Hi everyone- it’s lovely to be here with all of you.
I’m Ivy as Steve mentioned. “Happy October!”
I love summer so much – that it is very stretching for me to use those two words “Happy” and “October”, so close in a sentence together. September however, did a fine job of setting up October – in a way that I can genuinely and excitedly say, “Happy October”.
I’m also excited for our Fall season here at Reservoir, and I’m enjoying the sermon series we are in called, “On the Brink of Everything”. Inspired by a little book by author, and quaker, Parker Palmer. It’s a series that we felt would work well as a way to explore what it is to live in these fracturing times. If you’ve been around the last few weeks you’ve heard Steve and Lydia talk along these themes, of being on the brink of “chaos”, the brink of “overwhelm” and on the brink of “nothing” – and I’ve been thankful for this small phrase in the ways that it allows us to touch the baseline trauma we may be experiencing in our days. This little book though, also helps us to imagine embodying the “fiercely honest and gracious wholeness that is ours to claim at every stage of life,” (Krista Tippett). Parker Palmer himself, is looking out at the horizon of getting older – and his book was also inspired by a conversation with a friend of his – who has a toddler and also observing a young one looking out at the horizon of life.
Today, I’d love to take us in a direction – where we really consider that “fierce, and honest and gracious wholeness”, and how it is that we can really claim that with Jesus.. So I want to talk about being on the Brink of Encounter. Encountering, a living God at every turn in our lives. Because, I think we are always on the brink of falling deeper into ourselves and deeper into knowing God in a way that has real power – power that can be game-changing in our fractured world. Encounters with God can reveal to us that we have built within us a “survival kit” that includes surprising tools like vulnerability, intimacy and imagination.
If God is a God who is abundant in eternal, transformative love and tenderness and power – then it’s pretty WILD to think that it is available for us to touch and utilize in our LIVED experiences. And so I think God’s invitation is to keep mining and discovering it, tonot assume that we’ve had our fill, or know all the ways to encounter God… but that we could always be engaged with more. And it’s this ever-evolving display of God’s-self that God wants us to be in constant contact with.
So for those of you today, who are comfortable with the ways you encounter Jesus, AND for those of you who are done trying to encounter God … and all of us in between – I want to challenge you to be open to surprise, to engage your imagination and be willing to stretch beyond what is already familiar to you – and to dip into the great mystery of God’s presence.
I think the implications of that posture, are huge – and also breathtaking.
We can learn from history – and get a constant pulse through the daily news — how easily we forget what it means to be human. We can forget that underneath every inequity, every act of racism, and oppression and violence and sickness and hurdles to access of healthcare and education – is a human being. Real life people with stories and souls, and voices and families that we live alongside. Yet, even in our most genuine efforts to bring about change (which are valid and needed), we are quick to bundle people up under policies, and laws and votes, ideologies – losing track of the face of the one we hoped to help.
I heard and learned a lot about how to “help people” in my faith community growing up. It focused a great deal on biblical literacy and the accompanying moral rules that would construct a good life, (some explicitly told and some powerfully inferred). We read a lot about Jesus. We read all the wild stories of Jesus doing strange and unexpected things in ways that seemingly helped the people that encountered him. And I would spend a fair amount of time doing this – weekly – sometimes twice a week.
And then after each meeting of study, we all went home.
And come back the next week – to learn and to study Jesus more.
The picture for me of what “help” and “power” could look like with Jesus – was found in the pages of the Bible. And I’m so thankful in many ways for this foundation…
But I think I knew in my small, young self that God had a greater, more vast ambience and resonance than what was being presented in my faith experience…. Because the dissonance between the picture of this vivid, lively Jesus in the scripture I read- was distinct – as compared to what seemed to be a “sleepy” Jesus in my life.
I didn’t know how to enact all my knowledge of Jesus – to wake up either myself – or – him – in an experiential way. And yet I had a hunch that ‘experience’ had to be at the heart of spirituality.
The prejudice of our modern minds, somehow comes into play… Because it often suggests that knowledge must be something we can possess – and often as a prerequisite to experience. To be informed – to be well resourced with data, IS TO BE prepared for what any encounter might bring – including (in my experience) encounters with God.
If you go out for a trek in the woods – it is good to be prepared for what experience could occur – it is wise to have the (bottles of water, extra dry-wicking sweater, carabiner, the duct tape… )… or in my case – the whiskey ….. just in case something should happen.
We want to possess knowledge, to circumvent any surprises.
We don’t love the idea deep down- of the unknown, of surprise, of having our “heart be caught off guard and blown wide open” (as the poet Seamus Henney says). That all sounds frightening to us – I think.
Knowledge that we can possess, (available to us at our very fingertips) – allows us to feel in control, to suppress the unmooring feeling of being caught off guard. What we also suppress is wonder, and awe and vulnerability and intimacy.
My friend Sarahawhile ago made a simple comment in a community group that we were both in, that has really stuck with me. We were in the midst of “studying a story about Jesus” – and it was really enlightening and rich, in a lot of ways. And at some point, Sarah leaned back and said, “you know what I would really like? Is for Jesus to just show up in my car, and sit in the passenger seat next to me. That’s the kind of Jesus I’d be really into right now.”
Her comment cut through all the discussion we were having, about Jesus that was primarily heady – and nailed me right in the heart. And it got me in touch with my own hunger of that kind of knowing, of that kind of imagination, of wanting that type of encounter with Jesus to be true.
An encounter with Jesus, requires a kind of knowing, that emerges from our imagination – that we can’t predict, prove, or stamp as true. But one that will bring us and Jesus back into a co-present reality… even if we imagine our way there.
About 5 years ago I preached my first sermon here. I talked about the love of God (shocker!), and in particular a moment – a memory that I had of my Dad, when I was young. We were driving along a familiar road at twilight – I spotted some deer in a field and he turned the car around to view them – and then turned to me in the car and said “Nice eyes, Ivy”.
As I drove here that morning – to preach my first sermon – down my own familiar road – re-working some transitions in the talk – a deer stepped out into the middle of the road, from the side woods. And my heart skipped 1,000 beats – because I was startled – and also because I knew I had encountered God.
A friend of mine has told the story of his mother, who was bedded with grief following the death of her own mother. And where upon waking from a nap – she met Mary, the mother of God. She woke to the sound of this woman coming into her room – dressed in tweed and soft clothes, in her 70’s, grey hair. She described the depression she felt of the mattress, from the weight of this woman – as she sat down on the bed where she lay (Padraig O’Tuama, In the Shelter).
I have friends tell me they encounter God on a mountain top.
I have friends tell me they encounter God on the side of a trail – panting for air – before they get to the mountain top.
A woman named Mary Magdalene encountered Jesus as a gardener.
My brother, in his 8th year of life – had been sick for 3 months – bed ridden. Muscles atrophied. He hadn’t walked in weeks. The doctors were puzzled. Prayers gushed into his story, from far and wide.. He woke one night – convinced he was going to die… and encountered God.
The next morning – he bounded into my room, up a flight of stairs and declared his hope to go to the beach that day.
An old testament prophet, Elijah – encountered God not in the powerful wind, or earthquake or fire – as prophets had KNOWN to encounter God, but in a thin, quiet voice that came to him.
I encounter God these days, in a pair of golden finches – these birds that peck and find their way through the sunflowers in my front yard.
The vividness, and strangeness and unbelievable-ness of the stories we read in scripture of people encountering God – are true too – in our own stories today.
And yet you might have a myriad of responses listening to these “encounter” vignettes: Were those encounters really with God? Are they historically accurate? Were they fabricated over time? A result of a high fever perhaps? Isn’t that just maybe imagination run wild? Or a result of relying too much on your feelings?
See somewhere along the line – we have become afraid of the unknown, of surprise – – of getting something wrong in the mix – God forbid – we would get God wrong. And what we are doubting when we ask for proof – or the truth – is our own self and intuition, which perhaps is where truth actually resides.
Somewhere we have been swept into the binary way of believing that if we FEEL something we are not THINKING… and if we THINK something than we are not really experiencing it – but I’ve been helped by the words of John O’Donohue. I spent some time in a tiny county of Ireland, recently, where he was a priest for many years… and he says,
“True thought is full of feeling and feeling is luminous with thought”, which means that the “the act of knowing – is a function of the imagination” (John O’Donohue).
Infact, imagination IS where the human and the divine are co-present!
So maybe the generative question isn’t whether or not, the encounters we call into question are true or not…maybe the generative question instead is whether IT IS TRUE that the encounter helped (adapted from Padraig O’Tuama).
“Did it help?”
And if “yes” – then maybe it doesn’t matter how it happened.
AND THIS IS where I want to go DEEP into scripture for a moment – because encounters with God at a baseline HELP US. They help us become more fully HUMAN — more in touch with our feelings – with intimacy and vulnerability – and encounter with God, helps us continue to grow and evolve and transform, not only for ourselves – but for the whole of humankind.
I invite all of you to encounter God in this LIVING word of scripture:
Mark 5:25-34 (NIV)
25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
31 “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
Here we have a Biblical story of a nameless woman who encounters Jesus.
She has bled for 12 years. Marginalized on multiple accounts; she’s a woman – with no male relative to support or advocate for her – she is financially destitute, she is religiously “unclean”, and makes anything or anyone she touches “impure”. By cultural norms, she is unfit to live within city limits. So she exists in isolation, disempowered and shrouded in shame. The laws and traditions of her time – have dehumanized her. She has no identity. She is human to no one.
And while I’m thankful for the written account that Mark gives us here (and Matthew and Luke who give us of this same story in the other gospels)… I would LOVE to imagine this morning of how this woman would tellher own story of encountering Jesus. Of how she’d tell her story to her kids – that might have surprisingly become part of her on-going story. Or how she’d tell her story to her only human contacts – the lepers, or prostitutes, or the young rich men – or the tax collectors, who had also encountered Jesus.
Maybe she started by telling her part of the story – that comes before the story we read here in print – of how for those 12 years of suffering and bleeding – she imagined. How she imagined every evening that the shadows moving along the stones in the street where she slept – were God. And how those shadows comforted her, built in her a belief that God could be One who was consistently present and close in her pain. How she imagined that in the call of the golden finches that greeted her every morning – was a song that told of joy and a promise of healing – sung to her by God. And maybe she’d tell of how that ability to imagine a God like this – built in her the capacity to trust herself, to be resilient …..and to imagine the not -yet-realized presence of a surprising and unexpected incarnate God – who just might, someday walk down a crowded, familiar, street in her neighborhood.
Maybe she tells the part of the story where she admits that she had grown comfortable being out of the sight of society, comfortable being invisible. Of how living behind the backs of people became more comfortable than seeing faces. Of how the earth, became her temple of dirt, and dust and stone and blood.
Maybe she told how surprising it was that when she encountered Jesus he didn’t lecture her, or the crowd, about personal sins or specific religious views and practices – or how to get back to the holy – but instead invited her back to the ordinary. He invited her to tell her “whole truth”- Her STORY! “Why was she there? What did she hope for? Why did she long to touch his clothes?” Maybe she’d tell of how achy and vulnerable it was for her to become visible again.
Maybe she would tell how the roots of her faith – were found in the holiest of places – in the shadows, in the dust, in the birds, and in the grit – of life.
Maybe she tells lastly, the part of her story of how she had forgotten her name – of how long it had been since anyone had called her by name. Maybe she’d be shy in sharing how she’d taken up the spiritual practice of imagining names for herself… Ones that she loved, but names she also needed for survival: First of course, “Eve” – because it means “to live”… and “Ruth” too, which means, “friend & companion”, and “Rebekah” which means to “join a family.”
Maybe she told how her forgotten name, was what terrified her most about going and touching Jesus – because she didn’t know how to identify herself, if he asked.
And maybe she became embarrassed still, to tell her children the intimate parts of the story – where she knows that she turned crimson red – as Jesus turned to her in the crowd – where in his face and his eyes – she recovered long lost words of her vocabulary – not only her name, but words like “tenderness” and “gentleness” and “touch”. And how she trembled with a sensation, a feeling of overwhelming love as she touched his clothes, the intimate exchange of His love and power, as it poured out of his body – and moved into her skin. And how in His voice, her heart was caught off guard and blown wide open with the name he gave her, of “Daughter”… stunned that he could encapsulate all she had hoped for in a name, “to live, to be befriended, to belong in a family”, to be human again. The power of name.
I hope she told these parts of her story – and more parts that she’d discover over time to everyone she met…. I hope she made her kids yawn with boredom at how much she repeated these stories of God’s goodness and realness and truth to her…I hope if any questions arose it was, “mom – were you helped?” I hope she had a thousand new names given to her, like “prophet”, “courageous”, “informed”, “critical” and “imaginative”..
I hope those names are names that we can give to ourselves as we continue to encounter God.
We are all on the brink of ENCOUNTER with God. An encounter that sometimes gives us immediate healing… and sometimes is a long, long road of accompanied grief, and sometimes is a mere, but fleeting feeling …..
But all experience builds in us the survival kit – for our wild hike of life – with intimacy, vulnerability and imagination.
Here is where we free fall into our fiercely honest and gracious wholeness that God helps us claim.
And with that……. a knowledge that surpasses all understanding planted deep in our souls.
I think my friend Sarah has it right – to hunger for a presence of God – close, real and in our ordinary lives. ANd it trains in ourselves an ability to trust our intuition – to recognize Jesus wherever he might show up – and to utilize our hopes and dreams of who God could be to us, and BE SURPRISED by who he reveals us to be in the encounter!…
To believe that God could be in our passenger seat, is a stretch of the imagination – but not that much of a stretch if we believe that he is not just as a silent observer of our life – but as one who eagerly engages and buckles up next to us…
And one who offers to hold all the stuff we drag into the car…. He takes into his lap our ½ eaten egg sandwich – our bags of messages that we’ve ingested from society, with our sense of loneliness and our own self-deprecating dialogue – he holds it all.. and invites us to tell him more of our “whole truth”, our story – meanwhile likely complimenting us on our song choice in the car, humming along – driving down our familiar roads, calling us by name at every turn … “Ivy – you are doing just great”, or “Nice eyes, Ivy”.
This is the kind of knowledge that is so intimate and so vulnerable, to express as TRUTH. And it’s disorienting because it’s not the kind of knowledge that we can possess first – it’s the kind of knowledge that WE gain by encountering God – “it is the kind of knowledge that possesses us and infuses a knowing within us” (Richard Rohr).
I don’t think I can read, or imagine the story of this bleeding woman without hearing my own story echoed in it … and I don’t think we can read this story without imagining the freedom and power it is to be called by God….. to be our exactly human selves. To bring back into view – our full, visible humanity.
This is the power of encounter. To be deeply aware of who we are …To be deeply anchored in the presence of God. This has transformative power as we act and walk and move in our lives – it has the power to “stop people from their superficial assumptions, from their efforts to damage, marginalize and hurt others (Mary Moore, p. 44), because truth of this degree is a living force.
I wonder as the bleeding woman made her way out of the crowd that day – how many people saw her? As she made her way back to her familiar road – I wonder how many people reached out to touch her, stopped her to ask if it really happened? And how many people stopped her to see if she could help them become human again.
This is what truth does, it articulates, exposes, restores, and surprises us.
The challenge for us today, is to believe that all of this is truth. That we do indeed encounter God in so many beautiful, known ways – in prayer – with a candle in silence, or in loud, charismatic ways – or in worship songs – or in Scripture study – or in wildlife – or at the top of a mountain – or in the rut and grit and dirt of life…. and also that we can encounter God in a host of other surprising ways we cannot yet name, or know….
“Peace I give to you”…. He says to this woman and to us- “Peace I give to you”. In wellness and in wholeness. So do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”. (John 14:27) – and “do let your hearts be caught off guard – and blown wide open.” (Seamus Henney)
Spiritual Practice & Reflection:
Practice expectancy with prayer: “God help me to let go of any assumptions or expectations that I may have of you, and today could you catch my heart off guard and blow it wide open?”
Reflect: “Where did I encounter God today?” and “how did it help?”
Maybe the helpful knowing of Jesus loving you deeply, in your life – helps you lead with compassion and tenderness to see the human beings in your midst.
Discover the human beings in your midst. Start by making eye contact and learn their names and their pronouns.
Call into view someone else’s “whole truth.”
Dear God could you remind us this morning – that on any crowded street, on any familiar road – we can encounter you. Could you help us GOD to know – that we are not just imagining a life that could be good and powerful with you in it – but that we are actively, presently living it.