Children’s Homily May 19, 2019: God’s Dream (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Today we heard two stories about people having dreams. Does anyone remember one of them? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. Peter had a dream. Peter was a follower of Jesus and he was a member of the same religious group as Jesus. Who knows what that is? (Give them a chance to answer). Good! He was Jewish. His religion was called “Judaism.” Now, religions often have a LOT of rules. Who can tell me some of the rules of OUR religion? (Give them a chance to answer). Excellent! Well done.
Now, who has rules at home? (Give them a chance to answer). Let me ask you this: is it sometimes hard to figure out which rule you are supposed to be following when? (Give them a chance to answer). Like when someone tells you to share with your brother or your sister AND not to argue? How can you possibly do both of those things at once?! (Give them a chance to answer). Well, sometimes the disciples couldn’t figure out which was the most important of their rules. That’s what happened to Peter and his friends. They thought that in order to be close to God, they needed to follow ALL of the rules ALL of the time – even if they said two different things! Now mostly, rules are good, because they help us get along with each other – but sometimes rules hurt people instead of helping them. That’s usually when we make rules that keep people apart. Who can give me an example of that? (Give them a chance to answer). How about when you just went to the beach with a friend and you want to go have an ice cream, but the store has a sign that says, “NO BARE FEET ALLOWED” and your friend lost his flip flops? (Give them a chance to answer). What’s more important to you: that sign or having ice cream with your friend? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s what God told Peter in his dream: that making friends with people and helping them is more important that the rules he was used to following for what he could eat and with whom.
There is a man I know whose childhood was very sad because the rules of his country said that black and white people could not do things together – not even eat ice cream. This man grew up and became a Bishop. Who remembers what a bishop is? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right! This man’s name was Desmond Tutu, and even though black people weren’t usually allowed to become bishops where he lived, he worked very hard and talked to people about how things should be fairer. He also he read the Bible and told people how Jesus said that there was one rule that was the most important of all of them. Who knows what that is? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – to love God and love each other. In fact, Jesus said that’s the way that we know that we are Christians! Jesus didn’t say we will know we are Christians by what we wear, or who we talk to, or whether we are rich or poor. He said we will know it by how we treat each other.
Bishop Tutu also knew from reading our other dream story from today, that in heaven nobody is sad, because everyone is loving and kind and fair. Bishop Tutu wanted us to understand what this other dream – John’s vision – meant: that if we try very hard, heaven can come to earth – so he wrote a book about it. Would you like to hear it? (Give them a chance to answer). Okay, listen:
Read God’s Dream by Desmond Tutu.
How did you guys like that story? (Give them a chance to answer). Wouldn’t it be nice if that happened here? (Give them a chance to answer). Okay, so how do we make that happen? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. We have to love everyone! Now, heaven won’t come if we just SAY we love everyone. We have to SHOW that we love everyone. What are ways we can do that? (Give them a chance to answer). Excellent! Who is willing to try it? (Give them a chance to answer). Okay, then we agree. We will all try to love one another like Jesus loved us. We will try to be fair, and think of other people’s feelings, and help people who need it when we can. That way we will be doing our part to bring heaven here. And what do we say in church, when we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. AMEN. Let’s say it together: AMEN.
Sermon for May 19, 2019 (8 am): By our Love (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
My son does not have the best table manners. This is a constant source of irritation to me, since, where I come from, being able to tell your salad and dessert forks apart is what separates the sheep from the goats (so to speak). Of course, that’s not how it’s supposed to work – because manners are designed not to separate people, but to bring them together. The idea is that if we have shared rules, our anxiety and discomfort about doing the right thing will be alleviated. This notion is illustrated an apocryphal story about Eleanor Roosevelt hosting a dinner at the White House. At some point in the meal, one of the guests, confounded by the extensive table setting before him, mistook his finger bowl (a mini bowl filled with lemon water used to rinse one’s fingers off as needed) for a bowl of soup, picking it up and drinking from it. Without missing a beat, Mrs. Roosevelt picked up her own finger bowl and did the same. Thus, by breaking an etiquette rule, Mrs. Roosevelt did exactly what manners are supposed to do: she made someone feel more comfortable. When Judith Martin, more popularly known as “Miss Manners” was asked the purpose of manners, she said, “It is the basic question of civilization: How we should treat one another.”
How we treat one another is one of the foundational ideas of Christianity, a fact that is made perfectly clear in today’s scriptures. In today’s famous gospel passage, Jesus identifies what it means to follow him – to be what we now call “Christian.” “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell them that they need to look a certain way, or live in a certain place, or follow existing civil laws. What he says, to put it in the words of the children’s song, is that people will know we are Christians by our love. It’s just that simple.
Or perhaps not. Gary Jones suggests, “Jesus wanted to make it easy for us by having us focus on this one thing; yet we have found so many other ways to identify true believers… Jesus does not talk about the importance of the Bible or a carefully constructed creed. The New Testament would not even be written until two generations after Jesus’ death, and the Nicene Creed would be hammered out by combative theologians over the next 350 years. The Bible and the creed would become terribly important to human beings over the years, while the one thing most important to Jesus would get lost as Christians wrestled with power and orthodoxy. What Jesus wanted us to know, apparently, was that although people would fight wars over held correct beliefs, this was not Jesus’ primary concern…The commandment is not about what you believe; it is about how you live.”
That’s precisely what makes it a new commandment. We know that when Jesus was asked which of the hundreds of Jewish laws was the most important, he answered simply, “Love God. Love one another.” This exchange occurs in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), marking its importance in Christian theology. When Jesus said this, however, it was not a new commandment. The command to love God and one’s neighbor can be found not only in Hebrew Scripture, but in numerous other religious texts as well. What separates John’s version of the story and what is new is Jesus’s statement that his followers will be identified based on how they enact those two laws. “We are not simply to use words to tell people about the meaning of the cross and resurrection; we are to love one another as a way of embodying [that] truth.”
Of course, as we all know, it’s easier to love some people than others. It’s simpler to spend time with people who believe the same things we do, who think like us, and who share our interests. Readers join book clubs; outdoor folk join scouting; and trivia buffs play “Jeopardy.” This has always been true, but it has become particularly pronounced with the advent of social media. In the past, you could manage to spend most of your time with people of like mind, but you would still encounter people who were difficult to get along with -so you learned to get along with them. But if your primary social interactions are on the internet, you can actually avoid that. According to the Aspen Institute, “People have never been more connected than they are today…With [our] expansive [internet] networks, Americans in different communities could be connecting with each other, learning about each other and building bridges to each other, no matter who they are, what they do, or where they live. ..But that’s not the case. In fact, social media is separating us further. We generally use social media to…strengthen our connections to people who are already similar to us. It seldom connects us with people who don’t fit our expectations of behavior, and it does not build the understanding and empathy that can come from those disparate connections.”
This is just as true about Christians as it is about any other group. The truth is that we are just as likely to find someone we don’t agree with – or simply find annoying – at church as anywhere else. What I have always found to be the beauty of Christian community, however, is that we are not allowed to avoid those people. We cannot simply say, “I can’t love him or her.” Not only are there social norms indicating that we have to try, but we have liturgical rituals that force us to greet one another as Christians, by demonstrating love and peace. This is one of the reasons that I frequently emphasize that the peace is not a chance to catch up with your friends; it’s a chance to show you are a Christian, by demonstrating your love for all people.
Unfortunately, churches, like other institutions, have a long history of welcoming some people and shutting out others, often based on the idea that some people are better than others. But the advent of social media allows us to limit our communications to other Christians who believe as we do, thus endorsing our existing, often narrow views and keeping us from learning and growing – and keeping us from demonstrating the way of Jesus.
That’s what Peter told the conservative leaders of the church in his time when he was called on the carpet for eating with uncircumcised men. Peter, an observant Jew, shared the belief of the other apostles that he would be profaned by eating with outsiders – and he resisted doing it -but, after being told in a dream not once but three times that he was not “to make a distinction between them and us,” he was convinced that it was God’s will to allow “even the Gentiles” to repent and be saved, and they believed it. This was a HUGE change in understanding for the disciples, who had previously believed that Jesus belonged solely to the Jews. They had realized that Jesus’s power and authority reached far beyond their own time and place – and exceeded their human laws. They were limiting the power of God by trying to fit him into human boxes.
We do the same thing. Each time we decide not to listen to those who disagree with us; each time we make a decision to keep someone out of our community because of who they are, and every, single time we use scripture to argue that a certain human viewpoint- or law-or individual is right to provoke, fear, promote hatred, or treat anyone as less than a child of God, we violate the primary commandment of Jesus. We make ourselves bigger and God smaller.
That’s completely inconsistent with our holy scriptures, which repeatedly celebrate the greatness of the Lord – the generosity of a God who made and cares for all things -not just humans – and who asks us to care for them and praise God in harmony with them. That is what heaven is. “Heaven is plainly and simply the place where God is…and [where] humans are fully united with God [and one another].”
It is my experience that this is only possible when we focus on doing God’s work. I have many friends with whom I don’t agree theologically, but I am happy to stand beside them at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter – and they are happy to stand by me. Because in those moments, when we are caring for the disenfranchised, the poor, the hated, and the marginalized, our desire to judge one another- to put our human rules ahead of the way of Jesus- fall away. In those moments, we recognize one another. We know we are Christians by our love. AMEN.
Judith Martin, quoted in Diane Coutu, “In Praise of Boundaries: a conversation with Miss Manners,” (December, 2003), Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2003/12/in-praise-of-boundaries-a-conversation-with-miss-manners
Gary D. Jones, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 470.
Thomas H. Troeger, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 473.
Rajiv Vinnakota, (January 24, 2017), “How Social Media Divides Us,” The Aspen Institute, https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/social-media-divides-us/
Dana Ferguson, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 462.
Sermon for May 12, 2019: Lamb leading sheeping (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
Based on this Sunday’s readings can anyone tell me what this day is often referred to as?… Good Shepard Sunday!
I’d like to give a disclaimer here; I know almost nothing about sheep. I was raised in Texas ˗ cattle country˗ where sheep had a bad reputation. It was something about eating the grass so close to the ground that it wouldn’t grow back. That would deprive the cattle of food. Sheep and the people who tended them were held in low esteem. So, most of the lore I learned of sheep was rather negative.
From the Sheep 101 website I learned that sheep are gregarious. They will usually stay together in a group while grazing. A sheep will become highly agitated if it is separated from the group. It is the banding together in large groups which protects sheep from predators which will go after the outliers in the flock. I also learned that domestic sheep can’t exist long without shepherding. The sheep learn to trust the shepherd to keep them safe.
In today’s Gospel the Judeans in the Temple are trying to get Jesus to tell them plainly if he is the Messiah. It is good to remember that the temple authorities have already been plotting to trip Jesus up so they can put him to death for blasphemy. Jesus tells them to look at the works he has done, for these testify to whom he is, but they do not believe.
As the evangelist tells us this happened on Hanukkah or the rededication of the Temple, celebrating the Maccabean revolt that overthrew the Seleucid kingdom of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the cleansing of the Second Temple 200 years earlier. The Judeans questioning Jesus have the legendary Judas Maccabeus, who led the revolt against the Seleucids, as the image of the messiah that they are wanting for. A king that would come as a conqueror. When the Jewish people celebrated Hanukkah, they not only thought about God and liberation. They not only thanked God for having the Temple back again (1). They also thought about kings, and how they became kings by military might.
The problem is that they fail to give themselves back to God. Their hardened hearts will not hear Jesus’ words, understand his works, or recognize who he is. They fail to experience the eternal life of God in the here and now – in the changing of water into wine, in the feeding of the 5000, in the healing of the lame and sick, in the raising of Lazarus, in the commandment to love God and each other. So, Jesus, walking in the Temple during the festival of Hanukkah, talking about being the good shepherd, the real shepherd, the king who would come and hold his sheep in his gentle hands.
Never let it be thought that Jesus’ message was anything other than controversial – and dangerous. But the discussion doesn’t stop there. Jesus moves on into even more dangerous territory. He returns once more to the shepherd-and-sheep theme, this time with a glorious and amazing promise to the ‘sheep’. Those who hear Jesus’ voice and recognize it as the voice of ‘their’ shepherd will be safe for ever. He will look after them, and even death itself, the last great enemy, cannot ultimately harm them.(2) The reason Jesus can be so confident of this is that the guarantee is his own unbreakable bond of love and union with the Father, and the fact that the ‘sheep’ he owns are the ones the Father has given him. Our certainty about the future beyond death, in other words, is not a matter of wishful thinking, a vague general hope, or an unreliable tendency to assume things will turn out all right. It is built firmly on nothing less than the union of Jesus with the Father. Jesus holds his sheep who hear his voice in his hands and follow the good Shephard cannot be snatched away.
But – – – if we become so comfortable in our faith that our shepherd’s voice becomes so very soft and quiet to us that it is impossible to hear over our own inner voice and the loud voices of the world, if things don’t go in our community the way we think it should, if we weigh our own personal needs and desires greater than the communities’, and if we are unable forgive and love one another we are in danger.
The danger of a comfortable faith is that we can easily be snatched from Jesus’ hands. If anything, the faith to which Jesus calls us should make us uncomfortable. Just listen to our shepherd’s voice: blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Listen to Jesus’ words: love God, your neighbor, and your enemy; do not worry about your life or tomorrow; turn the other cheek; do not judge, sell your possessions and give to the poor; show mercy like the Good Samaritan; forgive seventy times seven; wash each other’s feet; take up your cross and follow me. I don’t know about you, but it makes me squirm just a bit, and feel somewhat uneasy. The uncomfortable faith to which Jesus calls us is nothing less than God’s own life, eternal life, right here, right now, in this world, under God’s rule in your life and in my life. It is a quality of life that never perishes. It makes us the people of God safe in her hands, for the Lamb at the center of God’s throne is our shepherd who provides, protects, cares for, and lovingly leads his flock.
Years ago, the church my family and I were members of had an associate priest, Fr. Glenn Bowersox, who really disliked Good Shepard Sunday and much to his chagrin was almost always scheduled to preach on it. It wasn’t that he objected to the Christology of Jesus being our Shepard, after all that is what Bishops and Priests are called to be – Pastors. No, he objected to the Victorian very sentimental and romantic image that The Good Shepard had become. You know the bucolic scenes with a northern European Jesus with light brown or auburn hair and beard a shepherd’s crook in one hand and the lamb in the other. He is usually surrounded by lambs and sometimes children at his feet. Often, he is shown with a lamb carried around his shoulders. Along with the sentimental interpretation of Psalm 23 that is a must at funerals although the psalmist sings of a life in God’s reign, and the comfortable and individualistic theology made Fr. Bowersox very uncomfortable with this Sunday.
Father Bowersox was ordained in Lahore Pakistan in the Church of Pakistan. He worked for years in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He experienced and saw the prejudice against and persecution of the minority Christians. Because of this he objected to the church being reduced to a place of individual comfort and sentimentalism and not service and safety and sanctuary for all afflicted.
I am reminded of a quote by Rachel Held Evans, a Christian author and columnist who died last week at age 37, may she rest in peace. She said:
“Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Image if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”
(1)Wright, N.T.. John for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-10 (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 156). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
(2) Wright, N.T.. John for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-10 (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 157-158). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Sermon for May 5, 2019: Asked and Answered( The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
My last job, prior to becoming a priest, was as a Forensic Neuropsychologist. My primary work was as an expert witness. I evaluated individuals based on legal codes and then testified in court about my findings. Being an expert witness meant that I got asked a lot of questions- and not all of them were polite.
One way to discredit a theory of a crime is to discredit the person presenting it. Some attorneys try to do this by asking a witness the same question over and over again in order to make the witness look inconsistent, untruthful, or incompetent. It goes like this:
Lawyer: “Dr. White – or is it Ms. White? – because you’re not really a doctor are you?
Me: “I have a doctorate in Clinical Psychology.”
Lawyer: “But you’re not a doctor, are you”
Me: “I am a doctor of psychology.”
Lawyer: “So, you’re not a real doctor”?
Me: “I am not a physician, but I am a doctor.”
This could go on for a while, depending on the attorneys and the judge. Usually, either the lawyer I was working for would object or the judge would get tired of it and decide that enough was enough – that the question had been, “asked and answered.”
This kind of back and forth in U.S. courts is not unusual. The American legal system is complex and often contentious. On the one hand, it is an important pillar of our democracy, but it is also deeply flawed and susceptible to influence from those who would use it for their own gain. As much as we would like to think that if we simply “follow the rules,” everything will turn out right, that’s often not the case. Laws are interpreted, so individual opinion figures into legal decisions far more often than most people think. Frequently, the question of who is making the decision is just as important as the actual criteria for making it.
Much of our American jurisprudence can be traced back to the Roman legal system. “At the height of the Roman Empire, a quarter of the world’s population lived under Roman law… This made the empire one of the most culturally diverse societies ever seen… [However], under the “Pax Romana,” meaning “the peace of Rome”, inhabitants of conquered lands were not automatically considered Roman citizen. [even though] they were subject to Roman laws and paid Roman taxes…Local inhabitants [who] behaved themselves and paid their taxes…were allowed to continue with their local customs and religions, as long as these did not directly violate or compromise Roman law.”
That is the legal system that Jesus faced following his arrest. Jesus, who was not a citizen of Rome, was subject to the laws and taxes of the government, but not to its rights and privileges. This meant that he could only practice his beliefs if they did not contradict Roman law – and that was a matter of interpretation. That’s why, in John’s gospel, during his trial, Jesus is asked directly if he is the Son of God. Jesus responds by asking why they continue to question him, given that he has already answered them publicly. In other words, “asked and answered.”
Unlike Jesus, Saul, or Paul as we now call him, was a Roman citizen, and his reputation was impeccable, making him free to breathe “threats and murder” against those he thought of as sinful and wrong. He was, as he repeatedly tells us in his letters, completely convinced of the rightness of his actions – until his experience on the road to Damascus taught him otherwise. Blinded by his own false convictions and unable to hear the voice of the Lord, he experiences what it means to be literally blind, hungry and fearful. He learns what it means to be confused and afraid. His world is turned upside down. He lives in a culture in which honor is everything – a world in which a poor, uneducated, Galilean, crucified, blasphemer cannot be the Messiah of God – and yet, when he asks who has called him, it is Jesus who answers.
The same is true for Jesus’s disciples. In today’s gospel, tired of hiding and still unsure of what they should do next, they decide to try something familiar, something normal. They go fishing. Twice now, they have seen the resurrected Jesus, and each time they have not recognized him. This day is no different. They do not know him until, as he did in life, he observes their emptiness, calls to them, and provides them with sustenance, and they are filled. They do not need to ask who he is, because his actions tell them. He is the good Lord, who gives bread to the hungry and courage to the fearful.
The question, then, is who they are. Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me”? and three times – the same number of times Peter denied him in life – Peter tells him he does. And three times Jesus tells Peter what loving him means: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, love one another as I have loved you. The Lord’s net is full of those in need of the God’s love, and you must work together to bring them to her.” It is the same commission that Jesus gave to Paul after his conversion, and it is the work of all Christians: to care for one another and for all of God’s children.
We don’t seem to be doing very well. Hunger, poverty, persecution, and violence can be found all over the globe, even in countries as wealthy and allegedly “advanced” as our own. God’s children are divided, not just between cultures and systems of belief, but within them. Recent surveys suggest that individuals who identify themselves as “Christians” strongly disagree on many significant issues, including human sexuality, gender equality, distribution of wealth, and immigration. As one college student suggests, many Christians, find themselves, “engaged in a battle for the soul of the movement. ‘It’s now pitting Christian against Christian: Who’s more Christian? Who loves God more? …Who’s doing Christianity right?’’
I would like to suggest that the answer is, “none of us.” Because if we were, then Jesus’s sheep would be tended. Jesus’s lambs would be fed. We have allowed ourselves to become distracted, spending our time and energy worrying about who is right, rather than doing what is right. We have, like Saul, become so convinced of our own rightness that we are blind to the call of Jesus. We have not shared the physical or spiritual food that Jesus has provided for us. We have breathed threats and destruction when God has called “us to breathe life and invitation.” We have loved ourselves and neglected to love others.
Much of our disagreement with other Christians is based on interpretation of scriptures – and, just as in our legal system, it is sometimes difficult to discern the truth. Perhaps consistency is the key. There are many contradictions in scripture, starting at the very beginning with two different creation stories. The relationship between God and creation changes and evolves over time. The same God who is glorified by all heaven and earth came into the world not as a king but as a lamb, a lamb who allowed himself to be slaughtered, birthing victory from suffering.
That lamb was Jesus, and there is no inconsistency in what he said or did. When the lawyers and experts of his own time asked Jesus how he interpreted his holy texts, Jesus told them, “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. There is nothing more important than this.” And he spent the rest of his life – and then gave it as well- doing exactly that. That is the truth of what it means to be a Christian, to follow the Way of Jesus.
“Do you love me”?
“Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.”
Asked and answered.
PBS.ORG, “The Roman Empire in the First Century: on the Frontiers,” (2006), https://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/frontiers.html
Tiffany Rogers, quoted in Emily McFarlan Miller, “DIY Faith News, ‘Who’s Doing Christianity Right’? At Taylor University, Pence invitation highlights evangelical divide,” (May 2, 2019), Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2019/05/02/whos-doing-christianity-right-at-taylor-university-pence-invitation-highlights-evangelical-divide/
Stephen D. Jones, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 407.
Sermon for Easter, 2019: The Happiest Place on Earth (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
I have long argued that Walt Disney had some serious mother issues. Let’s look at the evidence: Snow White? Mother dead – stepmother evil. Cinderella –mother dead, stepmother evil. Belle? Pocahontas? Ariel? No mother, no mother, no mother. Disney animals aren’t immune either. Take Bambi; the film opens with the young deer and his mother walking through a calm winter landscape. Pastoral music plays while his mom spots the first signs of spring and together they nose the new grass. Suddenly, mom freezes, sensing danger, and tells her son to “run, run and don’t look back.” Shots ring out and – you guessed it – no mother.
Last week a live-action remake of “Dumbo” opened, quickly followed by my adamant refusal to go. Why? Spoiler Alert! Dumbo’s mom dies in the first reel. My son suggested we go to “Pet Sematary” instead, which seemed marginally less depressing, but (more spoiler alerts) nice animals die in that one too. Now, I’m not about to get into the psychology of Stephen King, but it may surprise no one to know that Walt Disney’s mom died as the result of a tragic accident for which Disney blamed himself.
Walt and his brother Roy were struggling filmmakers when they put all their money into an animated feature-length film called “Snow White.” The enormous success of the movie completely changed their lives… [and allowed them] to purchase a brand new …home for their parents…[But] the elder Disneys had been in their new home less than a month when tragedy struck. A defective furnace caused Disney’s mother’s death by asphyxiation [from carbon monoxide poisoning] on the night of November 26, 1938.” Disney blamed himself, and he never got over it.
In psychology, there’s a term called “magical thinking.” It means the belief that thinking something can actually make it happen. A severe form of this is found in many psychotic illnesses -but most people I know engage in at least some magical thinking. How many of you have knocked wood after saying something positive so as not to jinx it? Anybody out there vigilantly step over cracks in the sidewalk in order to avoid injuring their Mama’s backs? Now, I suspect that if I asked, most of you would deny believing in the superstitious behavior we engage in, but that doesn’t seem to stop us from doing it (just in case, of course). Who doesn’t want to believe that you can undo the tragedies of your life? Who doesn’t want to believe that magic is possible?
Based on the success of Walt Disney, nobody. Disney took his own sorrow and used it to create a place to go to escape the harsh realities of the world for a while – a place where beautiful people always sing on pitch, animals talk, and, if you believe in fairy dust, you can fly. He called it “The Magic Kingdom.” It kind of sounds like how people describe heaven. In fact, it kind of sounds like religion – except, maybe, a bit more fun. The fact is that many 21st century people have come to think of religion in just that way – as nothing more than an organized delusional system shared by millions of people. A recent Gallup report found that only half of Americans describe themselves as religiously affiliated and, “even those who claim a faith tradition may not belong to a religious…community.” I think this may have something to do with how we define what is true – and what is right.
Most religions claim to have the truth and to know what is right – and yet over the millennia that the world has had organized religion, faith leaders have consistently abused the power that they wield. When we see headlines about Christian churches who exclude people for reasons of race, culture, sexuality, socioeconomic status or any other reason; who abuse or allow abuse to happen; or who speak in one way and act in another, we recognize that they are expressly contradicting the desires of the man we claim to follow. This is clear in the lesson from Acts that we just heard. In it, Peter gives a summary of Christian belief before declaring our mission as Christians: “Jesus commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.” Not just (as Peter himself once thought) Jews, and not just those who read scripture in a prescribed way (as some Christians still believe) – everyone. God, Peter tells us, shows no partiality. God loves all his creation, and God wants everyone to experience the power of her love.
This is a love that is not of this world. This is a love that is not human. That’s what makes it so hard for us to understand, so hard to believe in. Human beings have begun to think that the universe revolves around us. We assume that if we can’t do something then it can’t be done. We have trouble imagining a God that is endlessly forgiving and loving because we cannot be those things ourselves.
This is incredibly arrogant. Consider this: in the 21st century, suggesting that DNA and RNA, or unknown galaxies -or a plethora of other things we cannot see – do not exist simply because we cannot comprehend them without the use of imagination, is considered ignorant; but if we suggest for the very same reasons that God is real, we are accused of engaging in magical thinking. We are evolved beings, the thinking goes, we should value rational thinking. We should seek reasonable explanations for things we don’t understand.
The disciples who encountered the resurrected Jesus weren’t that different. Mary did not go the tomb expecting to find the body of Jesus missing – and when she did, her first instinct was to believe that his grave has been robbed. Peter and the beloved disciple didn’t believe it either – and when they did accept that Jesus was truly gone, they still didn’t understand why. Mary then saw two angels sitting in the empty tomb, but it still didn’t occur to her that Jesus had, as promised, been resurrected. She didn’t even recognize Jesus when he stepped right in front of her. It was that difficult for her to believe what she was seeing – for her to consider that there might be magic that was real.
We are the same way. How many times have we mistaken Jesus for the gardener? How often are we willing to believe in the astonishing lies that people tell one another – that prejudice is right, that traumatizing children is acceptable, that making ourselves feel safe and fat and happy is more important than taking care of God’s children who are cold and hungry and afraid – but not that we were created by a loving, life-giving God? Why are we willing to try to fill our spiritual emptiness with alcohol, drugs, television, movies, games, sports, the internet, sex, and money, but we are not open to the experience of the mystery of faith? Why do we remain militantly deaf to hearing Jesus call us by name?
Oh my brothers and sisters, do not be blinded by the rewards and sorrows of this world. Consider the words of Christ’s great apostle: If for this life only that we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. Listen to what scripture says: Jesus is important to this world, but Jesus is much more than this world. Jesus is much better than this world. Jesus is forever- and Jesus is for everyone.
Walt Disney took his greatest sorrow and tried to repair it by creating a place where bad things could be undone – but he was only human, and his magic was the poor, cheap magic of this world. Our Lord Christ Jesus took on the sorrows of the whole world for all time and, by his divine sacrifice of humility and grace, turned them into true eternal and everlasting joy. The true Magic Kingdom, my brethren, is the Kingdom of God. Believe it. Accept it.
They used to interview athletes who had won important tournaments and say, “Hey, you just won the world series – what are you going to do now”? And they would always answer, “I’m going to Disney World.” But we don’t have to settle for that paltry, fake magic kingdom. We have something far more real and far more glorious.
Hey Christians, Jesus Christ is Risen today – what are you going to do now”? Me? I’m going to the Kingdom of God. AMEN.
David Mikkelson, (November, 2008), “Why Did So Many of Walt Disney’s Animated Films Have Motherless Characters? His own mother’s death may have been the most shattering moment of Walt Disney’s life.” https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/disneys-motherless-films/
Bob Smietana & Aysha Khan (April 18, 2019), “Gallup: Number of Americans who belong to a church or house of worship plummets,” religionnews.com
Sermon for the Easter Vigil 2019: Elemental (The Rev. Molly Haws)
We began this journey with ashes.
We began this journey with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
And now, Alleluia! Christ is risen!
We are dust, and to dust we shall return, and Christ is risen, which means that the reality that we are dust and shall return to dust is suddenly Good News. Yes, it is! Listen:
This is the glory of the resurrection that we celebrate: that we have always been and shall always be essential elements of the dream of God in Creation,
and no one, no person, no power or principality or catastrophe, no circumstance, no failure or evil intention or terrible decision, nothing, nothing can ever remove us from the dream of God.[†]
And lest you think I’m just making this up, or that I’m preaching some kind of sensitive New Age lefty dilution of Christianity, I will now call upon Blessed John Chrysostom, a fellow traveler on the Jesus Road, who wrote maybe the greatest Easter sermon ever—and he did so many years ago, in the second half of the fourth century.
Chrysostom’s sermon starts out with three questions. These are not rhetorical. When the question applies to you, shout out. Loud.
An Easter Sermon[‡]
“Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any weary from fasting?
Let them now receive their due!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their reward.
If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the feast!
Those who arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they shall not be short-changed.
Those who have tarried until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.
And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour,
even as to those who toiled from the beginning.
To one and all the Lord gives generously.
The Lord accepts the offering of every work.
The Lord honours every deed and commends their intention.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike, receive your reward.
Rich and poor, rejoice together!
Conscientious and lazy, celebrate the day!
You who have kept the fast, and you who have not,
rejoice, this day, for the table is bountifully spread!
Feast royally, for the calf is fatted.
Let no one go away hungry.
Partake, all, of the banquet of faith.
Enjoy the bounty of the Lord’s goodness!
Let no one grieve being poor,
for the universal reign has been revealed.
Let no one lament persistent failings,
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
for the death of our Saviour has set us free.
The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it.
The Lord vanquished hell when he descended into it.
The Lord put hell in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, were placed in turmoil when he encountered you below.”
Hell was in turmoil having been eclipsed.
Hell was in turmoil having been mocked.
Hell was in turmoil having been destroyed.
Hell was in turmoil having been abolished.
Hell was in turmoil having been made captive.
Hell grasped a corpse, and met God.
Hell seized earth, and encountered heaven.
Hell took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.
O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and you are cast down!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life is set free!
Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead.
For Christ, having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Christ be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!”
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
[†] see Romans 8:38-39 [NRSV]: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
[‡] The Easter Sermon of John Chrysostom exists in many editions on the Web. This version was prepared by André Lavergne [firstname.lastname@example.org]. Cf. The editions of Mark Baker and Frank Dobbs. Posted Easter, 1999. Revised Easter, 2001 http://www.worship.ca/docs/l_stjohn.html
Sermon for Good Friday, April 19, 2019: The Gift of Suffering (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Things are not always what they appear to be. I learned this lesson (again) during my morning run today. As some of you know, I stay close to the church during Holy Week because we have so many services, so I am currently staying in an unfamiliar neighborhood. My lodgings are about a half mile from a local park, which has a trail that (on the map) seems pretty straightforward and like I could run five miles on it. What I forgot was that I live on a relatively flat island, but Martinez has a lot of hills – and apparently many of those hills are in Briones Regional Park.
I actually did pretty well until I hit the first hill -which didn’t look too daunting – but when I turned a sharp corner, I found that it climbed upward for a bit further than I had thought – and then it went up a bit more steeply than that. In fact, the more I climbed, the farther away the top of that hill seemed – and that was before I got lost.
That’s what life feels like sometimes. We are jogging or walking along at our usual pace, doing okay – and then something changes. Suddenly, instead of being on a flat island, we are on a never-ending hill. The things we took for granted are gone. We can no longer depend on our own strength. The things we thought were in reach are farther and farther away. We become convinced that we can’t reach the top of the hill – or, even worse, start to believe that the view from the top simply isn’t worth the climb.
The truth is that many of you are climbing your own hills right now – hills like illness, depression, poverty, and grief. Some of these emotional and physical mountains are so steep that you have considered giving up. You are not alone. The world is filled with people suffering from oppression, injustice, anger and fear. The darkness of greed, poverty, deceit, and violence close us in; gangs of evildoers circle around us. We are tired. We are lost. We are afraid.
You know what? So was Jesus. So great was his misery on the cross that he chose to quote the words of “a person of faith [who has] lost all that he ever was or has ever had, including the very water and dust that form his body. [Jesus knew that, like the psalmist, he might not just cease to exist but] all evidence that he ever existed may disappear as well. [And] to all appearances, his frantic petitions found only silence.” If there was anyone who ever understood fear, betrayal, and suffering, it was Jesus. It is, in fact, impossible to listen to tonight’s readings – to hear once again the story of how Jesus was betrayed, arrested, denied, tortured, mocked, and killed – without recognizing that there is nothing we suffer from – no pain, no illness, no sorrow, no fear, and no loss – that Jesus has not already suffered. There is no hill we have to climb that will ever be as long or as painful as Jesus’s walk to Golgotha – a walk that he chose to take.
The passion story we heard tonight was taken from the Gospel of John, which is our youngest and most unique gospel. Unlike the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John’s gospel is focused less on the story of Jesus’s life than on its meaning. John doesn’t just want us to know how Jesus lived, but why – and the answer to that question is the key to Christian belief. Jesus came into the world to save us from ourselves – and in order to redeem humanity, he had to become fully part of it. That’s why Jesus did not spend his life hanging out with the wealthy and powerful God did not send Jesus to save those who thought they didn’t need him. Jesus was sent to the suffering, the poor, and the oppressed, and it is with them that he spent his life. The salvation he brought was for those who most needed it, and those who accepted it.
This doesn’t mean that those who have much cannot be saved- but it does mean that anyone of us who would be saved must admit that we need saving, that we cannot save ourselves. Christianity has been so powerful and important for so long that many Christians have started to think that simply saying we believe that Jesus died for us is what makes us Christians. That is not what our scriptures tell us. It is not what tonight’s scriptures tell us. The servant who will prosper is not one who judges. The servant who shall be very high is not one who punishes. The servant who shall be exalted does not ignore the cries of pain of those in need. The servant who saves – the God who saves, is forgiving. The God who redeems us does not leave us to climb our steep hills alone. Our God loves us. Our God died for us.
You don’t need to be able to climb the mountaintop to find God, although he is there, my brethren, shining with the glorious light of God -he is there! He is right here, right now –beside us, behind us, inside us, to share our burdens, and to alleviate our suffering. This is what he asks us to do for others – not to judge them or exclude them- or leave them alone to face their fears, but to love them, as we are loved. Remember, sisters and brothers, that we have been saved, not as individuals, but as a community.
Tonight we have a choice. We can think of Good Friday as bad, because it forces us to face the harshness and injustice of Jesus’s suffering -or we can choose to remember why it is good. It is good because it is through that suffering we are redeemed and brought together as a community -a community of faith, of love, and grace. AMEN.
1Maria Decarvalho, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 290.
Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019: Little Children (The Rev. Molly Hawes)
During supper 3Jesus…4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
An act of such all-encompassing, incomprehensible love
There, sitting there, bathed—literally bathed in love,
Jesus says to them the most awful thing anyone had ever said to them:
33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the [Judeans] so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’
Imagine hearing the person you love best in all the world say that to you. Imagine the person you love more than you ever imagined you could love anyone
Who has changed everything
For whom you have given up everything and for whom you would gladly give up more if you could
Because with him, you are the person you never even knew to dream you could be
With him, your life has become important
Your life has become a force for good in the world,
And continues to be, every day.
33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. …‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’
No. That’s… no. No.
That’s the only response I can imagine, in that moment, but Jesus is still talking, saying
34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
No, they’ll know we’re your disciples the same way they always have, because we’ll be gathered around you, what are you—? don’t—don’t even—
36Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” 37Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
Imagine the gentleness in Jesus’ tone when he tells Peter this hard truth. Baby, listen to me: you can’t. Listen, listen now, hush, just listen,
2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Every word is true. Every word of comfort Jesus speaks is absolutely true
and none of it can have any power at all to appease in this moment.
In this moment of pain and unutterable grief, nothing their Lord and Master says can mitigate the shattering of their hearts.
And the only way
The only way that they are going to be able to get through this
The only possible way for them to survive the catastrophic loss that is coming
Will be to love
To take care of one another, to the point of washing one another’s feet.
That is the only way to get from here to there
From now to then
It’s the only way any of us can make it through
in this world:
Love one another, as I have loved you.
It’s the only way.
The way. The truth. The life.
Love one another.
Love one another.
Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019: As the World Turns (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
My son and I recently spent some time with my mom, who is 91. He found it interesting (and a little irritating) that my mom keeps her television on all the time. (“I mean,” he says, “she didn’t even grow up with it!”) The morning begins with the local news, then “Good Morning America,” followed by “The View,” “Rachel Ray,” and “Judge Judy.” Usually, there is then a break. (Judge Judy is a lot for any of us to handle). We get the work of the day done, Mom reads for a while, and then takes a nap, but the television goes back on for primetime. Mom then goes off to her bedroom where, you guessed it, she turns on her t.v.
I don’t think my mom’s television habit is unusual. Most folks I know that have mobility or health issues and have to spend most of their time indoors watch a fair amount of television. It’s company. Often, they pay very little attention to the details of what’s on the screen – to the extent that they don’t even bother to turn it off when someone enters the room. My son finds this rude. He thinks it makes it seem like the person is more interested in the television than in their visitor. I find his complaint ironic, because he almost always has ear buds hanging off his head, and insists that he can hear every word I say even though he doesn’t take them off for our conversations. To be fair, he would say that I am just as much of a “screenager,” as he is, because I respond to the chirp of my text messages much like Pavlov’s dog salivated at the smell of meat. But, as I tell him, that is work. So, maybe it’s reasonable to admit that many of us, no matter what age, are a little more addicted to technology than we are willing to admit.
What’s more interesting to me is what we watch. I used to watch television with my own grandmother and, with a few exceptions, she didn’t watch news, cooking, or fashion shows. She watched programs that were all of these things rolled into one. They were known as soap operas- or, as she called them, “my stories.” For those of you too young to remember, soap operas – or daytime dramas -followed the lives of certain families who usually lived in small towns with lots of doctors, lawyers, businessmen, (and, in later years, mafia dons) and very few people who did any other kind of work. These characters suffered from more medical and psychological trauma and marital mix-ups on a weekly basis than most of us experience in a lifetime. Also, many of them had evil twins. And just in case some of you are secretly laughing at those of us who stayed home from school for Luke and Laura’s wedding, we know that they still have shows exactly like these. They’re just on at different times and on different channels now. One of them is called, “Grey’s Anatomy.”
The human need for drama didn’t start with television. People have been putting on shows for one another since at least the advent of cave painting – and the more drama, the more twists and turns, the higher the stakes, the better. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It gets our pulses up and our hearts racing and takes our minds off our own troubles – unless it’s real – unless the story is about God – unless it’s Passion Sunday.
But wait? Isn’t today called Palm Sunday? Actually, it’s both. The celebration of Palm Sunday is ancient. “The observance of Palm Sunday in Jerusalem was witnessed by the pilgrim Egeria in about 381-384. During this observance, there was a procession of people down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. The people waved branches of palms or olive trees as they walked. They sang psalms, including Psalm 118, and shouted the antiphon, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ The Palm Sunday observance was generally accepted throughout the church by the twelfth century. It provided a happy respite from the long, exhausting period of penitence and preparation of Lent. It ushered the Christian people into Holy Week with a sense of anticipation and joy – a feeling that persisted right up until Good Friday. That was the day that the story of Jesus’s betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion was read aloud. That was the day that Holy Week – that our church world – turned.
Until about 1969, when the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches which now share a calendar of scripture decided to attempt to recover something that ancient Christians recognized, but we seemed to have forgotten – that sometimes the world turns fast – that sometimes it turns ugly and all too real.
That’s what happened to the disciples. One day they were riding high, accompanying their beloved friend and teacher to what they thought would be his coronation. He had finally revealed himself to be the Messiah, the promised one – the one who would save them from the degradation they suffered as a scorned minority. Crowds of important people greeted them not only with acceptance but with admiration and approval. Blessed are they who come in the name of the Lord!
And then the world turned. Less than a week later, they were alone and terrified, understanding too late that when Jesus had said he would bleed for them, he was not talking symbolically. Their bragging and boasting that they would stay with him no matter what turned out to be nothing more than empty words. Jesus’s talk about suffering, about being forgotten and useless, humbled and persecuted, had actually become vivid and horrifying reality. The fun and exciting traveling show they have been part of had turned into a nightmare. Their hopes, their dreams and their very world, were over. They had been purged of the pride and vanity that caused them to argue over who was the greatest among them. They had been cured of the delusion that their puny weapons could defeat the rulers who oppressed them. They had been drained of the desire to be part of a drama that was no longer a fantasy – no longer entertainment. They were empty.
This was a gift – because the fact that they were empty meant that there was now room for the Holy Spirit to enter their hearts and fill them with the overwhelming knowledge that Jesus has died, but they have been saved.
It is the same for us. Participating in the gospel narrative helps us to empty ourselves of any feelings of pride or accomplishment for following Christ. It reminds us that our identity as Christians is not about power or popularity, but humility and sacrifice. It allows us to see that the changes and chances of our own lives are not merely plot twists in our individual stories, but part of a much greater chronicle, one that is far more than a mere passion play. By participating in both the triumph and the tragedy of the willing sacrifice of our Lord, we truly prepare to experience a holy week – a week in which we can invite the Spirit to enter our story, a week in which we can, like Jesus, hand our very essence over to God – the God for whom and by whom the whole world turns. AMEN.
Sermon for April 7, 2019: Everything (The Rev. Molly Haws)
Six days before the Passover, Jesus and his friends are travelling. They’re heading for Jerusalem. Jesus has been telling them that he is going to be arrested, and put to death, and on the third day he will rise again. So they are on their way to the place where all this is going to occur—Jerusalem.
They stop in Bethany, a small town just a few miles from Jerusalem, where they have friends: Martha, her sister Mary, and their brother Lazarus, who have a house there. They’re clearly a family of substantial means, and everyone in town remembers when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. They make Jesus and his companions welcome and host a dinner for them. Like you do.
And then… then this thing happens. Mary brings in a pound of super- costly perfume—a pound—and she slathers it over Jesus’ feet.
Ever been at a friend’s house for a gathering with food and drink and everyone’s talking and catching up and really happy to see each other and then out of the corner of your eye you see something that makes you look, and then the whole room suddenly goes silent because this is not usual it’s starting to feel awkward and the longer it goes on the more awkward it gets and the only people who don’t seem to feel it are the ones that everyone is staring at?
and all you can think is what is Mary … doing?
Then the fragrance fills the house and you recognize that scent instantly because a person only ever gets that treatment one time: when they die.
Mary does what she does because she has heard what Jesus has been saying to all of them. She heard it. She understands it and she believes what Jesus said: he’s going to Jerusalem to die. And it is ripping her heart inside her chest and there is nothing to be done except to
In the midst of all the people enjoying a lovely evening eating and talking as though everything is perfectly normal—Mary comes in with her body, and her hair, and her tears which drip down like blood from the torn-open places in her soul, and her insanely expensive perfume
and one of the men starts telling the room how wrong she is and what should have been done. Because who wants to feel all the feels of witnessing unutterable pain and grief when you could be feeling righteous?
It’s a truly terrible thing to do, and it would be so comforting to fill myself with righteous indignation at Judas for doing it. But I cannot, because—and it mortifies me to admit this—I have done it. I’ve had it done to me, and it was awful. And I have done it, and it was awful.
Mary does what she does because she heard what Jesus has been saying. She heard it. She understands it and she takes it as solid fact. She does the only thing she can do: she goes to Jesus with everything she has and everything she is. She goes to the Word of God made flesh in this man she knows and loves—physically goes to Jesus with everything her love, her loyalty, her wealth, and yes, her body, her hair, her pain that pain of your insides ripping apart, pain so devastating you do not know how to carry it and also breathe at the same time and yet somehow, she’s still breathing so with each breath that flows out and back in she keeps doing what she’s doing, with all of herself.
When Judas starts in on how she’s doing everything all wrong, Jesus snaps him back: Leave her alone.
Judas, it seems to me, is in denial about what’s going on here—and he’s not alone. The Twelve all seem to be telling themselves, in the days ahead, that there’s a way out of this. We just have to be smart, look at the big picture, for heaven’s sake do not get all emotional and make a scene! That’s not going to help; let’s think rationally and leave emotion out of it, we can’t afford to let our thinking be clouded… Sound familiar? Judas is not showing up with all of himself. He’s holding something in reserve, a little hedge fund, and it is not just the money and it is not just him doing it.
When it comes down to the wire—when Jesus is arrested, and convicted, and executed—it hits every one of the Twelve like a Mack truck that came out of nowhere. They scatter and run because they are not expecting it to actually happen.
Mary of Bethany, and Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and the other women—they’re the ones that stick around all the way through Jesus’ death on the cross, because they knew it was going to happen. They believed Jesus when he told them how this is all going to go and what he is going to do, and they decide that Jesus will not do it alone.
That’s what Mary is doing there in Bethany, in the home she shares with her sister and her brother. Who knows what was going through her head? Did she think through it ahead of time, the significance of the precious nard, the intimacy of anointing, the vulnerability of using her unbound hair to wipe his feet? Or was she simply doing the only thing she could think as each moment led to the next?
I don’t know. Either way, she is showing up. With all of herself.
Beloved, God has created each of us in God’s own image. We are made in love, from love, for the pure creative joy that is love. God call us, each of us and all of us, all of who we are, into life, into relationship. Most of the time, we have no idea what it is exactly that we’re doing: we’re simply doing the only thing we can think of and beloved, if we’re showing up with all of ourselves, everything we have and everything we are, then we’re doing it right.
The Good News is that this is true even when we don’t believe it. That’s the beautiful thing about truth. Do you know how many people there are right this minute who believe the earth is flat? They have a whole society. And yet the world keeps turning and traveling around the sun, because the earth is a sphere—even for people who think it’s flat.
Faith is showing up with all of ourselves—nothing held back, no hedge fund—showing up with all of who we are even when all of who we are is devastated by grief and pain, and belief is just a word when it’s all we can do to keep the God-given breath moving in and out of our lungs, but faith—beloved, faith is keeping the God-given breath moving in and out.
And there will always be a voice, whether internal or external, a voice telling us we’re doing it all wrong and what we should have done instead—but we know what Jesus has to say about that: Leave her alone! Jesus has our back. Count on it. Jesus has our back.
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Sermon for March 31, 2019: The Perfect Family (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
Here we are, the fourth Sunday in Lent which traditionally has been a day of celebration within this austere season. It carries the theme of rejoicing and is called Laetare Sunday. Laetare is Latin for rejoice, and rose or pink vestments can be worn like on the third Sunday in Advent.
The readings for this Sunday are full of rejoicing. Like our responsorial Psalm that begins, “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!” Rejoicing is particularly present in today’s Gospel in which Jesus uses a parable in answering the Pharisees and scribe’s criticism that he welcomes sinners
I think we all admire the “perfect family,” like the one portrayed in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,”(1) the long-running TV sitcom of the 50s and 60s. For those of you who are too young to remember, or never saw the program, it was about a family of two sons, a mother and father. The father, Ozzie Nelson, was very kind, never scolded, and spent any time he was away from the family down at the malt shop. The mother, Harriet Nelson, was the driving wisdom of the family, and the two sons, David and Rick never argued, apart from witty banter, and never got into any trouble except for some hijinks that ended in a moral lesson and a good laugh for all.
Of course, we know there are no perfect families, any more than there are perfect people. We all need reconciliation with God, as St. Paul tells us.
Growing up I had two older sisters. The oldest seven years my senior and the younger one six years. Because of their closeness of age there was quite a bit of rivalry between them, and from my vantage point they didn’t seem to like each other at all.
When my sisters were a senior and junior in high school, the younger of the two stole our father’s gasoline credit card and ran away with a man quite a few years older than her with the intention of marrying him.
As you might imagine, my parents were quite distraught, but my older sister seemed both outraged and relieved that she was gone.
A few days later my father got a collect phone call from my sister in a West Texas town. She had been abandoned and wanted to come home. My father dropped all that he was doing and drove the 800-mile round-trip to bring her home. Everyone, except for my oldest sister, rejoiced that she had been rescued.
In the familiar parable, most commonly known as The Prodigal Son, a father has never stopped loving the child who demanded his legacy immediately and with it chose to go away, to live a self-indulgent life.
Through one powerful sentence in the story—But while he was still far off, his father saw him—we see the father never stopped looking for the return of his lost son. And even though this once rich, well-nourished, and well-dressed young prodigal is now filthy, skinny, and in rags, the father recognizes him from afar and runs to meet him with open arms. Instead of upbraiding him he puts fine clothes and a ring on him and throws a big welcome home party. The man’s older son objected to his father’s joyous reaction and welcoming his son home. He felt that although he was always faithful to his father, he was never honored.
Instead of the parable of the prodigal son I think it should be called the parable of the forgiving father and the two ungrateful sons.
In our hymnal there is a hymn I think most of us are familiar with. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” numbers 469 and 470. The lyrics are from a poem by Frederick William Faber:
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.”
The hymn speaks of “welcome for the sinner” and “graces for the good.” It speaks of the “plentiful redemption” and “the charity of God.” As St. Paul said, “God who reconciles us to himself through Christ.”
Unfortunately, left out are the stanzas of the poem that say:
But we make His love too narrow by false limits of our own; And we magnify His strictness With a zeal He will not own.
Was there ever kinder shepherd Half so gentle, half so sweet, As the Savior who would have us Come and gather at His feet?
The Evangelist telling of this encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes shows their reaction to what God was doing in Israel through Jesus. We can see that the new kingdom-work of reconciliation which was going forward was like a return from exile.
Sinners and outcasts were finding themselves welcomed into fellowship with Jesus, and so with God, in a way they would have thought impossible. But whenever a work of God goes effectively forward, there is always someone muttering in the background that things aren’t that easy, that God’s got no right to be generous, that people who’ve done nothing wrong are being overlooked. That happened at the time when the exiles returned from Babylon; quite a lot of people, not least the Samaritans, didn’t want them back.
The story reveals the sheer self-centeredness in the grumbling of the older brother. He shows his bad temper by rejecting his brother’s contrition and his father’s unfailing love. (2)
He has no more real respect for his father than his brother. He lectures his father in front of his guests, and refuses his plea to come in. Once more the father is generous, this time to his self-righteous older son.
Jesus is not content simply to tell his accusers that they’re out of line; he, too, wants to reason with the Pharisees and the lawyers, to point out that, through God’s generosity, the wideness of God’s mercy, God is indeed reaching out to people they didn’t expect. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any left for them. If they insist on staying out of the party because it isn’t the sort of thing they like, that’s up to them; but it won’t be because God doesn’t love them as well.
For Luke, this parable pointed beyond the immediate situation of Jesus’ ministry and into the early church, for whom he was writing. There, Gentiles were coming into the church, and Jews and Jewish Christians often found it very difficult to celebrate that. Equally, as Paul realized when writing Romans, it was important that the new communities never gave the impression to their older sisters and brother that God had finished with them. Somehow, a balance had to be kept. (3)
Of course, this parable, as with all holy Scripture, extends to us today. Will we, if we squander our heavenly treasure, be able to humble ourselves and ask God’s forgiveness to be reconciled with God and raised to newness of life through Christ and his church? As of equal importance, can we move toward becoming people through whom ‘resurrection’ happens to others? To see that, in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away and everything has become new. Or will we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own; And magnify Her strictness with a zeal she will not own.
Through this time of Lent, a time of fasting prayer and alms giving, we can grow as ambassadors for Christ and celebrate the party of God’s love. Welcoming to the banquet not only our younger sisters and brothers who have come back from the dead, and our older brothers who thought there was nothing wrong with them.
As ambassadors of Christ’s love, we must never forget to invite the outcast and marginalized of society, the refugee, poor and downtrodden, for we are all children of God, and our Savior would have us all partake of his banquet. AMEN.
- Stage Five Productions, Volcano Productions, and ABC Productions
- T. Wright. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 191). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
- T. Wright. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 191-192). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Sermon for March 24, 2019: Please Respond (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
This week, after reading today’s lessons, I was complaining about how I seem to be getting all of the “tricky” Lent gospels- no straightforward “love thy neighbor” Good Samaritan-type parables for me. I get the tough love days, the gospels where we hear Jesus calling the people to repent – or else. Such stories are anxiety-provoking for us. They remind us of the scary God that many of us met in childhood, the judging God– the old man with the long white beard who was forever telling us how bad we were and how we would be punished for it. It’s hard to reconcile this angry, disappointed God with the loving, saving Jesus that we encounter in other parts of the gospels.
We get a little help from our friends at the Revised Common Lectionary. The “RCL” is a schedule of scripture readings for each Sunday of the year. The RCL honors our tradition of reading four pieces of scripture each Sunday – a Hebrew Scripture (or “Old Testament”) reading, a psalm, something from the New Testament, and a Gospel. There is a method to this madness. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us the story of our worshipping ancestors, the ancient Israelites and their kin and neighbors. The psalms, which are sung or said together, remind us of our deep connections as human beings. The New Testament tells stories of the first apostles and the establishment and beliefs of the early church. The Gospels relay the acts of Jesus himself. They hold the place of honor among Christians and, for that reason, are introduced with ceremony and heard while standing with respect. They are “the words of the Lord.”
In the Episcopal Church, preachers are charged with interpreting the Gospel, because it is the core of our faith. The compilers of the RCL, however, have the big picture in mind. The way in which they assign our weekly scripture readings helps us to see themes and recognize connections between different books of the Bible that we might otherwise miss. They are focused on the entire history of God’s people – from creation to salvation- and its relevance to the people of God who live today and tomorrow and all of the days of God’s creation. They remind us of that we are not the first to go astray from God and will not be the last. They provide us with stories that help us to see the commonalities among all peoples throughout all ages. And they serve as both cautionary and hopeful tales of how we might – praise God – eventually get things right. Seeing these connections is especially important on days like today, when we hear the words of the gospel but do not understand why Jesus is saying them – and why we are hearing them at this time and in this place.
One of the questions I am often asked is why God, if he loves us, allows us to suffer. If God is all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful, why doesn’t she simply swoop in and save us from being sick, injured, lost, poor, and depressed? The answer is because we have free will– we are God’s children, not her toys. We know from scripture that God made creation because it pleased him to do so, and that she gave care of that creation to human beings because it “was good.” But –whether you believe that there was a snake, or a garden, or a tree – scripture is also clear that human beings rejected God’s gift. God gave us everything and we chose to push it away, to say, “I got it God. We can do this without your help.” And we’re still doing it.
I often quote Blaise Pascal, who said: “There is a God-shaped hole” in everyone.” This powerful and ancient longing is reflected in the words of today’s psalm, “O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you.” We feel something empty inside us and crave to fill it, but instead of looking to our creator, we try to satiate it with earthly things – drugs, sex, alcohol, money, power, moral superiority – take your pick. Unfortunately, then as now, “disordered desire is the norm. Sometimes we want the wrong things. More often, we want good things in bad ways. We want some things too much and we desire other things too little” and we want things for the wrong reason. We want and want and want and yet when God tries to give us what we need, we reject it. We reject it out of ignorance. We reject it out of fear. We reject it out of arrogance – just as our ancestors did.
Case in point: in today’s Hebrew Scripture, God sees the suffering of his people and declares that he will bring them out of bondage to a beautiful place, flowing with milk and honey. And what does Moses do? He questions God. “What should I say when the people ask who says so”? Moses is afraid. He is afraid that he is not worthy, that he is not ready, that he is not good enough. God’s answer is counterintuitive for those of us raised in this “can do” society. God does not tell Moses that he is good enough and smart enough and goshdarnit, people love him. God says, “You are not important. I will be with you– and that is enough.
Two thousand years pass, and we find Paul telling this story to the people of God in his time, reminding them that they are no different than Moses’s tribe, and suggesting that they “ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink…from the spiritual rock that was, even then, Jesus. And Paul reminds the Corinthians that they too need to be careful. They need to avoid thinking that God’s ability to do things depends upon any individual’s worthiness. Human willpower did not save the thousands who put Christ to the test, but God’s faithfulness can.
To us, this seems backwards. Most of us have spent our lives trying to do things or be things that we think are right. We think we know the pitfalls to avoid. We think we know what sin is. We condemn sexual immorality and “mixing blood” and false religion. The season of Lent rolls around and we think, “If I give up chocolate or carbs or smoking or social media, I will be thinner, smarter, healthier, and/or wiser. I will be better.” We think, “I give to charity and go to church. I follow the laws of my city, state, and country. I am righteous. I am saved.” Oh, my brethren, listen to God’s servant Paul – “If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Be careful not to assume, as our ancestors did, that those who suffer are being punished by God. Listen to what Jesus says, “Do you think that people who are poor, hungry, homeless, drug-addicted, mentally ill, Islamic, Jewish, atheist, illegal, and alcoholic are worse sinners than you? No, he says, but unless you repent of your sins, you will all perish as like all who put God to the test. Do not put your faith in yourself and your own righteousness. God is the only true judge, and if we are judged truly for our sins, we will all be found guilty.
The good news – the gospel – is that God does not wish to judge us. God wants to save us. Listen to the parable of the fig tree: the creator planted a tree and it did not bear fruit. He grew tired of getting nothing in return for his investment and wanted to cut it down. But the gardener was merciful. “Give it another chance,” he begged. Let me care for it. Let me help it.” We are the fig tree, and Jesus is our gardener. Jesus sees our human failings and our human pain and wants to save us from them. He offers his life for us – and asks only one thing in return: that we accept his offer of mercy by repenting and handing our lives over to him.
True repentance, then, is not about fasting from meat on Fridays or alcohol for forty days. It is not about kneeling before God and one another and admitting that we have sinned. These things are good, but they are only tools to help us understand and accept the actual truth of faith. We are all sinners and there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. We must repent – repent, repent, repent– and surrender our will to God -for it is in God’s hands that we will find the forgiveness we seek. It is in God’s hands that we are held up so that we do not fall. It is in God’s hands that we will bear fruit that will save ourselves – and save the world. AMEN.
Lindsay P. Armstrong, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 82.
Sermon for March 17, 2019: Jerusalem, Jerusalem (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
The Book of Common Prayer describes Lent as a season of “self-examination and repentance; [of] prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and [invites us to read and meditate] on God’s holy Word.” Our lectionary texts – the scripture portions we read each week – are carefully chosen to help us to do this – to better understand the tenets of our faith and to follow the way of Jesus. During most of Lent, our gospels focus on the things Jesus did and the stories he told – but today’s gospel is different. Today we heard a passage not about how Jesus acted, but how he re-acted when someone tried to deter him from his path.
The story starts without preamble. We are told that “some Pharisees” came to tell Jesus that a political leader wants to kill him. Jesus seems unsurprised. Perhaps this is because in the passage from Luke immediately prior to this one, the last thing Jesus said was, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” In other words, Jesus was, once again, preaching against the powerful. As Rodney Clapp puts it “Nothing will more quickly alarm those on top, in comfortable positions, than the suggestion that they may not end up on top.” And yet that is exactly what Jesus preaches, and it is that which draws the attention of Herod Antipas – and ultimately the Romans he serves. It is what will eventually lead to Jesus’s death.
If the ruler’s threat scared Jesus, you can’t tell from his response. “Tell that fox,” he says, “that I’ll go when I’m good and ready.” “What Jesus implied by calling Herod a ‘fox’ is not clear. In Hellenistic thought, the fox is regarded as clever but sly and unprincipled. The [Hebrew Scriptures] associate the fox with destruction…In any case Jesus’s words reflect the disdain he held for [Herod] Antipas.” Jesus knows who he is, the work he has work to do, and he that his time is getting short. Threats from a penny ante Roman subordinate aren’t going to stop him. He is determined and defiant.
That’s why his next utterance is so surprising: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” Where does this come from? These words are not a retort to the threats of Herod. They are not bold or rebellious. They are sad. They are a lament. He cries out for his people, focusing not on his impending death, but instead on his regret that it has to happen. He bemoans the pain that his people have endured, as well as the pain that is still to come.
This is not about placing blame. He is not saying that Jerusalem is evil. He is not saying that Jerusalem is doomed. He is not declaring the damnation of the people that inhabit this troubled city. Jesus is expressing his heartfelt desire to save it. He is calling the people to repent – to accept the will of God – just as Lent calls us to repent of our willfulness and attraction to power. Leslie Hoppe suggests that “The touching metaphor by which Jesus asserts that it is God’s will to protect Jerusalem through him is evidence that Jesus is predicting not the city’s destruction but its salvation” – a salvation that will come only if we accept Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf. Jesus is asking his people to choose God and, at the same time, acknowledging that we don’t have a great track record of doing it.
This inability of human beings to put our faith in our creator is evident in today’s reading from Genesis. In it, God comes to Abram in a vision with good news – but Abram, like us, questions God. He wants to know how God is going to reward him. He wants to know why God is going to reward him. He wants God to give him proof. “H. Richard Neibuhr, Sterling Professor Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School, repeatedly maintained that the first response of humanity toward God is that of distrust. Although God is good to us, we do not trust God. Like most of us, Abram knows that he is not all that good or all that deserving. Accordingly, it is difficult for him to believe and accept that he might be blessed beyond measure.” Yet, God is not put off. Not only does he give Abram the understanding that he will be the patriarch of many believers, but is also willing to go through a covenantal ceremony with him to prove it.
This demonstrates that God is patient –very patient. Abram was not the first and certainly not the last person to let his fears get the better of him. I have said often that the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is fear. We fear to lose what we have, so we hold back from giving to others. We fear doing things differently, because we don’t know what change might bring. We fear surrendering ourselves to the will of God and so we insist on imposing our will on ourselves and others. All of this is to our detriment, for it is often the most unexpected blessings that are the most potent.
Fortunately, God has blessed us with something that can help us fight against our fears. God has given us the ability to hope. “It is precisely in the face of human fears that human hopes seem most necessary. That an undeniable link between hope and fear should exist has been given poetic rendering in William Cowper’s adage ‘He has no hope who never had a fear.’” This constant struggle between hope and fear is easy to hear in the words of the author of Psalm 27. Like us, the psalmist is filled with fears and doubts (armies encamping, wars rising up against him, enemies round about, father and mother forsaking him!), but the psalmist chooses to focus not on the terrors he dreads, but instead on the saving health of God. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear”? These words suggest that we are not saved by the power we crave, but by the grace that comes from trusting in God.
And yet it is so hard for us to simply trust something – even God. It goes against all of our self-protective instincts. It requires us to move forward without seeing the end of the road and to let go of our fear of the unknown. Few of us can do it – and none of us can do it alone. That is what St. Paul tried to tell the people of Philippi. When we think of earthly things- when we consider our place in this world, when we worry about the rewards we might find here -we lose touch with the city of God. We are not, says Paul, citizens of Martinez, California, the United States and the earth. We are citizens of heaven, and that is where our minds should be. Christian community is the way we remember that. “Paul is directing the gaze of the community not toward some type of individual perfection…but to the realization of Christ’s love within the community itself.” It is in community that we hear, learn and inwardly digest God’s word. It is in community that we learn to trust. It is in community that we shall be judged- and it is in community that we shall be saved. Community is the primary way in which God offers us opportunities to know her and her son Jesus Christ. It is the place in which we can learn to react to God’s love, to God’s word, to God’s blessings, with faith rather than fear. It is the place where Jesus can find us, gather us under his wings, and save us. AMEN.
Rodney Clapp, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 68.
Leslie J. Hoppe, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 71.
Darryl M. Trimiew, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 50.
Samuel K. Roberts, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 56-58.
Dirk G. Lange, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 65.
Sermon for March 10 , 2019: Good v. Evil (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
CS Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were both professors at Oxford University in the early 20th century and most of the time good friends. Tolkien was instrumental in converting Lewis to Christianity but to Tolkien’s chagrin, who was Roman Catholic, Lewis joined the Church of England and subsequently became an important Anglican theologian. He also became a well-known author as we all know.
Tolkien and Lewis were members of the Inklings an informal group of authors who would meet at the Eagle and Child or Bird and Baby pub in Oxford on Tuesday mornings during term. While the meetings of the inklings mostly discussed unfinished works of its members, theology was also entertained.
Both C. S. Lewis’s and J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings contain Christian theology, Lewis speaks more of salvation while Tolkien of the struggle or warfare between good and evil.
In Tolkien’s theology the essence of Good is love and freedom, or free will. Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good. The essence of evil, on the other hand, is control and domination, or slavery. Tolkien wove this theology throughout his trilogy The Lord of the Rings.
In Tolkien’s fictional Middle Earth evil has been distilled into a simple golden ring by the main antagonist Sauron an angelic like creature that has become the ultimate evil.
Through many adventures and another book, the ring came into the possession of a diminutive, peace loving hairy-footed person Frodo Baggins, a hobbit. When it becomes known to him that Sauron now knows who and where the possessor of the ring is and that he has sent his henchmen out to retrieve it he tries to give it to Gandalf another angelic like person called a wizard. Gandalf with great trepidation refuses saying with the power of the ring I would have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and deadlier.
Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself.
Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it.
Jesus in today’s Gospel for the first Sunday in Lent resists his temptations in the desert for similar reasons.
God’s only begotten son in his Incarnation After his baptism and being filled with the Holy Spirit was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness or desert that is between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. It is a very rocky and arid area that doesn’t sustain much life.
Jesus went to this place of great solitude to pray to discern his father’s will for him. He faced the double question: what does it mean to be God’s son in this special, unique way? And what sort of messiahship was he to pursue? (1) We are told that he didn’t eat for 40 days and of course after that long he is starving. We are told that Satan comes to him in his weakened state and tempts him three times.
Now let me be clear we don’t have Satan with the bat wings, a long-pointed tail, horns, and sulfurous sweat. If Satan were manifested as a being, he would probably be very attractive and very persuasive.
The Evangelist does not picture Jesus engaged in conversation with a visible figure to whom he could talk as one to another; the devil’s voice appears as a thread of natural ideas in his own mind.
Weak and famished, the devil tempted Jesus’ control over his physical desire. “If you are the son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” It’s a temptation for Jesus to take away the physical suffering not only of himself but of the world. Certainly, the millions who hunger pray and long for God to take away their hunger and suffering, to turn stone into bread.
Surely, God could do that. Why doesn’t God? Possibly we see that’s our role, our work.
Repentance, returning to God, involves serving others, sharing and caring, giving and receiving care. That is the Father’s will for Jesus and for us. For Jesus to give in to this temptation he would be exacting control over the world.
Second, the devil offered Jesus political power, the potential to do good on a world-wide scale, the possibility of creating Utopia, the perfect community. But the devil offered a kingdom of this world where justice and peace are compelled, but not freely chosen by the people. Surely, the oppressed and exploited of the world, the victims and refugees of war and violence, pray and long for God to act, to use his power to crush human power. Why doesn’t God?
Maybe we see that it undermines the possibility for people to have authentic, close relationship, to be together united despite conflict and differences. Repentance, returning to God, involves reconciling with others.
Third, the devil prompted Jesus to test God, to make God prove himself. If Jesus leaped from the top of the Temple, God would act to save Jesus as Psalm 91 says:
“For he shall give his angels charge over you,
to keep you in all your ways.
They shall bear you in their hands,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
The religious authorities would fall in line behind Jesus. All people would recognize Jesus as Son of God. Indeed, in a world where God often seems absent, those longing for proof of his existence long for God to reveal himself, to be clear about himself.
Why doesn’t God? Perhaps we see that it eliminates our pilgrimage to God. The devil wants Jesus to give us instant gratification instead of having us participate in the work of life in the Reign of God. The devil says faith in God, trust in God, must be coerced, forced. Repentance, returning to God, involves growing and learning, an ongoing change of heart and mind, or metanoia.
Jesus responds to the devil, not by attempting to argue for arguing with temptation is often a way of playing with the idea until it becomes too attractive to resist, but by quoting scripture.(2) The quotes from Deuteronomy speak of the Hebrew’s lessons learned in their wondering for 40 years in the wilderness.
We are unlikely to be tempted in the same way as Jesus was, but every Christian will be tested at the points which matter most in her or his life and vocation. It is a central part of Christian vocation to learn to discern the voices that whisper attractive lies, to distinguish them from the voice of God. To use the simple but direct weapons provided in scripture to rebut the lies with truth.(3)
Our Lenten discipline which we are called to practice fasting, prayer, and alms giving is a way of strengthening our discernment. The idea of discipline relates to the experience of being a disciple. A disciple is a learner, or student and discipline is the way of learning. It includes instruction for the mind and spirit and exercises for the body.
Lent is not simply giving up something but rather taking upon ourselves the intention and the receptivity to God’s grace so that we may worthily participate in the mystery of our freedom in Christ to love one another, to carry that love to the world and especially in our service to those who are in need and suffering.
At the heart of our resistance to temptation is love and trust in the God who has already called us his beloved children in Christ, and who holds out before us the calling to be his disciples. In this rests our true happiness, our true fulfilment, which neither world, nor flesh, nor Satan can begin to imitate.
May we have a Holy Lent, amen.
(1)N. T. Wright. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 42). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
(2)N. T. Wright. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 44). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
(3)N. T. Wright. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 45). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019: Giving up self (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
I recently was tagged in a Facebook post about the movie star Chris Pratt. The reason for the mention was because the “Guardians of the Galaxy,” actor had written about embarking on a 21-day “Daniel” fast and the tagger drew a connection between Pratt’s fast and our Lenten practice of fasting. Pratt, who is reported to be a practicing and vocal Christian, said he decided to do the fast based on a recommendation from his pastor. Apparently, the “Daniel” fast is based on the idea of following the purported diet of the biblical prophet, with participants being restricted to drinking only water and eating only foods that have grown from seeds. According to proponents Daniel did this in order to better focus on a spiritual connection to God by leaving behind distracting indulgences like meat and wine. There is no mention of the fact that checking everything you eat for appropriate seeds could be a bit distracting too.
A couple of days later I read an article called, “When Lenten fasting is indistinguishable from a New Age cleanse.” In it, Tara Burton writes,
“If you’re a practicing Christian — and likely if you’re not — you’re familiar with the exhortation to give up something for [Lent] -the traditional season of penitence…The season commemorates the period leading up to Christ’s passion and resurrection, and for the approximately one in four Americans who observe it, Lent has been a time of sacrifice, prayer, fasting and reflection. But, increasingly, the popular concept of Lent has been transformed into a kind of vaguely theistic detox. It’s a chance not to give up earthly pleasures but to exorcise toxins. An article published last year in U.K. tabloid The Express, by way of example, provides readers with a handy listicle of the health benefits of giving up some of the most popular fasting targets, such as smoking or chocolate…No wonder that it’s not just the faithful who are getting in on the Lenten action. A 2014 Barna study found that American millennials, famously less likely to be religious than their elders, were nonetheless more likely than the average American to fast for Lent. And though hard numbers are difficult to find, abundant anecdotal evidence supports the idea that a solid minority of those who observe Lent belong to the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.”
This did not actually surprise me, because most Christians I know give up something for Lent because it’s not good for them – or they just pick up whatever their failed New Year’s resolution was and start over again. When embarking on a tough diet at Lent, I personally have been known to say, “I couldn’t do it for myself, but I can do it for God.” Seriously?! Because God cares how I look in shorts? Does this really meet the criterion of self-denial that is the hallmark of Lent? Sorry me, I don’t think so.
Burton suggests that when we give up things like “chocolate, say, or alcohol … we’re not … focusing on self-denial so much as self-improvement. We’re stealth-dieting -giving ourselves another opportunity to be better (and, if we’re thinner, fresher-faced and more productive to boot, then so be it). In other words, we are behaving just as our ancestors did in the time of Isaiah. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike…Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” In other words, giving up something to benefit yourself is not a true spiritual fast.
So, what is Lent for, if not for self-improvement? I would suggest two things, the first of which is very clearly stated in our passage from Isaiah. Lenten discipline is not about self-improvement. It is about other improvement. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house”? Lent provides us with an opportunity not to give things up, but rather to give – and to do it quietly, without trumpets and Instagram posts; without touting its benefits to us and those like us, but for the pure pleasure of doing the right thing.
And it is a pleasure, mostly because it makes us feel closer to God. “Be reconciled to God,” St. Paul tells us. Take the time to know God better. Take the time to thank God. “As a father cares for his children, so does the Lord care for those who fear him.” Think about that: God loves you. God knows you – and forgives you anyway. God stands by you – through hardships, calamities, riots, sleepless nights, hunger – through good times and bad. The question is: do you, in turn, stand by God? Do you commend God to others? Do you post on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook about what God is up to? If Chris Pratt did that, I might be impressed. If the answer is “no,” then perhaps instead of giving up something for Lent, you should take something. Take the time to be with God. Talk to God, sing to God and think about what God might be asking of you. If that is self-denial, then fine, deny away. If it pleases you, give up double lattes for Lent – but then take the money it would have cost you and donate it to the Rector’s Discretionary Fund I have had several recent requests for financial help and I recently overdrew on the account.
“What does it mean,” asks Burton, “to divorce the personal benefits of Lenten observance – even the spiritually attuned goals of increased mindfulness, a better life – from their divine referent? If we are not fasting to love God, but rather to optimize our own existence, are we not risking transforming a season of penitence into one of glorified diet culture?” Instead of thinking about Lent as a triumph (or failure) of self-control, perhaps we should instead think of it as a surrender to God’s will. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” my brethren, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” AMEN.
Tara Isabella Burton, February 28, 2019: “When Lenten fasting is indistinguishable from a New Age Cleanse, Religion News, https://religionnews.com/2019/02/28/when-lenten-fasting-is-indistinguishable-from-a-new-age-cleanse/
Tara Isabella Burton, February 28, 2019: “When Lenten fasting is indistinguishable from a New Age Cleanse, Religion News, https://religionnews.com/2019/02/28/when-lenten-fasting-is-indistinguishable-from-a-new-age-cleanse/
Richard J. Foster, quoted in Tara Isabella Burton, February 28, 2019: “When Lenten fasting is indistinguishable from a New Age Cleanse, Religion News, https://religionnews.com/2019/02/28/when-lenten-fasting-is-indistinguishable-from-a-new-age-cleanse/
Coming Down the Mountain (The Rev. Molly Haws)
Epiphany Last Year C
Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]; Psalm 99
Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God and worship God upon this holy hill; * for the Lord our God is the Holy One.
Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”–not knowing what he said.
Peter is known for his forthrightness, his transparency, his honesty.
Just eight days before this, Jesus asked his friends,
“Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” 20He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”
Peter is a pillar of faith and faithfulness. He’s just not so much with the thinking-things-through.
Suppose Jesus had said, “Sure, Peter. Knock yourself out,” and they set to work building…
What’s the over/under on how long before one of them—probably James—finally says, “Hey—uh, Master? There’s not really anything to eat up here?”
at which point Jesus could have quoted from the Torah, as he had on another occasion when he went to a deserted place to pray and someone suggested doing something kind of stupid: “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”1
1 Deuteronomy 8:3 [NRSV]
But the disciples were spared that awkward conversation by none other than the words that came from the mouth of the Lord right then and there: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Peter was right about one thing: it is good for them to be there.
They just can’t live there.
They can’t live there because that’s not why they came. They came because of what happens next, what they have to do and where they have to go when they come down.
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Moses, their greatest leader. Elijah, their greatest prophet.
Moses, through whom God revealed God’s Name to the people, and through whom God rescued Israel from slavery, and gave to Israel the Torah (literally, “the teaching”): the revelation of God’s Word.
Elijah, through whom Israel was restored to relationship with God after they had fallen away and begun to worship Baal; Elijah who alone of the prophets was translated to heaven without ever dying a human death, who was believed to stand at the crossroads of paradise to guide the faithful.
“They were speaking of his departure” –Can you guess what the Greek word for departure is, in Luke’s original account? exodus
Think Moses might have a thing or two to share with Jesus on the subject of “exodus”?
Think Elijah might know something about “departure”?
This pilgrimage to the mountaintop is not recon for a vacation spot in which to hide out. Jesus is preparing to enter Jerusalem, and he takes
Peter and James and John along to prepare them for what they must do: they need to see all of Jesus, all of who Jesus really is. So they see Jesus transfigured, speaking with the Giver of the Law and the greatest of the Prophets
and then, having come down the mountain, as the One who heals and transforms the body of a very sick little boy, and restores the joy and faith of a terrified and grieving father.
Jesus takes them to the mountain top, and they see more of who Jesus is.
They cannot stay on the mountain top because that’s not what Jesus would do.
Seeing Jesus in even the tiniest fraction of the actual incomprehensible glory that is the Word of God made human flesh—seeing Jesus transfigured
is a great gift. It’s a gift to Peter and James and John, and it is a gift to us. We experience a fraction of the actual incomprehensible glory that is the Word of God in corporeal matter here, in this place, in our time
because together, we are the Body of Christ.
We join the heavenly chorus and all creation in the song of praise that echoes through eternity: Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! Hosanna in the highest!
We see and touch and are fed by the Word of God made tangible
in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist as they are revealed to be for us the Body and Blood of Christ, the Word of God Incarnate.
It is good for us to be here.
We just can’t live here. Because that’s not what Jesus would do, and we are followers of Jesus Christ.
So having experienced the revelation of Jesus as the Word of God made manifest, as blessed Paul writes
seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, … being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another
—yes? are you with me?—
having taken the glorious Word of God into our bodies,
we are prepared to see Jesus as Jesus really is:
in the face of a sick little boy, in the face of that boy’s anxious father.
In the faces of women and men with no home and nowhere to turn.
In the faces of mothers bereft of their children, in the faces of sisters who mourn for brothers slain, in the faces of boys whose childhood has been sold to the highest bidder. We see Jesus as Jesus really is in that person who stands outside my favorite gas station, and at the little store down Alhambra Avenue at Green Street.
Yes, beloved, yes, Jesus is here, on the mountain top, but Jesus is not confined to the mountain top. Jesus comes down the mountain because that is who Jesus is. We see Jesus as Jesus really is
where Jesus chooses to live.
Mary Oliver, of blessed memory, wrote about coming down from the mountain in a poem she called “Spring”2:
Somewhere a black bear has just risen from sleep and is staring down the mountain. All night in the brisk and shallow restlessness of early spring I think of her, her four black fists flicking the gravel, her tongue
2 Mary Oliver, House Of Light (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012).
like a red fire touching the grass, the cold water. There is only one question: how to love this world. I think of her rising like a black and leafy ledge to sharpen her claws against the silence of the trees. Whatever else my life is with its poems and its music and its glass cities, it is also this dazzling darkness coming down the mountain, breathing and tasting; all day I think of her— her white teeth, her wordlessness, her perfect love.
There is only one question: how to love this world.
The purpose of the mountaintop is the capacity to come down
into this world
wordless and striving toward perfect love.
Sermon for February 24, 2019: Justice vs. Mercy (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
The other day, after telling me a story about someone doing something truly awful to her, a parishioner asked me if we could talk about forgiveness. “Because,” she said, “I just find it hard to forgive sometimes.” Really? Not me. Ha.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have trouble forgiving. In fact, it seems to me that the necessity of forgiving others – of treating them the way you would like to be treated- is the hardest of all Christian teachings. Perhaps it’s because we human beings have such powerful ideas about justice. For example, although probably everyone in this room knows that we’re supposed to do unto others as we would have them do to us, most of us are far more likely to want to do unto others as they actually do to us. After all, it’s only fair. Watching the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them is, for many of us, the most satisfying part of reading a book or going to a movie. We feel cheated when the villain gets away. We want justice.
That’s why the tale of Joseph – he of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – is one of our most interesting Bible stories. Joseph’s saga gets more space in the Hebrew Scriptures than any other patriarch – 13 chapters worth. The son of Jacob and his beloved wife Rachel, Joseph was youngest of 12 brothers and favored by his father above all the others. Unsurprisingly, this made them jealous, so they did what all jealous siblings do – they decided to kill him. At the last minute, however, they backed out and sold him into slavery instead. Twists and turns ensued until ultimately, by virtue of his ability to have and read dreams, Joseph rose to prominence in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Thus, during a severe famine when his starving brothers decided to travel to Egypt to beg for help from the Pharaoh, guess who they found in charge? That’s where today’s reading picks up. Finally, the tables are turned, and it’s time for those rotten brothers to get what’s coming to them. According to the rules of storytelling, Joseph will send them packing without food and a reminder that they should have been nicer to him when he was a kid, or maybe even have them executed outright. After all, these guys tried to kill him. They sold him into slavery.
That’s not what happens though. “Joseph was betrayed, mistreated, and handed over to death. [And yet when he reveals himself] as alive, he offers forgiveness and a new beginning. What his brothers had intended as an end to Joseph, God has turned into ‘the salvation and life of Egypt and of the whole world.’” Joseph, who had all the reasons in the world to demand justice, gave up his claim and instead offered forgiveness.
Why? First of all, Joseph is not the same boy who was so despised by his brothers. The hardships he endured enabled Joseph to grow and change for the better. Young Joseph was proud and arrogant, basking in his father’s favoritism. That Joseph bragged about dreams he had where his brothers had to bow down before him. That Joseph was interested only in himself. This Joseph has learned humility. He understands what it means to have others lord it over you. This Joseph loves others more than himself. Now, let’s be clear. Am I saying that when bad things happen it’s because God is teaching us a lesson? No I am not. Bad things happen because we are human beings and suffering is part of the human condition. What I am saying is that when bad things happen, we have the opportunity to learn something from them.
This is certainly a better choice than to stew in our misery and ponder our eventual revenge. You don’t need to be a psychologist – or the author of Psalm 37- to know that dwelling on your anger is not good for you. “Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, the one who succeeds in evil schemes. Refrain from anger, leave rage alone, do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.” Spending time casting blame on others and plotting vengeance is not only unproductive, it’s literally sickening. It will eat you alive.
We know this. Most of us have had an experience of actually achieving revenge against someone – and finding it unsatisfying. We may even have evolved to the point where we can stop ourselves from seeking revenge. But how many of us are able to actually do something good for someone who has demonstrated only cruelty to us? And yet, this is exactly what Jesus asks us to do. “I say to you, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”
This seems like an unreasonably high standard. After all, it’s hard to enough to make time in our lives to reach out to help others without having to give to people who don’t appreciate us and aren’t grateful for what we provide. We don’t get that nice warm feeling when homeless families tell us that they actually have food and toy preferences and don’t want our hand-me-downs. We’re offended. After all, beggars can’t be choosers! And isn’t it perfectly reasonable to ask why we can’t just take care of those in need out there instead of inviting them in here too? Why risk having them trash the place? We are very happy to give – as long as there is no risk of losing anything of our own in the process. A few weeks ago, a homeless man flagged down my car and asked for money. I didn’t have any, so I offered him a pack of Oreos that I had in the car. He said, “I don’t want those. I want money.” Don’t think the words, “take it or leave it” did not cross my mind. But our gospel doesn’t say give what you want to whom you want. Scripture says, “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyway takes away your goods, do not ask for them again…Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing – not even gratitude – in return.”
The same thing goes for forgiveness. We are asked to forgive those that hurt us even when there’s no hope that our effort will bring about reconciliation. We are asked to forgive even if there is no chance of a happy ending. We are asked to forgive simply because it’s right – and this can’t happen if we hang onto the idea that we deserve justice. We can’t truly forgive if our forgiveness is contingent on the other person getting what they deserve. After all, if God starts meting out justice, then we will also get what we deserve.
But fear not. “The abundance of God’s kingdom ensures that [our] good actions will be returned. [In this society]… these actions… [may] make little sense. [We may think] resources are finite and should not be squandered on those who will not appreciate them. But from the perspective of one who has experienced the kingdom [of God] drawing near, a different logic prevails.” It is the logic of God’s country, of God’s rule – and God’s resources are infinite. We need not be afraid of giving, because when we provide in God’s name, somehow there is always enough for everyone. That is what Jesus means when he tells the disciples that their reward will be great – not that when we give something we will get something greater in this world. That is living according to the flesh – and flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Goodness without hope of reward; forgiveness without possibility of reconciliation; love without justice – these are the marks of God’s mercy – a mercy that none of us deserve and no one can earn -but one which we are nonetheless asked to give to others, for no other reason than because it has been given to us. Praise God. AMEN.
Charles M. Wood, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 366.
Susan E. Hylen, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 384.
Children’s Homily for February 17, 2019, 10 a.m.: Blessings vs. Woes (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Get your thinking caps on because today we are going to play “Blessings and Woes.” Are you ready? (Give them a chance to answer). Okay, so what we’re going to try to figure out what Jesus said in today’s Bible story, because it was pretty tricky. (I bet the grown-ups didn’t even get it). Want to give it a try? (Give them a chance to answer).
Okay, so in today’s Gospel Jesus talked about what? Who remembers? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – blessings. And what else did he talk about? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. He talked about woes. What are blessings and woes? (Give them a chance to answer). Blessings are things that make you feel close to Jesus and woes are things that separate you from Jesus. So what you are going to do is figure out what is a blessing and what is a woe. Okay, so who wants to be the contestant? (Pick one). Okay, now I need 8 other people. Good. You guys come and get your signs and I will whisper whether you are a blessing or a woe. Now, some of you are woes and some of you are blessings. Do you know which you are? (Give them a chance to answer). If you don’t remember, come here and I’ll remind you. (Pair them off and have them stand together in pairs. Turn to contestant). Okay, so when I say go, I want our contestant to go to each pair and guess which is a blessing and which is a woe. After s/he guesses, each of you will go stand under the sign that S/HE said you were. DON”T TELL IF THEY ARE RIGHT OR WRONG. Ready? (Give them a chance to answer).
- Poor vs. Rich
- Hungry vs. Full
- Sad vs. Happy
- People like you vs. People don’t like you
Okay, so here’s what I see (Comment on where people ended up) Now, everybody go to the right sign – the one I told you you were. Hmmm. What happened? (Give them a chance to answer). That was REALLY confusing, wasn’t it? That’s because it seems like things were kind of backwards. So, who wants to guess why that is? (Give them a chance to answer). It’s because what Jesus was telling us in today’s story was that he doesn’t feel closest to the richest or smartest or happiest people in the world. He feels closest to the people who need him the most! So, who needs Jesus more – people who are rich or people who are poor? (Give them a chance to answer). How about people who are hungry or people who are full? (Give them a chance to answer). And what about people who are crying and people who are laughing? (Give them a chance to answer). What do you think about people who are liked and people who get picked on? (Give them a chance to answer). Now, you’ve got it! Jesus feels closest to the people that feel closest to HIM – and those people are the people who need him the most.
But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t feel close to us if we are NOT hungry or poor or sad. It means that WE forget to feel close to Jesus because we don’t think we need him! What do you think of that? (Give them a chance to answer). So what do you think we should do about that? (Give them a chance to answer). I think that’s a great idea! We should remember that we need Jesus all the time and tell him that! What do you think of that? (Give them a chance to answer). How can we do that? (Give them a chance to answer). Excellent! We can pray and talk to him every day and we can always thank him for all that we have. Do you agree? (Give them a chance to answer). And what do we say in church when we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right: AMEN. Let’s say it together. (AMEN).
Sermon for February 17, 2019, 8 a.m.: Speaking on the Level (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Most churchgoing – and many other – folks are familiar with “The Sermon on the Mount.” This bit of scripture famously contains what have become popularly known as “The Beatitudes,” or “blessings.” Today’s gospel is not that sermon. The Sermon on the Mount is found in the Gospel of Matthew. We just read from the Gospel of Luke. While both passages relay what has become a famous speech by Jesus, there are significant differences between them. Matthew’s version is much longer, taking up 107 compared to 21 verses. Matthew has Jesus cite eight blessings, while Luke only lists four. In Matthew’s story, Jesus speaks from above the people (on a mount), whereas in Luke, Jesus stands on a “level” place (or plain). Perhaps most importantly, while Matthew only identifies blessings, Luke offers a series of blessings and woes.
This gives Luke’s version of the story a different flavor. The Sermon on the Mount is often viewed as one of our most comforting scriptures; we recently read it at a memorial service. It reminds us that when we suffer – from poverty, hunger, fear, grief or pain – God is with us. By contrast, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain – or “Sermon on the Level,” if you prefer – conveys the same message, but also reminds us that this is only true when we choose to turn to God.
This is the same message that the prophet Jeremiah gave to his people six hundred years or so before the birth of Jesus. Writing in time of fear and transition in his community, Jeremiah laid out two roads. The first involves trusting in human beings and their institutions. That way, he says, is cursed. The second road is one in which we put all of our trust in God. That path results in blessing. This seems pretty clear, but the question is, what exactly does it mean to be “cursed” or “blessed”?
For many of us, the word “curse” implies ill fortune. When you are cursed, bad things happen to you. On the other hand, when you are blessed, good things occur; you are “fortunate.” But that’s not what our scriptures tell us. In this passage, for example, Jeremiah indicates that both the cursed and the blessed will have bad things happen to them. There will be drought. There will be excessive heat and floods. There will be natural disaster; no one will be spared misfortune in life. The difference is that those who trust in the Lord will survive it. “Some like to think that peace is the absence of conflict. Quite the contrary, peace is the security to endure conflict.” The people of God endure not because they are better or richer or smarter than anyone else. They endure because they are the people of God.
Blessing is not luck. Being “blessed” does not mean you have things. Being blessed simply means being close to God. Psalm 1 describes the contrast between happiness and wickedness in the same way. “Happiness in a post-Enlightenment, consumer-driven world consists of an abundance of material goods, instant access to cyberspace, and the entire catalog of our favorite movies a click away. [This is not what] the psalmist had in mind. The most fundamental definition of happiness in the psalmist’s day would have been being in the presence of God.” Many of you have heard me talk about sin as separation – separation from God and from one another. For the psalmist, those who are “wicked” are doomed because they are fragile, unrooted, and isolated, like chaff that blows away. The wicked are those who choose to depend on their own strength -and it inevitably fails them.
This is what Paul feared the Corinthians would do if they forgot the big picture of Christian community. That’s because for many people – then and now – it is easier to think of Jesus as the good teacher, an exemplar of moral and ethical behavior, no different than any spiritual leader. But Paul wanted the Corinthians to remember that Jesus was not just a virtuous man; he was the Son of God. And the proof of Christ’s divinity was his resurrection. In Paul’s time, “Greeks and Romans assumed a sharp distinction between body and soul. It was common to describe the body as a prison of the soul.” But Jesus defied this separation – living and dying as a man – opening the way for everyone to be able to do the same. For Paul, to think only of the gifts of Jesus the man – to restrict him to our earthly notions of good fortune is to miss the point. When we talk about being “blessed” in reference to material positions, we are misunderstanding and undervaluing the eternal and unparalleled gift of salvation through Christ. That’s why the message of the so-called prosperity gospel – that having more on this earth is a sign of God’s favor- is the exact opposite of what Jesus said. It is, in fact, heresy.
Jesus speaks this plainly to his disciples – all of us – in today’s Gospel. Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now. Woe to you who are laughing now. Woe to you who have so much now, because it will be that much harder for you to be truly blessed. There’s a very simple reason for this. Those who have much in the world begin to believe that they don’t need God. They believe they can depend on their own resources, human resources – resources that fall short, run dry, and come up empty. They “are disposed to take comfort in themselves…thereby finding it more difficult to trust themselves to the mercy and grace of God.” But “our God is the God of those who have nothing but God.” Our God is the God of those in need. “The poor and the hungry know the reality of their situation. They are totally dependent on God and therefore [trust entirely in] God’s care and mercy, which is the foundation of grace and a right relationship with God.” Thus, those who are poor, hungry, sad, and reviled truly need God, and, as a result, they are the ones who are truly blessed.
The good news is that even those of us who do have a lot in this world can be blessed; it will just be a bit harder for us. We just have to make the right choice. We can separate ourselves from God and one another, putting our faith in earthly things, or we can stake our souls on the one who gave everything for us. We can turn away from God, or we can turn to God. We have everything we need to make the right choice, and everything we need to demonstrate it – not just with our lips, but in our lives. We just need to take that leap of faith. And when you do, blessed, blessed are you, disciples of Christ. AMEN.
Robert M. Leach, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 349.
Rebecca Blair Young, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 344.
Christopher R. Hutson, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 349.
Howard K. Gregory, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 358.
Peter Eaton, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 361.
Howard K. Gregory, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 358.
Sermon for February 10, 2019: The Consequence of Call (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
As many of you know, I am a member of the Standing Committee of the diocese. Although most folks get that this is a significant job, very few people understand what the Standing Committee does and why it’s meaningful – and, most importantly, why we aren’t allowed to sit down.
The Standing Committee is one of two primary bodies that help the Bishop manage the diocese. The Standing Committee, like vestries, helps with some of the administrative work of the diocese, but unlike them, the Standing Committee is mainly concerned with liturgical matters. It has no equivalent group in congregational leadership. The name “Standing Committee” means that it is always active – it “stands” – no matter what is going on. Among the tasks of the Standing Committee are to approve the election of bishops throughout the church, deal with ecclesial discipline, approve the formation of new churches, and oversee the process of ordination. As the liaison to the Commission on Ministry, which supervises the process by which people become clergy persons, my specific job is to make sure the Standing Committee has what it needs to approve people to be ordained. So, lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to answer a call from God.
Today’s scriptures provide us with four perspectives on figuring out God’s purpose for each of us – our “call.” First, we heard about Isaiah’s call to be a prophet. In this story, he sees a magnificent vision of a gigantic God, surrounded by angels, who shake the world with their voices of praise. This seems like something any of us would be proud to experience, but is Isaiah glad to see them? No he is not. His first words are, “Woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.” He recognizes right away that he is not innately worthy or competent to do whatever the Lord is about to ask of him – and he is right – because what the Lord asks of Isaiah is to condemn his own people. This will not only make him unpopular, but endanger his life as well.
Isaiah’s situation is not unique. The same thing happened to Paul when he spread the word about Jesus, and even to Jesus himself. Remember last week’s gospel, when people from his own home town threatened to throw Jesus off a cliff? The life of a prophet of God involves risk. This is hard for modern churchgoers to understand, because in this country serving God, at least as a Christian, has almost always been associated with upward social and economic mobility. Christians have never been in the minority in the United States. Not only have we never been persecuted for our faith, we have historically been rewarded for it. All of our presidents have been Christian, along with most of our legislators. Christian language and images permeate our national culture. The majority of the world’s wealthiest people are Christian. Up until recently, clergy persons everywhere were often treated with respect and given tremendous power, serving as advisors to kings and heads of state. The Episcopal Church itself long served as a bastion of the status quo, providing religious bases for policies that were antithetical to Christian teaching – policies supporting racism, classicism, and violence against others. In this environment and over time, many of our brethren have forgotten that a clerical collar is not a sign of authority, but one of humility. It is not meant to recall a chain of office, but a chain of servitude.
As Christians – and particularly white Christians, we have been given the opportunity to speak to large audiences, but few of us have risen to the challenge of truly preaching God’s word. That’s because while it is easy to make God’s words fit into what people want to believe, it is much harder to say what people really need to hear- even if they don’t like it. But as Christians we are called, like Isaiah and Paul, to speak God’s truth, not our own. “We live among people who want to hate their enemy, and yet we [are asked to deliver] a message about loving not just your neighbor but your enemy as well. We live in a world of wars and rumors of wars, and yet we have a Lord who suggests that when we are weak we are strong. We live in a world that measures success by the size of our possessions, and yet we are a people who [demonstrate our faith by sharing a simple] common meal, just a small piece of bread…and…a small sip from a cup” and profess that that is enough to sustain us through all things.
Thus, true Christianity, “undefiled before God” is undeniably countercultural. When we who live in 21st century American society decide we are comfortable with what is going on around us, then we are not paying enough attention to scripture and we are not following the way of Christ. We need to get back to basics.
That’s what Paul did in his letter to the Christian community at Corinth. Having founded and loved the church there, he had left them to their own devices, only to hear that “some in the Corinthian church [were] exploiting the gifts of the Spirit to enhance their status within the congregation and tailoring their beliefs to coincide with their fellow citizens outside the church. In short, they [were] not living in the love of God and neighbor.” Paul had to remind them of what they believed – that Jesus died for their sins, and that although none of them, including Paul himself, were worthy, they were all required to spread that message, not just by word, but by example. Paul’s words, as Reverend Walter reminded us last week, are not just for the Corinthians. They speak to us – right here and right now. Hearing the word is not enough. Repeating the word is not enough. Doing God’s will is what matters – and we are all called to do it.
It takes a while to get this – and we generally don’t like it when we do. Someone recently asked me how you know when you are truly being called by God, and I said, “Because your first response is going to be, ‘God, are you out of your mind’? – Uh uh. Not me. No way.” Invitations to serve God are not like evites. You can’t respond, “Oh, that might be fun if I don’t have anything else to do that night.” As Simon Peter and his fellow fishermen discovered, invitations from God are confusing, frightening, life-changing and even life-threatening. Invitations from God involve taking risks and pushing ourselves farther than we think we can go. Invitations from God require letting down our emotional nets and leaving everything to follow that call. “The invitation to put out into the deep for a catch provides a sharp contrast to our human penchant for the predictable and routine.” Accepting a call from God assumes sacrifice and loss. It is not a question of whether we will leave something behind; it is simply a question of what. For Isaiah, becoming God’s prophet meant losing his place in his community. For Paul, it involved loss of physical well-being, and for Simon and his friends, it meant both. Fortunately, it also means leaving behind other things – things like anger, fear, unreasonable expectations, and the love of earthly things. It means leaving behind reliance on human beings and on human institutions for salvation. It means leaving behind ourselves – the inadequate and fearful selves that were formed by and are tied to the world – and finding our true selves – the ones bound not to earthly powers, but to God alone. This is a blessing. Remember, my sisters and brothers, that when God calls out to us, it means that we have been calling to God.
“I will give thanks to you, O God, with my whole heart…When I called, you answered me; you increased strength within me…The Lord will make good his purpose for me. O Lord, your love endures forever.” Amen.
Ben Blatt and Nicholas Duchesne (November 18, 2013), “The Most Exclusive Circles,” Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/business/billion_to_one/2013/11/the_world_s_top_50_billionaires_a_demographic_breakdown.html.
George H. Martin, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 316.
Jerry Irish, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 328.
Howard K. Gregory, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 336.
Sermon for February 3, 2019: Today (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
I think we’ve all heard sermons that have stirred the pot a little. But my guess is few, if any, of us have heard a sermon that so riled a congregation that they wanted to throw the preacher off a cliff. Certainly, a preacher is more likely to frame a message in such a way that, even if she intends to challenge her hearers, she wouldn’t want to alienate them. Certainly not to the extent they’ll want to run her out of the church or out of town. (1)
But today’s and last week’s Gospel must be one of the more perplexing scenes in the New Testament.
Here we have Jesus returning to his hometown and being threatened with death after he made a few remarks based on the actions of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Granted Jesus had really wowed the people in the synagogue with the gracious words that came out of his mouth, but he was still their Jesus son of Joseph.
Think of it! Most of them had seen Jesus grow from infancy to manhood. Even though they had never dreamed he was God, they certainly knew his character firsthand. They had never seen him do anything wrong. He had never lied, never disobeyed, never been unkind. In fact, he was the most loving, thoughtful, engaging person they had ever known. He was undoubtedly locally famous for his acts of mercy. He was the loveliest being they had ever encountered. But Jesus intuited that the people in the synagogue wanted him to perform for them, perform miracles comparable to the ones he had done in Capernaum. They wanted to see water turned into wine, the lame healed, recovery of sight to the blind, to use the vernacular of Super Bowl Sunday, the whole nine yards. They wanted to see it and experience it right here in Nazareth and right now, thank you very much. (2)
And so, do we. That is all they wanted. That is all we want. We are members of his community. We want a piece of the action right here, right now, just like the good people of Nazareth.
Jesus tells them no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. He reminds them that our God works in ways that we might not understand. That God’s power is often focused on strangers far outside the friendly confines of our cozy little communities of faith.
When Jesus cut through their comfortable religious facade citing the healing miracles the prophets Elijah and Elisha performed for Gentiles, they tried to lynch him— and on the Sabbath too! He would have been tossed off the cliff and then stoned had he not “passed through their midst” and gone away. This was certainly divine protection in my mind. They felt they deserved at least a miracle or two. Hadn’t they contributed to his upbringing? Hadn’t they put up with his unusual parentage? Hadn’t they gone to synagogue faithfully every week?
Hadn’t they studied God’s word every day? And prayed morning, noon, and night? Hadn’t they felt proud when hearing accounts of his marvelous deeds, and that he had come from Nazareth? He’s one of us, they say! He is ours, they say! Isn’t that why we keep coming back Sunday after Sunday ourselves to eat his body and drink his blood? To claim him as our own? Isn’t he ours? But listen to his unsympathetic response. He knows what they are thinking before they even say it. He goes to great pains to remind them that our God works in mysterious ways.
He reminds them that Elijah was sent to a foreign widow in Zarephath; that Elisha cleansed a dreaded Syrian. A Syrian! There were people in need right here in their own community. Yet, he reminds them, God has always looked out for those in need beyond the community of faith, beyond the boundaries of our towns, our countries. God’s power is not ours. God is not ours. Rather, we are his.
“And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” Naaman was saved because, knowing he was a leper and that there was no hope for him apart from God’s grace, he trusted God. There are many lepers in the church today— and many starving widows. But they do not know they are spiritually poor, spiritually captive, spiritually blind, spiritually oppressed. Upright, religious, family-focused, they become furious at the thought that they need God’s grace.
Their enviable heritages and fine church traditions insulate them from their spiritual poverty. In effect, they cast Jesus out. Those most in need of mercy and grace often know it the least. (3)
How will those most in need of God’s mercy and grace come to realize their need? Who will God anoint to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind? It is certainly not just clergy people but all who were baptized into the body of Christ.
We as a body are anointed to be prophets to the nations. Prophets proclaiming God’s redeeming love for all through Christ. As our presiding Bishop Michael Curry so succinctly puts it “if it’s not about love it’s not about Jesus.” Just as God told the young Jeremiah
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,
and before you were born, I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
So, it is with us!
When Jesus finished reading the passage from Isaiah, he proclaimed “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is easy to overlook but it’s very important to pay attention to the word TODAY. As John Drury notes in his thought-provoking book Tradition and Design in Luke’s Gospel, the word “today” has great force for Luke. This is a reminder that Jesus stands before us not just yesterday, or in some longed-for tomorrow, but today. As Rev. Deb reminded me that this is the philosophy of social workers
That they will meet the person they’re serving where they are at. Poor grammar included. Jesus always comes to us today where we are. Our relationship with God is always today. The bandit being crucified next to Jesus asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his Kingdom. He was assured that today he would be in Paradise with Jesus. When we celebrate the Eucharist with Rev. Deb, it is not remembering something that happened 2000 years ago but made new now today. The Greek word for this is Anamnesis meaning a memorial sacrifice
As Jesus commanded at his last supper to “do this in remembrance of me.”
I am reminded of an inspirational quote about time: “Time is like a river you cannot touch the same water twice, because the flow that has passed will never pass again. Enjoy every moment of your life.” It is good to remember that Jesus is a strong rock in the midst of the river that we can stand on for all our todays and be prophets:
to bring good news to the poor.
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed, go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Amen.
- Michael Shelley Sermon LUKE 4:21-30February 1, 2010
- Hughes, R. Kent. Luke (2 volumes in 1 / ESV Edition) (Preaching the Word) (Kindle Locations 2691-2697). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
- Hughes, R. Kent. Luke (2 volumes in 1 / ESV Edition) (Preaching the Word) (Kindle Locations 2707-2713). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
Sermon for January 27, 2019: One Body, One Spirit (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.” Amen.
Well, hello everyone! Long time, no see. As most of you know, I was away for a week and missed two Sundays – the most I have been gone from Grace since starting here. I thank you for allowing me to go back east and help my mom move and for your prayers and good thoughts on her behalf. I am grateful that I was able to focus on my family while I was gone, because I knew the church was in good hands – maybe too good.
Since I have been back, many folks have come by to tell me how great Rev. Molly is and how much they enjoy her sermons. For that reason, I have decided to fire her! I am, of course, joking. You can never have too much good preaching, and it’s very important for us to hear different voices from the pulpit (or floor). But I have to admit to having to fend off just a little bit of insecurity and envy when fielding all of those complements for Molly. Luckily, for me, the great joy of having talented, supportive colleagues who are dedicated to the work of God far outweighs any self-doubt or envy that may try to creep into my head. The truth is that it is simply human nature to want to succeed and to feel threatened by those you perceive to be “showing you up.” Luckily, God understands this. We know this because God sent us the law, which warns us of some of the things – like pride and envy- that separate us from God and one another – things that cause sin.
God also knew that no individual can live in this world without sometimes falling prey to sin. That is why Jesus came into our world- to save us from ourselves. It is also why God judges us, “not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses.” And, it is why we are not judged as individuals, but as a community of Christ. This last one is a really confusing idea for our modern minds, because we live in a society which highly values individual achievement and thrives on competition. We live in a world in which we have been taught that the best way to succeed is to do better than “the other guy.”
This attitude is completely opposed to what scripture teaches. God’s word speaks over and over about the necessity for and pleasure in community. Today’s lesson from Nehemiah, for example, celebrates the unity that is found through belief in God. In this story, the people of Israel, who were at that time suffering from significant divisions and engaged in distressing infighting, are given the opportunity to listen – to really hear- God’s law. No one is excluded- even women are allowed! And the result of this gathering is understanding – and joy.
Assembling as a community is also the primary activity in our Christian culture. When we gather together, we first hear the Word of God. We then consider it, and finally we act on it: first, by sharing a meal that recalls and honors Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, and then by going in peace to love and serve the Lord. This behavior is very countercultural. It reminds us that “while private spiritual disciplines and practices are important, there is no substitute for God’s people gathering together…There are many things we can do on our own, but being a Christian is not one of them… [It is only when we are] together [that] we are the body of Christ. [That’s why] in our life together we should seek to share and to be inclusive, so that all parts of [that] body feel welcomed and valued.”
The foundation of that unity is Holy Baptism, at which we commit to being one body, one Spirit – and to support everyone else who vows the same. “We come to the water of baptism as individuals…We come out of that water changed… [Through it we have become one body, one hope, one response in God’s call to us. We come out as] more than just ourselves. We are by definition beings-in-relationship.”
The Episcopal Church recognizes this both in our worship and in our polity. We believe that we are all equally important members of our community of Christ and that we all have gifts to offer in its service. This is the primary message of the famous passage we heard from Corinthians today. Each of us has something that this community needs and no gift is greater than any other. Our job is to figure out – to discern- what our gifts are and to put them to good use- not to glorify or advance ourselves, but to contribute to the mission of Jesus Christ.
That mission is spelled out in today’s gospel from Luke. As you know, Epiphany is the season in which we hear the scripture stories that demonstrate that Jesus is not just an ordinary man, but a divine being. Today, we hear the story of Jesus’s “coming out” – his acknowledgement that the Messiah foretold by the prophets has arrived – and he is perhaps quite different what they expected. He has not come to make the rich richer, the powerful stronger, or for his own self-fulfillment. He has come, he tells them, to proclaim release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. And he has come bringing a fabulous gift – the power of the Spirit. This is the same gift we see reflected in the work of our own community. We see it in Molly’s wonderful preaching, and Walter’s dedication to serve. We see it in Elaine’s faithful work to prepare the church for worship, in Jeanne’s transportation of Lorraine to church, in Paula’s work in our Parish Office. We see it in Leslie’s organization of care for others, in Amy’s desire for us to enjoy one another’s company, in the dedication of your Vestry members. And we see it in the countless graces that other members of this parish offer to one another and, through them, to God.
Being part of this community of God is the way in which we find our best selves – the place where we strive for the greater gifts. We don’t always succeed. Just like other human beings in other institutions, we are sometimes more interested in our own beliefs and agendas than those of our community. Just like those who do not know God, we are sometimes too focused on our own needs and our own desires to seek God’s will. The good news of Christian community is that we have each other – to pick up the pieces we drop, to help us to see the face of God in others, and to struggle toward Paul’s goal that “there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” We are a community in which I don’t fire Molly, but praise and thank her for the blessing that she is.
This is the community into which we baptize Mason on this day. It is a community in which we asked to understand that unity does not equal “sameness” or perfect harmony, but rather the simple understanding that we are all in this together, and that God loves us – individually and as a community. It is a community of blessing and gratitude and love.
Surely the Spirit of God is in this place. AMEN.
W. Carl Lester, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 268.
Raewynne J. Whiteley, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 279, 281.
Sermon for January 21, 2019: Changes; or, Turn And Face The Strange1 (The Rev. Molly Haws)
Jesus kickstarts his three years of travelling ministry by changing six
stone jars of water into wine. The author of the gospel account doesn’t
say this explicitly, but I feel very secure in my understanding that this
deed of power has nothing to do with a Divine condemnation of water as
a substance or as a suitable beverage for God’s Chosen People, or for
disciples of Jesus Christ, or even for random wedding guests.
It’s not a condemnation of water.
By the same token, I feel pretty confident that neither is it an expression
of Divine mandate to marry, anymore than the cleansing of the lepers is
a Divine mandate to isolate people with skin diseases. Both the wedding
in Cana and the band of outcast lepers are circumstances—ordinary, oft-
occurring, familiar-to-the-time human circumstances in which the Word
made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth reveals his power to materially affect
What is singular about this, the first of Jesus’ public miracles, is its
Running out of wine at a wedding is hardly the end of the world. No one
is going to die from it. It doesn’t invalidate the wedding or cancel the
marriage contract between the bride’s father and the groom. It’s not
anywhere near the magnitude of catastrophe as a widow losing her only
son, or Mary and Martha losing their brother Lazarus.
Jesus makes his grand entrance as a worker of miracles in an act of pure,
profligate generosity—prompted, in a lovely instance of narrative
symmetry, by his mother’s pushing him into life as the Son of God just
as she had pushed him into life as the Son of Man—generosity that takes
no note of it being deserved or earned by the recipients,
1 David Bowie. May his memory be for a blessing.
looking for no repayment or reward,
asking only that those present partake, if they wish, and enjoy.
I can find in this passage no reason given at all.
Jesus kicks off his ministry with a spontaneous gift,
for no reason at all except that he can and he wants to.
Beloved, I am convinced that this is not an accident. It’s no accident that
this is how Jesus makes his first show of power: in grace un-looked-for,
a purely joyful act of unbridled
changing six stone jars full of water into wine.
Sometimes, change is good. Sometimes we’re relieved and thrilled.
Sometimes we’re not so thrilled. Change doesn’t really care. It’s coming
Things change. The Earth turns, and travels around the sun along with
the other planets, and the galaxy rotates and the whole gathering hurtles
through space at unfathomable speed. As an undergraduate at The
University of Texas, I typed up all my papers on a portable IBM
Selectric and talked on a phone that was wired into the wall. As children,
my two brothers and my two sisters and I piled into the back of the
station wagon for family road trips without benefit of booster seats or
seatbelts and if we got carsick we’d roll down the big window on the
tailgate and hang out the back until it was over.
We learn, and we change things, and we are changed.
We don’t get to choose whether or not to change. It is inevitable.
There’s no avoiding it.
Here’s what we get to choose:
One: We can choose to turn our backs, hide our eyes, and let the change
crash over us like a tsunami,
or we can—in the words of David Bowie—“turn and face the strange.”
That’s the first choice we get.
The other choice we get to make is,
by whom we shall be changed.
Jesus changed six stone jars of water into wine.
It’s an act of pure generosity in celebration of the New Thing that is
spoken into being at a wedding.
God celebrates with us and pours out blessings upon us at each New
Thing spoken into being by the Creative Word:
every new marriage,
Every baptism, confirmation, graduation, vocation discerned and
embraced, ministry undertaken; every new discovery, every work of art,
God celebrates with us and pours out blessings upon us.
By whom shall we be changed? By the world? By those who tell us we
must exclude certain people in order to appease others? Who tell us that
in order to say “yes” to continued relationship with them, we must say
“no” to those whom God has seen fit to call to the Body of Christ? Who
tell us to be afraid, hedge our bets, fight for what’s ours no matter who
we have to destroy?
Or shall we fling ourselves headlong into the outstretched arms of
Christ, who changes us into his likeness, moment by moment, day by
day, choice by painful choice to live into his commandments to love one
another and to be not afraid?
By whom shall we be changed?
Sermon for January 13, 2019: Beginnings* (The Rev. Molly Haws)
Last week, the magi were visiting a new-born king and everyone was slipping out of town and away from Herod. Today, that baby’s cousin John, born about six months before Jesus, is preaching repentance and baptizing folks, one of whom happens to be Jesus.
Hold up—what happened in between?
Luke tells us about circumcising the child—sorry gentlemen—and naming him Jesus, and about the presentation at the temple in Jerusalem (which would have been around 40 days or so after his birth), and about one particular family trip to Jerusalem for the Passover after which the 12-year-old Prince of Peace gave his parents the slip as they were starting the journey back home:
46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions… 48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ 49He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ 50But they did not understand what he said to them. [Luke 2:46, 48-50]
And then, in the land of Molly’s imagination, Mary said, Yeshua Bar-Yosef! You are grounded until you are THIRTY!
Luke tells us that they went home and Jesus was obedient after that, and that “His mother treasured all these things in her heart,” [Luke 2:51] which in my experience of mothers means she never forgot any of it and played that card every time he gave her any backchat:
—Mom! Why can’t James milk the goat for once? I got plans with my
—Oh, you have plans? Like the plans we had back home when you up
and ran off to the temple without a word to anyone? We didn’t sleep for
three days, searching for you!
—Sorry, Mom… give me the milk bowl… Son of God, by the way…
The next time we see Mary’s boy child Jesus Christ, he’s thirty years old
and being baptized by cousin John.
Of the four canonical gospel accounts, Luke’s is the most elegantly
structured narrative. He tells us about these milestones in the early life of
Jesus, each of which marks a beginning.
Beginnings are important. Beginnings are difficult and momentous.
Every beginning is also a death: of the way things used to be, of the life
we used to live. Every beginning is a death. And every death is new life
American novelist Lisa Alther tells it this way in her book Other
Women, as Hannah remembers her now-grownup daughter Mona as a
child, learning to ride a bike:
The afternoon Mona caught on, all in a rush after so
many crashes and scraped knees, Hannah was trotting along
holding her arm. Finding her balance and pedaling faster,
Mona grabbed Hannah’s hand. As she pulled away, Mona
loosened her grip. Until only their fingertips touched, Mona’s
exerting a downward pressure, her eyes fixed on the road
Hannah saw Mona needed only to realize she was now
riding the bike on her own, so she lowered her fingertips and
fell back. As their fingertips touched for the last time, and
brushed apart, Hannah felt a pang of joy and pride, mixed
with anguish—at the loss of the little girl who couldn’t ride a
bicycle. As Hannah and the other children cheered… Hannah
first understood that parenting was a series of such small
daily deaths, and that learning to let go of your charges was
as crucial as learning to take them on.1
Every beginning is also a death.
The labor of death is the labor of new life striving to be born.
Luke, that master of narrative, begins the story of Jesus’ life on earth
with these events of beginning, each of which is also a death. This idea
of death as that which gives birth to new life is the context in which we
read the rest of the story.
Death is the space between the life that was and the life that is to be. Our
entire lives on this earth are lived in that space between—that liminal
space between the life that has been going on since the beginning of
Creation, and the life that comes after.
Liminal space tends to be scary for us. It can feel frightening, this
business of new life that only comes into being through the doorway of
death. That’s why Jesus tells us, over and over again, be not afraid. Be
not afraid, for I am with you. That’s why Jesus was born among us,
human, in this liminal space of life in this world. That’s why Jesus was
baptized—not to be cleansed of sin, because Jesus had no sin to
cleanse—to create a space in the waters of baptism where we know he
meets us and claims us, to say to us, as God says to Israel in the words of
the prophet Isaiah,
Thus says the Lord, the One who created you, the One who formed you:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name,
you are mine.
1 Lisa Alther, Other Women (New York: Plume, 1996), 321.
Sermon for Epiphany 2019: King of Kings (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Scripture can be a little confusing- not just the complex, compound sentences of Paul, but the simple, familiar verses we think we know well. My favorite story about a misunderstanding of scripture comes from a pastor of a church in Georgia. He was admiring the beautiful Christmas decorations in the sanctuary, and when he came to the nativity, he smiled at the familiar figures of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; the shepherds; and the many animals that had been placed among them. Then, glancing over at the three kings, he did a double-take. They were dressed as fire fighters! He called over one of the Altar Guild members and asked why in the world the three kings were wearing fire hats. “Well,” she said, “scripture tells us that the wise men came from a fire!”
Actually scripture does not even tell us that much. If you look back to today’s gospel, you will find that all we know about the “wise men” is that they came from the East, believed that Jesus was the king of the Jews, and ultimately gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The rest is mythology- and most of the traditions about the “three kings” are not biblical. The story that we heard today does not tell us exactly who these stargazers were or where they came from. Because Matthew’s gospel mentions three precious gifts, it became the convention to refer to three gift-givers, but it’s likely there were far more of them. Similarly, because the offerings identified were valuable, storytellers made the gift-givers wealthy and powerful – kings. According to Raymond Brown, “in order to emphasize the universality of Christ’s saving mission, early commentators imaginatively reconstructed the physical characteristics of the magi to represent different races…In a treatise attributed to [seventh century writer] the Venerable Bede…the magi are first named: ‘Melchior’…’Gaspar’…and “Balthasar.’”
Some scholars have suggested that the magi were actually Persian Zoroastrians or Babylonian astrologers. Several years ago, however, a Harvard scholar named Brent Landau published a book called, “Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem.” The book is based on Landau’s translation of an ancient text, written in Syriac, called “The Revelation of the Magi.” In researching the story of the “three kings,” Landau discovered the existence of a manuscript in the Vatican Library, where it had been donated by a Turkish collector in the 19th century. His seven-year labor of love translating “The Revelation of the Magi” offers suggestions as to why these non-Christians are so important to our Christian story. According to Landau, contrary to popular belief, the Magi were not magicians, astronomers, or astrologers. Rather, the manuscript suggests that they were mystics who believed in a prophecy that had been handed down to them by their forbearers – a prophecy of “a star of indescribable brightness” that would herald “the birth of God in human form.” This star was the same as one which had hovered over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden – and like that tree, the star demonstrated the presence of God on earth. According to the Revelation of the Magi, the star first appeared in visions to these mystics in response to silent prayer and sacred devotions. Although they initially saw it as a star, it changed into the form of a “star child” who told them to go west to witness its birth. Each of the twelve Magi mentioned by name in the text saw a different form of this human star, “with each vision representing a different time in the life of Christ.”
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that these magi were the wise men from the east mentioned in Matthew’s gospel. What “The Revelation of the Magi” does tell us, however, is that the Jewish people were not the only ones waiting for a sovereign who would bring justice and equity to those who were marginalized. They were not the only ones seeking the light of God. They were not the only ones in need of salvation. The word “Epiphany” means “revelation,” as in, “I saw the light.” The wise men’s reports of pure, radiant light that shone on a baby whose birth symbolized hope and peace to oppressed people everywhere quickly spread far beyond its initial cultural and geographical origins. The story of a king who was born in a stable brought light and joy to everyone willing to seek it.
For Christians, the “Epiphany story” represents the divine nature of the Christ child. In some countries, Epiphany is celebrated with as much fanfare as Christmas. In the early church, “The winter solstice was kept on January 6 at some places during the first centuries of the Christian Era. In opposition to pagan festivals, Christians chose this day to celebrate the various manifestations, or ‘epiphanies,’ of Jesus’ divinity. The day was called ‘The Feast of Lights.’ Celebration of the Son of God replaced celebration of the sun.” In later centuries, the solstice was celebrated on December 25 and the Christians subsequently moved the remembrance of the birth of Jesus to that date. January 6 remained the beginning of the Epiphany season, during which they retold the stories of the revelations that signaled the divinity of Christ.
Epiphany, then, is not really about the story of three kings from “afar,” but about five kings, only one of whom is the true and worthy ruler of the universe. It is about nothing less than the presence of the divine among us – the light of Christ the king. It is a strange tale with a stranger lesson- that the babe who was born of mismatched, poor, and oppressed parents and slept among the muck and the hay of a stable is not only a future ruler of the people Israel, but as Psalm 72 reminds us, is the Christ, the “Messiah,” the savior of the Jewish people. This Messiah is not recognized by the leaders of his own people. Instead, just as God chose the most humble of people to be the first witnesses to the birth of his son, he chose unbelieving foreigners to be the second.
The wise men seem to know what kind of king Jesus is – and is not. Of the five kings in the story, one – Herod, was frightened, greedy, and conniving – motivated only to protect his own power. Three were wise and humble, recognizing that something new and powerful had occurred and wanting to give something in return for that overwhelming revelation. The fifth king was the most powerful – and the most righteous – of all. Matthew’s story of the three kings legitimizes Jesus’s place as the king of kings, the one who has been prophesied. Despite the fact that their offerings eventually provided the tradition of gift-giving at Christmas, their visit is less of a birthday party than an inauguration. They are there to pray at the enthronement of a true, Godly sovereign – a ruler who will be a shepherd to his people, a defender of the needy, and a rescuer of the poor, a leader whose glory will cover the earth and dispel the darkness that humanity has brought upon itself – a savior whose light will not only brighten the paths of his own tribe, but the lives of people in all places – and in all times.
This is the revelation of Epiphany – that Jesus is the light that has come into the world and no darkness can overcome that light. The light of the Christ child who is the king of kings is more powerful than any evil, suffering, or fear that human beings can create. We can choose to walk in that light. Like Paul, we can give over our lives to the good news that has been revealed to us. Like the shepherds, we can look into that light and thrill and rejoice. Like the wise men, we can humble ourselves in the glory of that light and give thanks. “To God the Father, heavenly Light, to Christ, revealed in earthly night, to God the Holy Ghost we raise our equal and unceasing praise.” AMEN.