Monday, August 14, 2017

Sermon: Jesus Grabs Us

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

The 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14, Year A)
13 August 2017

Listen here.

Lord, take my lips and speak through them; take our minds and think through them; take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you.

A few winters ago, my partner and I went dog sledding in Minnesota. The morning of our first run, our small group gathered together and learned how to harness the dogs, how to lead them (on their back legs), and how to call out GEE and HAW to steer the rig down the path.  As we talked inside, the 35 anxious dogs outside howled, barked, & pulled their chains in anticipation. Once we went out, all we could hear was a cacophony of canines. Pick Me! Pick Me!  the dogs cried, only fueling our anticipation for the upcoming adventure.  

Battered by the sound of barking, fingers frozen from 40-below temps, we wrestled the harnesses on the dogs, slid across the icy path toward the sled, spilled dogfood bowls, called out to each other. With frantic, barking, jumpy dogs hitched, the guides yelled and we jumped on board, released the sled tether and yelled “Hike Hike!”  

At once, the dogs pulled with the speed and strength and agility of an American Ninja Warrior, and we heard….nothing. The sound of sheer silence. Just barely audible ~ the sound of satisfied breathing, cantering paws padding through snow and the edge of the sled’s runners cutting through the ice.  

Today’s gospel text sets a scene of chaos with a mix of fear and anticipation. For the disciples’ boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land and the wind was against them. When they saw Jesus walking out to them, the power of their fear intensified.  The wind roared, the rig of the sails clanked back and forth, the disciples yelled, the overturned buckets and unleashed stays and clips banged on the deck. The wind howled in the hoods of their rain jackets. At last, Jesus yelled, “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 

At the invitation of Jesus, Peter got out of the boat, trying out a new authority conferred upon him.  He started walking on the water with the speed and strength and agility of an American Ninja Warrior and he hears…nothing. The sound of sheer silence. 

But then Peter noticed the wind, barely audible at first, and it crashed into his silent bubble – the strong wind, the noise, the chaos around him became his reality.  Peter was overcome by fear[1]. He cried out, “Lord, save me!” His fear was justified; it was a storm that fumed powerfully enough to sink the boat and drown the whole crew.  Peter had good reasons to be afraid.

And so do we (have good reasons to be afraid.) The fear is palpable: the clanging noise of North Korea and US escalating threats, the empty harvest buckets and record famine in Africa, the roar of climate-change-fueled storms sweeping across North America, the shroud of 1967 Detroit banging on the deck of our sense of identity, while a hurricane of fear storms through the state of Virginia as extremist groups gather in Charlottesville and clash violently with counter-protestors; all while, the waves of change seem to crash on the shore of our congregation in the midst of personnel departures.

We can be overcome by our fear. That fear can be debilitating, paralyzing us. The power of fear robs the family of God’s people of the abundant life that God intends.  We cry out, “Lord, save me!”

But that’s not the whole story, because immediately, Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter. When Peter saw the conflict of the storm and heard the persecution of the wind, he began to sink under the power of fear. Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saving him and restoring him to his vocation. The wind ceased. The fear relented.

In the grip of Jesus, the disciples recognized that the power of God’s promise of flourishing life and steadfast love was the antidote to fear. “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Today, Jesus reaches out his hand and grabs us. Jesus makes the first move, grabbing us out of the chaos– not depending on us, not giving up on us, not waiting on us. Fears are often real. Fears are understandable. Fears are also debilitating.  

And Jesus grabs us, as his disciples, and demands we use the authority conferred on us at our baptism: to pray for peace and to be the embodiment of God’s love and justice. 

  • That means speaking out against bigotry and hatred (and the violence that occurred) in Charlottesville. 
  • That means denouncing white nationalism and white supremacy, both an affront to the Gospel born under the power of fear. Because racism is a sin. 
  • That means praying for those injured or died in the violence and the safety of all who live in Charlottesville. 
  • That means persevering in resisting evil, hatred, violence and prejudice in any form.
  • That means taking measurable steps to build bridges and to be agents of our Lord's mercy, grace, truth and love.

For our story is not over – the future is open! For God is with us and for us And God is not done with us yet. Jesus catches us today and restores us to our vocation, calling out to us to do God’s work in the world, untethered from the power of fear and under the full sail power of God’s promise. 

Long Pause

Over the last three months, I have said goodbye to many people, places and things around Christ Church.  The fear of finality that comes with saying that is palpable.  Goodbyes are tough for me and this transition is no different, doling out an overdose of emotions that defy words.

Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care physician, has coined a phrase[2] to help with goodbyes, “the four things that matter most.” These are: Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you. Dr. Byock reminds us, “When we say the four things that matter most – or when we say goodbye, in whatever form – there's going to be real work involved.” Why? because these eleven words – they are not words. They are entry points for sacred connections.  They are admissions of our humanity. They are words made flesh of our incarnate God.

So, today, here are four things that matter most.

First, please forgive me.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus laments having to catch Peter, “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” He’s not rebuking, he is lamenting. The disciples had so much going for them, yet there in that boat without Jesus for the first time, they doubted, which grieved Jesus. This week, I felt convicted for the various ways that I have doubted the power of Love; how I might have gotten in the way of the gospel. 

Please forgive me for speaking in haste, for not meeting your expectations, for fostering a misunderstanding that still might not be resolved, for singing out of tune, for not speaking more prophetically, for “things done and things left undone.” 
God forgives me, this I know. +

Second, I forgive you.  I forgive you for any times that you might have doubted Love; for serious and for simple mistakes; for petty squabbles; for your outrageous hopes, expansive dreams, & brazen humanness; for challenging me to imagine greater, to love quicker, to grasp lighter; for things done and things left undone. God forgives you, this I know.+

Thirdly, Thank you. Thank you for being The Church. For gathering and sharing in each other’s company at times of joy and times of sorrow; for caring for each other with home communion, intercessory prayer, and listening with the ear of your heart; for risking looking weird by walking the labyrinth or praying spontaneously by candle light in Miller Hall when the power went out; for planting seeds of hope to invite/welcome/connect our community; for drenching me with profoundly moving Anglican choral music, for coming directly to me when we disagreed, for telling me your name at least three times before I got it. And so we especially thank God for calling us to serve together in this place, for this season.

And the fourth thing that matters most: I love you. I love you for being disciples on a journey with me. I love your for being my Christian sisters and brothers who love deeply and yearn to know God. I love you because Jesus loves you.  And that love knows no bounds.  That love arises from the One who loved at the dawn of creation.  That love moves in our tears and catches in our throat and spills out through our smiles. I love you.  God loves you.

Even when we doubt, and even when we say goodbye and even when we don’t have the words. Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

So be at peace with each other, be forgiving of each other 
and be extravagant with God’s love.


[1] Portions of sermon inspired by David Lose, “In the Meantime…” cited here on August 8, 2017.

[2] From November 2013 Interview by Krista Tippett, OnBeing, titled, “Contemplating Mortality” at this site:

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sermon: God's One Thing

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, 
RCL Proper 12, Year A
30 July 2017

Listen here.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts

be always acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

In the 1991 movie City Slickers the cowboy Curly gives city slicker Mitch some life advice. They are riding horses along the prairie to move the herd from here to there.  In this scene, Curly says to Mitch, “Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.” Mitch replies, “Your finger?” Curly scans the horizon, ignoring Mitch, and then explains, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [nothin’].” (expletive deleted)

Mitch thinks for just a moment and replies, “But, what is the "one thing?" As they ramble along, the hot sun shines on Curly’s face and with a raised eyebrow, Curly replies, “That's what you have to find out.” For Mitch, whose was about to turn 40 his One Thing was buried deep in his heart.  His work was to sort out his One Thing in the midst of complicated life.

Of all the “things” for which Solomon could have asked (in today’s first reading), when God showed up… of all the riches, or long life, or victory over his enemies, the One Thing Solomon wanted was an understanding mind. Solomon’s motivation to understand, however, was not as simple as this appears. This little bit of text from our lectionary compilers does not tell the whole story.

See, Solomon was a complicated character and scripture more complicated than it appears. The text prior to today’s reading offers background.  The first verses describe Solomon as having married the daughter of Pharaoh. What does that imply? Well, one commentator explained, that, “political exigencies are one thing, but it is hard to justify kinship ties with Egypt the great oppressor of Israel.”[1] Further, this marriage violated the Israelite covenant to “not have relations with foreign people.” Subsequent verses describe Solomon as faithful and devoted, loving the Lord and walking in the statutes of his father David,[2] but worshipping by sacrificing and offering incense at high places.[3] Those “high places” were almost always strongly condemned when mentioned in the OT. 

Yes, Solomon was a complicated character. And, the original Hebrew of this conversation between Solomon and God unveils the complications, too. 

First, do you see (in that first line?) how The Lord appeared to Solomon, and God said?  Two names being used. Here, The Lord and God. See, the English use of The Lord is usually from the Hebrew Yahweh, from the four letters YHWH. Yahweh is the only proper name for God in Hebrew, arising from the pronunciation of YH-WH, the sound of breathing. (yah…breathing in, weh…breathing out. That’s a great spiritual practice on which to meditate - another sermon for another time). This name means something like, “immediacy, a presence,” or “God is with us.”[4]

The English use of God, in this case, is from the Hebrew Elohim, the subject of the Bible’s first sentence, the Creator God. Elohim means God in the highest and widest sense, with the fullness of divine power and expansiveness of the heavenly host. This name means God beyond our imagination BIG.

Now, see how Solomon addresses God, “O Lord my God”? That double name emphasizes the majesty of Elohim found in the immediacy of Yahweh. That double name is commonly known in the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, The Lord is One” and emphasizes the paradoxical intimacy and immensity of the Divine.

So, when Solomon addresses God with his desire, he says something like: You, who are so close to me as my breath and so pervasive and expansive I can’t comprehend, You are the only one to whom I can ask, from my depth, for an understanding mind. 

But wait! There’s more!  For Solomon asks for understanding with the Hebrew word “shama,” meaning discerning: to hear, to listen to, to obey.  And Solomon asks for a mind with the Hebrew word “leb” meaning the heart: the feelings, the will and the intellect.

Our complicated Solomon is asking from this paradoxical God for a listening heart.

It’s complicated and it’s simple. Can you relate?  People are always a mix of complex motives and it is dangerous to romanticize anyone.  All lives have back stories, and all language used to describe them is insufficient because our feelings cloud the seemingly simple view of our lives.

Maybe our grief surrounding the death of our best friend is fraught with the time we were angry at her for something that we never got to resolve while she was alive. 
Maybe our trust in a friend is frayed because he did not reply to our call for help when we really needed him. 
Maybe our compassion for the woman begging for food is deepened because she looks like our sister who suffers with mental illness.

We, too, are complicated characters with mixed motives. What is our One Thing? Aren’t we, too, asking, from that same paradoxical God for a listening heart? It’s complicated and it’s simple. We wonder with listening hearts: Why am I struggling financially? Why did my friend get cancer?  Why did that transgender teenager take their own life? Why is that person so snarky at me because of the color of my skin or because of the gender of my lover? That One Thing for each of us, is different. 

So on that day, to Solomon, who had prayed and walked in the statutes of his father David throughout his complicated, young adult life … to Solomon God appeared. God appeared. Who was this God? This was the God who came to Solomon despite his complicated failures and frailties.  This was the God who wanted to listen with God’s heart to him.

Last week I heard about the nearly-completed development of Nasa’s most powerful telescope ever.  The James Webb Space Telescope, (to be launched in October of 2018)will study, with infrared and other new technologies, every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang to the evolution of our own Solar System. This telescope is so powerful that it will be able to look at stars before they were born.  Before they were born!  That means exploring the whole of creation and the dynamic processes of stardust.

In November last year, NASA invited creative artists from around the country to visit the telescope, with its gold-coated mirror. Twenty-five selected artists brought art supplies to listen with the ear of their heart and create in front of the telescope, housed inside its massive cleanroom behind a viewing window. The artists used watercolor, 3D printed sculpture, silk screening, acrylics, comics, woodwork, metalwork, fiber art, ink, kite-making, tattooing and other media.

Their One Thing? To create in front of the observation of creation.  To listen with their heart. To consider with awe, up close, the expansiveness of our universe.

See, this desire to understand, this desire to be known, is not only what we, humanity, seek, it is also the desire of the God who seeks us, the God who appears to us every moment. This is the God who initiates contact with us, despite our complicated lives and frailties. This is the God who makes the first move and keeps yearning to know us, to discern our hearts.This is the God of Love who meets us with a powerful, mysterious yearning and an intimacy so near as the breath passing over our lips.

This is the God whose “one thing” is to Love and be loved.                                            Amen

[1] Brent Strawn commentary on 1 Kings found here.
[2] Verse 3a
[3] Verse 3b
[4] Names of God research found here on July 25, 2017