Kirkepiscatoid

Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

Wallace's sermon this week was kind of a hybrid between the week's Gospel (Luke 4:21-30) and the 2nd reading (I Corinthians 13:1-13) and I was grateful it was not exactly a re-hash of of what I call "The cheezy version of I Corinthians 13 you usually hear at weddings." At this point in my life, I realize there is a point that at some poor soul's wedding, when I hear the cheezy wedding version of I Corinthians 13 I will break out into a sweat, jump up, start ripping up the flowers and yell, "AAAAAGH! Stop it! I can't take this any longer!" (Ok, so you've figured out I am long past the pheremone-induced wedding gobbledygook.)

Sometimes, I am caught up in the enigmatic issues surrounding Paul's writings. Paul is a hard dude to figure out. There are times when I read Paul's letters (particularly the more "preachy" parts) that I think the guy is a smug, holier-than-thou total ass. There's no doubt in more modern theology, and in the more feminist-friendly aspects of the ECUSA, that Paul is not looked upon with great fondness. He is definitely not the favorite Biblical character among the women at Trinity in Kirksville, that's for sure.

(That reminds me of one of the more famous "Trinity bloopers." A female member of our church, who had just left her abusive husband, got stuck with the "Wives be subject to your husbands" reading when her turn in the barrel for lector came around. She just sort of stopped in the middle of the reading and burst out laughing. It was definitely a golden moment in the history of our church!)

But to really figure out Paul, I think you have to step away from the modern world a bit and try to envision his life and how it fits into the early Church. For starters, he's still very very Jewish, despite his conversion. Some of that is simply ingrained into his identity. He can't help it any more than I can help still feeling that little Martin Luther sitting on my shoulder despite the fact I am now a committed Episcopalian. Most of his tirades have to do with bits of behavior that would be considered "flouting Noahide and Mosaic law." That law still sits on his shoulder and always will to some degree. I think back to something I learned in my college sociology class: "The shortest time that real sociologic change takes to happen is at least 3 generations." The first generation in the change process can't change much. They can change a little (Think of those immigrant grandparents from "the old country" no matter WHICH country it is.) The 2nd generation is in a state of flux; then hopefully, by the time change occurs in that 3rd generation, the 1st generation is dying off and few are there to tell it first-hand; the 3rd generation may well have no real understanding that the problem that induced the change ever existed.

But back to Paul. The early church is going through TONS of growing pains. It's not exactly like at the moment of Jesus' death, copies of the liturgy fell out of the sky. Everyone still has some degree of identity of "who they were and who they still are". The early church is struggling through all the culture differences by which its members still identify with to some degree, including how to worship and how to behave. Meanwhile, Paul is trying to navigate the early church through this morass. Some of these things simply grate on his Jewish sensibilities, despite his becoming a Christian.

Meanwhile, I have to think that Christ's followers of that era were kind of thinking Jesus was coming sooner rather than later. Some probably are wondering why he hasn't returned yet. They are having doubts and fears that maybe that Jesus guy was an imposter. At times, it probably seemed that it didn't look like this new religion is going anywhere. People are nervous about it. Paul is nervous about it. In some cities it appears to be blowing apart at the seams.

Paul has a lot on his plate. He's trying to keep it all together in all these cities. It has to be exasperating. He gets tossed into prison. Prison does something to you, and some of it is not pretty. I could see where all of this could make a fellow prone to temper outbursts...and sometimes, I wonder if the more preachy parts of Paul's letters are simply fits of exasperation caught in writing. Maybe he didn't follow the Harry Truman method of holding his more fiery letters till the next morning (even Harry didn't follow his own advice all the time). Maybe it's like the day at my place at work where the employess carping at each other made me holler out in utter frustration that I was going to put Premarin in the water. Paul is having to adjust to it all himself. It just can't be easy.

But somewhere deep within him is this complete and utterly joyful love he has for all of the members of the church, no matter how strange and difficult they all seem at times; he's trying to impart that love on the members of the early Church...and to me, that is the root of the "love chapter," not the sappy wedding bell version I've come to loathe. Paul may have a second sight on this given the fact he's single. Sometimes, I think when you're married, you are so wrapped up in your partner or your family you may not always see the big picture in this regard. Single people have love to give that isn't being fulfilled in a partnership so they can see and feel more intense love to their extended family. It's a trade off. But the positive aspects of Paul' life get lost in all the shuffle. Yet he still has the guts to hold this new church together somehow, and that somehow creates love. What a concept!

This week's sunday sermon took 2nd place to the goings on a couple hours before church. We got about 5 inches of snow in Kirksville overnight Sat. night/Sun. morning, and was still snowing when I woke up Sun. a.m. When you live in the country, your first thought at times like this is "Gee, hope I can get out to the highway." So, I decided to test things out by going in early to town with the plan of shoveling the church walk. Trinity, being a rather modest-sized church, doesn't hire out snow removal like all the bigger churches on Kirksville's "church row". A few of the congregants just show up early and shovel. No one ever makes plans about this, people just show up, and there always seems to be enough help.

I got there about 8:30 a.m. and had just started shoveling the church steps when folks started coming in to help...all in all there were about 8 people. Many of them were folks who were originally from the upper Midwest, namely Michigan and Wisconsin, so "helping shovel" was second nature. I am convinced native upper Midwesterners start shoveling after the first few flakes...I've been told that is because when you live where you can get a foot of snow, the better part of valor is to shovel multiple times rather than try to move a foot of snow a shovelfull at a time.

We had quite a little party going on in front of the church and it was kind of fun to watch how different the atmosphere was in front of our church compared to the rest of "church row." The churches with hired snow removal were "business as usual", people coming in in their "Sunday clothes" just like any other week. We were out front, gabbing, drinking coffee (Diane was kind enough to have made a pot or two for the thirsty caffeine-starved shoveling crew) and all dressed in snow pants, sweatshirts, and boots. When you looked around in the service there were sweat pants, snow pants, and hooded sweatshirts sprinkled around the crowd, and me in my stocking feet (my rubber "farm boots" were incredibly messy, not just from snow, but from various forms of equine excrement, because after all, they're my chore boots. I left them in the church alcove and went to the rail in my socks!). It was one of the lightest and most cheerful atmospheres I ever had in church.

It dawned on me as I was shoveling that these "angels unawares" are an important and special part of our ministry. First of all, there is just something about braving the bad weather that makes one feel incredibly ALIVE. It also shows a lot about the spirit of our church, of the bonding that our congregation has for the well-being of the Church in a larger sense. Unlike the bigger houses of worship on Kirksville's "church row", there is a sense that everyone's presence matters. That is the gift of a small but vibrant congregation. For me, in a larger church, it is so easy to be "not noticed" if that is what you choose to do. At Trinity, it's impossible. It brings home the Episcopal notion that "what you do in the secular world is also your ministry."

Praise God for small, vibrant, and dynamic congregations!

Today's sermon at Trinity was from the Gospel reading, John 2:1-11, aka the "Jesus turns water into wine" story. Now, before I get into the meat of this, I am going to confess to being a little bit of a skeptic as to the accuracy of the story. John is the only Gospel that tells this story. I have always thought the story was a tad "un-Jesus-like" because it's really more of a "parlor magic trick" rather than the typical miracles in the Gospels.

This is where I wish I was a "real" theologian because I can't put my finger on the exact trackback to the Old Testament but I have this feeling the "water to wine" story is more metaphorical than historical account. There are a lot of OT references to planting vineyards, growing grapes, making things ready in the vineyard. Then in John's story, it occurs at a wedding, (is there some "marriage" link meant in this between the law and the Gospel?) it's the "good stuff" not the "cheap stuff", and there is this reluctance on the part of Jesus to do this miracle. I do know that John tends to be a Gospel more designed to show fulfilment of OT prophecy, also John is the "youngest" gospel, so that is where I have my moments of skepticism about the accuracy of the account. But enough of that, there's still a lot in the story worth discussing.

I have heard this Scripture as the root of many sermons in my life, and I always come away with that sense of "Jesus as reluctant hero." The interchange between Jesus and Mary reminds me a lot of when I was a kid and was asked to "perform" for the house guests. I was fairly good at comedy even as a youngster, and I could bet that anytime anyone was over to the house to barbeque, play cards, whatever, my mom was going to try to get me to do one of my little comedy routines. Maybe it was me imitating Richard Nixon, or doing my rendition of a segment of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom ("I'm Marlin Perkins, and Jim and I are searching for the giant Amazon Anaconda. Oh, there's one....I'm going to sit in the boat while Jim catches the snake...." Of course Jim has some trouble with the snake, while Marlin is safely in the boat; I would do this great rendition of being choked by an anaconda...you get the drift.)

But I get this feeling that the young Jesus was pretty handy around the house and Mom knew what all He was capable of. So they go to the wedding, and Mary's like "They're out of wine...c'mon, you can help 'em out," and Jesus is rolling His eyes and going, "MA! Naw, c'mon...now's not the time." But Mary is giving him that "Mom look" like "Do this or you'll live to regret it." So Jesus is like "Okay, okay."

Then my thoughts go to the jug-haulers. They've just been told to take jugs of water over to the party. They are thinking, "How stupid is this? These people are at a wedding reception, they're not going to want to drink THIS."

Next I can imagine the steward. He's thinking, "What are those fools bringing these water jugs over here for?" and he looks inside and by golly, there's wine in there...and it's good wine. The jug-haulers are going "Whoa! Wait a minute! We put water in there!" but they're not saying anything because the steward is now telling the bridegroom, "What a deal! You saved the good wine till the end! What's up with that?" (Anyone who has ever said, "Oh, get a 12 pack of Old Milwaukee in case they drink up all the Budweiser," when stocking up for a party knows what that's all about. "By then they won't notice it's cheap beer.")

Well, Wallace put a pretty good handle on it this morning. He talked about how sometimes the "tap water" parts of our life can be an entryway to real moments of grace...but we cannot predict it or make it happen. It just happens and our job is to enjoy it and be thankful for those moments.

I'd add one twist to it. I'd also say sometimes it happens when we are absolutely reluctant about the whole scene. How many times in our lives do we go into something thinking, "I do NOT want to do this, it doesn't interest me, I'd rather be somewhere else," and something wonderful and serendipitous occurs. Then, when it's all over, you think, "Wow, that was fun. I'm glad I did that."

I remember a million years ago, when I was college age, I was driving a group of elementary school teachers to the Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City for a workshop. I was planning on going somewhere else and picking them up at the appointed time. I am NOT artsy. I could not "art appreciate" myself out of a paper bag. Yet somehow I got talked into going in with everyone. Then when I got in there, I somehow boringly and uninterestingly made my way to the room with Chinese bronze figurines and "burial objects"--little miniatures of things the person might have had in their life. There were these bronze horses in there that caught my eye. They were round, full, firm, and fully packed, kind of on the paunchy side--but I could see the artist had made them in such a way that really displayed the flow of movement of horses. These horses looked like horses I'd seen in my own pasture and appeared to "move" in that fluid way horses do when they are playing with each other. Then it suddenly struck me that someone 2,000 years ago paid the same kind of attention to horses I did. We shared a link that spanned centuries. In that moment, I understood the real meaning of art even though I did not know any of the formal teachings of it or cared for the snooty artsy-fartsy aspects of the "high art crowd."

Maybe that is the higher message in the "water to wine" story even if I have doubts about its historical accuracy...reluctance does not preclude being the recipient to grace.

As we traditionally do on the Sunday after Epiphany, we renewed our Baptismal Covenant vows and, of course, the readings reflected the event of Jesus' baptism. Today's Gospel was Luke 3:15-17 and 21-22. Wallace's sermon today brought up an "aside" that was as good as the Gospel part of it today. While discussing how the 1st century Christians really didn't celebrate Christ's birth, and put more stock in celebrating His baptism, he kind of moved over into talking about his thoughts on why people did things that put themselves in danger, such as climbing Mt. Everest, or sailing around the world in a small sailboat.

I could identify with that in a small sense because I tend to enjoy "adventures", whether it is driving a team of horses on vacation in a 50 mile wagon train trip, or participating in a 60 mile 3 day charity walk, or even Geocaching (it's a GPS treasure hunt game and you can find out more about it on www.geocaching.com). Wallace postulated that people engage in dangerous and/or adventurous pursuits because perhaps, in their mind, doing it somehow brings them closer to God. After cogitating on that a little this afternoon, I thought I'd expand on that notion since I tend to be a bit of an adventure seeker. Granted, my adventures are a little more on the safe side, but they still have at least some degree of risk.

When I embark on an adventurous activity, what always strikes me the most is that in addition to the remote possibility of death or injury, is that these activities tend to make me have to "lay everything about myself on the table." They require stripping yourself of a certain amount of safety and comfort and being ok with the fact that you may not be eating as well, or bathing as often, or sleeping on your inner spring mattress. You have to deal with the elements as dictated by Mother Nature, not by you. You might find yourself a little hot, cold, wet, tired, or hungry.

The other striking thing is that in all of these adventures there is the possibility you can fail. Even in a relatively safe adventure like Geocaching, you may simply not be able to find the geocache, despite your best efforts, or perhaps it has been plundered by someone who stumbled upon it and did not know what it was. But in almost all of my adventures, you have to face up to the fact that the end result may be that you could be leaving the woods with your figurative tail between your legs.

I find that I have to lay myself bare and humble in front of these adventures, to accept that the outcome could be failure just as easily as it could be success. Obviously, in my mind I generally see myself as being capable of being victorious and see these adventures as better than coin flip odds but that is because I have to believe not only in myself, but that I can gain strength from the experience. I know myself pretty well and know I don't give up easily.

I also have discovered that when you divorce yourself from the outcome of these activities, you are learning to trust partially in yourself and partially to trust in God's strength no matter what the outcome. This feeling of being forced to trust brings out a very powerful strength in myself which I also accept does not totally belong to me, that it is being rented from God.

This sense, this feeling, that washes over me in times like this not only justifies my trust mechanisms, it makes me addicted to being as minimalist as possible. For instance, for years, when I can find time to head for the woods during deer season, I have hunted only with a model 1894 Winchester lever action .30-.30 with only iron sights, no scope. My hunting timber is very brushy and a poorly thought out shot can result in my killing a tree branch and the deer going on his/her merry way. I like setting it up where the deer have a reasonable chance to "win." When the possibility of failure is real, there is an accompanying expanding of the senses, a heightening of awarness, that is cleansing, raw, and, yes, addictive.

Therein lies another mystery. Although I have had plenty of sorrow in my own life, there are times that I feel my faith is not always challenged to the limits; that there sometimes is too much comfort in the ordinary days in my life, which makes it hard to reach that state of "super-awareness." I am aware in those moments that God resides not in my comfort, but in my discomfort. I find myself sometimes longing in my prayer time for that same sense I can get in the woods; that sense where I can see the details of every leaf, feel every puff of breeze, hear every little moving thing out there with me. My hunting timber can be very brushy in the summer; I call it "when the green curtain goes up." I know that ground well, but there are still times that deep in the woods, I can get a little turned around. Oddly enough, I kind of like that sense of that small moment of panic, that "Where the hell am I, exactly?" thought, and the ensuing, "Ok, let me think about this a minute," moments.

I think. "Ok, now I can't get all that lost, if I just walk in one direction, I'll come out somewhere...but I want to come out in the best somewhere I'm capable of handling." Then I cautiously make my way out, trying to recognize familiar landmarks. That is the place I want to be able to take my prayer life, because I truly believe that only by allowing myself to wander in so far that I can feel myself as lost, and slowly pick my way out, is a way that I can truly become closer to God.

1. I am going to make my prayer time more contemplative and less like a "wish list to Santa."
2. I will use my enjoyment of reading blogs on the Blogging Episcopalians webring as a springboard to contemplative prayer. (Some of the stuff people write really moves me!)
3. I am not going to let the gossip about runaway congregations from the ECUSA or the Anglican Communion's issues with ECUSA get in the way of my spiritual growth. Those of us who embrace the ECUSA's way of looking at things need to play more offense in how we let God show his presence in our lives rather than play defense worrying about what conservatives think.
4. I will read all the books in the new Church's Teaching Series.
5. I'll leave room for #5 for something that bubbles up later in the year!

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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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