The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Sunday May 19, 2019
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
All of our readings today talk about new things, new visions and a new commandment, new ways for the people of God to be together. Revelation gives us a vision of the New Jerusalem. It turns out there is a whole field of theology centered on Jerusalem, called Zion theology, in which Jerusalem is considered an axis mundi.
Being an axis mundi, or pillar of the world, means that Jerusalem, from antiquity, was considered a sacred high place connecting God and people. In that way, Jerusalem was a conduit for the divine flowing into the world making possible God’s transcendence into other realms. Throughout Israel’s history Zion theology continued to be realized in Jerusalem’s serial restorations as the people remember God's promise to them in cycles of chaos and return. We see this in the various stages of exile and homecoming. With each return Zion comes a little more near to God in the Hebrew scriptures. Then in Revelation God comes to humanity rather than the people going to Zion. In the reading from today we are told “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; and they will be his peoples, and God himself with be with them.” The New Jerusalem it turns out is less about the place and more about a way of being.
Indeed, Zion theology’s primary premise is that Jerusalem is not a fixed location but is created whenever space is made for the Holy One to be present, whenever people take time to worship God or give thanks. We hear this in the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to John. When Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman about the proper location for worship. Jesus says, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Our Hebrew scriptures begin Genesis with the creation of the world and end with creation (of the temple). Zion theology suggests that whenever we claim space and set it apart, even when blessing and caring for our own households, we participate in recreating the world. There is a lovely synthesis that suggests cycles of chaos and return to the healing river flowing from the heart of God's covenantal relationship with humanity just like the river that flows from Zion.
I think Zion theology is why we love to watch shows about restoration, reality shows about people who are helped in ordering their homes to make them more habitable. It’s not far away from what happens when Israel is freed from Babylon and given the help it needs to rebuild the temple. We like these stories because they are part of the archetypes of redemption and reclamation.
Zion theology is important to us here at St. Bede because we are embarking on a period of discernment together to distill a vocational vision of St. Bede as a unique Episcopal community in Forest Grove. This idea developed from a conversation I had with my mentor. I am assigned a priest mentor by the diocese, and as I was finishing up my first year at St. Bede, my mentor suggested that St. Bede undergo strategic planning. The idea made sense except, it sounded pretty corporate to me – a little more like a business than a church, so after conversations with the BAC, and Kerry, our Sr. Warden, and Jan Potter, who is helping to keep this process organized and moving forward, we decided we would call what we are doing congregational discernment.
So, we are doing something audacious in this. We are aiming to be cocreators with God in the New Jerusalem here at St. Bede. It is a bold endeavor. But we are emboldened by the prayer we prayed earlier this morning in our daily collect, “Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life.” Our trust in God will light our way.
Of course, there are dangers. One that you may be thinking to yourselves is that we have done this before. We have had listening sessions with no follow through. And what if we do all this and come up with an idea and it fails? We may not want to risk that failure.
Well I am here to tell you that the path to the New Jerusalem at St. Bede will be paved with deep listening, conversations, and trial and error. Make no mistake, we will fail at times. I will. We will disappoint one another and fall short. It will be hard work. Many of the miracles of God are wrought through the hard work of people. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, Noah and his family built the ark through sweat and hard labor.
Roberto Arciniega, my shepherd during the ordination process, gave me a wonderful piece of advice. He said very simply, “You are going to fall. Keep getting up.” One of the meaningful messages of the stations of the cross is for me are the times when Jesus fell. It shows me that Jesus is with me in my falling and getting up. This way of congregational discernment is the way of the cross; with the New Jerusalem, or the New St. Bede’s there will also be loss. There will be things that have to die even as the new is born.
A great example is from today’s passage from Acts where Peter has a vision that inspires him to understand that the Gospel message is for everyone. Though criticized by the circumcised believers, he took the time to tell the amazing story of what God was doing in their midst, with the gentiles. He ended his talk saying, “Who was I that I could hinder God?”
Who knows what ideas we may develop as we go through the discernment process. They may be really exciting like the ones discussed at our last outreach meeting where we wondered about offering microgrants for area school teachers who want to make innovations in their classrooms. It is risky to step out and wonder and it may draw criticism the way Peter drew criticism by stepping outside of the norm.
Criticism can be helpful. We need to allow ourselves to be challenged, but not so that we give up trying to explore best paths for us. Brene’ Brown has a talk on Netflix right now called Daring Greatly. I recommend it. In it she talks about the value of pursuing a vision despite obstacles and naysayers.
Daring greatly is the story of our messiah, and the story of the cross. This is the way Christians are called to walk, with no promise that we are walking on the right path, only a promise of life, death and resurrection. Imagine my surprise when choosing hymns for this week, knowing I wanted to focus on the new Jerusalem, when the last stanza of our final hymn leapt out at me. “Already in the mind of God that city riseth fair; lo, how its splendor challenges the souls that greatly dare—yea, bids us seize the whole of life and build its glory there. To prepare for the new Jerusalem is fraught with difficulty…
Our Gospel lesson adds an important commentary to this discernment process. Jesus is giving the disciples a new commandment that they love one another as he loves them. It is important for us to know that he was talking to the church or the proto-church at that time about loving fellow members. We will need to love one another through these conversations that may be joyful to see how we have grown or painful wondering why we are not fully living in the New Jerusalem now. The other thing about Jesus’ love is that it is a self-sacrificial. If we love as Jesus loved, we need to be willing to die to our ideas of the “right” way to be the church.
AND we don’t do this alone. We are blessed with amazing resources at St. Bede. We have Linda Jackson, a trained diocesan facilitator, who will be working with us and guiding us. We have the triune God and the Holy Spirit wending its way through all of this process. We have gifts of prayer, and spiritual practices, and a process developed with the help of diocesan facilitators and with their continued support.
Our discernment process will take us until Epiphany 2020. I think that’s a good time to have a vision -- Epiphany, in the season of light. By then hopefully we will have 20/20 vision of our next steps. We have a discernment committee – consisting of Jane Besse, Dcn. Val Ivey, Nader Khoury, Jan Potter O’Shanecy, Travis Powers, and me. The committee will be meeting about eight times between now and Epiphany 2020. Four of those meetings will be in congregational conversations focusing on various areas that are sources of transformation for us. These sources of transformation include: Community Life, Christian Formation, Prayer and Worship, and Community Service. We’ve chosen as a visual model for process the Triquetra, or Trinity knot because it shows in a dynamic way how what we do as a community impacts us as disciples and our wider community. Please take some time to look at the poster in the Narthex and take home the insert from the bulletin and put it on your fridge.
We hope in all of these conversations to synthesize our learning into a shared vision of where God is calling us as a community of disciples in service to the world. We will study the impacts, realities, acceptance, purpose, and bonds of our broader community, St. Bede Community, and individual discipleship and how they relate to one another. We will focus on our unique gifts as a community in this time and place, taking into account the gifts of other organizations in our community. We have many things to cover and there are many things to decide in this process as well. Do we want to apply to the diocese for full parish status? Do we want or need to expand or retire any of our programs or our building?
Whatever the outcome of our Epiphany 2020 prayers to dare greatly, we will use this as a springboard of action for our Lenten program in 2020. We have a built-in plan to create follow through for daring greatly.
So, what do we do next? I invite us to participate in the conversations that will begin our time of discernment. I invite us like Peter to tell the amazing stories of what God is doing in our midst. Pray for St. Bede as we begin to share and dream about where God may be leading us. Pray for us as we dare greatly together to understand what the New Jerusalem will mean for us here and now. Let us remember to love one another through the process as Christ loved us and pray that St. Bede’s will continue to develop as an axis mundi, a high place, where God’s love flows through us and into the world like a healing river.
January 6, 2019
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 27, 2019
By Linda Jackson
Let us love, and listen, and learn to be your hands in the world.
Please be seated.
When I was a kid, I was a nerdy bookworm. Braces, glasses, the whole bit. Which was fine with me, because In my family, reading and education were top priorities. I looked the part. Since I was the eldest, I wanted to--and got to work hard to--be able to be the first of the kids come to the dinner table and say, “I did it. I got into the college I wanted.” I really, really wanted to come into my own like that.
It didn’t quite happen that way.
I did get into my backup school—the closest UC campus to where we lived at the time, UC Santa Barbara. I probably would have gotten a great education there—they even had a junior year abroad, in Valencia, Spain, that I had already gotten my parents’ permission to do … but it wasn’t where I wanted to go. Their English Department—where I was going to learn to write better, and teach—wasn’t that campus’ strong suit—or so I thought. But the truth was, really, that it wasn’t far enough away from home for me to feel that that school experience was really going to be Mine.
And as a writer, where I had really wanted to finish my degree, ever since I was a kid and learned the history there, was Berkeley. The riots! The Beat poets! Allen Ginsberg! Northern Lights bookstore! I didn’t take the rejection letter from Berkeley well, because it wasn’t a rejection letter: It was an impersonal, “Sorry, we’re full.”
Three weeks before the start of Spring semester, I made some calls, got some different advice from my academic advisors at the Community College I was attending, and sent my packet of paperwork back in to Berkeley. Two weeks before the start of the semester, I got a different letter back.
It was the proudest moment of my teenage life. I got to the dinner table, letter in hand—I remember my sister grinning at me—to announce that I’d gotten in.
There was, however, a problem.
The relative who held our family’s money—and the check that was going to get me to where I needed to go—was having an alcoholic episode.
This relative calmly announced that the letter must be a fake, and that my moving to that school was not going to happen, and that was that. Time for dinner.
I remember being stunned.
I was used to navigating this dynamic in my family—we all were experts at managing around this addiction of a family member—but this time this affecting me in an entirely different way. This was THE REST OF MY LIFE!
I was 19 years old. I had no money of my own. And I needed to send in housing deposits, tuition deposits, right now. I needed to fill my tiny Nissan pickup and relocate myself 8 hours away less than two weeks’ time.
But despite this huge shock, and the family moving through the motions of a meal like nothing had happened, I knew that I was going to be OK.
I knew I was going to be OK because what I caught from the right side of the table was my mother’s calculating glance. I knew that instant that she had a Plan B. She didn’t share it then—but she made it happen. And I was at school in the dorms, bills paid, by orientation day.
It was my first adult experience of a rescue. Of feeling—literally—God scooping me up, and working through my mother to move this mess forward somehow, and make it right. All these years later, it is one of my strongest experiences of, what I soon came to learn over and over as time and life experiences went by: We all need a rescue.
It wasn’t just God in my mother—a strong a courageous woman—making this incredible opportunity happen for me—it was me knowing that my job was to accept it.
With the Government shutdown in full swing, this has been a few weeks of increasing need, of people who were hoping to not have to ask for help learning that they are going to have to ask for help—and accept it. God is in all sides of this conversation.
For these past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about people’s Plan Bs, and rescuing
We, as the various parts of the Body of Christ, we are his love and his hands in the world.
We are empowered to ask for, and give help. We are called to love our neighbours as ourselves.
And in these deeply polarized times I believe we are also called to look again and again at what that might look like.
Before the government shutdown, a statistic I often heard was that despite how hard most of us try to hide it, that 80% of people in this country live paycheck to paycheck. With the government shutdown—and its consequences—being so widely publicized—the employees, contractors, and all the business their working days support—are being hit hard. And I’m sure that 80% is rising higher and higher.
And with that, there is this new wave of empathy for what living without is like, for what a “Plan B” might look like.
It’s uncomfortable. And it’s beautiful.
Over these past few weeks, I’ve seen so many examples of what I began calling a kind of fierce kindness.
The restaurant owners who post to Facebook, saying, “Government workers affected by the shut down, bring your family in for a meal. You are welcome here, no questions asked.” The owner of my old yoga studio in Hillsboro sent out an email weeks ago, when this all started, that said, “Employees and contractors affected by this shutdown, you are my guest here, no questions asked.” That one really struck me—it’s not like his business is swimming in profit, it’s a beautiful, tiny, humble place. Fierce kindness.
I don’t think most of us are used to being welcome, no questions asked. And in the secular world we are trained since childhood to be afraid of strangers, afraid of accepting them, and helping them, no questions asked. And we struggle in the church world about how best to help those we don’t know. It’s so much easier to stay safe and not help at all.
I was walking to my new jobsite Thursday—I’m six blocks away from where I used to work, so, new coffee shop, new Street Roots vendor. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Street Roots is a weekly newspaper whose model is, “sell our paper, and you’re allowed to keep half of the proceeds for your expenses.”
When a vendor new to me named Adam asked if I’d buy one that morning, I felt embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t have any cash on me. Maybe tomorrow.”
He gave me a huge smile. “I’ve had a really good morning,” he said. “Here, take one.”
Fierce kindness. It totally took me by surprise.
I took the paper.
In all this chaos, such kindness happens. Such teaching happens.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes into his own as a great teacher.
“He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone …” it says.
“The Sprit of the Lord,” he said, “has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” [Luke 4]
That morning, Adam on the street corner, there, was my great teacher. He took me out of myself and taught me, in that quick conversation how to see things differently. To step into, “I have enough to give” without wanting anything in return. Agape love. And the rest of my Thursday was different.
How many things that we do reach further than we think?
And what does great teaching look like?
In our Psalm today,
“One day tells its tale to another
And one night imparts its knowledge to another
Although they have no words or language
And their voices are not heard
Their sound has gone out in all the lands
And their message to the end of the world.” [Ps. 19:1-2]
I hear this as, that day and night teach each other And pass along what they see nature—and us—do. Teaching and knowledge are more than words: They are actions. We have so many great teachers in many quiet ways. In this divisive time when so many of us are looking at Plan B, who are your great, quiet teachers?
We thank God for all our adult helpers: Margaret Musgnung, Linda Jackson and Jeannine Jordan. We are especially thankful for our children and youth who participated today in our pageant.
Epiphany is in many ways a reminder about coming to God as a child. We have a God who directs us in scripture to come as children and actually does that. In this way God, the sovereign of the universe, is manifest to us in the vulnerability of a baby.
Besides “manifestation” epiphany can also mean an “aha moment” when we suddenly grasp a deeper truth or sacred reality. An important theme of Epiphany as a holy day is the universality of the gospel. The magi who came today set the stage for this as foreigners who come to see Jesus. I wonder what those learned men expected to gain from coming to see the baby messiah. It is amazing what being around children can teach us, much as we have been taught by our young people today.
An epiphany, or aha moment, taught by a child came to my friend LouAnn while she was chaplain at Oregon Episcopal School. During one of daily chapel sessions, she was teaching the lower grades about Epiphany and what it meant. Her son Jimmy was also in her class, and she told them all about how Jesus came for everyone and that was one of the important themes of Epiphany. LouAnn noticed Jimmy was kind of fidgety and didn’t seem to be paying attention, and she chalked it up to the difficulty of being a child whose teacher was also his parent, which sometimes was challenging for Jimmy. When LouAnn got home that night she noticed her Christmas creche had been scrambled up a little bit, and there were some changes made to it. One change in particular was the addition of a 3 1/2 inches tall Star Wars character named Chewbacca standing with the three wise men. A little frustrated, she asked Jimmy what happened to the creche? Why was Chewbacca in it? Jimmy protested, with tears flowing down his face, “But mommy, you said Jesus was for everyone.” Needless to say after that, they had a new tradition. Every year since then, Chewbacca has been an important member of their Christmas Creche, reminding them that the gift of the Christ child is for everyone, even for those in a galaxy far, far away. It turns out that God came into the world as a child like we did. God calls us like the magi to honor the baby that was born in the stable and the along with the children around and within us, while remembering that Christ’s message of hope and salvation is for all the world.
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 3, 2019
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
December 24, 2019
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
In the light of Christ’s birth, I reminisce on the births of my own children. And although the family story is that my Great Aunt Agnes was born in someone’s garage during the depression, I can’t imagine giving birth to a baby much less the Son of God in a stable. Still a new life is a new life, and I would expect there would be some commonalities, especially with a first-born child. I remember when Nathan was born how my world felt completely new. Yes, I was totally out of my depth learning how to be a new mother, and I am sure I didn’t do things very well. I was terrified that I would make some horrible mistake.
I remember trying to make lists of everything we would need beforehand. I read books and bought supplies. Still when that beautiful boy was born I was unprepared, and I had no idea what I was doing. Even with loads of laundry piling up, I also had moments of deep joy. I remember walking with him in his little front pack at the park near our house in Michigan on a glorious fall day at the peak of leaf color and everything was suddenly so much more vibrant and alive and beautiful. Things had changed because I had changed. Wade and I had both become parents and nothing would ever be the same again. In theological terms changes like these are sometimes called ontological changes, which relate to a change in our being. This is the kind of change that only God who is the center of all being can create. For us in the light of Christ’s birth, this ontological change is to be born again.
Our reading from Isaiah reminds us that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest,
… For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;”
With the birth of that child, we too are reborn. Our rebirth was only made possible by Jesus’ incarnation among us. Because of it we set our lives side by side with his. Through the church year, we live, die, and are resurrected with Jesus and are reborn with him at Christmas. The question for us day after day and Christmas after Christmas, is to wonder and discover what that means in new ways. As I mentioned in my Christmas letter, every year we have the opportunity to spiral more deeply into who we are. In doing so, we pull back layers like swaddling clothes that occlude the divine image, to find the Christ Child who lives within each of us.
Maybe you are like me and think, it doesn’t feel like I have come much closer to revealing that divine image if I compare my way of life from this Christmas to last year. I haven’t done everything I could to prepare for this time. The Church year also allows a time of preparation for Christmas. Advent was supposed to be an opportunity to quiet myself and prepare a space for Christ’s coming, but maybe if you are like me, you didn’t take full advantage of quiet. Maybe Advent flew by and you didn’t take the time to stop and pray. Maybe you are walking in today and you have no idea what Advent is and whether you were supposed to do something before Christmas or not. Maybe Christ’s birth comes upon us totally unprepared. Jesus is born for us regardless. Jesus came into a world unprepared for him. Remember there was no room in the inn, and he came anyway.
We read in Titus this evening, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” Jesus came into the world to save sinners. We fall short and are unprepared and Jesus is born anyway. Thankfully the salvation of the world doesn’t depend on our being prepared or good enough. Maybe there is hope in simple self-recollection, when we can begin to recognize our whole selves, our abilities and shortcomings, and love ourselves anyway. In Cynthia Beourgeault’s book, Wisdom Jesus, she tells the story about a nun who visits her spiritual director, Thomas Keating. The nun relates her struggle to pray relating that she was distracted by 10,000 things, to which Keating responds, “How wonderful! 10,000 opportunities to return!” This is the love of God that even our falling short becomes an opportunity for grace.
As Episcopalians the phrase “born again” may not roll off our tongues as easily as it might in evangelical circles. It may also carry baggage as a label for separating types of Christians. The truth is that being born again is a rich part of our scripture and theology and is woven into the story of Christ’s birth. Better that we should encounter being born again at a deep level of our being, rather than dismiss it as another trite phrase of the unenlightened.
In our rebirth, or renaissance, which is the meaning of that word, the point is not to be reborn and then go on as normal. When we are reborn in Christ, we are adopted as God’s children and daily renewed by grace. My dad was one of those men who upon going bald chose the radical side part and the comb over. Christmas, the feast of Christ’s Incarnation, is intended to “comb over” into the rest of our lives. What happens on Christmas doesn’t stay on Christmas. We are given the gift of rebirth, the ability to start over, a new way of living in grace with ourselves, God, and our neighbors.
That isn’t to say the process of rebirth isn’t scary. Look at the shepherds in tonight’s gospel lesson. An angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified. How frightening might it to be reborn, possibly beginning again and letting go of things that make us feel safe, jobs, righteous anger, judgments of other people, material possessions, or even our need to be right.
When we are born again with the Christ Child there is a change in our very being. We align ourselves with love and goodness, and the capacity for light and love to change the world. We remember that the “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” We choose in these moments of recollection, again and again, to bear that light into the world. We are adopted as God’s beloved sons and daughters. Because of God’s coming to earth in this little child, everything has changed. Whether we are ready or not, Jesus is born again and with him all creation has the chance for a new beginning. God’s grace and forgiveness are offered as a free gift in Christ. This doesn’t make it easy. If we are doing it right it might be terrifying to begin again, but we don’t do it alone. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
A touchstone is defined as a piece of fine-grained stone formerly used to test alloys of gold by observing the color of the mark from the alloy. It was a way for people to know if a metal contained gold and how much. Many of us have literal and figurative touchstones in our lives. Plumblines, for example, are a great way to see if you’re are building at right angles. Drafter or architects, in the old days before computers used a straight edge or a t-square. Musically, often I find myself humming a tune and want to plunk it out on the piano, only to walk over and find out that what I thought was an “A” is really a “G.” Unless we are especially gifted we need help orienting to truth. Likewise, this First Corinthians passage from today’s reading is a great touchstone on love. Commonly used at weddings, it can be a wonderful reminder of what love means in marriage, but that was not part of its original context.
Paul’s First letter to the Corinthians was believed to have been written around the year 50 after he had founded the church in Corinth, and moved on to Ephesus which is in our modern-day Turkey, about a 200-mile sea voyage away. Last week in our readings, just prior to today’s First Corinthians reading, we heard Paul talk about the various gifts that God gives to each of us: tongues, prophecy, teaching, and miracle working, among others. Then Paul instructs the Corinthians to strive for the greater gifts and “I will show you a more excellent way.” This week we hear about “the more excellent way,” in which Paul unfolds this beautiful chapter about spiritual gifts in the context of love. The reason for this letter is Paul’s concern for division and strife among members of the Corinthian Church. Presumably, they were not embodying “the more excellent way.”
The first time I remember hearing this passage, I was probably in my early teens at a weekend church youth group retreat. A friend had brought her bible along and was sharing with me her favorite passages including this one. I hadn’t read scripture much on my own and I was deeply moved by this passage. So, when couple of days later, my sister was sobbing about her boyfriend problems - especially his demands and manipulation of her, often dictating what she should do or what friends she should have, a lightbulb went off for me. 1 Corinthians chapter 13 might be a way to show whether my sister’s boyfriend really loved her. So, I started reading this chapter to her. At this point, I had no idea who the Corinthians were or that I was reading a nearly 2000-year-old piece of their mail. I do remember that my sister’s eyes kind of widened in the process of our conversation, especially hearing “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way.” This was the beginning of the end of her relationship with her boyfriend. Granted, from what I know now, I Corinthians was written for the church and not romantic relationships, it is powerful enough to speak into other situations.
Maybe for some it may go without saying, but there are reasons that love is a “more excellent way.” For one thing, as Paul says. Love never ends. In other words, the love that comes from God is unconditional. We gain a glimpse of conditional love, the kind in which we humans often engage, in today’s Gospel reading. Luke tells the story of Jesus reading the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown synagogue. At first everyone speaks well of him, according to Luke. Then Jesus says some things that make him unpopular by indicating that prophets are often best understood and accepted by foreigners and that God’s message therefore is more likely to be accepted by foreigners than by insiders. He offers the example of Naaman and Elisha or the widow at Zarapheth and Elijah. This prompts his hearers into a murderous rage. What is going on here? One minute they come close to accepting him, almost fawning over him. They speak well of his gracious words. The next minute he casts them in an unfavorable light and they want to throw him off a cliff. Hearing this story through the lens of the I Corinthians love chapter, we can see that what was initial acceptance, was not love. This is the trouble with a lot of our hero worship and why I think it is so hard for child stars to survive as healthy adults. They receive this adulation which feels like love, it is received like love, but it isn’t because it is based on performance. It comes with the message, we approve, we “love” you as long if you perform for us. For Jesus’ hometown folk, the unspoken message was that we approve of you as long as you are not critical and perform miracles for us.
But what does Paul say? “Love bears all things.” This “bearing all things” is another way to distinguish love from other emotions, much like how we can tell Gold from other metals with a touchstone. There is a nineteenth century prayer for priests called the Southwell Litany. It wonderfully prays through the painful challenges that many Christians suffer. One of the prayers states, “from building our systems to exclude all challenges, save us and help us O Lord.” We are not existing in a state of love if we cannot bear to be challenged. One of the things that has been very difficult for me personally is learning that those who praise me are not necessarily my friends and those who criticize me are not necessarily enemies. I am in the process of learning to thank people who challenge, confront, and correct me. At first I found this spiritual practice very difficult. It became easier when I considered how hard it can be for me to speak up to people with whom I disagree, especially when they are an authority figure. So, even if I disagree with someone’s criticism, I am learning to credit them with the courage to voice their concerns.
Another characteristic of love is that it does not demand its own way. This kind of love resists forcing its will on others even in such areas as parenting. Arun Ghandi, grandson of Mahatma Ghandi, tells a story of a father’s love that does not demand its own way. One day, Arun’s father asked him to chauffer him to town, run some errands - including auto maintenance - and pick him up at 5 p.m. from a conference.
Figuring he had some wiggle room before picking up his father, Arun went to a John Wayne double-feature, only to realize at 5:30 p.m. that he was late. When his father asked him why he was an hour late picking him up, Arun lied, telling him that the car wasn’t ready.
Unbeknownst to Arun, his father had already called the garage about the status of the car. His father, rather that berating his son for lying insisted that he personally should suffer the consequences for his parenting failure and chose to walk 18 miles home in the dark while Arun drove home without him. There was nothing Arun could say that would change his mind.
For six hours, Arun Gandhi crept along in the family car after his dad, tires crunching on gravel roads at three-miles-an-hour, through city streets, dirt roads, and sugarcane fields, vowing never to lie again. This is a love that does not insist on its own way and is a kind of death of ego.
In fact, despite the painfulness of death there are gifts that accompany literal and figurative dying. As the noise of life subsides the undying nature of love perseveres. Near death we begin to understand the veracity of Paul’s words. Truly, knowledge and language fade in the end. Even our money can’t save us. All of the prophecy and preaching in the world, even today’s, will not be remembered in the end. As we near death, we begin to see that the only things that last are faith hope and love, and especially love.The part of us that loves never ends, even when our bodies fail.
We may resist the call to love, which often includes the call to share God’s good news. Like Jeremiah in today’s Hebrew scripture reading, we may feel too small, too limited. At times like this God reminds us that the power to love is not ours, but comes from beyond us. We are at our best when we stand out of the way of that love. You may have heard the phrase, “You make a better door than a window.” May God make us all better windows.
The world tries to sell us the idea that love is like that the admiration of movie stars as if love wore sequins, and was accompanied by applause, accolades, and golden globe awards. In reality - love wears an apron, changes diapers, cleans toilets, welcomes foreigners, challenges us to change, and is even willing to make us angry if necessary. True love often goes unrecognized or even makes us unpopular like Jesus with his fellow townspeople. Real love, and the process of learning to love is hard. It is as though this life we are living is a training ground, a bootcamp of sorts, for learning to love our neighbors.
This passage from 1 Corinthians is a touchstone for the more excellent way. In it we compare the love we experience and express with God’s love for us. Our challenge is not only to see the difference between our love and God’s love, but to walk it. Our challenge is to welcome challenges, welcome criticism, and to be willing to walk 18 miles home in the dark if necessary. Our challenge is to die to ourselves and become windows of divine light. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 29, 2019
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
We often can get a sense that there is something unhealthy about the way the world operates. Traveling to Nicaragua two years in a row for youth service projects while employed at Trinity Cathedral I came to understand this palpably. We were there to help build latrines with a program called El Porvenir, which means “the future.” El Porvenir is an amazing organization that promotes the health and well-being of Nicaraguans and is modeled on our Habitat for Humanity program here in the US. In between latrine building we did some sightseeing and I got a chance to look around at what appeared to be typical neighborhoods including some tremendous wealth inequality. There were some super humble dwellings where we worked, some with dirt floors, openings for windows with no glass or screens and no doors. There were some modest homes that had doors and windows, but basic cinder block and scrub yards. These were mostly what I saw, but very rarely I saw a house that looked like a palace with an immaculate yard, beautiful palm trees, and all surrounded by impossibly high fencing topped with concertina wire. The concertina wire drew away the shangrila effect just a tad. While some people lived in homes of elegance like these, not far away, while on our bus speeding through town, I saw a man who was literally naked, picking through trash at the side of the road looking for something useful.
This is an ailing world, especially if we take income equality to be a measure. In 1965, for example, CEO’s of US companies made about twenty times the salary of the typical US laborer. In 2016 that gap increased so that CEO’s made 271 times the average wage. The biggest problem isn’t merely inequality but failing, perhaps from fear or insensitivity, to help our neighbors when we have the means to do so.
Our scriptures today are chock full of money struggles and the concomitant problems that result from the love of money. Amos spins the tale of muckety-mucks of Samaria and Zion living high on the hog while their kin suffer. 1st Timothy comes right out and says, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and our Gospel reading gives this disturbing tale of Lazarus and the rich man. Our timelessly applicable scriptures may well have been written today. The obvious assumption is that the way out of this mess, of the love of money, of greed essentially -- is to repent and change, but change is difficult and the older we get, and the more intrenched our institutions are at being part of systems that promote inequality, it is really hard to change them. Though with God all things are possible, it is as though a great chasm has been fixed between where we are and where we long to be. While in our tradition we pray for those who have died that they will continue in their progress as disciples and eternal beings, as our gospel lesson illustrates, we need to understand the permanent impact of our sinful actions that we cannot undo after our death.
Because our earthly lives and earth’s resources are finite, it matters how we spend them. Sometimes, by clinging to money we nurture the root that leads to evil as we heard in 1st Timothy. For example, one morning Wade and I were watching an interview with a famous celebrity. The bulk of the interview with this extremely successful and wealthy musician was taken up with her legal concerns for a producer, who allegedly cheated her. Her energy spent on loss left little joy for gifts, relationships, and the opportunity for a successful career. She appeared to lack gratitude.
On the other side, last week Wade showed me an interview with Mark Knopfler, the musical mastermind behind the group, Dire Straits. In the interview Mr. Knopler didn’t consider himself the best musician or anything special; he was only thankful to be able to express himself musically and was grateful to work with musicians who, he said, were much more talented them himself. He wasn’t in search of fame and fortune because he believed it wasn’t good for people. Mark Knopfler was content.
Then there is Bill Gates. He worked with an intensity only a young person could do, working impossible hours at a stretch, often consuming powdered Tang instead of meals to save time and keep himself going. By doing so he amassed an impressive fortune and is now using it to improve people’s lives worldwide. It’s complicated. We have the rich who focus on fear and scarcity or those who like Mark Knopfler are grateful and content and then Bill Gates who has created a life of generosity.
Perhaps a key to a healthy stance toward money is found in Mark Knopfler’s gratitude and contentment alluded to in First Timothy. The passage reads, “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” We are exhorted also to set our hopes on God who provides and to generosity, as the way to true heavenly treasure.
Frequently that passage from First Timothy is misquoted. While it actually says is, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” it is often shortened to “Money is the root of all evil.” Having money is not evil, but loving it in a way that puts it in the place of God, is, as our 1st Timothy passage states, “a root to all kinds of evil.”
What actions does God call us to in response to hearing these scriptures? Our responses are unique according to each and every one of us based on how God gifts us and calls us. Whatever it is you feel called to do, it is important that you do it and more likely if you engage in spiritual practices of thanks giving and contentment. In our epistle reading, First Timothy puts generosity side by side with contentment.
Gratitude, first cousin to contentment is also an antidote against insensitivity to the suffering of others, because a life of gratitude is a life of prayer. To express gratitude is essentially to pray. If we want to learn how to live socially just lives, we need to learn to pray. When we thank God for all the gifts of this life we recognize everything is a gift, including challenges. Thanksgiving changes our life orientation to material items around us. Imagine opening your door one morning and looking down at your welcome mat to see a lovely gift tied up with a red ribbon. What is the first thing you think? Probably not even what is it, but who left it? Gifts by their nature imply a Giver. When we are thankful, we understand ourselves as recipients and trustees of gifts meant to be given and shared with the world.
We could diagnose those lying on ivory couches in the Amos reading and Luke’s rich man with the disease of insensitivity. Insensitivity often presents itself in the form of failing to see things or people that make us uncomfortable with an idolatrous relationship to money. There is a saying from the Talmud, a source of Jewish oral tradition and commentary, that states, “Those who turn their eyes away from one who appeals for charity are considered as if they were serving idols.” The rich man from Luke was completely insensitive to Lazarus. He was blind to his suffering, even Lazarus’ existence -- because the rich man lacked gratitude to God as the giver of gifts. Thanksgiving restores our sight to see the peril of otherwise invisible neighbors, in the realization that everything we have is a gift. Sure, there are folks like Bill Gates, you might argue, who burned the midnight oil and worked hard to achieve success, and that is only fair. All well and good. But who gave Bill the desire, the physical capacity, and the Tang to get him through all of those challenges? Who puts us in life situations, teaches us fortitude through challenges to shape us, and blesses us with resources to help others? We cannot create ourselves, no matter how we try. If we look deeply enough, the source of our gifts always comes down to grace.
Contentment, secondly, is an antidote for the fear that tightens our grip on money and possessions. Maybe we fear that there will not be enough left for us if we give. Thanksgiving reminds us to be content with our basic needs, as the passage from First Timothy suggests. Sometimes greed is the result of fear. Brene’ Brown, social scientist and author, whom we have been learning from in our Sunday morning adult formation, talks about how gratitude is an antidote for fear. She tells the story about her daughter’s prom date arriving and repeating to herself, “I am grateful, I am grateful.”
Finally, gratitude and contentment are contagious as a means of storing up heavenly treasure. In their wisdom, our stewardship committee this year has selected gratitude as a theme. Talking with them we also realized there is a synergy in our conversations about congregational discernment and stewardship. We have been hearing in our discernment meetings many stories of gratitude for St. Bede’s community. As a visual reminder of our gratitude, and at the risk of becoming a sticky note priest, I invite you to post a note on the glass window at the back of the nave to tell the story of those things for which you are grateful. You’ll find a sticky on the back of your bulletin and extra pencils and pens by the baptismal font. We’ll keep these notes around for a few weeks as we continue to explore themes of gratitude.
The world is not in the best of health. The love of money continues to be a root of all kinds of evil. The healing balms for what ails us are prayers of thanksgiving, gratitude, and contentment. They teach us we are gifted by God, open our eyes to see our neighbors, and motivate us to serve them.
 Carmen Reinicke, “US Income Inequality Continues to Grow,” CNBC.com, July 19, 2018. At https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/19/income-inequality-continues-to-grow-in-the-united-states.html
ST. BEDE EPISCOPAL CHURCH
1609 Elm St. Forest Grove, OR
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 20, 2019
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
Today is an interesting day liturgically, analogous to a partial lunar eclipse, because it is only in year C that we get to read this story of the miracle at Cana during the season after Epiphany. Epiphany, which means manifestation, historically has included the star and the magi, Jesus’ baptism, and the miracle at Cana. These are the ways that Jesus as the Christ was manifest to humanity.
The miracle at Cana has importance for many reasons. Foremost among those is that the wine in the story is not just wine, kind of like wine in our Eucharist is not just wine. In Jesus’ day weddings sometimes lasted up to seven days, so having enough wine to provide party goers was imperative. Likewise, the host’s failure to have enough wine was a social faux pas from which one might never recover. Those poorly supplied might forever be marked as “the one who ran out.” So wine, or the lack of it, in Jesus’ context could maintain or break community. Wine with its often blood red color also symbolized life and strength.
John calls the transformation of water into wine at Cana a “sign” because it manifested Christ’s “glory” and we are told after that “his disciples believed in him.” It is for this reason that the signs in John’s gospel are not considered mere miracle stories. They are intended to lead to belief.
There is this really weird discourse between Mary (who is not actually named in this passage) and Jesus. She makes a statement and he replies, “Woman, what is that to you and to me?” It sounds really rude, but in the original language was more of a common expression. But key to us, key to our situation and political climate and really messy situation that we are in right now, is what Mary says first. What does she say?
“They have no wine.” Why is she saying this? Why is she coming to Jesus with this? I love that she never actually asks him to do anything, but just states the problem. It sounds like she really does know her son better than anyone else. She knows who Jesus is and what he can do. It’s like she is training him to be the messiah. In his humanity he doesn’t feel ready, but she is effectively saying, “It’s time.” Mary does this because she trusts that Jesus will live out the fundamental divine attribute of extravagant love and providence. She then tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” as if she knows, even before Jesus does, what will happen. Jesus then makes a ridiculous amount of wine, about 120-180 gallons, more than the wedding party could possibly consume.
We therefore see in this story, the sign that God’s love is like a wedding banquet in which divine connection to us is much deeper than we can fathom, like the wine was much more than the guests could consume. It is of a totally different sort than the, often transactional, love in the world. I do a favor for you and you do a favor for me. What we often mistake for love is really commerce. Transactional relationships often focus on scarcity, the notion that the world’s resources are like a giant pie, and there is only so much to go around. If the story we live by is scarcity, we have to hurry and get our slice of pie before it’s gone.
In contrast, not only is God’s grace and love free to us, it is also unbounded like the copious gallons of wine overflowing our expectations. We can see that sentiment, not only in our Gospel passage but in the reading from Isaiah, which likens Israel united with God as a couple at a marriage feast. The Psalmist relates that, “They feast upon the abundance of your house; *[God gives] them drink from the river of [God’s] delights. Our passage from 1 Corinthians likewise relates the profundity and diversity of God’s spiritual gifts to the children of God.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to remain focused on God’s extravagant love. I don’t know about you, but lately I have been caught a bit in scarcity mode especially during the partial government shut down. I have felt out of sorts in this increasingly acrimonious political climate. Abby has mentioned schoolmates belittling one another because of perceived political stances. Workers are calling in sick because they can’t afford to go to work. In the coast guard men and women are risking their lives to save people without remuneration. The atmosphere of our country is highly charged.
It’s like we have been invited to a wedding feast. This is the feast where all humanity is invited, and the wine has run out. What are the ways in which the unbounded love of the Holy Trinity can change our meager fare of water into wine? One, is something Wade mentioned yesterday morning. “He said I feel like Fred Rogers when he talked about people coming together to help one another in an emergency.” Our family is seeing that personally and we see it around the country as well. God has made this difficulty into an opportunity for goodness to shine. Even our own outreach ministry at St. Bede has stepped up to increase food donation efforts for those in need especially now.
Besides being the one who changes our water into wine, where is the extravagant love of God in the acrimony and challenges that the American people are facing right now? Our Gospel lesson teaches that in Christ we have a God of abundance. There is no one who is shut out of the gifts of God. Abundance directs that we open our hearts to our neighbors, whether they have a different political view from ours or come from a different country. Salvation is not something that happens to us after we die, but begins here and now, and salvation is not a competitive sport. In God’s economy the wine of salvation serves to hold people together and there is more than enough for everyone. In God’s economy my neighbor’s salvation, which is really to say my neighbor’s highest good, is also mine.
Speaking of loving our neighbors, tomorrow we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This is a good time to remember his teachings and apply them to our present crises. King understood that both oppressor and oppressed were caught in an evil system. He knew that system could not be changed without recognizing that people who discriminated against African Americans were also oppressed by system that held them captive as perpetrators. You see, the extravagant love of God means that we all receive grace, both we and our enemies.
MLK Jr. was known to receive many death threats, but rather than cussing out callers who threatened him and his family, he would regularly engage with them listening to their concerns and fears. On at least one occasion, King ended this call having won over the caller through his kindness and listening efforts. King also recognized the importance of preparing his fellow workers for social justice. He did this largely through bible study and prayer. Who would have thought that studying scripture and prayer might become the ultimate act to subvert the social order?
I invite us to come like Mary to the Lord presenting the concerns of the world, trusting in the extravagant providence of God. One opportunity will be Thursday at 5 pm, our normal time for Evening Prayer, we will have a special vigil to pray for our country. We invite you to bring your concerns, whatever they are, to the chapel here at St. Bede where we can pray together.
And whether you can make it to our vigil on Thursday or not, I invite us to pray for our country, for our leaders, for immigrants and refugees everywhere, for all sorts and conditions of people. When we do that, I invite us to hold the heart of Mary when she came to our Lord and said, “They have no wine.” I hope we can trust like Mary when she relied in the divine love of God working through Jesus. We might say “Lord, this country has run dry,” knowing that is enough to spur God to act, and pray that God’s will is done. I hope we remember to bring everyone in this system before God, trusting in the abundance of God’s providence.
I pray that like Martin, in our conversations and interactions with those who differ from us, we will also reflect this overflowing love. It is a vulnerable thing to love our enemies. It can be very costly, which should be no surprise to us because eventually this outpouring of grace cost Jesus everything.
If we offer our concerns to God, even water can be changed to wine. Scarcity can turn into abundance. Like the writer John says, this miracle of changing water into wine is a sign, and it is meant to help us believe, to trust that the story of our lives is abundance not scarcity because we follow a God who desires deeply to provide for us.
Jesus as the Christ is manifest to us in the sign of changing water to wine. It is a sign of God’s extravagant love given freely that will never run out. Let us remember like Martin Luther King Jr. God’s extravagant love toward all. Let us pray like Mary who came to the Lord, saying “They have no wine,” trusting that the Lord will provide.
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
June 28, 2019
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
Many of you may remember that I was once dean of a United Methodist Junior High Backpacking camp in the mid 90’s when Wade and I were first married and before I became a mom. This came about through no great merit of my own. I had practically no experience working with young people, a tiny bit of hiking experience and a love for being out of doors. So, when the leader of camping for our conference asked me if I would be the dean of a backpacking trip for Jr. High students, I decided, why not? What could be so hard about that?
In preparation, I conversed with the previous dean via phone and chose a site that where we would backpack in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula along Lake Superior. Before camp I visited the former dean, Jim, at his home to glean whatever wisdom I could and pick up backpacking supplies.
I still remember sitting down with him that day. Jim was a quiet, friendly guy of about sixty-five with a sparkle in his eyes. I immediately started to ask him questions about all the things that were reeling around in my mind. He interrupted me and asked if I minded if we prayed first. I agreed, but in my head I was saying, “Please, I don’t have time for this.” I went to church, believed in God, but deep down, I was a prayer skeptic. I wondered if this public prayer was more about show than about anything real. I was too polite to refuse and thought, “Probably, he is aging and doesn’t understand the wisdom of getting things done the way I do.” To be honest, I was also a little ashamed the idea of praying about how to lead this church camp had never occurred to me.
Our Hebrew scripture and Gospel lessons for today give us a window into prayer and how it can be exemplified in positive ways. In the Genesis we see a curious picture of Abraham repeatedly tugging at God’s skirt asking questions. In this exchange, though it looks like a conversation, Abraham is essentially praying for the deliverance of the innocent people of Sodom.
In today’s Gospel the disciples observe Jesus praying and ask him to teach them how to pray. We hear Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer alongside a parable about this annoying neighbor who wakes up his friend in the middle of the night to get bread from him. (The version of the Lord’s prayer that we pray liturgically, by the way, is from Matthew.)
Since my meeting with Jim, prayer has become more and more a core practice for me these days, as you may have guessed. Some cool things about prayer is there about a million ways to communicate with the Holy One, and it’s catchy. I love the scene we read from today’s gospel where Jesus is praying, his disciples see him, and then ask him to teach them how to pray. It’s like those times when I saw someone eating something delicious and I wanted some too. I wonder if Jesus’ prayers for discernment, solace, thanksgiving, and strength were offered in such love and humility they drew others to God just by being in his presence. Like Jim, prayer was Jesus’ “go to.” It was his instinct, his immediate response to challenges. Of course, as we read today he taught his disciples words to pray, but learning to pray is more than merely reciting words. Prayer is a life orientation.
During Jr. High Backpacking Camp, I learned the value of prayer viscerally. The “U. P.” (upper peninsula), as we Michiganians refer to it, isn’t normally dangerous except we were hiking in bear country which required necessary precautions. I studied up, reading various books about hiking around bears and these particular trails. I learned the art of hanging packs from tree limbs to for bear proofing. Wade I even hiked most of the trail one weekend, so we could try out our gear and get comfortable with the terrain. Perfect. No problems, except for the mosquitos and black flies, which you can’t really avoid.
Despite Jim’s probably senility, I decided to take a page from his book. As we were leaving on the day of camp we campers and leaders prayed together, loaded into vehicles, and drove from E. Lansing to Iron Mountain Michigan arriving at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.
We registered all of our stopping points and camping sites with the rangers so they could approve them for bear safety. Everything looked good, so we started our hike that next day. It was challenging. Though we had warned the kids to be physically ready and told them the kind of gear they needed, they were not prepared. And we were unprepared for their unpreparedness. Some of the kids had behavioral challenges and we soon learned the kids who would need extra supervision. Add to that my tent mate snored very loudly. With my concern about the campers and the loud snoring I had literally no sleep for 5 days.
By that fifth day of hiking one challenge after another had arisen including struggles with our water filtration equipment. When we reached the shore of Lake Superior I was barely functioning. We put our packs down in full daylight on the top of a short bluff and made our way down the hill into the frigid water. We were there about 15 minutes when a report came of a bear cub ripping into one of our camper’s packs. This began an eventful evening.
We were still a good 10 miles from the end of our trip, 6 miles if we took an emergency short cut trail. It was getting dark so we decided that after we scared the bear away, making loud noises, yelling and blowing our hiker’s whistles, we would do a proper job of hanging the packs from trees and all would be well. By dusk we had hung all of the packs and were feeling pretty self-satisfied when a mother bear and her twin cubs started prowling the base of the bluff. We tried to drive them off with rocks and noise, but were unsuccessful.
The bears showed us a little trick they had learned as we watched from a distance. The cubs would shimmy up a tree trunk until they reached the branch on which each pack was hung. Then they would hang and bounce from the branch until it broke. The pack would drop to the ground and the bears would run away with the packs.
After two backpacks were harvested and the bears ran away with second pack we needed a new plan. We took down all of the packs and put them around the fire with us. The adults would take shifts watching the packs through the night. Mercifully I had slept a few hours when it came time for my 1:30 a.m. shift. I got out the little pocket bible I had brought with me and began reading the Psalms, only I discovered maybe for the first time I was really praying the Psalms.
I remember especially this excerpt from psalm 91.
"You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday."
Suddenly these words came to life. I wept, not just for my tiredness and stress, but for these beautiful words that spoke about the deep difficulty of being human and stands the test of time. I felt seen and known and strengthened. Thus, began a journey into liturgical prayer for me.
But of course, prayer is more than just reading the psalms and liturgical forms. It takes many shapes. Writer Anne Lamott says two of her favorite prayers are, “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Brother Lawrence, the famous 17th century monk, learned to live his prayers as though everything he did connected him to God, especially in the midst of his work in the monastery kitchen. He saw his whole life as prayer. There are plenty of places to practice prayer at St Bede: in one of the weekly Eucharists, or evening prayer, for example. Opportunities abound and the means of connecting with God in a prayer-like way are as varied as there are people.
Prayer in the model of today’s scriptures is audacious, bold and in a way shameless, when we look closely at the Genesis and gospel readings. While prayer may on the surface look as well-mannered and complacent with the status quo, a relationship with God in prayer is real. This means we can be our whole selves with God. We don’t need to hide our negative emotions from the One who already knows them. To be audacious in prayer is to follow Abraham’s example in being willing to call out the Lord of Heaven and Earth for failing in justice. It is bold as a child who repeatedly pokes his parent or interrupts to ask why. It is shameless like coming to a neighbor at midnight to ask for a loaf of bread. Honest prayer means setting aside etiquette, our shame in irritating God in the middle of the night, or in the middle of our work day, or while we are waiting for a child who is late coming home. Jesus tells about how a persistent neighbor will get what he needs from his friend. The word for persistence in the gospel text can also be translated as ignorant. In persistent prayer we are ignorant or choose to ignore what people think of us. Imagine that. I think that was part of my problem with prayer early on, being ashamed to rely on God in prayer. I was ashamed of looking silly or weak or vulnerable. I was ashamed of looking like I couldn’t take care of things all by myself. As a result -- I failed to develop a prayer reflex, an ability to pray through challenges, through the day, through the nodal points, in the morning, evening and before meals, before beginning something new. The truth is that I still have no idea what I am doing most of the time or whether I will be successful. Prayer can be comforting, but it is also scary because it reminds me of how little control I have and how much I depend on grace.
Of course, talking to God is not just about Jesus and me. Prayer may be our greatest potential act of subversion to the status quo. Like water, which in some settings can seem docile and passive, prayer at the same time in has the power to carve tremendous caverns and change lives. In this way prayer is a prime ingredient in social justice. One of the main tenets of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King Jr.’s main vehicle in creating social change, was their commitment to regular prayer as a way of supporting and directing their work for racial equality.
Many things call to us for action in this world. There are many bears with which we must contend. It is hard to know even where to begin. That is one reason we are in this process of congregational discernment. I hope in this time of discernment we have the audacity and boldness and to behave like the neighbor in Jesus’ parable. Let us have the shamelessness to wake God at all hours of the night to summon help and show us the way.
In trials of our lives -- when the bears come, and they will, praying can help us sink down into the loving presence of God that sustains us encourages us to cry out against evil and bring healing and guidance. When prayer becomes our life orientation it is easier to find our way through dangerous territory.
The bears did come back that night and the story got a little wilder before it got better, but thanks be to God we survived the backpacking trip with everyone generally intact. I carry with me many of the lessons learned from that time. This especially includes the lesson from Jim who taught me how to pray, especially when I am about to get myself into something that I know nothing about, which turns out is a LOT. I’ve learned to pray like my life depends on it because, it does.
My hope for us is that we continue to grow in prayer together. Audacious, bold shameless, prayer is a subversive component in persisting against the problems of the world. I hope that, like Jesus, we also continue to pray in ways that inspire a life of prayer in others. You never know who may be watching and how a life of prayer may change the world.
The Second Sunday of Advent
December 8, 2019
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
We are privileged to read some classic Advent texts this week. We heard from Isaiah and Paul’s letter to the Romans among other things of the hope that will come from Jesse’s lineage. What I would like to focus on today is what was alluded to earlier in our advent candle lighting, about preparedness and what we heard John the Baptist proclaim today in the gospel according to Matthew, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
There are many kinds of “ways,” to get somewhere. I’ve walked a lot of hiking paths here in Oregon that are big enough only to walk single file. Some of the roads at the Trappist Abbey in LaFayette where I take retreats are two- track, abandoned logging roads made with crushed granite with grass growing in between wheel ruts. Some ways are gravel and others are paved and have bridges, sometimes like the old-fashioned wooden covered bridges we see dotted around the Willamette Valley. Still others are highways with multiple lanes and carrying folks from state to state or even to other countries.
So, if we are called to prepare the way of the Lord, for all we know it might be a daunting exercise. Just what type of way are we being called to prepare? How long will it take? Where will we get the resources and the tools? How will we know the road is finished? Preparing the way of the Lord is not ordinary road construction. John the Baptist doesn’t give us much instruction except to repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Metanoia which is translated for us as repentance, literally means “beyond mind.” Preparing the way of the Lord, requires letting go the personal mindsets of what a road looks like, what the kingdom of heaven looks like, or how Christ will arrive.
We heard from Isaiah, which was written at a time when exiles were returning from Babylonia, of an almost otherworldly or supernatural way that would herald a new day, a new way of being as folks returned to Jerusalem. They would see some strange things along the way.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together; and the lion
shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
This is definitely not business as usual. Something new has happened.
In Biblical times “the way of the Lord” has historically meant the path from exile homeward. Also, in those times workers commonly prepared roads by removing obstacles thus allowing conquering rulers passage. There are also hints that the expression “The Way of the Lord” was partially derived from the Exodus experience and the way God made for the Israelites to escape slavery.
Ways and roads have a long symbolic history for Christians. Jesus himself was a man of the road and he sent people out various ways to preach the good news. There is the amazing story of the Road to Emmaeus after Jesus’s resurrection. Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch on the way and Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. No wonder the Christian movement was called the Way.
Pavier is an old-fashioned English word for a road maker. Paviers must consider regionally available materials, the type of traffic on the road, geography, and the cost of construction. All of these factors limit the kind of road that can be made. Roads of faith allowing the holy passage into our lives are similar to the ones we walk or drive on. They must suit the location, the resources and hand -- and they require time, effort and expense - even with God’s help. Though a lot of roads are massive undertakings, some of the best roads in our lives are made the way Moses and God made a way through the Red Sea with the Egyptians on the heels of the Israelites. There is a story that God only parted the Red Sea when Moses set foot in the water. In this version of the story Moses had to act in faith that God would make a way out of the impossible. It’s like the line from a popular poem by Antonio Machado, where Machado says “we make the road by walking.” Some of the most beautiful, rewarding “ways” I have experienced, hiking trails, were simply made by walking. How many of us refrain from stepping into our everyday Red Seas, and avoid making the road by walking - maybe for lack of trust in God who makes a way where there seems like no way?
Sometimes it does seem like there is no way forward. It is easy to believe we are at an impasse in the many problems that plague us. There are many obstacles in the roadway. Poverty, homelessness, drug abuse. But there is also hope. In some ways valleys and hills are being made level. Paviers are out there and in here working to shift some huge boulders and level mountains that impede the free flow of God’s love. When we look around here in this room, it is a miracle in itself. People have set aside time in their lives to learn better how to love God and our neighbors. We not only build the road by walking, we are the road.
But what if we don’t take up a job of road making? Probably God will find a way to usher in the kingdom without us personally. I don’t know, but I do believe that when we don’t repent (renew and go beyond our small minds) and prepare a way (some way, something large or small, to herald Christ’s coming), part of us dies. When I don’t act to become part of this way making, my hope dies. I become cold to my neighbor, I become locked into my own careful little house of “how things are,” which is essentially a mausoleum. That’s why Advent is an especially appropriate time to show love to our neighbors, to make the way of love more an everyday experience. This is why we focus outreach efforts now for people who are experiencing challenges during Advent.
Preparing the way of the Lord is a mysterious process of God’s empowerment and our willing surrender to work and pray for the realm of God. Someone has said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” There are still many obstacles in the roadway but beautiful things are happening here at St. Bede. I have high hopes for what happens next through the work we have done together in congregational discernment. I don’t know the way myself, but I trust profoundly that God is with us as we prepare the way. So far, I have been privileged to work among you as a fellow pavier and I have seen that the kingdom of heaven has indeed come near. When you see hungry people, you feed them, when you see people needing a place to stay you provide for them. You study and teach a common language and about a life of faith and the church to young and old. You share your lives together and make ways for the kingdom of heaven to come. You help students to reach their potential as learners.
Some of the best and most beautiful roads are ones made simply by walking. Let us then continue to repent and continue to prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight trusting that the kingdom of heaven is indeed near and will make a way where there seems like no way.
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 20, 2019
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
As a priestly educational requirement, I completed a chaplaincy internship at Legacy Emanuel Hospital. Between meeting with patients, we studied chaplaincy in a classroom setting, where among other things, each intern selected specific patient interactions for verbatims. A verbatim is pretty much what it sounds like. We would transcribe everything we remembered about a patient encounter including the patient’s appearance, what was happening in the room, and even thoughts inside of our heads -- all in play form with actors including patient, chaplain, doctor, etc. In class we would enact this written verbatim with our peers like a play.
Verbatims were intended as mirrors to evaluate our own work as chaplains, which ultimately meant closely examining ourselves and our personal issues. Afterward the supervisor and classmates would ask questions and offer suggestions for improvement. Though incredibly helpful, we all dreaded verbatims because they were emotionally draining and required brutal honesty about the baggage we, knowingly or not, carried into patients’ rooms with us.
I remember one verbatim in particular; I called the patient Harry Potter. “Harry” talked about being at the end of his rope, losing his home, which had meant everything to him, as a result of his illness and having nowhere to turn. No friends, no contacts, no one to help him on his way. It was when he turned to his sense of abandonment and feelings of loneliness that I started to offer him suggestions, places to turn, a church, a government agency, all valid points, but probably not what Harry most needed at that point. I was desperate to change the subject from loneliness. I wanted to rescue him because I couldn’t tolerate being with him in his darkness.
We learned in our chaplaincy training about the grief cycle which has some relationship with Elizabeth Kuber Ross’ stages of grief. You may have heard of them: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Only the grief cycle we studied had more of a shape than stages, a u-shape. The idea was that the work of grief meant you have to go through the valley to reach the other side. Many times, we like to leap over the abyss as though there were no problem. Or maybe we build teetering rope bridges of pretense across the chasms that threaten to envelope us. We do this by offering platitudes to one another in the face of difficulties like, at least you still have the other kidney, these things happen for a reason, or you will have other children. These may all be true statements, but they don’t reflect what is also true, that we ache, we suffer pain, we are frightened and lonely, and we are finite. Avoiding these truths is to jump over the abyss.
My peers noticed my failure to follow Harry into his valley in my verbatim. I could have asked him what it was like to be there. I could have sat with him in his pain, but instead I tried to deny that it was even there. Looking back, I don’t think at the time I trusted that God was in the darkness with us and would help Harry find his way. From that conversation with my peers, I discovered that my own fear of loneliness kept me from being with Harry because it meant confronting mine. Again. I had been down this road before. I told myself I was going to be fine.
Only now I was learning in my “fineness” I could not be a
window of God’s love because I failed to stay with suffering people in their darkness. I was monumentally frustrated as if something outside of my control was barring my way. I had prayed for healing. I wondered when God was going to do something?
In all of the scripture lessons from today we hear the message of perseverance. Perseverance is subversive because it looks harmless. It’s that drippy faucet that seems to have little power, but is fully capable of getting us out of bed at night. Today we hear messages about struggling with God, and coming back again and again. Jacob wrestled with the ‘angel’. The widow from Luke’s gospel gets what she needs by pleading with the judge again and again.
We need perseverance because “to pray always and not lose heart” as Luke’s gospel instructs us, is really hard. I
wonder if many of us have cultural taboos against complaining, especially to God. That is what the widow does unashamedly. Struggling with God and coming back again and again to plead our case, is not atheism. It’s not
even agnosticism. It is the core of faith rooted in Judeo-Christianity. Just read the psalms if you have any doubt about that.
As with my struggle Jacob had a backstory too. He was undergoing a genuine pressure point in his life. Years earlier Jacob had left home to escape the mortal wrath of his brother Esau after stealing his birthright. In the process of returning home Jacob learned from sentinels that his brother was coming to meet him with 400 men, hardly the sign of a friendly welcome. Jacob feared for his life and the lives of his family members. He must have been quaking in his sandals when he encountered the mysterious man.
Who is the man by the way? Is the man God, or Jesus, or an angel? Some commentators suggest that the man may have been Esau. Still another suggestion might be that Jacob was wrestling with himself, with the role he played in creating this predicament. I wonder if Jacob was doing what we all have to do in order to live with integrity with God and our neighbor, wrestle with the deep mystery of what it means to be human, with who we have been and who God calls us to become.
Jacob’s defenses were down as he realized the profound terror of his plight. His relationships were of no use and his wealth could not save him. Like Jacob at some point we must all come face to face with ourselves and take stock of what we have done and left undone. Ultimately, as one commentator put it, this is “a reckoning with God.” In the valley we recognize our frailty and are wounded in the process much as Jacob was wounded during his wrestling match with the stranger.
What we get from this story of Jacob’s wrestling match is not an easy moral to carry home with us but an ambiguous struggle. Jacob is morally ambiguous and so are we. We have taken advantage of our brothers and sisters on this planet, those near and far. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, and yet God loves and cares for us. There is no clear good guy, but only the goodness of God that eventually brings two estranged brothers together. This is the same God who is capable as well to bring our human family together.
Wrestling is a weird way to pray, but there are more ways to pray than one. The widow as you will remember pleaded successfully for a positive judgment from the unjust judge through repetitively approaching him for justice. When we hear the word “widow,” bells should go off.
Widows were near the bottom of the social order in Jesus’ day. This was someone who should have known better than to think that justice could ever come to her. She probably had nothing to offer, no bribe, no social connections. She had pretty much nothing going for her except that she was really annoying and she had time on her side.
What I can’t help wondering is where the widow got the hutzpah to keep coming back time after time? Doesn’t she know that the world doesn’t take her seriously, the judge is corrupt, and the system is rigged? Where are we to get the resiliency to keep coming back, keep knocking on doors, keep praying for justice?
A simple answer would be to say. It comes from God, then we could wrap things up neatly and call it good. Praise God, hallelujah. End of story. But perhaps there is more to the story in how God provides. You may remember earlier in my chaplaincy story I wondered when God would finally step in and heal my loneliness. It turns out that very often God uses our feet to step in and heal us.
Something that my spiritual director used to tell me was that in the light of Christ’s love our wounds become portals of grace. I accepted that at the time somewhat shallowly, but understood it more deeply in my internship. This is because I eventually learned in the hospital to use an awareness of my feelings to help patients. I used this awareness as a key to open doors to deeper discussions with patients. For example, I started to learn to say things like, “when you said that just now, I felt really lonely. I wonder if that is how you feel.” Being aware of my own pain became a way to help patients do their own grief work. It helped them to sit in the valley and make meaning. In the Christian tradition we might call that life, death and resurrection. The valley was still there for me, but now but there were footholds for climbing out of it. It wasn’t how I thought God would heal me, but I was thankful to be learning how God could redeem my hurts.
Praying without losing faith is not easy. It can look like a wrestling match or a widow who doesn’t know her place. God is present in that struggle and in the coming back again and again to ask for justice. What was merely a concept before, but what I came to stake my life on in chaplaincy, was that God is uniquely present in suffering. In the valley, is where we meet God in a unique way. This is where Jesus, the man of sorrows connects with us.
Maybe like I did in my chaplaincy story, many of us wonder when God is going to DO something. Unlike God, the Judge in the story from Luke doesn't grant justice to the widow because it’s the right thing to do. He does it to get that irritating woman off his back. How much more will our merciful God remember us. We also need to do something, as Jesus in Luke’s gospel suggests, “Pray without ceasing and do not lose heart.” Often in our lives we are confronted like Jacob with a river, terrible and raging and have to wrestle in dark and lonely places. Our challenge is to follow God’s call into the valley knowing that Jesus the man of sorrows waits for us there. When we connect Christ’s suffering with our wounds they become portals of grace for our brothers and sisters.