Our Among Friends volunteers are organized into teams. Mike Terry heads up the Tuesday group, and Bonnie Schultz and Lisa Knight lead the Friday group. There are four Monday night teams: the first Monday cook is Stephen Knight (Lisa’s son) and the whole family comes. Sometimes Stephen is joined by his mom and dad, his two sisters, and even his grandparents. What a team!
The second, third, and fourth Monday cooks are Bob Alukonis, Terry Rooney, and Joyce Cejka. Some of our team members come once a month, others more often. The teams are intergenerational, from young teens to the eighties, and include people from other churches and the community at large.
There’s plenty to do: Setting tables, preparing drinks, salad, and dessert, helping cook the food, putting it on plates and serving it, and cleaning up. One of the best parts of serving at Among Friends is taking a plate of food and sitting with our guests.
Some months have five Mondays, and this occurs a few times throughout the year. The confirmation group covered the Fifth Monday in January 2012, the choir this past October, and the youth group before that. In April, the vestry will form a team. The members of the Among Friends Board hope that groups within the church will volunteer for the Fifth Monday evening meal. And thus cover July 30th, October 29th and December 31st. Yes, that last one is New Year’s Eve! Remember Among Friends serves a meal every Monday, Tuesday and Friday throughout the year.
This is a big commitment for our church, and it takes a lot of “people hours”. We hope that groups within the church will commit to a Fifth Monday. Not only would the meal be covered, but more people would become familiar with Among Friends, and perhaps encourage more volunteers and support.
So think about, St. Paul’s folk. Altar Guild, Atrium Teachers, Ushers, or any of our many groups and committees. For any group that volunteers, one or two members should attend an Among Friends meal beforehand to become familiar with the responsibilities for set-up and clean-up. If someone in the group would like to cook, that would be great! If not, the Among Friends board will supply a cook.
Another idea is to have two families cover one Monday together. We have three parent/child pairs now. It’s not a place for very young children because it can be hectic and “unpredictable”, but it would be a great experience for families with teens and preteens. Among Friends invites you to stop by for a meal anytime. Some may hesitate to join us because they feel they would take meals intended for others, but the cooks normally prepare plenty (and there is a donation box if you care to contribute). You are welcome to join us!
If you would like to talk to me about volunteering, please call Joyce Cejka, Among Friends Coordinator, 978–463-7835.
I am just back from spending a little over 24 hours at the Barbara C. Harris Camp where Ollie and I took our youth who are preparing for confirmation to be part of the diocesan pre-confirmation retreat. We all had a good time away together. It was fun riding up and back in the cars and getting to know each other better. It was a joy to see our 6 youth there, praying, talking, eating and enjoying the beauty of the camp along with the other 100 youth who had come from all over our diocese. Ask Caroline, John, Megan, Laura, Paul or Sam to tell you more about it sometime.
One I thing I always love about these events is that one of our Bishop’s always comes and spends a good chunk of time with the youth on Saturday morning. The Leaders of the retreat who are members of the Diocesan Youth Council – which includes our own Anna Blumenscheid – have come up with a fun activity called “Stump the Bishop”. On Friday night, all the youth are encouraged to write any question they want to ask of Bishop Tom on a slip of paper and put it in the “Stump the Bishop Bag”. Then on Saturday morning, a member of the council, serving as MC asks the questions to the Bishop who answers them in front of the whole group. Bishop Tom is so great with our youth – so honest and affirming. It is a joy to listen to him speak to them, and to hear them respond to him! One of the questions that was asked this time was “What is sin?” Tom did the brilliant thing of turning the question back to the youth before answering it himself. He happened to pick two of our youth to answer the question, and both of them gave deep and very satisfying answers! From what they said, Tom summarized, saying something to the effect of “God has made us in God’s image. God has made us unique and perfect, just the way we are, despite our weaknesses and flaws. So sin is about trying to take something else from life that is not ours. Sin is denying that God has made us whole and perfect. Sin is trying to live life in a way that does not affirm the truth of who God meant us to be.” Then he said, “But the most important thing to know about sin is that God forgives us all of it – all our sin. That is why we include the confession and absolution every Sunday in our services- because the church has known for a long time that if we accept that forgiveness, we can be set free from the power of our sin. ”
That is the message that is at the heart of our readings this morning it seems to me. And I think the image to the seed at the heart of the gospel passage captures this. If we are like a single seed, holding ourselves back from being who God is calling us to be, not sharing who we are with the world; not accepting the forgiveness that God is extending to us; not risking letting the love and power of God into our lives to transform and change us, then we are not affirming the fullness of perfection that God has already created in us and we are living in the illusion of sin. The life of the seed that casts itself into the good soil of God’s love and care on the other had discovers the fullness of life that God intends.
I am one who does not believe that coincidence is random. So, I don’t think it is a random occurrence that I heard Bishop Tom having this conversation with the young people of our diocese yesterday, March 24, which is also the feast day of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Martyrs of El Salvador. And again I do not consider it a random occurrence that the Gospel assigned for this morning – the 5th Sunday of Lent, Liturgical Year B – is the same as the one assigned for the Feast Day of Archbishop Romero and the Martyrs, which was yesterday. In the Gospel today the voice of God is heard, and some people said it was thunder. But Jesus said it was a voice come for our sake. That is the way I feel about this confluence of Gospel and feast day and message. It is saying something to us. So let’s pay a bit of attention to the story of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, to see what how his life might embody the sort of living into the fullness of God already within us that our young people and our Bishop were talking about yesterday.
Oscar Romero was born and raised in El Salvador, and as educated through good seminaries there beginning at age 13. He was ordained as a young man and served his people with a kind heart. Eventually he was made a Bishop and then the assistant to the Archbishop in San Salvador. Unlike the man he served under, Romero was reticent about questioning the authority of the hierarchy above them in the church. When the Archbishop died and Romero was elevated to the position of Archbishop, many who were both politically and theologically conservative thought they had an ally in him. They were soon to be disappointed. This excerpt from a biography of his life tells what happened:
As Oscar Romero was being installed as Archbishop of San Salvador, El
Salvador was on the brink of civil war. The murder of campesinos (a Spanish word for peasant farmers) was so common that it scarcely attracted attention from anyone except their families. General
Carlos Humberto Romero (no relation) proclaimed himself President of El Salvador following a blatantly fraudulent election. Eight days later, scores of people were killed when the police opened fire on thousands of demonstrators protesting election corruption. That same month, three foreign priests were beaten and expelled from the country, and a Salvadoran priest was abducted, beaten nearly to death, and thrown through the doors of the chancery.
On March 12, 1977 a death squad ambushed Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ along a road from Aguilares to El Paisnal, killing also the old man and young boy who were giving Fr. Grande a ride to the rural church where he planned to celebrate mass. Soon after, death squads killed another archdiocesan priest, Fr. Alfonso Navarro. Romero rushed to El Paisnal and offered mass in the house where Rutilio and the two campesinos had been carried. Romero was deeply saddened by the brutal murder of his friend and trusted aide, but he was also profoundly moved by the sugar-cane workers’ testimony to Fr. Grande’s works on their behalf and by their faith that Jesus would send them a new champion. Romero’s diaries clearly show that he believed he had been called once again.
From that day on Romero became an outspoken advocate for the poor and oppressed. He regularly and openly spoke out against the repressive regime and the acquiescence of the Church. Death threats were a regular part of the response to his preaching and advocacy for campesinos. In 1980, Just days before he was gunned down at the altar by a government sniper, as if foreseeing the closeness of his own death, he said ‘If you kill me, I will arise in the Salvadoran people’ and ‘A bishop will die, but the church of God which is the people will never perish.’ Oscar Romero knew and lived closely with Jesus who said, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’
For most of us the call is not quite at public or as ultimately life threatening. But the call will cost us if we dare to answer it. In reflecting on this gospel, Canadian Catholic Philosopher and Humanitarian, Jean Vanier has written, “If we want to live eternal life now and follow the Spirit of God, we must die to our need for recognition, admiration and power. For many of us, it is through an illness, an accident, loss of work or some form of failure that we are called to ‘die’ to our own ways of doing things. Our lives are suddenly changed… “
And in that moment of change, we must make a choice – to cling to a protective seed coat and remain an isolated seed, or to dive into the seedbed of amazing and seemingly terrifying grace, and be forever changed.
Have you heard thunder in your life lately? Do you think an angel might have spoken? Could it be the voice of God calling you? Dare you dive in and find out?
It is a pleasure to be here at St Paul’s this morning. I have been humbled since my family arrived in Massachusetts this past summer by the outpouring of welcome, well wishes, and the excitement I have sensed from so many in the community about the work we are doing at Esperanza Academy.
I am struck by the words from the gospel this morning:
But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3:21)
Esperanza is a place that embodies these words: our students, our faculty, our trustees—we are toiling to surround our students with love; to show them the boundless possibility of the world available to them through the pursuit of knowledge—to show them what it means to live their lives in the light of God; to live lives worthy of that gift.
Their possibilities do not have the dampened by the blights of poverty; by the many doors that can be closed if you are born to a poor, immigrant family in Lawrence. Esperanza is a place where we open doors.
Esperanza is a tuition-free Episcopal middle school for low-income girls in Lawrence. We are entering our sixth year of operation this fall.
Now I am not from MA. I grew up, and have mostly always lived, in Baltimore.
I attended and began my teaching career at a Quaker school there. This experience remains central to my desire to be involved with education. The central tenant of the Society of Friends is the concept that “there is that of God in everyone.”
My journey here to Esperanza began in my work as a fresh 22-year-old high school history teacher in Baltimore. Frankly, while I believed strongly in the power of education, I was not at that time planning a career in teaching. I was on leave from the Ph.D. program in History at Stanford, and I was quite sure I would take a year off and return to write my dissertation. I had occupied myself for the year teaching U.S. History, and was furiously discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis with my class. One of my students raised his hand and said “Mr. Wilson—I’ve been to Cuba.” I smiled, laughed, and said “sure you have…” and went on with my lesson about the Bay of Pigs, etc. He smiled. After class, he came up to me, and said “seriously, my middle school, we went to Cuba with the Orioles when they played the Cuban national team. I met Fidel Castro. He was really, really old.” I had to find out more about this special place, where an inner city kid could have had the chance to have a life-changing experience like that. I did a little bit of research on his middle school, St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, and discovered a place that would change my life.
This was how I discovered the NativityMiguel Network of schools—through this young man who had attended a small tuition-free middle school in Baltimore, and who had earned a scholarship to a competitive private high school. And what a remarkable young man he ways—volunteering at a homeless shelter in the evenings (I found that out because he didn’t always do his homework), directing the service club, singing in the choir. He was a bundle of vibrant joy—a young man who clearly was living life to the fullest. There was “that of God” in him, as the Quakers would say, and he shared it with me. I have been blessed to have known him, and he changed my life. I claimed to have knowledge, but just as in our reading from Corinthians, he showed me that there was so much I didn’t know…
What I found remarkable about this young man was that he remained so faithfully focused on his education, despite the many, many false prophets of inner city Baltimore. He chose a different path for himself; he chose to pursue a life worthy of God.
After finding out about this remarkable school, I assumed the assistant headmaster role at St. Ignatius in Baltimore at the age of 24. I am not sure why they hired me at such a young age—I am convinced perhaps there were no other applicants. What a shock it was to go from a school of relative affluence to one of relative poverty. The students came from terribly difficult neighborhoods, where folks were regularly gunned down in the streets, and where no family was untouched by the carnage of the drug trade. And yet they were hopeful—they came to school each morning, in uniform, for a ten hour school day. They did it purely with the hope of a different future, of a more hopeful life. As I shook their hands each morning, I saw that of God in each of them as well. But it was also shockingly hard work—it was often really really challenging to continue to see that of God when so often it was dimmed by the challenges and decay of grinding generations of poverty.
“There is that of God in everyone”—what a revolutionary concept in our modern world—that each and every human being has inherent value and worth. How unlike the way our society is structured. How counter to so much of our daily lives is it to think that through simple acts of openness we can find the divine every day.
It is in the midst of this minefield of urban problems that our girls find hope at Esperanza. Much like the young men I worked with in Baltimore, our young ladies in Lawrence are beset by a host of potential distractions—the high school dropout and teen pregnancy rates are amongst the highest in Massachusetts; the rampant drug trade taking place in the streets and alleys around their homes—these are the false prophets of the present day. Esperanza stands in defiance of them; it stands to provide the girls a path to live lives worthy of God.
At Esperanza, this tuition-free private school serving low-income kids who cannot pay for the quality of education they are receiving but whose parents desperately want something better for them; our students and families are also taking a risk. They are desperate for knowledge, desperate for opportunity. They want a shot at the American Dream. They trust us at Esperanza to deliver it to them. They enroll their 10 year olds as fifth graders with the hope that after four years at Esperanza, they will have been given a gift to last the rest of their lives—an education leading them to high school and college or a career as a fully engaged member of society.
We are on the cutting edge of the efforts to find answers to the serious injustices of the urban landscape in this country. And we need you to help support Esperanza, to be part of this effort. They can’t do it without you.
One of the questions in the baptismal covenant is
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
We are asked to answer “I will, with God’s help.” But this question, and this answer, requires a deeply held stance of openness to the world—a stance both of giving aid, of helping those less fortunate, but also a stance that can see the world from another’s perspective, that looks for “that of God” in others, to borrow the Quaker term. It also requires a certain level of trust, of “faith.” And our girls who come to Esperanza every day at 7:30 am, dressed in their uniform, engaging in a school program so very different from what their families know and have experienced, facing ridicule from their peers in the other schools—these girls want to live lives worth of God. They believe they will find the way at Esperanza.
It is the stance of openness that I find so refreshing about the mission of Esperanza. From the moment I first walked in the doors and was greeted by my student tour guide, I found the place inviting, warm, and open. In other words, the school is infused with that of God. In the smiles of the students, in the dedication of the faculty, in the incredible partnership each family makes with the school—the 80 hours of service the parents provide us—therein you see God every day. It is also in the deeply held conviction of all of our donors and volunteers and trustees, that through our partnership we can change the lives of our students.
And how very important this work is now, with difficult economic news on the front page almost every day, and with the current real unemployment rate for folks without college degrees exceeding 20%. How important that Esperanza can be a beacon of hope in Lawrence!
Because Esperanza doesn’t exist in a vacuum—the rays of hope that the girls at Esperanza provide are rays for the whole world. “That of God” shines through them as they go about their lives and as they leave us and go off to high school. I remember a particular family at my old school—we had an end-of-year event for eight graders and their families—and each parent would speak and say what they were thankful for. This particular mom got up, and began to speak, her voice cracking—she said she was so grateful for what the school had done. She said that as she supported her son, watching him do his homework, complete his worksheets, get dressed each morning for school, she realized not only was it possible for HIM, it was possible for HER. She wanted us all to know that that spring, she had enrolled in, and completed, a GED course and passed the GED exam. She was now a high school graduate too.
How amazing, isn’t it, to hear for that ray of hope leaping from son to mother? When the light of God is nurtured and lit in leaps through whole communities—from child to parent, from neighbor to neighbor, from street to street. I have always described it as floating a leaf in a stream—when you drop the leaf in, it floats along on its journey—but ripples flow from the spot where it was dropped. At Esperanza we are helping girls both make the journey, but also make waves in their communities and families.
And we are achieving results—in a community with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state and where barely half of ninth graders who start high school graduate, ALL of our young women remain on track to receive a high school diploma.
We are embarking on several exciting initiatives this year—we have begun the process of becoming accredited through the Association of Independent Schools of New England. We have hired a full time, permanent Graduate Support Director who will ensure our alumni successfully complete high school and enroll in postsecondary education. We have hired an academic dean who will oversee our academic program and make sure that our girls are receiving the highest quality education we can provide to them. And we are embarking on an ambitious plan to solidify the financial future of Esperanza Academy through a student sponsorship program. Sponsors will be paired with individual students, and will have opportunities to correspond with the girl and see her in action at Esperanza over the course of the year.
I hope that you will chose to stand with us now—that you will commit your time, energy, and treasure to make sure that just as Esperanza has stood as a ray of hope for the last five years, so that we will continue to stand as a ray of hope for 50 more.
Please consider how you might support the school—as a tutor, as a volunteer, and yes, as a sponsor. You can fill these roles individually or you can do so in groups. If you have a hidden gift I invite you to contact me directly or better yet, visit us at Esperanza so that together we can figure out how “your” gifts can become “our” gifts. You will be transformed by standing up, I can guarantee that! By standing up with us you will ensure that each year another group of young women can graduate having been given the gift of an Esperanza education.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. AMEN.
The Ten Commandments. Exodus Chapter 20. We’ve heard these before. These Bible verses certainly have become part of our culture. How we take these commandments on board in our lives is definitely a mark of our identity – our faith identity and our identity in the wider world.
Ten commandments. Or are there eleven? As you know, I’m a Lutheran pastor serving here with you. You may not know that we Lutherans have a different scheme for numbering the commandments than what’s written up there above the high altar. We copy the Roman church when we number them.
So for us Lutherans, the seventh commandment is “you shall not steal.” Up in New Hampshire at our summer camp the kitchen used to run out of coffee mugs, a couple of times a summer, when people borrowed them, put them in their tents, took them home, and all that. So, they bought new ones that say “Remember the seventh commandment” in big letters on them. After that people didn’t “borrow” them quite so much. And, they brought them back when they did borrow them.
When I worked there one summer a visiting Episcopalian took me aside and said, “just what kind of trouble are you folks getting into here at camp, that your mugs say that?” I was puzzled. She said, what are you up to, that your coffee mugs have to remind you not to commit adultery?
Why is that funny? It hits home. It very well could be about somebody you know, or you, or me. We all get ourselves into trouble sometimes, whether it’s fifth, sixth, seventh, or whatever.
All joking aside, all these commandments remind us strongly of who we are, who God is, and how much God yearns for us to be in faithful relationships with each other and with God. They remind us of how hard it is for us to be in those holy relationships.
The opening words of today’s prayer are: “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” In that prayer we offer God all we have – our imperfect selves. We admit that it’s hard work, day after day, and year after year, to be in faithful relationships. There’s no safe harbor from our problems. There’s no ritual we can perform to buy, or to prove, our perfection. The best we can do is what happened at camp: look at the mug in our campsite, and sheepishly return it to the dining room. And that’s good enough: people bring the mugs back one by one, so the dining room always has plenty. God’s forgiveness is bigger than our capacity to steal.
There’s no magic spell that rounds up all the mugs in time for breakfast. One size doesn’t fit us all. It’s simply each one of us humbly remembering to return to the LORD our God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
That brings us to our hectic Gospel reading.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:13-22, NRSV)
Jesus is furious here. Birds are squawking and lambs are bleating. People are shouting, and he’s shouting them down. Why is he doing this, though? All these creatures are here so pilgrims faithfully can return to the LORD their God, gracious and merciful. They’re here so those good pilgrims from far away can celebrate the festival of the LORD by presenting acceptable gifts and sacrifices. Over and over Jesus emphasizes the saving faith of ordinary people: “your faith has made you well” he says. Why does Jesus choose to disrupt the faith of these folks? They’re just trying to do the right thing. It’s a puzzle.
May I offer an explanation? In the countryside Jesus reaches out with a touch or a kind word, and sets people free from their demons and diseases. He does this over and over, person by person, to the point of exhaustion. He commissions his disciples to do the same, and they do it. Each person’s struggle is their own, and each person receives her or his own healing.
This temple ruckus lies at the heart of Jesus’s ministry of healing and wholeness; it clarifies the alternative to his ministry. This temple is built on the site of Mount Moriah. Last week Martha mentioned the journey of Isaac and his father Abraham to that mountain. It was supposed to be a one-way trip for young Isaac, but the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand from slaying the boy, and provided a ram for the altar instead.
Flash forward a few thousand years in that same place. Here we are. Archaeologists tell us there was an elaborate system of drains to deal with all the blood. Pilgrims come here because they’ve been promised healing when they offer sacrifices. They all yearn for closeness to the Lord. There are many pilgrims.
It must have been a messy business. Psalm 46 tells of “a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.” How can there be a great river at the summit of a mountain? Could it have been a river of blood, of the blood of sacrifice? The prophets have long spoken against that sacrifice. Hosea (6:6) spoke for the Lord saying “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Jesus’s ministry challenges that sacrificial system. He does not say, “your faith and the blood of two perfect pigeons will make you well.” He says, “your faith has made you well. Get up and walk.” Jesus’s ministry recognizes there’s no magic formula to produce healing and wholeness … no magic way to round up all the missing coffee mugs in time for breakfast, if you will. It is not to be mass-produced. Healing and wholeness come to us, by God’s word, Jesus’s touch and the love of our neighbors, one by one, two by two, and mysteriously.
That’s what the commandments are all about. The first one teaches each of us to set our hearts on the Lord. The last one teaches us not to set our hearts on getting exactly what the next person gets. God’s grace and mercy can’t be mass-produced. Don’t covet your neighbor’s relationships or stuff. What’s right for your neighbor may not be right for you. It’s YOUR faith that makes you whole, not your neighbor’s. And it’s certainly not buying some sacrificial pigeons from your neighbor that will make you well. That’s why Jesus chased the livestock dealers out of the temple courtyard.
A few summers ago when I served as a hospital chaplain, I met Al and Doris. It was the second day of July. Al was very sick, and Doris was keeping watch. I listened as a doctor suggested some morphine to make Al more comfortable. “No!” he croaked. “I want to see my great granddaughter.” Doris rolled her eyes and muttered “tough guy” under her breath. I prayed with them, and took off for the fourth-of-July weekend. I honestly didn’t expect to see them again – Al was very sick.
Three days later, I came back on the unit. They were still there. A little girl was bouncing up and down on Al’s bed and hugging him, and he was beaming from ear to ear. I stood in the corner and watched amazed. When it was time for her to go, she said “I love you papa.” Then, still smiling, Al drew a breath and then was still.
Now that is a fine hospital. They offer wonderful and compassionate care. But Al’s time of wholeness and healing, of leaning into the arms of Jesus, came through his individual relationships with the people he loved, not by the hospital’s standard care protocols. Al received the individual and personal mercy of little Rachel’s bouncing love, not the mass-produced sacrifice of palliative care.
The point of the temple was to mass-produce God’s healing mercy, so every pilgrim could get a standard share. I wonder: Was Jesus’s fury directed at temple doctrine that God’s love could be bought with the blood of animals? Was he setting the common pilgrims free from that system?
His disciples knew he was offering himself, and his words of love, as the replacement. We certainly remember that he offers himself to us here and now. By offering each other his saving words and healing touch, we keep his promise alive. By joining him at his holy table here, he keeps his promise of wholeness alive. He’s bouncing up and down on our beds, hugging us, and saying, “I love you.” All we can do is smile with joy, and that is enough.
These words I say to you in his name and for the sake of his healing of the world one creature at a time. +
We are working on improving the audio quality. Thanks for your patience as we do this new thing.
The Second Sunday of Lent, Liturgical Year 5
Several years back now, well known preacher, writer and Episcopal Priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, wrote an article in The Other Side Magazine which she started out with this story from one of her vacations at the ocean. She wrote:
“Several summers ago I spent three days on a barrier island where loggerhead turtles were laying their eggs. One night while the tide was out, I watched a huge female heave herself up on the beach and dig her nest and empty her eggs into it. Afraid of disturbing her, I left before she was finished. The next morning I returned to see if I could find the spot where her eggs lay hidden in the sand. What I found were her tracks leading in the wrong direction. Instead of heading back out to sea, she had wandered into the dunes, which were already as hot as asphalt in the morning sun.
A little ways inland I found her: Exhausted, all but baked, her head and flippers caked with dried sand. After pouring water on her and covering her with sea oats, I fetched a park ranger who returned with a jeep to rescue her. He flipped her on her back, strapped tire chains around her front legs, and hooked the chains to a trailer hitch on his jeep. Then I watched horrified as he took off, yanking her body forward so that her mouth filled with sand and her neck bent so far back I thought it would break.
The ranger hauled her over the dunes and down onto the beach. At the ocean’s edge, he unhooked her and turned her right side up. She lay motionless in the surf as the water lapped at her body, washing the sand from her eyes and making her skin shine again. A wave broke over her; she lifted her head slightly, moving her back legs. Other waves brought her further back to life until one of them made her light enough to find a foothold and push off, back into the ocean. Watching her swim slowly away and remembering her nightmare ride through the dunes, I reflected that it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.” (Barbara Brown Taylor in The Other Side Magazine March & April 2000)
“It is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.” Little did Abraham and Sarah know that their lives were about to be turned upside down by the God who was renaming them for new purpose in their late 90’s. If we read on in Genesis from this spot in the 17th chapter that provided us our first reading this morning we see that this turning upside down of life reaches a crescendo in the 22nd chapter, where Abraham feels God’s hand pushing him up mount Moriah to sacrifice his son Issac – his son who he has come to believe is the living, breathing embodiment of God’s covenant that God established with Abraham and Sarah in our reading this morning. For me the whole idea of it is gut wrenching, and the further that story goes in chapter 22, the more sickening it becomes. And whenever I hear the part of that story where we are told Abraham raises his knife to kill his son, I just want to stream out loud, “What kind of God would ask such a thing? What kind of parent would comply?
This story is what Barbara Brown Taylor refers to as one of the Bible’s texts of terror. These are the texts of the Bible which, “pry our fingers away from our own ideas about who God should be and how God should act.” (Ibid.) When we hear these texts of terror we find our teeth and our hearts put on edge. And we think that something must be wrong. But it is not. Barbara Brown Taylor offers this approach to these texts:
“There is a fundamental hope to which the tales of terror drive us: That however wrong they may seem, however misbegotten and needlessly cruel, God may be present in them, working redemption in ways we are not equipped to discern. Our fear of God’s method may turn out to be like our fear of the surgeon’s knife, which must wound before it can heal. While we would prefer to forgo the pain altogether, our survival depends on our trust in the surgeon’s skill. If we believe that the one to whom we surrender ourselves is competent, then in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, no matter what.’
If we are open to this possibility in our interpretation of Scripture, then we open to the possibility in our lives as well. Whether the terror is heard on Sunday or lived on Monday, the question is the same: Do we trust God to act in all the events of our lives, or only the ones that meet our approval?”(Ibid.)
“It is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.” I am almost certain that is how Abraham felt when he set out for Mt. Moriah with his son and his knife. But something deep within him told him that God was present, working it all out – no matter how terrifying the ride was. How else could Abraham have done what he did?
“Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Now we are on the road to Jerusalem, among those who are following Jesus, the one it is hoped will bring the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel. But here he is talking about suffering and death and those listening just can’t believe their ears. Peter has said it for all of them. Peter has said “No! That can’t be the plan!” That is what drew Jesus’ fire and the rebuke “Get behind me, Satan!” And now he is teaching that it will not be just him who will suffer, but all of us if we are to go any further down this road with him. What kind of Messiah would talk this way? What kind of God would allow it from his chosen one?
Poor Peter – poor disciples, having their ideals about the messiah turned upside down that way. It is disturbing, disorienting… it’s downright terrifying, if we really take it in. “It is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.”
The inescapable truth is that sacrifice and offering are part of every pilgrim’s faith journey. Ask anyone who has been at it long and I am sure they will tell you the details from their path. This is not because God wants us to suffer, but rather because the way to God is through the suffering that comes with letting go of the things that interfere with putting God first in our lives. The art is to figure out what those things are. One of my rules of thumb is that whatever person, place, situation or aspect of myself I am clinging to most – whatever, person, place aspect of myself I am investing the most energy in – that is what I need most to offer over to God in prayer.
This sort of letting go to God is simple, but not easy. We are so accustomed to taking responsibility and being in charge of our lives. But deep down we all know that ultimately we really are not in charge. I have found this letting go to be a messy business. One of my favorite saying about letting go is “Everything I ever let go of had claw marks on it!” But when I have made headway in letting go, it has propelled me into deeper spiritual growth. And it is part of what I see Jesus pointing to when he speaks of setting one’s mind on divine things rather than on human things. And it is most definitely part of taking up our cross and following Jesus. Letting go is not a path to less suffering, but rather any suffering we encounter in letting go is a generative kind of suffering rather than the deadening kind of suffering we live with when we have not yet let go.
And as with Abraham’s offering of Isaac and God’s offering of God’s very self in Jesus, God will take what we offer – what we let go to God – and return it to us, probably in ways we would not expect. The process may involve some moments that seem a lot like that sea turtle’s hair raising ride through the dunes, but fear not! God will return what we offer in God’s own time and in ways designed to bring life and joy. And then we will see that what we have sacrificed, the things that we have lifted and let go of to God – and in fact our very selves – have been transformed for glory. In Christ’s name. Amen+