Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Dissolved in Lake Coeur d'Alene

If you have not been to Camp Cross, there is one thing it is helpful to know. You cannot drive into it. There are two options. You could hike a trail and ford a creek that feeds Lake Coeur d‘Alene. Some of you may be old enough to recall hiking into camp along the mile or so of trail. The bridge over the creek washed out long ago, and the state of Idaho has yet to decide it needs to be resurrected. The creek in the summertime is only knee deep, so it is refreshing if also challenging if you have baggage. A few of us are big fans of bringing back the practice of crossing over by hiking in, with or without the bridge, especially for our older youth campers. We like the challenge, the placing of time and sweat between one side and the other.

However, at this time most people get to camp by boat. You are brought to the dock at Loffs Bay and you are loaded onto a large heavy duty barge that we perhaps mislabel a pontoon. As long as I have been here some of us have been talking about the deep holy value of the boat ride. Of how it is a boundary crossing, a clear border between the everyday world of everyday loves and heartaches, and the space apart that Camp Cross very much is. No camp, whether scout or church camp, no camp I have ever encountered has such a complete crossing over. A real way in which the pressures of life and the terrors of brokenness can seem very much thrown into the sea and left behind on the other side of the water.

It is almost impossible to calculate how crucial the Exodus experience is for ancient Judaism and therefore early Christianity. It is the background rhythm of nearly every track of the Old Testament. It is a tune that the New Testament writers are humming and assume you are too. Not the experience itself which is beyond historicity and mechanical proofs. The crossing through the waters is the metaphor of metaphors in our scriptures. Figuratively it brings straightforward images of freedom and cleansing, as well as serious danger and the transitory nature of things. The Hebrew word for waters in this Old Testament passage occurs 575 times. It runs all through the Psalms and is splashed across the Prophets. The exiles in Babylon and beyond asked, ‘Who are we, what is God like’. The answer is that we are people who were set free, by a God whose love and forgiveness are boundless. There wasn’t a checkpoint on the way out of Egypt. No Pearly Gates and Peter absurdly checking the lists of proper and naughty slaves, no hoops to jump through for the very human, certainly sinful people who were caught in the grinding wheels of empire and the gruesome powers of big D death.

Having watched the whole span of human being-ness for years I believe that forgiveness is both a natural gift and something we have to learn to do over and over again. Today's parable is children's chunky book simple. We don’t need advanced degrees to get his metaphor today. Someone is forgiven: endlessly broadly completely. We were slaves in Egypt and caught in terror and we were not asked for our papers at the shoreline. We were set free. We passed through the waters. Freely. And the only proper and faithful response is to become just as forgiving.

People will let us down, we will let others down. Living together can be an adventure in lies and dead ends that seem beyond escape. I don’t know how easy or hard it is for God to forgive. For me, sometimes it is easy and other times it takes years to let go of those moments of slights and ghosting and manipulation. It may even be that I hold the betrayals of the people I love longer than I hold the betrayals of myself. For me the forgiveness doesn’t come so much with cognitive effort, but only with prayers of the heart and time walking with a community is centered on the way of Christ. Trusting what Jesus says about God and about us means that we are living with him on the other side of the shore. We still live in the whole territory of earth and humanity where the garbage heap of demeaning selfishness and big D death resist God’s reign. Yet trusting in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we become free. Free to choose to cooperate with such wretchedness, or not.

Most of the young people who have spent a session of camp with me have been invited to the dissolving of sins. If what I am known for in the long run is an immensely effective liturgical parlor trick, so be it. The counselors cheer when they hear we will be naming our sins before God! Strange! They cheer because this parlor trick feels like it works in a tangible way. In the middle of an evening worship service by the lake, we hand out markers and slips of this paper (holding up a slip). In a variety of ways, we invite folks to take a slip of paper and write on it some grief or sin or brokenness that they need to give to God to dissolve. All those bones of small contention, the self-dislike, the neighbor who is annoying, unforgiveness big and small.

I use the same paper and a bowl of water when I greet Whitman students each August. My sign says dissolve your anxieties. The bowl grows in particles of issues written and dropped in the water. The students always say wow, that feels better. Like a little bit of therapy. However, there is a big difference between the effect in the bowl and the effect in the lake. In the bowl, there are remnants visible. Watery marker and little bits of the rice and starch that make up the quilting stabilizing paper I use for this parlor trick. And in this small stable water, they don’t go away completely. It eventually looks a bit like a witches brew. This is how it is with us. We forgive, but we have bits remain. Which leads us to do exactly what the main character of the parable does. We do not forgive as we have been forgiven.

What happens in the lake, however, is what I trust happens with God. The slip is placed in the living water of the lake and it utterly disappears. Churned up by the winds and the wakes of the boats they simply are gone. So I have the paper slips here for you today. And I want you to take one. Take it and hold onto it until you are near a living body of water. Mill Creek, the Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean. When you find that living water, I want you to take a deep moment of prayer. Imagine yourself crossing through the sea of Reeds, what checklist of tears were you not asked about? Find yourself in the memory of this parable. That moment where you have not forgiven as you have been forgiven. Write something on that slip of paper, and put it in the water. Let it Go.Let it be as it is with God when we confess and make amends. Utterly dissolved.

The forgiveness Jesus offers us in this parable is for the little things we cling to so tightly and the big ones that hover around us like a fog. The forgiveness offered here is as death-defying as hiking across the sea on dry ground. Forgiving as we have been forgiven tramples down all the deception and shaming that the powers that be ever dole out.

I wonder what can be written on that sheet and set into living waters? Jesus asks us today, can you offer yourself or others the same freedom you have been so freely given by God?

Let us pray silently together,
Imagining ourselves with that paper in hand,
Standing on the shore. (Ocean sounds over the sound system.)


St. Paul's Episcopal Church
September 17, 2017
Walla Walla, Washington
Proper 19 Year A Track 1

To donate to the fund to fix the pontoon click here!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Naming Liberty: Moses meets Yahweh

Sitting around the family fire one night Moses wonders about the people he left behind in Egypt. It is the thought he cannot get off his mind.  The meager rations, the broken bodies uncounted. His wife pokes him, Moses, Moses, where has your mind gone? Oh nowhere.  What do you need?

Or maybe there were dreams.  Visions of himself standing before Pharaoh, nightmares of walls of water and chariots pursuing a crowd of refugees. Maybe these dreams were half forgotten and only recalled in flashes during waking hours. I wonder if God had been calling to Moses for many many years. Maybe like many of us Moses turned his head, shook it off, busied himself with the nomadic life, and tried to let it go.

Here in the light of this sacred fire before Moses in today's reading, we learn that God isn’t as concerned about safety and self-preservation as we are. What God desires is trust and even risking one's life for the sake of the well being of all.  What our lessons tell us today is that God unquestionably sees and hears and is aligned with people who suffer degradation, rejection,  tragedy, and terror. And it tells us that God’s salvation works through both our strengths and our weaknesses.

This strange and holy moment of Exodus also gives us a name for God. Sometimes I think the divine self-naming of ‘I will be what I will be’ is a profound statement of philosophical depth. God says God is the ground of being,  the prime mover. There are other times when I think the reply is a little bit obnoxious. When asked your name ‘I am what I am’ is not a helpful reply.

This phrase is what gets squashed into Yahweh in the Hebrew.Think of the reply of 'Iwillbewhatiwillbe' as one word. And in current translations of the Bible this is usually printed as Lord, where all the letters are in capitals, with the o-r-d in smaller capitals.  But this may be more unhelpful than the initial reply.Because in English the word Lord is a title, and in most of our biblical texts the word is a name. It might help to think of Lord being like my grandfather's dog named Sergeant.  He wasn’t an enlisted person with a rank, he was a dog.  ‘Here Sarge!’

Lord is Yahweh which is a name which is the mashed together version of ‘I will be what I will be.’ A sacred, holy, trembling in fascination, and I need to take off my hat and shoes kind of name.  You can try to ignore the angels and the burning bushes and the person in trauma at your feet. You can choose the temptations of comfort and ignorance and falsehoods. God has a name for that too, its name is sin.  Or you can turn around when God calls, get in line with Jesus, and dare to live in Yahweh’s way.

Week in and week out many people in this community offer welcome, feeding and healing space to people who seek liberation from a variety of evils. Yet our lessons today ask a hard question of tired and anxious people.  Is it ALL we are called to do? What does God ask of people like many of us, people of comfort and education, people rather like Moses? Moses’ life story gave him peculiar access and opportunity.  He gives God multitude of reasons why he should be let out of this duty. Yet characteristically, ‘Iwillbewhoiwillbe’ holds fast because God sees and hears and knows the cries and the suffering. God works through even reluctant human agents: creatively and surprisingly.

The rains in Texas and Louisiana and India have swamped the rich and the poor alike, and it has also exposed monumental injustice and vulnerability.  While at the same time there is grace at work in communal action to directly care for and save the stranger.  Reaching out a hand over a boat, throwing your whole self into an emergent situation.   ‘Iwillbewhatiwilbe’ empowers people to stand and speak directly to Pharoah, to step out beyond our comfort zone and to serve for liberty in the middle of this mind numbing chaos. ‘IwillbewhatIwillbe’ lit a fire in the heart of Moses, What spark of grace is God igniting in your heart?  Is there a need for a holy advocate for justice right here, and if Moses couldn’t excuse himself from it, how can we?

A decade ago at a camp on the James River there was a large plastic bin of kittens. At that time there was an effort to bring a compassionate end to the herd of semi feral cats who tore up the dining hall duct work each winter. The camp staff named this litter of kittens biblical names.  Peter and Mary and Goliath.  One calico kitten was named Moses. The young staff didn’t know that a calico kitten was most likely a girl.

I took young Moses home in a cardboard box rather than a reed basket. But as I drove her home I was thinking that I didn’t want to spend her whole life explaining her name. So I sat on my bed with the kitten in one hand and the Bible open to Exodus while I asked what word would work for a name, a word that was at the heart of Moses’ story.  Scanning the text and holding my wild water loving and talkative kitten one word stood out. Liberation. Liberation is the heart of Moses call, his action, his duty. The kitten Moses became the kitten Liberty.  What would your name be if it was what God is calling you to be and to do for his reign?

Will you pray with me?

Light from Light, Creation from chaos, Hope from despair.
Blessed Lord God of the Universe, Listen this day for the groans and yearning of your world,
Listen to our songs of joy and our dirges of destruction,
then in the midst of our stammering, speak your clear word of life
in the name of your Word become flesh our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington

Prayer adapted from Walter Bruggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth