Give to God what is God’s: it’s simple

RCL Year A, Proper 24

Well, it’s hard to believe that this is it. My last sermon to you at ECA. My last chance to say everything I want to say. Where do I begin? Do I lay out all my theology to make sure that you get it, do I tell you all the stories I never got to before, do I try out one last joke? Well, as Maria says in the Sound of Music, let’s start at the very beginning. Not the beginning of our time together in January of 2011. I mean the very beginning: the basic truth, what it all boils down to: you are God’s beloved, and God is doing good things here. That’s the essence of what I want to say to you today.

But it takes more than that to sum up our last few years together. To do that is more complicated. For my side of it, I have learned much about myself and my ministry, who I am and who I’m not, what I can do well and what I really can’t. You’ve watched me grow and been patient with me (mostly). Because even though I’d been ordained for several years and served in three congregations before I came here, I’d never been rector. I’d never had quite this much authority in a group of people – what I said hadn’t carried quite as much weight as an associate priest. So I didn’t know that some questions were not as simple as they first appeared – ‘where do you want the altar flowers to go?’ seemed like such an easy one on the surface. Or ‘Hey, what if we tried taking out the kneelers?’ While other questions went much more easily than I’d expected, like asking you all to participate in the reconciliation process several years ago, to get through the feelings from the embezzlement. Or inviting George Romer and then Mary McPherson to be senior wardens with me. (Excellent senior wardens, I must say.) Or hiring a new Christian Ed director – what a blessing Susie Ferguson turned out to be for this congregation and our children. But it took me a while to realize that when I offered an opinion, it was actually listened to. Not always accepted, of course, but listened to.

At the same time, I learned a lot about you. I learned what you liked to do, which weren’t just the things that had shown up in your parish profile during the search. You enjoy your fellowship dinners – serving barbecued meat, smoked meat, roasted meat, meat cooked in pits, meat in sausages, marinated meat… You excel at visiting each other in the hospital – no matter how quickly I got there to see someone, you had nearly always beaten me to the room. You like music that you can sing along with in worship, though I’m still not entirely certain what music that is. And I learned about what you deeply wanted, which is to see your beloved church continue and thrive. And to work more on your own lives of prayer and relationship with God. And I also saw that you are willing to risk new things to do that, even the unknown and suspect territory of community organizing, or tackling a public commitment to saying the Daily Office every day. Of course, sometimes what you like and what you deeply want for this congregation don’t always line up perfectly, and so we had some things we had to talk through along the way. And my own limitations and contradictions sometimes thwarted what I wanted to see happen here. That’s the complicated part. So saying goodbye now is partly about celebrating all that we did together – and forgiving and letting go of what we didn’t get to do.

The thing is, we’re all kind of contradictory creatures. In the words of one of my mentors which I often repeat, human motives are always mixed. So of course a congregation of humans doing life together is going to be even more mixed. Today’s gospel passage, I think, is about that – our contradictions, our mixed motives. The trick question that the Pharisees ask of Jesus, should we pay taxes or not, has one motive in mind, to catch him up. But Jesus’ response is serious, naming the competing claims we all have on our lives. Pay taxes? Yes. Give to the emperor what belongs to him, he says – you live in this world, do what is necessary to participate in its life. But give to God what is God’s. Which, in the end, is everything.

It’s complicated, participating in this life. Our motives are mixed because we’re pulled in lots of different directions. We have the voices of secular culture telling us one set of truths: to go for success, to look out for number one first, to find our identity in what we buy. Then there are the tugs from the people in our lives, who want us to align with them, be on their side of opinions and baseball games; people who need us to care for them and take care of them. There is the work that pays our livelihood, sometimes demanding more time and thought from us than we can easily give. And then there are our own compulsions, that tell us to avoid relationship or, on the other hand, to lose ourselves in it; to stick with people just like us or to bury ourselves in tasks and work instead. We hear so many voices that are often at odds with each other about how we ought to spend our time, our money, our energy. And each of them can pretend to be the most important voice of all.

But behind and beneath all of those voices is the one voice that really is the most important – the voice of God our creator who says, you are made in my image, you are my beloved. At the very beginning of the Bible’s story is our creation, God making everything and calling it good, God creating humankind in God’s own image. So Jesus says, Give to God what is God’s: give your whole self, your whole life. Your life came from God and it belongs there – give it and be who you are called to be. It’s the simplest, truest answer of all.

Living that out isn’t quite as simple. Or, rather, we don’t let it be so simple. All those other voices take up too much airspace. But if we tune them out and start at the beginning, then it does get simpler. If each of us is made in God’s image, then I and you and every single person we meet in this church and in all parts of our lives have in us the good and the holy and the true – and we can work to live out of that goodness in our own choices and decisions, and to help others live out of that goodness as well. If each of us is beloved of God, then we can love each other as beloved. And we can let go of the other things we try to hold onto for security instead, because God’s love makes us ultimately safe. When we start from that place of truth and trust, it all gets so much simpler. It isn’t really all that complicated after all.

You are God’s beloved. And so am I. In these last few years, we created together – we saw created among us – all kinds of good here. And that love and that good work will continue and be part of us even as I move on and you grow and change as a congregation. God is at work here with us and in all the places we go; we can trust in that and be thankful. I am grateful for you and for all you gave to me and my family here; I am glad of the good work we did. And I’m curious to see where we’re all going next. Give to God what is God’s – this church, each of you, me, all of it is God’s. And so we offer it back, and say thank you. Amen.

Youth Group Thanksgiving Pie Sale

Make your Thanksgiving preparation easier and enjoy a delicious pie baked by our youth! The youth are holding their annual scratch-baked pies sale the week before Thanksgiving. Proceeds from this fundraiser will go toward their Christmas service/giving activity (an adopted family from the EOPS program at Mission College): EOPS offers educational support services and grants to students who have experienced economic, educational, and/or language challenges, and who are often within the first generation in their families to attend college. The intent, purpose, and resources of EOPS are directed toward assisting students achieve their educational goals.  

This year’s pie flavors are pumpkin, pecan, and Dutch apple. Pies will be ready for pick-up on Wednesday, November 26th, at church, between 5:00 and 7:00 PM.  Not hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year?  Pies make a great hostess gift, Black Friday breakfast, and they freeze well, too!

So that we can shop for the proper quantities, please place your order by Friday, November 21.  If you can’t make it to church to sign up on the poster, please email Inge Bond at inge@dblosvn.com.  Pie prices are $14 for pumpkin or apple, and $16 for pecan. You can place your payment in the envelope with the sign up sheet at church, or pay at time of pick-up. We appreciate your support of our youth!  Happy Thanksgiving!

Your RSVP is requested

RCL Year A, Proper 23

There’s nothing worse than being invited to a party that you don’t want to go to. Or even worse, a wedding. Someone invites you because they count you as a friend or as an important connection, and they want you to be part of their special day – and you just don’t want to go. You have other things to do; there’s a game on that you are really bummed about missing; you know it’s going to be boiling hot at that wedding venue; and in the end, you don’t really like them that much anyway. So either you drag yourself there and grumble, or more likely, you come up with an excuse for why you can’t come. Ever felt that way?

Jesus’ parable is about those kinds of excuses. But not just the excuses we make to friends and colleagues – it’s about the excuses we make to God.

First we have to acknowledge how over-the-top and violent this parable is. A king invites people to a wedding, and not only do they make excuses for why they can’t come, but they beat and kill the postman delivering the invitation. Then in retaliation the king attacks and burns the city of those who RSVPed their regrets. He tries again to have his party, inviting people he doesn’t know off the streets to come instead. But when he finds one of those random guests wearing the wrong clothes, he throws him out into outer darkness.

Weddings are high-stress situations for many. But I would imagine that most of us have never been to one that felt quite like this.

There’s a whole history of hurt and rage behind Matthew’s version of this parable, the story of a community that was torn and turned against itself over who Jesus was and how they were to understand him after his death and resurrection. A lot of accusations about who’s really part of the wedding feast and who wasn’t ever part of it after all. And that hurt and anger has carried on through the centuries, with this parable and other texts used to justify horrible brutality and revenge on the part of Christians toward their Jewish brothers and sisters. We have to recognize the bloody legacy of this story, and what it was originally intended to convey – it doesn’t do to gloss over it.

But scripture has power in part because its meaning continues to evolve and change over time. This parable is not just an allegory of Jewish-Christian relations in the first century. It is a story about us, and about God. Because we are invited to a wedding. And all too often, we don’t really want to come – and then sometimes even when we do, we’re not really ready to be there.

The IAF core team leading the work of community organizing at ECA this last year has learned some things about our congregation along the way. We began this endeavor thinking about how we could engage more effectively with our neighbors, really become a larger part of the Almaden and San Jose community and serve others with our gifts. That idea galvanized some of us: we’ll get more involved and make a difference, we’ll attract people to join us! And it made others of us just tired: what, do more than we’re already doing? I’m already worn out. But very soon into the process we realized that even though many people at ECA named the quality of the community here as one of the main things they loved about the place, a lot of people in this community really didn’t know one another all that well. Some people didn’t even know the names of their fellow parishioners, let alone basic facts about their lives. And even those who did know others felt uncertain about how deep that relationship could go – they weren’t so sure they could talk about things like money, say, or which way they planned to vote in the next election, let alone matters of faith and doubt. And the core team realized that without that level of trust and relationship, we would have a hard time discerning and involving ourselves with new ministries outside of ECA.

That realization has been a long time coming, because the core team is itself made up of, well, people from the church too. People who didn’t know each other all that well and weren’t sure how far to push with each other. But it is emerging more clearly now, the sense that effort needs to be made to make this a real community of people that can go the distance with one another, through differences of opinion and risky new things. A community of people gathered around Jesus and the power of God at work in our lives. So you can expect to see more of that work interwoven into life here as the transition and search go forward.

It’s really just what the parable is talking about. There is a feast going on here, something that everyone is invited to. There’s a wedding in the offing, a joyous celebration of love and commitment and vulnerability. You could say a parish church is like a giant betrothal, a potential marriage for each and every person with each other and with God, the source of life and ground of our being. But all too often we don’t really say yes to the invitation. We don’t really want to come all the way in. It’s too inconvenient to change our lives that much. We have other things that seem more interesting. We like the reception, but we’re bored by the wedding ceremony, let alone the marriage that follows. So as lavish and wonderful as this wedding is promised to be, we just don’t really want to be there.

But think for a moment what it could be like to really say yes. Imagine a community where when you came, people were rejoicing to see you and to share with you about their journey of faith and to hear about yours, what really is true for you in your heart of hearts. Imagine a community where you were expected to live out sacrificial love for others, for the world – and were supported and taught in how to do that. Imagine a community that was working to transform every single member into a saint, transparent to God’s light and shining out into the dark world – and working to transform the whole world in the process.

That’s what the wedding feast in question would look like – that’s what a church could be.

It’s possible that if we were invited to that, we’d still really rather say no. Maybe that really is more than what we want out of church. It’s a legitimate answer. And despite the parable, I don’t think God will send troops to attack our city if we say no.

But I do think that is the question that ECA has been living into and will continue to live into for some time: what kind of community do you want to be? Are you ready to put on the wedding garments and really come in? Or are your farms and other commitments too compelling for you to leave?

I’m rooting for the core team here, as their efforts go forward. I think everyone would have a lot more fun at a wedding feast than off tending to their business. But it does take work to change old patterns and old clothes – it takes some discomfort before the new becomes familiar. So it will take prayer and good humor and patience going forward – happily, all of those things that ECA has in abundance. I think it’s all possible.

We are invited to a feast. A party that will demand our full attendance, our whole selves, our lives brought to the table – and that will feed us more abundantly than anything else we could find. The invitation will keep coming until we give our final response. So how about we put on our best and come to dance?

 

Go into the fields

RCL Year A, Proper 21

There’s a helpful question that is sometimes asked of churches seeking to renew their mission and ministry: if the church were to burn down tomorrow, would anyone in the community care? In other words, is the church doing enough outside its walls that others in the neighborhood know and respect and appreciate its presence in the community? Or is everything that happens at that church done just for the people in the church itself? It’s a pointed question, because for many congregations, the true answer really has to be, no, no one else would notice. No one outside of the church knows what the church folk are up to, because no one ever really sees them. The church members stay in their silo. They might leave worship every week with the words, go to love and serve – but they don’t do a whole lot to really live that out once they go out the door. Or at least, not in a way that people can see and identify with the church.

Today Jesus tells a parable about two sons: the one who says he’ll go do his father’s work but doesn’t, and the one who says he won’t go, but then does. You religious people, he says to the elders, are the first kind of son. You talk all the time, but you don’t do what you say. The ones you call sinners, on the other hand, when they repent and change their mind and do what God wants them to do, they’re the second kind of son. And in the end, God is much happier with them than with you. Not easy words for the priests then to hear, I’m sure. And not easy for any of us either. Because it’s all too easy to talk the talk, even to have grand intentions about how we’ll walk the walk. But it’s much more difficult to do it.

This week I had the opportunity to meet individually with pastors of two of our neighboring churches – with Fr. Brendan McGuire of Holy Spirit Catholic Church, and Pastor Steve Clifford of Westgate Church, the church that is taking over South Hills next door to us. I was impressed with both of them, for their commitment to their ministries and what they’re trying to do at their churches. And their commitment is bearing fruit: both congregations are actively engaged in serving and giving to others in the community. Holy Spirit gives about 40% of their income away; last year Westgate gave 51% of their income away to the community. But ten years ago when those pastors began their work with them, both congregations were only giving about 2-3% of their income. About as much as the average individual Christian gives, as one of them pointed out.

I don’t know all the details of how that money is given or where it goes. But it means that of the money the churches receive, a vast amount of it is not spent on church buildings, or salaries, or vestments, or programs and dinners for people in the congregation. Instead, it is directed outward – as is a great deal of the time of the people in the church. That money, and that people time, is spent doing things for others around them, not for themselves. Would the community notice if those churches burned down? Ten years ago, probably not really. Now, it would make a difference. I wonder where we would fall in those calculations.

It’s food for thought. And also food for thought for each of us as individuals. What difference does my life make to others? What do I give away, and what do I keep for myself? What is the purpose of my existence, anyway? All of these are questions of stewardship – what we do with what we have been given. If stewardship is everything we do after we say ‘we believe,’ as one writer has it – then what is it we do? Do we say we believe but then refuse to go into the fields? Or do we live out what we say matters to us?

It’s easy to find others who seem to be doing more than us. So it might just make us anxious, this line of thought. 40-50% of our income given to others?? Good grief, how could we do that? Does my life matter to other people beyond my immediate circle? How do I know? And what should I do differently if it doesn’t? And suddenly, there we are, mired in a guilt trip of despair. But other words jumped out at me from the gospel reading: The son who refuses to go into the field changes his mind, and goes. The chief priests and elders, on the other hand, refuse to change their minds. Changing minds is possible. The categories aren’t fixed, in other words. There aren’t some people who can give and others who can’t. Everyone is capable of changing – or of refusing to change. And the opportunities to change are presented over and over again. We have second chances, and third, and fourth, on and on. Sometimes we’re the son who is all talk and no do; sometimes we’re the son who rebels but then regrets it and does the right thing after all. But we’re not stuck in one or the other forever.

God offers us an invitation. Go out and do this thing I need you to do. Take this chance to give to someone else. Try this out. God gives lots of different invitations, each of them tailored to a particular situation, the gifts and resources, and the needs. You have this gift; please do this with it today, the one thing that lies before us. To listen to the call and see if we can bring our resources to bear in responding to it. That’s what stewardship is – and the more we do it, the more we are able to do of it, the more generously we feel able to give, the more directly we are able to respond in useful and helpful ways.

I see the sense of generosity in this congregation growing and widening all the time. Over the last few years, we have come to see our role as more than just taking care of our members. We have reached out in different ways to families and children around us. We have asked good questions about our feeding ministry and whether we can do more to reach those we feel called to serve. We have met with other local institutions, and are beginning to be known and called on by them. We have given of our resources in time and money towards other organizations right here in our valley. We have become more generous givers in our pledging. And new leaders have stepped into leadership and responsibility as they have seen their gifts needed in this place. We are becoming, in other words, more and more like the son who says he’ll go and then goes. We are beginning to see ourselves as stewards of this parish, of this community of Almaden and San Jose – people who need to care for the people here. And we are doing just that, more and more.

God will continue to invite ECA and each one of us into new fields, to give a bit more, to step forward in different ways. Sometimes we might say yes, but fail to act; other times, though, we will give. One way or another, we answer God’s invitation. And when we say yes and go, what we are really saying is yes, this church does matter; yes, our lives do matter; what we do for and give to others makes a difference. May our generosity grow and grow, as we grow in knowing God’s love for us. Amen.

Generosity isn’t fair

RCL Year A, Proper 20

Every evening when I make dinner, one of the last steps is to get out two plastic cups and the gallon of milk, pour the milk into both cups, and then crouch down so my eye is at the level of the cups, to check and be sure the level of milk is exactly the same in each cup. Usually I do this without thinking. Sometimes, though, I stop and catch myself, and think, this is so ridiculous. But I know that if I don’t check, somebody else will. Two somebody elses, to be accurate. It has to be even.

Anyone who has kids or remembers being a kid knows exactly what this is about. It has to be fair. If one kid gets something, the other has to get it. If they don’t, it’s not fair!

We are deeply imprinted with this. It’s what we mean by justice. Justice – think of the statue of Justice with her scales, weighing things out – justice measures and calculates to be sure everyone receives their due. It’s how we make sure there is equal opportunity, equal compensation, equal rights. When justice is lacking, someone is bound to notice. Sometimes that noticing can lead to rebellion, revolution, and war, when the injustice is too great. Justice matters.

But we’re confronted today with two stories where justice as we define it is thrown out the window. Or, to be more accurate, where justice is trumped by something even better: generosity and grace, radical, reckless free gift. It’s so wonderful, it’s hard to take in. But for most of us, our first reaction to these stories is not to exclaim over the generosity; it’s to think, it’s not fair.

Jonah’s the first of the stories, the prophet whose task it is to go and preach repentance to those dreadful Assyrians. No way, he thinks. I don’t want those enemies of Israel to be given the chance of forgiveness – are you kidding? So off he runs to Tarshish – but then there’s the storm, and the belly of the great fish, and Jonah finds himself on his way to Nineveh after all. But his sense of justice is still so strong that he can’t stand what God is doing – can’t even believe that God might be up to something more. So he goes to the city, does his job, and leaves to sit and enjoy the spectacle of Nineveh’s punishment. But to his horror, the people of Nineveh take him at his word and repent, and God forgives them – them, those horrible no-good Assyrians. And God teaches Jonah a little lesson, sitting out there under his bush. My grace and generosity is greater than your sense of justice, Jonah. That story we get; we know we’re supposed to laugh at Jonah and be on God’s side. Repentance is an act that should receive the compensation of forgiveness, after all – at least in one kind of equation.

But centuries later, Jesus tells his followers a story that bothers us a bit more. It has a similar moral, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. There’s a lot of work to be done in the vineyard, and over and over throughout the course of the day, the manager of the vineyard goes out and hires more workers. The last ones are hired so late that they work only one hour of the whole day. But in the end, all the workers, the one hour shift and the ten hour shift, receive the same wage. It’s not fair. Which is Jesus’ point. God’s generosity is greater than our sense of justice.

Justice is essential in human dealings. We need to balance and measure and calculate to prevent injustice, to prevent people from being taken advantage of and exploited. But not everything can be measured and accounted for. How much repentance does it take to equal full forgiveness, after all? What is the measure of our lives? How do we calculate our relative goodness? We can’t. God’s generosity doesn’t stop to add it up; it’s a reckless generosity. And really, so is ours, as one commentator points out, at least to some extent. Very few of us track each day with a tally sheet, scoring each other for merits and demerits. We love and forgive our family members, friends, coworkers, all the time. Generosity is the basis for relationship – you can’t have real relationship when you’re keeping score.

We are beginning to move into the season of the church year when we think more intentionally about generosity. All through the year we give of our time and our abilities, to the church, to our friends and neighbors, to our work and to other pursuits. Sometimes we count up what we give; more often we simply pitch in. We have the time, the need is there, so we help. We know how to do something, so we do it. Even as busy as we all are, we each find time and ways to help out when and where we can. How do we measure what we give of ourselves? It is hard to do – especially when we realize that sometimes the quick five minutes we took to write a note made someone’s day. When someone else later that day gives us a hug, does that balance what we did in writing the note? We don’t think of it like that. There’s no clear way to calculate it.

But we also give of our money. And money is much easier to calculate. Money is numbers, and we can measure and balance it. So when we do something with our money, we tend to look for what comes back to us in return. I paid you for one hour of work; I expect an hour of your time. If you give me a whole day of work, you expect a day’s wage. I pay the money, and I want the product.

Up to a certain point, we’ll give money instead of time to avoid being troubled. It’s easier to write a quick check than to devote our lives to helping someone else in need. And we might not track every dollar of it. But once the amount of money becomes larger, we calculate it differently. Think of all the colleges and universities with buildings named after major donors. Or the stipulations we put on our giving at church, or to other charitable organizations. I’ll give, but only to the capital fund, not to the operating budget. I’ll give, but I want the amount kept secret. Or, I won’t give, until you change that policy I disagree with. In the end, the truer statement sometimes is I’ll give, but I’m not really giving, I’m investing and lending, and I expect a return. I’m giving for my self, not the good of the whole. It’s my money, and I get to say what happens with it.

As the owner of the vineyard says, am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? But what he chooses to do is to give without regard to the different worth if each worker. He gives enough so that each one can go home and feed their family that night, regardless of how much labor they gave him in return. He chooses to give without controlling it, letting his money go where it can do the most good – no strings attached. He chooses to let the money serve the relationship, not be an end in itself.

It’s not a fair way of dealing with money. It refuses to calculate and balance. What the owner realizes is that money doesn’t need to be treated differently than any of our other resources – because when we do so, it stands a good chance of becoming our god, a major obstacle to our relationship with the true God and with our neighbor. Instead, the owner gives his money like we have been commanded to give our love – freely, without insisting on our own way. What if, as the pledge season begins here at church, we were to do the same? To give of our money freely, without concern for who knows it, who judges it, who calculates it – to give money for the good of the whole, not of our own selves.

It’s not fair. But it’s the generosity God is calling us all to grow into – with our money, with our selves, with our lives. May God grow us and stretch us more and more, that we might come to love with our whole selves. Amen.

Being real community

RCL Year A, Proper 18

At retreats and other events, I’ve had the chance to spend time with monastics over the years, and I always find myself delighted by their humor and bracing honesty. They are people who know themselves and others very well. One monk I saw as spiritual director would always warn me against my own pretensions, saying, ‘Human motives are always mixed.’ Nobody is pure. And in other conversations, when monks were asked, what’s the hardest thing about being a monk?, the answer has always been clear: ‘Other monks.’ Whatever drew them into the monastic life in the first place, they have had to deal with the other people who are there as well. And monasteries, like churches, are often full of people who are more difficult than most. We’re the island of misfit toys, as some say about the church. But the thing is, dealing with one another is how we really grow in knowledge of and love towards God.

There’s a theory of group development by Bruce Tuckman, a psychologist who was at Princeton in the 1960s. He listed five stages of development for any group gathered around a common task, which he called forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. (Why the ridiculous rhyming words? because it comes from the Dilbert management speak world. But there’s still some useful truth in it nevertheless.) In the forming stage, the group is polite, conversations stay on the surface, and everyone stays comfortable. They rely on the group’s leader to feel safe, and that strong desire for safety means that not much really gets done. In the storming stage, conflict develops. Different agendas emerge, the leader is questioned, personalities clash, and everything starts feeling less safe for everyone. Cliques develop of likeminded people, and sometimes turn into factions. But if the group is able to move through those conflicts successfully, then they move into the third stage, where they listen to one another well, are willing to change their minds and learn from one another, and trust each other. They share the leadership, and the group is able to move ahead with its mission. If the group is really good, it will move to the performing stage, a high level of maturity and productivity, both as a group and in the work of each individual. And some groups come to an end eventually, the adjourning stage.

No theory of development ever claims to be linear, however. And not every group goes through all the stages. As a group continues its life, further conflicts may develop. New members will come and old members will leave, adding to the uncertainty and moving the group backward along the stages of development. So the group will need to reform around its mission again and again. Many groups never make it out of stage one at all, because they fear conflict too much – they dip a toe into an area of difficulty and quickly retreat. Everyone stays where they feel safe, but the purpose of the group, the task it is meant to accomplish, is lost.

It’s a theory that works pretty well for churches. A congregation is a group gathered around a shared task or mission, and it grows over time in the depth of community it can sustain. But there’s no guarantee that a church, or any other group, will develop real community – because to do so, they have to go into the hard stuff together. People get to know each other, and before too long, they stop being quite as nice to each other and start battling for who gets to be in charge. And somebody steps on somebody else’s toes. No wonder that within the first century of the church’s life, they were already talking about how to deal with conflict and forgive one another – what our gospel passage talks about today.

So what do you do when conflict erupts in your community? says Jesus. Well, you deal with it directly. Go and talk to the person who stepped on your toes, privately. If that doesn’t address the problem, then talk to them again, with the help of a few trusted friends. If the problem continues further, then you have to involve the whole community, all the way to the potential bitter end of deciding as a community to exclude the troublemaker. That’s where we tend to draw back, alarmed. Exclude someone from the church? We’re supposed to be loving and inclusive here. We could never do that.

Of course, that’s not step one of the process. The early church knew well that 99% of all conflicts in community would be resolved with simply talking honestly and openly with the person you have trouble with. Because when you do that, you have to be vulnerable. And vulnerability tends to invite vulnerability in return from most people. And so you begin to trust and care for people that you previously were in conflict with. Which is how community, real community, begins to grow.

You notice that Jesus does not say, when someone offends you, go and talk about it to your other friends. Get them to agree with you how horrible that person is, and when you’ve really got your clique convinced, shun that person. And yet, too often that is how we work in church. It’s the 7th grade lunchroom all over again.

Like so many other things, I think it comes down to fear. We’re afraid of the other person’s reaction, if we go to them and tell them something they did upset us. We’re afraid of hurting their feelings, or them hurting ours even more. We’re afraid of making a scene, or being thought difficult ourselves. We’re afraid our nice community won’t feel so nice anymore if we openly rock the boat.

But Jesus’ point, as lots of groups have experienced, is that without going directly to the person who has offended us, we never allow the opportunity to mend a broken relationship. We never heal the wound. The resentment and hurt linger on, often on both sides. And our community suffers from it, consciously and unconsciously. We won’t go to the level where the hurt is, and so we never get to the level where we can start living out our mission.

And the other thing is that without being direct and honest with one another, it is hard to be direct and honest about ourselves. Sometimes the offense really is more about us, buttons that have gotten pushed, than about any malicious intent by the other person. Sometimes we’re really part of the conflict ourselves and need to change our own behavior and attitude. But when we refuse to engage with our fellow community member, we never see what we should be seeing in ourselves.

Jesus’ message about conflict was pertinent to the first-century church, and it still is today. As the monks will tell you, human nature is the same today as it’s always been. Our congregation and pretty much every other one around the globe need to hear these words, this surprisingly straightforward practical advice from scripture. When someone offends you, go and talk to that person. Take the risk for the sake of love. Step forward in the name of love. Because ultimately when we are willing to do the work of reconciliation, when we take steps to forgive and be forgiven, then we really are living our mission – which is to be Jesus’ people in the world. Jesus is the one who forgives and reconciles us; when we forgive and reconcile, we do Jesus’ work. And we know more powerfully the truth of God’s undying love for us, and for all.

 

 

Montgomery Meals Get-Togethers

For all PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE Montgomery Meals Volunteers, we will be having two Montgomery Meals Get Togethers to thank those participating, share ideas on what is working, what we can do better, and transitioning to HOME FIRST site.

 

When:   Sunday Sept 7th

Time:    After church at  ~12noon – 2pm

Where:  Sharon & Don’s House, 6870 Goldpine Way. Bring a side dish or dessert to share.

 

When:   Saturday Sept 20th

Time:    6pm

Where:  Sharon & Don’s House, 6870 Goldpine Way. Bring a favorite hors d’oeuvre or dessert to share.

We have two evenings coming up in September (Sept 5th and Sept 19th) where we are serving food for the homeless at InnVision.  It looks like we have plenty of cooks – but we don’t have anyone signed up for serving.

If you have been serving – THANK YOU.  Please let Sharon Hall know the frequency you are willing to serve meals (once per month; twice per month?). Email to sharonhall4429@sbcglobal.net or call her at 408-910-2758. If you would like to serve and have never served, go to this URL to sign up online:

http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c0b45adac23a7fc1-montgomery. If you don’t feel comfortable signing up on the online system, email Sharon atsharonhall4429@sbcglobal.net or call her at 408-910-2758 and she will sign you up. Thanks for your support!!

Who are you really?

RCL Year A, Proper 16

There’s an old joke my family likes to tell. A man goes into a greasy diner to get some breakfast. The waitress comes over to his table, slams down the menu, and says, ‘Well? Whaddya want?’ The man says, ‘I’ll take two eggs and toast.’ ‘Anything else?’ The waitress snarls. ‘Yes,’ says the man, ‘a few kind words.’ The waitress stalks off and returns in a few minutes with the eggs and toast. ‘What about the kind words?’ asks the man. The waitress leans in close, and says, ‘Don’t eat the eggs.’

There are times in our lives when we need people to tell us the truth. We might find ourselves at a crossroads and need wisdom on what choice to make. Should I go back to school or not? Should I marry this person? What do you think? Or we might be in a conflict with someone and need another person’s perspective on it. Am I right, or is she? How do I respond to this? Those are the times when it is good to have people around us who can be honest. It’s nice to be flattered; it’s lovely to hear compliments; but sometimes we need someone to just really help us see what is what.

I wonder if that isn’t partly what is going on in the gospel story today. Jesus wants to know what his disciples think of him. After several months following Jesus around and hearing him teach, seeing him heal, and knowing him as a friend, what do they say about him? And moreover, what do others say?

It’s a good thing Jesus wasn’t somebody who needed to be liked. Well, Jesus’ disciples say, some people think you’re John the Baptist, some Elijah, some Jeremiah. Some people, in other words, think you’re a divisive, intense, alienating prophet of doom. That seems to be generally what people think of you, Jesus.

Pretty honest. Nobody out there seemed to think of Jesus as a nice, well-meaning sort of fellow. I could imagine a more insecure person thinking, Gee, I thought they liked me better than that. It might help a bit when Peter declares him to be the Messiah, but I’m not sure how much Peter understands those words when he says them.

Of course it’s not just personal feedback that Jesus is looking for, here. He may well be asking in order to gauge how his message is coming across. But he also is asking because he wants his disciples to stop and think for a moment. He’s not just their friend. He’s not just a wonderworker. Who do they really believe him to be?

There are times when we all need to stop and ask that question for a moment – or for several moments. Who is Jesus, really? Who is God? For that matter, who am I? It’s not just something we engage in as an idle exercise, spinning theories or navel-gazing. It affects what we do and how we live. And if we’re going to answer these questions, we need honesty and perception. We need honesty in order to risk going places that may make us uncomfortable. And we need perception to see the bigger picture. There are things we say about ourselves and believe about ourselves that might not really be strictly accurate – we might wish they were true, but they aren’t. We may not be as nice and loving as we say we are; we might not care about a particular issue like we thought we did; and so on. When we assess how we spend our time and money, or what we say in our more unguarded moments, we might see otherwise.

And there are things we might say we believe about God and Jesus because we think it’s what we’re supposed to believe. We’ve absorbed ideas from church or culture and we think they’re the right way to understand God. But deep down – again, seen in how we spend our time and money, or how we treat other people or big decisions in our life – we might really believe otherwise.

I had an experience like that several years back, when I climbed my first mountain, Mt Shasta. I was a year out of seminary, soon to be ordained, and I had been operating with a sense of God as loving and personally invested in me and my vocation. I knew I was on the right path because everything went easily and people liked me. But in fact, my process toward ordination had not been as easy as I’d expected and my personal life was in disarray, and I was starting to wonder at this picture of God I had. So off I went to climb this mountain with some friends, though I wasn’t really in great shape to be doing that. Around 12,000 feet I wanted to die. I felt sick and exhausted by the altitude and the effort, and there were still 2,000 feet left to go. I sat there for a while, trying to recover, and looked around me at the rock and ice. And suddenly I realized that the mountain didn’t care that I was suffering. It was impassive, indifferent to whether I made it to the summit or not, because it had been there for thousands of years and would continue on for thousands more whether I lived or died. And somehow, strangely, I felt relieved by this. I got up and climbed the rest of the way, and then all the way back down, and felt great. Something had cleared. God wasn’t personally invested in my ordination; God wasn’t another one I might disappoint; it wasn’t about me after all. God was way bigger and fiercer and more wonderful than me and my little life. And realizing this freed me – I was ready to start putting that life back in order and say a real yes to what lay before me. Who I believed God to be started to align more closely with the truth of my experience.

We might really wish Jesus were a nice, well-meaning sort of fellow, there to make us feel ok. We might like to think that we are good people, always justified in what we say and do. But there’s not total truth in that. We know that following Jesus doesn’t always make everything turn out our way; God’s intentions for good may be utterly different than how we’d like to script them. And we know we aren’t always as wonderful as we wish – we might be pettier, or less perceptive, than we want to think. It’s no use pretending otherwise – because to do that limits us, and limits how God can act in our lives. So Jesus lays those questions before us: Who are you, really? And who do you believe me to be?

The transition you are all embarked on now is a good time for such questions. Four years have passed since you engaged in a search process. Who are you now? What is the same, and what is different? And who do you want to be going forward? God is involved and active here at this church. But the ways that is manifest are changing now, as you shift in leadership and vision. Who do you understand God to be now? How do you see God at work? The answers to these may not be easy and obvious. They may take some work, and reveal something different than you expected. But if you get closer to truth in the process, that is always the right direction to move in.

The gift is that if we are faithful, we live more and more into the truth all the time. Peter blurted out an answer to Jesus’ question, but he didn’t really understand what it meant until much later. Sticking close to Jesus as long as he could helped him really see and know who Jesus was, for him and for everyone. When we stay close to God ourselves, when we pray and listen and wade through the emotions to hear what is true, then we come to that truth as well – who we really are, and who God is. And then we really begin to know God’s love for us, and for all. Amen.

Church for all

RCL Year A, Proper 15

You remember that children’s song with the hand motions?

The church is not a building

The church is not a steeple

The church is not a resting place

The church is the people…..

 

I am the church

You are the church

We are the church together

All who follow Jesus

All around the world

Yes, we’re the church together!

We are all digesting the news of my leaving ECA – me no less than you. There are a whole lot of feelings amongst us. Some of you are angry; some of you are sad; some of you, perhaps, are relieved. Deep down I believe that Jim and I are following God’s call by this move to New York, but it is nonetheless sad to be saying goodbye to all of you and to this beautiful place. This change is coming sooner than we all anticipated, and it has not been easy sharing the news with you.

There are a whole lot of feelings that you are feeling, and all of them are normal and understandable. But there is one feeling that I want you to resist, and that is despair and hopelessness. Whether you believe it or not, I am convinced that you will be fine. I am not ECA. To paraphrase the song, the church is not the clergy – the church is the people. You are ECA. You, the people, are the church together.

We know this not just because of the song. We know it because you’ve been a congregation for nearly 47 years and I’ve only been here for the last 3 ½ of them. Some of you have been here for most of that 47 years. Some of you have been here much less. But you’re all the church together, every one of you as important as the others.

We know you’re the church because when one of you is sick or grieving, lots of others of you go out of your way to take care of that person. Whether you’re able to ‘pay it back’ or not, many of you have had to learn to accept the gift of care and attention when crisis hit. And many of you have been glad to give the help when it’s been needed.

We know that you’re the church because you’ve met together in groups and committees and vestries and talked long and hard about your mission and how you serve God in this neighborhood. You did that in your last rector search, you’ve done it as we’ve stepped into community organizing, you’ve done it in dinner parties and lunch groups and offsite meetings – many of those meetings, I might add, without the benefit of clergy.

We know you’re the church because you gather here Sunday after Sunday, regardless of who is or isn’t up front leading the service. You have opinions about what happens in worship, but you come whether it’s exactly to your taste or not because you know it’s an important foundation to your life together. You show up.

You are the church, and you will go on long after you’ve called your next rector to join you along the path.

I think you know all of this. And I think over the last few years you’ve been realizing more and more why you are church. That understanding has been expanding and evolving over time, for you and for the wider church. As the culture around us has been changing, we as a whole church together, God’s people in the world, are learning just who we’re here for.

The gospel story we heard today is all about that question. Jesus has an exchange with a woman that still sounds shocking even to our ears. He leaves Jewish territory and roams through Gentile lands, escaping at least for a while the wrath and hostility of the Jewish elders. But even here he is known, and a woman shouts out to him, demanding that he cure her daughter. First Jesus ignores her, then he shrugs her off, and finally when she will not let him go, he insults her to her face. It’s hard to read and hear. Is this Jesus meek and mild, Jesus the loving and inclusive? Doesn’t seem much like it. But the woman persists still further, arguing that even she, a Gentile woman, is part of his mission field. And suddenly he looks at her with new eyes. You’re right, he realizes. Great is your faith!

There are commentators who go out of their way to explain that all of this rudeness from Jesus is just a way of testing the woman’s faith, pushing her to persevere and claim Jesus as her own. It bothers some people that Jesus could actually not know something, that he would need to have his mind expanded by a woman. Personally, I don’t buy it. I think God’s mission and purpose for Jesus was something Jesus was slowly living into and understanding, maybe right up to the end. I think this encounter really does record an instance where Jesus realized that if he was messiah, it was not a role limited to the Jewish people. In fact, his people weren’t really accepting him well at all. In this story, Jesus learned something he hadn’t realized before – who he was here for.

God’s purpose and mission is something we all grow into over time, each of us in our own lives, and as a community together. We start out coming to church for all kinds of reasons, most of them having to do with our own needs. We need community. We need something for our kids. We need support in a hard time. We need a place to try out our new faith and sense of calling. But as we join and keep coming and as we begin to belong, the purpose of our being church grows and evolves. We start to come because of other people, people there we’ve become friends with, or people who we realize have come to need us. We come because it’s a place where we can serve others and participate in something bigger than ourselves. And gradually, it grows beyond ‘me’ to ‘us.’

But there is further that it can go still. Jesus knew he was not living for his own self; he believed he was living for his people Israel. But the Canaanite woman showed him that it was greater even than that – he was living for everyone, those who came to listen to him and those who never would. For him it went beyond ‘us’ to ‘all.’

And that is where our mission lies as well. We are church not just for this community of people gathered here; not even just for the wider community of our extended family and friends. We are church for people we don’t know and never will know; who may never darken this door or any church door. As one of our music candidates said to me the other day, we sing our hymns for those who have no voice. We take care of one another on behalf of those who are lost and alone; we take counsel together for the greater good of the world beyond our walls. As we live our common life together we hold the world in prayer and intention; we cannot block them out, those who are hurting and in need. No matter how comfortable our lives, no matter how easy it is not to remember them; no matter how anxious we are about our own particular future. We are church for more than just us alone.

I know these next weeks will not be easy ones for us together. But who you are and what you have done so far has not depended on me or any of your clergy; who you are and what you do going forward will not depend on that either. Your and my mission is greater than that. We are God’s people in the world. May we live that out for all to see, and know it ourselves. Amen.

Check out the hand bell choir

Ever watched the handbells play and thought, “Wow! That looks really fun!”?  Are you attracted to shiny objects?  Do you crave stress relief in the form of banging on things?  Handbells just might be the answer you’re looking for!  Join us for an informal workshop on September 3rd at 4:30pm in the Fellowship Hall, where you can learn about the joys of bell playing and lay your hands on those beautiful shiny noise makers.  Risk free!  No commitment!  No cost! So what are you waiting for?  For more information, contact: Ruthanne Adams, email: rosebudsandredwine@juno.com.

Montgomery Meals in need of volunteers

Montgomery Meals is in need of cooks, drivers, and servers for both Montgomery Street and Julian Street sites.  Please sign up via the online sign up link below.  Remember – this is ECA’s opportunity to support the homeless and needy – assisting InnVision in getting people off the streets!

http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c0b45adac23a7fc1-montgomery

Please sign up for any of the following days:

August 15th – cooks, drivers, servers needed

Sept 5th – cooks, drivers, servers needed

Sept 19th – cooks, drivers, servers needed

Oct 3rd – cooks, drivers, servers needed

Oct 17th – cooks, drivers, servers needed

It would be nice to have people signed up in advance so we aren’t scrambling at the last minute.  Please look over your calendar. Grab your spouse and make it a date night, serving at InnVision and then going to dinner afterwards! The InnVision clients are really appreciative and recognize ECA’s support!  Come make a contribution to the community with 1-2 hrs of your time.

Step out into the storm

RCL Year A, Proper 14

We took the kids backpacking overnight last week, a fun adventure that quickly turned very exciting when a huge thunderstorm with hail and pouring rain hit us right as we were eating our dinner. We dove into our tents, Jim with Benji and me with Frances, and hunkered down. In our tent we discovered all the leaks in the rain fly, sang songs, told stories, ate M&Ms – but finally, Frances dissolved into tears as the lightning flashed and hail banged down and thunder roared on and on. In the end, the rain lasted nearly three hours – way more than we’d bargained for. But we made it through, and she fell asleep, and later I did too – and the morning was clear and beautiful and everybody was damp, but happy.

Storms are powerful things, times when we realize just how little we are in control. They happen when they’re predicted and they happen unexpectedly; they happen in our lives all the time, real storms and life-event kinds of storms. So maybe it’s not surprising that there are actually two different stories of Jesus and his disciples and a boat and a storm. Matthew includes them both in his gospel. The earlier one is the one where all of them are together in the boat, a storm arises, Jesus is asleep, and the disciples shake him awake, shrieking, don’t you care that we’re perishing?? In that story, Jesus rebukes the storm, stills it, and then turns and rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith. And they are amazed and wonder, what sort of man is this who can control the sea??

Several chapters later, there is this story we just heard. Jesus puts the disciples into the boat without him, a storm arises, he walks across the water and terrifies them still further, and then calls Peter out of the boat. Peter steps toward Jesus, panics and begins to sink, and Jesus rebukes him for his doubt, grabs him and climbs into the boat – and then the storm is stilled. And the disciples are not only amazed, but this time they realize what sort of man this is – that Jesus is the Son of God.

There have been two storms in my family in recent weeks, one literal, one more of a life storm. The first, the real storm, happened to my brother and his family, when an enormous windstorm tore through their town a few weeks ago. 70 mph winds took down a huge fir tree, narrowly missing their house. My brother and his son Phillip, a teenage state champion golfer, were out playing golf when it happened – yes, playing golf in a windstorm. When my brother got the call from neighbors about what was going on back at his house, he shrugged and figured, nothing to help it now, so they finished the round. He works in insurance; he understands catastrophe and the worst that can happen, and he could see this was not it. It didn’t require his immediate crisis response, so he didn’t give it. He is not a person of faith, but it is reminds me of the first story of the disciples in the boat with Jesus: realizing that although you are in a big storm in a little boat, you have the resources to deal with it. You might wonder, Who is this? just how are we staying so calm? But basically you manage to keep going.

In a different kind of storm, my mother just learned that she has to have a hip replacement. For the past 40 years of their marriage, she has been the hale and healthy one while my father has had various health scares, surgeries, ER visits, and so on. About 6 months ago that suddenly changed, when she developed some terrible pain in her back and hip. She began to have to use a walker even to move around the house. Here was a call she couldn’t ignore. But her first thought on this news from the doctor was, I can’t have this surgery, who will take care of Dad while I’m in the hospital? I can’t step out in this storm. Everything will fall apart. Only when we, her kids, said repeatedly that we were there to help, that she was not in this alone, did she begin to face into it – and then said later how ‘providential’ it was that we had been there when she got the news. There is more to support her than she had acknowledged. She is asking, Who is this? How will this be possible? She’s not sure yet whether she’ll be able to step out of the boat. Can she trust God to be there?

I talked last week about how we sometimes choose to stay safe and secure instead of risking being out on the street, out in relationship with God and with others. We want to be safe, but when everybody chooses that, we wind up being more isolated from one another, more captive to our own needs and more indifferent to those of others. It’s not the way God would have us live. After all, it’s Jesus who puts the disciples into the boat in both stories. In the first one, they follow him into the boat. In today’s story, he puts them into the boat and walks off to pray. They’re just following his lead. And even more terrifying, it’s Jesus who calls Peter out of the boat to walk on the water. Peter asks for it, but Jesus could have said, no Peter, it’s not safe. Because staying in the boat would be a lot safer. Staying on land, of course, would have been safer still. But only by getting out on the sea, stepping out of the boat, and taking the risks do the disciples see who Jesus is.

The disciples don’t weather the storm on their own. Peter doesn’t walk on the water by his own doing. When we are following God, we are held, able to walk through things that might otherwise scare us to death. When we are listening for God’s call and God’s voice, even if it’s drawing us into uncertain territory, we are given strength and peace beyond what we can muster ourselves. We can face into new health challenges, new jobs, new moves, new relationships. We can know our neighbors. We can share who we really are with those around us. And all kinds of things that seem too big and terrifying to imagine.

Because Jesus is out there, risking everything, and calling us to risk. God encourages us out away from the shore. God even calls us to step out of the boat, trusting that God is there to hold us up – even if we panic and start to sink, God will grab hold of us. Through all things, we are safe – even when we fear. God asks us, Why do you doubt? Why are you afraid? Don’t you know that I am with you in this as I have always been?

There will always be storms in our lives – storms that hit us without us asking for them, and storms we choose to walk into. The question is how we will respond to them. Can we step willingly onto the waves? can we trust God to be with us in the tiny boat? Or are we too afraid to let go of land, the certainty of what we’ve known? Do we try too hard to get through on our own doing? My prayer for each of us is that we will follow Jesus’ voice, listening closely for where God would have us go – and that we will trust God to hold us through it all. That is how we will see God, and know God. Amen.

Life in the street

RCL Year A, Proper 13

Last week I was up in Seattle visiting friends in the old beautiful neighborhood of Capitol Hill. We walked along lovely old houses with gardens on our way to playgrounds and ice cream. My friends are thinking about how to spruce up their front yard, so we stopped often to note several newly redone gardens, many of them with high cement walls topped with iron fences – elegant but completely shrouding the house and garden behind them. Walking by those houses, we noticed, felt very different than walking by the ones with sloping grass and flowers right down to the sidewalks – very different indeed from one of them that had a little free library box of books to entice passersby to stop. I wanted to walk more slowly past those houses, the friendlier seeming ones. The others made me want to keep going.

A writer named Jane Jacobs, in the middle of the last century, made a case for why that is so. Over time she developed an idea of what makes healthy cities and neighborhoods. In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she noted that when houses and shops border right on the sidewalk, with their windows looking out onto the street, the street is safer for everyone. The community is facing out onto itself, people watch over what is happening on the street, and that kind of shared public life makes the crime rate go down. Everyone is safer because of it. In cities given over to the car, however, when houses are built behind walls and stores are in shopping strips surrounded by parking lots, neighborhood streets are less safe. People grow more isolated and don’t see and watch what is happening in the streets below them, so there’s more opportunity for criminal behavior.

But there’s a reason city planning changed to be like that. When your front door opens onto the street instead of your garage and you’re walking to where you’re going anyway, life demands more interaction, more involvement with other people in order to go about your daily life. It’s less convenient. You’re out in the weather more, you have to carry your stuff further. You come out of your house and there’s your neighbor who wants to talk. You spend a lot of time around other people, instead of zooming along a fast road alone in your car. It feels like you take more risks, because all those other people might do you harm as well as good. There’s a lot of reasons why people individually choose a more secured, guarded way of living – and as more and more individuals do so, why a society begins to do so also: to be safer, to be less troubled by other people, to live life more efficiently. There’s something in the modern psyche that seems to prefer that, choosing safety over community and convenience over relationship. We seem to opt naturally for what suits ‘me’ over what is best for ‘us.’

But then again, it’s not really just a modern phenomenon. Think of the story in today’s gospel, when Jesus feeds thousands of people with only a few loaves and fish. At the beginning of the story, he went off to be by himself, but the crowds found him – all those people tromped out to be healed by him, each of them there for their own reasons. Some of them were there for their own needs, some of them there in hopes he would cure someone they loved. And there the disciples found Jesus, and immediately stepped in to shield him from the needy crowd. It’s late, they said. Send them away so they can meet their own needs elsewhere. They need food and we can’t feed them.

But Jesus said, You feed them. What?? The disciples said. All we have are five loaves and two fish. All we have is barely enough for ourselves. Those people can all fend for themselves; we need to take care of our own needs now. But Jesus says, Give the food you have to me. Give it up, and have the people sit. And then he blessed and broke it, and the disciples gave it out and there was enough for everyone and more to spare. The crowd of needy people became a community breaking bread together; the disciples became servants instead of merely followers.

Think of how everyone in this story has to change. All those needy people, lined up and pushing to be first, sit down together and share bread. They have to trust that Jesus will provide for all of them, even in that deserted place – rather than jostling for his touch, waiting for him to cure each one in turn. The disciples, tired and hungry themselves, have to give up their own food and serve others. Everyone has to stop looking out for number one – and when that happens, all are fed, and all are made well.

It’s not a safety-first kind of approach to life. It’s much riskier. It demands more of each person, even as it gives more to everyone. It creates life the way we wish it were, a community of love and care where we know and are know. But sometimes it’s hard to do what each of us has to do to make that happen.

But that’s the way God is. God doesn’t play it safe or hold back to be sure. God goes all out, being incarnated as one of us and dying for us, loving us and waiting for us in our rebellious freedom to love in return. God risks everything and calls us to follow and do the same. It’s the only way to make life the way we wish it were. It’s the only way to really be community.

What would this look like for you, right at this point in your life? If you stop to look at your life, is there someplace you’re holding back, lingering in fear and worried about number one? Perhaps you’re uncertain about a new thing, worried about the change and what it will mean. Maybe a health problem or personal issue has you preoccupied, caught up in the drama in your mind and body. Maybe there’s some routine, some set of habits, that have become so deeply engrained that you’re angry when they’re disrupted, even by someone you love. Maybe there’s someone you keep being annoyed with, because they’re too ‘out there’ and don’t behave properly the way you wish. All kinds of things can have us in that fear place, the place that’s the equivalent of the houses with big fences, the ones where no one ever seems to come out to say hello. All kinds of things can have us turned in on ourselves and away from the street of life with others.

But God is always inviting us out, out of that kind of fearfulness. Jesus stands there saying, You give them something to eat. Bring what you have to me. It’s not just enough for you. It’s enough for everyone. Sit down, all of you, and share this food together. There is more than enough – trust me.

So I leave you with this question to work with this week, one that turns up sometimes on motivational posters: ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ What could you do, today, to take one step out, away from fear? God is already there in the street, waiting for you to come out. The greatest risk has already been taken, God loving you no matter what. Take a step toward that love, and see what happens.

Letting God be the judge

RCL Year A, Proper 11

Have you ever felt absolutely certain about something, only to discover that you were totally wrong? A few years ago my son was moving up to a new class in his preschool. There were two different classrooms and sets of teachers that he could be assigned to, and I was absolutely certain which class I didn’t want him in. I had noticed this particular teacher on the playground and I didn’t want her. To my eye she looked coarse, unkind to the children, even trashy – too much makeup, too many tattoos, the trace of too many cigarettes in her voice. Anyone but her, I thought. The night the assignments were posted, I called the school to find out who B. had. And it was that teacher. Oh no, I thought. Oh NO. But the very first day I took him into that classroom, that teacher was there to greet me. ‘You moved here from New York?’ she said. ‘I grew up in New York! You like camping? I love camping!’ B. immediately connected to her, and as the weeks went by I often received photos emailed in the middle of my day of the two of them having a merry old time together. And very quickly I realized how totally wrong I was, how incorrect a judgment I had made about her purely based on my assumptions. I could hear God gently reprimanding me in my head.

Sometimes we’re completely wrong about people. We make judgments based on an impression or hearsay or something they said on an off day, and it can take us a long time to realize that we were wrong. Sometimes we’re wrong about whole groups of people. The church as a whole has had problems with this – from supporting slavery to racial segregation to fights over the ordination of women and gay marriage, we have found ourselves as an institution more than once on the side of what is wrong, adamantly arguing in judgment on other people. Only later have we looked back and seen where we been wrong. And all of those wrong judgments can lead to real damage, in our own selves, in the lives of others, and in the institutions we’re a part of. It is no light thing what we think about others and about the world, because it leads us to act in ways that have real consequences.

Jesus’ parable today highlights these kinds of flaws in our judgment. Good and evil are mixed up in this world, he’s saying, just the way wheat is mixed with weeds in a field. They might look alike; tearing up one might result in damage to the other. The only way to tell will be at the end of time, when the larger picture is revealed, and what you don’t know and understand now will be made clear. Stop clinging to your sense of certainty, and let God be the judge – you cause harm with your misjudgments. Or as Isaiah points out, there is no other god but God – stop trying to be God yourself.

It’s hard to resist, though, isn’t it? As the saying has it, “When they discover the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed they are not it.” We may not actually think we’re God or the center of the universe. But we’re pretty sure God agrees with us, that we’re standing pretty close to the center ourselves. Whether it’s in our political views or our family relationships, it’s the other people who are the problem. Carried to the extreme, this is what leads us to shoot down a plane we believe to be the enemy’s military aircraft – only to find out that we’ve killed hundreds of innocent people on a jet. Most of the time the effects of our mistakes are smaller than this, of course. And yet they can still be devastating to people around us.

Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, did a lot of preaching and writing a few years ago on idolatry, the worship of other gods besides God. He made the point that idolatry really is the main sin for all of us – not the worship of carved idols and statues, but of other things we have set up as our gods, things that we obey and that compel our behavior. Everything from career success to religion to individual self-sufficiency can become our god, Keller says. And when they are there in place of God, we act accordingly. We sacrifice our family to extra time at work; we get self-righteous about our own faith and how we live it out and bash other people who think differently; we push others away and deny our own need of help when it is offered; and so on, depending on what particular idol we’ve got in top position at the moment. And harm is the result. The sickness of our culture right now is a clear manifestation of that.

The thing is, we don’t set those idols up for the fun of it. We set them up out of fear. When Aaron and the Israelites decided to make the golden calf instead of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain, it’s because they were scared – they were lost in the wilderness, camped by a mountain spewing fire and smoke, and their leader had disappeared. They wanted a god they could see and touch. When we make judgments about people it’s often out of fear as well – with Benji’s teacher, I was fearful of letting someone I didn’t trust take care of him. When we judge other people’s religion or how they do things, when we don’t trust others, when we do everything we can to attain our own wealth and security, it’s all out of fear – fear that we’ll be lost or hurt or something we love will die. Which is pretty powerful as a motivator, even when the consequences are so negative.

Letting God be the judge of the wheat and the tares is ultimately about letting God be in the top position, rather than ourselves or any other idol. It means having to trust God, because we can’t do it ourselves. We don’t control as much as we’d like to think we do. Death and illness and sudden tragedy certainly remind us of that – witness the airplane shot down in the Ukraine, and the deaths and crises closer to home. We can’t control our own outcomes. We don’t know the larger picture. We’re limited in all kinds of ways, and we know that.

But the lack of control doesn’t have to be scary. We may not be in control of what is happening; we may not understand it; but God does. The deeper truth of the parable today is that God has us in hand. As Paul writes in Romans, God works all things for good. We can trust God. If we ground ourselves in daily prayer and time with God, if we put ourselves in mind regularly of God’s love and intentions for us, then we will begin to recognize God’s hand at work in our lives. We won’t need to be so fearful. We won’t need to set up our own barriers and judgments and categories to keep the evil at bay; we won’t need to point fingers at others as the problem, the enemy. Because God is faithful. Ultimately, no evil can harm us; so judgment is not our work. We can be at peace, letting God be God.

Santa Maria Urban Ministry Backpack Drive

SMUM is collecting materials and funds for their school supply/backpack program, serving K-12 students in the Washington area of San Jose. You can write a check to SMUM with ‘Backpacks Program’ in the memo, or drop off supplies at ECA or at the ministry downtown by the end of July. A list of needed supplies is posted on the bulletin board in the hall at church. Talk to Debbie Estill for more information.

Get out there and sow

RCL Year A, Proper 10

One of the things I love about Jesus’ parables is how much there is to take from them. They’re not like Aesop’s fables or Just-So Stories – there’s no clear single meaning or point he’s trying to make. Jesus tells the story, people hear it and ponder, and he walks away. That’s how I think God communicates with us – that’s how I experience God communicating in my life, at least. The communication is clear, and yet not logical-rational clear. The point is there, but it lies beyond our ability to absolutely articulate it in words. So I distrust anyone who tries to boil God and God’s message down to sound bytes. I think the truth is always greater than our ability to explain it.

And yet this parable today is followed by just that: an explanation. A private explanation, directly from Jesus to the disciples. Like he turns to them and whispers, ‘What that beautiful story I just shared with the masses means is really this…’ And so the explanation absolutely shapes how we hear the story. This parable is about how people receive God’s word, and we know that because Jesus told us so. So when we hear this parable we’re supposed to think about what kind of soil we are. Are we good fertile soil, bearing fruit? Are we hard and rocky or thorny or shallow? Let’s all be working harder to make our soil better at receiving and living out God’s truth.

But the problem is that the explanation doesn’t entirely capture the whole story. The story begins with the sower sowing seed. It doesn’t just focus on the soil, but on the sowing and the seeds. Whatever Matthew’s intentions in including this explanation from Jesus, it seems pretty reductionist. Which is a reminder that these stories of Jesus were oral tradition, things Jesus said that got repeated and passed along until someone decided to write them down – and along the way, decided what order to write them down in, what explanations to add in, and other pieces of context that shape the way we understand them. Generally it’s pretty impossible to get back to what Jesus said, pure of everything else that got added to it along the way, despite what some biblical scholars try to do; and we believe that the Holy Spirit had a hand in all the human muddling that produced scripture, so that the result is still more or less inspired. But that doesn’t stop us from noting when there’s such a clear disjunction in the text, and wondering why.

So what if we back up before the explanation and focus our attention on the sower in this story, rather than the soil – the sower who goes out to sow. It’s an image that is easy to understand. We don’t even have to be gardeners to get this one. Maybe because of this very parable, the metaphor of planting seeds makes intuitive sense. Seeds take time to sprout and grow – not everything we do bears fruit right away. We know that in our lives, just like we know that in our gardens. Parenting, growing a business, developing a relationship, all take time. Immediate success is unlikely with things that really matter.

So too with being followers of Jesus. If we understand the seed to be the good news of the kingdom, the word, the message of God’s love and saving grace, then we’re supposed to be spreading it just as a sower does – as well as receiving it as the soil. We’re not the seed; we’re not the creator of the seed; but we, like the disciples who were listening to Jesus, are the ones meant to get the seed out there. And from this story at least, it seems we’re supposed to be spreading it pretty freely, letting the soil receive it as it will. We may or may not succeed. But whether it succeeds or not isn’t our business, strangely enough. Which is hard for us to take in.

Here’s the hard part about sowing seeds: you really can’t control what happens next. Birds might come and eat them; a drought might come and no water will feed the sprouts; the soil might be the wrong kind for the plants to grow. So when we get to spreading the seed of the good news, or to loving with God’s abundant kind of love, it might not go that well. People might not want to listen to what we say. People might be distracted by other things. Or people may just out-and-out react with hostility to us and everything we’re about. Love doesn’t guarantee that everyone will love you in return.

But that’s not why we sow seeds. We sow in hope, not because of an assurance of success. The writer Henri Nouwen writes, ‘Hope prevents us from clinging to what we have and frees us to move away from the safe place and enter unknown and fearful territory.’ Hope is risky. Sowing seeds is risky. All that effort and it might just be for naught. We might not know what will come of it.

Well, in an age of conserving energy and resources, this doesn’t make intuitive sense after all. How can we possibly go scattering seeds willy-nilly when we worry that we don’t have enough for ourselves? We’re tired, we’ve been there and done that. We don’t have enough left. That’s what I hear from people in this church and in other churches when we talk about new things or reaching new people, anything that demands a little more of us, takes us a little further out of our comfort zones. All of a sudden, we’re not sowers of seed, we’re squirrels. Storing the seed away for ourselves and the possibility of our own need. Storing it away even if we won’t ever use it ourselves – because when it comes to the seeds of the grace and love of God, all too often we’re not receiving it ourselves either. We’re as hard-packed as the hardest soil out there, and we’re supposed to be the ones bearing fruit and yielding a hundredfold.

What a waste of a good thing. This resource of God’s love is too precious to hold onto so tightly. And it’s too abundant to be pretending it’s all for us alone. Our churches, our faith communities, ECA, are shrinking all around this country. And it’s not just because other people aren’t being good soil. It’s because we’re not doing the job of sowing. Sowing not because it will guarantee us success, enough pledges and people to fill our committees. But sowing because it is what we do as people of God, people who really believe this stuff.

At home one of the graces we sing before meals is ‘Johnny Appleseed.’ You might know it: O, the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed, the Lord is good to me.’ Just last week at Family Camp I learned that there’s more to it, a part that most people don’t know., ‘For every seed I sow, an apple tree will grow, and there will be apples there for everyone in the world to share, the Lord is good to me.’ What a huge difference. The seeds and the apples aren’t just gifts for me – they’re meant to be sown, grown, given away so everyone can have them.

So go sow some seeds this week. Tell someone what you experienced in prayer this morning – which means you’d better say your prayers so you can talk about them. Tell people how God is acting in your life and how you see God in theirs. Invite them to join you in doing something that sows seeds of love in this world – maybe here at church, maybe somewhere else. And don’t worry over what response you’ll get. Maybe they’ll listen, maybe not; or maybe it will just plant a seed that will show up much later in their lives. It’s high time we sow something of all we have been given. There’s no more time to waste. Amen.

True revolution – Guest sermon by Kimberly Axtell

Ben Franklin, Tracy Chapman, Pete Seger, and Jesus walk into a church…

Come unto me all that are heavy laden…

This holiday weekend, with parades and food, friends and family, we celebrate our Independence, honor the ideal that all persons are created equal. During this holiday we also celebrate a revolution, our revolt from the previous systems of government to experiment in self-rule. In keeping with that celebration, I thought I would bring to your attention some of the words of one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin. And while he is not usually named as one of the great thinkers of his generation, his words did have a profound effect on the direction of 20th century Christianity.

Here are a couple of selected quotes that first appeared in Poor Richard’s Almanac, and later gathered together in the volume, The Way to Wealth:

God helps them that help themselves.

Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Never leave that till to-morrow, which you can do to-day.

Remember that time money.

Remember that credit is money.

This is just a short selection – some of you probably recognize some of these sayings; you might have heard them as kids or told them to your children. You might have even thought that they might be found in the Scriptures somewhere, perhaps in some hidden corner of the Proverbs or in one of the books of the Apocrypha that you haven’t read yet. But they are not in the Bible. These sayings, and others like them, were popular during the founding of our country. They wormed their way in the psyche of our nation and became the basis for our particular form of capitalism.

This point of view, that fuses together time, money, credit and God, flourished in the American system that insisted on a separation of church and government. Not that religion wasn’t important, isn’t valued, but that your taxes shouldn’t go to pay for a federally endorsed version of Christianity, one that was elevated above all the many forms of Christianity that exist. Christianity, then, is left free to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

So in the early days of our colonies there was this space where the church universal, what we would name today as the Catholic Church, used to exist as a moral authority, an assurance that you were OK with God. This vacuum was filled with a number of competing authorities and experimentation in church governance; and the one really loud voice of Ben Franklin, one who had the power of a printing press at his disposal. His sayings, fused with a budding merchant class eager to put a virtuous face on their business transactions, found fertile ground and might be summed up as this: If you are virtuous, diligent in work, wise in spending and investing your money appropriately, then you are blessed of God. Some might even say that if you are virtuous and industrious, then God will bless you with monetary riches. This is not what Scripture says but does any of this sound familiar? Does any of this find resonance in our policy decisions towards the poor, the homeless, the tired and struggling masses yearning for freedom?

By now, you might be wondering what this historical review of the beginnings of Capitalism is doing in a sermon, wondering how does this relate to Paul or the prophets, or even the words of Jesus himself? Or even asking, how does our financial system square with that well know, well-loved invitation from Jesus, “come unto me you who are heavy laden…”

It is good that we wrestle with questions like this during our celebrations. For as we celebrate our financial freedom, our electoral freedom, our freedom of expression, we also need to remember those who are burdened: those who for no fault of their own have somehow come up short in the American Dream, who have had their chosen line of profession disappear from under their feet, who have needed to retool their resume, revamp their lifestyle. In our rapidly changing industrial landscape, there are winners and there are losers. Perhaps you know of someone, a friend, a family member or yourself, who through no lack of virtue, or hard work, or trying to invest wisely, do all the things that Ben Franklin advises, still feels like they have fallen short of God’s blessing.

So on this Independence Day Sunday, this celebration of revolution, I give you a different sort of revolution – a revolution that sounds like a whisper and comes with a smile and a song about love between my brother and my sister.

Jesus was a radical teacher. Unlike his contemporaries, other itinerant preachers of his time, he didn’t proclaim an overthrow of a political system. Instead he preached love and pointed the way to a healthy relationship with the Divine. Numerous other transformative leaders: Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Saint Francis, Martin Luther King, Jr., have somehow also been able to realize and articulate a transformational path along the way of loving one another – a love that is strong and vigorous, not some ineffective words to a trite love song.

For despite our cultural impulses that emphasize that we need to be competent in everything, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and reach for that golden ring that is ours to grab, it is only in the give and take of relationship and sharing that we will know the fullness of the Divine. It is only in giving love, aid and assistance, that we can also, gracefully, receive love, aid and assistance.

This revolution of love can be found here at ECA. During the summer, members of our core team are reaching out to other like-minded non-profits, to have conversations about where we can work together to do the practical work of loving our neighbor, one that goes beyond the work of prayer and puts feet to faith. We also have our numerous outreach projects such as our work with South Sudan, Montgomery Meals and pastoral care teams. These projects, and many others, help us to share the burdens of others and ourselves

This is the true revolution, powerful, strong, clean and pure. It is when we give love, receive love, share the burdens of this life with one another, in fellowship and worship, sometimes in just being someone’s friend and listening to their story, that the real revolution continues and that we are blessed by God.

A cup of cold water

RCL Year A, Proper 8

A few years back I ran the Boston marathon on a record hot day. It was in the 80s and humid, unusual weather for mid-April – no one had been doing their training in that kind of heat, so everyone was suffering and struggling through the race, and many dropped out before the end. It was a great day to be a spectator, though, so the course was lined with cheering people, thrilled to be out having a summer-like party day. As we sweated slowly on, more and more people appeared by the side handing out water – not just the official aid stations, but people in front of their houses with extra cups of water, or spraying us down with their garden hoses. I learned for the first time how good it feels to pour a cup of cold water over your head when you’re hot, how fast it cools you down. The official aid stations were great, but it was all that extra water that made a difference for me at least, that day.

‘Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…’ What was the last cup of cold water someone gave to you?

When we talk about discipleship and following Jesus, we often talk about what we do. What kind of discipline we keep in our lives, how we reach out and care for other people, how we work for justice and show compassion to those in need. We don’t tend to talk much about what we receive. But receiving is what Jesus talks about in today’s gospel. He’s talking to his disciples just before he sends them out as apostles to go and spread the good news. It’s kind of a reality check/pep talk – this will be tough, but it’s worth it; your family might hate you but I’ll be with you; go out and preach the gospel. But he winds it up with this bit we hear today, about those who will welcome them. Some will welcome you in my name, he says – some will even give you a cup of cold water, you little ones. Not only will you be doing tough work for others; you will also receive, and others will care for you.

What a relief, after verses and verses of the hard truth, the cost of discipleship. And yet sometimes receiving from others is the hardest thing of all for us.

At the memorial service on Friday for the Bishop’s husband Michael Reeves, one friend talked about how Michael relished taking care of other people. Michael was an avid cyclist, and carried a repair kit for flat bike tires in his car. The friend was with him one day when they spied a bicyclist on the side of the road, struggling to fix a flat. Michael screeched to a stop, jumped out of the car, pulled out his flat repair kit, handed the cyclist some Gatorade, and fixed the flat, all within 5 minutes. The cyclist looked at him in wonder, and said, ‘Who are you??’ Michael said, ‘Just a guy. Don’t pay me – pay it forward!’ and then jumped back in his car and peeled off.

Imagine being that cyclist, stuck with the flat, suddenly sprung upon by this Good Samaritan. Imagine the cup of cold water a stranger hands you, pouring over your head in the hot race. Sometimes you know you need the cup of water being offered to you. But sometimes you might just feel like you should be providing your own water. We take a lot of pride in being prepared and self-sufficient, in doing for ourselves instead of being a burden to others. Carry your own weight – earn your own way. Take enough water and be ready to change your own flat. But that’s not what Jesus is saying at all. You disciples, he says, are the little ones, the least. You’re not the great and powerful, you’re not competent to handle absolutely everything for yourself – and you’re not supposed to be. Receive the welcome given to you – for those who give it to you, it will be a reward, and it is good for you to receive it too.

When is the last time you received a cup of cold water?

There’s a real humility in receiving. To receive help means to acknowledge that you didn’t have it all figured out yourself. It means revealing your vulnerability, your ignorance, your helplessness. None of those are American cultural values, you could say. It’s why it is so hard for us to grow old, or to be ill. When I was pregnant during the New York City summers, it took me a while before I could accept the seat offered on the bus – my first inclination was always to say no, to prove that I was tough and able even despite my obvious condition. But when I finally had to start saying yes, because I really did need to sit down, I was flooded with gratitude to the person who offered the seat – and aware in a whole new way of my need of other people, of my connection to and interdependence with the people around me. Doing it all myself is a good way of isolating and walling others out. Receiving help – just as is offering help – makes tangible our common humanity, our need for each other.

A church community is one real place to receive that kind of care and help. It is a gift that people who don’t go to church simply don’t know about – there are few other communities where this kind of love and care is so readily offered. That love and care was on display in a big way in the memorial service on Friday, in the vast crowds there simply to love and support Bishop Mary and her family in their grief. Bishop Mary, used to leading and guiding all of us in the diocese, was instead cared for by all of us – a shift that must have felt strange to her. But in community love is also there in all kinds of little ways, all kinds of cups of cold water we receive from one another in prayers, in errands run, in help offered on projects or moves or events. Sometimes we know we need to receive it; sometimes it is harder to do so. But it is good and necessary to receive – to be welcomed, to allow ourselves to need. It is part of what ties us together.

The lesson? You don’t have to do it all yourself. In fact, you need not to do it by yourself. Others need to give to you; you need to receive. In doing so we grow, and know more deeply God’s love at work in our midst. May we receive that cup of cold water, know our need for it, drink it, and be grateful. Amen.

Don’t be afraid!

This last week was our VBS, Sparks Fly – our theme had us talking all about fire the whole week. We found stories of fire in scripture, we sang songs with fire in them, the kids learned how to start fires and how to put them out, and the fire truck came for a visit. It was a lot of fire. But of course we were also using our scripture stories to teach something greater than just about fire. We heard about the pillar of fire that led the Israelites in the Exodus story and talked about how God leads us on our way. We met Moses and heard about his encounter with God in the burning bush, when God called him to an important job and gave him the help he needed to do it – just as God does for each of us to help us do God’s will in the world. We heard about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, and how God saved them and is with us too even through terrible things. We learned about the day of Pentecost and how the fire of the Spirit comes to each of us to help us share the good news. And we heard about breakfast with Jesus on the beach around the campfire and received again his commandment to love one another and to share Jesus’ word of love with the world.

Last year as we were winding up our Vacation Bible School, Susie told me she’d already decided on fire for this year’s VBS. I could see how well we could run with that theme, but I was also nervous about it. After all, in a drought year full of fire danger, talking about fire too much seemed like a risky move. And I have very bad firsthand experience with kids and fire, since my own daughter Frances fell into the campfire at Family Camp two years ago and badly burned her hands. My priest self could see all the wonderful metaphors and activities that could come of a theme of fire. The rest of my self, however, was afraid. Would it freak Frances out to have that theme all week? Would there be an accident with all those kids around fire? Would we magically call down fire on ourselves from the hills by talking about it in such a dry year?

But I needn’t have feared. Everything went well. The kids learned a lot about fire that they hadn’t known before, including a lot about how to be careful with it. Frances had no problem with the theme whatsoever, even telling the story of her accident and showing her scars to her new friends. And of course talking about fire did not cause a wildfire to start. Instead, the message that really took off like wildfire was the idea that God loves us, that God is with us through everything, and that God wants us to share that love with everyone.

In today’s gospel Jesus is sharing just this message with his own fearful disciples. Jesus has commissioned his twelve disciples and is about to send them out to spread the gospel, and he knows that they are already afraid of what they are about to do. So he tells them, don’t be afraid! Do not fear. You are infinitely precious to God. Nothing anyone can do to you will truly harm you, because God has you in hand. What you are going to do is not easy – but do not be afraid, for God is with you. And off they go.

We all of us have to deal with fear at times. Our own memories of trauma, or our phobias, or just our worry over possible discomfort and inconvenience can make us resist something without any clear sense of why. Sometimes those feelings run deep, so deep that we might not even be entirely clear that they’re part of us. Brain scientists have been doing a lot of work on understanding how the brain retains memories, and how old fears can keep us from moving ahead in our lives even when we’re not consciously aware of them. They’re still not sure how it all works, but it’s clear that old fears can continue to shape us in the present. We might be able to come up with plausible and convincing reasons for why we feel afraid or why we are refusing to do something, but sometimes deep down we know that it’s just more visceral than rational. We don’t want to do it just because, well, we don’t want to do it. We’re not willing because we’re just too afraid. And that’s all we’re going to say about it, thank you.

Sometimes in communities our biggest fear is conflict, the possibility that someone else might disagree with us and argue against what we’re doing. Jesus tells his disciples about this, too, warning that following his path isn’t always going to lead to peace and harmony with family and friends. It’s a hard teaching, because we do naturally shy away from conflict. No one, or very few people anyway, likes arguing and fighting with others, particularly others we’re close to. It’s normal to want to get along and have happy community. But our fear of conflict and opposition can keep us from moving ahead on things that God is calling us to do. It is hard to be visionary when we’re afraid of what others might think. It’s hard to lead when one word of dissent stops us in our tracks. And so a new idea is squashed because two or three people say no – effectively holding hostage the rest of the community and their possibilities for the future. Our vestry has to deal with this, as many community leaders do.

But as Jesus says, conflict and opposition really isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us. In fact, nothing we can imagine, really, is the worst thing that can happen to us. Sometimes I find that the one way to work myself through a fear is to honestly envision the worst thing I can imagine happening – in order to realize that even if that happened, I could go on. Jesus’ message to his disciples is that even death itself is not the worst thing, because God holds our lives beyond death. Do not be afraid, he says. None of the stuff in your way needs to be permanent. Fear and worries and old memories and routines, all of that can change. You can let that all go, if you trust me.

And so that is the message he gives to us as well. In times of deep tragedy as well as in ordinary everyday worries, we are not alone. Just as our kids learned last week, God is with us through everything. God gives us what we need to do what we are called to do, and always invites us out to share the good news of love with others. May we hold to that, and that alone. Do not be afraid! Amen.

Youth Group Summer BBQs

Join us for our summer barbecues on Thursdays this year. Here are the dates:

  • June 12
  • July 3
  • July 24
  • July 31
  • August 7
  • August 17 This will be a swim party.  Details to follow.

We’ll meet in the youth center/on the patio from 6-8 pm for a barbecue dinner, board games, badminton, or a movie, depending on the group’s mood.  Hope to see you Thursday!

Fundraising Tool

Amazon.com will support your favorite charity, including ECA! It is fast and easy to sign up and it won’t cost you anything to join the Amazon Smile program. Just point your web browser to http://smile.amazon.com You will see an area on the right where you can select a charity. Enter “Episcopal Church in Almaden” and click the search button. Click the Select button next to Episcopal Church in Almaden (the listing does not contain our acronym, so ECA won’t get you where you need to go). Once you’ve selected the church, shop as usual and 0.5% of every transaction will be sent to ECA. Just remember to return to smile.amazon.com instead of amazon.com so ECA can benefit from your midnight bunny-slipper shopping extravaganza.

Seeing and being like God and creation

RCL Year A, Trinity Sunday

Our family just returned from a week in Monterey, staring at the ocean. It’s such a privilege getting to park myself right on the edge of that vast wilderness of water and wind. When you’re at the ocean, you never forget it’s there. The weather of the morning fog and the breezes, and the way the light looks, not to mention the sound of the waves constantly playing – you never don’t notice the ocean. And everyone orients toward it – the houses are built to face it, sports are played in it and around it, and people at all times of day or night are simply standing there, staring at it. It’s the one place in civilization where it’s acceptable to stand and stare off into the distance with a vacant look on your face, because everyone knows what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And they’re glad you’re doing it, because they are too.

Being at the ocean is an amazing chance to witness creation, the creatures and the patterns of air and water just happening, despite us. The occasional whale spout, the sea lions barking and the sea otters swimming by, the dolphins surfing, the little crabs in the tide pools and the seagulls scrounging for food. Even every wave is different, if you watch carefully. Creation is always new. I think that’s why every time I’ve ever watched the sun go down on a beach, someone on the beach always cheers, Yay! Every time it happens, it’s new.

I had all of that playing in front of me as I thought about the creation story we heard today. A story that we don’t always take the time to really hear, except to see it through some pretty thick interpretive lenses. It’s not just the story that you saw on the felt board of Sunday School when you were little, or the story of the pretty picture books. It’s not just a primitive myth. And it’s not just a staging ground for the debate of evolution vs. creationism. On that, let me be very clear: the Bible is not meant as a science textbook. It was written for entirely different reasons by people in an entirely different culture and worldview than we have now. There is nothing in it meant to contradict science. The Bible is about ‘why’ things are the way they are, not ‘how’ they got to be that way. But the Bible does tell us plenty about God, which is what it’s for.

A writer named Debie Thomas wrote a piece about what the Genesis creation story tells us about God. She lists all kinds of truths that come from that story: first, God is a God who sees. At the end of every day in the story, God stops to reflect on what he made that day, and God sees that it is good. God sees, God notices, God pays attention. And God makes everything good, good in the very beginning and full of blessing. As the theologian Marcus Borg puts it, ‘All that is, is good.’

Thomas also points out that God is a God who makes new things. God creates something new each day for six days, calling forth beautiful things that didn’t exist until he called them. And it’s not just at the beginning that this happens. As Frederick Buechner writes, “Using the same old materials of earth, air, fire, and water, every twenty-four hours God creates something new out of them. If you think you’re seeing the same show all over again seven times a week, you’re crazy. Every morning you wake up to something that in all eternity never was before and never will be again.” (Wishful Thinking)

And lastly, God is a God who rests. God does six days of work creating, and then God takes a break. God doesn’t just keep on keeping on, endlessly laboring at the work and the tasks that lie in front of him, like we might keep tending to. God stops to rest and reflect and commands us to do the same, whether the work is done or not. Rest and Sabbath is an essential piece of creation, not an optional piece for when we might find the time.

What a set of ideas to begin our summer with, a time when many of us have a little more opportunity to slow down and notice the world around us, whether because we’re on vacation or we’re out in our own gardens. All around us there is an endless and amazing creative work underway, even in the cracks of the sidewalk and the creatures that make their way into our backyards without our wanting them there. In the morning cool and the afternoon heat and the sound of coyotes and mockingbirds, it is creation at work, alongside and despite us. In the summer, we’re outside a little bit more, our time is a little less filled perhaps, and we might just have a chance to see things differently.

So two challenges for us as this summer begins. One, that we dare to be like God this summer. You were made in God’s image. So act like it. Stop and notice, stop and really see what is there to be seen. Don’t just go through the motions and routines, but live. And as you do that, don’t just notice what is wrong, what is going badly. Notice what is good and holy and a blessing. Be aware of what is new, all that is always new. And be part of creating what is new, not simply rehearsing what has been done before. And rest, rest your body and your mind and your spirit. Start the day with something besides your emails. Be unavailable to your work and your to-do list. Whether it is done or not. Do like God does and take Sabbath.

And two, dare to be a creature this summer as well. You aren’t in charge of creation; you are a part of everything instead. We are part of it, though yes, we are meant to be stewards of it, which means hired servants to take care of it. But it is bigger and more awesome than us all the same. Even when we fail to take care of it well, it goes on. Life is greater than us. Which is a comforting thought and one that puts us well in our place, too. We are nourished and fed and take our breaths all thanks to something besides ourselves. We don’t make it; we are not sufficient unto ourselves; we have much to be grateful for. Remember that you are dust, part of the earth, and be thankful.

There is so much that creation can teach us, even trapped in our manufactured world. So much that we can learn and hear and see. This summer that is my prayer for us all: that we may open our eyes to the life around us and know the Life within us. Amen.

 

Basic incompetence

RCL Year A, 6 Easter

This last week someone sent me a wonderful piece, a blog post by a writer for The Guardian newspaper in Britain. The title was, “Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time.” The writer, Oliver Burkeman, was reflecting on some of the terrific blunders that world leaders and large institutions have made recently – among others, a very badly handled firing of the executive editor of the New York Times, and, of course, the botched rollout of Obama’s healthcare website. These huge mistakes get a lot of attention, he noted, because those making them try very hard normally to keep up a façade of competence. And we need these world leaders and large institutions to appear competent, because we want to think that people high up in power really do know what they’re doing, since we don’t. However, Burkeman says, they don’t – because everyone is totally just winging it, all the time. And if you need examples of that, I’ll point you to a very funny thread on the website Reddit, of people confessing basic things they are unable to do – like tie their shoelaces or read a map or do math in their head. Grownup people. Maybe some of you, even.

This basic incompetence of many people could make you panic, or it could be very reassuring, depending on how you feel about yourself. As Burkeman says, we all have a tendency to compare our insides with other people’s outsides – in other words, most of the time we probably look quite competent and effective, even if inside we don’t feel it. If we compare how we feel inside with other people’s external facades of competence, then we’re bound to feel bad. But if we realize that other people are dealing with exactly the same set of feelings – shame and embarrassment and ignorance and guilt and all the rest of it – then we can be easier on ourselves. And easier on others when they fail too. Everyone has something, one of you said to me recently. Everyone is carrying something around with them that hurts – everyone.

Now I’m saying all this not because I’m trying for a good confession time of my own incompetence – I can tie my shoes and read a map and do math, but there are other things I’m not so good at (why do you think I took swim lessons last year?). I’m sharing it because it came to mind as I looked at the readings today. The one story we heard is the one about Paul giving that brilliant speech in the book of Acts. You look at him and he just looks so together, so ready to find a convincing way to teach the gospel using only the statue he sees in front of him. He talks, and people instantly get baptized. How does he do it? maybe Peter and his fellow apostles were wondering that as they listened.

But that question is exactly what Jesus, and Peter in the epistle, are answering. It’s the Spirit of truth working in Paul, the Spirit who abides in us all. It’s the eagerness and fearlessness that Paul embodies, that Peter tells all of us to have. It’s not competence – it’s not our own ability to do it perfectly all the time – it’s God acting in us, and our willingness to allow it. That’s how Paul did it – and that’s how we do it too.

In the book study we’ve been doing on Wednesday evenings, reading The Hole in Our Gospel, we’ve talked about times when we feel God’s nudging to do something, when something just seems to niggle at us and bother us into stepping out to care for someone else in need. And we’ve also talked about what keeps us from acting – our own judgments about the other person, our impatience to get somewhere else, our fear, or our longing for convenience. And often just simply our sense that we don’t know what to do, how to help with a problem that seems too big – people who live in poverty, people who are hungry or sick or suffering in some great way. Sometimes all of this can keep us from doing anything. But as Bob Pierce, the founder of the Christian aid agency World Vision, said, “Don’t fail to do something just because you can’t do everything.” We can each of us, whatever our limitations or what we think are our limitations, do something to care for another person.

It’s a reminder we need. Because sometimes the Christian life can seem like a tall order. It can look like another area we should be excellent in, fully competent, a model to others – or if not, then why bother? We can all point to people who are that kind of model for us, people in this congregation and elsewhere who seem to live out so fully the way Jesus taught us to live. They look so good at it. It seems so easy to them.

But everybody has something. Every person has their doubts, their need of repentance, their places where they wall God out and try to get along by themselves. Everybody has something that makes them feel like they’re not doing it right, whatever the “it” is. Every one of us.

So along the lines of the Reddit thread, I’m going to give you the chance for some anonymous confession. Take a card, and don’t write your name on it, unless you want to. Write something that you feel like you’re no good at, something you feel bad that you can’t do. It can be anything: you can’t read a map, you can’t forgive an enemy, you can’t stop thinking about money, you can’t sing, you can’t pray without thinking of something else to do. Just write a few words about it and then drop it in the basket – and when you leave, take a card, someone else’s card, and pray for that person. Pray for them to learn to do the thing they have trouble doing, and pray for them to find peace about not being able to do it. Pray for someone to come along who can help them. Pray whatever comes to mind to say.

Because everyone has something. But even with all those somethings, God loves us beyond our understanding, and God is always working in us to bring us to fuller life and love. God’s not done with any of us yet. May we be patient with ourselves and with others as we try and fail. Amen.

Summer Children’s Worship

Children’s Worship begins Sunday, June 8th, at 10:30 AM. During the summer months we will be holding a special time for children, aged 4 through completing 5th grade, in our learning center during the first half of the service. We will follow the lectionary (Gospel readings assigned for each Sunday) with music, prayer, the reading, and an appropriate activity or craft to complement and reinforce the Gospel. The children will join the regular worship service at the offertory time. Activities and structure will be new and exciting for our summer months!

Montgomery Meals service opportunity

Looking for new people to join our ranks of serving at InnVision Montgomery Meals (downtown San Jose/Montgomery Street) It’s ~1.5 hrs of your time on Friday evening, serving the needy the great food that has been cooked by our team at ECA.  If you work, you can join us directly at the Montgomery street site at 6pm.   Ask your friends to join you!  Make this an event and then go out to eat afterwards at any of the fabulous restaurants in downtown San Jose.  Go to the following link to sign up for volunteering.  We are in need of servers for upcoming sessions: http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10C0B45ADAC23A7FC1-montgomery

Welcome home

RCL Year A, 5 Easter

When I was a child I used to love watching Mister Rogers. I’d settle in in front of the TV and there would come Fred Rogers, walking cheerfully in the door singing his song, ‘It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…’ And he would greet me with a smile and a kind voice, as he took off his jacket and his shoes and slipped into his house sweater and comfy sneakers. I loved this, partly because when my own dad came home a little later, he would also take off his jacket and tie – back when men still wore such things to work – and put on his soft old cardigan with the holes in the elbows (and pour himself a drink of cheap Scotch and water). It meant that everything was ok, we were all home and dinner was about to be served and I was safe. I still think about this when I come home myself – nearly always the first thing I do is go exchange my shoes for my slippers, the ones my husband hates, and I wash my hands (a habit left over from New York) and I am home. (No Scotch and water, but maybe a beer sometimes.)

Today we have the pleasure of welcoming new people to our home here, new members to our congregation. They’ve been here long enough that we think we need to make it official, committing ourselves to them as they commit themselves to us. Welcome. As the saying goes, mi casa – nuestra casa – es su casa. Literally. This house belongs to all of us together.

That’s the message I think Jesus is giving his disciples today too: Mi casa es su casa. We often read this gospel at memorial services, implying that the Father’s house with all the mansions in it is heaven, the place we all hope to get to when we die. That’s one interpretation, and it is what we need to hear at a funeral. But I think Jesus is talking about more than what will happen after we die. The Father’s house is his image for the relationship between Jesus and God. And the other scriptures we have today talk of houses too in this metaphorical way, that God is a castle to keep us safe, a stronghold; that we are living stones built up together into a spiritual house. God is our house, we are a house for God, we are invited into the house Jesus and God live in together. It’s not a place with a street address, but home, the experience of truly being at home.

When we are at home, whether we take off our shoes or not, we let down our guard. We can be ourselves without worrying about what others think about us. We eat and sleep, being nourished and rested from our labors out in the world. Our most cherished possessions are there; our favorite people are there. We are safe, in that way that we all need to feel safe and secure. That’s the ideal of home, and hopefully something like it is what you experience at home in your life now.

That’s the kind of home Jesus is inviting us into as well. Come into my Father’s house, he is saying – there are plenty of rooms, there is plenty of space. Come into the experience of love and intimacy that is at the heart of God, between God the Father and Jesus his son. Come and find rest and be nourished; be yourself completely; find your treasure here.

But it’s a home that isn’t only located in one place. Being in this home doesn’t require that all our external circumstances are familiar. Some of you in this congregation are learning this right now as you literally change your external houses, moving from the houses you have lived in for years. Although you miss the particulars of your house, the view and the way the light came in and the corner where you sat, you are able to be at home in a new place as well. You still have the important relationships you had before, you keep your most treasured things, and you are able to be at home elsewhere – wherever you go, there you are.

So too, not everything has to be perfect or just the way we’d like it around us for us to find our home with God – practicing prayer, the awareness of God, can happen in line at the grocery store, or in a hospital bed, or in traffic. We are invited into God’s home, and to ourselves be a home for God, in every situation, here and now. God is always wanting to nourish and feed us, to touch us in the deepest level of our being, no matter where we are.

Which means also that we can carry God’s love, that experience of being at home, to others wherever we go. At the end of Mister Rogers’ show, he would go back to the landing by the door. He would take off his sneakers and put on his dress shoes, change his cardigan for his jacket, and say goodbye as he went out the door, back out into his neighborhood to live out the things he had been teaching us for half an hour. But I imagine him out there with that same kind smile and greeting for everyone – and from all the stories about Fred Rogers, that does seem to be how he really was – making everyone feel at home when they met him. There’s a lot of space in this house, Jesus says. A lot of room to invite everyone in, sharing the love that is more than enough to go around. We might not wear our sweatpants and slippers everywhere, but we can still let down our guard. We can talk about what is real. We can reach out to others who are isolated or in pain and speak words of deep love and comfort to them. And we can work to make sure that everyone really does have a home to live in that is as safe as the one we have – taking action towards that for our neighbors close by and around the world.

Being at home doesn’t mean walling ourselves off, in other words, rolling down the garage door and hiding from the world. Being at home in God means allowing ourselves to be nourished in prayer and love, from God and through other people. And then offering that love out ourselves in ways that help others to be at home as well. This week, I invite you to do just that: think of someone who needs that experience of home – someone you know who is lonely or homesick, or someone you don’t know who lacks a safe home, and needs your help. Let what Jesus says be true for you – trust there to be enough room, enough to go around, for you to share with them of your time or your treasure or your skill. Do what you can to make them at home. Mi casa es su casa. Be welcome here in the heart of God. Amen.

Following the shepherd/Listening to our mothers

RCL Year A, 4 Easter

So I was meditating a little this week on the mash-up of themes we have today, Sunday May 11: it’s Mothers’ Day, of course – happy Mothers’ Day – and it’s also Good Shepherd Sunday, the 4th Sunday after Easter when we wade into all the shepherd imagery in our scripture readings. We could tumble right into the sweet and sentimental, cuddling up with some fluffy lambs and apple pie, cozy and safe. That’s the image anyway of mothers we wave around on Mothers’ Day, and the image of the Good Shepherd we often see in the old Sunday School books, where all seems rosy. But no matter what the Hallmark cards today say, let’s be honest: mothering and being mothered aren’t always all that sweet and cozy, am I right? Anyone who has parented or taken care of another person, anyone who has been raised by someone else to adulthood, knows that there are a whole range of feelings and experiences involved in the process. Even when it’s loving, it isn’t always a cozy thing.

For that matter, shepherding isn’t always sweet and cozy either. There’s a lot of the rod and staff, at least metaphorically speaking; there’s a lot of sheep-dogging, there’s a lot of getting wayward creatures to head in the right direction…just like parenting. It’s not too surprising that shepherds and mothers are both images for God in scripture. Their jobs ultimately are about helping those in their care to grow and thrive. Which God wants for us as well, for us to grow and thrive through good and ill.

Three years ago when this Sunday’s texts came around, I was struck by the surprising riskiness of this shepherd imagery. I noted that the shepherd leads the sheep out of the sheepfold, out to find pasture and abundant life – rather than keeping them safe in the sheepfold with what is familiar and claustrophobic. This riskiness is scary for us, going out of our comfort zone/sheepfold is frightening – but it’s the only way we can live. We have to change, we have to risk, in order to have that life abundant Jesus is promising us.

Maybe that’s why abundant life sometimes proves tricky to lay hold of. There’s a challenge laid down in Jesus’ image of the good shepherd, you notice: he makes it clear that his sheep know his voice and follow him, no matter how many other thieves and bandits may come along and try to lead the sheep in other directions. Sheep know their shepherd’s voice and won’t follow somebody else. But sometimes we human sheep find it harder to focus on the right voice. Maybe sheep really are smarter than us after all.

Because we do hear and follow other voices. Just like we don’t always listen to our mothers, we don’t always listen to the shepherd. Instead we listen to voices that say other things entirely from what God is trying to tell us. The success voices: voices that persuade us that we’re not important unless we work 80 hour weeks; the voices that say we need the luxury goods; that our kids should be excelling in everything if we’re good parents. Or the not-in-my-backyard voices, that tell us that people in East San Jose or the homeless down the street aren’t our neighbors and aren’t our problem. Or the painful inner voices that tell us we’re not worthy of love because of something we’ve done or thought. All of those voices that speak against the gospel, in other words – against the words of love and forgiveness and the call to care for our neighbors. But how often we follow those voices instead.

And sometimes we ourselves are the other voices Jesus warns about. Sometimes we’re worse at this when we’re together with others. We rehearse old grudges against people, reigniting anger about past disagreements and conflict. We find others who think like us about not liking something, and we work ourselves up into indignation that we’ve been made to change our ways. We get into all the details of other people’s lives, not seeing that our caring has crossed the line into gossip. We tell somebody new that they’re not doing it right, making them unwelcome to join us. We complain and tear down and destroy – acting as thieves and bandits that take away what makes for life. This happens in our political arenas, this happens in our workplaces; this happens in our families and extended families. And this happens in our congregation. Maybe you know some of what I am talking about.

But listen to the description of the early church we heard today: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.’ That’s a picture of sheep with abundant life, in other words. Sharing with others what is needed for life; having glad and generous hearts; attracting others by their joyful lives. The details of what abundant life means will look different for each of us. But I think we can all agree that gossip and slander and self-centeredness don’t make for life, for us or for our communities.

Listening for the shepherd’s voice – listening for the voice of the good mother, the good parent who wants what is best for us – takes effort on our part. Just as parents work to raise their children out of their natural selfishness into responsible adulthood, our shepherd, God, wants to grow us into better ways of living in this world. Which means we need to spur ourselves and others to better behavior, not worse – holding each other accountable to be more loving, not less. It’s work we need to engage in no matter what our age or stage of life – the teenager as well as the 40-something as well as the elder. Christians should look different and live differently from the world around us. Christian community should be a different thing than other communities. Otherwise we will find that we are following entirely the wrong set of voices – that we’re not in the good pasture God has for us, that we’re far away from the life abundant.

Practically speaking, this means that all of us in a congregation have a responsibility to parent and shepherd each other – all of us should help all of us to grow and thrive. We pay attention to what voices we are heeding and following in our own lives; we speak the voice of God’s loving call to others in our midst. God our good shepherd calls us each by name; our prayer is to listen for that, to follow, and go in the way of life. May we pledge again to live in love here in our church and as we go out from here in our lives.

In the breaking of the bread

RCL Year A, 3 Easter

This story of the road to Emmaus is a favorite of many people. It is a story of how Jesus meets us where we’re at, along the way and not sure of what we believe. It is a story of resurrection hope happening in the midst of deep disappointment and grief. And, I will add, it is a profound story of what we do when we come to worship.

Think about what happens: Jesus meets the two disciples on the road, but they do not realize yet it is Jesus. As they walk along, he opens up the scriptures, helping them not simply to make sense of recent events, but also to make sense of all of scripture – and everything else besides – in light of what God has done on the cross. And then Jesus and the disciples share a meal, where Jesus blesses the bread, breaks it and gives it to them. And then they recognize him. They hear scripture interpreted and taught, they eat and drink, and then their eyes are opened – there in their midst is God himself.  And then Jesus disappears, and the disciples immediately leave too, to go back to Jerusalem by night and tell the others what they have seen.

In worship together every Sunday, we follow this same pattern: we gather, we hear and talk about scripture, we share the meal, and we are sent back into the world. And what we hope is that what happens to these disciples on the road happens here as well: that in what we do together, we meet the risen Christ, our hearts burn within us, and we hurry out to share the good news of God’s work in the world. That is what happens here, right?

Well, maybe sometimes yes. But maybe too often, no. If not, why not?

Well, there are many answers to that question, but part of it, at least, has to do with what we do when we worship. Many of us simply don’t know or don’t really pay attention to what we do in worship, and it all passes by in a blur. When we don’t understand what’s happening, it’s hard for our eyes to be opened and our hearts to burn. It’s been a while since I talked through what we do in our worship, and it’s the kind of teaching that bears repeating from time to time.

In our church and in most Episcopal churches every Sunday morning we celebrate what we call the Eucharist together. The word Eucharist means to give thanks – it’s a service where that’s the central thing we’re doing, in other words, celebrating in gratitude together the gift of love God makes us in Jesus. Our worship service has two main parts to it: the liturgy of the word, and the liturgy of the table. The liturgy of the word is the first part, when we gather by singing and praying, and hear scripture read aloud and interpreted in the sermon. Responding to what we’ve heard, we declare the traditional words of faith in the Nicene Creed, and then we offer up prayers for our needs and the needs of the world. Most of that looks pretty much like what happens in other Protestant churches, and it’s something like what the kids are doing in Sunday School during their time there as well.

But we always go on from there into the liturgy of the table, and for that the kids join us and we all do it together. Every time we gather together on Sunday we break bread and are fed, as Jesus taught us to. If the first part of the service mostly engages our minds as we listen and learn, this is the part that mostly engages our bodies as we come together and eat and drink. For one thing, the words don’t tend to change much week by week, unlike the different weekly scripture readings we hear in the first part. We pray a Eucharistic prayer which basically says the same thing every time: it tells the story of God’s creation and God’s saving act of redemption by the sending of Jesus, and by his death and resurrection. It includes the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper with his disciples, in which he commanded us to continue the tradition he was beginning. And then it asks God’s blessing on the food and on us. If we come more than once, it all starts sounding pretty familiar.

But as Kimberly reminded us last week in her sermon, when we remember these stories as part of us and our faith, we make them present again to us here as we do so. Not just as old stories, but present truths about who God is and how God works. Jesus says, do this to remember (anamnesis) me – meaning, do this to make me present here, with you, all of us members of the Body of Christ, us being part of Jesus alive in the world today. In other words, the Eucharistic prayer is more than just a prayer and more than just a story. All of us together, and the words spoken by the priest and the people, make it real here and now.

So then when we come to the part where we share the bread and wine, it’s not just that we’re receiving the Body of Christ – we’re being the Body of Christ. We’re more than just a bunch of individuals having a private individual experience of spirituality – or not. It’s both a real and a symbolic moment of being God’s people in the world: real, because it’s something profound and powerful in its own right; and symbolic, because it’s meant to show how we are to act and be in the world always.

Pretty big stuff, in other words. We miss all that when we treat worship as just something we each do to find solace and peace in our own lives. We miss all that when we think of it as just something tired and ritualistic, meaningless when it doesn’t make sense or leave us in ecstasy. Yes, God is present here in worship, though not only in the way we determine God should be – God shows up in God’s own way, not according to our script. Which is why approaching worship as a spiritual consumer so often leaves us disappointed – “I hate that hymn, I didn’t understand that prayer, and so it’s all ‘off’ for me today, forget it.” God is present regardless of our special orders. But if we aren’t present, if we aren’t fully here in the midst of the people around us and ready for the Spirit to act, we might not even notice. We might miss what is happening here and now in our worship, in our community together – and we will fail altogether to see the connection between this and the world we go back into at the end.

Because after we’ve received the bread and wine, and after we’ve prayed our thanks and heard the blessing and sung the last hymn, the final thing is the dismissal. Our worship ends with a call for us to go as Christ’s servants out into the world. It reminds us that the purpose of worship isn’t just to encourage and build ourselves up, but for all of us to be empowered and sent forth as ministers of Christ. To get ourselves on the road like those disciples in Emmaus, even if it’s nighttime and it’s risky and we’ve been traveling all day, because there is news to share about God at work in the world. That’s what the encounter with the risen Christ did to those two disciples; that’s what it’s meant to do with us as well. The Spirit isn’t interested in filling us up as a dammed-up reservoir, filling us up for our own benefit alone – but in pouring through us and out to others.

So as we go through the rest of our worship today, and especially as we turn to the liturgy of the table, keep your eyes open. Listen with your heart, be present in your body as you exchange the Peace, as you pray, as you sing, as you come to the table. Jesus makes himself known to us here in the breaking of the bread. Take and eat, and go to love and serve the world. Amen.

“Five Wishes” Forum Sunday May 4

As part of our ongoing Senior Ministry presentations and discussions, the Rev. Roger Wharton will be visiting us this Sunday to share his experience with the “Five Wishes” approach to aging with dignity and advance planning. Roger Wharton has filled in for Kate during the last year and led a discussion on Hospice and Palliative care with us last fall. The “Five Wishes” presentation focuses on the preparation we can make to ensure that our beliefs and preferences about medical care and interventions are clearly stated before the need arises. This kind of planning, as we have been discussing for a couple of years now, makes these important decisions so much easier for the family and friends who will be supporting us at those critical times of medical emergencies.  Please join us after the 10:30 service on Sunday, May 4 to hear Roger’s presentation…we can all benefit from his experience in counseling families and individuals on these important issues. There will be time for discussion and questions.

Easter Outreach

Thank you to all who participated in our outreach efforts at the Easter Egg Hunt on Sunday! We are pleased to give $117 to Operation Starfish (Food for the Poor – feeding children in the Caribbean and Latin America); $168 to Santa Maria Urban Ministry’s ABC Playtime program; and $173 through the South Sudanese Youth Opportunity to help send a girl named Yar to school in Kenya. (The rector will raise that amount through her discretionary fund to make the $200 necessary.) Thank you for your ‘sweet’ generosity!

Questions and answers

RCL Year A, Easter Day

My kids are of the age now of relentless curiosity. They want to know everything. They are full of questions. They listen to Jim and me talk and want to know what we’re talking about. They ask what that picture in the newspaper is showing. They want to know what happens after people die. They want to know just what would happen if the house caught on fire. They want to know if that car we passed is a luxury car with leather seats and fake wood inside. They want to know if tonight is a dessert night. They ask and they ask and they ask and they ask. We grow weary with answering.

But I get why they ask so many questions. There is so much to understand about the world we live in. When you only have a few years of experience on earth, there’s just a huge amount out there that you don’t know anything about. It’s one of those parts of parenting that make me think, maybe this is something of what God has to deal with, with us.

And Easter – crucifixion and resurrection and salvation and all of that, all of that makes for a lot of questions. And not just for us. People in the stories in scripture that lead up to Easter have a lot of questions too. On Palm Sunday the crowd watching Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem asks, ‘Who is this?’ When Jesus meets the soldiers in the garden coming to arrest him, he asks them, ‘Who are you looking for?’ As he stands on trial, the high priest wants to know who he thinks he is. Pilate asks him if he’s the king of the Jews. As he dies, those who watch him wonder, what just happened? And today, confused and weeping in the garden, Mary Magdalene sees someone standing there, and thinks, who is that?

There have been a lot of answers put forward to those questions of who Jesus is and what this day of Easter means. All through the Passion story and into the resurrection narratives and on beyond through the history of the church, many many many people have tried to answer them. He’s the prophet from Nazareth. He’s the rebel trying to overthrow the government. He’s a wonderful rabbi and teacher. He’s the sacrifice for us all. He’s the gardener. He’s the savior of the world. He is life itself.

But the real answer is the one Jesus gives himself. I don’t mean the titles, the Son of Man or Son of God or Messiah or any of those words. I don’t mean the theology of the atonement, or the physicality of the resurrection, or the technical debates over salvation. Those answers need time and explanation in order to unpack and understand. Those answers are interesting, but they tend to engage us in our brains, not in our hearts and lives. One way of knowing, but not all the ways we can know. No, the answer that Jesus gives is in what he shows us.

He calls people to follow him. He heals the sick, breaks bread with the despised and marginalized, raises the dead. And in his last surprising act, he gets down on his knees and washes his disciples’ feet. And then he dies, giving up his life for all. And days later, people experience him alive again, and their lives are forever changed.

The answer that Jesus is showing us, in other words, is love. Love that gives itself for others. Love that leads to life.

That’s the heart of the whole story of Holy Week and Easter, of course. Jesus gave himself up for us completely, God pouring God’s self out in love for us on the cross. It’s the most dramatic self-giving there is, love without any boundaries whatsoever, love given for every single one of us, whoever we are and whatever we’ve done.

But it’s not just his love for us that Jesus shows. He tells us to do the same. He washes his disciples’ feet and then he says, you also are to wash one another’s feet – you are to love as I have loved you. You are to give your selves in love. The answer to ‘who is this?’ and ‘what does this mean?’ comes back to us, and how we are to live.

Giving ourselves in love – we can make that out to be harder than it is. There are some who seem to show love better than others, and we call them saints, people who have become almost completely transparent to God’s love shining through them. But most of us, it’s true, stay pretty cluttered up with our own stuff. It is hard to let our own selves go. It is hard to reroute our priorities, swim against the tide in our ‘me-first’ world, run the risk of humiliation and harm. It is hard to really give ourselves in love for others. That’s wonderful, we think, but that’s really more the path for Mother Teresa or St Francis, not for me. Self-giving love is noble, but it’s just more than I can imagine living out in my own life right now.

Or is it? When a mother startles awake at 2am and goes in to nurse her crying baby, isn’t that self-giving love? When a worker stays late at the office to listen to the worries of a fellow employee, isn’t that self-giving love? When groups of people spend time at the church to prepare food for the homeless to eat, or to prune the trees and mow the lawn so others will enjoy the gardens more, isn’t that self-giving love? What about the really little things, like letting someone who’s in a rush ahead of you in line at the store or on the freeway? What about taking an extra turn cleaning the bathroom in the rotation of chores at home? What about paying for someone’s way when you know they can’t afford it? Aren’t those all acts of self-giving love?

After all, the thing Jesus tells his disciples to do, the way he shows his love, is in washing feet. He doesn’t tell them to die on the cross – that is his to do. And washing feet is really pretty simple. There’s nothing in it that changes the world. It’s unglamorous. It’s a plain, necessary sort of job in a world of dirt roads and sandals, something done by household slaves, not a job that will get you any kudos or attention – unless, of course, you’re the Pope. When Jesus tells us to love one another like that, he means that each one of us can give of ourselves here, now, in our own lives, in simple, ordinary ways.

What Jesus ultimately shows us is that giving up your self in love leads to life. The final, full giving he did led directly to what we celebrate today, the resurrection, new life for him and for the whole world. I came that they may have life, he said, and have it abundantly. Giving yourself in love might lead to something as dramatic as Mother Teresa or St Francis. But it might not – it might just mean a series of small things, unobtrusive ways that you care for another first, ways that add up slowly over time and make you more and more transparent to God’s love. More and more a saint. More and more somebody who lives the resurrection in every day of your life.

Love one another, Jesus says. Go and do this for the world. May Easter begin again today with love. Amen.

Who is this?

RCL Year A, Palm Sunday

It’s a confusing day. I wonder how you would explain what we’re doing today to someone who’d never been to church, who didn’t know the story we’ve just told. What is it we’re doing here? Why did we start outside? Why were we handed palm branches trimmed only yesterday off our palm tree during the work day, and told to wave them around? Why did we act like it was a festival, only to come inside and hear a really long dramatic reading of the terrifically sad story of the Passion? Why are we all over the place in terms of the emotions we’re arousing – glad, sad, most of all maybe a kind of awkwardness and embarrassment, if you were really going to be truthful? And why is this such a small group of people going through this today anyway? Does anyone else in the world know what we’re doing, and if they did, would they at all understand?

It’s a long tradition, the Palm Sunday procession. Some churches go all around their church building on the inside. Some go all around outside. Some go out into the neighborhood and walk all around. Talk about confusing the neighbors. It’s a parade – with no music except for that one song, not even sung very well. It’s a parade, but the only people dressed up are those 3-4 people in robes. It’s a party, but there’s no food. What is this? Who is this? what are they doing?

That’s the reaction Jesus and his followers got too, if it’s any consolation. There were people that were all excited at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, people who threw their cloaks and tree branches on the road and shouted Hosanna! as he came in on the donkey. A very large crowd of people, says Matthew. But then there were a lot of other people, probably more people, people in the city standing there watching this with confusion on their faces. Who is this? they wanted to know. What the heck is going on?

Well, as one commentator noted, that’s the question of the day. Who is this? is this the future king of Israel, coming in to kick out the Romans? Is this someone of great power and might? It doesn’t seem like it, once the story continues further on. Is this a random itinerant preacher from the country with a Messiah complex? Maybe, but maybe not. The only thing that’s clear is that this is someone who, when they go to put him on trial and wait for him to tell them who he is, refuses to speak, refuses to clear up all their questions. Pilate can’t figure him out, and neither, really, can anyone else. His best friends deny they know him. His people clamor for his blood. Even the others being crucified with him use their last dying breaths to make fun of him.

There are a few answers given. The adoring crowds tell the confused city people, this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. The soldiers and the High Priest call him the Messiah, but they don’t mean it in a good way. Pilate thinks he’s trying to be king of the Jews. The Pharisees say he’s an imposter. And the centurion and a few others watching him die say he’s God’s Son. Jesus’ answer to most of these is, You have said so. But he doesn’t offer any other answer himself.

So the question just hangs out there, waiting to be answered. Who is this? What answer do you live with? My personal friend and companion. The judge who watches everything I do. My model and guide for how to live. An enigma, a mystery I can’t connect with. A stumbling block. An all-powerful savior when I can’t save myself.

You may or may not be used to asking yourself who Jesus is. You might have words ready to say who you experience Jesus to be, and you might never have thought about it consciously. But that’s the question, today. That’s the question for this week, as we go through the whole story piece by piece, and wind up with something incredible on Easter Day. This week, today, I invite you to consider it. Who is this? what are we doing here? And now what do we do?

New Online Sign-Up System for Montgomery Meals!

Calling all volunteers! Those that are regular Montgomery Meals volunteers and those that have never volunteered at Montgomery Meals. Now is your opportunity to serve those less fortunate – when your schedule allows!  Let’s remember why ECA has served InnVision for over 20 years: to help those less fortunate; to use our gifts of food preparation and service to feed the hungry. And to enjoy doing this with our friends! We have established a new Online Volunteer sign-up, utilizing “SIGN-UP GENIUS.” Everyone in the church has access to the sign-up and you don’t need to go through me to sign up via a spreadsheet, etc. You’ll be able to see at a glance what jobs are needed and Sign-Up Genius will send automatic reminders to your email address for the days you have signed up. So grab a friend and come sign up at this link!

www.SignUpGenius.com/go/10C0B45ADAC23A7FC1-montgomery

It’s quick and easy. You can scroll down the screen to see all the dates and job assignments for this quarter (April thru June). Sign up for all volunteer positions you can do this quarter, as the ‘best’ jobs will go first! Please provide any feedback and inputs back to me at sharonhall4429@sbcglobal.net or catch me at coffee hour. Thanks everyone for your support!

Youth Group Service Opportunity

Sunday, April 27 is the youth’s environmental service day, cleaning up after and sorting trash from the Big Sur International Marathon. This will be a great “everybody wins” scenario. First the youth will get to see spectacular Big Sur. Students can earn 5 volunteer hours for their school service requirements. Their service will divert trash from landfills, and they will help Habitat for Humanity receive a $4,000 donation by their volunteer efforts. If you would like to be part of this service day either as a youth or an adult willing to help with the transportation, please contact the youth leaders, Inge Bond or Bonnie McPherson, directly or through this email christianed@jointventurechurches.org.

Unbound

RCL Year A, 5 Lent

Reading that story aloud gives me chills. It’s one of the gospels I almost hate to preach on, because I just don’t want to say anything after those last words. ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

This is the sign beyond all other signs in John’s gospel. This is the fullest revelation of who Jesus is. In encounter after encounter, people have been realizing just who he is – in Nicodemus’ nighttime conversation with Jesus, in the Samaritan woman’s time with him at the well, in the blind man’s healing and all the uproar that follows. And now, lest we still be wondering and in the dark about Jesus, John makes it perfectly clear with this story. Jesus is life and resurrection. Jesus is the fullness of God, right here in the midst of mortality and pain. It is such a flagrant display of his power that from this point on, the Jewish authorities will plot to kill him. And Lazarus too, for good measure.

But to get to that point, we have to spend a long time in the story dealing with death. Lazarus is only raised in the last few verses of this long passage – all the way up unto that point we are reminded in every way possible that he is dead. First the news comes that Lazarus is ill, but Jesus waits around somewhere else until he dies. Then Jesus tells his confused disciples: ‘Lazarus is dead. Let us go to him.’ The disciples panic, because returning to Judea sounds like walking into their own deaths – but Thomas bravely says, let us go and die with him. They arrive, and first Martha and then Mary run out to meet Jesus, saying, if you had been here, he would not have died. Jesus weeps with them, real grief at Lazarus’ real death. And finally, to make the point very, very clear, everyone complains about the smell. Lazarus is dead, really dead.

Our Bishop Mary told about time she spent studying at Hebrew Union in New York last year, doing theology and studying scripture with Jewish students and theologians. She said it was a revelation to her how quickly her Christian faith leads her to jump to the happy ending. In our narrative, suffering leads to healing. Death leads to resurrection. Good Friday leads to Easter. Sometimes we make that jump so quickly that we can forget that the suffering and death really exist. And there are problems with that, Bishop Mary realized. Sometimes it makes us the worst kind of companion to people who are suffering or grieving, however good our intentions – we can’t just be with them in their pain without trying to cheer them up. Sometimes jumping ahead to the happy ending makes it difficult for us to stay faithful when we encounter suffering and pain in life – we can’t believe God is there even when things are rough. And sometimes avoiding the hard part of suffering prevents us from really grasping the enormity of the good news. We have to know death to know resurrection.

Suffering is real. We all of us face into our own death, especially as we get older, or as we get new diagnoses of illness that we must struggle to comprehend. We live with the deaths of others: of people we love, our children, our parents, our spouses; and of people we do not know, killed in terrible tragedies halfway around the world. The stink of death and suffering is real – the smell of bodies succumbing to illness and decay; the stink of painful memories of things we have done or that have been done to us. We wish that we could find a way to explain why all of this happens to us and to people we love, and we can’t. It can be very, very hard to find hope – all that we seem to find is heartbreak and loss.

Jim shared with me a story he’d worked on for Guideposts, about a woman with schizophrenia. Her name is Rebecca, and she was a churchgoing, faithful person, with a good stable family, but things had started to fall apart for her in college. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and put on medication, but still couldn’t find her way. She stopped taking her meds and became convinced that people were out to get her. She threw all of her furniture in a dumpster, so she would be ready to run when ‘they’ got to her. She stopped eating, stopped bathing. And finally, one bitterly cold day, her sister Laura came to her door, knocking and calling for her to open up. But she wouldn’t, knowing that her sister and mother would just be waiting to take her back to the psychiatric hospital. She hid in the bathroom for hours, with Laura waiting outside in the freezing weather, refusing to leave. Finally she looked at herself in the mirror, and saw her filthy, gaunt face, her stringy hair. And she heard her grandfather’s voice in her head, the grandfather who loved her, and who always said to her, Rebecca, stay on the road – and this time she heard those words as a call. Slowly, she made her way to the door, and slowly, opened it. Her sister gathered her up in her arms, and together they walked to the car, where her mother was waiting, and drove to the hospital – where she finally found the road to healing. Jesus said, Unbind her, and let her go.

Maybe when you hear a story like the raising of Lazarus, you wonder if it could really have happened. Did Jesus really call a person back from the dead? Is this real, or did John the gospel writer just make it up? But then you hear a story like Rebecca’s. That woman walked out of the tomb that day, moving towards light and healing. Or you live through your own story – you go through a time where you know all too well that the suffering is real and the smell is bad, and yet even so, you find new life beginning. Lazarus is raised. Jesus is raised. We, too, are raised – new life where all we could see was death and a tomb. Yes, it is real. It did happen, and it does happen.

Jesus says to Martha and to us, I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this? May we know God’s new life for us, open the door, and be free.

 

 

Seeing is believing

RCL Year A, 4 Lent

Now, if you were paying attention during the reading of the gospel, you might have noticed that the story the kids just acted out is a different one. They gave us a story found in Luke’s gospel of a man who is blind and who is healed by Jesus – a whole different kind of story than the one we heard in our reading from John’s gospel. What we heard first is a long story of how a healing caused upset and upheaval; while the skit was about a healing that caused rejoicing and celebration. One thing you can say about these two stories – and the other stories we’ve been hearing in the last few weeks – is that you never know which way it’s going to go when Jesus is on the scene. People might get what he’s talking about, and they might not. They might be joyful at what he does, and they might not like it one bit.

You could say what we heard today is a story of how the world is; what we saw is a story of how the world should be. A man is blind. He desperately wants healing. He makes his way to the one who can save him and he is healed, able to see. And in the skit, he is thrilled, his whole life made new, and all who see him are thrilled along with him. Healing and sight, new life and hope – something everyone can rejoice in! That’s the way it should be.

But the first story is different. A man is blind, born blind – he has never known what sight is. Jesus heals him. He can see, something completely new for him. And nobody is happy about it. Not the neighbors, not his parents, not the religious leaders. They throw him out. Get out! We don’t want the new you. We all liked the old you better. All too often, that’s how the world is.

Because the man’s healing isn’t just something that happens to him. His healing throws the whole system around him out of whack. He was a beggar, dependent on other people to care for him – all of a sudden he can make his own way, he is well, he doesn’t need their help anymore. He used to need them and they could look down on him for it. Now it’s all different. No one adjusts to that kind of change easily.

And the man was healed on the Sabbath, when no work is supposed to be done – therefore, the Pharisees argue, the one who healed him must be a bad man. But the man is healed, he can see! How can that be bad? The rules of behavior, the way people are supposed to worship God, have been broken. These are rules that matter, because they help define who God’s people are. But Jesus has just tossed them out the window. No one responds well to people who kill sacred cows – who throw out things that other people think are important and holy.

And furthermore, the man was born blind, and that means he is full of sin, according to the theology of the Pharisees. But after he’s healed he’s proclaiming and witnessing to who Jesus is, saying that Jesus is from God. No one wants to be preached to by someone they don’t approve of.

So it is easier for all of them if they just toss him out. But can you imagine? Your own child, your neighbor, a member of your community, and you’re so upset about the change in them that you just want them gone?

But that’s how we can get when sudden and total transformation happens. It seems like in the story the kids shared with us, it was easier on everyone. The blind man’s healing didn’t rock any boats. Maybe he was just a stranger to all those crowds who rejoiced when he was healed. His family wasn’t around, his neighbors weren’t there to see. It’s the people who know and love us who have a hard time when we change – anyone in recovery can tell you that. It’s the things that are most dear to us that we want to stay the same – the house we grew up in, or our church, or the town we’ve known for so long. We shake our heads and complain that nothing stays the same.

But the weird thing, the thing that must make God just shake her head sometimes, is that even good change drives us bananas. Change is hard, it takes work on our part to adjust to it, and we don’t like that. We’re naturally nostalgic. And this is not just people of a certain age. When Jim and I took over leadership of a family camp last year and tried to change some things, it was the kids who had the hardest time letting go of ‘traditions.’ There’s a whole lot of shifting and regrouping we have to do when people around us change, or when places we love change, and even when we ourselves change. And so there’s always something in us that wants to go back to how it was before, even when we consciously know and understand that things are better now.

I think it’s all in where we find our safety and support. If we are holding on to how things are, we have a hard time living into how things could be. It’s one of the ways we practice idolatry, worshiping other gods instead of the true God – in this case, the god of what we can grasp and understand, instead of the God of new and unknown life. Just imagine, seeing when you had never ever seen before. How terrifying. How incredible.

But that’s what Jesus does – he opens our eyes and makes us see. And then we choose how to respond. Will we respond with joy and happiness when he does that for us? And when he does that for others too? Or will we want to shrink back into the shadows and the way things were before? I’m hoping we’ll want to celebrate and praise God, like our kids showed us. May God give us the courage to do it. Amen.

South Sudanese Youth Opportunity Presentation

Join us on Sunday April 6th, after the 10:30 service. Gabriel Makuie has brought back photos and two short videos of the students we sponsor in school in Kenya. Gabriel is secretary at Hope With South Sudan (our parent organization). He is a senior at San Jose State, majoring in Environmental Studies. Eventually he plans to study for ordination in the priesthood. Gabriel has just returned from his visit to the areas in Kenya where our students are, and also to visit family in the war zone area of Juba in South Sudan. You will be interested in what he has to say and show us, and there will be a time for you to ask any questions you have for him. Please mark your calendars – we will have healthy snacks so that you can keep up your endurance.

Thirsty for living water?

RCL Year A, 3 Lent

This is not actually an attendance question, but how many of you were here last week? Do you remember Nicodemus in last week’s gospel? The powerful man of authority, sneaking in to Jesus under cover of night to find out if his suspicions can be proven, if Jesus really is the Messiah? Jesus doesn’t give him an easy time of it, rebuking him for his unbelief and confusing his literal mind with metaphor and symbol. Whether Nicodemus saw and understood at the end of that exchange, we don’t know – but he does show up at the end of the gospel, still a little furtive, but bringing rich spices and ointments to bury Jesus’ body. Somewhere along the way he seemed to get it, even if only quietly and a little late.

This week’s story at the well is almost an exact opposite of that one. It is not nighttime; it is high noon, the heat of the day. The person Jesus engages is not a religious man of authority; it is a woman, a Samaritan outsider, whose name we never hear. She too has a hard time seeing Jesus for who he is. But when she gets it, she really gets it – and runs off to become the first apostle to the Samaritans.

This is just about the most extended encounter Jesus has with a woman in all of scripture. Really it’s one of the most extended encounters he has with anyone. Maybe that’s why the story is so powerful – we get such a sense of who she is. She’s there at the well in the heat of the day; something has caused her to be excluded from her community, to want to avoid the other women who go to the well in the morning and evening when it is cool. She has had numerous marriages and relationships – perhaps ending in divorce and disgrace, perhaps ending in grief and widowhood, we don’t know. But whatever protection marriage should afford her in that culture has failed her, one way or another. Her life has been hard, tragic, and painful. And you can hear it in her tone as she addresses Jesus. Oh yeah, living water, huh? Sure, guy, give me some of that. Then I won’t have to keep coming here to draw water. Then I’ll finally be free of this drudgery, this endless hopelessness. This woman, it seems, has seen too much of life. She is bitter and jaded, and nothing good is going to come her way again.

Except it does. There sits Jesus, talking with her. Looking right at her and into her and knowing her. I am he – the one who is talking to you is the one you have been waiting for. And the second she sees that, everything changes for her. Off she runs, forgetting her chore and her water jug and the drink Jesus had asked for. She’s bubbling over with the good news, completely breathless and full of joy, running to all the people in her town she used to avoid to tell them about Jesus. Everything that up to this point has blinded her to God’s action in her life falls away, and she sees – and she can’t wait to bring that news to others. And she really does bring that news, because they all come running themselves to meet Jesus – they don’t stop to question her, because they can see how everything in her has changed. It’s an incredible story of hope and new life where before there was none.

So what’s the difference between this woman and Nicodemus? Why does she get it so quickly and readily and rush to share it with others, while he keeps doggedly asking his questions and trying to pin Jesus down? We aren’t quite given enough of their stories to know. Maybe it’s because the woman has been beaten down so far in life that she’s ready to embrace the change – whereas Nicodemus still has so much to lose if he takes the risk of following Jesus. Maybe by nature she’s readier to hope – all those marriages show some belief in the possibility of new beginnings, after all. For one reason or another, she knows her thirst. She knows what she lacks and what she needs, and she knows that she hasn’t found it anywhere else. She is ready to drop that water jar and really drink from the water Jesus is offering to her.

She’s an example of why the Beatitudes say, blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who know they need it. Because when things are going well with us, we don’t see why we should take a risk for the unknown, however wonderful the promise might be. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, as the proverb says; it’s only when we don’t have a bird in the hand that we are ready to step out. Then we’re ready to take the chance for the gift we’re being offered.

The thing is, we are all of us in this kind of need, all the time. We are empty and in need of that living water. It’s just that most of the time we delude ourselves and pretend we’re not. Most of the time we cushion ourselves with routines and comforts and reassurances and self-sufficiency. Everything’s fine, thanks. I’ll just stick with this little jug of water, clutching tight to this bird in my fist. We don’t want to acknowledge how bad it’s gotten, how much we need help in our lives. We don’t want to pay attention to the voice of loss inside of us. We don’t want to admit that the structures we’ve built to fortress ourselves are really houses of cards.

It’s something we need to be brought to, the realization of our need. That’s why we have this season of Lent, actually. We begin the season with the day of Ash Wednesday, receiving on our foreheads a smear of dirt and being reminded that we are dust, and will return to dust. For several weeks in a row we begin our worship first of all with confession, laying before God all the useless pointless stuff we’ve been up to so far today and hearing again God’s assurance of forgiveness and love. We kneel and pray and ask for help. It’s not to focus on our own wretchedness, or make us feel terrible about ourselves. It’s to remind us of the source of our life. Because other times, most of the time, we forget – we pretend we did it ourselves. And then we’re primed for it all to fall apart when the first ill wind blows.

In a few moments in this service we will offer our prayers, the prayers of our hearts for our needs and the needs of others and our world. It’s what we do before we turn to celebrate again the good news of God with us, in the Body and Blood of Christ; before we receive the gift that reminds us of God’s new life for us. Today I want to you really pray these prayers. I’m going to give you some time in silence first, to really summon up the needs and fears and worries and difficulties that are laying heavy on our hearts. I want you to really lay them out before God in your mind, like cards spread out on the table. And then we’re going to stand, first to remind ourselves of what our faith is based on, the essential basic statement of the creed, and then to pray together. And I mean really pray – not just to let the words wash over us, but to offer up our longings and needs. So that when we come to communion, we are ready – ready to receive the gift, ready to eat the bread and drink the wine and know the living water welling up within us.

It’s one way to practice knowing our thirst. Take some time now; take it throughout this week. Know your thirst – be ready to receive what God is giving you. A spring of water, gushing up to eternal life.

Markers in the wilderness

RCL Year A, 2 Lent

I’ll begin with a story I told the Lenten class on Wednesday night:

‘Help us to find God,’ the disciples asked the elder.

‘No one can help you do that,’ the elder said.

‘Why not?’ the disciples asked, amazed.

‘For the same reason that no one can help fish to find the ocean.’

Hold onto that for a moment. First, I want to look at that all-too-short first reading we heard from Genesis. Therein is the beginning of a whole new relationship between God and people. God calls Abram, picks him out of all the people in the world, and asks him to go, to leave everything he knows and all those who have known him, and to move to a whole new land. To move to a whole new land not so that life would be better for him and his family, necessarily – but to move so that he and his descendants could become a blessing for the whole world. And Abram and his wife Sarai go, without a word.

But a few verses further on we get a little more sense of their feelings about this upheaval in their lives. They travel on to Canaan, and God appears to them again to say, this is the land I will give to you. So they build an altar there. Then they travel further on to Bethel and stay there a bit. And they build an altar there. And then they keep going, traveling on to Egypt and beyond in search of a place to stay. Building altars all the way.

Those altars, you see, are a kind of lifeline for Abram and Sarai. God has turned up and talked to them and given them a mission, and now they’re off in the wilderness, away from everything and everybody they knew. And they wonder: Is the god who spoke to us back home still with us? Let’s build an altar to him and make sure he is. And then they travel further on. Is he still here? Let’s build another altar and make sure. Every altar is a way of tying their god to themselves, like building a space station before voyaging further out – making sure that local god of home is still there, that they can still count on him. Only gradually do they begin to realize, after several more encounters with God inviting them to look at the enormity of the land before them, the vast number of the stars above them, that God is everywhere. Not local to a particular place or set of people, but greater than everything and everywhere. The Spirit blows where it will, beyond anything they can tie down and understand.

But the instinct to pin things down is strong in humans. Thousands of years later, there is Nicodemus, stealthy and hiding and visiting Jesus under cover of darkness. Hey, psst, Jesus, you there! I know – we know – that you’re from God, because we’ve seen the evidence. We’ve seen you do these signs, proof to us that you’re something real. I’m not entirely sure, but I’m pretty sure, that you’re it – and if you prove it just a little further, do a sure sign or two, we’ll anoint you Messiah, build you an altar, and publicize to everyone who you are.

But Jesus doesn’t applaud Nicodemus for his faith – you saw the signs and deduced the truth, good for you. Instead he offers a kind of rebuke: you can’t see all there is to see, the kingdom of God, until you’re born of the Spirit. You need to move away from what you can prove and understand and hold onto. That is what faith really is. The Spirit blows where it will, through you and around you. Until you allow that unknown to happen, you will never see. Stop trying to build altars, Nicodemus, and let go.

Nicodemus is mystified. And no wonder. He is only doing what Abram did, what anyone does in trying to comprehend the vastness of God and the world. He’s starting with what he can observe and verify, setting up a marker in a journey that can feel a lot like just wandering around. He wants a touchstone, a cairn that will stand and show the way. I may not know where I am going, but I at least know where I am right now – and I’ve built a pile of rocks to show it.

If you’ve ever tried to follow a trail in the wilderness, you know the value of those piles of rocks. In the East they paint colored blazes on the trees – follow the blue marks and you won’t get lost. In the West, and up above treeline, they put piles of rocks, cairns, that mark the path. You find the blaze or the cairn and you’re reassured that you’re on the trail. And then you stand still and peer off into the distance, trying to determine where the next one is, which way you’re supposed to move. But move you must, even when you can’t quite tell where the next one is – you’re not out there just to stand still, the sun is going down and you’ve got to get to camp. The cairns are important. But they’re not meant as places to stay at.

But sometimes, like Nicodemus, we have a hard time moving on. This is something I know. This is something I understand. And so we stay there, sometimes so long that we get stuck. Have you ever known someone who seemed stuck? Have you ever felt that way yourself? Think of the perpetual student, the one who finishes college, and not knowing what to do next, goes back to graduate school, without really knowing why. They found meaning and structure in school, and they aren’t sure where to find it next. It happens in the church too: I had several friends through youth and young adult ministries when I was young myself, people who found community and meaning in youth conferences and retreats and camps – so much so that they just kind of stayed there, age 25, 26, 27, still circling back to the same places where they had once found God long after others their age had moved on to other things. And maybe we can all think of people who stay too long in a job that no longer has any purpose or joy to it, simply because it is what they know – maybe we’ve been that person ourselves.

We can get stuck, in life and in our life with God. This is the way I understood God once; this is the way I experienced God once. And we try to come back to that, over and over again, even when doubts and questions have arisen in our minds to make that image of God troubling, even when no feeling is left, even when we can’t articulate anything of what it once meant to us. We’re too afraid to let go.

But we never grow unless we do let go. We never grow until we allow our images of God to be blown up and replaced by something bigger. Until we allow that God is not only in this one place or to be experienced in this one way – but bigger than that, more surprising than that, all around us like the ocean surrounds the fish.

As we live this journey – this pilgrimage of Lent, this larger journey of faith, the journey that simply is about getting older day by day – we have to let go. Know where our touchstones are, yes; understand our path and our journey thus far, definitely; but move forward nonetheless. Moving forward into the unknown and wilderness, but moving forward too into a place where we know already the Spirit also is. There is no place we can go apart from God’s Spirit. There is no place where God is not. There is no place, therefore, where we should be afraid. God is here.

Ora et Labora Lenten series

This Lent we will be exploring ways to nurture and deepen our lives using the template of Benedictine rule. The 6th century founder of the monastery at Monte Cassino, Benedict created a rule for his monks that prescribed a balance of prayer and study, time spent alone and time spent with others. In our time of overwork and isolation, of too much time spent in our own heads and too little understanding, Benedict’s rule can be a powerful guide to deeper knowing. Come for a series of thought-provoking ideas and spirit-settling practice as we engage a wiser way this season. Each Wednesday evening will begin with Evening Prayer at 6:00 pm, continue with a simple soup supper at 6:30 and program and practice at 7:00 pm, and conclude by 8:00 pm. Come for what you are able to come for, and refresh your soul.

March 12              Prayer Alone

March 19              Work Alone

March 26              Prayer Together

April 2                     Work  Together

April 9                     Living Out Our Rule

Get up! Do not be afraid!

RCL Year A, Last Epiphany

We’ve been trying out an experiment in our worship space this season of Epiphany, and now that season is drawing to a close. Some of you have had a chance to share your thoughts about removing the altar rails; we’ll continue to take feedback today if you’ve not yet done so. It’s been interesting reading your responses, which have ranged all over the map. And as I’d suspected, they’ve been pretty evenly balanced between those who welcomed the change and those who did not. Some of you wrote simply that you want your kneelers back and you want them now! Some of you are ecstatic that they’re gone and what the church looks like without them. Some of you are fine either way, or maybe concerned about other people who miss the kneelers even though you yourself don’t care; others of you have enjoyed the opportunity to try it differently, and would like to see the experiment continue. And many of you have spent some time really thinking about what it means to you to take communion and be together as the Body of Christ – which is the best feedback of all, in my opinion. Knowing why we do what we do in worship is so important – particularly when the answer isn’t simply, because we’ve always done it this way. There should be more to what we do and why we do it.

The early church, as I mentioned when we began this in January, did not kneel for communion. Instead, from what we can tell anyway, they stood together around the table, arms upheld throughout the Eucharistic prayer, and then received together there. Or maybe they sat and shared the bread and wine in the midst of a meal. The Eastern Orthodox churches never kneeled, and still don’t – and rarely sit during the service either. The Catholic Church in the West began kneeling and receiving the host directly on the tongue once the doctrine of transubstantiation became the norm – but around the time of Vatican II, most Catholic churches took out their altar rails and began standing for communion, receiving the bread in the hand as we do. Pope Benedict began bringing back the rails and the kneeling and receiving on the tongue, and now there’s general confusion in the Catholic Church about which way is right. So you see that the question of posture is not one unique to us alone – there’s a range of beliefs and feelings out there. Is standing to receive communion a cattle call, or is it a dance? Is kneeling to receive reverent and pious, or is it an unwelcome insistence on our unworthiness? To use words I read in your feedback, is standing for communion just like being in a bread line for the homeless, bedraggled and shameful? Or, is standing for communion like being in a bread line for the homeless, together in our need and hungry for what alone can feed us? One thing that is clear is that receiving communion is both a communal act and a private one – it’s something we do together with the community around us, and it is a moment of intimacy for each of us with God. And there will always be a tension between those two poles of the experience. Just as, as our little congregation shows, there will always be a tension between the way I prefer to receive and the way another person prefers it.

It is my sense that there are times when one or the other posture is more appropriate. There are times when what we need to remember is our worthiness before God, and our unity together as a community – standing helps us do that. And there are other times when a greater emphasis on our own need for forgiveness and grace is important – kneeling can help us remember that. We are blessed to have the option here in our space, with the moveable kneelers. So in Lent we will continue the experiment, using the kneelers again while still trying to keep the space more open. (And remember, you are always welcome to kneel in the prayers, during the Eucharistic prayer, after communion, and so on if you find that meaningful for your piety. No one is attempting to prohibit you from kneeling if that is important to you.)

With all of this in mind, it is not surprising that what struck me about the gospel reading today was the question of posture. The powerful experience of holiness that Peter and James and John have upon the mountain with Jesus makes them fall to the ground, overwhelmed with fear. But Jesus comes to them and touches them, saying, don’t be afraid – get up! Or as the Greek could be translated, ‘be raised.’ They take one posture – flat on the ground in fear – but Jesus calls them into another, standing up and unafraid. And this is one of many times in the gospel when the disciples or others are told not to be afraid. It is what the angels say to Mary and to the shepherds about the new baby, the incarnate Word; it is what the angels again say to Mary Magdalene and the other women about the empty tomb, the resurrected Jesus. Do not be afraid. The angels have to say it over and over again, and Jesus has to say it over too, because fear is an automatic human response. Particularly when God is standing there before us, we are afraid. When something is so big and about to change our whole lives, it is only natural that we respond with fear and trembling – and fall to the ground.

Compare this story to the first one we heard today, the story of Moses and the people at Mt Sinai. Only Moses could go up onto the mountain; if the people were to touch the mountain, they would die. All they could see was a cloud, God like a devouring fire on top of the mountain. This is not an experience of the holy that invites people to come closer. So it is no wonder that in an encounter that repeated those same elements – the mountain, the blazing light, the cloud, the voice from heaven – John and Peter and James fell to the ground in mortal fear. But Jesus says, Do not be afraid. You don’t have to respond to God that way. Be raised! Stand up!

Sometimes we might think we have to respond with fear and trembling – as if, if we don’t show proper respect, God will be angry. Or we want to insist that others show respect in the same way we do, fearing the change or the difference in attitude. But Jesus and the angels and all the message of the gospels seem to say and show over and over again that we should approach without fear. Be raised to new life. Come to me. Let yourself be changed. Don’t stay in your fear of the unknown – risk stepping out, and know that I am with you. Be unbound, and let yourself go.

It may be for our own selves and our own sense of what is ok, we need to kneel or fall to the ground. Sometimes falling flat on our faces is the only way to get into our heads the enormity of God’s gift of love to us, to prostrate ourselves completely and trust in God to raise us up. But it is not where we are meant to stay. And it is not a posture God demands of us or of others, it is clear. God calls us into life, letting go of what is dead, what we cling to for safety and security. It’s what we’re facing into as a congregation as we look to grow and reach out to the world around us; it’s what each of us is doing as we live out more intentionally who God has created us to be. Being raised, being not afraid, is the only way forward – the only way to come down from the mountain and be God’s people in the world. Amen.

Men’s Backpacking Trip

This year, ECA men will have a retreat of their own. Jim Hinch will lead a wilderness backpacking trip on the last weekend in July (25th-27th) in the Ansel Adams Wilderness south of Yosemite. We’ll hike, camp, fish and talk about how faith helps us to find balance in our lives. The backpacking portion will be moderately strenuous, covering 5-10 miles per day over hilly terrain. A sign-up sheet will be posted in the parish hall, or contact Jim to express interest or ask questions: jimhinch@gmail.com.

Letting go

RCL Year A, 5 Epiphany

Some weeks back I finished a wonderful book called The Genessee Diary, a memoir by the writer Henri Nouwen about his time living in a Trappist monastery in upstate New York. Nouwen was a Catholic priest, an academic and a writer, when he went for a kind of sabbatical of several months to the Trappists. The Trappists are a cloistered order, monks who keep to a very austere schedule of prayer beginning at about 2:00 in the morning, with hard manual labor, strict obedience to the abbot, and a vow of silence throughout the day. Now, Nouwen had already achieved fame as a writer by the time he stayed with the Trappists, and although he is there to live their life, he finds himself over and over again dealing with resentment about what he is asked to do by the abbot. He is a writer and academic – why is he spending hours washing raisins for the bread in the kitchen? He is a great thinker – why does he have to move boulders by hand to build the new church? And why doesn’t anyone there treat him as special? He realizes quickly that the monk who treated him kindly and lovingly the day before is today doing just the same with another guest. Nouwen isn’t accorded special status at all. He struggles with this over and over again, so much that it is almost laughable when he returns to this theme in his diary for the twentieth time. And yet as I read, I found myself thinking, don’t we all know something of what he feels. The desire to be special. To be admired. To be, at least, appreciated for what we do and contribute. Consciously or unconsciously, something like this is true for so many of us.

You are the salt of the earth, Jesus tells us today. You are the light of the world. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. We’re really something pretty special in the eyes of God – aren’t we?

Now, most of us, I’m guessing, don’t really think we’re the light of the world. And maybe some of us struggle sometimes with believing that we’re any kind of light of the world at all. But most of us think, well, we’re a little bit of the light of the world, aren’t we? We do something for someone, we say a nice thing or do a good deed, and it makes the world a little better. We’re one of those thousand points of light we heard about some time ago, and we can feel good about that.

But Jesus goes on. If salt has lost its taste, it is good for nothing but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. And no one lights a lamp only to hide it under a bushel. It sounds like a warning. But a warning about what exactly?

To really understand this we need to look at what comes right before these words of Jesus – the Beatitudes, some of the most familiar and misheard scriptures of all. The long string of ‘blessed are’-s that sound lovely but really don’t make a whole lot of sense to us. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek, and blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are those who are persecuted…Blessed and happy are a whole lot of people who don’t look at all blessed and happy. Who don’t have anything of the good life or anything else that we might like to have to be happy and feel blessed. No one walks up to a hungry person and says, well, aren’t you blessed! But blessed, says Jesus, are those who lack, not those who have. They are the ones who are blessed and happy. God loves them. And it is them, those who do not have, who are the salt and light for the world.

But them is us. Jesus here is saying, now we are the light – we in whom God lives, we are the light of the world. We are the salt of seasoning and preservation and purification. Not because we did anything right; not because of our inherent skills and talents and extraordinariness. Simply because God is in us, shining. God is in us, giving flavor to the world. When we try to be the light of the world ourselves, we wonder why no one else is acting like we’re special. We wonder when they’re going to say ‘thank you.’ And before we’ve even realized it, the real light is hidden by our own shadow.

This last week I attended our diocesan clergy conference, led by a writer and teacher named Cynthia Bourgeault. She talked about the different ways we have of knowing – the way our brains can know things in one way, our hearts in another, and our bodies in still another. And our bodies, she pointed out, often know something most quickly of all. Put your hands like this (tight fists), she said, Now put them like this (open and out). Can you feel the difference? One is the way it feels to hold tight to something, to cling. The other is the way it feels to let go. When we cling to something – like, say, our own egos, our own specialness, our own inherent skills and talents deserving of attention, we’re tightened up, wrapped up in our selves, blocked and caught up in our own stuff. When we let go, we are freer, more open to movement, readier to the Spirit’s actions within us and through us. Truths that are hard to explain through words, but that we can tell right away by how it feels to make the gestures.

Right after telling us to be salt and light, Jesus issues what sounds like a stern warning about following the law, that only by fulfilling it in every last bit, only by exceeding the righteousness of the most careful of Pharisees, will we enter the kingdom of heaven. People have freaked out about this statement ever since. But it is of a piece with what he said before it. Because when we allow God to be the source of light through us, when we let go of our own stuff and our need to be something important to others, then God can act fully in us; God can use us to bring light to others. Through us God can shine, purify, season the world. God shines through us, simply because we aren’t cluttering up the way anymore.

The pose of letting go, of open hands not clinging to our entitlement or specialness, is not something we attain all at once. It is something we practice, over and over again. We practice it together in our community life as we yield to each other’s needs, as we look for what is best for the other instead of simply what suits us most. We practice as we think about how to work for the good of the whole instead of insisting others adapt to our own cherished way. We practice it in our prayer, offering ourselves in quiet and openness to God instead of always presenting a laundry list of our needs and complaints. We practice it as we let things go in our daily life that tempt us to cling and clutter, instead of allowing the space for light to come through. We practice and we practice and we practice, over and over again turning ourselves over to God, opening ourselves to Christ’s light. And eventually, as we see in the great saints of the church, we might just really be transparent, full of the kingdom of heaven, drawing others toward God.

So there is work for us to do in today’s teaching – but it is not the work of being something really wonderful, something we strive for and seek to do better on. Instead, it is the work of letting go. Of laying ourselves down bit by bit, letting fall drop by drop the things we’ve been clinging to, allowing God more and more to act in us and through us for others. We are the light of the world – may we let that light of God shine through us for all. Amen.

Speaker on Dementia Next Sunday Forum

Nina Polentika will speak with us after the 10:30 service, Sunday February 9th, on the effects of and caring for dementia in family members. Nina is a therapist in Palo Alto whose own mother has dementia and who works with many family members of dementia patients in her therapy practice. She will tell us about her experiences and answer questions on this topic that many of you have expressed an interest in, whether you know someone who is currently experiencing this condition, or are just curious about how to manage it. Light refreshments will be served during Nina’s presentation. Please join us!

Preparation and purification

Feast of the Presentation

Today, you might have realized, is a big day, an important day on the calendar, a long-awaited day of much preparation and moment. That’s right – it’s a feast day of the church. For all of you church calendar junkies out there, this feast day is one of only three feast days in the year that take precedence of the usual Sunday observance – meaning that because the date February 2 falls on a Sunday, we celebrate this feast rather than 4 Epiphany as we would otherwise have done. So you know it’s important! It’s a feast with several names: Candlemas, the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, the Meeting of the Lord, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And it’s Groundhog Day. And – ‘something else’ Sunday too, but I can’t recall what.

Here’s all the things this feast day encompasses: the blessing of candles in church, the churching of women, the gospel story we just heard of Simeon and Anna. Finding out the weather forecast for the next several weeks: ‘If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, Winter will have another flight. If Candlemas Day be shower and rain, Winter is gone and will not come again.’ A rhyme which predates Punxsutawney Phil by centuries, but the same idea. On the pagan calendar, this day was a ‘cross-quarter’ day in the cycle of the year, the day exactly halfway between the Winter Solstice and the spring Equinox. It’s Imbolc, the Feast of St Brigid in the Celtic tradition. It is a day for purification, the day to take out and burn the Yuletide greens (so if you haven’t done anything with your Christmas tree yet, today’s the day); the day to carry torches in procession around the city to purify the air, as in old Rome; the day to carry torches around the fields to purify and invigorate them for the coming growing season in Ireland; and, the day to start plowing, literally purifying and preparing the earth. And so America is honoring this day with a football game to celebrate all this – its own sort of ritual of purification and hope, I suppose. I’m supposed to be non-partisan, but I did grow up in Seattle, you know. (Go Hawks.)

It’s not hard to see how the several threads of tradition intertwine today. Purification even feels right for this time of year – it’s beginning to feel like spring even without much rain, and it makes you want to open the windows, let the fresh air in, do some spring cleaning to clear away winter’s grime. Purification, preparation for what is to come, light and darkness – and all of this is mixed in the story of Jesus, his parents, and two old people in the temple.

Two separate events of Jesus’ early life are brought together in this story: the purification of the mother and the presentation of the child, both required by the Law. The firstborn son was presented in the Temple with a ‘redemption price’ according to Hebrew law. Also according to the Law, a woman had to be purified after childbirth in order to offer worship in the Temple and return to society again. A woman was considered unclean for a certain number of days after childbirth – forty days after a boy child, sixty days after a girl child – until she performed the required ritual sacrifice and was made ‘clean’ or ‘purified’ – all of this part of a system of purity that classed women as often unclean for various reasons, along with other categories of people. There is, of course, a power analysis to be made about all that.

But despite the problems with it, the religious foundation of the purity code around women has powerful symbolism attached to it – a woman was called unclean after childbirth because she had lost blood, and her blood meant her vitality or life force. The Hebrews believed that all life comes from God – in the first creation story in Genesis, God breathes into the newly created human body, and it lives. So to lose one’s blood or life force was to be separated from God, the source of life. A new mother, or anybody unclean through loss of blood, had to go through a ritual purification in order to be restored to God, through a ritual bath and the sacrifice of another creature, its lifeblood given to restore her life’s connection to God. In other words, the process of purification cleared away what separates a person from God, restoring life and bringing new life.

This is spring cleaning of the soul, in other words, which is where this feast becomes something more than just a collection of arcane rituals of agriculture and medieval thought. Because every one of us is in need of that kind of purification. Every one of us is in need of God, the source of our life – and yet even when we recognize that need, which many don’t, we often find we have drifted away, or blocked ourselves from that light, or let the connection fail. We need some way of getting things right, getting our life force renewed – being purified, in other words. It’s not easy, of course. The reading from Malachi speaks of the one who will come to purify and refine the people like a refiner’s fire purifies gold and silver – extreme heat, melting down the metal in order to destroy impurities. Or think of the tradition of plowing the field on this day – the plow uproots what is dead, destroying the unwanted growth and turning everything upside down in order to purify the soil and make way for new growth. Destruction and letting go are a part of the process. And yet the longing for fuller life is still there, even when we know what it might cost.

Which brings us to the two old people in the story. Simeon and Anna are two people who epitomize longing for God. Simeon yearned throughout his life to see the Messiah, having been promised this by the Holy Spirit, by an encounter with God long ago. So on this day he comes into the temple, ‘guided by the Spirit,’ seeking the presence of God. And he finds God there, in the baby Jesus. The song he sings, the ‘Nunc dimittis’ that is a part of the church’s evening prayer now, is a song of completion, of finding the fulfillment he had been seeking: ‘Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised. For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, and the glory of your people Israel.’ And then along comes Anna the prophet, who has been living in the temple, fasting and praying night and day for some sixty years. She too sees this child and knows him, and she tells everyone around that this is the one they have been waiting for. Anna’s and Simeon’s years of waiting, years of preparing themselves, listening to the Holy Spirit, clearing away all that could block them from God, brings them at last to the presence of God – and, with all that preparation, they know God when they see God there before them.

Our organizing core team has targeted the season of Lent as the time when we will bring back to you what we heard in our house meetings at the end of the year – what we have energy for, where the lifeblood is, and what might block us in our attempts to grow and care for the community around us. The spring cleaning process begins with noting what we have stored away in all our shelves and cupboards, taking an inventory of what there is so we can make decisions of what to keep and what to let go of – or about what to refine, where to plow up the soil and where to leave it fallow. It is a process that takes time, as Anna and Simeon show. But it leads us to seeing God, and knowing God when we see him. Which is what the purpose of our faith journey really is, as a congregation and each of us as individuals.

We are still some weeks away from Lent. But it is a good time to begin to prepare for it with this kind of inventory, a noticing of your own habits of thought and action. Where do I spend my time? What really matters to me? Does how I spend my time and energy match up with what I value? Or does it clutter up the space and keep me from living the full life Jesus promised each of us? Pause and notice in the midst of your day; spend a little time on this in your prayer; write a thought or two in your journal. May the process lead you, and all of us, to knowing God more deeply – so that like Anna and Simeon we might be at peace, and tell the world who God is. Amen.

Fishing for people

RCL Year A, 3 Epiphany

When I was a kid, our family owned a 23-foot powerboat that we would take out for trips around the San Juan and Gulf Islands. Every now and then, we would pack along fishing rods and reels and fish off the back of the boat. I always did this with some trepidation. Because as great as it was to sit in the warm sun, dangling my feet in the water, as fun as it was to feel that tug on the line, I knew what it would result in for me: three dogfish. Every time I fished, I landed three dogfish. Even the time I tried reeling in to give up after the second dogfish, the third dogfish grabbed hold of the hook just as it was about to break the surface of the water. Dogfish are ugly, dogfish are inedible, and dogfish get you no points in the family fishing tournament – excitement was reserved only for real fish like salmon. But somehow, dogfish, three of them, were all I could ever catch.

Some of you, I think, are fisherfolk, or have done some fishing in the past – right? I imagine I’m not the only one to learn that when you fish, you don’t always catch what you’re hoping to catch. Sometimes, of course, you don’t catch anything at all. But despite that, there’s something appealing about it. For a certain kind of fishing at least, you do it not because you’ll probably catch something, but because you get a chance to be quiet in a beautiful place without really doing much of anything at all. Having a rod and reel gives you an excuse to sit still and be quiet. In other words, fishing is something done for the experience of fishing – not for the outcome it will lead to.

Fishing, of course, is central to the Christian life. The gospel today tells us of Jesus’ call to the disciples: Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people. It’s similar to the charge Jesus gives them at the very end of the gospel, to go out and make disciples. Go reel them in, in other words. You could read these commands as jobs with measurable outcomes: to be followers of Jesus means we have work to do, a certain number of people to bring into the fold, adding to the growth of the church in tangible and quantifiable ways. But you could also see this as a description of what it is like to follow Jesus: when we follow Jesus, we bring others along. When we follow Jesus, what we do is care for others around us. And when we do this, God uses us to care for them too. The net is spread through the relationships we have, the love we share.

Over the last year we have been exploring relationships in a number of ways. We began pursuing community organizing in the beginning of the year, first imagining this as a way of connecting in relationship to people outside of our church. Then we realized that to do that, first we needed to build the relationships within our church. So we set up a series of house meetings to bring people together, to talk and listen to one another about things that mattered. It was a chance for conversation on a different level. Some of you who’ve known each other for years learned new things about one another, heard things you’d never heard each other say. Although it was aimed at the ideas of outreach, it deepened our relationships a little bit in the process.

We deepened relationships between us by sharing our own needs, too. We saw members go through health crises and life changes this year and reach out to others here for help. A little bit more chipping away at the self-reliance that so many of you pride yourself on. And of course help was readily at hand when it was asked for.

We began relationships with new people too, as new members joined our congregation and others came to programs like VBS and the Christmas pageant party and shared in our common life. And we began relationships with members of our community in our Lenten series, ‘Who Is My Neighbor?’, learning about cultures in our area and hearing some about what others around us need as well. A reminder that as a church we do more than just care for one another’s needs – we have to get to know others as well and hear their needs in order to live out the gospel in this neighborhood.

Relationship is what we do as church, really – we come together to worship and to get to know each other, to learn and to care for each other. If we didn’t want relationships, we wouldn’t be here. But sometimes it’s hard for us to focus on and value those relationships. We crave knowing and being known, but it is also scary and vulnerable and risky. It’s easier to do something together, share in a task, focus on the outcome. How many people are we serving meals to in our outreach program? How many new people have joined the church this year? How many kids are in the Sunday School? And how’s the budget doing? All of these are important questions, of course. Without knowing numbers and figures it is hard to assess some basic markers of how we’re doing as a congregation.

But sometimes we can forget to lend as much thought to the quality of the relationships we form as we go about our business together. While we cooked and served those meals, what kind of conversations and sharing happened? The Montgomery Meals group is good at this, by the way. At the end of the cooking, as the servers are coming in to pick up the food to take to the shelter, they all sit and share food and a glass of wine and talk – building relationship. Sunday School teachers on their training day, vestry members in their meetings, had mountains of tasks before them. But were they also able to stop and pray together, or to talk together and form bonds as they worked? What did they learn about God and themselves? The finance committee met often to review the budget and the endowment. But was it all about deficits and investments? Or did we think about how those numbers reflect our love and care for others? And so on. Everything we do here is relationship, in the end. Most of all of that doesn’t get reflected in an annual report – but it is the purpose of what we are here for.

So as we head into our annual meeting today, and as our new vestry gets itself underway in the weeks to come, I pray that we will take stock not only of the tasks completed, but of the relationships that we are growing and deepening. In this coming year, there will be countless opportunities to know one another more deeply, to talk together more openly about our journeys with God and others. In this year, we will be shown ways that we can cast our nets wider, reaching out to others to serve their needs and not only our own. If we are looking, we will see ways to serve with our money and our time and our skills, ways that we can be ready to know and love others well.

We are fishers of people – we fish not because we’ll land a big one, but because that’s what it means to follow Jesus. Through us and in us, God acts, sharing God’s love with the world. God uses us to make a difference. And God works through others to change us as well. Loving others – fishing for the sake of fishing – is how we show Jesus to the world. Follow me, Jesus says. Let’s go fishing.