Children’s Homily for July 21, 2019: It’s easy to get distracted (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Sermon for July 21, 2019: Martha vs. Mary (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Today’s gospel story doesn’t get as much press as last week’s tale of the Good Samaritan. After all, on the surface it’s just an account of Jesus paying a call on two sisters who get into an argument during his visit. Big deal – at my house growing up, we called that “Sunday dinner.” Yet for many of us – particularly women – this story strikes a really loud chord, because it gets to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus.
If you ask a Christian woman whether she’s “a Mary” or “a Martha,” nine times out of ten she will know exactly what you’re talking about -and immediately tell you which sister she identifies with. The power of the mythical Martha/Mary match-up was demonstrated in this year’s Lent Madness contest. Lent Madness is a religious take on “March Madness” in which saints are sorted into brackets and “compete” against one another to avoid elimination. I always recommend it as a good Lenten discipline, because each day of Lent you learn about two saints and pray about them. You also get to vote between them. Throughout the 40 days, the field is narrowed, with the winner eventually getting the Golden Halo. This year, the Supreme Executive Committee (as they call themselves) did something truly diabolical: on the very first day of Lent, they pitted Mary and Martha against one another- and, to me, it was no surprise who won. Propelled by a large female voting bloc, Martha “the doer,” took out her sister Mary.
There are probably a few reasons for this. First of all, the story of Mary and Martha has often been read as a feminist narrative, in which Jesus refuses to condemn a woman for rejecting her traditional female position. But as much as I like to site this as an example of Jesus’s endorsement of women serving in roles that are often considered “male,” I don’t really think that’s the point of a story – or why Martha got the Golden Halo. The fact is that most churchgoers – female and male- are Marthas. We consider ourselves to be doers – the ones who make casseroles for the ill, mow the lawn, and set the table for Eucharist- and we’re proud of that.
The tradition of hospitality that encourages us to feed, wash, and serve our guests – expected and unexpected – appears early in scripture. We heard it today in our reading from Genesis, where Abraham orders his wife (who does the actual work) to make and bring food for three unidentified visitors. Based on this story, it’s easy to conclude that this type of hands-on hospitality is what God wants of us – especially when Abraham and Sarah are rewarded for their actions with their deepest desire – the promise of a son.
But it is not all God wants of us, as Jesus makes clear in Luke’s gospel. In fact, it is not the primary thing God wants of us – because when Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is not helping out, Jesus does not tell Mary to get up and help. Jesus tells Martha to chill out. This used to make me nuts- because I, of course, have always thought of myself as a Martha – and, not coincidentally, thought of my own sister as a Mary. As the one both cooking dinner and washing dishes on Thanksgiving as my sister sat and read a book, I was completely in Martha’s court. After all, it’s fine for Jesus to stick up for Mary’s right to just sit and listen, but who cooked his dinner?!
That was before I became acquainted with a phenomenon called “burn out.” Burn out is a pattern of symptoms including exhaustion, depression, and resentment that occurs when an individual experiences chronic stress. Most of you are probably familiar with burn out in relationship to employment, but it doesn’t get much attention as it relates to church. According to Psychology Today, however, “Burnout is not simply a result of long hours. The cynicism, depression, and lethargy of burnout can occur when a person is not in control of how [their work] is being carried out. Equally pressing is working toward a goal that doesn’t resonate, or when a person lacks support… If a person doesn’t tailor responsibilities to match a true calling, or at least take a break once in a while, the person could face a mountain of mental and physical health problems.”
This happens in churches all the time. When we feel called to a ministry, meaning that it excites and fulfills us, then we seem to have enormous energy to do it. This is especially true if we truly understand why we are doing it and support the way it is being done. On the other hand, if we have been doing the same work for too long, or feel unappreciated, or don’t get why we’re being asked to do it, and especially if we are doing something not because we are inspired by it, but because we think if we don’t do it no one else will, we are susceptible to burn out. When church people burn out, often one of three things happens: we no longer look forward to being at church, because it is more of a chore than a joy; we continue to suck it up and do the work, but our internal resentment slips out and we make those around us miserable; or we simply quit. This is not what church community should be. This is not what Jesus wanted for his friend, Martha.
“Martha, Martha,” he said, “you are worried and distracted by many things.” The problem, according to Jesus, was not the kind of work Martha was doing, it was the anxiety it caused her that he was worried about. Rather than experiencing the delight and peace that Jesus meant to bring by visiting her home, Martha was instead suffering as a result of his visit –all because she was concentrating on the wrong thing. Jesus was in her house, but she couldn’t hear a word he said because she was focused on the table being set.
We do this all the time. I do it when I am reciting the Nicene Creed but wondering when I should send the acolyte to get the kids from nursery school. Walter does it when he is worried about setting the table just so and misses the beautiful sight of the small children bringing forward the oblations. We do it when we focus on safety rather than service and comfort instead of calling. We do it when we allow fear to rule our actions rather than faith.
It happens most often when we forget the purpose of Christian community. “The church is not some theological theme park where frantic leaders, fearful of ever boring or frustrating their customers, employ an ever-escalating array of techniques… [Churches are not] social organizations that exist for their own members.” The Christian religion is not about entertainment, or refuge, or even its own survival. It is about meeting and living and sharing Christ Jesus, the firstborn of all creation- the one who teaches, reconciles and saves. It is about serving him by serving one another- without envy and resentment, but with open and honest hearts, and without hope of gain.
We can admire Martha’s dedication to hospitality, but we must heed Jesus’s gentle reprimand when we become agitated, confused, and drawn away by the work we think we have to do instead of the work we are called to do – the work that will give us joy. There are many things to do here at Grace and even more to do in the community beyond our gates – and we need everyone who can to help with those things. But our work together is meaningless when we begin to do it for its own sake – when we become obsessed with how we worship and lose sight of who we worship. We worship a God who is patient. We worship a God who is generous. We worship a God who has given us the better part- and, if we will choose it, it will never be taken away from us. AMEN.
Rodger Y. Nishioka, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 260.
Sermon for July 14, 2019: Fear and Compassion (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
Saint Francis had a fear and abhorrence of lepers. One day, however, he met a man afflicted with leprosy while riding his horse near Assisi. Though the sight of the leper filled him with horror and disgust, Francis, moved by the Holy Spirit, got off his horse and kissed the leper. Then the leper put out his deformed hand, hoping to receive something. Out of compassion, Francis gave money to the leper. But when Francis mounted his horse again and looked all around, he could not see the leper anywhere. It dawned on him that it was Jesus whom he had just kissed.
In his Testament, Francis wrote, “When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them. When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became the source of spiritual and physical consolation for me.” (1)
In today’s Gospel we hear an exchange between Jesus and a Lawyer, an expert on the Torah or Law. It begins with a question, the same one asked by the rich young man earlier in the Gospel: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus was a Rabbi. This can be seen in the way he was often addressed as teacher, especially by women. We also see this in the confrontation between Jesus the Rabbi and the Lawyer.
The Lawyer uses a question and answer, with the question as a teaser. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus, in rabbinic form, replies with another question, “What is written in the law?” The Lawyer answers with the third line of the Shema, from Deuteronomy; the prayer said twice a day by Jews then and today, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” He adds the second great law as Jesus has done, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus then gives the Lawyer a pass saying, “do this and you will live.”
Of course, the Lawyer was testing Jesus to trip him up and continued by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” This elicits a rabbinic teaching technique from Jesus, a midrash or parable, and what follows is one of the most recognizable parables in the world. One so recognizable that it has become a cliché in the secular world: the parable of the good Samaritan. A Samaritan has become synonymous with someone who comes to the aid of another in need. But is this what Jesus was getting at? Was he giving us a parable to make us feel guilty when we ignore a homeless person? Or was he offering a variation on “Be helpful when you come across people in trouble?” (2) Let’s take a closer look at this most famous parable.
Jesus’ encounter with the Lawyer happens on his and his followers’ journey to Jerusalem. They were probably celebrating success of the 70 sent out to be evangelists we heard last Sunday. The Lawyer probably knew who Jesus considered his neighbor by reputation: Sinners, outcasts, and tax collectors, indeed all of humanity. The Lawyer, I think, wanted to reinforce the idea you are known by the company you keep. Jesus uses the parable to turn the Lawyer’s ideas upside down.
There are four players in this parable: A Priest, Levite, a wounded traveler who is probably a Jew, and a Samaritan. The Samaritan, as told by Jesus, is an example of a good neighbor having compassion for the wounded traveler and going above and beyond to care for him. The two Temple authorities go out of their way to avoid the wounded man. The stunning thing about the good neighbor is that he is a Samaritan, a cultural enemy of Jewish society. In Jesus’ day the hatred was ingrained and utterly ruthless. The rabbis said, “Let no man eat the bread of the Cuthites (Samaritans), for he who eats their bread is as he who eats swine’s flesh.” The ultimate insult came in the venom-laced Jewish prayer that concluded, “And do not remember the Cuthites in the Resurrection.” (5) The Lawyer could not even name the good neighbor as the Samaritan, just the one who showed compassion. But compassion has no cultural bounds, today the Samaritan might well be a Muslim, Sikh, immigrant, or refugee.
A question often asked is why did the Temple officials go out of their way to avoid the wounded man? I’ve read some commentators explain they had to avoid corpse defilement in case the person was dead, but did they need to cross the road to avoid it? I think that it might have been fear that made them avoid helping the unfortunate traveler. Brigands would sometimes play wounded or dead along a path and attack the unsuspecting person when they came to investigate or help. It could be fear of getting involved in such a mess and being responsible for the wounded man’s wellbeing.
Fear is a natural emotion for self-preservation, but when we let it take over our lives can be destructive. Fear will drive us to pull into ourselves and an insular community that looks and thinks like us.
We will never be short on fears. Failure, rejection, sickness, losing a loved one, being alone—the fears we carry are many and heavy. Fear can be a tyrant, a bully we can’t hide from. It can paralyze our spirit, damage our relationships, but most of all hinder our faith and love for others. (3) As our Rector Rev. Deb teaches, fear is the opposite of faith.
What is at stake, then and now, is the question of whether we will use the God-given revelation of love and grace as a way of boosting our own sense of isolated security and purity, much like Temple authorities, or whether we will see it as a call and challenge to follow The Way of Jesus and extend that love and grace to the whole world.(4)
Our relationship with fellow human beings proves or disproves our claims to know and love God. This is not a call to perfection. Only Jesus totally loved God and his neighbor as himself. Only Jesus was consistently merciful to everyone who came his way. But it is a call to consider whether there is evidence in our relationships that we love God.
Are we merciful? Are we truly compassionate with others? If we habitually pass by those who are in distress— physical, economic, social— we are not following The Way of Jesus. How we live with others is shorthand for how we are related to God. It is good to remember that not all of us can jump down from our horse and kiss a leper, or tend a wounded traveler on the road, but we all have our special gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit. We are all in this together, using our gifts and working as the Body of Christ, the Church and working with all who show compassion. When God Herself leads us into the company of those in need we are known by “the fruits” of love we produce. Amen.
- Bartlett, David L.. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
- Fear and Faith: Finding the Peace Your Heart Craves Paperback – April 1, 2015
by Trillia J. Newbell
- T. Wright. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 129). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
- Hughes, R. Kent. Luke (2 volumes in 1 / ESV Edition) (Preaching the Word) (Kindle Locations 7253-7255). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
Sermon for July 7, 2019: The harvest is plentiful (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Over 45 million people in the United States live in poverty. Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. (11.2 million) experiences a serious mental illness in a given year. The FBI reported over seven thousand hate crimes in 2019, a figure which is probably an underestimate and continues to rise. This nation is filled with people who need food, shelter, treatment, and love. The harvest is plentiful.
According to the Pew Research Center, while “God is frequently invoked in American public life [and]… there is no shortage of instances of official acknowledgement of the divine … as younger Americans enter adulthood, they are far less likely to be sure about God’s existence than are their elders. While 70% of those ages 65 and older express an absolutely certain belief in God or a universal spirit, only about half of adults under 30 feel the same way.” These young people believe that they must depend on human skills and morals to advance the world – that they alone are responsible for the fate of the universe. How terrifying. The harvest is plentiful.
In a recent article, Ryan Burge suggested that a significant increase in people who profess to believe “nothing in particular” “might be the most consequential portion of America’s rapidly changing religious landscape, because they speak to a larger problem: unmoored members of American society.” According to the author, Americans who identify as “nothing in particulars” have lower levels of formal education and lower levels of social involvement, than individuals who have spiritual beliefs. They are less likely to vote and less likely to give blood. They are less likely to be good citizens of the nation. The harvest is plentiful.
But the laborers are few. Why is that? I don’t think it’s because we don’t see the value of being part of this church family. We find comfort in God and one another, praying for those in need, and faithfully offering to help. We rejoice when we hear the words of the Eucharistic prayer, reminding us of the awesome deeds of God. We are delighted when we sing to the glory of God, making the voice of her praise to be heard. And yet, while it is easy for us to recommend a good book, make a referral for a competent dentist, and contribute useful information when someone has to buy a new car, it is just too awkward to bring a friend to church.
It’s not like we have nothing to offer. “Amassed research indicates that higher levels of religious belief …[are] associated with better mental health. In particular, the research suggests that higher levels of [what researchers call] religiosity are associated with better physical health and subjective well-being,” lower rates of anxiety and depression, and higher rates of recovery from illness.
Perhaps it is that we, like so many others in our society, have simply lost faith in our faith. And no wonder. Clergy abuse scandals, over-involvement of religious leaders in politics, abandonment of basic biblical principles in favor of self-fulfillment and greed – religious institutions sometimes do more to separate people from God than draw them closer. This is sin. This is not what scripture tells us our faith should be. In today’s New Testament reading, “in the midst of [a] crisis of the young church in Galatia, Paul encourages self-giving in faithful service, gratitude, and humility, rather than arrogance, hubris and emphasis on differences.”
That’s the kind of spiritual experience people want to have – but aren’t finding in Christian churches. They are not even seeking them in Christian churches. That’s because many people don’t know what it means to have faith. For these people “belief” is the same as “opinion” – and they don’t like the ideas they think Christians have. They don’t understand what belief is – that belief is not about what we think – it’s about what we feel, what we trust.
The question is, how are we to ask people who live in an untrustworthy world to trust something when, “All religion, and every practice of religion, and in fact all of human life is in danger of being marshaled into the service of the human ego.” The answer, according to Jesus, is to face down the evils of the world – to eradicate poverty, exclusion, fear-mongering, hate, greed, self-aggrandizement, mental and physical illness, economic inequity, refusal to care for the future of the earth, and all the powers of the enemy- and to do so without fear. The answer is to bring peace to every house we enter. The answer is to believe that nothing can harm us as long as we are doing the will of God.
That’s what Paul was trying to tell his group of fledgling Christians in Galatia. It is what we do – how we embody our Christian identity – that matters. “Salvation is by faith, not works – [yes] – but actions are not inconsequential.” We will reap, he warns us, what we sow. If Christians sow anger, hatred, fear and rejection, those are the things that will grow – and those are the things we will have to deal with when they come to fruition. We are dealing with them right now. Because the truth is that many Christians have not sown the seeds of love and peace that Jesus intended. We have evangelized on behalf of our non-violent and accepting Saviour by drawing lines of exclusion and encouraging belief at the point of a sword. And as a result our harvest is one of doubt rather than devotion, fear instead of faith. We have been asked to reap in a society in which some people have suggested that the world would be a far better place without belief in God.
But this is our mission field. We are God’s laborers and despite what we might think, the harvest is plentiful. We live in a divided nation – a frightened nation – a nation that is struggling to find itself. It is a nation that desperately needs the unifying, fortifying, and reinvigorating power of true Christian love. It is a society filled with people who, despite their apparent skepticism, continue to want to believe in the holy – who want to believe in each other – who want to believe in God.
These people are the fruits of the spirit that, like the seventy disciples who represent all of humanity in today’s gospel reading, we are asked to harvest. Like the disciples we may be lambs in the midst of wolves. Like them we will not be welcomed in many places. We may not be welcomed in our own communities and homes. But like them we must be prepared to sacrifice our own comfort in order to spread the good news of the life-giving gospel to others. That’s what evangelism is – and evangelism is the call of all Christians.
We have been commanded by Jesus to share our faith. That doesn’t mean we have “to corner a stranger, thrust a Bible at [them] and ask” if they have been saved. We don’t have to ask people if they have been born again. We don’t have to threaten people with hell. We simply have to do three things: proclaim the gospel; enact our faith, and invite others to join us. Tell people who you are – introduce them to the church as you experience it. Show people what you believe. Don’t just tell them the Christian story; enact it. Keep trying to do what is right. Focus on what is important rather than what is convenient. Put your own comfort aside. Work for the welfare and freedom of all people. And invite other people to join you, to participate in the experience of the spirit, to be part of our community. The harvest is plentiful. May the laborers be as well. AMEN.
Gaby Galvin (December 2018, “Poverty rate falls in U.S.,” US News and World Report, https://www.usnews.com/news/healthiest-communities/articles/2018-12-06/poverty-rate-falls-in-america-amid-economic-growth.
NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill),”Mental Health by the Numbers,” https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers.Grace Hauck, (June, 2019), “Anti-LGBT hate crimes are rising, the FBI says. But it gets worse,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2019/06/28/anti-gay-hate-crimes-rise-fbi-says-and-they-likely-undercount/1582614001/.
Michael Lipka, (November, 2014), “America’s faith in God may be eroding,” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/04/americans-faith-in-god-may-be-eroding/
Ryan Burge (July, 2019), “Rise of the ‘nothing in particulars’ may be the sign of a disjointed, disaffected and lonely future,” DIY Faith, Opinion, https://religionnews.com/2019/07/03/rise-of-the-nothing-in-particulars-may-be-sign-of-a-disjointed-disaffected-and-lonely-future/.
Rob Whitley, (December, 2017 ) “Religion and Mental Health: What is the link?”, Psychology Today: Talking about Men,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-men/201712/religion-and-mental-health-what-is-the-link.
J. William Harkins, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 210.
Diana Butler Bass, (October 18, 2016), “Oprah’s new ‘Belief’ series shows how dramatically the nature of faith is shifting,” The Washington Post.
AJ Conyers, quoted in Carol E. Holtz-Martin, , (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 211.
Robert A. Bryant, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 211.
Sermon for June 30, 2019: Don’t look back (The Rev. Walter Ramsey):
The past week, I was feeling quite nostalgic for some reason. I think it may have started when I saw a picture of the sanctuary of St. Ignatius Church on the campus of the University of San Francisco, the church where I would attend morning and Latin mass while I was a student there. The image made me homesick, so I began to look back and think of the wonderful and sad things I have experienced. I thought back to the time when Amy was a young girl when I would read her to sleep with children’s books. As she got, older around kindergarten, I began reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis to her. By the way I also read the Narnia Chronicles to my grandchildren when they were about the same age.
As I thought about this, I decided to take from my bookshelf and read the first published of the Chronicles, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
The Chronicles of Narnia are an allegory for salvation history set in a fanciful world where animals talk. The great lion Aslan is the Christ character and children from our realm enter the realm of Narnia by various ways to carry out his mission.
In the book the children had just entered Narnia and have no idea who Aslan is. They meet a talking beaver who tells them they are fulfilling the prophecy of Aslan’s return to save Narnia. He tells them “Aslan is on the move—perhaps he has already landed.”
Reading this part brought me back to today’s Gospel reading from Luke. In the last half of the Evangelist’s telling of Jesus’ ministry of teaching, preaching and healing, we see Jesus on the move beginning his journey to Jerusalem and the cross.
Jesus along with Peter, James and John have just recently come down from the mountain top where Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus to discuss his own Exodus. Now Jesus had become more resolute in his determination to go to Jerusalem. Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, to his crucifixion and resurrection.
Jesus’ urgency and single mindedness can be seen because he decides on the most direct and shortest route from Galilee to Jerusalem, through Samaria.
Unfortunately, even though the path through Samaria was the quickest way, it held significant risks since going through Samaria was for Jews of his day hostile territory. Ethnocentrism and religious intolerance aren’t a new phenomenon!
Jews and Samaritans were of common stock, but they were also rivals. Samaritans thought of themselves as the descendants of the northern tribes that had made up the nation of Israel. Jews thought of them as at best half-breeds who descended from the folks the Assyrians had deposited there after the end of the northern kingdom. Besides, the two regions were not in agreement about where they could encounter God.
For Jews it was the Temple in Jerusalem. For Samaritans it was the temple on Mount Gerizim. So, when those Jesus sent ahead entered the Samaritan village they didn’t meet with friendly faces. This didn’t please the disciples who were quite offended. So, they asked Jesus to bring down a bit of divine wrath on them. Jesus ignored their demands for retribution. Whether or not the Samaritans received them hospitably was of little concern to him, for he had his face set toward Jerusalem. Nothing would deter him. And so, they continued, finding lodging in another village.
As they moved on toward Jerusalem the topic of discipleship came up.
There were some who expressed interest, but Jesus offered a word of warning. “Foxes have lairs, and the birds in the sky have nests; but the son of man doesn’t have anywhere to lay his head.” At this point being a disciple would probably mean being a homeless itinerant. He made clear to those who asked to sign up, it wouldn’t be easy.
While he warned away some eager followers, he invited others to join him. These people might have had good intentions, but they weren’t ready to fully commit. Many of them gave excuses. One said: “I’ll join you but first I have to bury my father.” In other words, “I’d love to follow you Jesus, but I have some family responsibilities to take care of first.”
Jesus simply answers: “let the dead bury the dead.” I don’t know about you, but that’s not very polite. That would be disciple is only doing what is demanded by Jewish law. In other words, Jesus was probably referring to the man’s family as dead people, people that don’t believe and follow him. Let them take care of things. You have bigger and better things to do!
Another said: “Let me go and say goodbye to my people at home.” We could take this in a variety of ways, but the excuse seems to suggest a need to tend to duties at home. I know that if I just took off without saying good-bye and wrapping up responsibilities regarding my family, it wouldn’t go over well with them.
Yes, we all have responsibilities! Even Elijah allowed Elisha to go say goodbye to his family before following him. Jesus says: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” The kingdom demands all from us. Are we ready to go forward, or will we continually look back like the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness looking back to their lives as slaves in Egypt?
The church has traditions that are very important in grounding our faith and ministries, but when we look back with nostalgia or yearning and cling to them, they can become idols. If we yearn for the “good old days” or seek comfort only in our traditions, then they can keep us looking back and not going forward.
You see, the Kingdom of God that Jesus is leading us to is NOT a destination. It is not a place on a map. The Kingdom of God is a movement. It is a way of being.
Once Jesus turned to Jerusalem–to the cross–he has an urgency about him. He wants all his followers to be participants in THE WAY. We are to love God with all our heart mind and spirit and not look back. We are to love one another and not look back. We are to see God in our fellow human beings even our enemies and not look back. We are to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, welcome the refugee, and not look back. We must work to repair and save our fragile home, the earth and not look back. We are to seek this way of being whether we have immediate reward, no acknowledgment, or even punishment.
We are called to be the people through whom the pain of the world is held in the healing light of the love of God.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior made this statement at a civil rights rally at a college in 1967 that is based loosely on Isaiah 40:13. I find it inspirational and helpful for me when I began to look back and get lost in nostalgia.
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
This is to be our way of being!
Sermon for June 21, 2019: Reconciled and Restored (Reworked from Sermon for June 19, 2016: Who am I?) (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
What does it mean to hear voices? In our society, when someone says they hear voices, we usually assume it is a symptom of mental illness and offer therapy and medication to try to make the voices stop. This is helpful for the many people who recognize the unreality of their situation and are frightened by it. But for others, the costs of taking medications, vicious side effects, and the sense of being “doped” and “not themselves” are not worth the “cure.”
I sometimes wonder if our real motivation for “rescuing” people from mental health symptoms like hearing voices is more about society’s discomfort and fear than the individual’s. We worry that someone who hears things will disrupt the communities we live in or act out violently. The idea that mentally ill people are prone to violence is common – but wrong. Studies tell us that the vast majority of individuals who suffer from severe mental illnesses are not dangerous.
What mentally ill individuals are is isolated and stigmatized. Mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. It is estimated that more than 124 thousand homeless people across the US suffer from a severe mental illness. We see such people all the time and, for many of us, walking near them can seem scary – causing us to try to get away from them as quickly as possible. This, of course, is the exact opposite of what people with severe mental illnesses need. Their symptoms have separated them from others; what they need more than anything is to be restored to full membership in their communities.
Our first century brethren would recognize this dilemma because they demonstrated similar fears of the people who heard voices in their time. In today’s gospel we heard that when Jesus and his disciples arrived in the Gentile territory of the Gerasenes, he was immediately confronted by the cries of a man described only as having “demons.” The man has no name, no profession, and no apparent family – in essence, his ravings have become his identity; he is simply “the man with the demons.” But he was not always this way; he was once a man of the city, who now lives among the tombs outside of his community allegedly in order to keep both the afflicted and the unafflicted safe.
According to Luke, when Jesus arrives, the man – or the “demons” in him – immediately recognizes Jesus as someone who has power over him – someone who can cure – or kill -him. Jesus chooses, as he always does, to use his power to heal rather than hurt. Having pulled the source of his torment out of the man, Jesus asks him to name it. “I am ‘Legion,’” he says, indicating that the painful internal pressures upon him were many –just as they are for many of us. Work, finances, home maintenance, children, health issues- all compete for our attention, distracting us from the essential Christian task of being in relationship with God and one another.
The story of the man with the legion is important enough to appear in all three “synoptic” (similar) gospels. It is thought to be the first narrative in which Jesus heals someone who is not Jewish and does not live on Jewish soil. It is also considered authoritative for those who practice demonology, faith-healing and exorcism; not to mention writers and fans of horror films. So it’s particularly interesting to look at what the story does and does not say. It says that Jesus has power of over the man’s “demons.” It does not say exactly what those demons were. It says that the man is suffering. It does not say that the man brought his torment on himself. For that matter, it doesn’t even say that the “demons” inside him are evil. It just says that the man’s condition drives him away from others. His possession has not taken away his morality. It has taken his identity.
That’s a crucial difference – because it tells us that even if we take this story literally, so-called “demon possession” is not about the battle of good versus evil. It’s about the struggle for identity. For most of us, there is nothing more frightening than not knowing who we are or where we belong and being unable to control our own thoughts and actions. This loss of self is at the core of mental illness. It is also, I believe, at the center of our unraveling American social fabric. It is the loss of our collective identity – our knowledge of who we are and what we stand for – that has led to so much separation, isolation and pain in this country. Despite Jesus’s clear command to love our neighbors – to heal the sick and tormented as he did – we continue to follow our own devices, refusing to call on God for answers and to answer God’s call to us to help others. It is not hunger, mental illness, and poverty that are evil; the true “demons” are our failure to respond to them.
But Jesus did not fail to respond. Jesus heard the man’s cry for help and healed him by restoring his identity and his place in the community. And he gave him a new purpose. Having experienced the power and mercy of God, the man of Garasene was given the opportunity to spread that good news to the members of his community. In this way, the very deep woundedness of the Gerasene demoniac became, for his friends and neighbors, a catalyst for their own redemption. In using his power to heal the man, Jesus provided him with the power to restore others to God.
But some people weren’t happy about it – “The good news [did] not seem good to everyone” -because it was frightening – and inconvenient. After all, Jesus’s healing of the demoniac was an economic disaster for the swineherds and a disruption of the status quo for the entire community – and it scared them with its power. They might have been used to the not uncommon wondrous actions of itinerant healers who came through their territory, but they had never seen someone so changed as the Garasene man was by Jesus.
But that’s what true faith does. It changes us. It frees us. It allows us to escape from the roles and masks we put on in order to function in our world and releases us to live in another – in the world of true life in Jesus Christ. “Before faith came,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “you were imprisoned and guarded by the law.” Why? Because we could not be trusted not to hurt ourselves or other people. We could not be trusted not to give into our fears. Like the Gerasene demoniac, we were not in our right minds. But now that Jesus has come, we no longer need to be afraid – not of what is in ourselves and not of others. Knowing Jesus allows us to let go of the things that divide us – race, culture, gender, political beliefs, social status, sexual preference –because “the most profound differences between people known to Paul, like the differences between people known to us, are nothing compared to the power of Christ to reconcile all things.” “The Grace of God reaches beyond every barrier that sin has built”and we are set free to participate in the life of Christ together. We have been restored not just as individuals, but as a community of Christ.
Do not turn your back on this gift of grace. God constantly holds out her hands to save us rebellious and fearful people. Take those hands – and then take the hand of the stranger and friend next to you. You will not miraculously become the same – “being clothed in Christ does not mean that distinctions disappear.” They simply no longer matter. Do not listen to your doubts and fears. Do not be distracted by human noise. Listen. Listen and you will hear the difference between the voice of God and the earthly voices that possess our thoughts with anger, fear, and despair. God’s voice – whether it thunders or burns or whispers –never separates. God’s voice always unifies and reconciles. God’s voice heals. Trust in that voice – and you will know who you are, you will know what to do, and you will do it. AMEN.
 Liza Gold, “Gun Violence: Psychiatry, Risk Assessment, and Social Policy,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychology and the Law, 41:3:337-343 (September 2013).
Jonathan Metzl and Kevin MacLeish, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms,” American Journal of Public Health. 2015 February; 105(2): 240–249.
Rick Jervis (August 27, 2014), “Mental disorders keep thousands of homeless on streets,” USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/27/mental-health-homeless-series/14255283/.
Richard J. Shaffer, Jr., (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 168..
Elaine A. Heath, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 46.
Carol E. Holtz-Martine, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 163.
Elaine A. Heath, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 166.
Mark Douglas, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 164.
Sermon for June 16, 2019, 8 a.m.: The Trinity whom we adore (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Think of the biggest, most amazing, and most powerful thing you can. God is bigger and stronger than that. Think of the most obedient, thoughtful, and helpful thing you can. Jesus is better than that. Think of the wisest, most peaceful, and comforting thing you can. The Holy Spirit is more uplifting than that. It’s hard to imagine. Each of the three aspects of God – what we call “The Trinity” is too awe-inspiring for our human brains to contemplate. It is no wonder that the idea of all three of these entities making up one perfect and eternal being has stumped theologians, preachers and lay people for a couple of thousand years. It is no wonder that preachers do a fair amount of wheeling and dealing and calling in favors to avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday.
I have heard at least a dozen different analogies used to explain the Trinity, including an apple, an egg, a tricycle, clover, and Neapolitan ice cream. Grace Parishioner Jane Ramsey suggested in her article for “The Martinez Gazette” this week that, “I think of the whole concept as not unlike us everyday humans. As
people we all wear many hats…All of these roles, and many others, make up the whole of who we are.” I think Jane is on to something, because her simile focuses on what we do rather than what we are, because everything we know about God, in all of their attributes is based on actions rather than appearance.
The fact is that God is a mystery to us. We may have some limited grasp on who God is based on our holy scriptures and other source materials that provide us with information about encounters with God. We may feel that we know Jesus rather well because we can read at least four different accounts of his life and sayings – and we have some scriptural guidance about the character of the Holy Spirit – the most specific of which we heard last week on Pentecost. Yet, somehow, all of the information we have and all of our clever analogies don’t quite add up in a way that allows us to fully grasp the nature of a three-fold God. God is simply so much more than we can imagine.
That is as it should be. It is, in fact, how we know that God exists. Our very inability to provide an intellectual explanation of God argues that we couldn’t have made God up for ourselves. Instead of a confusing and challenging faith that requires us to struggle with it, why not create something that is simple and clear? Unfortunately, some Christian teachers have actually tried to do this by reducing God’s law to human terms so that human beings can feel they understand it – but God is not a bigger, faster and more powerful human. God is beyond our comprehension. When I meet someone who tells me that she understands and knows the will of God and feels prepared to tell others how to do it, I am immediately troubled, because such a view is inconsistent with scripture. Jesus told his disciples that they would not understand much of what he had taught them until long after he was gone because they could not bear it, and we still can’t handle the truth.
Most of you have, by now, heard me suggest that I define sin as separation – separation from God and one another. That’s because when Jesus was asked what the most important of God’s laws are, he answered: “Love your God, and love your neighbor as much as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” This response seems very clear to me: laws and actions that bring people closer to God and one another are good; laws and actions that separate people from God and one another are bad. This suggests that the best way to figure out God’s will for us and the world we live in is to ask – and to live in relationship with God and each other.
I talk to myself –and sometimes I answer myself- and sometimes me, myself, and I don’t agree. I think God understands this tendency because, according to scripture, over the course of history God has had several heart-to-hearts with “themself.” According to the New Testament writers, at some point in God’s time, God the Creator decided that all of their efforts to help human beings stop being their own worst enemies and start doing what is right were not working, and something more radical needed to happen. The result of that “conversation” was the gift of Jesus, the Redeemer and Saviour, who, taking on the form of a human, showed humanity the forgiving, loving, merciful essence of God. In turn, Jesus, knowing he was going to have to sacrifice his human life to save the creation from itself, decided that we needed an ongoing reminder of both the power of God and the teachings of Jesus – a Spirit that would continue to guide, comfort, and restore us; and show us how to live in relationship, just as God lives in relationship with Godself. We call these three aspects of God – the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Blessing bringer, or “Sanctifier” – “The Trinity,” a word which, in Greek, means dancing. God the Trinity is always in relationship with themself – dancing with intimacy, productivity, and joy.
This is our model for living in community. God wants us to dance this way with one another. Jesus’s description of the Holy Spirit tells us that it has no agenda of its own. It is a continuation of both God’s work of creation and Jesus’s acts of redemption. It shows us what God wants for and of creation and how to achieve it. The author of today’s gospel suggests that, “The message of Jesus and the meaning of Jesus will require ongoing interpretation. John imagines a Christian community that is not locked in the past, but understands what Jesus means for its own time… The community John seeks to form is not only one that has the right understanding or is orthodox regarding what it believes, but one that corresponds morally and ethically with Jesus, cares about the things Jesus cares about, and carries out the kind of ministry that reflects Jesus’ ministry.” It is the function of the Holy Spirit to help us be that community.
This can only happen when we allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable to the promptings of the Spirit and to one another. Known to the people of the Hebrew Scripture as “Wisdom” (Sophia), the Holy Spirit has been with God since the beginning of creation and continues to live in each of us. It is my experience that encounters with the Holy Spirit are not infrequent – or subtle. I think that most of us have met the Holy Spirit, but have chosen to ignore it because we don’t like where it leads us.
We do this when we blame God’s will for circumstances in our lives that are the result of the human condition. When we cry out in our suffering, God is there to answer. This is what St. Paul is saying in today’s reading from Romans. “Life, [health and] hope, can come even in the midst of suffering, out of our learning to endure and grow in character.” This doesn’t mean we should seek out suffering because we think it will somehow make us better, but rather that God supports us equally in good times and bad. When we are going through bad things, the Holy Spirit helps us to focus not on our human misery, but on the vastness, mystery, and wonder of God. When we, in our suffering, cry out, “Why, why me, Lord,” we would do well to remember that we might just as well exclaim in good times, as our psalmist does, “Why, why me Lord, why should I have all that I have? Why should I be all that I am”?
Anne Lamott has suggested that there are only three essential prayers: “Help, Thanks, and Wow,” which parallel the three aspects of God. With this in mind, let us pray:
Thank you, Creator, for making us and the world we live in, and for continuing to create opportunities for us to be closer to you and to one another.
Help us, Jesus, to care for your creation and to live in relationship with it.
We can feel the Holy Spirit in our hearts and see it in the faces of others. It guides, teaches, and strengthens us as much and as long as we let it. Wow!
Eugene C. Bay, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 46.
Richard L. Sheffield, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 41.
Children’s Homily for June 16, 2019: The Mystery of the Trinity (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Today is a special day. Who knows what day it is? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. What ELSE is it? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. It’s Trinity Sunday. Who knows what that means? (Give them a chance to answer). Hmmm. May be some adults can help? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. We are celebrating the three parts of God. But, wait, isn’t there only one God? (Give them a chance to answer). Right. So who can tell me why we say there are three parts of God? (Give them a chance to answer). (Give them a chance to answer). Ah see. It’s very tricky and hard to understand –even for grown-ups. In fact, it’s a mystery. So, who solves mysteries? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right: Detectives. So I think we will have to become detectives so we can figure out this mystery! (Hand out magnifying glasses and bubble pipes). There, now we can think better.
Let’s think first about God. Tell me some things about God. (Give them a chance to answer and reflect on their answers). Those are all good answers – and many people – grown-ups included- think of God as an old man with a beard who has a kind of scary voice. You know, kind of like that guy over there. (Point out “God” to them). How many of you have thought that? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s probably because in a lot of our scripture stories, God tells people what to do – just like a parent- and, just like your parents, sometimes God gets mad when we don’t do it! So in the old days, when people heard the stories about God, they thought of the very powerful people in their lives who made the rules and punished them when they broke them – and back then, it was their fathers. Does that make sense? (Give them a chance to answer). See, they decided what God looked like because of the things they knew God did. Nowadays, if we did that, things would be different. But giving rules is not the only thing that God does. Who can tell me some other things that God does? (Give them a chance to answer). Excellent! God loves us. Can you show me anyone here that also loves you? (Give them a chance to answer). Good! So God can look like friends and moms and dads and grandparents too. What else does God do? Hey, Detectives! Look at that person over there? Let’s investigate? What is he doing? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. He’s MAKING something. He’s creating! God is our CREATOR. That is one very important thing that God does. And God is creating all the time. Who knows one very cool thing God created? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. God created US!
But we don’t always do everything right, do we? So God decided to help us by coming to us to show us how to do things the right way. But God was still busy creating things, so God said to themselves, “I will keep right on creating AND I will also send a part of me to my people to show them how to live – and I will make myself look JUST LIKE THEM so they won’t be afraid of me and will listen to what I am saying. Who was that part of God? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. It was JESUS. And, just like God, we can know Jesus best by investigating the things he did. So, detectives, let’s look around and see if we see anyone doing anything that seems like something Jesus would do. Look – there’s Dr. Nate! What is he doing? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – he’s helping someone! And look, there’s Mr. Evans and Ms. Monique – they are sitting with Ms. Fran and they can help her go to communion. Do you ever help people? (Give them a chance to answer). Good! So, when you help people you are being like the Jesus part of God. What else did Jesus do? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. Jesus saved us. He knew we couldn’t get things right by ourselves, so Jesus was our save-er – a SAVIOUR!
Now, we all know that Jesus died, AND that Jesus came BACK. When? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – on Easter. Who knows what the part of Jesus that came back is called? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. And who knows WHY Jesus came back as the Holy Spirit? (Give them a chance to answer). To help us to keep learning what God wants us to do AND to teach us how to ACT like Jesus AND to stick up for us and be with us when things are hard. How about that? (Give them a chance to answer). Now, my detectives, here is the hardest part of God to understand. Where does the Holy Spirit live? (Give them a chance to answer). Well, we have some symbols of the Holy Spirit. One of those symbols is fire, because the Holy Spirit is bright and warm and life-giving. Another symbol is wind, because the Holy Spirit can be anywhere and everywhere at the same time. Another symbol is the dove, because the Holy Spirit is gentle and peaceful. But let’s think REALLY hard about what we know about God and Jesus:
GOD MAKES THINGS, INCLUDING US
GOD TELLS US WHAT WE SHOULD DO
JESUS SHOWED US HOW TO DO WHAT GOD WANTED BY BEING KIND TO PEOPLE AND HELPING THEM AND INCLUDING EVERYONE
JESUS DIED TO SAVE US BECAUSE WE COULDN’T DO EVERYTHING RIGHT WITHOUT HELP
So, knowing all that, and knowing that the Holy Spirit is here to teach us, and guide us, and comfort us, tell me, Detectives, where might the Holy Spirit be hiding? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – in ALL OF US! MYSTERY SOLVED! So, my detectives, here is a symbol you might already know. (Show them hearts). What does this mean? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. It means love – and when we have love and SHARE love, we reveal the Holy Spirit to the world –we BLESS people! Would you like to help do that? (Give them a chance to answer). Good. So, when I tell you, I want you to each take some hearts and bring them to the grown-ups out there and share the Holy Spirit with them so they can go out and share it with others. Would you do that? (Give them a chance to answer). 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. Off you go.
Sermon for June 9, 2019: That we all may be one (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Happy Birthday! Today we recognize and celebrate the Feast of the Pentecost, sometimes called, “The Birthday of the Church.” When I was a child, my church celebrated Pentecost a lot like a birthday party. We wore special party clothes; we had cake and balloons; and grown-ups talked at the same time and didn’t get in trouble! But unlike Christmas and Easter, Pentecost is generally unfamiliar to anyone not raised in a Christian church. I think that one of the reasons for this is because the very thing that Pentecost celebrates – a Spirit of unity in Christ – can be pretty hard to find.
Pentecost is one of the seven primary feasts of the Episcopal calendar and is based on today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. As you heard (in a number of languages), fifty days after Jesus’s death and resurrection, the eleven remaining disciples gathered to worship. We know from our Easter season scripture readings that the disciples had been having a hard time. They were frightened of being caught and persecuted for following Jesus, and they had no idea how to go about following Jesus’s command to go out and make more disciples. So, they had gotten together to find comfort by worshipping together when suddenly “there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and tongues of fire appeared and rested on them. The Holy Spirit had arrived, just as Jesus had promised, to comfort, support, and guide them forward.
God’s timing was impeccable, because the disciples’ small worship service coincided with a much larger one – the Jewish Festival of Weeks, or “Shavuot.” Shavuot is the third of the great Jewish festivals, and “focuses on the harvesting of first fruits.” It also commemorates the giving of the law to Moses. In other words, Shavuot recognizes the birth of Judaism. Because of the noise of the mighty wind, on this particular festival day attendees were drawn away from the main celebration to where the disciples were worshipping. To their astonishment, when they arrived, each of them- representing hundreds of other cultures- heard the disciples speaking in their own language about “God’s deeds of power.”
This does not, perhaps, seem so astonishing to us, who live in the days of Google Translate and self-igniting logs, but to people who rarely traveled far – if at all- from their own lands, it was astonishing. They were familiar with the great wind of God – “Ruach.” This was “the same ‘wind’ that blew ‘in the beginning’ [of the world and they saw that it was] blowing in a mighty way [again. They saw that] God’s word was still creating.” And re-creating, bringing together a new people to tell how how God’s willingness to come into the world to live and die as a human being would change the entire world. “The diversity [that was to be] manifested in the church [would serve] the same purpose as in creation; to reveal, [as the psalmist tells us], the wisdom [and generosity] of God.” The fact that they could understand each other also led them to believe, as many still do, that the ability to speak in tongues is the result of having received the Spirit and is evidence of God’s will for Christians everywhere to do what Jesus commanded his disciples: Preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
So, these people knew that something amazing was happening, all right. They just weren’t sure what – and whether it was a good thing. The people who witnessed the miracle of Pentecost were tribal people. They were suspicious of outsiders and possessive of their beliefs. They thought that their gods belonged to their nations – and to them alone. Peoples of other tribes and cultures were to be feared and avoided. Such people could not believe they had anything in common with each other – and certainly not God.
This has not changed. Pentecost was and still is a story about disparate people separate by fear and ignorance. It is the tale of people in need of something to heal their divisions and bind them together – to make peace out of strife. Two thousand years ago God responded to the needs of his creation by sending a Spirit that had the power to draw people of many nations together in the name of one loving, life-giving God. Pentecost pronounced a dream of a restored creation in which God’s presence is sought out and embraced by all living things. It still does.
Tragically, humanity has repeatedly come perilously close to destroying that dream. We continue to separate ourselves by race, culture, and other human ideals of membership. Christianity is now one of the most powerful religions in the world, but it is by no means unified. We continue to live amidst violence, fear, and exploitation. We are still prone to exclude people who look and speak differently that we do. We do not offer to one another the same spirit of adoption that God offered to us. We have not been true to the guidance provided for us by scripture, because if Pentecost teaches anything, it is that God’s intention is for people of faith to be united in love, rather than divided by hate. It reminds us that it is God’s will for us to live in community.
This does not mean that we can or should live in agreement – “communion assumes difference – not uniformity, not conformity to a single idealized form of life, or nationality, or ethnicity, or tribe.” This is why living in community is hard -which is precisely why God has given us the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit is how we know that God is always there for us, will always long for us, and can teach us to live together in love if we will only listen. The Holy Spirit is also how we know when we are living according to Jesus’s commandments.
Christians have long been and continue to be separated from one another because of differing theology and practice. We think only we know how to do Christianity “right.” We fight and sometimes kill one another because of petty doctrinal differences. But, because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, we don’t need to argue, because we already know in our hearts what is right. We know, for example, that it is not sufficient to care only for what we have and those we love. We know that it is not right to ignore the needs of others. We know that it is not okay to use scripture to justify inhumane behavior. Jesus asks more than this of his disciples. Jesus commands us instead to follow his way – the way that he demonstrated to his disciples over and over and over again throughout his life -to “heal the sick, speak up for the marginalized, house the homeless, feed the hungry, and speak truth to and about empire.” We know because when we do these things, we do not feel the need to justify our behavior with dogmatic rhetoric, scientific jargon, or lofty intellectualism. We know because when we do them we feel at peace.
Bishop Barry Beisner suggests that, “Pentecost comes to remind us that we are [one] Church. Forces are at work all around us to persuade each of us that we are essentially independent and alone; Pentecost tells us that we are …part of a community… [that] we need each other to be who we are…Together we are…the Body of Christ, sent to do the world-transforming work of God. Together, we have divine authority to challenge the world to follow Jesus in his way, the way out of the world’s endless spirals of injustice, hatred, violence, and fear. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we can show the world another way. We can live the way of Jesus. Together. That is the miracle of Pentecost.” AMEN.
Richard L. Sheffield, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 17.
Bonnie L. Pattison, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 10.
Michael Jinkins, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 18.
Eugene C. Bay, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 24.
The Rt. Rev. Barry Beisner, Bishop of Northern California (2019) “Pentecost letter.”
Sermon for June 2, 2019: Stories (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
I have been reading three different books recently that have impressed on me the importance and influence of telling stories. Joseph Campbell spent his entire life thinking about stories and the connections they produce – connections between people -and connections between human beings and what we call the spirit of God.
Campbell was the author of several books on mythology. Raised in the Roman Catholic Church, as a child he became fascinated with Native American religion after seeing a “Cowboy and Indian” film. To his surprise, he found many parallels between Native American spirituality and the stories in the Bible. Over time and after vast amounts of research into the myths of thousands of cultures, Campbell came to understand mythology as, “the song of the universe.” He believed that the greatest truths are expressed over and over again in different stories so that people of different cultures, contexts, and abilities can hear them in ways that are relevant to their own lives. This is the way that wisdom is shared.
It is certainly the primary way that we as Christians have shared the fundamental tenets of our own faith. The Bible is, after all, one of the greatest story books ever written. We already know that we share many of those stories with our Jewish brethren, as our Hebrew scriptures are also their holy texts. But perhaps many of you don’t know that we also share stories and principles with Buddhism and Islam, For example, it is thought that every major religion in the world has a version of “the golden rule,” “Do unto others as you would have done to you.”
This is called, along with love your God, “The Greatest Commandment,” but it might just as well be called, “The Hardest Commandment.” It is sometimes hard enough to love those we love, but loving those who are unkind to us, who mock us, and undermine our work? It seems impossible, unless we remember the much greater love of Christ – a love which was so encompassing that it allowed him to invite and accept anger, hatred, violence and, ultimately, death to be directed toward him on our behalf. None of us are capable of loving the way we are loved. That is why Jesus came – so that we might be saved through him. It is why he will come again.
Yesterday, I spent some time watching the funeral of Rachel Held Evans, a Christian writer who chronicled the evolution of her own faith. Evans was raised an Evangelical Christian, but struggled with some of the tenets of that belief system, eventually moving away from it – but she never moved away from Jesus. During the course of her travels, she met with and spoke to people of many different faiths, attempting to understand their somewhat perplexing (to her) beliefs as a way of clarifying her own. Evans was often able to see the commonalities between different systems of belief, helping people to understand ancient truths by telling stories that put them in the context of her own world. She was open to learning about other ideas and practices, but she never failed to weigh these against her own bedrock values, against her belief in the love of the God she knew intimately. During the funeral, her sister spoke of Rachel’s deep faith in God and in family, and how remaining true to both required Rachel to live “forever in the middle,” always having to negotiate her need to follow the way of Jesus as she understood it, as well as his command to love others as deeply as she felt herself to be loved. Evans sought nothing less than the truth of discipleship: “How do we know that our way is true to the will of God”?
This is the same question that confronted those who encountered Jesus and the first apostles. How were they to know that Jesus was the one? It is the question asked by the jailor in our first lesson who was tasked with guarding Paul and Silas and the other apostles when they are arrested in Philippi: “What must I do to be saved”? The answer he was given was both incredibly simple and impossibly complex: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.” This seems deceptively easy: stop what you’re doing and put your faith in the name of the one who empowers his disciples to free themselves and others. But, as Rachel Held Evans could tell you, this is not simple at all. It requires much more than reading and research and questioning. It requires something much more dramatic and emotional. It requires a complete turn in who we are. It requires repentance. None of are exempt from this. There is no difference between those who were raised in a specific denomination and have followed all of its tenets and enacted all of its rites all their lives and those who have staggered bloody, confused, diseased, and hopeless into the true story that is the life and death of Jesus Christ. All of us must turn to God alone.
Today we are honoring those at Grace who work with children and young people. As with our adults, the primary way we teach our youth about the love of God is through stories. Sometimes we tell the stories and sometimes we draw them – or sing them, but we always ask our children to “wonder” about them, to tell us what they think these stories may mean. I am always astounded when I hear their answers. The stories we tell them are filled with those universal truths that Joseph Campbell talked about, and our children recognize them – and they do it more quickly and more confidently than most of adults.
I believe that’s because they have not yet struggled with the world, a place filled with forces that oppose the will of God. We like our ancestors, are often confounded by carved images and false gods. We feel judged so we judge others. We start to believe that we can evaluate other religions based on the names of their gods or the characteristics of those who worship them, rather than the simple standard for religious behavior offered by the psalmist, “Anything that separates the soul and God is…to be shunned.” This tendency among his disciples is something Jesus anticipated – and worried about.
Today’s Gospel is part of what is called “the priestly prayer,” because in it Jesus prays to God on behalf of his followers, a priestly action. Jesus’s prayer addresses a question that we have heard over and over throughout the readings of our Easter season: How are Christ’s apostles to live without him? Jesus’s answer, found in his prayer, is not just for them, but for us – and it is, perhaps, a surprising one. He does not pray that we may be wise. He does not pray that we may be certain. He does not pray that we may be right. He prays that we may be one – just as he and the Creator are one.
“Jesus does not call for doctrinal unity, organizational unity, or political unity.” He calls for unity of spirit. Jesus was not interested in who sat in which pew. He actively discouraged the idea that earthly power, position, or wealth bears any weight in heaven. He railed against those who judged others. Jesus was interested in love- and Jesus wanted to make his salvation available to all people. That is why, as John Chrysostom pointed out in the fourth century, quarelling among ourselves does nothing but cause those who see us to turn from Christ. “The importance of unity among believers is that such oneness leads the world to believe.”
Today marks the end of Easter season, the Great 50 Days. During Easter, we have been reading from the Book of Revelation. Today we reach the end of it, which is also the end of the New Testament (and our Bible). This coincides with the Ascension of Jesus to sit at God’s right hand. In today’s reading, John hears Jesus promise that he will return, and that he will repay according to everyone’s work. John’s gospel makes it clear that such heavenly rewards will be doled out not to us as individuals, but to our community – and that the community’s primary task is to make him known to everyone; to bring his gift of salvation to all who will accept it, and to share his love with one another in a spirit of understanding and openness.
As part of the final blessing at her funeral, the priest used Evans’s own words to release her mourners and commend to them her legacy, “We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God. May we never neglect the gift of that. May we never lose our love for telling the tale.” This is our story; this is our song – praising the Savior all the day long.” AMEN.
Joseph Campbell, (1988), “The Power of Myth,” [New York: Doubleday], p. xvi.
William L. Self, (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], 531.
Peter J.B. Carman, (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], 544.
F. Belton Joyner, Jr., (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], 545.
Rachel Held Evans, (2018), Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, [Thomas Nelson: Nashville, TN], 164.
Sermon for May 26, 2019: Shalom (The Rev. Molly Haws)
Let your ways be known upon earth, *
your saving health among all nations.
+ + + + + + +
Memorial Day weekend always makes me think of my father. My dad enlisted in the Army in 1943, and was accepted into Officer Candidate School. A few days before completing OCS, his entire class was taken out and turned into buck privates. They didn’t know why, but on June 6 1944, my dad and 73,000 of his friends along with British and Canadian troops landed on the beaches of Normandy.
Dad did not talk to us much about The War. He did not appear to enjoy those memories. Most of what I know about that time came from my mother.
One day when I was 15 or 16, my dad and I were alone in the house, and I don’t remember what prompted it, but he began to tell me about being somewhere in France, and I think it was winter so it may have been just a little before the Battle of the Bulge. By this time he was a sergeant leading a small group of soldiers to some place they were supposed to get to, and they halted just short of a road held by German artillery.
Which they hadn’t known was there. So Dad got on the radio and reported the situation, and the officer on the other end ordered him to take his men across the road. Dad told him they’ve got big guns pointed down the road in both directions, it’s broad daylight here. And the officer repeated the order, and Dad said yes, sir!
and waited. “It was a shooting gallery,” Dad told me. “I was responsible for all our lives.” So he … waited. And every time the officer came on the radio asking where they were now, and ordering them to move, Dad would say yes, sir!
Eventually, the watch changed and when another officer came on asking for a report, Dad told him the situation and that officer ordered them to hold their position, they were sending someone to relieve him and he was to get his hindquarters back there.
So he did.
At this point in the story, Dad got a little ghost of a wry grin. “Found out, that officer ordering us across was three sheets to the wind drunk.”
I could feel my eyes getting huge. “WHAT?” I said. Dad laughed.
“Wow. Daddy. You saved all their lives. How did you know?”
“I didn’t know. I just knew something wasn’t right, and I had a responsibility.”
We sat in silence for a moment or two. I was stunned. “He was… drunk?
How… how could he… how could they let someone… what happened to him when they found out?”
Dad shrugged. “I don’t know. I was busted to buck private again.”
I was outraged. “What? You did the right thing! Y’all would have been killed!”
“I disobeyed orders,” Dad said.
“But the guy was drunk!”
“The Army can’t just let anyone disobey orders. The whole thing would break down.”
And that’s when I said, “But that’s not fair!”
Dad’s head snapped to me. “Fair? I’m lucky I wasn’t court-martialed. I’d’a wound up in Leavenworth, and you wouldn’t be here.”
It was years before I even began to start to understand what my father was teaching me: that rules cannot be broken without consequences, but our personal responsibility cannot be abdicated no matter what. If doing the right thing means breaking the rules, then you break the rules and you take the consequences, but before you do you better be sure it’s worth the risk. When it’s worth it, you do what you have to do and you stand up and take whatever is coming to you. And be grateful for any drop of mercy you get.
I don’t remember my father using the word integrity at that time. But that’s what he was trying to teach me about.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, `I am going away, and I am coming to you.’
The Hebrew word for ‘peace’ is shalom.
shalom: completeness, soundness, welfare, peace
tom: completeness, integrity
“In the Bible, the word shalom is most commonly used to refer to a state of affairs… circumstances unblemished by any sort of defect. Shalom is a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace.”
This is the peace that Jesus gives: completeness, unblemished by any sort of defect, a manifestation of divine grace.
This is why it is so important that every time we gather together for the Eucharist, we say the peace of the Lord be always with you. We’re talking about the peace that Jesus gives, the manifestation of divine grace inhabiting the gathered Body of Christ.
The road to peace, to shalom, is not without conflict. Why? because we are conflicted. Our longing for completeness is in competition with our desire for … so many things that are right here, right now, and the journey to wholeness is so long. Right here, right now, we desire so many things that conflict with integrity: approval, safety, avoidance of conflict, pleasure—none of those things are evil, but sometimes they are in conflict with doing the hard thing that’s right—
when the easy thing that’s not is right here. And the shalom that Jesus gives to us just seems so far away.
Beloved: sometimes doing the right thing will absolutely get us into trouble. Standing up and accepting the trouble is hard. It is not fair.
The good news is that doing so gets us closer to integrity.
Integrity takes practice.
When we get to the point when accepting the consequences is worth it for the sake of doing what’s right, we begin to live into the shalom that Jesus gives, not as the world gives, but the manifestation
of divine grace.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, `I am going away, and I am coming to you.’”
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
 https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shalom/ Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought , edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.
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 April 28, 2019: Imagine (The Rev. Molly Haws)
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
“the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews”
It’s important for us to pay attention to what is being said here. It is critically important, because this passage and others like it have been and continue to be distorted, indeed perverted to serve as an excuse for exclusion and hatred and violence toward our Jewish relatives. So it matters that we get this right.
“For fear of the Jews…” In order to really get what that means, we have to remember that the disciples were all Jewish. Jesus was Jewish. To the disciples, and to the Hellenized Jews to whom this gospel account is addressed, the Jews are not the Other, which is who we’re usually afraid of, right? The Outsiders, the Different Ones, that’s usually who the Scary Guys are, right?
What the gospeller is telling us is that Jesus’ friends were afraid, not of strangers, not of faceless and nameless soldiers, not of government agents, and not of people who worship differently than they do.
They were afraid of the neighbors.
They were afraid of their own community, of their own families. Unimaginable things had happened, events had spiraled way, way out of control and the man they had come to believe was literally anointed by God had been brutally executed,
and they were terrified
because they didn’t know who to trust anymore.
The terrifying thing about not knowing who to trust is that
what it means is that we no longer trust our own judgment
about who to trust.
That’s what “not knowing who to trust” means.
It’s deeply, deeply terrifying.
So they’re terrified and they’ve locked themselves into this room, scared to death of absolutely everyone
and suddenly Jesus pops up right in front of them.
I’m guessing—I don’t know, of course, but I’m guessing that he had to spend some time getting them to calm down.
Peace. Be at peace. Peace be with you.
Then the disciples rejoiced. Of course they rejoiced! They were rebounding from terror. Yes, they’d heard Peter and the other one saying that Jesus wasn’t in the tomb. Yes, Mary of Magdala had told them she’d seen Jesus and spoken to him and that he was alive… but…
They’d seen crucifixions before. It’s pretty thorough. Jesus was dead. He’d been wrapped up in cloths and sealed in a tomb.
Is it really so hard to understand why they were still afraid? They didn’t know who to trust.
It makes sense to me that Thomas didn’t believe it when they told him about it. How does one go about believing something like that?
Listen: Thomas is a stand-up guy.
Remember the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead? When Jesus wanted to return to Judea because they got a message that Lazarus was gravely ill, the disciples said
“Rabbi, [they] were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”
and after some back and forth,
Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”[i]
Thomas is all about facing straight on into whatever reality is in front of him, without blinking. Thomas is all about showing up and standing firm and that, for my money, is the walking definition of faithfulness.
What Thomas needs—what I dare to suggest we all need, in the face of this story told to us by others, that yes, Jesus was dead, dead, dead-as-a-doornail dead, and now has gotten up and is walking around alive—what we need, in order to grasp that concept—
The reason this story is so important—at least one of the reasons—is what Jesus has to say to us about the gift of imagination. The blessing of our ability to imagine that such a thing could happen. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Brothers and sisters, imagination is the means by which we open up our heads and hearts to contemplate the idea of something we’ve never seen.
And that’s how we come to believe.
That’s why I love Thomas: because it is through his story and his witness that we are shown the power that our God-given imagination has in our relationship with Christ. That’s why this story is in here. The gospeller tells us, straight out,
“Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
So why is this story written in this book? So that we can look to Thomas, and know that even the most stand-up guy there needed help grasping the resurrection. And so we can hear Jesus telling us, “You, who have not seen, are also blessed.”
We have been blessed with imagination.
One of my favorite writers is Ursula LeGuin, and in 1969 she published a terrific novel called The Left Hand of Darkness, that starts out like this:
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination….
The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story.[ii]
Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
The gospeller doesn’t record Jesus giving an answer at that time, but I believe an answer was given: it was given in that room, with Thomas, and to us. And because God is indefatigably and relentlessly creative when it comes to loving us and reaching out to us, the answer continues to be given. It comes to us over and over again, in many ways, and in many voices:
Truth is a matter of the imagination.
And the truth will set us free.
[i] John 11:7-16
[ii] Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace Books [trade paperback edn], 2000), p. 1.
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 [email@example.com]. 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.