Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Finding Home in Christ

A reflection on Epiphany 3 - Matthew 4:12-23 - By the Rev. Deb Seles

In the summer of my 17th year we loaded up the family station wagon and headed to the small Mississippi River town of Quincy, Illinois where I was going to attend college. I decided to go there, sight unseen, on the advice of my older cousin, a college counselor. Yes, that’s right: the times were different. We didn’t know about early admissions. I was the first child in our family to go to college and I wanted to go away. Against my mother’s wishes. She wanted me to stay in Chicago, at least for my first 2 years. We’d fought and fought about that but finally I got my way. I received a state scholarship and made the commitment to enter Quincy as a freshman in two months.

As we rounded the bend in the road that passed alongside the muddy Mississippi there, on the side of an ancient brick building that housed the Quincy Casket Company was a sign for Quincy College. “Well, there it is,” sniped my mother with a sound of self-satisfaction. My heart sank: was this the place I was to spend four years? How could I have been so foolish? Where were the ivy-clad walls?

It turns out the building housed Quincy Business College, not the Franciscan College I would eventually attend. And it turned out to be an okay experience all in all.

Leaving home. I bet you all remember what it was like when you first left home. Whether you left to go away to school or to take a job. Maybe you left when you joined the military or got married. You know that mixture of anticipation and fear that face us all.
This passage from Matthew gives us a slice of what happened when Jesus left his home in Nazareth and went out into the sticks to begin his ministry. His cousin John had been imprisoned by Herod and it seems Jesus flees out to the country. The word “Galilee” means circle and describes the circle of land to the north of Jerusalem. People from Galilee were considered hicks, unsophisticated rubes at least to the city folk in Jerusalem.

Most of these folks made their living fishing or farming. And it was these folks that Jesus gathered around him to form a new kind of family, a new community. “Follow me” he says and people do just that.

Now probably what we have is a kind of snapshot of what really happened. Imagine how it might have been: Jesus enters town, dusty and thirsty and approaches the town well. People are gathered there to gossip. Perhaps he talks with them, perhaps he just listens at first. He finds a friendly house to stay for the night. He walks along the beach where the fishermen are throwing their nets. He observes them. He goes to the synagogue to pray and to teach. And gradually people begin to take an interest in this stranger. Perhaps there’s been a buzz all around because of what happened to John the Baptist; people had heard of his message and had hoped that he would be the one to free the Jewish people from the oppression of the Romans.

We may wonder why Jesus left home. Why do any of us leave home? Especially when we are young, don’t we leave home to become the people we feel we are called to become? Perhaps Jesus moved away from Jerusalem as a way of saying that the kingdom of God is not tied down to a single location. We learn how he expands his message to include all people—not only the Jews but everyone.

Today I come to speak to you as you have just learned that your beloved pastor has heard the call to leave what has become her home for these past years. And each of us is facing the uncertainty of what the future will bring. Knowing Terri as I do, I know there is sadness and shock as you consider parish life without her. I know that she has led this community in a wise and compassionate way. I imagine you are struggling to consider your life as a parish without her.

But let me invite you to consider who each of us is really following and who our true leader is. Do you remember the old American Express tag line: “Don’t leave home without it,” we were advised. The scriptures remind us not to leave home without Jesus. We may leave all that is familiar in our lives but God is with us. We may give away our old furniture and donate our old clothes but because God calls us we can be certain of an ongoing shaping of our lives by his power.

“Follow me,” is the invitation Jesus uttered not only to Andrew, Peter, James and John but the call he uttered to Terri and the call he repeats to each of us. He promised the disciples that he would make them fishers of people but first Jesus caught them in his net.

And what did his net consist of? What is the net that we find ourselves in? It is a net of hope and love. It is a net of healing and wholeness. In that net we find ourselves with a most unlikely lot—sometimes strange and unusual ‘fish’ not ‘fish’ that look or even act like us. But he is the net that holds us together.

Now I don’t know about you but there are times I’d rather be a fish swimming free rather than one that’s been caught. Being caught, even by Jesus, means that I have to surrender control. And boy, oh boy, I don’t like to do that. I want to be master of my own fate.

Because we know the fate of fish that are caught. The ones that are useful, well eventually they die. And of course that is the foolishness of the cross of which Paul speaks. We’re invited to follow Jesus and that eventually is an invitation to die to the old.
You leave home and you’re never the same. You die to that person in order to become something new. Not someone who belongs to Paul or Apollos or anyone else. Not even a people who belong to Father Crist or Pastor Terri. But a people who belong to Christ.

Because it is Jesus who brings God’s light. The people of St. Hilary’s may feel like you are walking in darkness. But you have seen a great light. You have seen it in the lives that have been transformed. You have seen it in the way that you are called out in ministry to help refugees. You have seen God’s light in your participation in the selection of a new bishop. And you continue to see God’s light in the faces of each other gathered around this table each Sunday.
How do we follow Jesus? We follow him with all our heart as we seek to love others as God loves them. We follow him with all our mind as we read God’s word—in scripture and in other sacred writing. We follow him with our wills as we commit to actions that are faithful to that word. How do we follow Jesus? We decide to again and again. This following Jesus isn’t a one time thing but a constant call to listen to him as he calls us to love one another as he loved us.

We leave our various homes in order to find our home in him. This community has been gathered in that net which is Jesus. May we move forward and respond to his call. May we surrender to his love.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Marked As Christ's Own

I spent most of my sixteenth summer in Michigan with a friend and her family. Every year this family rented a spacious cottage in a resort community. All summer various family members would come from around the region and find respite for a few days or weeks. This community rested on a small private inlet lake which connected to a beach on Lake Michigan.

One day we all went to the beach on Lake Michigan. It was a beautiful warm day, with small but vigorous waves. The usual freezing lake water had warmed over the summer to a perfect temperature for swimming. After lounging in the sun, on the pristine white sand, I decided to go for a dip in the lake. The water was a clear blue. I waded out into the deeper water and then, after awhile, walked back toward the shore. I was standing in water, about waist high, when something knocked me off balance and I fell into the water. I felt myself being pulled under the water by a force stronger than myself. I managed to stand up, only to be knocked over again and pulled under.

It took me a few minutes to understand that I had been caught by an undertow; each time I surfaced I was further from shore. After several rounds of falling, standing, pulling under, and falling again, one of our companions noticed my distress. He waded into the water and was able to pull me to shore. It was only when we were finally sitting on our towels in the sand that I fully realized how helpless I had been, and the power of that undercurrent.

There are many occasions in life when we cause our own undertow. Those are the occasions when something happens that leaves us feeling vulnerable. Then the old tapes begin to play in our heads reminding us of all the ways we are less than perfect. These occasions require us to do some internal work in order to get past the impression that we need to be perfect.

First we have to recognize that these old tapes are playing again. These are recorded impressions of ourselves gleamed from our history, and our struggle to integrate who we are in a complex world. We live in a world where bigger is better and yet we are a small church. We constantly face the challenge of seeing our strengths matched up against what the world would define as strong. And so when we face situations that challenge our identity it takes time to unpack what is true about the “tape” in each situation, for there is often a glimmer of truth.

But it’s the hint of truth that gives the tape its potential power over us. To retrieve ourselves from the pull of a message that would debilitate us we also need to recognize what is not true.

As a church community we have a particular sense of our identity, who we are. Some of our identity is a given. We are a Christian community who worships God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Our Christian faith grounds our identity as a people of God, as God’s beloved. This identity is given to us in and through the incarnation, an assurance that God loves us in our full humanity.

We are an Anglican community connected in broad ways to a larger, global Christian community that knows itself as the middle way. Of course we live in a time when the strains of understanding that middle way pull strongly at the edges of how we know ourselves.

We are also an Episcopal community and gain much of our identity from the Book of Common Prayer. This particular version of the Book of Common Prayer focuses our identity, in particular, on baptism. Our individual identity as Christian is given to us in our baptism when we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Of course it begs the question: what does it mean to be “marked” as Christ’s own forever?

In “A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul,” there is a story about a student who was unlike most students. One day in the 11th grade he went into a classroom to wait for a friend. The teacher appeared and asked him to go to the blackboard.

He replied, "I'm not one of your students."

The teacher said, "Doesn't matter. Go to the board anyhow."

The student told him he couldn't do that and when the teacher asked "why not?" the student told him he was mentally disabled. The teacher came over to the student and said,

"Don't ever say that again. Someone's opinion of you does not have to be become your reality."

It became a liberating moment for the student, a time of great learning. The teacher, Mr. Washington, became the student's mentor. Later that school year Mr. Washington addressed the graduating seniors. And in his speech he said,

"You have greatness within you ... You can touch millions of people's lives."

After the speech the student went up to Mr. Washington and asked him if he had greatness within him. The teacher replied, "Yes, Mr. Brown, you do." The student thanked him and told him that one day he would make the teacher proud.

In his senior year it happened that Brown was placed in Mr. Washington's speech and drama class. Although Brown was a special ed student, the principal realized that this would be a good match up. Mr. Washington gave Brown a larger vision of himself. While other teachers passed Brown from class to class, Mr. Washington made more demands of him. He made him accountable. He enabled him to believe in himself.

Years later the famous, Les Brown, produced five specials on public television. Mr. Washington saw the program and called Les Brown to tell him how proud he was of his achievement.

As a church community we have our own story to tell. We can tell that story through the lens that focuses on our weaknesses and the areas we are lacking. Or we can tell that story through our strengths and the amazing we ways we are a small strong faith community making a difference in the world.

Jesus asks the followers,

“What are you looking for?”

This is a spiritual question meant to prod at the deepest level of our being. What are WE looking for?

The second question,

“Where are you staying?”

is also a spiritual question. This one points us to look deeply into ourselves. It asks us to look at the very structure of who we are. What is our identity?

The gospel suggests that when we go looking for who we are we focus on our strength as a community. It is a call to wrestle through our individual identities in the context of a worshiping community. In the incarnation we believe that the incarnate Word expresses the fullest sense of God’s love into the world.

The Gospel of John begins with that very image of the Word of God expressed now in human flesh. As a human, Jesus shows us how to live in relationship with one another, with God, and with ourselves. When the Word becomes flesh we are shown how to love. This love that God offers is not bound by the limitations we humans might impose. It is a boundless love able to love us just as we are. But it is also a relational love, it requires a response.

In calling the disciples, and in their response, we learn that it is not enough to have an individual personal sense of faith; we need a community with whom to be in relationship. We need others who will help us tell our stories and help us remember details we have forgotten or misunderstood. We need others to prod us along when we feel stuck. And sometimes we need others to pull us out of the undertow and save us from ourselves.

We need others to remind us that we have greatness within us ... and can touch many lives; for we have been marked as Christ’s own forever.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Which Way Will We Go?

A reflection on Matthew 2:1-12

Episcopal priest Bob Libby, in his book, “Grace Happens,” tells this story:

“I can’t remember when I first met Maggie. She blended in with the sand and surf. You could see her walking along the shore in white tennis shoes, floppy straw hat, and oversized print dress. She always carried a crumbled brown paper bag that matched the texture and color of her skin. I remember her most vividly at daybreak or in the evening when I went out jogging, but I later discovered that her walks were regulated by the tides, not by the sun or the clock. She came out at low tide when the beach was wide and smooth.”

“Maggie always walked with her head down. She would stop every now and then and pick something up, examine it, and either discard it or put it in the brown sack. I assumed she was collecting shells. We had a nodding and then a grunting acquaintance for many months before I ventured to ask her what kind of shells she was after.”

“Not shells at all,’ she retorted…’Glass.’ She threw away a green pebble that had once been a Ballantine beer bottle. ‘Sharp glass. Cuts the feet. Surfers land on it. It sure ruins their summer.”

A simple gesture, picking up sharp glass in order to enable others to have fun and enjoy life. A simple gesture, thinking about others, caring for strangers. A selfless act of generosity.

On this Feast of the Epiphany we hear the familiar story of the Magi, come to visit the baby Jesus. The Magi travel a great distance, guided only by the trajectory of a star shining brightly in the sky. But these astrologers or astronomers knew the significance of a bright star and its call to them. The Orthodox tradition understands there to be as many as twelve Magi, possibly men and women both, from ancient Persia, or what is now Iraq and Iran.

Although Matthew doesn’t say, our Western understanding of the story tells us that there are three magi, based on the three gifts offered, of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Whatever the number, the Magi represent a universal invitation from God. These Magi are not Jewish, which for ancient Hebrews this means they are not members of God’s chosen people. They point us to the Great Commandment we hear at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, to make disciples of all nations. They represent diversity, an exotic invitation by God; all are welcome.

The Magi travel, at great risk, to follow the star, to bring the gifts. They know the star is significant of something great and they have to be a part of it, whatever it is. Their action is outward focused, beyond their own safety, security, and comfort.

As they travel they have no clear idea where they are going or what it is they will find. Following God leads us on a similar journey into the unknown. Where will it take us? What happens when we move outside ourselves and follow God? The mystery of God, the grace of working with God, is that something will happen. Something that will transform us into better people. Sacred work is like that, it transforms everyone involved.

Herod, though, has other motives. He says one thing to the magi, but intends something else. Herod is focused on himself, his own security and comfort. He is intentionally deceptive in order to serve his own purposes.

Each of us lives with a bit of Herod and a bit of the Magi within us. Each of us lives on the edge between our own desire for security and comfort and God’s call to care for others. Which way will we go?

The Hasidic masters tell the story of a rabbi who disappeared every Shabbat Eve, “to commune with God in the forest,” his congregation thought. So one Sabbath night they assigned one of their cantors to follow the rabbi and observe the holy encounter. Deeper and deeper into the woods the rabbi went until he came to the small cottage of an old Gentile woman, sick to death and crippled into a painful posture. Once there, the rabbi cooked for her and carried her firewood and swept her floor. Then when her chores were finished he returned immediately to his little house next to the synagogue.

Back in the village, the people demanded of the one they’d sent to follow him, “Did our rabbi go up to heaven as we thought?”

“Oh no,” the cantor answered after a thoughtful pause, “our rabbi went much, much higher than that.” (Joan Chittister, “There is a Season”)

God asks us to go outside ourselves and care for others in this world, but God does not ask that our caring take on grandiose measures. Sure, we hear of these great things in the news, people who have done wondrous deeds for humanity. It happens. But the call is not to something grand, but rather to attend to something humble, a baby in a stable.

Isaiah pushes us to toward this idea, we are instructed to “lift up our eyes and look around” – where are the shards of glass in our world that need picking up? How are we being called to be participants with God in bringing forth wholeness to a broken world?

Our readings today point us to places of transformation. God has created this world, bringing order out of chaos. In the process of creating God desires the world to be a place of wholeness. God desires all creation, all people, to be whole. God has chosen to bring wholeness into the world through us, through humans.

But we have a choice. We can choose not to work with God. We can choose the Herod in us and remain focused on our own self interests. Or we can choose the magi in us and venture out of our comfort zones to do God’s bidding.

A young man eagerly described to his mentor what he dreamed of doing for the poor.

The mentor asked, “When do you propose to make your dream come true?”

“As soon as the opportunity arrives.”

“Opportunity never arrives,” said the Mentor. “It’s here.”

The trajectory of our lives has led each one of us to be here in this place on this day. For some reason we are all here, a community of faithful people seeking to know God more fully in our lives, striving to live faithful lives.

Each Sunday we travel near and far from our homes. We come and gather, pray and share a meal. And then what? Do we go home, back into our daily lives, as if nothing has happened? Is there anyway in which our coming here and being together shapes and forms us? Is there anyway that our lives together actually changes the course for us?

In her book, “Listening for God,” Renita Weems describes the people of Israel in the Exodus complaining about the uncertainty of their lives following their release from the Egyptians, fearful of the desert journey before them. There is a conversation between Moses and God, “(Moses) whispers under his breath his own anguished prayer to God for direction. And then comes a voice ringing above the noise, 'Why do you cry out to me? Tell the people to go forward.'

You can be sure that wherever the right place, the appointed place, is, it is forward, one step ahead, where you can't see, out in the deep water. There. See? Of course not. You won't see until you go." (page 121)

Might our coming together also be that which causes us to change direction, to live our lives in a different way, different because we have come here together? And, then, if we are changed, how might we affect change in the world around us?

I know my time here with all of you has changed me. I am not the same priest I was seven years ago. I don’t think you are the same people either. We have come together and lived through the desert, through challenges and death and now, signs of new life. We have struggled between being Herod, focused inward on ourselves, and being the Magi, focused outward. And we’ve done it simply by putting one foot in front of the other and walking. And, we’ve done it by being willing to change course, try something new, and take some risks.

The opportunity to follow the star which leads to God is here, all the time, all around us. Matthew’s story of the Epiphany taps into the voices of ancient Hebrew Prophets, connecting the new to the old, the past to the present, changing the trajectory of the story – a humble birth leads to the greatest change the world has ever known, because people responded to the light and ventured out of their comfort zones in faith.

Epiphany challenges us to embrace a larger vision of the world, what it might look like if we remove the shards that wait to cut people open. If we are willing to do our part to help heal a perpetually wounded world. The Epiphany story reminds us that working with God challenges us to be agents of change, focused on picking up the pieces, striving for wholeness, uniting all of us as a people of God. It reminds us that making an intentional decision for change just might be the most faithful thing we can do. Which way will we go?

in addition the sources cited in the text I also thank various colleagues and preaching friends, especially Laura Grimes, who holds the M.A. and Ph.D. in theology from the University of Notre Dame, specializes in medieval women’s and modern feminist theology. She has worked as a crisis pregnancy counselor, a resident staff member at the South Bend Catholic Worker house, and a postdoctoral research associate at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto. She has taught theology, women’s studies, and history at Rosemont College, the University of Portland, and California State University at Fullerton. Laura is also a spiritual director and creator of expansive liturgical materials; a wife and mother of four; and the founding bishop of Sophia Catholic Communion, an independent Catholic jurisdiction.