In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Friday, August 29, 2008

"His Life Was the Reason for His Death"

A reflection on Proper 17, Matthew 16:21-28, by Laura Grimes

Like many feminist theologians, I have an ambivalent relationship with texts like today’s Gospel, where Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and die, and then that following him will mean picking up their own crosses. Such texts have been horribly abused throughout the centuries, as those in power have glibly preached that the oppressed should meekly accept injustice and abuse of all sorts as the cross laid on them by God’s will. Yet Jesus’ example of nonviolent resistance, truth telling even at the ultimate cost, and finding meaning in suffering and apparent failure has also been a source of inspiration and empowerment for many, and I have experienced the mysterious saving power of the cross in my own life as well. How can we preach and teach the cross in a way that fosters God’s work in the world and gives life, instead of draining and destroying it? This is a mystery and an ongoing challenge, but I think there are some clues we can find and share together. One of the most important for me is keeping the cross in the context of the resurrection and of the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry, rather than separating these, as too often happens.

Those who remember Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” may recognize the title above as a twist on its central advertising slogan: “His Death Was the Reason for His Life.” The slogan perfectly summed up a movie which almost completely ignored Jesus’ life and ministry and focused on a long, graphic, and arguably anti-Semitic depiction of his suffering and death. I wouldn’t have exposed myself to it, or given Gibson my money for it, except that I was preparing for a job interview in which I had to teach a demonstration class on early Church Christology, and I decided to make it interesting for the students by bringing in movie depictions. As part of the preparation for that class I also watched “The Last Temptation of Christ” for the first time, and was intrigued to notice that the same slogan could sum up its thesis as well. Despite the very different ecclesial politics expressed in the movies, the Jesus portrayed by Kazantzakis and Scorese is equally focused on the passion as God’s will and the entire focus of his mission. The terrible temptation referred to was Jesus having a long and happy family life married to Mary Magdalene--which would apparently have disappointed the bloodthirsty God whom both movies see as the architect of the unjust torture and execution Jesus in fact suffered.

Rather than the dangerous slogan used to advertise Mel Gibson’s dangerous movie, “The Passion of the Christ”—“His Death was the Reason for His Life”, I propose that we remember, reflect on, and boldly preach the converse statement—“His Life was the Reason for His Death.” Did Jesus die because God was unable or unwilling to forgive human sin and renew creation without the grisly blood sacrifice of an innocent person? I don’t think so—this would be a God unloving, unlike Jesus, and unworthy of worship. Rather, Jesus died because his actions of faithfulness to God angered the religious and political establishment, and he refused to abandon the charge, and the people, entrusted to him by selling out, backing down, or running away.

In reflecting on this theme in today’s Gospel, it is crucial to remember what comes immediately before it in Matthew’s Gospel, the lection we heard proclaimed last week. Jesus asks his disciples who they say that he is, and Simon Peter is divinely inspired to proclaim that he is the Messiah, the one anointed by the Holy Spirit to save and free God’s people. Jesus accepts the identification as the Messiah, praises Peter for his insight, and promises him the spiritual authority of binding and loosing. The disciples were no doubt thrilled, and probably began daydreaming of the messianic triumph that they assumed Jesus was planning. God had so often saved the people of Israel in concrete ways that involved freeing them from political injustice and oppression, and they certainly faced an unjust and oppressive situation under the Roman yoke. They would naturally assume that Jesus was another Simon Maccabeus, and start honing their weapons and planning their recruitment speeches. So Jesus first forbade them from telling people he was the Messiah, and then went on to describe the shape of his messianic ministry in today’s passage. Matthew emphasizes this point at the beginning of this pericope by calling him not just “Iesus”, but “Iesus Christos”—a detail unaccountably left out of the NRSV and most English translations. He will not lead an army into Jerusalem, he tells them; rather, he will be executed there and eventually rise again. And when Peter demurs at the horrifying thought, he rebukes him as a Satan, a stumbling block and a tempter just like the devil who invited him to seek worldly glory and power at the beginning of his ministry. What Peter was saying was that Jesus should either give up his ministry and run away or take on the same violence used by the oppressors, and this was what Jesus refused to do—to gain the whole world by losing his soul. And his choice led both to the resurrection and, in some mysterious way, to a powerful outpouring of God’s healing love in the world.

I have several crosses that express this paradox and this saving power by being twined with leaves or flowers rather than the suffering body of Jesus. There is a bronze one given by my department chair at Rosemont college when I moved from the Roman Catholic to the Episcopal church, and another with a butterfly bought when I reconnected with the director of my thirty day Spiritual Exercises retreat, a widow and grandmother now bravely managing Parkinson’s disease. Another is a brightly painted Mexican purple cross with pink flowers, bought in Advent as I finished a healing semester teaching at the University of Portland. The most recent is a small silver-toned cross that was given by an amazing woman I met at an Al-Anon meeting, with the Serenity Prayer on the other side. She too lives with both PTSD and bipolar disorder, and took time for a long lunch in which she shared her experience of God’s presence and healing power and held me as I sobbed my guts out about my own illness and my son’s. She took the cross off her keychain and it now hangs on mine, so I see it on a daily basis and am reminded to turn to that prayer I am only now coming to appreciate, as I slowly move into the gutsy, loving community centered around Twelve Step spirituality : “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Acceptance does not mean celebration of pain, or numbness to feelings, or seeing life’s traumas and suffering as God’s will. It simply means releasing denial and facing reality, and as much as possible, compassionately and reverently contemplating our own experience and that of others. It means trusting that, like Moses by the burning bush or Mary Magdalene standing lovingly by the cross, we are on holy ground--that God is grieving with us, accepting all our feelings, and helping us to find new life in any way possible. If we can stay in that difficult place, turn to God’s love, and support each other in that challenging task, I believe that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will be with us in the pain and indeed grant us, as she did him, the courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Reflection on Proper 16

A Reflection on the readings:
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20
By Janine Goodwin

When I worked in special education, we had meetings about how we might best serve a student. In the best of those meetings, the student was present. We always began the conversation with a consideration of the student's strengths, going around the table and calling upon our knowledge of the student to call forth what she or he could do, enjoyed, might learn to do. Only then did we go on to the things the student needed to work on and the ways we might help him or her learn. Immense creativity and hope came from those meetings. I like to believe that God does that: looks at who God created us to be, and holds that in balance with our flaws, our wounds, the habits that hold us back, and invites us and our communities to work together so that we may all fulfill our varied callings.

The image of those meetings, those conversations in which we worked to create good conditions for learning for and with a student, returned to me when I read the stories of Moses' birth, Jesus' answer to Peter's statement of faith, and Paul's call to humility. I have come to understand the Bible itself not as an unchanging monolith, but as a living and continuing conversation about God. In present-day terms, many of the individual books are more like wikis than like blog posts made by an individual; they have been reworked over the centuries, and the voices of the sources and redactors blend and separate like the sections of a choir. Different books have different emphases and even different worldviews: the prophets are urgent about reform, the sages observe what is with a quiet detachment that shades toward cynicism. The Gospels are four different retellings of Jesus' life with four distinct perspectives and some disagreement even about the order and timing of events. Peter and Paul disagree about the nature of membership in the new conversation that is the developing church, and we hear different accounts of their stories in Acts and in Paul's letters. I believe that Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation, and also that it is a multiplicity of voices and visions about the God that no one voice or vision can fully define or contain. Those who put lectionaries together add to the conversation by selecting Scriptures and combining them in ways that may point out shared themes or contrasts, or both. Scholars give us the history and context that surround the books, and schools of interpretation point out the strengths, limits, and blind spots in the thinking of the original writers, the previous interpreters, and even ourselves. When we read Scripture, we add to that conversation in Bible study, preaching, and our own prayer. Even our private prayer over Scripture is a conversation not just with God, but with all those who have taught us about faith.

In the conversation of faith that is today's readings, there is a fascinating balance of humility and high calling, individual and group destiny. Paul warns, "For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…" and in the conversation that is lectio divina, that phrase stands out to me. Yes, we need humility, but we also need to watch for the difference between humility and humiliation. Both come from the same root as "humus," garden dirt, but in humility we are grounded, and humiliation grinds our faces in the dirt. Some of us, most often women but not always women, are likely to have been taught early in our lives that we are worthless and that humility means accepting that projected worthlessness and being humiliated. We must remember that even when the prophets call the people of God to account with strong language, they do so because God loves the people and is calling them back into relationship. God's urgency is not because of our worthlessness, but because we do not live up to our worth and our calling to be a just and loving people. Jesus calls the outcast, the ones labeled worthless by their society, but Jesus does not call them worthless; the ones he speaks to with anger are the proud. The difficulty for us as individuals (and perhaps as communities of faith) is finding out where we judge ourselves too highly and where we are humiliated: both can exist in the same person at the same time. Psychology reminds us that wounded children vacillate between grandiose dreams and despairing fears of worthlessness, and neither is the truth about the child; the humble reality of daily living and healing is the process of learning to see our strengths and weaknesses and doing what we can do and are called to do in the world. Christian groups can be caught up in seeing themselves as the one right way or as a martyred minority: in either case, the focus on greatness or oppression is not a focus on the Good News or on the work before us. The point of our calling, as Paul points out, is not to look down on others or up to them, but to see them as colleagues in the task of caring for creation and giving the Good News to the world.

In a country that glorifies individualism and individual achievement, the calls of Moses and of Peter can too often be cast as stories of men called to be separate from the people, to be greater than the rest of us, to be larger than life. It's like focusing a camera on an athlete at the moment she wins an event: she appears to be alone, when in fact her triumph is the result, certainly of her hard work, but also of the effort and dedication of families, schools, coaches, doctors, organizations, and team members—even of the community in the stands that watches and cheers her on. Stories of greatness are stories of community. Prophets may seem to stand alone, but they are called to preach to a specific people. Even if they are cast out, they stand in relationship, in conversation, with the ones to whom they cry out, "God told me this!" Moses survives to lead his people out of slavery because the midwives, his mother and sister, and Pharaoh's daughter disobey the genocidal laws of their place and time. When Moses takes up the task he was called to do, the people do not follow him like sheep: they argue, gripe, and sometimes win a point or two about manna and water. Peter is one of the many disciples who follows Jesus and learns from him. He makes his statement of faith not long before he passes through the terror and confusion that lead to his betrayal of Jesus, and to Jesus' forgiveness and renewed call to "feed my lambs." His call leads him not into unquestioned supremacy and perpetual triumph, but into the conversations of the council of Jerusalem. Moses dies outside the promised land, and Peter dies a martyr: their lives do not end in what most people would call success. The calls of Peter and Moses are not calls to uninterrupted achievement, solitary glory, and unquestioned supremacy, but calls to bring their gifts and deficits into the conversation that is community. They fail and try again. They know their limits and their callings. They are grounded and humbled by the people they lead and serve. We can honor their leadership without being afraid to acknowledge their flaws and failures, because they are human. We can also notice that women may be called to lead as well as to support, but are kept from their full calling by the limitations of the community and its leaders. Miriam is a prophetic voice, but Moses chastises her. Mary Magdalene is the first witness of the resurrection, and Jesus calls her to tell the good news to the others, but she is not believed until men confirm her account.

Our communities, our leaders, and our conversation are holy and partake of God's power to create, but they are always limited. They are worthy of our work and trust, but not of our unquestioning obedience. Part of the call of the community is to question itself, its leaders, its past, even God. If we think we know everything God could ever have to tell us, we have left the conversation and are talking only to ourselves. Let us stay in the conversation, remembering, as George Rawson writes in the hymn, "We limit not the truth of God" that "The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Standing Strong

Proper 15 17th August 2008
A Reflection on Matthew 15: 21-28

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

This encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman seems to me to be a puzzling incident. Why didn’t Jesus respond to this woman straight away? Was it because she was a Canaanite, or was it because she was a woman?

It is only Matthew that uses the term ‘Canaanite’, Mark refers to a Syro-Phoenician woman. I find it hard to believe that it was her race that was an issue. After all Jesus had worked among Gentiles before, but he is quite clear when he says ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But Jesus has ignored her and the Apostles reacted to her with a sense of irritation, she was a nuisance and they wanted her to go away. Jesus then responds to her plea by making it quite clear that she is the lowest of the low, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ The Canaanites are the quintessential enemy of Israel, any contact with them, particularly that of inter-marriage, would lead Israel into idolatry and immorality. There is a definite conflict here, if he wants nothing to do with Gentiles why on earth is he in Tyre? So perhaps the difficulty for Jesus is because she is a woman. She is a Canaanite woman in the midst of a group of Jewish men, and she is responded to with contempt, she (and by default, her race) are likened to ‘dogs’. But she is quick witted and gives him a confident response, she was persistent and did not let obstacles or the insults of others stop her, she would not let go until her voice was heard.

It is a familiar story even for women around the world today. Despite the great strides made by feminism the woman’s voice still strains to be heard. Perhaps recently the most poignant example was the official photograph of the Lambeth conference, just a few women amongst so many men. This photograph highlighted how women’s voices are outnumbered within the hierarchy of the church. But we must not be downhearted, because through the steely determination of a few women our voices are being heard. At Lambeth the spouses conference was of course dominated by women, add to this the prominence of IAWN in the market-place and no-one could fail to notice the presence of women. Over the last couple of years I have been privileged to be a part of the Anglican delegation to UNCSW. The Anglican voice here started off small, but through the determination of one or two women is now a strong influence, I believe we are now the largest NGO group that attends. The women I have met are all strong and determined, but it is notable that as a group we are stronger, gaining strength from each other. The Anglican women and groups of women like them definitely have a positive impact at UNCSW and as a result make life better for women throughout the world.

What is clear about this story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is that her faith is strong and because of the strength of her faith she is determined. Some say that in refusing to answer her plea straightaway Jesus was testing her, showing that it was the strength of her faith that was important not her race (or presumably her sex). The Gospel is for everyone, even the lowest of the low provided their faith is strong enough. Whatever the truth, whatever point Jesus or the writer of the Gospel was trying to make, what is clear is that we must be committed to Christ with our whole heart. The Canaanite woman shows us the way, we have to be persistent, stubborn and tenacious nothing must turn us from our path and we must follow it joyfully. It must have seemed to the Canaanite woman that the odds were stacked against her, but she made a choice to fight and she was revolutionary and as a result she convinced Jesus that she was worthy of his time. Whatever path we may choose, whatever decisions we make we must be committed. It seems that too often obstacles are set in our path, this may be because we are women, or because of culture or tradition. If we are clear and committed to our path then we can stand firm against those who mock or insult us. The Canaanite women, a strong, powerful, articulate woman, is an example for us all today.

Dr Sarah A. Rogers
Ordinand of the Church in Wales.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Human Wrestling Human Hope

A reflection on Proper 14 Year A RCL: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 and Matthew 14:22-33 by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt

Is it age? Or is it me? I seem to be tripping up, falling down, spraining ankles, hurting limbs, getting stung by bees … more lately? Is it age? Or just my own all too human frailties?

I write this from the Adirondack Mountains, where we have vacationed for many years. Some years ago, on a camping vacation, I turned my ankle badly, and broke the tip of the fibula in my left leg, and spent two weeks camping with a purple cast up half my leg. I then begged the doctor to change it to a little air thing, thinking I could return to my preferred outdoor activities, hiking and canoeing. Eager to test my freedom, I ventured out in the canoe with a friend, safely paddling across a small pond to explore the stream which is the outlet to the pond. “I’m not getting my feet wet!” I said, since this little air cast requires socks and shoes. At one point in the journey, the stream goes under a road, requiring getting out of the canoe and carrying it. You can imagine what happened: me, slightly disabled, trying to get from the canoe to rocks on the shore, no place to beach the canoe, my friend trying to stabilize the boat with the paddle, me, with one leg on the rocks, one in the canoe ... splash.
I certainly sympathized with Peter, from the Gospel lesson. Perhaps when I slipped out of the canoe I thought I could walk on water. Perhaps Peter, like Elijah, was stunned and thrilled by the mighty wind, the divine power, the overwhelming force of God. What do we make of what Jesus says, when Peter begins to sink, “You of little faith.” Is Jesus some sort of magician, some Zen master, some Jedi knight? Is Jesus like Obi-Wan when he says to Luke, “Use the force! It flows strong within you!” I heard a mountain climber talk about what it felt like to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, to stand on the peak at the edge of the world. “It’s like you could step off the side and just be there,” he said; then, ever practical, he added, “Of course, I didn’t.”

As I look at the lessons for this week – both tracks from the Hebrew scriptures – I am stunned by the contrast between two ways of talking about the interaction of the divine and the human. On the one hand, we read of God pulling out the big guns: earthquake, wind, fire, miraculous journeys across water, voice in the silence, hand over the waves. Humans are the small, trembling recipients of God’s grace, mercy, omnipotence.

And on the other hand, if you have been reading Track One as I have during this season after Pentecost, divine activity takes place on the all too human scale of the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs. God is letting the oddest things happen among these people, from the humorous and playful (elderly Sarah conceiving and giving birth to Isaac) to the near-horrific (God’s request to Abraham to offer this precious Isaac as a blood sacrifice). How astounding it is to think that Jacob, the patriarch with the most mixed of motives, Jacob the petty, conniving, underhanded and dishonest, Jacob the twin who has since his birth seen life as something to be struggled for – it is this Jacob who gets the biggest blessing of all from God. Jacob is renamed Israel. Jacob the scoundrel is Founding Father par excellence. As his opponent says at the end of their mysterious midnight wrestling match at the ford of the Jabbok, “You have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Think of what that says: Jacob has prevailed even with God. Jacob fights for a blessing with such ferocity that not even God can conquer him. He comes out of the struggle damaged, with a limp, yes, but he prevails.

This week’s installment of Genesis shows us Jacob again causing trouble, by favoring his youngest son over all the rest. These brothers wrestle with duty over jealousy, but jealousy finally wins, and the dear child of Jacob’s old age is sold into slavery in Egypt. Psalm 105 makes the cruelty of slavery clear, and then hints at the next reversal of fortune in this divinely inspired family which lurches across the desert one generation after another.

How does God act in individual lives and in human history? The contrast put forth in the lessons of this week could not be more stark. I can identify with the all too human Jacob, especially the middle-aged and elderly Jacob with the limp, for I sprained my other ankle again early this summer. Limping around the yard now, I’ll have to forswear summer hikes for kayaking the lakes. Life can be a struggle, to be human is to be frail, and petty and jealous, and getting any kind of benefit out of any kind of institution, religious or secular, is a life-long wrestling match.

Yet do we not yearn for the God who beckons us to walk on water, the God of dramatic wind-power-and-light shows, the God who leads us to a better way?

If I were preaching this Sunday, which I am not, I would feel compelled to come up with an answer, probably leaning toward the confident Jesus of the Gospel more than the haphazard desert patriarch. But since this is just a blog among friends, I will confess that if I had to choose, I am really not sure which way I would go.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Question of Identity....

A reflection on Proper 13A Genesis 32:22-31 by the Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

Twenty years ago this September I experienced a loss of identity. Our daughter was a newborn and I had quit my job to be home with her. I remember speaking to someone on the phone, maybe the pediatrician’s office, and the person asked, “And what do you do?” I had to pause. And for a brief moment everything I ever thought I was flew through my mind: I was Paul and Joani’s child, I had been a student at this or that university, I had been a Lighting Designer and Technical Director for dance theater, I had been a sales person, and until a few weeks before this incident, I had been an interior designer. Now who was I? I was Dan’s wife and I was Jessica’s mother, true enough. But that did not completely answer who I was. My identity was shifting and I had no automatic instant answer. Eventually I guess I said I was a stay at home mom, and I loved that, but it was definitely a big shift within me.

Murray Stein, a prominent Jungian writer and analyst, wrote a book called, “Transformation: Emergence of the Self.” In it he speaks of a very profound transition that human beings go through somewhere in the early years of middle age, also known as “The Mid-life Crisis.” He describes it as a process that takes about a decade to complete. He uses the life stories of Carl Jung, Rembrandt, Rilke, and Picasso to underscore the struggle of this process and the creative result. Stein begins his book with one of his clients, a thirty five year old woman who had a recurring dream about being a caterpillar that turns into a cocoon and emerges as a butterfly. This is the transformative process he unpacks in the book, developed from Chrysalis, the means by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Essentially what Stein describes is the struggle human beings go through to become fully who we are intended to be. Each of us he argues goes through this at some point in time. The process begins with a sense of being unsettled in life, something is amiss. We then face long dark years of doubt and fear, where everything we thought we knew and understood about ourselves, or our hopes and dreams, our expectations, our life goals, even our faith, comes into question. We reassess everything, perhaps we wonder who God is and how we know God in our lives, sometimes we change careers or going back to school, get a divorce, or move far away.

This is the place where we find Jacob this morning. We have moved through the Genesis story from Abraham and Sarah, who are Jacob’s grandparents. We’ve heard their story of struggle and transformation. We have moved through the story of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob’s parents. And we have heard most of the story of Jacob himself – how he tricked his brother into giving him the birthright of inheritance, how he had to flee his homeland to escape the wrath of his brother, how he worked for 14 years to win the hand of Rachel from her father Laban. And now our reading today points us to a place late in Jacob’s life, a time when he has become successful and wealthy. He has a large family, 12 sons, and many possessions, he ought to feel settled. But despite all of his success he still struggles with what he did to his brother all those years before. And so he sets out with his family to see his brother and ask his forgiveness. He is quite terrified of this. He heard his brother knows of his coming and is on his way to meet him. His brother is also successful and wealthy and comes with many people. Jacob wonders if perhaps his brother is bringing an army. His brother Esau may choose to kill him out of anger.

As he nears the end of his journey to meet his brother Jacob pauses for some time of sleep, prayer, contemplation. He sends his family on ahead, to a place of safety, while he prepares. It is in this night of preparation that Jacob has an amazing dream. He is wrestling with none other than God! All night long he wrestles, getting no sleep, and ending up wounded.

This story of Jacob wrestling with God invites us to look at the ways we too wrestle with God. Each one of us have had some time, or are having a time, in which we argue, debate, struggle with God. It is part of the process of faith. It is part of the process of becoming fully who we are called to be.

Paul Tillich, a 20th century theologian, in his book, “The Shaking of the Foundations” describes this faith building process of struggle, grace, and transformation. He says, “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of meaninglessness and empty life. It strikes us when we feel our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘ You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you…”

Tillich continues, “If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we many not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before….(but nonetheless) everything is transformed….(and yet) nothing is demanded of this experience except acceptance.”

Jacob wrestles with God. In the process each has such a hold on the other that they cannot let go. God tells Jacob to release him, but Jacob says he cannot until God gives him a blessing. The blessing is granted and with it Jacob is changed. His name is changed from Jacob to Israel. In addition, the strain of the wrestle has wounded Jacob; from now on he will walk with a limp. Wrestling with God leaves its mark on Jacob, inside and out. But from these marks, these scars, these wounds, also comes grace and transformation. Jacob knows who he is. Jacob knows that God accepts him as he is. In all of his imperfections, flaws, deceits, in all of his faithfulness and love of God, he is God’s servant. He is Israel, and his children become the twelve tribes of Israel – metaphorically speaking, his children become all the nations of the world.

So, what does this mean for us? Today the word Israel is very complex. It not only describes the ancient people of God but it also means a nation made up of ethnic and religious Jews. Israel can mean a people, a land, a nation, the whole people of God. Christians have adopted Israel and its promises of God. But Christians have also used
Israel in anti-semitic ways. Israel can mean many things and as Christians we must always be mindful in our use and understanding of this word.

Marc Chagall, a Jewish artist, was once commissioned to paint the artwork for the baptistery in the church in Assay, France. He painted the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. The journey through water, whether it is the Red Sea or the waters of baptism, is a metaphor for becoming the people of God. Chagall took the profound image of Jewish tradition, the journey through the Red Sea, the calling of the people of God and connected it to the Christian understanding of Israel, called through water to become the people of God. Two different understandings of water, journey, struggle, transformation, each leading to the same end result. A people of God. Israel.

As a people of God our identity is as community, not individuals. Jacob points us to this when he loses his identity as an individual, as Jacob, and becomes community, Israel. Our identity, rooted in Judaism and in the tradition of Christinity, is found in community.

Jesus, in the Gospel reading points us this way as well. Jesus goes off to pray, just as Jacob did. Which affirms the idea that we all need moments alone, in solitude with God for rest and renewal. But those moments alone may not be what we anticipate. Moments alone with God may speak to us individually by defining who we are as members of a community. As a result we may wrestle with God instead of finding rest. We may be lead in a new direction, one in which we go energized and inspired or we may go kicking and screaming, resisting God the entire way.

Last May the vestry went on retreat. It was a time for us to have some rest and renewal but also a time for us to think intentionally about who we are as community. Our facilitator led us in some reflections on this theme and in the process we had an epiphany, a whole new sense of God and who we are as God’s people. We were discussion the theme of hoarding and abundance. We realized that we have a tendency here at St. Francis to think of ourselves as poor, as never having enough. But in this discussion we came to the realization that we are not poor, rather we are abundantly blessed by God and by the people of this church. We realized that we have resources at our disposal that are unheard of in many other church communities today. It was a moment of profound grace.

In our Gospel reading this morning we hear the disciples tell Jesus that they don’t have enough food and drink to offer all the people who have gathered around. We are living like the disciples, under that notion that we don’t have enough. Jesus reminds the disciples that with God there is always enough. This summer we have reflected a great deal on the generosity of God. God’s generosity with Abraham and Sarah, God’s generosity with Isaac and Rebecca, God’s generosity with Jacob and Rachel, God’s generosity when we nurture our faith, expecting one thing to arise and find that tulips come up instead! God’s generosity when we think we have little and find out that we have an abundance. Scripture reminds us that when people are motivated to act through the same kind of generosity that God offers, then people are generous as well, and everything can change.

The vestry is now heading into a time of reflection and prayer. We are following the example of Jacob and Jesus. I fully anticipate that we will wrestle with God a bit and wrestle with our selves too. But in the end I think we will have a new understanding of how God is calling us into community. I am certain that God will bless this process even as God continues to accept us for who we are. I am sure we will continue to some degree to impose limits on ourselves and God. But I am also sure that God will continue to send us moments of grace and blessing. Eventually I think we will come out knowing ourselves in a new way, like Jacob, like the disciples. Perhaps we will even rename ourselves as Abundantly Generous.