Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Sunday Sermon: the Grace Margin

In our lesson from the Hebrew scriptures today, Elijah is tired. He has performed mighty and spectacular acts to show that the God of Israel is a living God. He has thrown down the altars of competing gods. He has killed 450 prophets of the god Baal. The signs Elijah has demonstrated have been excessive: big, showy signs of strength and power.

Elijah has just performed a particularly spectacular ritual that involved bulls, water, and fire. Jezebel, with her prophets decimated, threatens to kill Elijah. He gets scared, and he flees. He runs about 300 miles by foot into a cave, where we find him in this morning's reading.

Elijah has worked hard for God. I imagine him to be tired, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

God comes to Elijah. But God does not come in the way God has shown up for him in the past. While Elijah's past works with God have involved elaborate and ornate displays of power, this time God is not to be found in the wind, in the earthquakes, nor in the fire.

This time God is found in the sheer silence. And it is hard news. Elijah is being decommissioned. Elijah will always be a favored and treasured part of God's history with God's people, but it is time for a new way. A new prophet is being called- one that works differently than Elijah. There will not be as many spectacular shows of power as there were in Elijah's past. This new prophet will be less showy and work more subtly.

Frequently in the scriptures the people of God are challenged to change, to grow into a bigger understanding of God. Time and again, from the story of the exodus to Elijah to the story of the exile to the story of Jesus calling Israel to grow into to the way of love, it has been hard for the people of God to trust in the unfolding of God's love in bigger ways than we can imagine for ourselves.

Right now many of us are tired like Elijah. I am tired. I do not want to hear about change, much as I imagine Elijah did not. I would much have preferred to write a very comforting sermon, to feel somehow validated that we are ok for feeling adrift in a world that seems to have come loose from its moorings, to yearn to return to stable ground.

But I think both things are true-- that it is ok to feel adrift, and the story of the people of God asks us to embrace change. The gospel story this week is helping me with that.

That passage begins where we left off last week- with Jesus and the disciples tired and exhausted, grieving and reeling from the tragic news of the death of John the Baptist. As they sought a place to grieve and adjust to the change, they unexpectedly met a crowd. Jesus, rather than giving the disciples a day off because it had already been a long day, asked them to serve. To give. They fed the crowd, with miraculous results.

And now, even more tired, they seek refuge. So Jesus sends them ahead on a boat.

A boat or ship is a metaphor for the church. It has been so long since we have gathered in the building, I want to show you a part of it. We call the space where we gather the nave. Nave is a word that means ship. Often the building, as with our own, is designed to call to mind that metaphor, to remind us, the Church, that we are on this voyage together. The Church is not the building. But the building reminds us of who we, the Church, are called to be. We will weather the storms together. We will keep going. The buttresses of the beautiful Notre Dame cathedral that burned recently are said to symbolize oars. We are each called to take an oar on this metaphorical ship and row together to a destination. We row forward, to wherever God is calling us. To someplace new; to new life; to the yet fully unknown kingdom of God we hope and pray for.

This boat in our gospel story has been battered by waves, it faces strong winds. It is a hard journey. I think we can relate to that. But Jesus comes to them. He will arrive at the boat and lead the boat through.

Peter, always the eager one, decides he wants to leave the boat.

Jesus does not object, but the experiment is not exactly successful. It is the safety of the boat that leads through the storm. Jesus arrives in the boat, calms the storm, and leads the journey on safely. We are in this together. It is not by anyone jumping out and running ahead that the boat moves forward. It is by Jesus calming the storm that we can listen in the silence, grab an oar, and heed the direction of our navigator.

Many of us begin this month the anti-racism work of Sacred Ground. The work of anti-racism has always been a spiritual practice for me as a white person; a model for the white church- the whole church- to heed. It should be obvious that racism itself is evil. But the practices of anti-racism are central to the Christian faith: listening, valuing the other, being mindful of one's power and how it is used: the theme of wrestling with complacency and privilege as God calls us into something bigger than ourselves.

White privilege is always insisting that it is my right to jump out of the boat. That I deserve to meet Jesus first, or that this faith journey is only personal- it is private between Jesus and me. White privilege lies and says that like Peter, I should leave the other disciples behind in the boat, because there is something extra-special about me that makes it ok for me to abandon them. But Peter can't do it alone. Neither can we. Those reminders of humility, to listen, to stay connected: to be in the boat, valuing my traveling companions- those are some of the reasons why anti-racism are, for me, intricately connected to my faith.

I cannot love my neighbor if my faith is primarily an exercise in my own self-interest; if faith is a personal matter. The God I follow loves each and every one of us just as fiercely as he loves me. I cannot then develop a faith that ignores my impact or connectedness to any of those around me - to do so is the heart of privilege.

Whether you are participating in Sacred Ground or not, I want to offer this model developed by Eric Law as a template for being church.
See below for larger version 

Many consider the church to be a safe place; a kind of haven for personal healing. Certainly it is that, but that is only an entry point. The mission of the church is to change the world, to reconcile humanity with God and each other. If we stay in this comfort zone of personal healing, personal growth, and inward direction, we fail to live into the mission God gives us in the world. Congregations with large comfort zones tend to have large percentages of people who are the same age, the same race, or the same class. In this zone we can become complacent; we can stop listening to God's dream of living into a bigger vision for the world than our own minds can contemplate. We need varied voices to live into God's dream. None of us have claim on God's vision on our own. Without engaging difference we fall into complacency.

Conversely, if we have an 'anything goes' attitude-- if we truly embrace anyone, let's say, someone openly carrying a weapon in worship-- that may push us into a fear zone. It is hard to truly grow to know the other in this zone when we feel threatened. Navigating what is fearful requires an honest conversation. We all have different boundaries. "Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith you are welcome here" is aspirational, and I love that and use it often. But while we may want everyone to feel welcome, there are limits to who actually feels welcome and who we actually welcome when they show up. Being honest about those limits is important when negotiating what this fear zone boundary is. Is it using non traditional music in worship? Maybe it is the use of Spanish language in principal services? Where the boundary lies is not nearly as important as striving to be gentle, open, and aware that there is a boundary so that we are not disingenuous in our welcome to those who fall outside of it. Westart not by trying to move the boundary, but by naming it so that we can create a grace margin.

And that is the sweet spot, this middle spot, the grace margin. Congregations with big grace margins are comfortable with making safe, brave, and courageous space. There are intentions set in that kind of space-- it is less about who my friends are than it is about how I make space for people I would not normally associate with at coffee hour. In this space we make room for those assumptions to be named out loud, to give room for courage and vulnerability. St. Paul's has done a particularly good job of creating a large grace margin for those who live outside, and our hospitality for that group has been established carefully and thoughtfully over the years. We just negotiated a larger grace margin for children in worship with the prayground this winter. Where are our other opportunities?

Some congregations have thin grace margins. Others have large grace margins. If the expectations are not set well, we will retreat to the comfort zone when someone who does not fit the norm comes in from the fear zone. We retreat, like Elijah and so many others in our tradition, to retreating to what has worked for us in the past- but risk becoming closed to what God is doing now. In the grace margin, we set intentions to listen carefully, not for the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire that so rattle the world around us. Instead, in the grace margin, we act with intention to listen in the stillness to where God might be leading us in this great ship of the Church, together.

Right now we are in the process of growing our grace margin around race. That requires care, and thought, and deliberation. It requires thought and care to our group norms, liturgical practices, and customs: what pushes us into fear, and what draws us into complacency as a congregation? How shall we be intentional in a time of change about staying present to ambiguity, neither being fearful of change nor attempting to return too quickly to what is comfortable?

We are in this boat, my friends, and the waves and the winds are high. But Jesus comes to lead us to still waters, if we have the courage only to stay on this voyage, together- and be led by hope into something bigger than we can ask or imagine.

The Rev. Canon Jeff Martinhauk
Proper 14A, August 9, 2020
St. Paul's Cathedral, San Diego
1 Kings 19:9-18; Matt 14:22-33

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