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.