Joyce MacKichan Walker
July 31, 2016
She was light brown. Her legs were long and, in truth, could definitely be described as skinny. And a little hairy! But the body they supported was far from sleek. Even though it was the perfect body.
She took up permanent residency on our front porch – in our modest neighborhood in Princeton in mid- September of 2014. It was a mild September – warm evenings, light breezes, lengthening nights. Apparently it suited her perfectly. She found the ideal rectangular home, between the right 4′ by 4′ that framed the entryway onto the porch at the top of the steps, and the next post that helped frame the view of the house across the street.
We didn’t notice her at first. It was the appearance of her perfect, meticulously-proportioned web that caught our attention. (First picture: large web with spider in the center.) Most visible in mid-to-late evening, its carefully measured and assembled concentric circles of rectangles glistened when caught by the porch light. Not because it was wet, although that’s what it looked like at first. Because it was iridescent, as fine as silk, as fragile as a flower petal but as strong as the wind.
It was stunning. Michael and I watched many nights as she worked. It’s a repetitive, painstaking process – building a web. Produce a fine thread and draw it out of your very body, swing from an already attached one, touch the new thread to the anchor point. Move to the next one. Do it again. And again. And again. Around and around until the ever widening concentric circles of long, thin rectangles create a delicate, tough but vulnerable pattern that fills the entire space with beauty and strength.
I have a group of friends from my graduate school days who form a part of my own web. Colleagues who for 37 years have shared my calling and vocation. Our celebrations and challenges and moves and changes to job descriptions. Our mid-life crises and the angst over the hardest crossroad choices. We email each other questions about education resources, trends, hard and needed change, the next new thing, the last old one that now seems to be killing us. I was at a small school, so no assigned student cohort (I think they call them now) or faculty mentor. We simply gravitated to friendships that had staying power, and we all dipped into the trenches of whatever church called us – staying connected because we shared a common purpose, and were better Christian educators when all of our little rectangles intersected.
Webs of connection are God’s gifts to us. A family of sorts that forms a web of community around us that reminds us who and whose we are when the reminding counts most.
But it didn’t take me long to discover my graduate school colleagues alone were not enough. To realize they’re only part of the web I needed for thriving, deep, contextual ministry. So I found a “Reading Group,” for lack of a better term. It’s really a colleague group of people who do what I do. My current one happens to have part and full-time and retired Christian educators, and associate and solo pastors. We are young, and middle-aged, and what I like to call “very experienced.”
Over time we have served teeny-tiny and “just-making-it” and middle-size, and large churches, and presbytery- and community-based ministries. Between us we preach and work with children and offer pastoral care and staff mission teams. We lead youth and plan worship and gather young adults and empower multi-generational ministry. We organize and lead small groups and form faith and send people into the community and world to live as disciples. You name it – we do it, and we work hard to go deep in the process.
Our “strong roots in love,” to use the Ephesians phrase, show in the upstairs-downstairs nature of our monthly gatherings. Over coffee downstairs we hear each other’s stories of life and work. We share pictures of new grandchildren, mourn the death of a parent, acknowledge cancer present, surgeries past, and recoveries accomplished. We commiserate about so much change, encourage each other to keep up with change, and have deep conversation about what changes are worth vigorous resistance.
Then we go upstairs. In our upstairs-life we talk about the book we read that month. One day, for example, we shared highlights from Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint. Nadia is a Lutheran pastor. Young. Copiously tattooed. (Mary Magdalene fills her left-forearm as a reminder that women were some of the earliest disciples of Jesus.)
It’s always lively conversation. We know that as we talk together about whatever we are reading, we interpret each other’s contexts, hear the questions and challenges in new ways, and overhear the gospel in the conversation. We need each other, so that our own perspectives broaden and stretch. So that, again Ephesians, we “… comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth…” of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. We change one another.
The downstairs and upstairs of life – webs of support are God’s gifts to us. A family of sorts that forms a web of community around us that reminds us who and whose we are when the reminding counts most.
“Family” is sometimes an awkward word in the church. Not everyone has family – children, a spouse or partner, living parents, or even parents who were known. But Ephesians claims this use of the word “family”:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and earth takes its name.”
I asked Beverly Gaventa about the choice of the translation “family” here. Many of you knew Beverly when she worshiped here. Beverly served on our Session and chaired the Adult Education Committee when she was Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary. Before she went to Baylor University in Texas three years ago. Beverly is one of two biblical scholars in residence who late next spring will take thirty of us on a tour of sites in Greece where the Apostle Paul preached and taught, including Ephesus, to which today’s letter is addressed.
The New Jerusalem translation that comes out of the Roman Catholic tradition uses fatherhood here, instead of family, and the newer Common English Bible uses ethnic group, but most English translations choose “family” and Beverly agrees.
Here’s what Professor Gaventa says:
“I think ‘family’ is probably the best translation [of the Greek work patria here], but that family (especially in the Roman world) is something of a miniature of the city-state itself.” Gaventa continues, “One of the things Ephesians is doing… is taking expectations that would normally be applied to the family as a miniature of the state, [almost representative], and applying those instead to the church. So, the family [that’s us] is a unit of the church [the whole capital C Church]—belongs to God—rather than [to the state, to] Rome.”
“The [small c church] family is a unit of the [big-C] church – and [the church] belongs to God.”
When I heard this from Beverly, I knew I’d heard it someplace else recently. It was from Nadia Bolz-Weber in Pastrix — at Reading Group. First she notices that right after God claims Jesus at his baptism as “My Son, the Beloved,” Jesus is tempted by the devil to deny that very thing. Then she says,
“Identify [is] always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school―they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation. Maybe demons are defined as anything other than God that tries to tell us who we are” (138-39).
“God has named and claimed us as God’s own.”
Not just as individuals, but as the church, the body of Christ, the family that is God’s gift to us. The family that forms a web of community around us and reminds us who and whose we are when the reminding counts most.
We live in a world where borders, both real and imagined, have walls to keep people in or out. We live in a world where ISIS is a household word. We live in a world where religious extremism of all stripes, including Christian, invites disgust and revenge. We live in a world where vitriol is spewed, in every available medium, at individuals, at genders, at countries, at disabilities, at races, at sexual orientations, and yes, even at religions.
Church – beloved and called and sent people of God, — surely this is a time when the reminding counts most. Church, you have the power to comprehend “what is the breadth and length and height and depth, … to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge… [to be] … filled with all the fullness of God.”
That means the “so like us” parts of our web are not enough. No matter how much they enrich us. That means the “not quite like us but close” parts of our web are not enough. No matter how much they support and challenge and change us. That means the church writ large, capital C, the church that Jesus Christ called us to, the church that knows and claims the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ is the core and the strength of the web of community around us. Your role, church, is to remind one another, and the world, of who and whose we are when the reminding counts the most.
She was light brown. We discovered she was a wolf spider. (Picture of spider hanging off a small part of a broken web.) For about three days she would tend her web, repairing holes, re-anchoring the edges, rebuilding the sections that showed the most stress. And every third night or so, as the web reached a state beyond repair, torn and broken from blowing leaves, or struggling insects, or God knows what, she would meticulously gather it up in bits, fling them off like a spit ball shot from a straw, and begin anew.
By 8 or 9 p.m. she’d be circling, drawing out a fine thread from her body, swinging on an already attached one, touching the new to the anchor point. Moving on to the next one. Doing it again. And again. And again. (Picture of big spider off center and partial web.)
The very next morning she would be tucked into a tiny ball, almost invisible, in the corner where the post and the roof beam met. The whole rectangle was filled. The brand new, intricate, perfectly patterned web was complete. Restored. Renewed. Redeemed.
It’s not a new idea, folks. It’s biblical. The web is complete when all God’s people together know and claim, for every single one, the breadth and length and height and depth… of the love of Christ. When we remind one another, and the world, of who and whose we are when the reminding counts most.
The reminding counts …right now.
© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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