"Good-bye Sermon" by Anna Gilcher
August 31, 2008
Rumi wrote — and I have quoted this before at this pulpit:“If your knowledge of fire has been turned to certainty by words alone, then seek to be cooked by the fire itself. Don’t abide in borrowed certainty. There is no real certainty until you burn; if you wish for this, sit down in the fire.”
This is what Jacqie and Linda and Kate invited us to do last week in the sacred conversation on race and diversity. To sit down in the fire and allow ourselves to burn… not to be consumed but to be transformed.
In this week’s text from Exodus, God shows up in (or perhaps as) a burning bush and invites Moses to come forward, to sit in the fire (almost literally!) with Godself.
Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground.
A sacred conversation indeed.
I’ve been noticing all week that sacred and scared are practically the same word. Just switch the c and the a and the one turns into the other.
In last week’s conversation I know I experienced both. I imagine that those of you who were here last week may have felt both too.
Moses, too, was scared, and God invited him into a deeply sacred conversation. Whose contents scared him even more. And yet, and yet….
I’m scared this morning. I’m scared because this is the kids’ and my last Sunday here and it wasn’t supposed to be like that. (I’m just as surprised as anyone else about this decision to leave. I’d thought I was about to become a Steward — a core member of the community!) I’m scared because I want to offer something truly sacred. I want to honor this moment. I want to treasure being with you all.
Can I allow the “scared” to be transformed by the fire and become the sacred?
Would you be willing to take off your shoes? Because we are standing, sitting on holy ground.
This is holy ground for me. In this sanctuary I have wrestled and wept and laughed. I have preached and listened. I have danced and lain down and found solace and have felt my heart break. I have been filled with joy. I have felt scared and stretched and ill at ease. I have been welcomed. I have been blessed. I have met God here, so many times and in so many ways.
Sometimes the room has looked like it does now, sometimes all the chairs have been cleared away, sometimes I have sat here as part of a small circle, and sometimes a large circle; and sometimes there have been tables and chairs and even food in here.
I have sat in silence in here. I have washed feet and had my feet washed.
I have taken — and offered — the bread and the wine here (well, bread and grape juice, but definitely the body and blood of Jesus) and have sat on the floor eating olives and hummus and figs in Maundy Thursday meals.
I have felt the presence of Jesus here.
Sometimes it’s been in words spoken, sometimes in shared silence. Sometimes I have known where that presence is, and sometimes it’s been beyond my awareness, impossible to pinpoint but still here.
I have been cooked here, as Rumi invites us to be. I have made mistakes and said the wrong thing and hurt people. I have been forgiven. I have felt stretched to my maximum. And I have found that my heart has grown bigger, and that the hearts around me have been big enough to include me each time.
I don’t have any illusion of being fully cooked yet. I don’t have any sense that there’s nothing more for me to learn, or that I’m “done” with Seekers. I know that being in Stewards would have cooked me lots more — in delightful, and less delightful, ways — all of them trustworthy because the cooking that takes place in the fire is real, in the deepest sense.
We’re leaving Seekers not because I’m fully cooked but because George and I have come to the conviction that we need a more substantial community of kids in order to raise our children in the Church as we long to do. Beatrice, Julian and I are going back to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in College Park–the church where George and I were married, where my parents still go, and where the kids and I went when they were small — they were both baptized there. We’ve made this decision because it is, as far as we can discern, the right thing to do for them — it is where they can get the kind of cooking they need!
And it won’t come as a surprise to most of you to hear me say that I think there’s probably something in me, too that still needs to be cooked in the Episcopal Church. I’ve never been able to fully step away — once we stopped splitting our time between Seekers and St. Stephen’s (i.e. stopped going each place on alternate weeks), I soon found myself going to a midweek service at a little Episcopal church here in Silver Spring — and then attending the 8 am service as well. There’s a hunger in me for the particular kind of fire that’s there — even while I feel a real reluctance, even repulsion!, for the way the hierarchy tends to disempower laypeople and isolate clergy. A grief for the division between the leaders and the led, between those recognized as having the power to bless and those who are to be blessed.
Yet… yet… I know there is something sacred there for me. So I trust, I truly do trust, that this move which is principally for our children is also for me, and not just for me as a parent. There is unfinished business, cooking yet to be completed, not just in the Episcopal church, but in this particular community of St. Andrew’s which we left five years ago.
Moses is surprised — shocked! — to be sent back to Egypt. Yet Egypt is part of who he is. He grew up in Pharaoh’s household, as one of the family. I wonder… what does it mean for him to go back there and demand that the Israelites be freed? I wonder… what is it for him to speak truth to power, when he grew up as part of that power, yet not fully? I wonder…
The Episcopal Church is not Egypt; laypeople aren’t in slavery; and I’m not being sent by God to demand their freedom. But like Moses, I have had two places of belonging, two ways of seeing the world. I honestly used to believe that the way worship was done in the Episcopal Church was the only right way. I truly did! It was the most refined and the most worshipful and the most tasteful and the most… best. (I imagine Moses, growing up in Pharaoh’s household may have thought the same about the Egyptian court.) Being at Seekers has shown me so much about how God shows up in other ways. I used to think that liturgical dance was a joke! (Here I’ve been known to propagate it myself.) I’ve gotten so much more flexible. I’ve been moved by God’s presence in long sermons and short, in things written and spontaneous, in recorded music and in Liz’s and Glen’s live, heart-felt offerings. I’d never experienced non-church music in church before and would have turned my nose up at the idea — pop songs in worship? And I’m absolutely sure I’d never sung Joy to the World at Easter before, either. Yet in each of these moments I have been filled with joy and overflowing with God’s Spirit.
I pray that I can bring that expansiveness with me as I go back to St. Andrew’s. That I may be present to worship there with openness and curiosity… and that I may trust that what I have experienced here at Seekers, in worship and in shared leadership, in intentionality and in community, will flow out from me and be able to be shared.
The Democratic nominee for President is the son of a Kenyan black man and a white Kansan woman. He was raised by his white mother and his white grandparents. He lived in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather. He had to figure out what it was to be a black man in this country without parents to guide him. I see Moses as having had the same struggle, growing up in Pharaoh’s household and figuring out what it meant to be an Israelite. Going to Midian and then being invited back to Egypt by no less than God… and to do a very hard job. I’m not saying that Barack Obama is Moses any more than I’m saying that the Episcopal Church is Egypt. But I am struck by the rich texture of each of these stories, the interweaving of cultures, the embodiment of what could be contradiction but which can become integration…
This can be scary. I can be scared that there won’t be room for my full self at St. Andrew’s, and that I won’t feel at home here anymore because I’m not coming on Sundays and I’m not a Steward; I can be scared that there isn’t anywhere for me to be fully at home. And Moses: he ran away from Egypt afraid for his life. Now it is safe to return and he is being called to go back and make a lot of trouble! No warm welcome awaits him! Obama, too, is probably scared that he won’t be seen for who he is, seen for his full self — he too probably wonders at times if there’s anywhere where he can be truly at home. (And our electoral process is certainly not designed to allow people to be seen for their full self.)
But I believe: contradiction becomes integration in the fire. Conflict becomes connection. Scared becomes sacred.
This is the hope of the ongoing sacred conversation on race and diversity. It is the hope of the Communologue, which Rebecca has shared with us in the School of Christian Living — and which I hope can be part of the conversation on race as we move forward with that — and of Nonviolent Communication, which Jeanne brought here and which has become a passion of mine.
It is the hope of these things, and it is the promise of our faith, the promise of a God who invited Moses to take off his shoes and have a conversation with God in the fire, and who invites us still.
May we all seek to be cooked by the fire itself;
and I pray that we will continue to sit in the fire — together.