Mary Catherine Bateson is an author and anthropologist, who happens to be the daughter of the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead. She is the author of several books, including Composing a Life and, one that I’ve been reading, Composing a Further Life, in which she points out that those of us who have the privilege of looking at living perhaps a third of our lives after the age of 50–and there are quite of few of us here who fit into that category–have the opportunity and the obligation, even, not to just let them dribble away. Rather, we might discover new ways of living, new avenues for service, new opportunities to bring forth possibilities that will benefit those who come after us.
Bateson was interviewed by Krista Tippett on last Sunday’s Public Radio Show, OnBeing. Perhaps some of you heard it. At one point, she shared that she has become part of a Roman Catholic community and has taken on a particular role in it.
“One of the things I’ve done for the last few years–I’m a lector. I’m a reader in my church. And, of course, the readings recycle. And one of the things that has fascinated me about–first, I just thought, ‘This is a business of ‘I’m going to read well and loud enough and slow enough and do a good job.’ But, what I’ve found over time is, first of all, that the readings have a different meaning when they’re read from the lectern during Mass, when they’re read in the context of a community. I’ve practiced, so I don’t stumble. I’ve been over them. I’ve thought about them.
[Krista Tippett injects] So you mean it’s different even when you practice by yourself, and then when you stand before the community and read it aloud. [Bateson continues] It’s one thing that I practice by myself, but when I stand before the community, and I look at these people–and that’s the other thing–my relationship with the people has changed, which I didn’t expect. I didn’t know that would happen. [Tippett asks] And how do you explain that? What is that about? [Bateson replies] The community comes together, and here are these words that have been read and re-read and re-read and re-interpreted for 2,000 years. When you think about how many people on a given Sunday are trying to find something fresh to say about something that’s been read and preached on in hundreds of churches for thousands of years—I mean it boggles the mind. But they do, because you are always meeting the ritual a little bit different from the way you were last week or yesterday or whenever, confronting different things in your life. There’s a resonance between the tradition and the present that makes it fresh. [OnBeing.org]
It struck me that that is particularly true about the two stories we read this morning–the beginning, anyway, of the story of Joseph, which is a continuation of last Sunday’s story about Jacob, and the story of Jesus’ walking across the water to the frightened disciples in the boat. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, right? How many people have seen that? And everybody knows that Jesus could walk on water, even if you know very little else about him. What could we possibly say that is fresh about these readings that, as Bateson says, have been read and re-read and re-read and re-interpreted in thousands of churches for thousands of years, let alone this particular Sunday?
But, of course, we are different today than the last time we heard these readings. When we come to the part in Joseph’s story where he is dragged out of the pit and sold by his brothers to some Midianite traders headed for Egypt, we maybe don’t remember exactly how that story ends or how it gets worked out, whether or not the brothers ever reconcile. And we think about the current cliff-hanger of our story with North Korea, another story of humiliation and bluster and envy, though this time with the added feature of nuclear bombs. How did Joseph survive? What did the brothers tell their father Jacob, or Israel, as he was now called? How did they ever reconcile? How do we hear this story as grown-ups, not as kids in Sunday School, or theater-goers at an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical? How do we respond to this story as a community of faith in the context of the confrontation with North Korea, or the re-surgence of white supremacists in our own country, yet another instance of brothers at each other’s throats, another story of humiliation and envy?
And the story of Jesus’ walking across a stormy lake toward the disciples in the boat? What in the world are we to make of that story in an age that is skeptical of miracles, that can measure the relative gravity of water and a man? In an age of rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms and weather patterns, we certainly may understand what it feels like to be in a boat that appears to be filling with water and going down. Perhaps we can relate to the Biblical story-tellers who were making the point that God’s power is even greater than nature’s; but in this age of rising tides and chaotic weather, not to mention rising tensions and rhetoric, it is imperative that we note that Jesus’ power came forth from a prayerful center, having spent the evening in a quiet place, trying to come to terms with the news that John the Baptist had just been killed by Herod and the hunger of the 5000 men, not to mention women and children, whom Jesus and his disciples had just fed. Jesus’ power, which allowed him to walk across the waves, was fueled by prayer and was the power to calm, not to stir up. That may be one of the fresh lessons for us in these times.
What about the storm of racism and white supremacy, so brutally unmasked this weekend in Charlottesville, VT, but clearly bubbling beneath the surface in America for many years? Too many have sunk beneath the waves. Many others are overwhelmed. Where is God? How are we being called to step out of our boat?
Or maybe it is a storm of a different kind that you are in the midst of right now, that you bring to this particular reading of this story–a storm of grief over the loss or impending loss of a loved one; a storm of fear and anxiety about a diagnosis you’ve received–or are still waiting to receive–for yourself or a loved one. Maybe it’s a storm of self-doubt, or depression, or aimlessness, or purposelessness. It is so easy to feel tossed and thrown about by every wave and gust of wind. How do we “keep focused on Jesus,” as the story suggests, keep focused on God in the midst of our very human lives, without getting overwhelmed by the waves and finding ourselves sinking like Peter did?
Jan Richardson’s husband Gary died, quite unexpectedly, during surgery. She wrote this several months later in her blog, Painted Prayerbook–
Eight months have passed since Gary’s death: a moment, an aching eternity. I can tell you that I know what it means to be borne up when the waters overwhelm. I know the grace of hands that reach out to carry and console and give courage. I am learning–again, anew–what faith is, how this word that we sometimes toss around so casually holds depths within depths that will draw us beyond nearly everything we once believed. This is some of what I know right now about faith: That faith is not something I can summon by sheer act of will. That it lives and breathes in the community that encompasses us. That I cannot force faith but can ask for it, can pray that it will make its way to me and bear me up over the next wave, and the next. That it comes…That I can lean into it. That it will propel me not only toward Christ, who calls me, but also back toward the boat that holds my life, incomprehensible in both its pain and its grace. [Painted Prayerbook, Pentecost 9] Is that the different “you”who hears this familiar story this time, in this place?
What runs through the story of Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery and the story of Jesus’–and Peter’s–walking on water is the presence of God. The presence of God, absolutely not evident and not, in the moment, the way that the characters might have preferred. But, with some hindsight and perspective, we recognize that God was indeed present with Joseph down in that pit, present with him with his hands tied behind the slave-traders’ cart, present and at work through all the intrigue and twists and turns of his story in Egypt.
The presence of God was precisely in the middle of what Jesus said to the fearful disciples– “Take heart, it is I”–that’s what it is in English, but it’s really just“I am”–God’s name; “Take heart; God is here; don’t be afraid.” God is in the midst of our stormy, difficult times, reminding us of our true selves–”take heart”–calling us to live wholehearted lives, as Brene Brown puts it, risking relationship, taking courage to step out of our comfort zones.
Author Anne Lamott posted on her Facebook page on Friday, with her usual blend of self-deprecating humor and wisdom, that if these are the last days of the world, she intends to eat everything that can’t outrun her and to wear comfy pants. She also pointed out that Emily Dickinson said that hope encourages the Good to reveal itself. “We need all the Good we can summon in these locked and loaded days,” Lamott wrote.
And “how do we get to hope in these dark, ratty days? We don’t think our way to hope. We take the actions, and then the insight follows. The insight is that hope springs from the awareness of love, immersion in love, commitment to love.” That includes radical self-love–be kind and loving to yourself–, [Lamott says]get outside, and take care of the poor. And, as someone else said, when things fall apart, we can still take care of one another.
We hear these stories today in the setting of this congregation, in the midst of people who have perhaps become dear to us, whom we have learned to trust, who can remind us that despite ourselves, we are loved and even loveable, and with whom we may risk stepping out of the boat. The people of God have been in the pit, up against the sea wall, in the boat that’s sinking, nailed to the cross before. And every time, in all places, God has been with us in the midst of it all, at work to calm the storm, making a way when there appeared to be no way, bringing new life even through death. So it is with the church that we can say, “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not alone. Thanks be to God.” Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark