesus learned about the death of John, his cousin, and tried to find time apart to pray and be alone, but was thwarted by the large and needy crowds. Remember how he healed them, he took compassion on them, and he fed them, along with his disciples. On that day of fear and anxiety, Jesus found it in himself to feed God’s hurting and hungry people.

Immediately, Matthew tells us, Jesus told his disciples to get in a boat. Actually, he “made” them get in a boat, an odd detail…but it lets us know that Jesus is in charge, the disciples are his followers, and he takes command. Go, he tells them, and they obey. And Jesus finally finds the hours he needs to be alone, to pray and grieve and process the horrifying and beautiful events of the day. Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses, so many of the most important events of Jesus’ life are portrayed as taking place on a mountain. Like Moses on Sinai, Jesus goes up the mountain to pray and commune with God. Jesus is on the mountain. The disciples are in the boat. And time passes.

The Sea of Galilee is known for its capricious weather. Like Lake Superior, it has these massive storms that blow up all of a sudden at the end of relatively mild and cloudless days. And so the disciples are caught off-guard by just such a storm, in their boat, battered by the waves, far from land. And it goes on all night long. Long night…no rescue in sight… no captain to shout words of reassurance. I wonder what they were wondering. Were they wondering, is this it? Is this the end for us?

Every gospel, every passage of scripture emerges from a particular historical situation, and Matthew has just described for us the situation of the early church. Jesus, whom Matthew has called “Emmanuel”—Hebrew for “God is With Us”—Jesus is suddenly, distressingly, absent. The church is likened to a boat, in the middle of a journey, far from land, and battered by the waves—actually, the Greek word is “tortured.” The church is being tortured by the storm all around it. Matthew is telling us how the church is suffering in the early years, that time when Jesus’ followers are going forth alone to spread the good news. They are “in the boat/ church, with only their fragile craft preserving them from its threat, buffeted by the stormy winds of conflict and persecution…”[1] Long night… no rescue in sight… no captain to shout words of reassurance.

Except, in the latest, darkest part of the night, literally, the “fourth watch” (which would be between 3:00 and 6:00 AM), there he is. There comes Jesus, walking on the water. One of the hardest things we can try to do is to shift our minds into the mindset of the early church, to understand how they heard this story. This week I heard someone talking about those characters we encounter in scripture: “These are people who never placed a phone call, or complained about a table,” he said. “They never waited for the results of a C/T scan.” That world is pretty hard to grasp for us, we who have the world and all its scientific discoveries at right our fingertips. We who know about gravity, and why precisely Jesus should not be able to walk on water.

But when the early church, those telephone-less people, heard this story, they heard it quite differently. “Ah,” they said. “He walks on it: that means he conquers it. And what he walks on… the stormy sea, chaos. He is the conqueror of chaos. He is the conqueror of fear. Even when he is not present, he is somehow present. And when he is present, God is present, God, who conquers chaos once and for all.” [2]

Fear grips the disciples, again, anew. They wonder… is it a ghost? Which is a revealing fear. In other words, on this day on which they’ve heard of the death of a prophet, the disciples very reasonably fear that Jesus, too, is dead. But Jesus hears their terrified cries, and says “Take heart. I am here. Do not be afraid.”

This alone might have been… must have been… powerfully comforting, encouraging for the disciples, battered as they were by the storm. But Peter reacts differently. Peter, Rocky, the one who is both leader and representative of all Jesus’ followers, seeing Jesus walking on the water, becomes agitated, I would say. He seems to want and need something more. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Lord, if it is you. Oh Peter. He needs more.

My colleagues, other ministers who are preaching on this text this week, are utterly divided on Peter getting out of the boat. One writes most poetically about Peter’s courage:

When I read this passage, Peter is my hero. He's the grizzly young seminarian who, because he doesn't know any better, starts a ministry with street kids in the inner city. He's the social activist who sees poor people without medical or legal resources, then tries against all odds to help. He's the community organizer who rallies a neighborhood to save a city park, or at least gives it his best effort. He's the minister or elder, sister or brother, who may fall on his face, even screw up, but who's out there doing liturgy with his feet and soul, maybe in big ways, more often in tiny ones. [3]
Others say that Peter’s insistence on getting out of the boat is a mistake, a personality defect, ego. One writes,
Christ tells the disciples, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter then challenged Jesus and says "If it is you, command me to come." Peter needs proof and in a sense puts himself right out there. Make me do something special. Set me apart, then I will believe. Peter is putting the burden of proof on Jesus. It is sort of like the desert story, "If you are the son of God command these stones to become bread." And then as Peter begins to sink he cries, "Lord save me." No question who Jesus was at that point. [4]

In other words, Peter is us… no matter how you look at him. Faithful and faithless, ego-driven and humble, doubting and believing all rolled into one. In fact, that word Jesus uses, when he says “Why did you doubt?” really means “divided in two,” “ambivalent.” Why were you of two minds? Peter is us. Doubting and believing and trying and fearing all at the same time. And yet, at the heart of his plea… isn’t he somehow saying, Draw me Lord? Draw me to you?

This summer all hands were on deck for the 218th meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in San Jose, CA. Among the more than 400 items of business it dealt with, the Assembly made some changes to our book of order; there is an insert in your bulletin describing some of them, and we’ll send a full report to you in the September Tower newsletter. One of the changes has to do with how we discern who is appropriately called to ordination to the offices of deacon, elder and minister of Word and Sacrament, particularly in the area of human sexuality. Even as it made these changes—some of which still have to be ratified by votes of the Presbyteries—the Assembly knew that they were likely to be met with joyous welcome in some quarters and dismay in others. The stated clerk of our denomination, Gradye Parsons, preached to the Assembly, and looked to the gospel text. Yes, the church is like a boat, and we are all in this boat together. In times of stress and trial, it is tempting to want to jump out of the boat, to put Jesus to the test. But, Mr. Parsons urged the Assembly to take heart. He said, Get in the boat. Row across the lake. There will be a storm. You will not die.

When we are afraid and we are wondering what the future holds, our greatest hope is to be in the boat: part of the community of believers, where Jesus’ presence makes itself known. When we are afraid, it is the presence of the Other, the face of God shining through the faces of our friends and loved ones, that makes the fear bearable. Even when we are wondering: Is this it? Will this be the end for us? The gospel message insists: it is not the end. Get in the boat…stay connected to the body of believers. Row across the lake…put your heart and soul and mind and strength into your service of God and God’s people. There will be a storm… there’s always a storm. Immanuel is with us. Keep your eyes on him, instead of focusing on the storm. You will not die… in fact, you will experience new life, better life, fuller life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. Eugene Boring, “Matthew: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 327.
2. Ibid., 328.
3. Bill LeMosy, Member of Midrash Lectionary Discussion Group.
4. Judy Whitmore, Member of Midrash Lectionary Discussion Group.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Freaky, Perhaps Unwanted Glimpses Into My Subconscious

Last night's dreams:

I was young. I was a babe! I was going to school, not at the Jesuit University that is my actual alma mater, but another one, in Big City. Fair enough.

I was on what could only be called a date with a priest who was known, in my undergraduate days, as being a great Lover of Women from Afar. He loved us. He pined after us. He listened enthusiastically to us tell of our relationships (in too much detail). (He eventually... had some troubles.) And, frankly, he was a babe. 6 foot four, beautiful bass voice, gentle giant. He was the subject of many a young Catholic coed's crush.

So, Fr. R. and I were on a date. And I took him, naturally, to a country club near where I grew up. Now, this place was very exclusive. My family did not belong. But friends of the family did, so we went as their guests. It was beautiful and elegant in an old moneyed sort of way. I remember lingering in the powder rooms, because they were just so damned beautiful... painted flowers in the porcelain sinks. And Fr. R. and I decided to take a swim. All very... racy, from a 19-year-old's Good Girl's point of view.

I dove into the water, and found myself beneath a tangle of bodies, and being held down forcibly. I couldn't breathe, but I didn't panic... just pushed and pushed until, at last, I was able to get my head above water again. I decided to get out of the pool.

I showered, and while waiting for my date, whom should I run into but Heath Ledger! Looking well and fit but sad. (Not at all like he looked in The Dark Knight, which I saw this week with Larry-O and Petra). I decided to try to cheer him up.

My name is Magdalene Smith, says I. You might know my brother-- he's an actor as well. Larry-O Smith? Heath nods eagerly, Yeah, I know him, he's really good!

Larry-O, my brother.

Fr. R., my date.

And hanging by the pool with poor dead Heath.

Time for vacation?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

So, does this conflict with my chosen profession?

You are The High Priestess

Science, Wisdom, Knowledge, Education.

The High Priestess is the card of knowledge, instinctual, supernatural, secret knowledge. She holds scrolls of arcane information that she might, or might not reveal to you. The moon crown on her head as well as the crescent by her foot indicates her willingness to illuminate what you otherwise might not see, reveal the secrets you need to know. The High Priestess is also associated with the moon however and can also indicate change or fluxuation, particularily when it comes to your moods.

What Tarot Card are You?
Take the Test to Find Out.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

A Tale of Two Parties: A (not new) sermon on Matthew 14, 1-21

I first preached this sermon 9 years ago, when it came up in the lectionary cycle. It was the Sunday after a beloved and wonderful boss left the pulpit of a church that had grown increasingly hostile towards her for unnamed and unnameable reasons. Let us just say, they had their suspicions.

The day she preached her last sermon (the Sunday before I preached this one) onw family threw a party-- not a "Good bye, we'll miss you" party. Rather, a "Ding dong the witch is dead" party. This is the sermon that resulted from my musings on the lectionary gospel that week. I preached it this morning at St. Sociable, in advance of an ice cream social we threw for our friends and neighbors.

“A Tale of Two Parties”
Matthew 14:1-21
August 3, 2008

It certainly can be the best of times or the worst of times.

Have you ever been to a party which was, simply, perfect? I have. I was 20 years old. I had just met a group of friends whom I believed to be the cleverest, the funniest, the nicest, and the most talented people I had ever known. Three of us had birthdays within the space of a week, so one of the birthday trio decided to have a real, grown up dinner party. She invited us to leave the dorms of Big Eastern College and go to her mother’s home. We all dressed up, and put on our nicest jewelry. We climbed into somebody’s father’s station wagon and drove to the suburbs. When we got there, we found a lovely home, complete with real china, the Brandenburg Concertos on the stereo and chicken cordon bleu cooking in the kitchen. Clearly, we had left the dorms behind! There were strawberries waiting to be eaten and bubbly drinks waiting to be poured. We all sparkled all night long. We still talk about it: J's dinner party.

And then there are those other parties... you know the ones I mean. The parties where you stand frozen in a corner because you don't know a soul except the person who invited you-- who is, of course, missing in action all night long. Or the parties where the host and hostess are in the middle of a lovely marital spat, which manages to cast an evil spell over everyone’s ability to make conversation of any kind. Or the parties where uncle So-and-so gets sloshed and acts out his own delusions of his irresistible charm. The parties that make you want to run screaming into the night. And I bet if you’ve ever suffered through such a soiree, you still talk about THAT party to this day, too.

Throwing a successful party is an art, not a science. The alchemy of choosing just the right combination of people and setting hors d’oeuvres is not available to all of us mortals. The art of being a good host or hostess is just that-- an art. You can study it, but unless you have the gift, you will always be no more than a dilettante. (Of course, we dilettantes can throw nice parties-- just not life-changing events that people talk about for decades afterwards!). The host or hostess is the heart and soul of a party. He or she is the glue that holds it all together. Without that particular gifted person at its core, a party is just a bunch of people and a bunch of food and a bunch of hot, over-crowded rooms.

Today’s gospel reading offers us a startling contrast in styles of hosting a party. On the one hand, we have Herod, hosting his own birthday party in the intimate inner chambers of the palace. On the other hand, we have Jesus, hosting multitudes for an impromptu pot luck on the gentile eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.[i] I don’t think it is an accident that the gospel writer has juxtaposed these two gatherings for our benefit. Jesus and Herod: each is the heart and soul of his own particular party. They couldn’t be more radically opposed.

Herod Antipas was Rome’s man in Galilee-- essentially, a puppet ruler.[ii] But the fact that he had no power apart from that which Rome bestowed upon him did not prevent him from leading the ancient near-eastern version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous.” We can presume that Herod’s birthday party included the very best of the best food, the most elite guests, and hot and cold running servants. His guests and servants alike would have known to be on their best behavior, of course, as this particular party animal had a prison into which he could throw them if they happened to annoy him. As the festivities got underway, we happen to know that Herod was holding one such prominent but probably unwilling guest in his dungeon, namely, John the Baptist. John had proven himself very annoying indeed to the ruler.

John had openly criticized Herod’s illegal marriage. Herod was married to the ex-wife of his still-living brother, which was forbidden by the Torah. Matthew tells us that Herod had mixed feelings about John. He wanted to put him to death, because it was very inconvenient for the royal family to be proclaimed to be in serious violation of the law. However, he also feared John, or rather, feared the crowd’s reaction to John’s death, for he knew that the people “regarded him as a prophet” (Matt. 14:5). So the host of this party was in a conundrum.

Well, the party proceeded, and we all know what happened next. We know that because this particular story has captured the imaginations of countless artists down through the ages. There are many well-known depictions of this story, everything from paintings and plays to movies and even an opera. In fact, I bet most of you know the name of Herodias’ dancing daughter, even though it’s not included in the biblical account: according to the historian Josephus her name was Salome. It was a common practice in this part of the world to for hosts to engage dancers to entertain their guests.[iii] A royal host whose own stepdaughter and niece danced would be bestowing a particular honor upon his guests. But this host proceeded to make a fatal promise: “Anything you want, my dear, anything at all...”

Notice that the text emphasizes that Herod took both his oath and the presence of his guests into consideration when weighing whether or not he would actually hold up his end of the bargain. It was Herod’s intention to be a considerate host. It does not say whether the platter bearing John’s head was the final and grisly “dish” of the night; but it was certainly the one that had the guests talking about the party for years afterward.

And then there is Jesus. When he received word that John had been killed (and, no doubt, how he had been killed), Matthew tells us that he “withdrew from there.” He got into a boat and crossed the Sea of Galilee, out of Herod’s jurisdiction.[iv] Matthew uses that word, “withdrew”—in Greek, anachoreo—more than all the other gospel writers put together. The reason is this: Matthew is giving us insight into Jesus’ new vision for the world, the vision he calls “the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus doesn’t withdraw because he is a coward. He withdraws because he is a new kind of king, with a new kind of response to violence. His response is “no.”[v]

Already we know something about Jesus which sets him far apart from Herod Antipas: how he responds to a threat. Herod throws the threatening person into prison. Jesus refuses to engage in the violent conversation on any level.

So Jesus withdrew, offering an alternative to becoming involved in political or religious brinksmanship. But surely the Jesus who was baptized by John, whom another gospel tells us was John’s own cousin, withdrew for reasons other than ideology. Surely the horrible and violent death of John gave Jesus reason to grieve, to pause, to pray, to question.

Only, those people... those pesky people kept following him. Jesus didn’t want to throw a party. He had, as far as we can tell, no intention of being a host. But the people followed him. This was a “deserted place,” not a palace: hardly ‘where the elite meet.’ And these were not the beautiful people. These were the little people, the people without influence, without connections, and, evidently, without food, who brought their sick to a wandering prophet because here, at last, in the person of Jesus, was hope.

“When he went ashore,” Matthew tells us, “he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (v. 14). And then, when reminded of the lateness of the hour, rather than sending the crowds away so that he could at last have the solitude he was craving, he gave the casual order to his lieutenants: “ give them something to eat” (v. 16). And Jesus became the host of a party so memorable, so extraordinary, so big, every single gospel tells the story, at least once, sometimes twice, for a total of six versions in the New Testament. A party people are still talking about, two thousand years later. A party which, surely, is at the heart of our Christian identity.

How different Jesus and Herod were as hosts, and how different were their parties. Herod was irritated and threatened by John and had him imprisoned; Jesus was pursued when he sought time apart and still was moved to compassion. Herod butchered; Jesus healed. Herod ordered a man’s violent death, the absurd result of chance, a dance and a rashly made oath. Jesus directed his disciples to feed these hungry looking crowds, the result of his always, in every situation, choosing to give life rather than take it away or even ignore it.

A host is the heart and soul of his party. Herod was the heart and soul of fear, violence and an arrogant pride that could not admit that he’d made a horrible mistake. Jesus was the heart and soul of compassion, of healing, of blessing, of sharing, and of celebration. The perfect host.

So the question comes to us: What kinds of parties do we throw? There are Herods in this world, make no mistake. It is not unheard of for people to use occasions for hospitality as opportunities to gain or consolidate power—think of everything from state dinners to the office holiday gathering. But think, too, of all the opportunities we have to emulate Jesus as host—deciding, when we may not be up to it, to be the heart and soul of welcome and generosity anyway. Deciding, even when we feel we might like or even need to be waited upon, to wait upon others. Deciding that perhaps even our moments of pain or grief or fear are moments when we can choose to give, rather than to receive.

The miracle of the loaves and fishes is a vital model to any of us who hope to have welcoming, thriving and even growing churches. Extending ourselves to others in hospitality when we are not sure we even have the means to care for ourselves is the essential Christian calling. It’s a tall order. But it is our calling, we who have sat in the crowd and heard the words of Jesus our teacher and eaten the amazing meal served by Jesus our host. We are called to offer his words and his meal and his welcome, every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[i] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. VII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 324.
[ii] Boring, op. cit., p. 319.
[iii] Selina Hastings, The Children’s Illustrated Bible (New York: DK Publishing, Inc., 1994), p. 226.
[iv] Boring, op. cit., p. 323.
[v] Boring, op. cit., p. 167.

She's Home

Upstairs, sleeping in her bed, after giving me an hour of the highlights of her 20 days away.

I slept well.