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.
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
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 26, 2020
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
My grandfather Edward taught me to fish from a motor boat on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. We saw kingfishers, and alligators, and miles and miles of everglades during our expeditions. I learned from him how to bait a hook and how to cast, especially how to snap the rod at the end to make the line fly out with that satisfying whirr while the line ran long into the water. I wasn’t great at fishing. I caught some fish. The point was more about being with Grandpa. Maybe it was just that Grandpa was one of the few people in my life who thought it was worthwhile to teach a girl to fish. It made me feel human. There was never a question when we visited about whether or not I would or could come along; I was always invited. Today whenever I see a rod and reel I think about being with him, laughing in the hot sun and coming home with my skin smarting covered with a towel or whatever I could find as the shadows lengthened.
Long before I knew him my grandfather had wanted to be a Pastor and somehow decided to come all the way out here to Portland from Michigan to attend Western Theological Seminary. He was a mason (actual bricklayer, not the club member) and built a small cinder block house at 625 NW Kelly in Gresham. (I know because that address is written in his very-well used King James bible that I now own.) Last time I checked Google Earth, the house was still there. The story is that the weather didn’t agree with my grandmother and her allergies, so the family moved back to Michigan.
Flash forward about 70 years. After my family moved from Michigan to Oregon for Wade’s job, I was looking for an educational path to pursue a call to priesthood in the Episcopal Church and decided to study locally at George Fox Seminary (now Portland Seminary) while also taking classes at Church Divinity School in Berkeley for Episcopal studies. Little did I know that Western Theological Seminary had merged some years back with George Fox Seminary. When I found that out, I truly felt like I was following in my grandfather’s footsteps by learning to fish for people and maybe finishing the work he started. The man who taught the girl to fish also, likely inadvertently, instilled in her a desire to fish for people. My studies for the priesthood really kicked into gear after Grandpa Edward died. I wonder what he would think of me now?
Grandpa Ervin gave me the gift of his presence that transformed me in ways that trying to decant knowledge into my head could never have done. This kind of presence is a lot like Jesus’ incarnation, God come to us in human form, and whose agenda was love. To Jews of Jesus’ day the call of the first disciples might have seemed odd. Normally it was appropriate for Jewish disciples to find themselves a teacher. But here Jesus, the teacher, calls and chooses disciples. He is the one who goes into their world rather than the other way around.
I struggle sometimes with going into my kids’ world as a parent. On my better days I to try to enter my children’s worlds rather than to expect them to enter mine. I ask them about their favorite music and try to watch patiently as they show me the latest hilarious internet meme. AND they enrich me and teach me so much. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t know what a meme was. They stretch me and help me out of my isolated world views. Incarnational presence can be a healthy mode of evangelism for everyone, and it is a two-way street. In love, fishing for people, can mean that the fisher is also the fish.
Of course side to evangelism. I remember in high school when a street minister or “friend” would ask, “Have you been saved?” I was flummoxed for an answer. I assumed right away that they were probably saved and standing on high ground and I was probably not and standing on low ground. It wasn’t a great feeling especially when they went on and on about how I was going to go to hell. Like they knew. If I would only pray this certain prayer, word for word, I could get into heaven. I would have the ultimate in fire insurance. A critique of aggressive fishing for people is that it can resemble the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” where people in a small town are individually invaded by aliens and transformed into automatons. This is the idea behind much of our colonialist approaches to evangelism. Either let’s make those foreigners like us so that we can deal with them or let’s do away with their culture because it scares and challenges us in ways we don’t like. Toxic evangelism is a thing and has been a thing.
AND there is a beautiful, wonderful kind of fishing for people that imparts healing, and grace, and forgiveness. It is a kind of evangelism that says not only is your pain real, but God is real and cares for you. Transformation is real too. This is a kind of fishing for people that is in short supply. It demands not conformity, but calls us much in the way Jesus called his disciples Peter, Andrew and John, out of the ordinariness of their lives into a greater life. It relies less on the ego of the evangelist and trusts in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Recently I went to have coffee with a clergy colleague. Back at home Abby and Eddie were asking Wade where I was. Wade told them I was having coffee with another priest. Eddie asked, “I wonder what they talk about? I imagine it goes something like this, “Jesus, Jesus, God, Jesus, Jesus.” Abby said “No,” she was pretty sure it was, “God, God, Jesus, God, God.” The truth is with evangelism, it’s not all Jesus, Jesus, God, Jesus, Jesus. It is possible to recognize the divine presence in our midst with no “God” words at all, only “come and follow me,” “Let’s fish together.” It’s also possible to use all sorts of God words without communicating the love of the creator.
I talked last week about using spiritual disciplines to support our development as lights for the kingdom of God. One endorsed by our presiding bishop Michael Curry is “Go.” We are told that “Jesus went to the highways and byways, he sends us beyond our circles of comfort to witness to the love, justice, and truth of God with our lips and with our lives. We go to listen with humility and to join God in healing a hurting world. We go to become what the church is calling ‘Beloved Community,’ a people reconciled in love with God and one another.”
When my grandfather and I fished together he was not just catching fish, he was fishing for me. He included me in the scope of humanity. He taught me that I mattered. I was worth his time. He modeled for me a way of being with people with no agenda other than love. It gave me the audacity to believe that the divine spark also resided in me. I hope we will, in the words of our collect, “Answer readily the call like Peter, James, and John and learn to fish for people. It’s not just about saying “God” and “Jesus” every other word, and salvation is something not just for the afterlife, but also in this world, here and now. It begins by recognizing the divine presence already within our neighbors.
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.
The Presentation of our Lord
February 2, 2020
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
If you have ever read Leviticus, you might be amazed at the carnage. There are a lot of rules about making appropriate sacrifices and offerings. Burnt offerings, meal offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, trespass offerings. Sacrificing for this and for that. Offering the first fruits of the field. Offering sacrifices for things I would never have thought of, like for having a child for instance. The temple was essentially a slaughterhouse in Jesus’ day. I am told that there was a special channel on the altar to allow the blood to drain away. Once, when reading through Leviticus for my Hebrew Scriptures class, I was stunned by the bloodbath portrayed. What an amazing amount of gore there must have been in the temple. What barbarism! Why would anyone do that?! How would a loving God demand sacrifice like that? I just couldn’t understand it.
After reading Leviticus, in my haze of incredulity, I went to make a salad for lunch. While thinking about it that I got out a knife and started chopping carrots, because I like chopped carrots on my salad, and I had a sudden epiphany. I was engaging in sacrifice. Even if I didn’t use a knife on it. That carrot was going down. I could not consume it without sacrifice because in the end I would cut it with my teeth and it would become a part of me. Its life would be sacrificed for my life. In fact, everything that went into my body was a sacrifice of some sort. It had been alive in another form before it entered my body. I was engaging in sacrifice simply by living. I could not live without sacrificing another creature.
Today we come to a subject of sacrifice. It is a subject with which as I mentioned earlier, I have struggled. Mary and Joseph in Luke’s gospel have come to the temple to offer two turtledoves, the low-income sacrificial recommendation, for either of two possibilities that may have brought them there. Those two possibilities are part of the reason that this day on our church calendar goes by different names: either Jesus’ presentation (or redemption) as a firstborn child or Mary’s purification, which was the day women could be declared ritually clean through a temple sacrifice after childbirth. (Today is also called Candlemas, a topic for another time.) It’s possible that they may have been there for both Jesus’ redemption and Mary’s purification. The commentators lack clarity about this and Luke himself is somewhat unclear, possibly due to the fact that he may have been a gentile.
As far as we can tell Mary and Joseph have come ultimately to honor Mary’s transition into motherhood and to offer Jesus to God. They offer Jesus essentially with turtledoves as a proxy. Commentators see this offering as a foreshadowing of Jesus offering of himself on the cross. There is an interesting a connection between Mary and Joseph’s offering Jesus in the temple and Good Friday. Sacrifice speaks something very true for parents and relationships in general. We do not own our children or our friends. Mary and Joseph didn’t own Jesus. There is something true about that for us too, because none of us really owns anything or anyone. Everything is already God’s. In offering Jesus, Mary and Joseph recognized that his destiny was in God’s hands. For us, it may be analogous to infant baptism in which baptized babies ritually die and are reborn, not merely as a member of their immediate family, but into the greater household of God. In a way we release and offer them to God while at the same time loving and nurturing them.
So, sacrifice has some positive role, but there is definitely a dark side to sacrifice. A ritual sacrificial system can become religion as a commercial transaction. This danger hinges on who we are trying to change through the sacrifice. There is propitiary sacrifice which seeks to placate God. It could be seen as a kind of bribe. The point with propitiary sacrifice, was to make an offering, which in non-Jewish sects was often human sacrifice of a child or a virgin, to quench God’s anger and throw him off the scent of the worshipper. This propitiary sacrifice seeks to change God through manipulation and control, like a lion tamer who maintains well-fed animals for compliance and safety. Propitiary sacrifice is not limited to bible times. We see it in many people today whose sacrifice can be manipulative of God and others. You might say “Oh, that Marlene, she is such a martyr!”
Sacrifice can also be expiatory when the point is not to change God, but to change the worshipper. It is the offerers of expiatory sacrifice that are changed through it. When Mary and Joseph offered up Jesus in the temple, their hearts were changed in acknowledgment that he belongs to God. Changing the heart of the offerer was the goal of sacrifice as mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament.
Held in love sacrifice can be beautiful and honorable. We know of parents who have sacrificed everything for their children and, Martin Luther King Jr., or the many martyrs of the church, who offered their lives for their faith, in acknowledgement that their lives belonged to God.
Our work as Christians is to offer the world to God, in admission that we do not own any of it. Personal property is a necessary evil that has no spiritual value. How different might our attitudes toward one another be with an acknowledgment that we cannot tightly hold onto things?
I see this value at work here at St. Bede. The work of our long year’s Congregational Discernment has been to offer St. Bede’s Church to God. What a wonderful year it has been. We have lifted up the church by studying and listening and sharing and I am so thankful for all of the wonderful participation we have had at the various meetings and in the process. In doing so we tried not to come with ready-made answers but took time to pray and listen and dream together about where God is calling us next. The results of our study will be coming out in the form of a report shortly. It will also be the subject of our Lenten Soup series through the lens of the Seven Spiritual practices of the Episcopal Church.
All of you who have come here this morning have engaged in a sacrifice. You have offered up the precious gift of your time. You could have been doing anything else. You may have taken time away from Super Bowl pregame festivities. We will honor Jesus’ sacrifice in the Eucharist today and we will pray “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice that we may be acceptable through him being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” We prayed in the collect of the day “Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord. We come here also to offer ourselves.
We no longer seek God through copious animal sacrifice, but there are vestiges of temple worship in our Episcopal Service. One of them is the offering, the sacrifice of our treasure which we offer to God. What about the rest of our selves? A friend told me that the offertory is a good time, as the plate goes by, to put ourselves into it. It can be a part of ourselves that we hold very dearly, as dear as a first-born son. It can be something we are ashamed of. Better yet, why not climb into the offering plate heart, body and soul, and offer ourselves to God? Go ahead give the ushers a workout today. OK, I guess we will have to use our imaginations. Then the ushers will bring the alms basins forward and we will be transformed with blessing, offered like Jesus in the temple to the work that God has for us.
Relationships can be offered to God too. Relationships held in Christ require an understanding that what affects one affects all, the I in you and you in me that we hear about in scripture. This is also the dance of the Trinity that all are of one substance and yet three persons and to function well relationships are best offered to God. This way they do not become our private hoard.
Sacrifice may seem barbaric, but in love everything is possible, welcome and helpful, even sacrifice. It is a fundamental law of the universe. To live is to sacrifice. Yet paradoxically this doesn’t mean that we are trying to bribe God. What matters is who we are trying to change with our offering. When we offer sacrifice in love, we are changed. The goal of sacrifice held in love is abundant life. In order for something to live something has to die. Joseph and Mary offered Jesus to God in a foreshadowing of his self-offering on the cross. Perhaps their desire to protect Jesus or keep them to themselves had to die. Sacrifice can our hearts and hands to our neighbors so that they are allowed to pursue their path to God without our getting in the way. If at first it appears that offering creation to God is only a mental, esoteric approach to spirituality, think again. Offering creation to God makes us more ethical and just to our neighbors. The way of sacrifice understands everything that is as a means to God’s end of love. If it was good enough for Jesus it is good enough for us.
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.
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.