Sermons 2020

Sermon for Proper 28, Year A, November 15, 2020  (Columba Salamony, Seminarian)

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Sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 15 2020 Columba Salamony

In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God.  Amen.

The narrative of the prophet Deborah in the reading from Judges is the very beginning of one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Sadly, we don’t get to hear part two, but I’ll give you some spoilers… Deborah relays her prophecy to Barak, and he replies, “I will go, but only with you by my side.” Deborah agrees, but she makes it clear that Sisera will die at the hand of a woman.

Deborah appears only in chapters four and five of Judges. We know very little about her—just that she is a judge and a prophet, wife to Lappidoth, and that she sits under a palm tree. What an extravagant life she must lead!

I imagine her palm tree at the edge of a desert oasis, where she sits on a plush settee… surrounded by a crew of hunky men and demure handmaids—her servants who fan her with palm branches, feed her dates, and refill her wine as she commands them. Throughout the day, people from the nearby villages flock to her to settle disputes over property boundaries or stolen sheep. Occasionally, she encounters someone who asks whether they should take a leap of faith and risk something big in their lives… The people obviously trusted her.

Being a prophet was not always an easy or comfortable life. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Moses led the Israelites through the desert for forty years. Elijah had to persuade the Canaanites to worship God and not Baal. Herod Antipas beheaded John the Baptist. No, a prophet’s life was not easy at all.

There is risk—and some glory—found in the brief appearance of Deborah in the book of Judges. Deborah’s prophecy to Barak leads the men of Naphtali and Zebulun into battle against the Canaanite army. The two armies rendezvous at Mount Tabor, where the lands of Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali meet.

The Canaanite army is defeated and scatters, and Sisera, their commander, escapes on foot. Sisera eventually ends up at the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. She offers him succor and milk, only to drive a tent peg through his temple. With the Canaanite army defeated and Sisera dead, the Israelites enjoy peace in the lands for forty years.

Barak makes a considerable risk by trusting Deborah and leading the Israelites into battle—leading thousands of men into a battle they could easily lose. And Deborah risks a lot, too… If Barak’s army had failed, surely Sisera would have traced the assault back to Deborah and slaughtered her under her palm tree. I imagine Deborah realized this risk but she made her decision to go forward in faith, love, and hope. If she had played it safe and did not encourage Barak’s assault, she could suffer a harsher punishment—whether from the Canaanites or from God, for whom she spoke.

The Gospel reading from Matthew also presents us with a story about risk. The wealthy man—who I imagine to be the biblical equivalent of Jeff Bezos—entrusts portions of his treasury to his servants while he makes a long journey. Perhaps he travels to Iran or India, securing some years-long trade route. Fearing losing his wealth while he’s gone, he divides it up between his three slaves. To one, he gives a large portion, to another, a medium portion, and to a third, a “small” portion.

Matthew describes these portions of his wealth as a “talent”—τάλαντον in biblical Greek. This singular τάλαντον was a unit of weight, measuring approximately 80 pounds. When we hear it used to describe money, we need to imagine 80 pounds of silver. About 6,000 denarii. This would be fifteen or sixteen years of work for a day-laborer. In our 2020 economy, adjusted to the federal minimum wage at $7.25/hour, this would be close to $250,000. In the Bay Area, a single talent could be worth $500,000—a small, nearly-inconsequential fortune for Jeff Bezos.

So, he gives his best slave over $1mil of silver for safekeeping. And the slave gambles with it in the marketplaces, invests it in a small business, and purchases endless herds of sheep. The next slave takes his two talents, and he does likewise. The third slave stashes his share in a hole in the ground. He does not believe in taking risks.

I know that it’s stewardship season, and perhaps I’m supposed to turn this into a sermon on tithing or charitable giving, but I don’t see this as a parable about money and wealth or earthly things. I hear Jesus asking us to risk our faith… To risk more of our lives for God so that we might have an abundance of blessings showered upon us.

When we don’t take risks, we miss out on some monumental things in life. When we bury our talent, we put our lamp under a bushel basket! The earliest Christians took Jesus’ suggestion very seriously—many of them got rid of everything they had and went to live in the desert. I don’t know that we need to be quite that radical. Still, Jesus’ message to us in this gospel passage calls us to do something countercultural: to take significant risks, vast leaps of faith… to walk across that rickety suspension bridge made of fraying rope and gnarly wood and not worry about the ugly, slimy who-knows-what beneath.

We are called to model ourselves after so many prophets throughout the ages. Prophecy comes in different shapes and sizes. Maybe some among us are prophets, even in our own small ways. When I think of prophets, I imagine Mary, the mother of Jesus; liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez; Martin Luther… But also, Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter-Day Saints movement, and Ida B Wells, an early Civil Rights leader. Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela.

These are all people who laid their lives on the line to fight for something that they believed could—and would—change the world. Some prophets literally died for their cause. They risked the entirety of their convictions and values to affect some kind of change in the world—some way of building up God’s Beloved Community. Prophets in any age, even our own, guide us toward risks or making big decisions in our lives… To stand up against injustice, or fear, or prejudice. To speak out—to share our voice with those who need to hear what we have to say. This is the important work that we are all called to do.

We have to remember that prophets are not some relic of the past. There are a lot of prophets in the world in 2020, a time when we really need to be challenged to take risks. I see the image of the prophet in Michael Curry… Greta Thunberg… Richard Rohr… Their voices should inspire us to better care for God’s creation—in ourselves, in others, and the world around us. Sadly, there are even false prophets who seek to divide us, to cast us into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth… to separate us even further from God’s desires for us.

In this era of uncertainty, we get so caught up in worry, doubt, and fear… We sometimes lose our grip on faith, hope, and love. We retreat into our caves and ignore the difficult parts of life. We bury and hide our talents.

And still, Jesus calls us to give a little to get a little. To take risks. To stand up for something we believe in. To be a prophet.

As we sit under our own palm trees this week, I invite us to consider what words of truth Jesus needs us to speak into the world around us. Consider how you might share a message of faith, hope, or love to someone who really needs to hear it right now.

And give a little, just to see what you’ll get back.

Sermon for Proper 27, Year A, November 8, 2020: Waiting is the hardest part (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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It’s hard to relate to the particulars of the parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel. Like all of Jesus’s stories, the context would have been familiar to the people he told it to but, like many things in the world, weddings have changed in two thousand years. No longer do the bridesmaids wait for the bridegroom to bring the bride home before the wedding can proceed. Many brides and grooms already live together – and only rich people can afford ten bridesmaids. Even so, we can identify with this story, because the twin demons of tedium and anxiety that attack us when we are waiting for something should feel very familiar to all of us right now.

Waiting is hard. Waiting requires patience. Waiting requires faith. The early Christians believed that Jesus would return in their lifetimes, so they were devastated when Christ-followers began to die without seeing Jesus return. The Christians in Thessalonica, like other early communities founded by Paul, had to adjust to the idea that they were going to have to live an earthly existence much longer than they had expected – and they weren’t happy about it.

I have mentioned before that most of Paul’s letters were written in response to problems in the churches that he founded. Despite his instruction and encouragement, people like the Thessalonians continued to wrestle with trying to follow Jesus’s teachings and example while remaining firmly planted in the world they lived in – a hard world filled with economic hardship, harsh laws, and social injustice. When Paul had recruited them for this new community they thought that believing in the resurrected Christ would be an escape from all of the deprivations of their lives – and now they realized that they would probably never live to see the promised glorious return of the savior. They also worried that the believers who had already died would be permanently denied the vision of the promised glorious return – that they were going to get cheated. And since the Thessalonians were no different than us, they began to wonder if trying to live according to Jesus’s countercultural directives was worth it. It is easy to forsake what we believe in when we are numb from waiting. It’s easy to become confused by the ways of the world and forget what we are waiting for. Our collective memory is not very good when we are overwhelmed and frightened.

Joshua knew this. That’s why he asked the people of Israel if they were completely sure that they were ready to serve God. They were eager to express their loyalty to the one who saved them from slavery and did great signs in their sight because they had just witnessed the tremendous power of God. But Joshua appreciated their history. He remembered that, despite God’s faithfulness, the people had been known to turn to false gods the minute the going got tough. He was trying to tell them that just because God had saved them so spectacularly this time did not mean they would never endure hardship again.

The foolish bridesmaids in Jesus’s parable received the same lesson. They were following an age-old tradition to go and meet the bridegroom, whose return signaled a great celebration. The bridesmaid’s job was to show him the way by lighting his path. The foolish and wise bridesmaids weren’t very different from one another. They were all excited to be there. They all brought light with them, doing their part to ease the way of the bridegroom. They all knew and loved the bridegroom, and each was known to him. Ultimately, however, the foolish bridesmaids simply did not have the oil to produce enough light. They were able to wait for a little while but were stymied by the bridegroom’s delay. Their limited vision and reliance on others deprived them of the joy of meeting the bridegroom face to face. As Lindsay Armstrong says, “The foolish assume a bright future but do little to prepare for it.”[1]

The wise women, on the other hand, understand that the bridegroom will return, and are prepared to wait – and work – for as long as it takes. As Christians we believe that Christ will come again to usher in God’s beloved community, but we don’t know when. Our job is to be wise bridesmaids, to prepare for and deal with the worst while expecting the best, remembering that God’s time is not the same as ours. “In the midst of life’s joy and pain [wise Christians]…keep their light shining… continuing in community, study and prayer, doing deeds of mercy, offering forgiveness, and spreading justice and peace.”[2] We are directed keep the light of Christ burning in a darkened world – to spend our lives trying to follow Jesus’s command to let our light shine forth so that others may see good works in the world and glorify God in response. It is our job to carry the light of hope.

All of us have had to wait for something some time. What Jesus wants us to know is that it matters how we wait. It matters if we wait with cowardice or confidence, fear or faith. It matters if we retain hope. Hope is what sustains us when the beloved community of God seems completely unachievable. Hope is what enables us to wait. Hope gives us the strength to endure our struggles, bear our pain, and continue with faith to wait for the fulfillment of Jesus’s promises. “Christian hope rests on trust that the God who created the world will continue to love the world with gentle providence, will continue the process of creation until the project is complete, and will continue to redeem and save the world by coming into it with love and grace.”[3]

Faith and hope walk hand in hand. When we have faith, we know that all things work to the glory of God and the good of God’s people. When we have faith, we believe that days of peace, compassion and love will come even if we don’t know the day or the hour. When we have faith, we remember that all times are God’s time and to God, all times are soon.

Following Jesus is never easy, but it is particularly difficult when we are anxious and afraid, as many of us have been feeling. In a year such as this one, it is hard to see the light of hope, much less carry it for others- but we need to keep in mind that living in hope does not mean that we will never be disappointed. “Living in hope does not mean immunity to the harsh realities of history…It means living confidently and expectantly, trusting that the Lord of history continues to come into life with compassion and redemption”[4] – again and again and again, until we truly accept it.

Hope is an act of remembering. It is the ability to stop ourselves from dwelling on an uncertain future and recall the faithfulness of God throughout the history of time. Oceans rise, empires fall, and God has seen us through it all. We need to remember to trust in the God who was and always is with us. Tom Petty got it right: “The waiting is the hardest part… You take it on faith; you take it to the heart. The waiting is the hardest part.”[5] Hang on. Keep awake. Wait in hope. When the wait is over, we will find that God has been with us all the time.  AMEN.

[1]Lindsay P. Armstrong, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 289.

[2]Lindsay P. Armstrong, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 287.

2John M. Buchanan, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 286.

[4]John M. Buchanan, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 288

[5]Tom Petty (1991) The Waiting.

Sermon for All Saint’s Day, 2020: One Community of Christ (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White and the Rev. Walter Ramsey):

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Today is All Saint’s Day – the day we remember those who have gone before us to eternal life.  In ancient Christianity, each saint had his or her own day of remembrance.  All Soul’s Day, which is on November 2nd, was set apart to honor those who were not officially recognized as saints or martyrs of the church.  In time, however, there came to be so many saints that the Church decided to honor all of them on one “all” saint’s day.

All Saint’s is also one of the preferred days to perform baptisms, as we will do today.  Although it seems counterintuitive to baptize on a day commemorating the dead, our prayer book reminds us that baptism is the way we understand our relationship to God and to one another. This includes everyone we come into contact with, but most especially the community of Christ – those who live now and those who no longer live on this earth. We are all members of the same community of saints – living and dead – and we enter that community through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

These days, even though it feels as if there are huge and seemingly immovable barriers separating human beings from one another, there is no evidence that our desire for community has decreased. Humanity has applied our collectively amazing intelligence and creativity to find new and innovative ways to “see” and “be with” one another, even when physically separated. Unfortunately, some of us have also sought refuge in smaller and smaller communities made up of those who completely agree with what we believe, and consistently affirm our existing ideas without providing the thoughtful questioning and fact-checking we all need to make our best decisions. This type of “community” is not good for us. It has led to extreme polarization in our society culminating in mindless vitriol and violence. We are now witness to communities, some of which identify themselves as communities of Christ, that justify treating other human beings as unequal and unworthy and equating power and wealth with faithfulness.

Today’s readings provide us with a scriptural understanding of what it means to be part of Christian community, both now and eternally. They tell us that we are all God’s children, and that God wants what is best for us. They remind us that God does not punish us with suffering; we bring it upon ourselves. We are flawed beings, and it is through our human impulses that pain is brought into the world. Yet, even in the midst of our grief, God blesses us – for our meekness, our purity of heart, our efforts to live peacefully with one another, and, most especially, when we sorrow and suffer on God’s behalf. Best of all, we are promised that at the end of our road is God’s Holy City, where we, “will hunger no more, and thirst no more, [where] God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”

Our deacon, Reverend Walter Ramsey, reminds us that in our “reading in The Revelation to John, John has a vision of a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. An elder tells John that they are the ones that have passed through the ordeal of persecution and martyrdom at the hand of Rome.” They are not souls who have escaped trial and tribulation. They are not people who believed that God provides magic wealth, health, and righteousness in this world. Reverend Walter says, “Life with God means that we may know what it is to be poor, hungry, sorrowful, and cursed. Life with God means that we might know what it is to be unpopular, to be discounted and overlooked. What matters is that when we put our lives in Jesus’s hands, we will, like him, find our yoke is easy and our burdens light. The souls who stand in the presence of the Lamb of God are those who have resisted the lure of empire- who have kept their faith in spite of suffering the fears and anxieties of illness, injustice, economic hardship, and persecution. They are those who lived for Christ and are now one with Christ in death.

Reverend Walter suggests that it is important to remember the connection between this earthly realm and the heavenly throne room envisioned by John. Those who have died in Christ “witness to us the nature of eternity itself and how knowing the shape of eternity can show us how to live our lives in the here and now!  The life of heaven – the life of the realm where God’s will is already complete– is to become the life of the world, transforming the present ‘earth’ into the place of beauty and delight that God always intended. Those who follow Jesus are to live in God’s way here and now. That’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount and the paired blessings we call “beatitudes.” Jesus does not pronounce these blessings as something we should try to live up to or to offer a list of people whom God always blesses. Instead, they are a reminder that we can live this way in the present, because God’s promised future has already arrived in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

We need not fear our future. We need only accept the gift we have already been given -membership in the fellowship of God – by walking beside those who are here now and those who have gone before us.  “Proclaim the glory of the Lord,” our psalmist exults, “Those who seek the Lord lack nothing that is good. The Lord ransoms the life of his servants and none will be punished who trust in him.” We are God’s people and we have been made new in the image of God through Jesus Christ.  The glory of God is us.  It is in the meek and the brave; the seekers and the suffering; the persecuted and the peacemakers; the mourning and the merciful. It is for those who are present and those who are absent. It is for St. John and for little Andrew Senn.  The glory of God is God’s people.

Reverend Walter believes that God’s love is personal, contemporary, and eternal. The Beloved Community of God shines most brightly when we are able to do the most difficult thing God asks of us: to love our enemies. It takes root when we do good to those who hate us. It comes alive when we bless those who curse us. It shines brightly when we pray for those who abuse or mistreat us. It is always present when we respond to the cry of the poor, hungry, homeless, and refugees. When we live our lives by showing love to all people, we claim our membership in the community of Christ.

Victor Hugo said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  In these days when it is so easy to recognize hatred in the faces of many around us, we must try instead to see the glory of God in other people. We must struggle to look at those toward whom we feel hate as well as those we love and see the face of God.  We must attempt to look at an election ballots, social media, and newscasts and imagine the face of God.  We must remember that ours is a community of all saints, of all souls- good and bad, rich and poor, dead and alive.

In the Christian church baptism is associated with All Saint’s Day because we know that from the very moment of our birth until we leave this world and enter the new life of the resurrection, God is with us.  Look and see.  Taste and see.  See and accept the glory of the Lord – because it is already yours –yours to have and yours to share. O blessed communion, fellowship divine!  Let us not struggle.  Let us in glory shine.  Let us be one in God, because we all belong to God – and let us look at one another and see the face of God.   AMEN.

Sermon for Pentecost 21, October 25, 2020: The rest is commentary (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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“When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.'”

Scripture tells us that Jesus was fully human, so I think it’s fair to say that at this point in Matthew’s gospel narrative he was probably getting worn out with people asking him insincere questions to goad and trick him. He was also pretty tired of folks who were only interested in using his ministry to promote their views and grow their own power. We know this because in the very next chapter of Matthew Jesus really lets loose on the leaders of his local church, calling them hypocrites and accusing them of being obsessed with earthly things.

Today’s gospel starts with an acknowledgment that Jesus has been sparring with these leaders a lot. Matthew’s gospel contains three stories in a row which start with Jesus being asked a question designed to trap him into saying something heretical or dangerous. In each case, Jesus avoids the snare that has been set for him and uses his inquisitor’s question as an opportunity to teach his disciples about the nature of God.

He is never clearer than in this passage. Jesus knows that his questioners think they are asking him an impossible question. There are, after all, six hundred and thirteen commandments in Jewish law -and in Jesus’s day, as in ours, religious folks liked to cherry pick their favorites to justify their existing beliefs and condemn the behavior of others. Jesus knew that the Pharisees cited certain laws to build barriers between people –“to place severe limits on those whom they were obliged to recognize as their neighbors”[1] – and avoid the ones that demonstrated their hypocrisy. He also understood that the Pharisees were expecting him to do what they did- what politicians still do. They thought he would only talk about the parts of the law that supported his ideas rather than attempting to speak to the complexity of the issue they raised. Instead, Jesus started by reminding them of the most basic and revered prayer of their religion, the Shema: “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” – and then he added something – a summary of the rest of the law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus was pointing out that the specific culture-dependent details of laws have no value unless we understand and focus on the overall purpose of them- which is being in fruitful relationship with God and one another. He was calling them out on their practice of fulfilling the letter of the law without obeying its spirit. After all, we know who’s in the details. It is not enough to robotically carry out the mandatory minimum good deeds required by some of those 613 laws. You have to start with love, obeying the law with as much care as you would if you were doing it for yourself. That means not saying empty prayers without actively helping your neighbor. It means that loving your neighbor isn’t just avoiding people who make you uncomfortable; it’s trying to find common ground with them. True love doesn’t judge your neighbor for who they are or what they have done, so you can’t drop off that casserole and then go back to whispering about the life circumstances of the recipient. Jesus says to treat people the way we want to be treated – or, in its less subtle inverse: don’t do things you wouldn’t want done to you.

Jesus’s statement shouldn’t have been a shock to his questioners – because if you think about it almost all of Jesus’s parables boil down to the same basic moral. Don’t hog all the resources for yourself. Treat the most humble among you with as much care as the most important. When you say you believe things, act like you mean it. Do not put your faith in earthly things. Put your faith in God. Over and over and over again Jesus reminds us that it’s not okay to protect what is ours at the expense of others, to accept privileges we didn’t earn, or to be mean, insulting, and vindictive. And over and over again he shows his disciples what that means -by talking to people everyone else ignores, ignoring his own discomfort to heal others with mental and physical illnesses, and breaking bread with “enemies” and strangers. Jesus’s entire life is a demonstration of what love is.

These days, it’s easy to find stories about people who care more for themselves than others – but the truth is that we are also surrounded by stories of individuals and groups who are trying to put Jesus’s words into action. We can find them right here at Grace – like the woman who has chosen to dedicate herself to finding housing for as many people as she can. She started small and built an amazing coalition of city officials, police officers, churches, community groups- folks of different races, creeds, cultures, and political flavors – but her approach remains hands-on. She uses her own house as a drop-off point for everything from paint to plywood. Most importantly, she spends time with her unhoused neighbors. She doesn’t make assumptions about who they are and how they got where they are. Instead, she talks to them. She asks them what they need. She encourages them to take responsibility not just for themselves, but for others – to do for others what has been done for them.

There are people at Grace who have given up the financial security and peaceful retirement plans they worked for all of their lives so that they can instead care for others. We have folks who have taken jobs they don’t enjoy, moved to spaces they don’t like, and given up hobbies, friends, and peace of mind because someone needs them. There are individuals who regularly and anonymously provide funds to pay rent, buy food, and obtain needed medications for people who can’t afford them. And there is the parishioner who quite literally gave the jacket off his back to someone who promptly lost it. “It was my favorite jacket,” he told me, “but what are you going to do”?

Jesus knows these stories. He sees the hearts of all of his disciples- good, bad, and struggling – and he loves them. “I saw you,” he told Nathaniel. “I knew you before you ever thought of me – and I loved you.” Jesus loved the Roman centurion and the woman at the well. He loved the tax collector hiding in the tree and the woman who had committed adultery. He loved the Samaritan who acted as a neighbor to his enemy and he loved the criminal crucified next to him.

This is what it means to love our neighbor. We can’t “love God without loving what God loves! One cannot love God and oppress or exclude any of God’s creatures – even one’s enemies … to love God is to love in the way that God loves – indiscriminately. To love God is to love what God loves –everything.”[2] Love is the only thing that can repair the deep wounds in our society. It is the only way to stop ourselves from committing the same atrocities that God has watched human beings repeatedly perpetrate from age to age and from one generation to another. Love is not something we should seek to receive, but something we must do. Loving in this way is frightening. It is a risk – but, as St. Paul tells us, to have everything without love is to have nothing. To risk loving in Jesus’s name? That is to have everything. AMEN.

[1]Tim Beach-Verhey, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 214.

[2]Tim Beach-Verhey, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 214.

Sermon for Pentecost 20, October 18, 2020 (Columba Salamony):

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In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God.  Amen.

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s…” (KJV)

We all know this passage. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all been bewildered by these words at one point or another. Some might interpret them to be about the ethics of paying taxes or about empire and economics, or about our doubts in Jesus’ desires for us as Christians. Today, I see it as a statement about the often-tense relationship between humankind and the God who created us—between the secular and worldly and the holy and Godly.

In this gospel scene, we encounter a somewhat cryptic Jesus—as usual. The Pharisees and Herodians go to Jesus and ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? Or not?” Their question is a trap. If Jesus says ‘yes,’ the Pharisees will denounce him. If he says ‘no,’ the Herodians will have him arrested for sedition. Jesus is no dummy…

Instead of falling into either of their traps, he asks them to show him a denarius—the coin that would be used to pay the tax in question. Examining the coin, Jesus asks, “Whose head is this? And whose title?” I imagine him holding the coin up, noticing the stamped head of Tiberius, the emperor, almost as if for the first time. “Whose head is this?” In other translations of this story, Jesus asks, “Whose image is this?”

Coins minted by Rome each had the emperor’s face stamped on them. This isn’t too different from the coins in our pockets today, with presidents’ faces on one side and some symbol of America or its history on the other. The United States Mint also stamps them with a familiar phrase: In God, we trust.

Jesus’ question “Whose head is this?” captures my attention. We’ve grown comfortable with Jesus and his habit of responding to a question with a question—it happens so frequently. Jesus is too clever to entrap himself by answering their question about taxes directly, and instead he replies his own question, followed by his ambiguous response, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.’

Jesus invites us to find something deeper than taxes within this statement… He wants us to contemplate where we put our trust… and where our faith has its foundation: in the institutions of empire or nation, or in God?

I sense that Jesus hopes that his statement would inspire the nations to a benevolent economic system where the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned could be cared for… and not left behind in favor of Caesar and whatever his agenda of the day might be.

Jesus’ response to give back to Caesar his share wasn’t just a call to abandon those earthly concerns, but it was a reminder of the division between worldly and Godly. But we get stuck in a murky middle-ground between the two. On our shoulders, we balance a milkmaid’s yoke, trying to find a sweet spot between earthly concerns and a deep spiritual life with God at its center.

I hear Jesus challenging us to discover what sort of world God wants—and needs—us to live in, and how we might make the empires around us support that. “Give to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus asks us which of these images better reflect God: The stamp of Caesar, who favored himself to be chosen by God to lead Rome… Or do we, as beloved children of God, reflect a more authentic likeness of God into the world around us. “We see God in each other, not in Rome,” he might have said to his disciples later that evening as they ate together, finally giving some clarity to his cryptic response that afternoon.

This distinction between the two arenas is critical. We must consider which is more important, the institutions of the world… or responding to God’s unique call for each of us. We can be more like Caesar and the Pharisees… or more like Jesus.  We can ally ourselves with the earthly world, concerned with politics, economics, and rhetoric, or we can look toward God and form a deep relationship with the divine, one which will lead us through our lives. The choice is up to us.

Let’s consider the phrase “In God, we trust”… Throughout our history, Americans have latched onto this phrase, again and again, in times of uncertainty or turmoil. We believe that God will get us through whatever troubles we might face. We see that God’s call for us in times of crisis is to remain steadfast and persevere, even through the darkest storm.

“In God, we trust.” Not in Caesar. Not in America. Not in economics and finance. Not in the Department of Defense. Not in the president, or Congress, or our governors and mayors… We trust in God. God who shares God’s loving-kindness with us, because we put our trust in God!  God will always provide for us because we are made in God’s image. Jesus reassures us that God will respond to our needs… even better than Caesar will.

With this in mind, I see Jesus’ message to us in this story as a reminder of who is really going to look out for us in times of catastrophe… The leaders of empires often prioritize their own needs over the poorest among us. The apathy of power-hungry Caesars and the carelessness of empire affect the lives of everyday people, particularly those living closest to the margins.   There’s a fluid movement that happens between the world God wants us to live in and the world we encounter today. We always dance between the two worlds, between two sets of values. We look for truth in both places. We endeavor to trust both the human and the divine. We seek justice from the empire, but also from God.

Truth, trust, and justice are not just human moral imperatives. They remind us of the image of God that God has marked on us… We look for God’s truth in the earthly, and trust that we can find it. Our desire to act justly is a desire to build a bridge between worldly and Godly… But often, that bridge between worldly and Godly feels like a rickety suspension bridge, made of fraying rope and gnarly wood, hanging over who-knows-what beneath. Again, we have to consider that murky middle-ground where we get stuck. We must pay our taxes to Caesar, but God also calls us to care for the image of God in ourselves and in the world around us.

Jesus teaches us in plain language what our principal objective is as Christians: To love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And, to love your neighbor as yourself. There is no mysterious or cryptic language in this, the greatest commandment. We are called to build up God’s love on earth as best we can. We are called to reflect God’s values in all that we do. We are called to take responsibility for the errors of empire and to challenge others to pursue justice for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned. And we are called to love God’s image in each other, even when we can’t see it.

Like Moses, we may not be able to see God’s face, but we can recognize traces of God’s likeness when we look at those around us. We see God in the smile of a stranger. We hear God in the cries of the oppressed and marginalized. We feel God in the warm embrace of an old friend. The image of God is all around us—in every-thing that God has created. Let us not continue to corrupt that creation. We must hold our modern Caesars to an ethical and Godly standard—one that genuinely reflects Christ’s presence among us, one that respects God’s image within us, and one that seeks to bind us together and not drive us apart. We pray that God empowers us to build bridges and not walls. We give thanks that God continues to nourish us to do this difficult work. To seek justice and truth, and to trust in God.

For the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.’

Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 19, The Parable of the Wedding Crasher, October 11, 2020 (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Most cultures have formal rituals for marking important relationships. The signing of treaties between nations is often accompanied by ceremonies that include music and feasting. In the Episcopal Church we formalize the relationship between a new priest and her flock with a Celebration of New Ministry, and we seat our bishops with great spectacle. Kings, queens, presidents and emperors have historically been anointed, crowned or inaugurated, ratifying the oaths they take to protect and serve their people. In American society, however, the most well-known and popular relationship ritual of all is the wedding. Although most of the traditions we associate with weddings are relatively new – white dresses, “here comes the bride,” and wedding rings come to mind – many people believe a “perfect wedding” must include all these things – and usually more. Weddings bring out strong emotions in people – which is why they are often so fraught. From “Bride Wars” to “Bridezillas” we are fascinated as we watch seemingly self-assured and competent people become mean, weeping, screaming raw nerves when faced with the pressure of planning “the most important day of their lives.”

The belief that one symbolic action can define who we are is at the very heart of the problem with weddings (and other rituals). Far too often the cosmetic details of the event become more important than the reason the ceremony exists. We forget that a wedding is not an excuse to dress up and eat well. It is a ritual – or, in the church, a rite- that celebrates a much more important blessing: two people committing to try to love one another –and others – in the name of God.

The prospect of living in loving relationship is daunting, and we can get very confused about what God wants from us. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to explain to couples that 1 Corinthians 13, which states, among other things, that, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant  or rude,” is not a set of reasonable goals for their relationship. In fact, it’s not about human love at all; it is about the love of God. The task of marriage is not to try to love our partner like God does. The purpose of all Christian relationship is to celebrate the love we have received from God by sharing it with others. Love is the core of Christian belief: Ten Commandments; 613 laws in the Torah; seven deadly sins to avoid – they all boil down to the same great commission given to us by Christ himself: Love God and love your neighbor.

It feels like this shouldn’t be that hard – and yet every morning when I watch the news, check social media, and get on the highway, it seems like an impossible task. The truth is that I am happy to love my neighbor – unless it’s that guy. I love God – but obviously not the same God as her. It gives me joy to pray for others – except the ones I think don’t deserve my prayers. If you too have thoughts like these then, congratulations; you are human. You have discovered that following the way of Christ is hard. You cannot phone it in – and that’s what today’s gospel is about.

Jesus’s story could be called “The Parable of the Wedding Crasher.” It contains one of the most famous verses in scripture – “for many are called, but few are chosen” –but it is tacked on to the end of one of the most complex tales Jesus ever told. This mysterious and frankly confusing phrase has been used to exclude people from Christian churches for millennia. Whenever church folks have decided that someone is unfit for their company in one way or another, this proverb has provided them with an acceptably vague way to get rid of them. But there is no evidence that this statement is about fitness for inclusion in the community of Christ. Jesus never rejected anyone who came to him with a sincere heart – nor should we. This reference is not about whether Jesus invites us in, but rather what it means to follow Jesus once we have accepted his call. It is about the dangers of selfishness and hypocrisy.

Like last week’s gospel, this parable is an analogy filled with familiar characters. The king who gave a wedding banquet for his son (Jesus) represents God. This banquet is a gift. It is a celebration of the relationship between the king and his people. It is an honor to be invited – and yet none of those who are asked will come. Even when reminded of everything the king has done to provide for them, the people not only reject the offer, but mock the king’s generosity, responding with violence and anger. Understandably, the king – God – is furious. God has given everything to her chosen people – but they have forgotten him. They no longer recognize or honor the importance of their covenant relationship to God. They have instead become too focused on the mechanics of their religion, believing that their rituals and traditions – rather than the relationship they represent – will save them. They have rejected God’s mercy so, in response, God chooses new people – those who want to be in relationship with him. It doesn’t matter if these people are good or bad. It only matters that they have chosen God and seek to be in relationship with God.

So far, the story is consistent with what we know about God, who unfailingly upholds promises to humanity, even when we forget and sin against her. Then, as Jesus’s tale seems to be nearing its end, it takes a strange and unsettling turn. The king notices a man who is not wearing the right outfit – and not only does he kick him out, but he punishes him severely, binding him and condemning him to “the outer darkness.” This seems very unfair. Why should a simple social faux pas be a matter for such a harsh punishment? He was, after all, only responding to an invitation for a free meal.

I would suggest that this is actually the problem, because in Jesus’s allegory, the wedding dress represents the man’s commitment to the way of Christ. He has shown up, but he isn’t there for the right reason. He has not responded to God’s invitation to be in relationship – only to the ancient equivalent of a great party invite. He wants to have a perfect ritual without having to try to live up to the commitment that the ritual celebrates. He believes and revels in the power of God in Jesus Christ, but does not want to have to live according to his way of love.

When we mistake rituals that commemorate our relationship with God for living in relationship with God, we hurt and enrage God. We become like the children of Israel who, out of fear and anxiety, lost faith and built and worshipped a pale substitute for the God who had saved them. When we, like the leaders of the Philippian church, get caught up in our differences and forget what unites us, we deny the goodness and mercy that God given to all creation. Whenever we choose to base our faith on earthly privilege, exclusion, and our own safety and comfort, we are demonstrating belief not in God, but in human interpretations of God.

God has chosen us. We are part of the beloved community of Christ. Stand firm in the Lord, then, my beloved, taking the risk of trying to love as you are loved. Rejoice in the Lord – always and together. Do not worry about anything. There are things in this world that are true and honorable; just and pure; commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Let us think on those things. Let us be part of those things – and the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. AMEN.

Sermon for Pentecost 18, The vineyard, the landowner, the slaves, and the landowner’s son, October 4, 2020:  (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Most of you do not know this, but our Music Director, Arthur Omura, and I often spend part of our meeting time together discussing theology. This is always interesting for me, because Arthur is a) not a Christian, b) of a different gender and race, and c) of a different generation than I am -so we share very few conventions about the way the world works.  This is really good for me because it forces me to think things through and explain them in a way that doesn’t presume familiarity or agreement on his part – something I think we all need to be trying harder to do in our currently divided and chaotic world.

This may be particularly true for Christians in our country at this time, where, despite an ongoing rapid decline in the number of people who identify as “Christian,” there are clear divisions between various Christian denominations, to the point where it often appears that we worship different Gods. How terribly confusing it must be for nonbelievers to hear about the humble, sacrificial, loving, and inclusive Jesus and then to be bombarded with images of angry, aggressive people who claim to worship the same Christ calling for the exclusion and oppression of certain others. For Arthur, these discrepancies sometimes lead to questions when he is attempting to pick the music for our services – thus our theological conversations.

Sharing music with one another has been part of Christian tradition almost since its inception, and choosing music for liturgy is a theological task. The command to “sing praises to God” is an ancient one, as evidenced by today’s psalm which tells us that the very heavens declare the glory of God in sounds without words. That is why we try to choose music that reflects and comments on our scripture readings. Arthur has become very good at this, but a few weeks ago, when we first encountered today’s gospel from Matthew, he wondered how Jesus could be both a sacrificial victim and the rock upon which the world might be built – or destroyed.

The Parable of the Wicked Tenant (as it is called) is an allegory about God’s relationship with creation. People who heard it in Jesus’s time would have known the players – the landowner is God, Israel is the vineyard, the leaders of the people are the tenant farmers, the prophets are the representatives of God who convey God’s will, and Jesus is the son who is sent to collect God’s due – and is killed.[1] The actions of each character have something to say about the nature of God’s relationship to humanity, and how our choices shape the world God has made.

The landowner represents a God who creates but does not control, a God who has given humanity free will. We are not to imagine God as the President and CEO of creation, hiring and firing us based on our job performance. God is a creator who has chosen to give management of his creation to itself. God gives the tenants everything they need to be fruitful and asks only that they share the fruits of their labors. The parable reminds us that we have been given the freedom to make choices: between gratitude and greed; compassion and cruelty; faith or fear. We cannot help what we are, but we can choose what to do.

That doesn’t mean that God isn’t present. This parable suggests that our God is neither what my sister calls “a puppeteer up in heaven pulling our strings” nor a disinterested feudal lord. Our God is instead a loving parent who provides her children with all they need, tells them the best way to use it, and then remains close by to offer a hand when they fail. This God – our God –wants us to succeed, to be forces for good, and to share her Holy Spirit with others. The history of humankind is the story of God creating humanity out of love and setting us free to learn and grow – only to watch as, over and over again as we reject God’s blessings, destroy God’s paradise, and ignore God’s efforts to set us on a good and fruitful path. Remember the story of the rich and poor men who die on the same day? The rich man, who was selfish and evil, is condemned, while the poor man who suffered on earth lives on in the beloved community of God. When the rich man recognizes his fate, he cries out to God, asking, “Why didn’t you tell me this was going to happen”? And God reminds him that he sent the prophets to warn the man and others like him, finally offering God’s own precious son to save them, only to be rejected once again. By refusing to follow God’s way, the man has condemned himself to live in the way he has chosen- forever.

The tenants in today’s parable make the same choice. They choose to ignore what they owe to the landowner, instead crediting themselves for their success. When the landowner seeks to remind them that they are in a relationship- that they have an agreement, a covenant, the tenants do not take the opportunity to repent. Instead they dig in, becoming progressively more violent in their efforts to assert that they can control their fate – that they deserve privileges they did not earn. Yet, even then the landowner does not give up. He is still willing to give anything he has to save them from their own ignorance and pride, so he sends them the most precious and powerful reminder of their relationship that he can – his beloved son. But the tenants, focused only on their desire and greed, kill the beloved son as well.

The traditional interpretation of this story is that it is a warning that if we persist in our wicked ways God will seek revenge on those who reject her -but I don’t think it’s that simple, because the parable does not say that God will crush humanity. It says that the people who choose to use the gift of creation to fulfill their own personal needs – who fall on the stone that is the foundation of life- will be broken. In other words, we condemn ourselves when we claim God’s creation as our own but refuse to honor the covenant of love which is meant to hold it together.

The goal that God has set for us is deceptively simple, but profoundly difficult for us to follow. Scripture spells it out in myriad ways, beginning with ten simple rules that can be summed up in one truth: love is God’s will for us. Scripture shows us the reality of this by telling the stories of people like Paul, who once believed that he was a privileged, educated, morally upright citizen who could earn his way to salvation, but learned to his intense despair that to depend on his own achievements was futile. This was a despicable man – a self-righteous, self-absorbed bigot who persecuted Jesus’s followers – and yet God saw fit to redeem this man by striking him down – and then healing him so that he might repent and become Christianity’s great evangelist. Paul found out-and we must remember- that it is by God’s mercy- and God’s mercy alone -that we can be saved from ourselves. And so, as hard as it is, we must seek to be merciful as God is merciful to us. This means we must try not to judge others – even when we are quite sure they deserve it. It means we must resist the desire to cling to what we have, thus depriving others of what they need. It means we must pray for the salvation of all of God’s creation – the evil and the good – lest we trip on our own sense of “rightness,” and lose the chance to build and grow on the foundation of love given to us by God and demonstrated by Jesus.

We are living in a time of deep darkness, a time that seems to be filled with wicked tenants willing to kill to grab and hold what is not theirs. We live in an hour in which it is easy to despair or, worse, to become like those tenants, holding fiercely to earthly prizes. But scripture tells us that God always offers us a path to fulfillment, a way to rebuild humanity into God’s beloved community. The way is not easy, but it is true. “When we turn to that stone that the builders rejected, it [may] break us down too – but only so that it can build us up again. The stone will take away our pride and prejudice, our sin and selfishness, our greed and guilt”[2] -and when it does we will be a new people – a better people – a people worthy to care for God’s creation with love, justice, and peace. AMEN.

[1]Richard E. Spalding, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 141.

[2]Marvin A. McMickle, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 145.

Sermon for the Feast of Michael and All Angels, September 27, 2020 (The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church)

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https://www.dropbox.com/sh/3q7yky9nueauafq/AAC4Rd3snVxhUCPErUg3c0Dja?dl=0

Sermon for Pentecost 16, September 20, 2020: Justice, Fairness, Grace (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

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“BUT THAT’S JUST NOT FAIR.”  I am positive that almost all of us who have raised or dealt with children have heard this refrain. This sentiment may be more prevalent among close siblings, but we all may have exclaimed or thought it some time. Sibling rivalry, of course, occurs in many families, especially when the children are young. It is as though the children feel there isn’t enough love or attention or approval to go around, and so they must continually compete for their fair share. What parent hasn’t heard the pitiful cry, “But that’s not fair!”? Sometimes it even continues into adulthood. Those of us who are old enough remember the famous line from the Smothers Brothers television show: “Mom always liked you best.”(1) How many of us with siblings recall growing up feelings we had to do more than others? How many first-borns eventually complain that their parents let younger brothers and sisters have more liberty than they had at the same age? Isn’t it true that one of the first things we learn in life is to develop a view of what seems fair and what does not?(2)

These feelings and this kind of behavior can carry over into our other relationships. If we have learned to see life as some contest for power, wealth, approval, and fame, we will always be alert for things that are not fair — that is, situations in which we feel we do not get our just desserts. We want to get the best grades, the best job, make the most money, have the best home or car. We strive to get ahead, we “look out for number one,” we complain loudly, or perhaps silently, when favors go to someone we think less deserving than ourselves.

It’s easy to understand the feelings of the laborers in today’s Gospel story who had worked all day in the vineyard under the hot sun. They had agreed to work for the usual daily wage, probably enough to feed his family for the day.  But when they saw those late comers receiving that amount, they thought indeed they would receive a more generous amount. They had worked 12 hours! Was it fair that they received the same amount of pay as those who had worked for one hour?

And so they grumbled. If we are honest with ourselves, we will probably have to admit that we would have grumbled,(3) as well. Of course, the word “grumbled” might remind you of Israel’s grumblings in the wilderness. I think Jesus intends for us to make that connection. The point is: don’t be like the exodus generation—saved from slavery, saved from the rule of Pharaoh, saved from the Red Sea, only to die without inheriting the promise. They died because they never got past their grumbling. They were never grateful for grace.

It is interesting to note that the vineyard owner paid the latecomers first so that those that worked longer saw they were receiving an equal amount. As we see this story unfold the way it does, we may be sympathetic to the grumblers. But When the last get paid first, we may cry, “Injustice,” and when the last get paid the same amount, we cry out again, “Injustice.” The lord of this vineyard has broken the first rule of all economics: the more work, the more pay.

As members of the body of Christ, we are called to demand justice for all people. Justice is the moral fabric that binds modern societies and civilizations. It is a concept based on morals and ethics, and what is morally correct is seen as just. We talk about social justice that is a concept of equality and strives for equal rights for all sections of society. In this sense, justice means providing every person in the society what they deserve, be it social, economic, or environmental. Justice is seen as a quality of being just or fair. In broader terms, justice is giving a person his due. So justice can be something negative. While justice and equality most often go hand-in-hand, it is not so with fairness.

One of the first things we learn from today’s gospel reading is that Jesus didn’t care much about fairness or unfairness in the way we tend to think about it. He was not concerned about the ethics of business or labor-management relations or who got to what place first. Through the story in today’s gospel, Jesus turns our standard views upside down, shaking them out, so we can more clearly see the truth of God’s values. He challenges our religious assumptions, affirming a radical understanding of God and our relationship with God that upsets our conventional views.

As in so many of Jesus’ stories, the landowner represents God and the workers Israel. However, the first will be the last saying was part of the answer to Peter, after his somewhat self-centered question in the previous chapter (‘We’ve left everything and followed you; so what is our reward?’). Jesus may intend the saying about first and last, the front and the back, to be a warning to the disciples themselves: don’t think that, because you’ve been close to me so far, you are now the favored few for all time.

Despite earthly appearances of inequality concerning who has “earned” a greater or lesser reward (Jews/Gentiles, longtime workers/latecomers), this parable clarifies that there is radical equality before God based on radical love. Gods radical love has no limits. The reward comes not from each worker’s merit, not from the quantity or even quality of their labor, but rather from the gracious covenant offered by the one doing the hiring. God promises and delivers but one reward for all—Grace represented by a single denarius (basically enough for one’s “daily bread.” The result is that God’s people work in God’s vineyard simply because it is a good and righteous thing to do, rather than because they hope to earn merit. The other lectionary texts designated for this week reveal that grumbling against God has been the pastime of God’s people from the beginning. Still, the Scriptures have consistently called God’s people to see in a new way and view God’s mercy as a gift of which they should strive to be worthy.

God’s grace, in short, is not the sort of thing you can bargain with or try to store up, any more than the Israelites could store up Mana.  It isn’t the sort of thing that one person can have a lot of and someone else only a little. The point of the story is what people get from having served God, and his kingdom is not, actually, a ‘wage’ at all. It’s not, strictly, a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal.(4) God makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When God keeps promises, she is not rewarding us for effort, but doing what comes naturally to God’s overflowingly generous nature. There is always a danger that we get cross with God over this. People who work in church circles can easily assume that they are the special ones, God’s inner circle. In reality, God sends us out into the marketplace to look for the people everybody else tried to ignore, welcoming them on the same terms, surprising them (and everybody else) with God’s generous grace. The earliest church needed to learn that lesson. Is there anywhere in today’s church that doesn’t need to be reminded of it as well?

Living in the Kingdom of Heaven, would not we celebrate the last hired also being able to feed his family? Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 15, September 13, 2020: No Judgies (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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This past week I had the unfortunate task of sharing what is called a “notice of accord” with the vestry of Grace Church. In the Episcopal Church, when a clergy person is accused of unethical or illegal behavior they undergo a disciplinary process specified in our national canons (rules) called “Title IV.” This is different from the secular justice system because clergy people are disciplined not for breaking civil laws, but for betraying the vows we take when we are ordained. These cases are also unique because they end not with a “judgment” but with an “accord.” Judgments are decisions about guilt. An accord is an agreement between the church and the clergy person being disciplined indicating that both recognize that a sin has been committed and that they have agreed in community how they will respond to it.

It is always very hard news to hear that a friend, colleague, or pastor has broken their ordination vows. Despite the fact that we all acknowledge that clergy persons are human beings and are no different than any other human being, historically people have thought that ordained ministers are somehow better able to control their baser urges – or at least more willing to confess when they cannot. Not anymore. A 2018 Gallup poll indicated that trust in clergy was at an all-time low, with only 37 percent of respondents agreeing that clergy people have high or very high standards of behavior.[1] Among the groups of professionals people ranked as more trustworthy than clergy were doctors, nurses, high school teachers, and police officers. Those figures may have changed in the last year and a half, but I doubt that the clergy numbers have gone up.

You can’t blame people, who watch as countless members of the clergy are implicated in financial and sexual scandals. And just as individuals wearing clerical collars no longer conjure positive emotions, so too has the word “Christian” been appropriated to represent support of and approval of violence, cruelty, fear-mongering, and vengeance – things specifically condemned by Jesus. Not a day goes by when I don’t read about religious leaders who regularly break faith with Americans of all persuasions by terrifying and threatening their flocks into endorsing specific policies and politicians. Such behavior is not only damaging to the individuals involved, but to God’s church as a whole. That’s why the Episcopal Church decided that when one of our clergy breaks faith, it must be shared not only with every parish and clergy person in the offender’s diocese, but with leaders throughout the entire Episcopal Church. As painful as it is to air our differences this way, it is a crucial part of reconciliation and healing. As Christians, we “cannot ignore the deep pain of those who have been sinned against, and we cannot minimize the difficulties of forgiveness.”[2] Balancing the trauma and pain of both the sinner and the victim demonstrates the complexity of what it means to forgive – again and again and again, if necessary.

In some circles it is popular to justify judging others by saying you can “love the sinner and hate the sin,” but this is NOT something Jesus said. What Jesus said was, “Love one another and forgive one another” – and then he told a story about two sinners. One of these people owed a ridiculously large amount of money to a wealthy man and was told he would have to give everything he had – including his family and freedom – to pay it off. Unsurprisingly he begged for mercy – and received it in proportion to the size of his large debt. There was a second man who owed money to the man who had been forgiven. Instead of forgiving his debtor what he owed, the first man refused to have mercy and threw the second man in prison. Horrified by what they had seen, members of their community told the wealthy man what had happened – and the first man was given over to be tortured. This seems very harsh, but it is consistent with Jesus’s deep concern that his disciples seem to be unable to understand that no human being is in a position to judge another – that we are all sinners and we are all in need of forgiveness. Like Peter, however, we are always trying to find a loophole when we have to forgive people. We convince ourselves that if we can only prove that we are right then we don’t have to apologize or forgive the “wrong” party. We can even congratulate ourselves on trying to love such wrong and difficult people -without recognizing that even labeling them as sinners is a form of hatred. It has also become acceptable to identify numerous behaviors as “sins” that do not appear in our Holy Scriptures. It has become “increasingly common to see people hating both the sin and the sinner; it has become all too common for us to regard people as personifications of some particular sin or evil – [to equate the sin with the sinner]. Indeed, today we see Christians who not only hate the sin and the sinner, but are energized by their hate.”[3] When we say we “love the sinner” we are implying that we are being virtuous by even trying to love a “bad” person. We are suggesting that our ability to “love” them places us above them. This perspective assumes that we are “right” and they are “wrong.”

This is not what Paul says we should do. What Paul suggests to the Romans is that we should try to love not like humans but like God – God, whose love is beyond judgment. This means not forgiving someone and trying to love them in spite of the fact that we think they are sinful. Doing that proves that our desire is to prove we are right, while God’s desire is to remove our need to be. Paul tells us to love others simply because they are, like us, children of God. This means we can’t merely tolerate those that we consider to be weak in faith and wrong in their thinking. It means remembering that they are no more sinful than us, and we must welcome them into our community, invite them into the way of Jesus, and share with them the grace that we have received.[4] That is radical grace – and personally, I don’t like it. I would prefer to accept the common interpretation of the Golden Rule as reversible, meaning that I only have to do onto others what they have done to me -or at least be able to offer half-hearted apologies like: “I know you are sorry for all the horrible things you have done to me and I am sorry for whatever it is you think I did to you.” I like to be right. I certainly don’t want to be told that who’s right doesn’t matter. I want judgments -not accords.

Unfortunately, forgiving someone superficially because I have to – because I am afraid of what will happen to me if I don’t -is not an option for followers of Jesus. Saying I love my neighbor (even though I continue to think he’s wrong) is also not enough. Forgiving, like repenting, requires action. It involves hard and ongoing work. It demands that we let go of our need for judgment and accept the necessity of mercy – because it is only by forgiving those who hurt us that we can start forgiving ourselves. It is only through real forgiveness that we can escape the torture chamber of our own anger and guilt. It is only by forgiving that we can learn to live in accord – to live in love. AMEN.

[1]Carol Kuruvilla, (December, 2018), “Americans trust clergy less than ever, Gallup poll finds,”  Huffpost, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/gallup-poll-clergy-honesty-ethics_n_5c23d864e4b0407e907f752f

[2]Charles Campbell, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 69-71.

[3]William Greenway, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 64.

[4]Jeanette A. Good, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 63.

Sermon for Pentecost 14, September 6, 2020: Binding and Loosing (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

To listen click here:

Sermon for Proper 18, Year A, September 6 2020 Binding and loosing

It’s easy to get mad. It only takes a visit to social media or the evening news or sometimes even a certain sermon. Everywhere we go it’s easy to perceive insult, to see “sin” – and to react with anger and frustration. Most of us resist anger. Anger often causes destructive behavior, and feeling constantly angry can quite literally make us sick.

Sometimes, though, it feels good to get angry – to “vent” our frustration. Anger is a natural and energizing emotion, often motivating people to act. We know that Jesus himself got angry, often in reaction to hypocrisy, injustice, and marginalization. So, it’s not wrong to get angry. It’s what you do with it that matters. Jesus knew this. “What makes us Christian is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but how we go about addressing and resolving these issues.”[1] That’s what today’s scriptures are about.

Some of you might remember that last week I said that Christianity is countercultural. Today’s readings pretty much prove it, suggesting that the way Jesus wanted us to behave when we are angry has little to do with our current culture. In recent years, fewer and fewer people seem able or willing to engage in conversation about their differences. Many people appear to believe that once they have said what they want to say, the conversation is over – and if you try to engage in dialogue they are likely to start name calling or simply stop communicating. Further, social media allows us to avoid interacting with anyone who disagrees with us, creating communities in which what we already believe is constantly reinforced. Churches are not immune to this, often using social media platforms to promote doctrine rather than dialogue. I recently read an article in which the author notes that a church-published voting guide she received “claimed to be nonpartisan… [but] the veneer of nonpartisanship… was razor thin.”[2] The booklet misspelled the names of opposing candidates and included threats suggesting that not voting for their recommended candidate would cause World War III. What it did not contain was any form of scriptural justification for their point of view. The pamphlet instead focused on the endorsements of well-known religious leaders, some of whom have since been implicated in criminal behavior. Apparently, voters were being asked to take their opinions on faith.

Faith in people, not faith in God –or at least not faith in God as described in the Holy Scriptures that Christians profess to share – is not true faith. Perhaps the pamphlet authors believed that there is nothing in our scriptures that is relevant to the way we express our political views. Perhaps they missed this week’s gospel. Today’s passage follows the famous Parable of the Lost Sheep, in which Jesus tells us that every, single one of us is valued and loved and deserves to be f  ound. Today, he tells his followers how we are to find – and keep –each other. He outlines a very specific process that most of us are familiar with, in part because this is the practice that we attempt to adhere to at Grace. First, go to the person you think has sinned against you and talk to them. If this doesn’t work, meet with them with a couple of other thoughtful people. If this doesn’t work, then the whole community needs to work on it together. Only if that does not work should the person be “treated as a Gentile and a tax collector.” That seems quite reasonable to me – try to get along with each other and if there’s one person who won’t listen to anyone, you can ask them to leave. But here’s something to consider: “Churches usually hear this [passage] as a license to excommunicate, exile or otherwise shun the individual”[3] because we think of tax collectors and Gentiles as being outside of Jesus’s circle. But the gospels tell us Jesus never excluded such people from his group -that he ate, drank and talked theology with them. “What else can we conclude then that, far from shunning them, Jesus commands us never to give up on them, never to stop reaching out in love to them, always to yearn for grace to restore what has been broken.”[4]  In other words, there is no place in Jesus’s formula for “unfriending.”

This may not feel hopeful to you. This may, in fact, seem irritating, exhausting, and hard. “Why,” we may wonder, “do we have to be the ones who are responsible for making peace when they’re the ones who are wrong?” Because, my friends, they are not necessarily the only ones who are wrong – and we are the ones who say we believe in love –true love, real love – the love of God.

We tend to throw the word “love” around a lot, saying that we love ice cream and “Grey’s Anatomy” and fabulous shoes – but that’s not what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans. For Paul, love isn’t about feelings; it’s about actions. We can talk about what we believe, but if our behavior doesn’t line up, then there’s something wrong. As the song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love” – or, I might add, by our loving behavior.

Scripture helps show us the way, but not if we treat it like a collection of social media posts and read only the bits we agree with. There are recurring themes in the Bible- humanity’s need for God and our conflicting refusal to follow God; God’s willingness to save us from ourselves, and God’s clear command to love one another, especially those who are different from us. God’s laws reflect this theme. The Ten Commandments, for example, can be  arranged into two groups: commands about loving God (not taking the Lord’s name in vain, no idols, taking time to praise and honor God), and directives about loving each other (no killing, no stealing, no cheating, no lying). Even the most esoteric of the ancient codes have the same purpose- encouraging God’s creation to live together in love. Christians believe that since humanity didn’t seem able to do it by following the law, Jesus came to show us how it’s done – so if you want to know what’s right, look to Jesus’s words and example – and Jesus is all about love. Love is our yardstick and our plumb line. As Eleazar Fernandez suggests, “Loving God and neighbor is the practice by which Christian communities undergo testing…when they abide in love, they have fulfilled the law.”[5]

Love should be our voter guide. If our laws, our political structure, our  judicial system, or our churches are not serving the goal of bringing God’s active, inclusive love to the world, then we must change them. That is what it means to be responsible for binding and loosing. In rabbinic language, binding means to hold on to a law. Loosing means letting it go because it doesn’t apply in your circumstances. If our current conditions, then, lead us to use our anger only to separate ourselves from others and to separate them from God, we must change them. We must instead use our anger as Jesus did- to promote justice, healing, and reconciliation. We must use that energy to love rather than hate. This is not easy, but it is the will of God. “The night is far gone, the day is near. Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light – put on the love of Christ. AMEN.

[1] Jin S. Kim, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 46.

[2]Angela Denker (September 3, 2020), “Voter guides show the power and duplicity of American evangelicalism,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2020/09/03/voter-guides-show-the-power-and-duplicity-of-american-evangelicalism/.

[3]Charles Hambrick-Stowe, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 48.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Eleazar S. Fernandez, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 38.

Sermon for Pentecost 13, August 30, 2020: I AM (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Sermon for August 30 2020 I AM

One Sunday when I was the Interim Co-Rector at The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in San Francisco, I was doing a sound check from the pulpit prior to the service. St. Mary’s is an architecturally formal church, with a high, carved pulpit. At the time, the door between the Narthex and the Sanctuary was closed and there was a greeter in the Narthex getting bulletins ready for the service. Realizing that we were alone in this very solemn space, I leaned over to the microphone and, instead of saying, “Testing, testing,” I said her name. “Susan,” I intoned in my deepest and most holy voice. As I had predicted, she jumped about three feet straight into the air, clutched her heart and frantically looked around to see who had spoken to her. She didn’t notice me in my high perch. “Susan,” I repeated, “this is God. It turns out I was a woman after all.”

We don’t know if Moses actually jumped into the air when God first spoke to him from the burning bush, but we do know that once God identified himself to him, Moses hid his face – so I’m guessing he was pretty scared, and understandably so. This is God, after all – and, despite our frequent calls to God to come “down here” and help us, despite our complaints that God does not answer our prayers, and despite our willingness to make statements in God’s name, scripture suggests that human beings rarely get what we bargained for when God actually shows up.

In Moses’s case, God has appeared in response to the agonized cries of her people, to deliver them from their miserable lives of slavery and abuse, and to bring them to a land of abundance. Oddly, Moses’s response to God’s offer is less than thrilled. In fact, Moses objects to God’s plan not once but five times. First, he argues that he, Moses, is not qualified for this mission. “Who am I,” he says, “that I should go to Pharaoh”? When God assures him that he need not worry because God will be with him, Moses objects again. “Well then,” he wonders, “who are you” that your name will make people listen to me? Patiently, God responds by reminding Moses that he is the God of their ancestors. Nonetheless, Moses objects again, asking God to give him an actual name. God, who seems to be getting a little annoyed at this point, answers in a rather ambiguous (and Popeye-like) way, “I AM WHO I AM.” Tell them “I AM” has sent you.

This is not a satisfying response. We want God to tell us who he is in ways that we can understand. It’s not enough that God appears to Moses in the fire of the burning bush wanting to help creation – that God is present in the midst of their suffering. We want God to describe Godself in human terms – what she/he/them it looks like, what she/he/them/it knows about us, and, most importantly, what she/he/them/it can do for us. We want some proof that God is worthy of our trust. We can’t just put ourselves in anybeing’s hands. After all, it’s only fair that we get something out of it.

The idea that our relationship with God is transactional – meaning that if we do certain things for God we will get certain things from God- is common. It is present today whenever a minister claims that God gives them planes and boats and large estates because they need them to preach the gospel. It is there when we are told that God favors one nation, race, or political party over another because they are “better” in some way.  It exists when we insist that our doctrines ensure that God is “on our side.” This is not only wrong, it is blasphemy. Arguing that any sect or individual human being can speak for God, or that we have the right to impose our will on others because we are acting on God’s behalf, insults and diminishes God. It makes God less than what God is. As Rob Grayson says, “Simply put, our attempts to fit God into a transactional mold will not work. The God who spoke the universe into being, who knows the stars and the sparrows by name, and who upholds the universe by the word of His power will not be reduced to an equation or a formula.”[1]

Nonetheless, it is tempting to try to simplify a God who is beyond our understanding because we are afraid of things that we can’t understand. That’s why we put God into boxes –into buildings called “temples” and “churches” and “houses of God” – and then we work very hard to keep God locked up there. Because if we really believe that God is everywhere, that God sees everything, then we have to act accordingly – and no amount of incense burning, robe-wearing, or flower arranging inside a church building means anything if we walk out the door and drive past the indigent and abused people standing at the next intersection. There is nothing in scripture to suggest that God needs churches. God does not require us to sing for him to hear us. God does not care if I wear my chasuble to celebrate the Eucharist. Such traditions are for us – not God. God existed long before any of these things. God was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Do we really think then that God is keeping watch on our bank accounts, romantic partnerships, and property lines? No, my brothers and sisters. God is not concerned about what we have. God is focused on what we are. God is interested in what we can become.

This is what St. Paul is trying to tell his brethren in today’s letter to the Romans. If we wish to know God better we must follow the way of God’s son. “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection, outdo one another in showing honor.” These are the characteristics of those who say they worship Jesus – but, let’s face it, these are not things valued by our culture. “When one considers the competitions most popular in our society, the competition to honor one another would not even make the list.”[2] Christianity has always been countercultural. A political system that espouses the principles of empire – of wealth, power, conquest, and domination – opposes the values proclaimed and demonstrated by Jesus. That means such principles are actually anti-Christian, as are arrogance, cruelty, and revenge. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves… do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Human beings don’t like these ideas. Paul was imprisoned because people don’t like these ideas. Jesus died because people don’t like these ideas. We want instead to believe that God not only thinks that when someone hurts you it’s okay to “go after them as viciously and violently as you can,”[3] but that he applauds us for being “best.” We want to believe that as followers of Jesus we are exempt from suffering –except that scripture tells us that the opposite is true.

This is why Jesus gets so angry with Peter when he suggests that Jesus should not have to suffer and die. Jesus is trying to get his followers to understand that suffering is a necessary part of following him. It is a necessary part of atonement. He knows that it is God’s will that Jesus should die in order that humanity might be saved, and Peter’s well-meaning desire to save Jesus from suffering is at the least a distraction and at most an effort to circumvent God’s will. It is the same when we expect God to exempt us from experiencing the suffering that comes from being part of the human race – when we accept the lie that God wants some of us to be rich and fat and happy while others live in fear and anguish. Jesus tells us that following him is not about being safe or powerful or right and that pursuing such things is a “stumbling block.” Pursuing such things is sin.

 Christianity is about following Christ – the Christ who is humble, patient in suffering, welcoming to strangers, and forgiving to all. This is countercultural. This is hard– but we need not be afraid. We are not alone. God is, just as God always has been, just as God always will be with us. Give thanks to the Lord, the great “I AM.” Search for and continually seek God’s face. Take up the cross of Christ and you will find not an empire of men, but the kingdom of God. AMEN.

[1]Rob Grayson (August 31, 2017), “Transactional Christianity,” in Faith Meets World, the blog of Rob Grayson, https://www.faithmeetsworld.com/transactional-christianity/.

2Rochelle A. Stackhouse, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 16.

[3]Donald Trump, (2004), How to get rich.

Sermon for August 23, 2020: The foundation of love (Leta McCullough Seletzky)

Watch here:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/3qfl255r4dks9d1/Leta%20Seletzky%20-%20Movie%20on%208-22-20%20at%206.33%20PM.mp4?dl=0

Sermon for August 16 2020: Shut your mouth (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Recently, I have been thinking about and praying for my sister-in-law. Some of you met her when she visited here with one of her three sons. Lisa is generous, smart, and fun to be around. She is the youngest of six children and the only girl – a birth position that meant that from the moment she was born, all eyes were on her. She lived with five brothers growing up and now lies with a husband and three sons, so is firm and resilient; she has to be.

Many of you know that my husband Gary was raised Roman Catholic, although his father’s family identified as Greek Catholic – which is a little different. As they grew and scattered, as many people do his siblings shifted in their beliefs and religious practices. The first two children to marry requested that their spouses attend Roman Catholic Church. Others, like Gary, were influenced by the religious practices of their spouses. Lisa is a seeker. She is connected to God and nature in a deep and meaningful way, but struggles with religious dogma and worries about simple and inflexible solutions to complex problems. Faced with a difficult situation, Lisa is always willing to seek alternative solutions and try new things. Most importantly, she is open to personal change. She is unafraid to address relationship problems that need work and ask questions that other people avoid. She recognizes the importance of the journey.

Recently, Lisa put out a post on social media asking for advice on finding unbiased news sources. She recognizes that we are living in a time in which it is difficult to know what to believe – when even basic history is constantly being rewritten to fit a narrative that justifies the opinions of those who seek to concentrate power in the hands of a few. Where once we believed we could depend on teachers, reporters and – yes- clergy to enlighten us as to what was fact and what was fiction, we now recognize, like Lisa, that what is identified as “truth” is often not.

This is not a new problem. In today’s letter to the Romans, Paul is responding to reports that the Gentile Christians, who have been growing in number, have been saying they have replaced the “disobedient” Jews in God’s heart – and they have been badmouthing their Jewish brethren. If that sounds familiar, it’s because, two thousand years later, some people still believe this, thinking that specific races and cultures represent the will and nature of God and that being born into a certain group allows people to abscond from the responsibility to behave with civility, honesty, and justice – that “membership has its privileges.”

This is not new, but it does seem to be more socially acceptable to express such ideas. More and more people seem to find it acceptable to make pronouncements rather than have conversations. If you disagree with someone, you can just send them an email or unfriend them on Facebook – no need to look them in the eye. Technology allows us to limit our relationships to those with whom we already agree, leaving no room for expanding our horizons or challenging our own sense of “rightness.” We are able to spew astounding levels of hate speech without having to deal with repercussions. What comes out of our mouths is nothing less than toxic. What we wear, what we eat, where we live, and who we are sexually attracted to may seem important to us, but thinking we have the right to judge others for those things is a much bigger problem. It is what comes out of our mouths – gossip, anger, prejudice, hatred, lies – that defile us.

The good news is that things do not have to be this way. Pride, anger and fear are human nature – and it is normal to want to be in privileged – and safe – places in a turbulent and scary world. We want God to belong to us – and to us alone. We don’t want to have to work for the kingdom of God – especially if it means laboring with people who are different than we are. And we especially don’t want to humble ourselves in the sight of God and other human beings. Even thinking about looking our own sinfulness terrifies us. So we do what all animals do when they’re afraid: we hide. We hunker down in psychological caves of our own making – in dark, limited places where everyone thinks like we do and nothing different or challenging can get in. We seek the comfort of the familiar and put our trust only in what we know and can control. And in doing so, we make the world infinitely smaller. We make God smaller. And that is nothing less than heresy.

But it is a common heresy – one that Jesus himself briefly succumbs to in today’s gospel. “[This story] raises deep questions about prejudice, divine election, and the limits of God’s mercy.”[1] In today’s story Jesus, like us, is in a bad place – emotionally and physically. He is in what the Jews consider to be enemy territory – “racial stereotypes and bigotry inform[ed] all encounters between Israelites and Canaanites. The disciples walk with full attention, informed by the stories [they have heard about these violent and angry people].”[2]  Exhausted by sparring with the Jewish leadership, disheartened by repeated rejections from his own people, Jesus is suddenly confronted by someone who is so completely foreign, so utterly incomprehensible, and so absolutely wrong, that he doesn’t even acknowledge her. She is not only a member of a national/cultural group that is despised by the Jews; she is also a member of a different, blasphemous religion. And she’s a woman – a woman who violates cultural norms by even speaking to Jesus- and whose daughter is possessed by demons. Why should Jesus even bother with her?  He owes her nothing and she can be nothing but trouble to him. His own calling is hard enough.  And he basically tells her so – in language so harsh that it’s hard to believe that it comes out of Jesus’s mouth. But she is undeterred. She refuses to allow him to ignore her.  She demands to be let in – not because she wants to hurt him – not because she is to be feared – but because she wants to belong, she knows she deserves this – and in doing so she reminds Jesus himself that when it comes to God, there is no such thing as “limited resources.” She reminds him that God is more than big enough for everyone.

Of course Jesus knows this, but the stress of his situation, the deeply internalized prejudices he was raised, have, perhaps, made him forget. Perhaps he doesn’t want to think about dealing with people that are different. Perhaps he really needs a reminder. Or maybe he’s just exaggerating to make a point.  We don’t know. What we do know is that the Canaanite woman is not alone in her sin. We know, as Paul and Joseph did, that all human beings are disobedient, all human beings are in need of salvation, and all human beings require God’s mercy.  And God willingly and generously gives it – but only if we ask – only if we recognize with humility that every one of us is in desperate need of God’s mercy – and one another.

This gospel reminds us that our survival depends not on our ability to keep out the “wrong people,” but rather that “No one [can be] left out… [that] everyone [must be] included”[3] –that it is through inclusion that the nations will be saved – that the nations are already saved. Three years ago, after a protestor was killed in a rally in Charlottesville Virginia, Bishop Marc reminded us that, “Sadly, evil and wrong have… [often]…wrapped themselves in the clothing of faith… Appropriating the cross, a symbol of a very real instrument of torture and death used against a member of a subjugated people, a person of color, is beyond ironic — it is deeply distorted.”[4]  Commenting on this text at that time, I reminded us that, “Christianity is not a shield.  It is not a bunker to hide behind.  It is not a fortress of right. There is nothing in our scriptures that justifies depriving others of the love of God.  And there is nothing in our scriptures that tells us that any particular nation or culture has an exclusive right to the love of God.

As people of conscience we must do our part to demonstrate the mercy, forgiveness and acceptance that we have received from God. It will not be easy. It will not happen quickly – but we, like my sister Lisa, must continue to open ourselves to the journey, seeking and working for the truth. Oh, how good and pleasant it is when all God’s children live together in unity…for there God ordains a blessing: life for evermore. Amen.

[1]Iwan Russell-Jones, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 360.

[2]Dock Hollingsworth, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 359.

[3]Leanne Van Dyk, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 348.

[4]The Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, (August 15, 2017), “California: Bishop denounces Charlottesville violence, calls for non-violent resistance to hate groups,” Episcopal News Service, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2017/08/15/california-bishop-denounces-charlottesville-violence-calls-for-non-violent-resistance-to-hate-groups/

Sermon for August 9, 2020: A Night of Fear and Worship (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

Listen here:

Right now, our world seems to be living through a storm of fear that stirs up, irrational actions, denial of proven facts, suspicion, tribalism, increased xenophobia, leading to increased violence. We do have intellect and logical ways to help us deal with this, but fear can make these evaporate.

Fear is a basic animal instinct, stimulating a fight or flight response in us. When our lives are in jeopardy or—more commonly for us today—when there is a threat to our identity, we are sometimes inclined to react without regard for how our actions hurt others. When that happens, we tend to leave calm, rational thought behind. For that reason, we often need some assistance getting back to a more faithful frame of mind.

In today’s Gospel, we hear an account of faith tested, of doubt, and divine rescue, and true worship.

After the miracle of Jesus‘ Feeding the multitudes, Jesus has the 12 pile into their boat and row to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus then goes up a mountain to be alone and pray. Jesus prays into the night comes down and sees his disciples in the middle of the lake, struggling against a powerful headwind.

Jesus decides to walk on the surface of the sea out to the trapped disciples. In Mark‘s account, Jesus intends to walk past them, but in Matthews’s account, he walked out to the boat. The disciples see Jesus and become very frightened and agitated, thinking he is a ghost.

I don‘t know about you, but seeing a human being walking on the surface of the water in the predawn light would undoubtedly ratchet up my heart rate.

Jesus calms their fear by saying to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter called out to him from the boat that if it is Jesus bid him come out and walk with him. Jesus tells Peter to come.  Peter gets out walks a few steps on the water then is distracted by the wind and waves takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to sink. Peter cries out to Jesus, “Lord, save me,” at which point Jesus grabs Peter by the arm, pulled him up, and says to him, you of little faith, why did you doubt. Once in the boat, the wind stops, and those in the boat worshiped Jesus, saying, “truly you are the son of God.”

In the tradition of Hebrew Scripture, the sea was especially associated with evil powers. The storm was a symbol of all the tribulations and disasters that can happen to the individual and community. For the most part, they wrote at times of tribulation and disaster, both personal and communal. But through the storms, they clung to the conviction that simply because God is God, he was able to bring them through.

In our modern translation of the Bible, Jesus calms the fears of the disciples by saying it is I, but a more accurate translation from the Greek ego eimi is I AM. Jesus is himself seen to be none other than Yahweh the great I AM the source and end of all that is.

There can hardly be a Christian today who cannot immediately identify with Peter, losing faith in the face of fear and trouble, sinking in panic, then gathered up and rescued by forgiving love.

Peter had doubt when the wind and waves took his eyes off Jesus. But it was fear that shook his faith for fear is the opposite of faith. Fear that makes us doubt not in Jesus but doubts that we are good enough for God to work through us. Doubt is not the opposite of faith.

The author, John M. Sweeny, wrote, “Doubt invigorates faith, demands more of it, and causes us to ask more of each other. Doubt connects us. Doubt binds my faith to yours. It makes me reach out. Discover, Explore, Question. Challenge, Learn. A person who doubts is one still on a journey.” If doubt creeps in, as it sometimes does, our faith will hold firm, if we have each other on our journey of faith.

If the feeding of the five thousand is a picture of Christian vocation, this story can is a picture of the life of faith – or rather, the life of half-faith, faith mixed with fear and doubt, which is the typical state of so many of us, as it was with the disciples.

One of the oldest symbols of the Church is a ship or boat. It is the Church tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution but finally reaching a safe harbor with its cargo of human souls. Part of the imagery comes from the ark saving Noah’s family during the Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21). Jesus protecting Peter’s boat and the apostles on the stormy Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41). It was also a great symbol during times when Christians needed to disguise the cross since the ship’s mast forms a cross in many of its depictions. Many churches are designed like an overturned keel. Indeed, the space we gather to worship is called the nave, Latin for a ship.

If the Church is a ship, then it follows that we are the ship’s crew, each with our own calling, talents, and strengths. We are called by the Holy Spirit to step out of the comfort of our ship and onto the water. Into the wind and rainstorms that scare us, the metaphorical storms of our lives. Things like global pandemics, contentious election cycles, horrifying diagnoses, economic downturns, and relational discord can shake us to the core. Amid painful setbacks like these, it is not uncommon for anyone to doubt their faith in God, but we will be rescued by our Lord when we cry out for help. We are called to work for justice, both economic and social, for all people. Called to speak truth to power even when it is unpopular. Called to care for the destitute feed the poor and hungry and protect and house refugees. Of course, if like Peter we look at the waves being lashed by the wind, we will conclude that it is indeed impossible. What we are called to do – it’s so basic and obvious, but so hard to do in practice – is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, and our ears open for his encouragement (even if it does contain some rebuke as well). And our wills and hearts must be ready to do what he says, even if it seems crazy at the time.

However much we may wonder what did or didn’t happen on the Sea of Galilee over 2000 years ago; however much we may struggle to understand what it means to say that Jesus was God on earth, as the early Church were so unshakably clear he was – it remains a fact of Christian experience that these miracles ‘work’. Their message is true. Not usually, perhaps, in the sense that physical storms are calmed, or that Christians walk on water. But certainly in the sense that Christ’s words still have extraordinary power to bring ‘a great calm’ in times of turmoil and chaos – when we have faith, however faltering, that he is who he is: ‘Peace, be still. Do not be afraid. I AM.’

Sermon for July 26, 2020: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed (The Rev. Dr. Paula Nesbitt):

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Pentecost VIII
Gen. 29:15-28 Rom. 8:26-39 Mt. 13:31-33,44-52
Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez CA
The Rev. Dr. Paula D. Nesbitt
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed….” Amen.

This spring, while staying home because of the pandemic, I cleaned out the tool shed behind our house– for the first time in 15 years. There were many surprises, including about 10 packets of flower and vegetable seeds, which had been there for at least that long. Defying the skepticism of a mastergardener friend, I planted the seeds anyway, hoping that just maybe one or two might take root. Fertile soil, water, sun, shelter from harsh winds, and daily tender loving care weren’t enough to bring them to life.
Meanwhile, birds heard the running water each day and started to visit that inert brown patch of ground, looking for a drink and listening for worms struggling to get out of the way of the watering. Some birds also feasted on the lifeless seeds—marigolds were their favorite. Perhaps they dropped
other seeds that they had picked up elsewhere. Afternoon winds also may have carried seeds from elsewhere to that patch of soil. After a month, I had 10 tomato plants (I had not planted any tomatoes there), a few other plants I’m still not sure about, and, of course, a magnificent crop of weeds. It would
be a stretch to call this garden the kingdom of heaven, but maybe there’s a seed or two of truth to it. The first seed is that sometimes we make bad choices, but good can come out of them. This echoes what we heard in Romans, that all things can work together for good. Defeat taught me a bit of humility–had those 15-year-old seeds produced a garden, I certainly would have bragged, which would have done no one any good. Yet, despite my defeat, there will be more than enough tomatoes to share with
the neighborhood. A second seed of truth is that a spirit of generosity is vital to bringing about the reign of God in our midst. Both parables of the mustard seed and the leaven involve generosity—the emergence of a tree
offering hospitality for nesting birds and leaven transforming inert flour into bread that can nourish and sustain life. Both parables also require agency. Generosity must be cultivated and channeled for good use.
Jesus urges his listeners to be agents of transformation. There is something one can do in everyday life, through every intention and action, to help usher in what God intends for all creation. The reign of God isn’t simply “out there,” separate from this world. The reign of God is both here and now as well as
eternal. God needs us—human hands and hearts—as co-agents of transformation to bring it about in this life. With a loving heart—for God and for one another—a generosity and benevolence permeate all we might say or do.
In the gospel era, early Christians were like seeds cast upon hostile ground, in the words of one church historian, subjugated by a brutal political regime, family and community divisions, and widespread anxiety and fear over societal breakdown and vast, unsettling social change. yet, by living out of a spirit
of love and generosity, or as we might say today, living as the body of Christ in the world, they could be a transformative force for good.

Today, we also live in an unsettling time of widespread change, where economic, political, and pandemic anxieties have infected all sectors of society. If ever there was a time to manifest God’s love
and offer hope to others, it’s now. If ever there was a time to live and work together as the body of Christ in the world, mindful of the love and dignity that every person is endowed with by God, it is now. If ever there was a time to build an ethos where everyone can be nourished and able to flourish as God
would have them do, it is now. If ever there was a time to spread divine love and generosity of heart through our everyday relationships, as well as taking a stand against what is antithetical to the love and reign of God, it is now.
Some time ago, a friend was thrust into a situation where he was forced to make a choice between taking a stand against racist behavior at work, which directly affected some of his colleagues, or look the other way. As a matter of faith, he realized that he had no choice. He spoke out, which ultimately did
cost him his job, but it also brought some underlying issues to the surface so that systemic changes within the organization were made. Today, that same work environment is a much more welcoming place for racial diversity. My friend “sold all,” so to speak. He had loved his job, but not at the cost of
living with injustice and abuse when he could have done something.
The second set of parables speaks of the kingdom of heaven being like treasure hidden in a field or like becoming aware of a pearl of great value. When we recognize what is right or just, or accords with
making our work or civic community life-giving to others, our choice is clear, even though the price is steep. Looking the other way might have preserved my friend’s job in the short run, but those perpetuating injustice or abuse would only have been emboldened to escalate their behavior if he and
others remained silent. Lately I’ve been reflecting on the rise of the Nazi regime and the soul-searching that both Catholic and Protestant theologians had done in the aftermath of the Holocaust as to the role of the church’s silence in empowering such genocide, and the price paid by a few, such as the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed for speaking out and his acts of resistance. In 2017, in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests and the rise in antisemitism, a colleague who had been studying families of Holocaust survivors, spoke on a panel about how anxious some had become, asking her whether it was time to leave. Any regime that cultivates an ethos of fear and intimidation to the point of making people
feel the need to flee for their lives, or it takes those lives on the pretense of a traffic stop, is not about cultivating a spirit of generosity or establishing a reign of God’s love and justice for all. The protests that have swept our country over the past weeks have responded to profound racial injustice. Black Lives Matter protests have taken root in other countries as well, as they have been
forced to look inward at systemic racism within their borders. Here in Martinez, you have added your own chapter to this movement that continues to unfold. In the process, you likely have asked where is the kingdom of heaven in all this? Everyone likely has a different answer, but they probably share some common themes. As with many protest movements, people bring different motives as well as different ways of responding, perhaps much like the parable of all kinds of fish in the net. Sometimes it’s not clear what
we should do or what direction to go, or perhaps what is right or wrong. For some, speaking out or visibly participating in a protest movement could risk direct harm to family or others in their community. I’ve had students who weren’t citizens, as well as some who were but members of their families were
not, and the retaliatory risks of deportation for siblings, parents, or extended family members have put them in difficult positions of feeling that they have had to hold back when they wanted to speak out or publicly participate. Some have taken the risk; others have chosen less public ways to express their
support. Another example involves a woman I’ll call Carolyn, who was in her nineties; she used a cane and her eyesight was failing. When her parish began a new social justice ministry, she was one of about twenty parishioners who showed up. As they introduced themselves, saying why they had come, she said, “I’m not sure what I can do, but I’m here to help.” As she found out, there was always something that she could do, such as making phone calls. Her presence also inspired more able-bodied younger adults to become engaged. Thus, the notion of showing up may mean different things to different people under different circumstances. But it always means pursuing wholeheartedly God’s universal love, in a spirit of generosity and hope for justice.
The net thrown into the sea and catching fish of every kind…” (Mt.13:47) emphasizes that all have something to contribute in varied ways. The Greek word for the word “kind,” here, means race or tribe, suggesting that “every kind” points to people from every nation or background and therefore
emphasizes a radical inclusiveness to the reign of God. God knows our hearts. Nothing can separate us from the love of God—unless we separate ourselves, and even then, we can always return and try again. Theologian Gerald Cragg, reflecting on our passage from Romans this morning writes, “actually, it is in
those places that seem most to deny goodness that we often find God most present.”  “It is in those places that seem most to deny goodness that we often find God most present.” This week, I’ve also been reflecting on the life and legacy of Congressman John Lewis. In the midst of whatever
ugliness, brutality, and hatred that has swirled around us of late, he lived to see the Civil Rights Movement rise again with a new inter-racial generation, adamant that justice should have no racebased limitations. There is goodness and hope in the fresh seeds and shoots in the soil of so much pain.
Whether cleaning out a toolshed or cleaning out a legacy of racism that has been embedded deeply within our society, we have been called to be transformers of the heart through the generosity of our actions, our spirit, and our love.

1 Buttrick, George A. “The Gospel According to St. Matthew: Exposition,” pp. 416, 418. In The Interpreter’s Bible,
George Arthur Buttrick, ed. Vol. 7, pp. 250-625. New York: Abingdon Press, 1951.

2 Haslam, Chris. “Comments, Revised Common Lectionary Commentary, Clippings: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost –
July 30, 2017 Clippings,” http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/apr17l.shtml

3 Gerald R. Cragg, “The Epistle to the Romans: Exposition,” pp. 524-25. In The Interpreter’s Bible, George Arthur
Buttrick, ed. Vol. 9, pp. 353-668. New York: Abingdon Press, 1954.

Sermon for 7th Pentecost, Proper 11, July 19, 2020: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):

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My mother often expresses herself through idioms, describing things as “blessings in disguise” and exclaiming “speak of the devil” when someone we were just talking about shows up at the door.  Some of my mom’s phrases make perfect sense. After all, you really can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. But when I was a child I found some of her more figurative phrases harder to grasp- and it’s one of these sayings that I find myself using a lot more these days: “Don’t,” I think in my mother’s voice, “throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Wikipedia tells us that this “is an idiomatic expression for an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad.”[1] It derives from the German, which is even more direct: “You must empty out the bathing tub, but not the baby along with it. Fling out your dirty water with all zeal, and set it careening down the kennels; but try if you can to keep the little child!”[2]  You’ve got to love the German version. There is tremendous appeal in the abandon of that phrase. Oh to be able to fling away all of those I see as being or doing something bad! Oh to be able to simply wash out ignorance, racism, and fear-mongering! Oh to be left peacefully holding only a smiling cherub that portends that all is well on heaven and earth.

I feel this way because, I must admit, that I have been thinking some angry and unkind thoughts lately. I have been judging others in my mind, and it has been very hard for me not to put these thoughts into words – to lash out against what I see as the evil that seems to be running rampant on God’s earth right now. I know I am not the only one. Many people have told me that they cannot stand to watch the news very often because it angers, depresses and causes them anxiety. Social media is rife with arguing, name-calling and threats. My own email sometimes contains missives in which my morality, intelligence, and sincerity are questioned. So, yes, I dream of flinging out with zeal angry words, judgments, and notions of what is right, allowing them to careen down and join the baying clouds of noisome hatred in my world.

But that’s throwing out the baby with the bath water – or, as Jesus puts it in today’s gospel, uprooting the good seed in order to destroy the bad. In Matthew’s parable, Jesus describes a householder who sowed good seed – who thought he did everything he was supposed to do – and still when his plants came up there were weeds among them. To his servants, it didn’t seem fair, but the householder is unperturbed. When they offer to go and pull the weeds he tells them not to, arguing that by uprooting the bad plants they may also damage the good. It is better for them to grow together until they are fully mature and taken out of the ground.

This does not feel satisfying. We don’t want to share our field with noxious seeds. Our instinct is instead to separate ourselves from potential weeds and lock ourselves safely into the barn of our faith so that we won’t end up in the furnace with them. Except Jesus knew – and so should we – that it can be awfully hard to tell the difference between false and true wheat – and human beings aren’t very good at judging which is which. Certainly there are people who see some of us as bad seed, planted by “the enemy” and headed for imminent violent sorting. There is division among God’s people on the right and the left and everywhere in between – and it should not surprise us to know that Jesus saw it coming. This is, after all, not a story about a good field and a bad field; it’s a story about one shared field. It is a parable about separation among believers. Last week, I saw a bumper sticker that read, “God doesn’t kill people. People who worship God kill people.” It hurt my heart to see it -mostly because it is not wrong.

Many of us are hurting right now and we are at a loss as to how to deal with that pain. We are tempted to find satisfaction in removing ourselves from what we see as the source of that pain – from other people who turn a blind eye to systems which reward some individuals over others based only on the color of their skin; from those who seem to value their own freedom over the health and welfare of others; and from those identify themselves as champions of innocent life while supporting death for others. But this is not what God asks of us. God asks us, instead, to be citizens of the world, enduring slights and suffering because, as St. Paul says, suffering is necessary. Without suffering we are not motivated to evolve. Without suffering we have no reason to hope. “Suffering and hope are interwoven”[3] – just as we who follow Jesus the Christ are entwined with all those who dwell in this earthly field with us. Nobody wants to suffer -and I don’t believe that God wants us to suffer- but we only have to look around to know that this world will not change if we do not change it, and that involves struggle. It involves labor – and hope is what gets us through our collective labor pains. Hope is what allows us to grapple with the seeds of the enemy with both patience and passion. Hope is what keeps us from becoming discouraged in the face of the sin that is so easily planted in the human psyche.

Often and lately this feels like too much to ask – but remember: we are not asked to do it alone. We are a community of Christ, and it is as a community that we will be judged. This means that we are not only responsible for our individual actions, but must also repent of and seek to remedy our collective sins, what scripture calls, “the sins of our fathers.” “We move toward God,” Theodore J. Wardlaw says, “individually, collectively, and as a cosmos. On such a journey as this, it is not our job to determine who is within and who is beyond… God’s attention. It is rather our job to imagine everyone as belonging to… God.”[4]

And, just as each individual is not alone, our community is not alone either. God is with us. This is what a sinful Jacob learned when he saw a ladder that connected heaven and earth. Accessing God’s presence and learning God’s plan is as simple as allowing ourselves to dream. Jacob’s ladder –or “stairway” as it is better translated, is not something we can individually climb to reach the land of promise. It will not speed our salvation to elbow one another out of the way. You cannot, as Led Zeppelin has told us, buy it. We know that it is constantly connecting us to the Holy, because we already feel God’s presence, and no matter what our circumstances, we can acknowledge that we have already received God’s blessing. Salvation is not something that “can be.” It is something that is now – and it is something that can deliver and repair this hurting world. But we have to reach for it together. We have to walk together – good and bad seeds. We have to wait patiently to see what we might become if we grow together.

Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry puts it this way: “Who knows, but that love may demand more of us. But fear not, just remember what the old slaves used to say, walk together, children, and don’t you get weary, because there is a great camp meeting in the Promised Land.”[5] We will get there my sisters and brothers – growing together with patience and hope. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. Amen.

[1]Wikipedia, https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1LEND_enUS714US730&sxsrf=ALeKk0302PSBSMfccoryfaPJFijKRYjADg%3A1594994662874&ei=5q8RX635NJbV-gSquo6QCw&q=don%27t+throw+out+the+baby+with+the+bathwater+origin&oq=don%27t+throw+out+the+b&gs_lcp=CgZwc3ktYWIQARgAMgIIADICCAAyBggAEBYQHjIGCAAQFhAeMgYIABAWEB4yBggAEBYQHjIGCAAQFhAeMgYIABAWEB4yBggAEBYQHjIICAAQFhAKEB46BAgjECc6BAgAEEM6BwgAELEDEEM6CggAELEDEIMBEEM6BQgAELEDOggIABCxAxCDAToECAAQClCTiQFY-JwBYPKxAWgAcAB4AIABXYgB-guSAQIyMZgBAKABAaoBB2d3cy13aXo&sclient=psy-ab

[2]Ibid.

[3]Karen Chakoian, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 259.

[4]Theodore J. Wardlaw, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 265.

[5]The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, (2020), “How love shows us the way during difficult times, according to Bishop Curry. Bishop Michael Curry asks ‘what would love do’ in a world upended by racial protests and the coronavirus,” https://www.today.com/news/bishop-michael-curry-shares-how-love-shows-us-way-during-730?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=OGT200716&utm_term=TODAY+One+Small+Thing&fbclid=IwAR1Eto_yOfuproDrruSCvEyPE_99A8

Sermon for 6th Pentecost, Proper 11: Grace 150th Anniversary Celebration (The Rt. Rev. Dr. Marc H. Andrus, Bishop of the Diocese of California):

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Bishop Marc Grace Anniversary sermon July 12 2020

Sermon for 5th Pentecost, Proper 9: Jesus’s yoke, not violence (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

A few weeks ago, I started watching an old TV western serial on Amazon Prime called “The Rebel,” that I had watched as an adolescent boy. The series portrays the adventures of young Confederate army veteran Johnny Yuma, an aspiring writer. Haunted by his memories of the American Civil War, Yuma, in search of inner peace, roams the American West. He keeps a journal of his experiences and fights injustice where he finds it with a revolver and his dead father’s sawed-off double-barreled shotgun.(1)

An episode was about 30 minutes long, minus 10 minutes or so for commercials, so a great deal of action was packed into each one. A typical episode would begin with Johnny having a run-in with some bad guys, would involve Johnny being in some way physically assaulted, and eventually end up with Johnny either wounding or killing the bad guy.

Watching the series again made me see just how steeped in redemptive violence our society is.

Walter Wink, an American biblical scholar, theologian, and activist, describes redemptive violence this way: “The Myth of Redemptive Violence enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.” Here(2) Wink describes just how pervasive this myth still is in the norms of Western culture.

“The belief that violence ‘saves’ is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god.

What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees absolute obedience- unto-death.”(3)

On this American Independence Day weekend, we are celebrating our nation declaring independence from England, stating,  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”(4)  

Sadly, these truths have not been so self-evident to many people throughout our history. We’re only halfway through 2020, and yet it has already been a year of reckoning in the United States. The COVID–19 global pandemic has made evident the disparity in healthcare along racial lines. Our nation has exploded into mass protests against racism and police brutality. A confluence of activism, despair, panic, transition, and righteous rage is touching everybody. What’s worse is the drumbeat for redemptive violence among many world leaders.

Jesus faced the same kind of activism, despair, panic, transition, and righteous rage as he taught that the kingdom of heaven was near in the towns of Galilee. Their vision of the kingdom was all about revolution. Swords, spears, surprise attacks; some hurt, some killed, winning in the end. Violence used to defeat violence. A holy war against the unholy warriors. Love your neighbor, hate your enemy; if he slaps you on the cheek, or makes you walk a mile with him, stab him with his dagger. That’s the sort of kingdom vision they had. And Jesus could see, with the clarity both of the prophet and sheer common sense, where it would lead. Better be in Sodom and Gomorrah, with fire and brimstone raining from heaven than fighting God’s battles with the devil’s weapons of redemptive violence.(5)

Our Gospel reading today, Jesus begins with the children of the land whose song is never entirely understood. When they played a glad song, no one danced; when the song became a dirge, no one was moved to tears. They were no better understood than John the Baptist, no better understood than Jesus.

Jesus is not addressing the failure of individuals to respond, but of society as a whole, indeed of the entire generation, of a people who somehow fail to react as they might to an utterly clear song.

Jesus is frustrated, and indicates that those around him criticized John the Baptist as being possessed by a demon. Now here was Jesus himself, celebrating the kingdom of heaven with throwing parties which spoke of God’s lavish, generous love and forgiveness. People accused him of being a rebel, a son who wouldn’t behave, a false prophet. The answer then, of course, as now, is that people don’t like a challenge, either of someone who points them to a different sort of life entirely, or of someone who shows that God’s love is breaking into the world in a new way.(6)

Jesus then turns and offers a prayer to the Father. In it, Matthew shows Jesus coming to the same recognition about the one he called his father. There were things about his Father that, for some reason, only he seemed to know, and only he could tell. Most of his contemporaries didn’t want to hear what he was telling them. Most of them, alarmed at the direct challenge he presented, was either resisting him outright or, as we’ve seen, making excuses for not believing him or following him.

Jesus knew that the wise and learned were getting nowhere on their journey to God. The poor, the sinners, the tax-collectors, and the ordinary folk, on the other hand, were discovering more of God, only by following Jesus, than the learned specialists. They declared that what he was doing didn’t fit with their complicated theories. As a result, Jesus had come to see that he himself was acting as a window onto the living God. Where he was, and through his words, people were coming to see who ‘the father’ really was.

Jesus then says something that has become so famous that you could be forgiven for not genuinely listening to what he says: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”(7)

Jesus is present more in times of need than in times of plenty, more in times of desperation than in times of certainty. Rest is not offered to the strongest and the most powerful. Those who believe that they are responsible for their salvation, through military might or political power, through intellectual prowess or personal magnetism, have no need for the comforting arms of Jesus.

The Reign of God is the Reign of Love, if found through Jesus from the Father. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.(8) Love all humanity and creation as yourself. Rest is offered to those who have been made weary by a world that fails to comprehend the burden of injustice and the horror of redemptive violence. The yoke is made easy by the heavenly powers coming to the aid of those whose ways this world fails to understand. Amen.

Sermon for 4th Pentecost, June 28, 2020: The Lord will provide (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Abraham was having computer problems. As he was grousing and cursing at his computer screen, his son Isaac walked by. “What’s the matter, Dad”? Isaac asked. “There’s something wrong with my stupid computer. I’ve contacted help and I’ve rebooted it and I’ve turned it off and back on again and nothing works.” “Dad,” said Isaac, using the tone of contempt that tech-savvy teenagers employ when speaking to their ignorant elders, “I keep telling you. It’s a memory problem. You don’t have enough computer memory.” “My son,” said Abraham, “Don’t you worry about that. God will supply the RAM.”

I know – it’s a groaner, but you have to admit that it feels good to find a little humor in the very disturbing story of Abraham’s (almost) sacrifice of Isaac – a story which would probably be banned in any school other than Sunday school – a story so upsetting that we put a parental guidance warning on this week’s Godly Play lesson. Nonetheless, we all know the story – so there must be something important we’re supposed to learn from this tale of terror – and a reason why a preacher would choose to preach on it if she could possibly avoid it.

Ostensibly, this is a story about faith. After all, that’s what Abraham is famous for – his belief in and obedience to God form the foundation for not one but three major monotheistic religions. He is the one who picks up his family and leaves his livelihood to follow God to an unknown country. He is the one who believes God when God tells him his allegedly infertile wife will bear a child in her “old age.” But Abraham is no superhero. He is weak and selfish, participating in a scheme to father a child at any cost by impregnating an enslaved woman. He agrees to banish his first son, Ishmael, who would have died as a result were it not for the direct intervention of God. In a part of Abraham’s story that we don’t hear in church, he tells his wife to lie and say she is his sister so more powerful men think she’s single. But today’s story is without a doubt the one that makes us cringe: the one where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his long-sought-after and beloved son Isaac. And in response to this unthinkable request Abraham simply saddles up his donkey and sets off, no questions asked. How can he do it? What is he thinking?

Scripture doesn’t tell us, but some modern scholars have suggested that Abraham’s thinking was influenced by the symptoms of a mental illness – that his recurring encounters with God were simply hallucinations. Honestly, in this day and age, if Abraham shared his belief that God wanted him to kill his son he would almost certainly be diagnosed with paranoid religious delusions. “As many as 60% of those with schizophrenia have [such delusions]”[1] so it seems reasonable to look back on Abraham’s actions from our position of “advanced knowledge” and tell ourselves that he was simply ill, mistaken in his idea that God would put such a horrendous idea in his head – that God would test his faithful servant in that way.

As comforting as that theory is, however, it is a cop out. The fact is that it doesn’t matter whether Abraham suffered from schizophrenia or any other mental health issue. Lots of biblical characters might be considered to be mentally ill today, just as many people in our own time experience perceptions that are out of sync with those of the majority of people in their cultures – but that doesn’t make their stories any less important or any less true. Abraham’s narrative is significant for a simple reason. It demonstrates how human beings are in relationship with God – how God speaks to the heart of each of us – to our deepest anxieties, desires, and confusion – and when we choose to listen, God provides us with what we need.

Notice that I said that we have a choice. Scripture does not say that God made Abraham take his son to be sacrificed. Abraham chose to do so, believing that the God he loved would do as he had always done for him- that God would provide. And God did. We can be appalled by Abraham’s seeming willingness to kill his own son. We can wonder how the being we consider a God of love could so cruelly test her faithful servant. We can apply modern psychology or consider ancient context, but the bottom line is this: Abraham chose to trust in God’s mercy – to believe that, as our Presiding Bishop so often says, if it’s not about love it’s not about God -and God proved him right.

None of this means that this isn’t a scary story. Most of us can’t imagine having enough faith to believe that God will always stay our hand when we are on the wrong path if only we will listen to him. Yet making the free choice to trust God is exactly what Paul means when he talks about being sanctified. Paul believed that salvation through grace meant both that we are saved from sin and that through grace we can be transformed- choosing to give our lives to God and to follow where the will of God leads us.

It is not an easy choice – but it is what Jesus asked his disciples to do – to go out into the world, assuming that the Lord would provide for all their needs. He never told them it would be easy. They were to practice radical hospitality, which means not just welcoming or asking for welcome from those who look or think like us. It means reaching out to draw in those who are in need of the presence of God, even when this threatens our ways of thinking and believing. It means stepping out of our comfort zones to welcome strangers even when we are afraid of them, and it means loving people even when they speak to us with hate. That’s the terrifying part. The amazing thing is that by putting ourselves out there – by risking what we have so that others may have more – by seeking solidarity with all of our fellow human beings, we will be blessed.

That’s because God wants us to live in relationship – with God and with one another – because it is only in relationship that we can walk confidently and obediently through times of upheaval and anxiety. Even when it is hard to understand or seems risky or scares us, we can choose to trust God and welcome and be welcomed by all our sisters and brothers in God’s name. The Reverend Stephanie Spellers says that right now people are asking her how they can do this – to begin to move away from self-interest and toward solidarity with the suffering other. One way, she says, is to look for wisdom in the margins, to “recognize the power of God in the community that is suffering, the community of the oppressed…God is [there], powerfully… [Moving toward solidarity is recognizing that you should] want to be with people who have needed God, who have sung the songs of God with their whole hearts, because it was the only thing that got them through…Solidarity is partly understanding that… salvation lives on these margins and that’s why [we must] go there…That’s taking up the cross. That’s seeing Jesus and … going to be where he is and being changed by what you find there. There’s nothing easy in it, but there’s lots of God in it – and that’s why we go.”[2]  AMEN.

[1]Evan D. Murray, M.D., Miles G. Cunningham, M.D., Ph.D., and Bruce H. Price, M.D. (Fall, 2012), “The Role of Psychotic Disorders in Religious History Considered,” Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosicence, 24(4).

[2]Stephanie Spellers (2020), quoted in “Wilderness Time video conversation with Kelley Brown Douglas,” https://www.facebook.com/episcopalian/videos/732741227552722/?v=732741227552722

Sermon for 2nd Pentecost, June 14, 2020: Make the Suffering Count (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Lord speak through me. Amen.

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me.” This is not a passage we want to hear right now.  Far from being the comforting and comfortable scripture of the “Jesus loves me” variety that we crave at difficult times like these, Jesus’s assertion that his disciples need to get out there and work for their faith seems too hard to deal with right now – but, make no mistake, we definitely need to hear it. We need to hear it not in spite of the fact that many of us are suffering as a result of the turmoil in our country and the world, but because of it. We need to use it as an opportunity to consider what it means to be a Christian.

This is, I believe, an unfortunate but necessary exercise right now. Recent events, such as the condemnation and labeling of a black Roman Catholic bishop by a conservative Roman Catholic group as an “African Queen” show us that those who call ourselves Christians have some very different ideas of what that means. Such differences of opinion are evident in many areas of our public and personal lives. Episcopal Church leaders recently condemned the use of force to clear a peaceful protest so that an Episcopal Church could be used as a backdrop for a political photo opportunity. This week I received email criticizing the bishops for their “knee jerk reaction” and arguing both that the church’s condemnation of violence demonstrated an anti-police stance and that “an armed society is a polite society.”  Closer to home, in response to the Diocesan Regathering Committee’s publication of the strict criteria that we would need to put in place in order to gather in person again, Episcopalians in this diocese have complained that the rules are too strict. I have repeatedly heard people respond to the church’s cautious approach by arguing that if they can go to Walmart, they should be able to go to church because church is more essential than shopping. I agree, but there are two things I would encourage you to consider. The first is this: Walmart doesn’t care about you. The Episcopal Church does. The second and larger point is that the church is not and was never closed. Worship and community are essential and available to those who seek them. Thinking that we have been deprived of the right to worship because our building has been closed suggests that the soul of our Christian community is located in a physical place.  I do not think that the people of Grace believe this. I trust that we are Christians because we seek to follow Jesus.

Today’s gospel tells us what that means. In it, we hear Jesus clearly define the disciples’ mission. First, to do what he does – proclaim the Good News that the reign of God has come near. Secondly, to have compassion on those who are harassed and helpless, or- rendered in a more exact translation- oppressed and thrown to the ground. In doing this, they are told, they are to give without payment, allow themselves to be detained by hostile leaders and, most terrifying of all, to put themselves completely in the hands of God, believing that “the one who endures to the end will be saved.”  This is daunting because, as Luke Powery suggests, Jesus’s command to reach out to “the sick, dead, leprous, and demon-possessed may be a distant cry from churches that reach out only to those who look like them and cannot harm them.”[1]

But this is what Jesus himself did. He did not seek out wealth, power, or privilege. The bedrock of his ministry was, “compassion for others, not financial gain.”[2] Any “Christian” minister or church that promises to make its members more “blessed” – healthier, wealthier, or more powerful – than others is not walking the way of Jesus. The purpose of following Jesus is not to make our lives easy. If you find it easy to follow Jesus, then you’re simply not doing it right. Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us that while Jesus never told his disciples to seek out suffering, but he recognized that his disciples would suffer – because some things are worth suffering for.

Today’s Hebrew scripture is a story about what can happen when we take a risk to live a life of compassion. It is a tale that Jesus himself knew well – the story of how Abraham and Sarah showed hospitality to strangers and were rewarded with their heart’s desire, teaching them – and us- that nothing is too wonderful for the Lord. It was this ethic and understanding of the mighty power of God that Jesus attempted to teach his disciples. The problems of one infertile couple were not too small for God to consider, and the future of God’s people was not too large a task for God to accomplish. God asks only two things in return for her favor – that we believe in him and that we seek to do for others what God so willingly does for us. This seems so simple, and yet it is almost always very hard for us. That is why we have each other. That is why we live in community.

Jeffrey Salkin suggests that the purpose of religion is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable – and that “we are now squarely in the ‘afflict the comfortable’ role.”[3]  He knows this is a lot to ask of a people who are coping with our own suffering. To help us understand why this is so important in this crucial moment Salkin cites a prayer in the Jewish Reform Prayer Book that reflects what Jesus asks his disciples to do:

“Disturb us, Adonai. Ruffle us from our complacency. Make us dissatisfied – dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans. Shock us, Adonai. Deny to us the false Shabbat which gives us the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred. Wake us, O God, and shake us from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by half-forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yester years. Make us know that the border of the sanctuary is not the border of living and the walls of your temples are not shelters from the winds of truth, justice, and reality.”[4]

Consider us shocked and disturbed. The question is what we will do with the shocks and disruptions that surround us – what we will do with our suffering. Trillia Newbell writes, “Christians have to realize that we are ambassadors… for Christ…Our allegiance isn’t to worldly structures and systems, but to the Lord. This reality frees us to labor for our neighbor, to engage in the culture for the good of society and to speak the truth in love.”[5] We can choose to focus on our own fears and complaints -or we can place our trust in God, following the way of Jesus not because it serves us, but because it allows us to serve others. We can use our suffering to identify with and support others who suffer. We can be true Christian disciples, growing, enduring, confident in and never failing to commend God’s power and Christ’s love to those around us. Such love, such hope – is not endangered by protest or defeated by violence or contained by location. God’s love is ever present – and eternal. Amen.

[1]Luke A. Powery, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 143.

[2]Guy D. Nave, Jr., (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 145.

[3]Jeffrey Salkin, (June 8, 2020), “Thou shalt not be Comfortable,” in Religion News, https://religionnews.com/2020/06/08/george-floyd-protest/

[4]Ibid.

Trillia Newbell, (June 8, 2020), “I’ve always suffered racism. Becoming a Christian didn’t make it easier,” in Religion News, https://religionnews.com/2020/06/08/ive-always-suffered-racism-becoming-a-christian-didnt-make-it-easier/

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 2, 2020: Trinity Dance (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

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This Sunday, the First Sunday after Pentecost is the Feast of the Holy Trinity. It is the only Feast of the Church that celebrates a doctrine of the Church rather than an event of Jesus’ life done for our salvation. But how do we define the Holy Trinity? Well, we state our concept in both the Nicene and Apostles creeds. The Church also has a very lengthy credal statement that the Anglican and Episcopal Church has placed in our Prayer Book’s historical documents the Quicunque Vult or the Creed of Saint Athanasius (probably not written by him). It starts:

We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity,
neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.

Now, does not that make crystal clear the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, to wrap our heads around it? I think NOT! Or is it WHAT?

Now, I understand tht the concept of the Holy Trinity is beyond human understanding and those like Bishop Pike, who in the 1960s proclaimed the Holy Trinity as “excess baggage” that the Church carries. But I believe that the Covid – 19 pandemic and the tragic events in Minneapolis and the civil unrest occurring around the country are weighing heavy on our hearts and minds, that comprehending the essence of the nature of God is critical and vital. How might an abstract sounding church doctrine matter to us now? Holy Scripture, revelation, and Church teaching tells us that the essential nature of the God Head is connectedness and relationality.

How can three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist as one God? The New Testament demonstrates that God brings Glory to himself. John’s Gospel is essential in understanding how Jesus and the Father relate; a key passage for the understanding of the binding of the Trinity of God’s Glory is John 17:1, where Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” We see that the Son brings Glory to the Father, the Father brings Glory to the Son, and the Spirit brings Glory to the Son (cf. John 16:14). Such an understanding of Glory exhibits the love expressed within the Godhead by Father, Son, and Spirit as they give Glory to each other.

A perfect metaphor for the relationship Jesus prays about is perichoresis. Perichoresis, roughly translated, means to make space around. More specifically, it refers to how someone or something makes space around itself for others or something else. Perichoresis theologically is to call it the idea of God’s mutual indwelling. God can be both in Godself and in us, for example. In a more active sense, it is the idea of God moving in and through someone or something, like a dance. Perichoresis describes the divine dance of the three Persons of the Trinity theologically. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make room for each other, move in and through one another, and dance with one another, in such a way that creates a mutual indwelling while still maintaining space for each individually.

To say that God is triune is to mean that God is social, and to say that those made in the image of God are likewise intrinsically social. There is one God, and the unity of this one God is absolute; yet this God described in Scripture as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Scripture speaks primarily of the roles that each Person plays concerning human salvation: the Father sends the Son to redeem the God-created world, the Son lives and dies for the world, the Spirit draws people to salvation and into community.

The Persons of the Trinity exist in one another. Their love dissolves all boundaries, and when we allow our individualism to dissolve, we are filled with God’s steadfast love, justice, and righteousness. God in us and we in each other.

Catherine La Cugna wrote: The life of God is not something that belongs to God alone. Trinitarian life is also our life. There is one life of the triune God, a life in which we graciously have been included as partners. Followers of Christ are made sharers in the very life of God, partakers of divinity as they are transformed and perfected by the Spirit of God. The doctrine of the Trinity is not ultimately teaching about God but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other.

If God is a Trinity of persons, and “the whole purpose for which we exist is to be taken into the life of God,” then our lives must be a dance. When the world says freedom is each self exerting its independence and autonomy, the Church says real life isn’t self-focused, it’s other-focused.

God Said in Jeremiah:

“But let those who boast, boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.”

In the Gospel today, Jesus, before His Ascension, gave the eleven his commission to make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is our, the Church’s commission. We are to carry love, Justice, and righteousness to the world. Our Baptismal promise is to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.

The world TODAY cries out for justice, and we demand God’s Justice for the very least of our brothers and sisters. Justice for people of color who, by lack of privilege, are disadvantaged. Justice and equal protection under the law because Black Lives Matter. Justice that guarantees the common welfare by sharing what God has created. Justice that everyone has a right to a fair say in society. Justice for people of color and poor who suffer disproportionately poor health and death from the coronavirus. Justice involves making individuals, communities, and the cosmos whole, by upholding both goodness and impartiality. It stands at the center of true religion, according to James, the kind of “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:

to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Earlier, Scripture says, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.”

We by our Baptismal Covenant and voice of the Holy Spirit demand in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Amen.

Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Kindle Locations 1473-1476). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

  1. McGrath, Christian Theology:__An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Blackwell, 2001), p. 325.

Sermon for Pentecost, May 31, 2020: Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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I am not a big fan of prop sermons. It’s not like I haven’t seen some very good sermons that use props – and I have tremendous respect for our Godly Play lessons, which are pretty prop-dependent. It’s just that the first memory I have of a preacher using a prop in a sermon reminds me of some very poor behavior on my part. When I was a teenager, a young associate rector at the church where I grew up attempted to explain the nature of the Holy Spirit (or, as it was known then, “the Holy Ghost”) by pumping a pair of hand bellows. Unfortunately and because kids are cruel, rather than embracing a thoughtful, simplified way of understanding a complicated abstract concept, my church friends and I instead began referring to this unfortunate and well-meaning priest as “The Reverend Holy Bellows.” Now, I am not a believer in karma but in mercy, but now that I am older and wiser and have to try to explain the Holy Spirit myself, I would like to take this livestream opportunity to apologize to the Reverend Doug Wigner, wherever he is.

The fact is that the Holy Spirit is one of the most difficult theological constructs in Christianity – so much so that there is a very famous – and unresolved – argument about whether the Holy Spirit comes from God and Jesus or has always been part of them. Today’s gospel records Jesus as saying that while he lived, “as yet there was no Spirit,” because he had not yet been glorified. The Holy Spirit was connected to Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus had to be taken from those who loved him for the Holy Spirit to be present among us. There needed to be a void for the Holy Spirit to fill.

If you think about it, many blessings arrive this way. When we are full and happy we don’t notice opportunities for growth and renewal, but when are fearful and anxious we become more open to recognizing God’s presence among us. The Hebrew scripture we heard today about the sharing of the Spirit among the people of Moses is one of those stories. These formerly enslaved people had been wandering in the wilderness, waiting to be delivered to the Promised Land and, as we know from other tales, they were, to put it bluntly, a bunch of whiners. Moses was tired of them. Today’s reading picks up right after Moses has told God it would be better for him to die then to have to keep leading this argumentative group. God takes pity on poor Moses and tells him that he can share some of the burden. So Moses gathers seventy elders and the Lord takes some of the spirit that was on Moses and puts it on the seventy others. All seems well – until some tattletale runs to Moses’s assistant to tell him that there are two other men in camp who are prophesying – and Joshua thinks they need to be told to stop. But Moses tells Joshua he is looking at things wrong. “Do you think I should be jealous?!” Moses asks. “Why would I”? God’s spirit is not a limited resource; we don’t need to compete over it. We need to share it.

The fact that the idea of something getting bigger when it is shared is such an abnormal concept in our self-protective culture gives us a good idea of why the Holy Spirit is so hard to explain. The Holy Spirit is not about having or keeping; it’s about how not having something provides a space to fill with something bigger, with something better. The disciples who attended the Festival of Weeks in Jerusalem were, like Moses before them, burdened and weary. They still missed Jesus.  They still mourned his absence. It was into this space that God poured the Holy Spirit, revealing that “The … gift of the Holy Spirit means that no one needs to carry any burden alone.”[1] The power and magnificence of the arrival of the Holy Spirit demonstrated that when Jesus died for us his death did not make him smaller; it provided human beings with the opportunity to get bigger. It showed them that the holes that human beings experience in our lives and in our spirits cannot be filled by earthly things, but must instead be offered as containers for the sacrificial love of Jesus and the wisdom and generosity of God.

Our world right now is filled with chasms that cry out for the presence of the Holy Spirit to fill them. This week many of us witnessed a profound and disturbing absence of justice, compassion, and humanity as we saw a white police officer calmly place and keep his full weight on a prostrate and handcuffed black man while the man begged for help, wheezing for air until he died. We watched as legitimate protests were hijacked and transformed by hate, leading to more death and destruction. We learned without surprise that the coronavirus pandemic is more prevalent among African-Americans as a result of our unequal and broken health care system, which does not provide adequate care to those of lower socioeconomic status. We observed with dismay as Asian-Americans were targeted for verbal and physical abuse because they are being unfairly blamed for the spread of the virus. We were dismayed to hear that new coronavirus cases were linked to church services that were held in opposition to government restrictions, leading me to wonder how Christians can have such different ideas about what it means to love one another.

I can’t fathom how any of these behaviors are consistent with the loving, life-giving way of the Jesus I know. A Jesus who protects only the wealthy, applauds self-interest, and excludes and perpetrates violence against people because of race, culture, gender, or for any other reason does not appear in the gospels I have read. My Jesus preferred spending time with the poor and disenfranchised. My Jesus spoke out against those who chose self-interest over compassion, social status over humility, and wealth instead of generosity. My Jesus welcomed marginalized people, engaged in theological conversation with “foreigners,” forgave sinners, and despised liars. The Jesus I know asked anyone who was thirsty to come to him so that they would be filled -with living water, with the Spirit of God – primarily so that they could fill others with it as well.

The Holy Spirit is not a puff of air. It is not what is left over when Jesus has left the building. It is not a pale shade of the Jesus who walked the earth two thousand years ago. It does not rest on the heads and in the hearts of only the powerful and charismatic. It is not the exclusive privilege of a self-assured few. The Holy Spirit resides in the souls of all who thirst for justice, compassion, peace, and love. It is the force that holds within it the means to change this world into the home of God, and God’s people into the faithful children we are meant to be. We are living in a time in which simple human kindness is more and more rare. We are overwhelmed and in danger of simply accepting moral bankruptcy rather than fighting against it. We are living in a time of absence, when God’s people thirst for righteousness. Now, once again, on this day, God has sent us the Holy Spirit – to offer guidance and provide the power to change, to put aside our fear and mourning,[2] and to become a people of courage, flexibility, impartiality, and grace. Let us walk together- filled with the Holy Spirit, protecting the vulnerable, defying the destructive, and creating a world in which all are blessed, all are loved, and everyone who calls out for God shall be saved. Amen.

[1]Carole A. Crumley, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 4.

[2]David M. Bender, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 18.

Sermon for Ascension Day, May 24, 2020: Turn around as one (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

“Turn around. Every now and then I get a little bit lonely [because I can’t feel you around]. Turn around. Every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears. Turn around. Every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by. Turn around, [because] every now and then I fall apart.”[1]

Actually, it seems like every now and then all of humanity falls apart- and it feels like that’s what’s happening right now. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, for the last few months some of us have been trying to live differently –to eat in, to teach in, to worship in -to live in. And yet we still face the likelihood of more disease and financial instability. Worse, we are divided about how we should face these things and even how we are supposed to look at them. The question of what this pandemic means is particularly acute for Christians. This is evidenced by a recent survey that found that about two-thirds of Americans who believe in God think that our current problems are God’s way of telling human beings that we need to change the way we live.[2]

Feeling occasional discomfort with our lives is not unusual among human beings – but certain conditions seem to impress us with a more urgent need to change. The issues we are currently grappling with, especially how the Christian mandate to love others as we would be loved should be applied in this situation, gives us a chance to look at the way we have been living – and to wonder if we need to repent – to turn around.

Carlos was an inmate at the Vacaville correctional facility who had particularly good reasons for wanting to turn around – except that by the time he looked behind him all he could see were the bridges he had already burned. Carlos’ father ran out on his mother when Carlos was a baby and his mom was in and out of rehab for most of his life. But Carlos had one great thing going for him. He had a grandmother – a beloved abuela- who raised him in the absence of his parents, who took him to church, who gave him food and shelter and attention and, most of all, love. Abuela taught him right from wrong and good from bad and shared with him her great love of God. And then she died – and everything that Abuela had taught him died with her. Because Carlos could not believe in a God who would take away the only person that cared for him. Carlos would not believe in a God that caused a nice old lady to die alone on a cold hard floor. Carlos hated a God that said he loved you and then killed you.

So Carlos gave up trying to be good because it was easier to be bad. He got a new “family” who said that he mattered to them, that he was important, that they were his blood now. It was so much easier to live in a half-conscious state of intoxicated apathy than it was to think about how alone he felt. It was easier to do what he was told without thinking about the consequences.

So when he was arrested and his new “family” threw him under the bus and he was sent to jail -and when he had to detox in jail and fractured his skull banging his head against his cell door – he knew for sure it was too late to turn around -and he fell apart. He fell into darkness and helplessness and cried out for his Abuela. He cried out to be a child again, to lay in her arms, to have her make it right. But there are some things that can’t be turned around – and death is one of them.

Unless you are Jesus, the resurrected Christ. Jesus, who turned death itself around by descending from heaven to live a human life just like ours – and then carried that knowledge with him as he ascended again to be at one with God. Jesus, who Abuela loved. Jesus, who loves the human beings that killed him. But Carlos did not know how to believe in Abuela’s God anymore. He only knew how to believe in hatred and anger and fear.

Mike knew those feelings intimately. Rage and violence and death were his most faithful companions for many years. Mike had never met Abuela’s God, had never believed in any God, had never even believed in his own soul – until he finally committed a crime that even he despised, when he killed his own infant son in a drunken rage. But Mike didn’t know how to turn around either. Until one day a prison chaplain walked by his isolation cell and offered him a small book that said “The New Testament” on the cover – and Mike, who was bored, took it and began to read. He wasn’t quite sure what he was reading – he had only a vague understanding of Christianity – but he was drawn to this person Jesus, who seemed to know what anger and fear and pain and sadness and death felt like. He liked that Jesus could love people who did bad things, and he began to wonder if Jesus could even love him. So Mike kept reading – and then he began meeting with the chaplain – and then he began praying on his own. He prayed for forgiveness and mercy and grace. He prayed for a spirit to see God – and his faith grew. And as it grew, Mike began to believe that he had to tell other people about this God – about this Jesus who understood and forgave sins – about this Jesus, who had come down from heaven to be with them and then returned to heaven to wait for them. He needed to tell others what he had experienced for himself, what he had seen, what he knew. He had to tell people that you could turn around.

And so it was that when Carlos wandered into the community room of his prison block one night, he found Mike reading aloud words that Carlos hadn’t heard for a long time, words that his Abuela had sung to him as a boy. “Sing praises to God. Sing praises.” And Carlos was filled with rage. Who did this prisoner think he was, praying the same useless prayers as Abuela? And he began screaming at Mike to stop stop praying –stop lying –to admit that neither of their lives meant anything to anybody. And he ran toward Mike to grab the book out of his hands, to hit him until he stopped saying Abuela’s words – to stop making him cry. But when Carlos launched himself at Mike, Mike caught him and held him tight and whispered, “Peace brother. God told me to tell you my story – to tell you our story.” And he held Carlos while they both wept. When their tears dried up, Mike told Carlos what he had seen. He told Carlos what he knew. And he told it with a spirit of power and wisdom and revelation and joy. He told Carlos that God had never left him, that God had already forgiven him. He told him that God would always be with him – in this life and ever after – even when it seemed like God had turned his back to him. He told Carlos that he could turn around. And Carlos believed.

Just as we believe. Just as others can believe if we tell them what we have seen and what we know. The Holy Spirit rests on us and we have the ability and the responsibility to witness to that blessing. Change happens when we show ourselves and others that we can turn around – if only we will turn not away from one another but toward God. This is the revelation of the ascension of Jesus Christ – not only that he is divine and has risen, but that he remains with and in us – and will never turn away from us.

Turn around. Every now and then I know there’s nothing in the world that cannot be saved by our God. Turn around. Every now and then I know that Jesus shares our sorrow and our fears. Turn around – because God wants us now tonight, and we need God more than ever, and [I know] she’ll be holding us tight. Together we can start tonight. Forever’s going to start tonight. Amen.

[1]Jim Steinman (1983), “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

[2]Associated Press, (May 15, 2020), “Two-thirds of U.S. believers see COVID 19 as a message from God, poll finds,” quoted in The Guardian, Religion, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/15/us-coronavirus-message-god-poll-results.

Sermon for 5th Easter, May 10, 2020: Relationship is home (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Today we heard about St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew who was converted to Christianity by the apostles and appointed a deacon in Jerusalem. The fact that he was already considered an outsider made it exponentially more dangerous for him to preach about Jesus -and Stephen knew it – but he did it anyway and he died for his witness.
We think of people who die for their principles as being brave, but I sometimes wonder if Stephen’s death was necessary. Couldn’t he have just dialed down the rhetoric a bit? Preached to more receptive converts? Moved to a less hostile town? We may admire his courage, but we can’t help but wonder about his common sense. What would compel someone to knowingly put himself in a life-threatening situation if he didn’t have to? But people do. Not just ancient, seemingly remote people like Stephen– but saints in our own time. We can go online today and be inspired by Christians who die for refusing to renounce their faith. But would we – could we –do the same?

It’s hard to know. I don’t know if the disciples fully knew what they were getting into when Jesus tried to talk to them about who he was and what would happen when he was gone- when he went to a place he called, “his Father’s house.”

We all have our own ideas about what “home” means. For many of us “home” is associated with a place, but for others “home” is a person or a state of being. “Home” can be the place where you were raised and nurtured. It can be wherever your loved ones are. Right now, as we enter our tenth week of shelter-in-place precautions against the coronavirus, home is the place we really, really want to escape.

But where is Jesus’s home? That’s what Thomas wanted to know – where was Jesus going? And how were his disciples going to find him? These seem like reasonable questions, but when Thomas asked, Jesus told the disciples that they already knew the way, because he was the way. He was their home. Those are probably the most confusing directions ever. Thomas asked Jesus where to go and Jesus instead told him how to live. He told his disciples that God’s kingdom is not a physical place but a state of being, a relationship -that God’s household is a dwelling made not of cloth or bricks, but of mutual loyalty and love. God’s “home” is a committed relationship grounded in faith and located in the collective soul. This is something that people forget when they argue that their current inability to access a church building somehow means they can’t be part of Christian community. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. Your home is God – and I will show you the way home. Then Jesus tells the disciples something even more astounding. He says that if we truly believe – if we recognize that he is the only home we need – we will receive the power to do greater works than his, and that the world will see the glory of God through us. That’s a remarkable suggestion – that if we believe in Jesus, we will have the power of God. Think how that promise resonated with the poor and oppressed people who followed Jesus. Think how that belief has sustained demoralized and subjugated people for thousands of years since. This promise of power is one of the primary reasons that Christianity grew as quickly as it did. It’s the reason that people are still willing to die for it. It’s the reason that people are willing to kill for it. And it’s also the reason people think that they can harness the power of God for their own purposes.

My husband and I once took a trip to South Korea by Military Airlift Command. MAC flighting was a great way to travel to places you could never afford to go otherwise. Basically, you packed your bag and showed up at an air force base and when a flight came up to where you wanted to go, you got in line and, if you were lucky, you got on a plane. We got a flight out fairly easily, but when we were ready to go home, we found out that there were a lot of people who were considered higher priority to get on a return flight than us joy-riders. So, every day we packed our bags, checked out of our hotel and went to the base – and every day we didn’t get a flight out. Now, this was before ATMs and cell phones, so after a few days we found ourselves down to about ten dollars in traveler’s checks and living off Dunkin’ Donuts and granola bars. We had started considering just paying for a flight back home when met a young couple who were in the same predicament we were. When we told them we were thinking of buying plane tickets, the young woman said, “Didn’t you just tell me you are Christians”? “Yes,” we said. “Then why aren’t you praying”? she inquired. “We are praying,” I said, “but we’re not necessarily expecting God to get us on a MAC flight. We figure God probably has bigger things to worry about.” “Well,” she huffed, “I guess you don’t have much faith, do you”?

I’ve thought about that incident many times over the years. She believed that we lacked faith because we didn’t assume that God would provide us with what we wanted simply because we asked. But it wasn’t that we didn’t believe that God could provide what we needed. We just didn’t think that we had the right to decide if what we really needed was to get on a MAC flight. Such differing views on prayer are still enacted among Christians everywhere. We wonder if it’s okay to pray for our own needs, and, when we do, we ascribe different meanings to the relative “success” or “failure” of our efforts. But that’s not the way that today’s gospel tells us to look at things. Instead, the writer tells us that, for Jesus, the words of our prayers matter much less than our intentions when we pray them. It is not what we ask for that is important. It is why. Do we pray because we think we know what we – and others – need? Or do we pray to share our concerns with God, knowing that, because God loves us – because we are in a relationship with God, we are already given everything we really need. That is why the one prayer that never fails is simply, “Your will be done.”

I think anyone who is in a committed relationship can understand this. Whether it’s a romantic partnership, parenthood, or a treasured friendship, sometimes you do things just because the person you love asks you to. We clean up after sick people, watch movies we have no interest in, and stay in when we want to go out for other people -simply because we love them, just as Jesus loves us and opens the door so that we can find our place in God’s household.

God asks only one thing in return. God asks for our love – for us to love God and one another. This requires faith – and faith is not a sudden revelation or an intellectual decision. Faith is a journey. We have to grow into salvation, letting ourselves be built into spiritual houses – houses without walls. We are part of God; God is our home. That is all – and that is everything. It’s not about doing things right. It’s about accepting God’s divine love and sharing it with others, and to do this we have to open our eyes and witness God’s creation. We need to see and believe that the order and complexity and beauty of our world cannot be random. We have to acknowledge that the challenging, confusing, and amazing people with whom we share our lives belong to God just as much as we do. We must admit that there are places inside of us that cannot be filled by earthly things.

For many of us, this feels like a nearly impossible task. Some of us can’t even imagine such a belief. That’s why we have to imagine it with each other. We may even have to imagine it for one another, showing and telling each other what we see and what we know in our hearts. Then we can like Stephen gaze into heaven and allow ourselves to be emptied of fear and filled instead with the Holy Spirit. The power that comes with being in relationship with God is not the power to know things or have things or even be things. It is much greater than that. It is the power to love others as God loves us. And that is worth dying for. AMEN.

Sermon for 4th Easter, May 3, 2020: I shall not want (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want.” Well now, that’s a lie. The Lord is my shepherd and I want lots of things. In fact, I don’t know one person who doesn’t want something – and one of the things everyone wants is not to suffer. The question is: what does God want.

The debate in Christian circles over whether suffering is good for us is an old and energetic one. Almost since the inception of Christianity, there have been writers and groups that have believed that not only should Christians be able to tolerate suffering, but that we are blessed when we suffer. The origin for these ideas is likely the section of the letter from Peter that we read this morning. “It is a credit to you if…you endure when you do right and suffer for it. You have God’s approval.” This passage, as well as the verses before it which tell us to “accept the authority of every human institution…honor the emperor… [and if we are enslaved], to accept the authority of our masters,”[1] have been used to excuse all kinds of injustice, including slavery.  Not only is this an horrifying abuse of scripture to support human atrocities, but it misinterprets what Peter was trying to say.

He was speaking to an audience of believers, only some of whom were enslaved peoples – so his words cannot be read simply as a direction for oppressed people to accept their lot. It is rather a pronouncement that all believers are made free from human conditions when they voluntarily subjugate themselves to God. The writer does not say that we should allow ourselves to be abused or to let such wrongs continue. He does not say that we cannot, in fact, cry out against unjust suffering. He certainly does not say that if we live under evil and ignorant rule we should excuse or imitate our oppressors. What he says is that when we are in an unjust situation, when we are enslaved, and when we are suffering as a result of trying to follow the way of Jesus, we can rise above our situation, exposing the wrong around us by resisting the pressure to join in it. Doing what is right, especially when one is being wronged, is the holy path to change. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Or, as my wise mother puts it, “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

What we need to be sure of us what is “right.” The human tendency toward self-interest makes it all too easy for us to convince ourselves that we are the ones who are right. We need something more than the justifications of our all-too-human hearts to determine if and when suffering can be a good thing – and the author of Peter’s letter provides it: “Christ…suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.” Jesus’s example is one of speaking truth to power with hope – and love. The path that Jesus walked was not one of vengeance, possessiveness, or self-aggrandizement. His actions were never focused on ensuring his own comfort or influence. Jesus lived his life for and with others, demonstrating what it means to truly believe that we have everything we need, even at the worst of times. Neither Jesus nor Peter suggests that following Jesus removes you from the suffering and sorrows that are part of being human. Jesus is not a vaccine; Jesus is a way of life. It is not necessarily an easy or simple way, but it is a transformative way a saving way. What we sometimes forget is what are we saved from and what are we saved for.

 If you google “What does it mean to be saved,” you will get almost two billion answers, and there is probably truth in many of them. For me, the answer is simple: we are saved from ourselves for God. However you view the biblical creation stories –whether you believe there was an actual apple or fig leaves– scripture is clear on a few things: First, God created humanity for Godself out of love. Secondly, human beings started rejecting God’s love almost right away; and third, God has been trying to help us find our way back ever since. Jesus is God’s most selfless and desperate effort to lead us home to where we belong- in the very heart of God.

Today is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because our readings include both the 23rd psalm, in which we are reminded that the Lord is our shepherd, and John’s gospel, in which we are told that Jesus is the gate that protects the sheep. The portrayal of God as a shepherd is a common one, found in many pre-Christian theologies. People living in farming cultures understood what a good shepherd was – how he exhibits all of the practical behaviors of caregiving, including guarding, feeding, and guiding. This analogy may be less compelling to those of us who live in this technologically-based society, but the truth is that we are not so different from our fluffy, hoofed friends. Sheep, like human beings, are herd animals. They do not like to be alone, they thrive in family groups, and they are anxious when they can’t figure out the way they are supposed to go. Animals need leadership. One of the worst things you can do to my dog Riptide is to have our family stand together as a group and then walk away in separate directions. You can see his anxiety rise as he tries to determine who to follow. He is unhappy if he stays alone, but he is unhappier if he follows one person and has to leave another behind. Human beings are no different. We are filled with anxiety when we are separated from our flock. We lose our sense of direction and fear overtakes us. That is what is happening to millions of people all over the world right now as we attempt to combat an invisible but very real thief that separates us from one another and comes to steal our very lives. We want to know why this is happening. We want to know how to cope with it. We want to know when it will be over.

We want – and we suffer tremendously as a result. We want because we do not believe the psalmist’s words. We do not believe that we want forlack – nothing. I think this is partly because of the way we think of Psalm 23, which is a frequently requested scripture for funerals and memorial services, probably because many of us believe that it describes what heaven is like. We picture our beloved departed ones lying in green pastures beside still waters, feasting fearlessly, content, and transformed forever by being in the presence of God.  This comforts us and gives us something to look forward to. For many people, this is, in fact, what it means to be saved: to be assured our spot in the kingdom of God.  But there is no indication in scripture that the vision of Psalm 23 is “for moments of death. It needs to be understood as a psalm for the living.”[2] It needs to be our guide for how to live our lives now.

Some scholars have called Psalm 23 a “pilgrimage psalm,” the song of an individual who is on the way to join a community. It is perhaps a song of hope for what she might find in that community. It demonstrates the desire to find and follow a Good Shepherd – one who is easily recognized because he protects the sheep, would sacrifice her own life for them, and because a true Good Shepherd loves the sheep. In the Good Shepherd’s community all people hold things in common and share the gifts of God’s creation thoughtfully, generously, and with goodwill. The people follow the way of the Good Shepherd and in doing so are revived and transformed, becoming a people of contentment, sacrificial love, and solidarity[3] – a community of people who do not want. So may we become.  Amen.

[1]1 Peter 2:13, 17-18.

[2]John E. White, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 433.

[3]Molly T. Marshall, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 446.

Sermon for 3rd Easter, April 26, 2020: On the Road (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

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God be in my head
and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes
and in my looking;
God be in my mouth
and in my speaking;
God be in my heart
and in my thinking;
God be at my end
and in my departing

Amen

The prayer I just prayed is a medieval prayer known as the Sarum Primer, which first appeared in 1514. Sarum is the medieval term for modern Salisbury England. If you perceive an echo of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, you would be right.

This Sarum Prayer may help understand the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter.

The story of the Couple traveling on the road to Emmaus on the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, I believe, maybe be the most beautiful scene Luke ever drafted. It is both a wonderful, unique, captivating tale and a model for a great deal of what being a Christian, from Luke’s day to this, is all about.

The Couple, probably wife and husband, are walking the 7-mile journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus while discussing and arguing over the events that have taken place the last three days. I think they were probably expressing their extreme sadness and disappointment. Circumstances, especially those involving loss, are usually perceived as difficult because reality does not mesh with our expectations. The two followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus undoubtedly felt utterly alone as they mourned the death of their dreams. While this Jesus appeared to them as they were walking, something kept them from recognizing him. During their suffering, God was indeed nearby, and He allowed their pain to continue until their desires no longer held them captive.

Jesus asked the Couple what they were discussing as they walked along. Luke describes the couple as appearing downcast as one of them, Cleopas, replied to Jesus that he must be the only person in Jerusalem that does not know the things going on for the last few days. (Talk about an irony). Jesus replies with the question, “what things?” They explained to him, as best they knew it, about the events of Jesus’s crucifixion. About witnesses who were told by angels that Jesus had risen but that no one has seen him. They express their hopes that Jesus was the Messiah that would redeem Israel.

The still incognito Jesus scolded them as foolish people so unwilling to put their trust in everything the prophets spoke! Then starting with Moses and all the profits he explained to them the things that can be found throughout the Bible concerning himself. But before they could begin to understand what had just happened, they had to be prepared. They, like everybody else in Israel, had been reading the Bible, as N.T. Wright says, through the wrong end of the telescope. They had been seeing it as the long story of how God would redeem Israel from slavery and suffering, but it was instead the story of how God would redeem Israel through suffering; through, in particular, the suffering which would be taken on himself by Israel’s representative, the Messiah. When Luke says that Jesus interpreted to them all the things about himself, 1throughout the Bible, he does not mean that Jesus collected a few, or even a few dozen, isolated texts, chosen at random. He says that the whole story, from Genesis to Chronicles, pointed forwards to a fulfillment that could only be found when God’s anointed took Israel’s suffering. Hence, the world’s suffering, on to himself, died under its weight, and rose again as the beginning of God’s new creation, God’s new people. This is what had to happen, and now it just had.(1)

May God be in our heads and in our understanding.

“When [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” They recognized him as the one they had left for dead in Jerusalem. They recognized him as the one who had accompanied them on the road to Emmaus. They recognized him as the one they had hoped he would be. We can only now know Jesus, can only recognize him in any sense, when we learn to see him within the true story of God, Israel, and the world.

May God be in our eyes and in our looking.

After Cleopas and his companion recognize Jesus, he disappears. Where do you think he went? Was he abandoning them? Was he playing hide and seek with them?” Was he undoing everything that just happened? No. It was not anything like that. He was no longer before them because he was now within them. Jesus was the burning heart within them, and it had been there all along. Sometimes that burning is felt as brokenness, sometimes as hunger, or being broken open, and other times as deep joy and gratitude. Always, it is Jesus.

And “that same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem.”(3) To proclaim to the 11 what they had experienced, Christ is risen.

God be in our mouths and in our speaking. 

Luke also intends that we his readers should see this simple meal pointing forwards, to the breaking of bread, which quickly became the central symbolic action of Jesus’ people. Though Jesus was no longer physically present, they were to discover him living with and in them through this meal (Acts 2.42). Scripture and sacrament, word, and meal, are joined tightly together, here as elsewhere. Remove scripture, and the sacrament becomes a piece of magic. Take the sacrament away, and scripture becomes an intellectual or emotional exercise, detached from real life. Put them together, and you have the center of Christian living. Pope Francis said, “when people open themselves to the word of God, “Jesus explains the Scriptures to us and rekindles the warmth of faith and hope in our hearts, and, in Communion, he gives us strength.”

May God be in our hearts and in our thinking.

We are invited to accompany Jesus on a journey of faith, faith that will take us through anxiety and sorrow to meet the Jesus who has accomplished his Father’s work and longs to share the secret of it – and the gift of his presence – with us, his followers. The risen Christ is only gradually made manifest to us journeying disciples. Physical sight is not necessary for a heart alive with faith. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).(4)

Luke has therefore described for us, as he said he would, the new Exodus from slavery that Jesus would accomplish at Jerusalem for our redemption.

The real slave-master, keeping humanity in bondage, is death itself. Earthly tyrants borrow power from death to boost their rule; that’s why crucifixion was such a symbol of Roman authority. Victory over death robs the powers of their main threat. Sin, which means humans rebelling against God and so conspiring with death to deface God’s good creation, is likewise defeated. Jesus has led God’s new people out of slavery and now invites them to accompany him on the new journey to the promised land.

May God be at our end and in our departing. Amen

 T. Wright. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 298). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

 Sermon for 2nd Easter, April 19, 2020: I doubt it (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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What a long strange trip this has been! The last several weeks in which we have been sheltering-in-place as a result of the coronavirus have – perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not – dovetailed with the most significant days on our liturgical calendar. For some of us, who just missed the family dinner or egg hunt that follows church most years, the juxtaposition of a ban on in-person worship and the most wonderful liturgical time of the year was merely inconvenient, but for those among us for whom the re-experiencing of Jesus’s death and resurrection is a necessary annual renewal of faith, it has been truly painful.

Personally, I have been so busy attempting to provide continuing worship and fellowship opportunities for everyone that I just haven’t had the chance to think about what this strange and shadowed period really means -and what we will say about it when it is over. But now on the Second Sunday of Easter, known as “Low Sunday,” for its reduced festivities and usually pitiful attendance, we have the opportunity to consider what it means to profess faith in the risen Christ when our circumstances are hard and we are afraid – just as the disciples did in the days after Jesus’s resurrection.

Lately I have been thinking about a psychological phenomenon called “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new things through the lens of what we already believe. Confirmation bias has a significant role in prejudice and racism, because we generally believe whatever we are told by a trusted source unless we have the opportunity to test those ideas. If we have been taught to believe that people who have tattoos are antisocial, we will be afraid of people with tattoos, until we spend time with them and discover that our tattooed brethren are some of the most pro social folks we’ve ever met. The big problem is that if you are afraid of people, you tend to avoid interacting with them, so you don’t get the chance to figure out if what you think about them is actually true.

Confirmation bias is one of the major reasons it is so difficult to get people to change their beliefs because, even when presented with concrete evidence that things we believe to be true are not, we will still force the new evidence to fit into our existing ideas. In other words, it’s really hard to change people’s minds.  Peter preached his first major sermon to a group full of confirmation bias. They had gathered for a pilgrimage festival in the city where Jesus was crucified. Most of them probably hadn’t even heard of Jesus – and the ones who had probably did not have a favorable impression. It was, as they say, a tough crowd.

Followers of Jesus are facing a collective tough crowd today too. The rising conflict across the country as to whether to comply with the shelter-in-place restrictions has accelerated. Protestors in at least eight states have demanded that their governors lessen the constraints and reopen businesses. Despite copious medical and scientific research that indicates that without universal testing it is difficult to know who might have the coronavirus, and that minimizing social contacts is the best way to contain it, many people continue to believe that the virus is a politically-motivated hoax and/or a biological attack from a rival nation.

Many American Christians have decried the restrictions for another reason: they believe that as followers of Jesus Christ they are protected from the virus – that their belief has bought them immunity. This is the same perspective espoused by the evangelist Billy Sunday in response to the influenza epidemic of the early 20th century. Preaching in Rhode Island in 1918, Sunday held crowded revivals even when asked to refrain. In his sermons, he blamed the epidemic on “the Germans” and, despite the fact that other businesses were closed, he was given an exception so he could keep preaching. His wife was stricken and it was reported that people “collapsed with the flu” as Sunday preached, but he did not stop.[1] This pattern is currently repeating itself, with illness flourishing among those who will not refrain from in-person worshiping. This is both a violation of Jesus’s command to pray for the least among us and an excellent example of confirmation bias, demonstrating how hard it is for us to let go of what we want to believe and to instead look clear-eyed at the truth.

The truth is that Jesus never asked his disciples to build or worship in churches. He asked his disciples to do three simple things: to remember him, to act in the ways he had taught them to act, and to teach others to do the same. He did not say that doing these things would save us from suffering. In fact, his disciples believed that it was important to endure suffering so that, as the author of Peter’s epistle writes, “the genuineness of your faith- tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Read the Bible. As Peter Marty puts it, “Most of the time in Scripture, joy actually springs from sorrow or suffering. It can even be a consequence of defeat. It need not arise from the neatness of life, when all is running smoothly.”[2] Of course, this is not an easy thing to get people to believe because, let’s face it – who wants to suffer? It is far easier to teach people that loving Jesus gives them membership in an exclusive club where you are rewarded for your faith with earthly power and riches. People want to believe that. But easier is not necessarily right – and that’s not what Jesus promised. It’s also not what Peter told that tough crowd on the day of Pentecost. Instead he told them what they, as readers of scripture already knew: that God does not desert his people -and Jesus had not done so either. Like the psalmist before him, Peter explained that “the real meaning of life is to belong to the Lord, to remain in the divine presence.”[3] His message was simple and true: God loves us and God is with us. And three thousand members of that tough crowd were converted.

This was not the result of Peter’s personal eloquence. It happened because, on that day as on this, God’s people were surrounded by the Holy Spirit. This was the same Spirit that Jesus breathed into his disciples as they sheltered-in-place – tentatively joyful at the news of his resurrection, but still terrified and confused about what came next. It was the same Spirit that caused Thomas to leap into the air, proclaiming “My Lord and my God.” It is the same Spirit that will sustain us if we open our hearts to receive it.

It is often hard to know what to believe, especially when the evidence of our hearts and minds tells us things we don’t want to hear. It would be easier for me and for you if I could stand here and tell you that because you believe in Jesus you are immune to the cares of the world – and perhaps many of you would be converted. But that would be wrong, because I would be telling you things we want to be true, rather than what is true. Fortunately, the truth is far more powerful and joyful than any convenient fiction. God is with us. God has breathed her peace into us so that we are fully equipped to carry out our mission as Christians. The example of Thomas shows us that God does not fault us for exercising our intellect and asking questions. Jesus did not punish Thomas for his desire to be shown what his brethren had already seen. Instead, God gave him what he needed to believe – and, crucially, Thomas got up and ran with it. Now it is our time to remember, to teach, and to believe – not in a salvation that is easy, but in a savior who is true. Receive the Holy Spirit. Peace be with you. Amen.

[1]John Fea, (April 16, 2020), “Opinion: a pandemic Billy Sunday could not shut down,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2020/04/16/a-pandemic-billy-sunday-could-not-shut-down/

[2]Peter W. Marty, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 392.

[3]Thomas P. McCreesh, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 386.

Sermon for Easter Day, April 12, 2020: He is Risen; Prepare the way of the Lord (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Alleluia! The Lord is risen! Prepare the way of the Lord! Let’s say it again together with Easter joy! Alleluia! The Lord is risen! Prepare the way of the Lord!

I’m sure it feels strange to you, to say out loud when you’re alone or in a very small group the celebratory words that we are so accustomed to bellowing loudly in a community of hundreds of other worshippers. It feels strange to me to shout with joy into an almost empty sanctuary – and not to be able to harass you into saying it louder. But that is the way it is this Easter – the Easter we will all probably remember as “The one that happened during the coronavirus.”  It is an Easter in which we are separated from one another physically, huddling in our homes, confused and perplexed about what is happening to us, and wondering how we will go on from here.

So maybe it’s not such an atypical Easter after all. In fact, maybe it’s actually the closest we can come to understanding what it was to witness the first resurrection of Christ. We know from the gospels that Jesus’s disciples did not exhibit stellar behavior in the days and hours before his crucifixion. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him – and most of the others simply melted into the crowd, fearing that they would be arrested as well.  Following Jesus’s death the disciples did not go about town loudly proclaiming that Jesus would be back. Instead, they went into hiding, cloistering together out of fear of the unknown – just as we are doing now.

But not all of us. Not the people charged with taking care of those of us at home –not the people who do the risky jobs that no one else wants to do. In our time, these are the people who cannot afford to stay home, who are too afraid of losing their jobs to follow the shelter-in-place protocols, like the New Jersey bus driver who complained about passengers not following the social distancing rules on his bus and was dead two weeks later. In Jesus’s time, it was the women who performed the unwanted jobs. It was the women who braved the guards and the threat of the arrest to perform the unpleasant task of caring for Jesus’s body. Like doctors, nurses, child care providers, sanitation workers, and food suppliers today, they did it because it needed to be done. They did it because it was the right thing to do.

That doesn’t mean they weren’t afraid. Matthew’s gospel tells us that as the women approached Jesus’s tomb there was a great earthquake, an angel appeared and “for fear of him the guards shook” and quite literally passed out. But the messenger from God told the women not to be afraid; in fact – he said that they should rejoice, because Jesus was no longer in the tomb, having been raised from the dead. This was amazing and unbelievable news – that their beloved rabbi and friend had somehow returned to them! And they did go with joy – but not without fear as well– fear of the unknown, fear that the good news might not be true, fear that without Jesus to guide them they would do the wrong thing.

This should sound familiar, because right now we are scared too. We are afraid because we aren’t sure what is ahead of us. We are frightened because we currently have so little control over our lives. Most of all, we are afraid that everything we believed to be true will turn out to be a lie.

Welcome to the human race.  Throughout the season of Lent we have heard stories from the beginning of time and throughout the ages about people of God who lost their faith. Like us, when life got tough these people were vulnerable to the idea that they were on their own and that they needed to put themselves first, even if it meant ignoring or actively harming other human beings. That’s the way empires are built, after all – but it’s also the way they fall. The people of the 7th century before the Common Era to whom the prophet Jeremiah spoke fell into that trap. Over and over they failed to listen to the word of God, demanding control of the world around them to the detriment of themselves and others. They were selfish, unkind, and exclusionary. They were hateful, violent and greedy. They were unfaithful to the God who had created them – and yet, God continued to love them –not because they deserved it, but because God’s love is not predicated on conditions or transactions. God’s love is unconditional and everlasting.

That doesn’t mean that God’s love is not sometimes painful. It also doesn’t mean that we are excused from the suffering, cruelty and death that are part of the human condition. As Flannery O’Connor said, “Before grace heals it cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring.”[1] But grace does come. It comes in the form of a God who is willing –again and again- to bear the pain of rejection and the terror of death so that we can always have the opportunity to open our hearts to her, and to finally accept the salvation that has been given to us.

The question is whether we are ready to do that. Right now, it may be hard to imagine turning our lives over to anyone – even one who loves us above everything else. It also seems impossible to believe that the people of this world can accept Jesus’s assurance that we don’t need to be afraid – that we can be people that focus not on the cares and concerns of our earthly bodies, but rather on the things that are above. But it can be done. I know that it can – because for every bus driver who has died because some people cared more for their own comfort than for his life, there are hundreds of people who area alive because of individuals who are putting the needs of strangers before their own –in this city, in this diocese and in this parish.

These are the things that Jesus asked his disciples to do. These are the things that make us Christian – and this stressful, fearful time gives us the opportunity to do them. In this unprecedented year it may seem to us that Lent has not ended – that we are still waiting for Easter – still waiting to be saved. But that is not what Christians believe. The message of Easter is that we do not have to wait for anything because we have already been saved.  It is God who waits. It is God who waits for us to accept his proffered salvation –to prepare the way of the Lord by overcoming the confusion and fears of this world so that we can enter God’s world with thanksgiving and joy.

Every year during Holy Week, I listen to the soundtrack of the musical “Godspell.”  One of its songs, “A Beautiful City,” serves to remind us that not only can we get through this crisis, but that, more importantly, we can and will find a way to live into the glorious, victorious, and marvelous salvation given to us through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – online and in person. Listen and rejoice:

“Out of the ruins and rubble, out of the smoke
Out of our night of struggle can we see a ray of hope?
One pale thin ray reaching for the day…
We may not reach the ending but we can start;
slowly but surely mending – brick by brick and heart by heart
Now, maybe now we start learning how
We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can. (Yes, we can)
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels – but we can build a city of man.
When your trust is all but shattered
When your faith is all but killed
You can give up bitter and battered
Or you can slowly start to build!
A Beautiful City
Yes, we can. (Yes, we can)
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels – but finally a city of man!”[2]

Amen.

[1]Quoted in Reginald D. Bradnax, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 354.

[2]Stephen Schwartz & John-Michael Tebelak (1971), “A Beautiful City,” from Godspell.

Sermon for Good Friday, April 10, 2020: Death and Resurrection (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

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Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020: Processions (The Rev. Bruce Smith)

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Sermon for March 29, 2020: Can these bones live? (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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“Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany… [but] when Jesus heard it he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death.’” So begins one of the most famous miracle stories of all time – with Jesus confidently assuring his followers that his dear friend Lazarus was not going to die. Except that he did die – and Jesus seems to have known all along that he would. In fact, it appears that Jesus allowed it to happen –reassuring his friends that Lazarus’s illness would not lead to death and having them wait where they were for an extra two days before going to visit their sick friend.

This seems like odd behavior for our Savior, who we usually find springing into action to heal perfect strangers – even when it puts him at odds with the authorities of his time. Jesus’s friends Martha and Mary seem to wonder about Jesus’s behavior as well, telling him, “If you had been here, [our] brother would not have died.” Jesus’s unresponsiveness isn’t very comforting for us either as we struggle to deal with the coronavirus/COVID 19 pandemic that has created so much anxiety in our lives. We are already worried about illness and death and tired of waiting for things to get better – do we really need to hear a story about how Jesus allowed someone he loved to die? Like the people who watched the incident, we too wonder, “Couldn’t the man who in last week’s gospel opened the eyes of the blind beggar simply have kept this man from dying”?

Evidence from the other six signs in the Gospel of John suggests that, yes, he could have – but how much help would that be for us who, because we are human, continue to face threats of illness and death without Jesus’s divine ability to heal them? What would we learn? Many people would be happier if Jesus had simply cured his friend because it would have been consistent with the idea that Jesus is some kind of a rapid response superhero who swoops in to perform miracles in response to any and all prayers. But that’s not how it works – and that’s not what happens in the story. Despite the fact that the gospel writer makes it clear that Jesus loves both Lazarus and his family – he does, after all, openly weep at the death of his friend – this scripture reading is not about Jesus preferentially saving those who profess to love him. It is about something much bigger than that. It is about Jesus offering us a way to transcend our need to be rescued from earthly dangers – about Jesus showing us the way to relinquish the anxiety and fear about the horrors of human weakness that are bearing down on us with terrifying speed and power.

My son Nick, who is a fan of horror films, refers to the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A), as “Zombie Sunday.”  Think about it: our first lesson tracks Ezekiel as he carefully follows the directions of the Lord to prophesy to a collection of bones in order to make them come alive, after which we hear St. Paul admonish the Romans that setting our minds on “flesh is death,” and, for the finale, we have the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, complete with Lazarus wandering out of the tomb, smelling like rotten garbage and trailing dirty bandages behind him. The mummy lives! These lessons have more than the usual Sunday scripture gore content, it’s true, but this night of the living dead action is strange for a reason. It demonstrates that God is able to imagine, consider, and do things that are far beyond our understanding, and one of those things is to overcome human death –to resurrect us.

All of today’s scriptures are about resurrection –not the cheap, human notions of resurrection with blood-sucking demons, pinheaded monsters, or unsettled spirits. This is not a resurrection where some of us will shed our human skin and travel to another world of perfect pleasure while the rest of us face the flames of eternal punishment.  This is a resurrection of the spirit. This is the resurrection that happens when all human beings recover the God-given goodness that lies deep in our hearts. This is a resurrection of hope.

The exiled Jews to whom Ezekiel prophesied did not even believe in life after death. They thought that breath was life and when breath stopped, so did life. For them life after death meant having your physical remains where they belonged – and generations of their people had died outside of Israel. They desperately longed for God to allow them to return to their homeland so that their bodies could be whole. But their bones were scattered and their well of hope dried up; they had ceased to breathe. But just when they were at their most desperate, God sent Ezekiel to prophecy to them and direct the Spirit – the ruach, the breath – to breathe life into them – to restore their lives.

This is what God always does – when we allow it – when we call to God with confidence and humility.  We are human beings, made of flesh and bone – and our humanity guarantees that we are susceptible to illness and death, anxiety and depression, fear and selfishness. God knows this. It is why Jesus allowed himself to experience hunger and fear and illness and cold. Jesus’s very existence tells us that our flesh matters – but it is not what matters most. What matters most is spirit – and we cannot allow our worries about our flesh to crush our spirits. “To set the mind on the flesh is death,” St. Paul tells us, “but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” We get anxious when we focus solely on things of this life – on comfort, money, and material possessions. We become afraid when we allow ourselves to believe that other human beings are focused on the same things. But our scriptures tell us that even in a valley filled with anger and pain and disease – with bones that have no flesh – with families that have been separated and broken- with supplies that have dried up – God can bring life.  God can bring life to arid bones and to parched spirits, to souls mired in concerns of the flesh, to hearts longing to go home again – and to people longing to live “normal” lives again.

But we have to wait. We have to wait until we are ready to accept God’s mercy – and to experience what it means to live only in God. After all, Jesus made the disciples wait to go to their friend Lazarus, even though he knew that during that delay, Lazarus would die.  Jesus did not answer the prayers of Martha and Mary as they would have liked either. He did not save their brother.  He allowed them to suffer – to mourn and to weep and to fear.  He gave them time to consider and question and worry and wonder until they knew, deeply in their hearts, that any life they could want -and any rebirth their brother could have – would come through Jesus Christ their Lord.

Waiting is hard – and it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that our weak flesh is all that we are. It is easy to become afraid and anxious about the sicknesses of this world. But we are not just creatures of flesh and bone. We are children of God. Our primary life is not of flesh, but of spirit. We need not wait for the Lord with fear and frustration. God has already heard our cry – and God will answer it. We can bear this dry and breathless time of darkness because we know that Jesus has the power to raise not just Lazarus from the power of the greatest and deepest darkness of all – but every one of us as well.  AMEN.

Sermon for March 22, 2020: Teaching us a lesson (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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This past week after the federal government issued stringent recommendations for fighting the spread of the Corona Virus, Pastor Rodney Howard-Brown said, “I’ve got news for you: This church will never close. The only time [this] church will close is when the Rapture is taking place. This Bible school is open because we’re raising up revivalists, not pansies.”[1] A clergy person quoted in another recent article additionally suggested that, “Closing churches and cancelling services betrays [the] duty of spiritual care.”[2]

It’s hard to know what to do sometimes. Personally, as someone who has always found both support and solace in the community of the Episcopal Church, I was resistant to cancelling our services. Even after researching, reading, considering all of the sensible reasons for limiting our contact with one another, and recognizing it was the right thing to do, I still initially planned to come into church regularly myself so that I could be available to those in need. I decided that I was “essential personnel” because I was doing what was best for my parishioners. I was meeting my personal of “duty of spiritual care.”

Then something happened to change my mind. During the course of just one day when I was in my office last week no less than six people came by to visit. This is actually not unusual. As most of you know, being an extrovert, I love company. In this case, however, I was unsettled- because four of my guests were people who are in the high-risk category for infection, and two of them refused to keep the state-mandated six-foot social distancing protocol. I realized then that while I thought I was demonstrating spiritual courage by being physically present at Grace, I was actually being selfish. I had fallen into the trap of substituting my agenda for God’s. I wanted people not to feel angry or rejected and to see me as a reliable leader- and in my own obsessive need to do what I thought was right, I failed to consult with God to determine his will for me and those I serve.

I am not, of course, the first or last person to make that mistake. St. Paul warns against this very thing in today’s passage from Ephesians, in which he admonishes his people to “live as children of the light” and “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness.” It is an inspiring passage – but not very specific about how to know what is pleasing to the Lord. Such particulars, unfortunately, come later in the chapter when the writer of Ephesians starts spelling out his opinions of what serving Christ means. “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church (Eph. 5:22), and “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ “(Eph. 6:5). Although it is probable that the author is encouraging  people to follow already existing codes in the interest of living in harmony with one another, some people believe that because they are in the Bible these verses (and others like them) constitute “Christian behavior.”

This is a not only misguided, but disturbing – not just because I find both of these alleged biblical “commands” abhorrent, but because they are not consistent with the context of the overall lesson of the letter to the Ephesians. That message is established in the very first verse of the chapter: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us.” This phrase supports the same basic principle found throughout the New Testament, both in the words of Jesus and the stories about him. Love God. Love one another. Everything else should follow.

Frederick Niedner, commenting on the prophet Samuel’s difficulties in selecting a king for the people of Israel on God’s behalf, suggests that “We live in an age in which theologians and prophets, including many of the self-appointed variety, rarely hesitate to make pronouncements about the will of God and the theological messages they discern in current events. Seers… [interpret] the most recent disaster as heaven’s blow against [the people they view as evildoers… but they forget] that God does not see as mortals see.”[3] In fact, I would argue that we are most spiritually blind when we profess to be able to see with the eyes of God.

This is made clear in the story of the healing of the man who had been blind from birth. The disciples are so confident in the their blame-based theology that they don’t even ask Jesus whether or not the man’s impaired vision is the result of sin, but instead wonder who has sinned – the man or his parents. Their question is consistent with the idea that God catalogues our adherence to human laws and punishes us when we don’t follow them – a belief that is still prevalent today. Jesus, however, quickly disputes this notion, telling them that neither the man nor his parents sinned. Rather, Jesus healed him for the very best reason any of us has to help one another; just because he could.

The healing itself is only the beginning of the story. The bulk of the lesson is focused on how people reacted to it. First, they revealed themselves to have been  uncaring toward the man prior to his healing by failing to recognize him afterward, even though they had seen him many times before. Then they called the authorities to demand that the man answer for his own healing because it was done on the Sabbath, which was against the law. Third, they brought out the man’s parents, who, far from being happy that their son had regained his sight, clearly wanted to be left out of the whole situation. Finally, they drove the man out of town – just for being healed.

They did these things because the answers they got to the questions they asked didn’t support what they already believed. Confident in their own understanding of God’s laws, they failed to recognize the importance and beauty of what Jesus had revealed to them: that the light of Christ is best viewed through acts of love and compassion.

We are living through an unprecedented and dark time, and it is sometimes hard to know what to do – but it is not impossible – not if we carry the light of Christ within us. To live as children of the light is to understand that there is both bodily and spiritual darkness in the world, but such darkness is not God’s will -and we have no right to demand that God dispel the darkness, especially if we are unwilling to do what we can to save ourselves. Our path is to take the harder road of being spiritually present in new and different ways – of loving one another even when that means demanding we stay physically separated in order to keep the most vulnerable among us safe. Our task is to remember that God’s presence is not limited to one place or action. God is here at all times and in all places. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need fear no evil, for God is with us. He comforts, blesses, and restores us.

We have not closed the house of the Lord; we cannot close it, because no matter what happens when we live by the light of faith we are already dwelling in the house of the Lord – and will forever. AMEN.

[1]Quoted in Jack Jenkins, (March 18, 2020), “White House takes low-key approach to churches that ignore coronavirus advice,” in Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2020/03/18/white-house-takes-a-low-key-stance-on-churches-that-ignore-coronavirus-advice/.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Frederick Niedner, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 102.

Sermon for March 15, 2020: 3 Lent, This is not a test (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Welcome to Grace’s first livestreamed sermon! As you know by now, on March 11 in response to concerns about the Corona Virus our Bishop, The Right Reverend Marc Andrus, asked all parishes in the Diocese of California to cancel our primary worship services, but he also gave permission for churches to have what I am calling “mini services,” and to simulcast those services so that a maximum number of people can participate “virtually” in worship together. This is new territory for many of us – and new things are often scary, but that’s why we live in community, so we can do these things together. We are journeying into an unknown and unprecedented future, but we are not alone.

This is evidenced by a post in Episcopal News Service Friday which stated, “As parishes across The Episcopal Church suspend in-person worship in a precautionary effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sunday, March 15 is shaping up to be a historic day, with many – if not most – churches switching to online services. With only a few days’ notice, churches are preparing for a radical, unprecedented shift in the way they gather as a community, and there’s no certainty about how long it will last.”[1]

There’s no denying that this feels strange – and difficult, but today’s readings remind us that we are not the first of God’s children to foray into the wilderness with more faith than expertise. Our Hebrew scripture provides us with a picture of the mental status of the Israelites along their long journey out of slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land – and it’s not very healthy. God has been faithful to these people, actively and even dramatically helping them to escape from the cruelty of the Egyptians and supporting them as they travel through the desert wilderness, but they seem to have forgotten about that, because when they run out of water they immediately start to wail and complain with all the volume and conviction of a bored two year-old in a grocery store checkout line. And, like any parent, Moses is frustrated. God is frustrated. What are they going to do with these quarrelsome, ungrateful, faithless people? For God, the answer is automatic – if a bit begrudging – help them. Give them what they need – not because they deserve it, but because that is God’s nature.

Just as it is almost always our human nature to turn inward when we feel threatened, focusing on our own troubles rather than considering those of others. A simple review of the human nervous system tells us that human beings are prone to react rapidly and often thoughtlessly when they are afraid – when, for example, they are escapees wandering through a desert wilderness to an unknown destination; when they are, like Paul’s flock in Rome, new Christians wondering why if Jesus is the God they have been looking for, they are still suffering; when they are, like us, confronted with a global pandemic causing extraordinary changes in our lives. If God loves us so much, we wonder, where is God when the water runs out? Where is God when the authorities show up to arrest the faithful? Where is God when the government runs out of coronavirus test kits?

The answer is: right here. God is present. We just get a little confused about what God’s presence means.  It means that God shares our lives – our triumphs and our sorrows. It doesn’t mean that God micromanages them. When we are warm and cozy and well-fed it is easy to wander around pronouncing that we are “blessed,” but in times of trial we become like our ancestors, hardening our hearts and accusing God of deserting us. David M. Burns describes this tendency in the Israelites, suggesting that “Even after all that the Lord had done for them, they still fell into a whiny panic when things did not appear to be going as they wished. This is not a shortcoming particular to the Israelites. It is a shortcoming for all of us. How many times must God act on our behalf before we trust God?”[2]

Probably for as long as we keep thinking of God as simply being a bigger and more powerful version of us. We see a lot of this lately – people embracing the basest of human instincts and then claiming they are acting on God’s behalf. But substituting human understanding for the will of God is both limiting and dangerous. It causes us to believe that God is like us, succumbing to fear, anger, prejudice and doubt. It makes us worry that when bad things happen it means that God is testing us or punishing us for our sins. But God is not like us. God is not petty and vengeful. God is merciful and just. When bad things happen to us, it is not because God is angry. It is not because we are being tested. It is simply because when human beings decide that we can control the world that God created, things go wrong – sometimes very wrong. When this happens, we can choose to see the terrors of our lives as the result of God’s wrath – or we can view them as opportunities – occasions to try to restore our relationships with God and one another and to demonstrate that miracles happen when we remember that we are in this together.

Hard times require faith, endurance, and hope. These virtues give us the strength to put aside our fears and reach out to others, which (by the way) is the best medicine for calming our own fear. Staying hopeful, says Paul, never fails because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Look at the Samaritan woman. It was hope that led her to talk to a strange and raggedy Jewish man who very inappropriately asked her to give him water from her holy well. Their conversation was, like today’s circumstances, unprecedented.  By any standard of their time – gender, race, religion, nationality, or culture – he shouldn’t have spoken to her -and she shouldn’t have responded. And yet it was to her that Jesus offered the first “I AM” statement in the Gospel of John, revealing to this allegedly heretical foreigner that he is both the Messiah of the Jews who worship in Jerusalem and the one that she and her people have been waiting for. The message of this story is clear: through the grace and truth of Christ Jesus, God dwells in both Jerusalem and Samaria, in Martinez, California and online.

The truth is that when we are afraid, it is easy to wallow in the muddied and shallow water that is human nature. But the living water brought by Jesus the Christ has no depth and no limit – and, whether our baptismal font is dry or not, Christ’s living water is here. God is with us in this sanctuary and with all of you watching. God is present at the bedside of every person who is ill and God is in our anxious hearts. God is, after all, with all those who accept membership in the community of Christ, no matter where we are, because it is through him that we are and will remain one body and one great and courageous spirit. AMEN.

[1]Egan Millard (March 13, 2020), “Presiding Bishop will preach sermon during livestreamed National Cathedral Service on Sunday: As churches cancel in-person worship service move online,” Episcopal News Service,  https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2020/03/13/presiding-bishop-will-preach-sermon-during-livestreamed-national-cathedral-sunday-service/

2David M. Burns, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 85.

Sermon for March 8, 2020: 2 Lent, Born of God (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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At this week’s Wednesday Holy Eucharist service, our scriptures included the passage from John which reads, “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.”  Ha! I labored for 27 hours with my son and while he is an absolute joy to me, I will still happily regale you with some very specific memories of the anguish of labor. So, while we are not sure who wrote the Gospel of John, I’m pretty certain that this particular passage was written by a man.

Still, it captures the length to which one human being will go to protect – to deliver- another. A woman giving birth, with rare exceptions, will bear an extraordinary amount of pain in order to safely deliver her baby into the world. Adoptive parents will go to equivalently traumatic lengths to bring a child or children into their loving arms, and caregivers of all kinds frequently dedicate their lives to protecting their charges. But no human being has or will ever match the sacrificial love for their offspring demonstrated by God, the original parent.

Scripture tells us that humanity was made in God’s image, but for many years and until very recently, most written Christian texts referred to God as a “he.” Many people still do not understand the reasoning for efforts to eliminate gender-specific references to God, arguing that “he” refers to “all people.” Today’s texts, however, demonstrate how limiting that idea is, because in them we hear God clearly being described like the Mother who gives birth to creation. This doesn’t mean that God is a woman. It belittles God to think of her/him/it/them as either male or female. God is both and more than female or male. Both men and women are designed by God to reflect his/her/its/their nature – a nature that is giving, loving, and creative enough to make life itself.  

Perhaps that is why Jesus chooses birth as a metaphor to explain to Nicodemus what it means to accept the salvation Jesus offers. Childbirth is strenuous. It is frightening. It hurts. It is also one of the clearest examples we have of the way in which we are made in God’s image. “God” says Deborah Kapp, “works hard for us and our faith. God conceives us as Christians and nurtures us in the wombs of our faith, safe and warm and secret. At some point, like any pregnant woman who is close to full term, God gets impatient with gestation and wants to get on with it; God wants to push that baby through the birth canal into greater maturity, into fullness of life, into a faith lived wholly in the world. That is what Jesus talks about in this text. Jesus thinks it is time Nicodemus came through that spiritual birth canal…God is ready to give us birth by water and the Spirit.”[1] God is ready to save us.

John 3:16 is one of the most quoted passages from the New Testament. You’ve seen it on billboards, t-shirts and written in magic marker on the foreheads of football players: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Or, as the button makers like to put it, “Jesus saves.” This passage is, indeed, the foundation of Christian theology and the reason we practice Holy Baptism – but it is also inadequate, because it doesn’t tell us how Jesus saves- and why it’s not simply a matter of saying that we believe he can.

Certainly professing our belief in the saving love of Jesus the Christ is a significant aspect of what many Christians believe is the key to salvation. In our tradition, Holy Baptism is the mark of membership in the community of Christ. It demonstrates that you (or your parents and godparents on your behalf) have committed to following Jesus and, more importantly have accepted the grace of salvation that is offered by him.  It is so significant that it is one of only two sacraments of the Episcopal Church. Even so, baptism is a sign of transformation; it is not the actual change agent. It is only by following the way of Jesus that we are inwardly transformed. Saying we are saved is not enough. Changing our hearts is not a procedure, but a process. Faith is a journey – and, like parenting a child, it is a long journey. It is a sometimes confusing journey. It can be a painful journey.

It is also a journey that we do not take alone. I recently read an article about Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, who says she wants to “normalize” the idea of what she calls, “mom guilt.” She suggests that all parents – wealthy or poor, working outside or within the home, parenting alone or with help – struggle with feeling not “good enough.” I would propose that such feelings are not only normal for parents, but for every single person who is out there trying to live an ethical, moral life. I know very few people who truly believe that they are good enough. This can be debilitating, especially in a society in which we are taught that we can do anything if we set our mind to it – that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps- that there is nothing more impressive than a “self-made man.”

But this is not what scripture says. Scripture says that we cannot save ourselves. Scripture tells us that trying to earn salvation is not only impossible, but it is contrary to God’s plan. “We stand before God incapable of earning God’s grace. [We are] instead worthy of that grace simply by God’s blessed choice.”[2] This is what St. Paul is talking about when he tells the people of Rome that “the promise that he would inherit the law did not come to Abraham…through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” Abraham was not blessed by God because of what he did, but because of what he didn’t do. Abraham did not hold on to his country, his family or his pre-existing ideas of what his life should be like. Rather, he completely relinquished his will to God, allowing God to guide him in all things – and for that he was blessed. Abraham’s story is the counterpoint to last week’s Hebrew scripture, in which we heard about humanity’s tragic decision to separate itself from the Creator. But if Genesis 3 is about how human beings rejected God’s plan for us to live in peaceful and protected relationship with him, then John 3:16 is a clear statement of how far God is willing to go to restore that relationship.

For Donald Olsen, “The notion of embracing newness and relinquishing what has been connects this text with today’s Gospel…To be born from above (or anew or again) may be understood as the embrace of God’s calling…that necessitates taking leave of one’s self-directed course. To leave the comfort of the known for the promise of the unknown realities of God is a form of birth.”[3]

And, unlike the mythological Athena, we do not spring fully formed from our parents’ heads. We come into the world confused, vulnerable, and weak but also receptive, open-minded, and hopeful. In other words, we come into the world with everything we need for the journey, just as we enter Christian community with all we need to accept the free salvation offered by God through Jesus. We just have to learn to believe it. We have to truly believe that God is with us in all things – in war and hatred, in violence and disease, in life and death. We have to believe, as the psalmist tells us, that God watches over us and keeps us safe, God delivers us from all evil, and God blesses us. To put it in the venerable words of Father George Ross, God really, really loves us. AMEN.

1Deborah J. Kapp., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 72.

[2]Laird J. Stuart, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 66.

[3]Donald P. Olsen., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 52.

Sermon for March 1, 2020, 1 Lent: Backwards (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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“In 1796, an English doctor named Edward Jenner made an incision into a young boy’s arm and inserted cowpox pus… [in order] to prove a theory that people could become immune to smallpox if they previously contracted its milder cousin. Jenner called this a vaccine after “vacca,” the Latin word for cow… He was initially met with skepticism and repulsion at the idea of placing pus from an animal into a human body, but the 30% death rate for smallpox made quick converts of many. By the mid-20th century, new methods for producing and administering vaccines allowed scientists” to announce in 1980 that small pox had been eradicated and measles followed in 2000.[1]

Two weeks ago in Hartford, Connecticut, over 500 people signed up to speak at a legislative hearing for a bill that would end religious exemptions from certain vaccinations for school children. The bill was introduced in response to concerns about the growing number of measles outbreaks worldwide. “Named one of the 10 greatest health threats of 2019 by the World Health Organization, ‘vaccine hesitancy’ is increasingly cited as a cause behind measles outbreaks. Vaccine hesitancy is a delay in acceptance, or outright refusal of vaccines despite having access to vaccination services.”[2] In the United States, this is largely the result of an anti-vaccination movement that argues that the measles vaccine causes autism. This theory has no basis in science, yet somehow well-intentioned and caring parents have become convinced that in order to protect their children it is reasonable to put millions of others at risk.

Stories like this seem to have become the norm rather than the exception. Unlike the 18th century constituents of Dr. Jenner, 21st century Americans often seem unwilling to accept the evidence of their own eyes and hearts – and the Church of Christ is no exception. While some people argue that the decreased influence of “Christian values” in America has led to a decline in the moral structure of our society, I would suggest that of much greater concern is the influence of ideas that people call “Christian” that have nothing whatsoever to do with either Jesus of Nazareth nor the God of which he is part. I am deeply disturbed by the lengths to which people will go to justify hateful behaviors by finding ways to call them “Christian.” This so-called Christian conduct is contrary to the very soul of the practices and beliefs taught by Jesus – and has done incredible damage to the moral fiber of the nation. I believe that the primary reason the influence of “Christian values” has declined is because what people see done in the name of Christ is not consistent with what Jesus actually taught.

This is the first Sunday of Lent, a season of self-examination and repentance in which we are encouraged to meditate on God’s Holy Word. It is a good time, then, for a refresher course in Christianity 101 – and today’s scriptures provide one.  Our first reading is perhaps the most famous of all biblical stories. The tale of Adam and Eve is well-known not just to Christians, but to people of numerous faith traditions – maybe because many of them also have a version of the tale. For Christians, it is the basis for the idea of “original sin” – the moment in which humanity “fell.” The culprit, according to most interpreters, was pride. For giving in to the temptation to be like God, humanity was cursed. What is interesting, though, is that the word “fall” and, more importantly, the word “sin” are nowhere to be found in the actual text. Although it certainly contains important information about the purpose and limitations of human beings, what it speaks to most eloquently is relationship. This story argues that when human beings listened to God we prospered, but when we chose to follow our own wills we were separated from him – and from one another. Basically, early in our existence, human beings decided that we are able to decide what is good and what is evil – and that we have the right to impose our decisions on one another and the rest of God’s creation. Since that time, we have, as William Danaher puts it, been “a sin-sick humanity looking for love in all the wrong places, helplessly yearning for health and wholeness.”[3] Sin is separation.

That’s why it is so painful and why repenting of our sins requires us to identify the way in which we have caused separation from God and one another, express genuine remorse for it, and try to fix it. Unfortunately, humanity continues to be unable to do this consistently. Yet God in her mercy never stops trying to restore her relationship with us, blessing us with laws, stories, and prophecy to help us heal not just the separation caused by the first humans, but also the rifts we ourselves create every day. Most importantly, God sent Jesus so that we might learn how to live obediently, righteously and as God intends for us. This is the basis of our Christian theology. It’s not about sin. It’s about grace.

Today’s gospel describes what it means to accept that grace by seeking to follow Jesus’s example. It shows us that we must try to reject things which separate us from God and one another, three of which are identified in the story of Jesus’s temptation by the devil. In it, we find that the devil is not a red-suited, horned beast that is God’s equal and opposite number. Rather, the devil is a clever deceiver who seeks to mislead Jesus (and us) about the true purposes of God. How does he do it? – by quoting scripture. “It is written,” the devil says, “that you can focus on your own hungers – your personal physical needs and desires.” “Wrong,” says Jesus. It is more important to listen to the words of God – words that encourage us to think of the needs of others as well as our own. The devil next quotes a passage that suggests that Jesus can do what he wants because he is important and privileged.  Jesus also rejects this interpretation, arguing instead for humility and respect for God’s power. Finally, the devil shows Jesus everything a human being might want, telling him that he can have it if he will only abandon his relationship with God. This final assault leads Jesus to offer his most definitive rejection of the tempter; he declares that nothing the world has to offer is as important as being in relationship with God.

I think we should be astounded when we hear this story – because it contradicts almost everything that human beings tell ourselves to justify our continued separation from God. First, it identifies how we might be deceived by distortions and misrepresentations of our own holy scriptures. Second, it shows us that the evils by which we are tempted often appear to be good things. Notice that in the course of this passage Jesus rejects several things which we, as Americans, have been taught to value: physical safety, privilege, and power – and in each case Jesus shows how such desires are divisive and hinder restoration of our relationship with God and one another. As Jeffrey John puts it, the “stubborn, blind determination to call darkness light and light darkness [was what] Jesus called the only unforgivable sin. And we must note carefully: this is the special sin of religious people, when we get so bound up in our own interpretation of Scripture and tradition, or in preserving our religious institutions and the status quo, that in order to protect them we will be prepared to turn truth, reason, love and justice upside down – all in the name of God himself.”[4] Do not be deceived by the temptation to substitute God’s will for our own. Remember that ours is a God of love. Everything that Jesus was and is is infused with the light of that love – and it is by that love and that love alone that we are saved. AMEN.

[1]Vox, (February 26, 2020), quoted in “Trivia Genius,” https://www.triviagenius.com/answer-what-are-the-only-two-diseases-that-have-been-completely-eradicated/

[2]Leah Salim, (December 5, 2019), “Measles explained: What’s behind the recent outbreaks”? Unicef for every child, https://www.unicef.org/stories/measles-explained-whats-behind-recent-outbreaks

[3]William Joseph Danaher Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 30.

[4]Jeffrey John, (2004), The Meaning in Miracles, {Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans], 140.

Homily for Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020 (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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We need Lent. We need Lent because as Christians it is far too easy for us to become self-congratulatory – to see ourselves as “blessed” or “chosen” or, worse still, “right.” We need Lent because as Christians we forget that “going through the motions” of worship is not enough – that no matter how often we “say our prayers” or go to church our worship is only of value when it allows us to become closer to God and one another. We need Lent because we are prone to helplessness and hopelessness, falling prey to doubt and fear and forgetting that with God nothing is impossible. We need it because we consistently fail to remember that we are assured forgiveness, simply by sincerely asking. Above all, we need Lent to remind us that we are not and have never been alone.

Today’s Holy Scriptures remind us that since the dawn of time people have rejected God’s desire for our perfection and peace. They also tell us that in every age God has nonetheless offered us reconciliation and blessing. Evil and darkness haunted the people who listened to the words of Joel, and those who heard the song of the psalmist. It caused worry and fear among the followers of Christ. Each of these peoples wept and despaired, ranted and raged, and were tempted to surrender to the gloom that surrounded them.

Just as we are. We look around us and consider that we may very well be lost – that there is no escape from the wickedness around us, and the wickedness in us. Our fear is present in our wariness of those who are different then we are. It lurks in our minds when we see the ease with which people can be manipulated – and when we recognize our own willingness to be manipulated. Fear confuses and frightens us. It makes us angry. Fear pushes us to hate when our purpose as Christians is to love.

These feelings have been part of the human condition since the time of Adam. They are normal – and they are sinful. They are sinful because they draw us away from the love of God and impair our ability to love one another. That is why we must repent of them and seek to put them behind us. This is why we need Lent.

The following is the text of “Lent 2020: A Call to Prayer, Fasting, and Repentance Leading to Action: An Invitation from Presiding Bishop Curry to Turn and Pray on Behalf of our Nation.” As our spiritual leader, Bishop Curry recognizes our need for Lent – our need for repentance, prayer, and seeking greater closeness with God and one another. I urge you to listen to his words and to take them to heart as we enter this time of penitence and preparation. He writes:

“In times of great national concern and urgency, people of faith have returned to ancient practices of repentance, prayer and fasting as ways of interceding with God on behalf of their nation and the world. This is such a moment for us in the United States.

On Ash Wednesday, I … join with other Christian leaders observing this Lent as a season of prayer, fasting and repentance on behalf of our nation, with continued fasting each Wednesday until the Wednesday before Advent begins.

Our appeal comes during a time of profound division and genuine crisis of national character. This is not a matter of party or partisanship, but of deep concern for the soul of America.

The group of religious ‘Elders’ who share this commitment – the same group that over a year ago published the “Reclaiming Jesus” statement – includes Evangelical, Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant leaders. While we hold diverse political affiliations and positions on many issues facing our country, we find common ground in two shared convictions:

  • First and foremost, we are committed to Jesus Christ as Lord, and his way of love as our primary loyalty.
  • Second, because we love our country, we are concerned about its moral and spiritual health and well-being.

For me, this call is rooted in my personal commitment to practice Jesus’s Way of Love, by which I turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, go and rest in the way of our savior. Especially now, drawn together by love, hope and concern, and recalling the wisdom of our ancient traditions, I am grateful to join others in the spiritual practice of prayer, fasting and repentance for our nation.

Let us pray:

Almighty God … We humbly pray that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of your favor and glad to do your will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in your Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to your law, we may show forth your praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in you to fail; all of which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Signed:

“Your brother, The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church”

Sermon for February 23, 2020: The Touch of Heaven (The Rev. Walter Ramsey):

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You may not know it but I come from a mixed family background. Roman
Catholic, Lutheran, and in the middle – Episcopalian. The Lutherans in my family referred to the Episcopalians as Catholics that never learned Latin while the Roman Catholics just considered the Episcopalians as simply Protestants. I think I remember the Rector of St. Michael’s saying we have a lot to learn from both. Of course, it was around 1952 and I was just a young boy.
Despite differences in polity and theology one of the things that all three branches of the Jesus movement have in common is that they are all liturgical churches. We all follow pretty much the same liturgical year with liturgical seasons. The same liturgical colors and the same three-year lectionary or readings. In the liturgy, the church ritually portrays through movement site sound and smell, if incense is being used, biblical and traditional understood acts of our salvation. By our ritual gestures — this “body language” — we unite the physical and mental/spiritual aspects of our worship of the Lord and express our unity with God with our entire being.

The first Christmas midnight mass I remember was in 1952. I was eight years old and in those days the mass was in Latin and all the splendid singing was provided by a choir. It was at the Cathedral in Houston and the thing I most remember was the Sanctus being sung by the choir that sounded like angels and the billows of incense rising up above the altar illuminated by the lights in the ceiling and the bells being rung gave this young boy a vision of the throne of God. When the Sanctus ended the Bishop continued his Latin droning of the consecration my vision returned to ordinary bread and wine.
My experience at that Christmas mass long ago always brought to my mind today’s Gospel in which we witness an extraordinary event in the life of Jesus—one that shows his closest followers who he really is. We, the church calls this event the Transfiguration of Jesus.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated August 6 but we the Episcopal
branch of the Jesus movement use the same readings on this last Sunday after Epiphany. The Episcopal dictionary of the church explains it this way: “As an Epiphany story, the Transfiguration provides one of the most distinctive and dramatic showings of Jesus’s divinity.” Light is thematic of the season between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent.
Jesus takes Peter James and John up to the pinnacle of a high mountain and while they wait, Jesus is transfigured, and his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. Jesus is then visited by Moses and Elijah, (the law and the prophets) and the three of them had a conversation.
How wonderful it is to have the ordinary peeled back long enough to glimpse the wonder of God’s grace! Now Peter decides to interrupt Jesus in conversation to thank him for bringing him, James and John to be with him and asked if Jesus would like him to build three shelters or sukkot for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. I can identify with Peter as most of us probably can that we’re in a situation where we feel useless or left out we feel we need to do something and besides he may have thought they were going to be there for quite a while.

Some have suggested that what Peter is referring to is the harvest festival of
Booths or Sukkot, but that is in the autumn, but Sukkot does reflect some of what Peter is feeling. Sukkot is a Jewish festival and one of the biggest holidays celebrated by Jewish people all over the world. It is a weeklong festival that combines family, religion and their native country together. Typically, Sukkot is an eight-day long harvest festival. Unlike more well-known holidays such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah where people ask for forgiveness of their previous wrongdoings and fixing relationships, Sukkot is an occasion to celebrate pure happiness and joy.

I little doubt if we were there pure happiness and joy would also sweep over us. Just then as Peter was laying out his plans for the booths the sky lit up and a voice thundered “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him, I am well pleased; listen to him!” That is what God proclaimed at Jesus’s baptism, as well as what Blessed Mary told the stewards to do at the Cana wedding feast. The three disciples then fall prostrate on the ground in the attitude of worship and
fear. The magnificent presence and commanding voice of the Holy One of Israel threaten to overpower those who encounter them, but to the disciples overwhelmed by the presence and voice of God, Jesus reaches out his hand, touches them, and reassures them: “Do not be afraid” (1)

This is the way that God comes into the world: not simply the brilliant cloud of
mystery, not only a voice thundering from heaven but also a human hand laid upon a shoulder and the words, “Do not be afraid.” God comes to us quietly, gently, that we may draw near and not be afraid. God’s glory is majestic and so far beyond our capacity to receive it that we can take just as much of God’s glory as a human hand can hold and give.

People often suggest that Jesus was shining brightly because he was divine and that this was a vision of his divinity, which would otherwise have remained secret. But in Luke’s account, Moses and Elijah are shining as well, so it can’t mean that. Moses and Elijah aren’t divine. And in any case, Jesus himself had said, earlier in Matthew’s gospel, that all God’s people would shine like stars in God’s kingdom. For the New Testament writers in general, in fact, humanity itself is a glorious thing, and Jesus’ perfect humanity provides the model for the glory which all his people will one day share.

Some would say God is much too much to be contained within the walls of a
church. Of course, they are right. Some would remind us that God is so great that neither the earth below nor the heavens above can hold God. Absolutely, this is all true. God is certainly so great that God can never be contained in something as small as a crumb of bread or a sip of wine. We may nod our heads, yes; but we must hasten to add: furthermore, God is so great, so majestic, so glorious, that God stoops to come to us in a crumb of bread
and a sip of wine, just as much of God as a hand can hold.

God loves us and desires that we be with Him in glory. The touch of the hand of
Jesus was probably the most re-assuring of this in the event. We who worship and serve God have Jesus’ word, “Do not be afraid.” And later, “Where I am, there you shall be also.” we are God’s light and his healing and reassuring touch to the world when we serve the poor and destitute, house and protect refugees visit prisoners and comfort the dying and console those who mourn. —When we love our neighbors as ourselves.

(1) Bartlett, David L.. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through
Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) . Presbyterian Publishing
Corporation. Kindle Edition.
(2) Wright, N.T.. Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (The New
Testament for Everyone) (p. 13). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Children’s Homily for February 16, 2020: Do onto Otters (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Who knows what Jesus said was the most important thing? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Good. That’s right. Jesus said….. (Give them a chance to answer and respond). And Jesus said the most important thing we can do is to LOVE (Give them a chance to answer and respond). We have to love God and we have to love who else? (Give them a chance to answer and respond).That’s right!

Sometimes people have a hard time loving each other. Why do you think that is? (Give them a chance to answer).  Good. Tell me about when YOU have a hard time loving other people. (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Well, in today’s gospel story AND in our story about St. Paul, people were making excuses about why they weren’t being loving to EVERYONE. Instead, they were pointing out rules to each other and saying they only had to worry about breaking specific rules. Has that ever happened to you? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). They were only worried about getting in trouble. They were thinking about themselves and they weren’t understanding WHY it was important to try to be nice all the time, and not just because they thought they would get in trouble if they didn’t.

That made Jesus upset. They weren’t getting the point! So, since we want to make sure we get Jesus’s point, I have brought a book that will help us understand how to treat other people and why. Would you like to hear it? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Okay, let’s put on our listening ears. Here we go:

Read, “Do unto Otters by Laurie Keller.

What did you think of that book? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). What did you learn? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Good. That’s right. We need to treat other people the way we would like to be treated. (Give them a chance to answer and respond). That means that we have to try to be nice not just so we can say we are following the rules but because it’s the right thing to do. Does that make sense to you? (Give them a chance to answer and respond).

So, do you think that you would be willing to try to treat everyone exactly the way you would want people to treat you? (Give them a chance to answer and respond).And to always THINK about how you are going to treat people before you do something? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Good! What do we say in church when we agree on something? (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right. We say “amen.” AMEN.

Sermon for February 16, 2020, 8 a.m.  (The Rev. Susan Reeve)

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Sermon for February 9, 2020: Tell me Why (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

When I was a little girl my mother frequently used to look at me with frustration and say, “Deborah, you think too much!”  That’s because I could never seem to let things go. I never accepted, “because I said so” as a reasonable answer. I had to know why people did things – and why I was supposed to do them too.

Science tells us that curiosity is an evolutionary survival mechanism. We are born with a need to understand the world around us in order to live and grow safely in it. According to neuroscientists, “information stimulates our brains the same way food and sex do.”[1]  In other words, people share a biological drive to find answers to our questions. This is a good thing. After all, human curiosity has led to the creation of science, technology, philosophy, mathematics, art – and religion.

Religious practices provide us with a lens for viewing the world – a way to answer our “why” questions. Some religious rationales seem simplistic and unlikely.  For example in my house growing up, God was very active in the weather. Thunder was angels bowling. Rain was God’s tears. Natural disasters were signs of God’s wrath. Such ideas are ancient (except maybe the bowling). They come from the efforts of early humans who lived before the dawn of empirical science to understand their world. When they experienced powerful and frightening natural phenomena beyond their understanding, it made perfect sense to attribute them to an equally large and potent force. They intuited God’s presence, uncomplicated by a need to “prove it.” Over time, people constructed very specific belief systems, all of which reflected their growing experience with and understanding of the God and the world. They asked questions and found answers in the whisper of the wind, the shifting of the sands, the thunder of the waves, and the certainty of their hearts. They talked to God and God answered them – because God has always spoken to creation. God is still speaking to us. It is the way people interpret God’s words that has changed.

As human beings learned to speak, to read, and to build we began to describe and comprehend God through these new experiences. As our view of the world expanded and we sorted ourselves into different tribes, people explained God’s behavior in terms that reflected their own lifestyle and priorities. This did not change God, but it changed the way people worshipped God. They began to believe that God was different for different people, so various groups decided to preserve the specific ways they saw God.  They started to think that any variation in belief was dangerous. They took their understanding of God and set it in stone. They developed criteria for deciding who belonged and who was unworthy. They made laws that enforced the status quo. They discouraged questioning by arguing that doubt is the opposite of faith.

This is not, according to today’s gospel from Matthew, what God intended. Today’s passage follows Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount – the one in which he describes the nature and actions of those who are blessed. In today’s passage, having told his disciples how they are blessed, he tells them why. They have been blessed with “saltiness,” the ability to enhance the flavor of life, because this will help them bring out the goodness of those they encounter.  They have been blessed with brightness because, as Marcia Riggs says, “Like light, the disciples as a gathered community have the overarching purpose of being the mirror that refracts God’s light so that all peoples and nations can know of God’s justice and mercy.”[2] We are blessed with gifts from God so we can do the work of God.

This requires that we study all of the commandments that God has set before humanity to discern which are true to God’s purpose and which serve only human desires. Fortunately, God has provided us with a perfect and unchanging criterion for knowing what is right and true. We are to live according to God’s laws as interpreted through the words and actions of Jesus. This is what Jesus means when he tells the disciples that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. “The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees,” says Riggs, “is concerned with observance of tradition, public displays of piety, and adherence to the letter of the law. The righteousness of Jesus flows from his relationship with God and, in turn, is the ground of Jesus’ relationship with his followers.”[3] Jesus lived with other humans, and he kept the laws of his ancestors not for his own justification or self-aggrandizement, but for the sake of those with and for whom he lived.

God’s laws are a blessing and a pathway. They are God’s instructions on how to get along with God and one another. They are about responsibility, kindness, reliability, compassion, and love. They assume relationship. True obedience to the law, according to the psalmist, always results in acts of mercy, generosity, and empathy – and it is through such acts that we find joy. It is impossible then to live righteously without living in relationship. This is the model that Jesus provided for us and one which has remained the hallmark of Christian living for over two thousand years.

We cannot earn salvation by blindly quoting laws. The prophet Isaiah tells us that the sin of the people was not that they did not seek to follow God’s laws, but that they did so for their own self-interest. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 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… to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.”  As Carol Dempsey puts it, “A gap exists between their seeking God and God’s ways and their actual way of life, which reveals the people’s hypocrisy… acts of religious piety as private acts of devotion are meaningless when they are divorced from acts of justice and righteousness.”[4]

The same rules apply to us. We cannot say that we wish to see “a future where every child has a warm, safe and loving home,” and then allow certain children to be brutally torn away from their parents. We cannot say we support religious freedom if we are only willing to allow people who share our beliefs to live among us. We do not respect the dignity of every human being when we consistently deceive them and use cruel and vulgar words to describe people who disagree with us. We cannot say that we are grateful for God’s majestic and beautiful world and then refuse to protect its resources.[5]

It is not wrong to ask questions. It is a matter of asking the right questions. Our questions must not be about who belongs and who does not. We need not ask what we as individuals need to do to be saved. We need instead to wonder whether our behavior reflects the consistently loving, life-giving, and relational way of God. No one, St. Paul tells the Corinthians, comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. What we should be asking then is to understand the gifts we have received from God and how to use them in God’s service. Faith frees us not from asking questions, but from the need to find all of the answers for ourselves. The Holy Spirit is present among us, guiding us, so that our light shall break forth like the dawn, our righteousness like the sun at noonday, and justice and peace be established throughout the world. Why?  -because God said so. AMEN.

[1]Vivian Hemmelder and Tommy Blanchard, (9/14/16), “Why human beings are hard-wired for curiosity,” HuffPost, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-humans-are-hardwired-_b_11984748.

[2]Marcia Y. Riggs, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 12010.

[3]Ibid, 12027.

[4]Carol J. Dempsey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle locations 11366-11384.

[5]This section is based on the article, “Trump, prayer, and the faithful voter’s gut check,” by Eva Kendrick,  https://religionnews.com/2020/02/06/trump-prayer-and-the-faithful-voter-gut-check/?fbclid=IwAR21B-cRZXwoVR2wtg3NbpH7J28f5UNC5YJGmq1qNjcw-w7oCvtAHtKP7YE

Sermon for February 2, 2020: A light for all people (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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This past Wednesday, the Anti-Defamation League released a poll indicating that 61 percent of Americans surveyed endorse at least one Anti-Semitic stereotype.[1] The poll also demonstrated that approximately eleven percent of respondents endorsed six or more Anti-Semitic statements, suggesting that they harbor intensely Anti-Semitic views. If you extrapolate that figure to all Americans, that represents about 28 million people.[2]  I don’t know how many of the respondents in this study were Christian, but you need only watch the news to know that numerous Christians express – and act on – Anti-Semitic ideas.

Now, I think that most Christians understand that we share a deep and complex history with our Jewish brethren. For example, Christians acknowledge kinship with Jewish people by endorsing the truth of their sacred texts. After all, most of our Christian Bible is taken up by Hebrew Scriptures. Many Christians also understand that Christians and Jews – as well as Muslims- share a common patriarch in Abraham and a foundational principle of monotheism – belief in one God. We also know that Jesus himself was a practicing Jew. This is evidenced by today’s Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord.

This is a rather unusual feast day. First of all, it doesn’t get celebrated that often. In fact, our bulletin computer program tried to insert different readings for today, and when I started researching our liturgical texts, I found very little explanation about them. The reason for this is technical. Some of our feast days are “fixed” and some are “movable.” The Presentation can be moved, but is generally celebrated only when its fixed date, February 2, falls on a Sunday. The last time that happened was in 2014.

The Feast of the Presentation is about two things. First, it presents evidence that early in his life – before he began preaching or teaching – Jesus was recognized as the Messiah. In today’s gospel from Luke, we hear about how, when Jesus is carried by his parents into the temple in Jerusalem, they run into two people. The first of these is Simeon, a devout and righteous man who spent his entire life serving God and waiting to see the Messiah. According to the author of Luke, when Simeon saw Jesus, he knew that Jesus was the one he had been waiting for. Then a second prophet also recognized Jesus as the child who would redeem Jerusalem. This is obviously a significant event. Not just one but two prophets identify Jesus as God’s salvation. This baby Jesus is the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Malachi, who promised that the one who will purify and refine the descendants of Levi will “suddenly come to his temple.” And yet few Christians seem to know about it, much less celebrate it.

Perhaps that has something to do with its “Jewishness.” Jesus and his parents are, after all, in the temple in Jerusalem to perform a Jewish rite based on the Mosaic Law found in Leviticus 12: “A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period.  On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.  Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding.”[3] Christians, of course, believe that because Mary was the mother of God she did not need to be purified. But Mary and Joseph were Jews – and they followed Jewish law. That’s what led them to the Temple and their encounter with the two Jewish prophets waiting there to meet the promised Messiah. If this does not remind us that Jesus was Jewish, I don’t know what will.

Except for many Christians, it doesn’t. Instead of understanding Jesus’s Jewishness as an integral part of who he was and the way in which he and his disciples understood humanity’s relationship with God, many Christians have attempted to distance themselves from the beliefs and traditions of our Jewish sisters and brothers. They have sought instead to prove that Christians are right – and therefore Jews are somehow wrong. There’s a name for that. It’s called “supersessionism.” Supersessionism is the belief that the covenant that Jesus made with humanity – the “new” covenant – replaced the “old” covenant between God and the people of Israel. In other words, once Jesus showed up, Christians were in and Jews were out.

The Episcopal Church repudiated this doctrine in 1988, saying, ”From the early days of the Church, many Christian interpreters saw the Church replacing Israel as God’s people. . . . The Covenant of God with the people of Israel was mistakenly seen only as a preparation for the coming of Jesus. As a consequence, the Covenant with Israel was considered to be abrogated.”[4] “The consequences of such a view, the guidelines conclude, have been ‘fateful.’ The Judaism of Jesus’ day and after was regularly denigrated, often as ‘a fossilized religion of legalism.’”[5] Subtle signs of supersessionistic ideas are evident in both the language and traditions of Christianity – from the use of the term “Old Testament” to describe the Hebrew Scriptures to the oft-repeated claim that “The Jews killed Jesus.”  It has also had much more pernicious effects, justifying centuries of exclusion and violent treatment of Jews by Christians, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century.

Supersessionism was never proclaimed or encouraged by Jesus.  It is instead based on a misreading of the concept of the New Covenant – one which persists today in pulpits and internet sites across the country. That interpretation suggests that the covenant between God and the Israelites was nothing but a precursor to the salvation brought by Jesus – a failed experiment. But our scriptures tell us that salvation is for all people.

We hear it in today’s “New Testament” reading from Hebrews, which says that “It is clear that [Jesus] did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.” It is also present in the words Simeon uses to praise God for the gift of Jesus, calling him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  Jesus’ coming was not meant to be divisive, as happened historically, but to bring Gentiles into the fold with the Jews.  Gentiles, by knowing Jesus, would glorify the Jews.  God sent Jesus for all who love God, for, as the psalmist tells us, “no good thing will the Lord withhold from those who walk with integrity.”

The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord has several other names, one of which is “Candlemas.” It came to be called this in order to recognize Simeon’s description of Jesus as the light that can and will enlighten the nations. How sad then that this promise of light has inadvertently caused so much darkness. Fortunately, we can do something about that. We can recognize the truth: that God loves and offers salvation to all people. We can, like Jesus, grow and become strong, filled with wisdom. And on this day in which we recognize the light of the Messiah, we can and must be the light of the world. As Archbishop Rowan Williams reminds us, “For God’s love there is never any person or situation beyond its reach. There are no insiders and outsiders. There only those for whose company and well-being, God is eternally… passionate. Into that love, we step, in silence and in hope,”[6] as we go forth into the world following the light of Christ. AMEN.

[1]Justine Coleman, (January 29, 2020), “Sixty-one percent of Americans agree with at least one Anti-Semitic Stereotype: poll,” The Hill, https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/480321-adl-poll-61-percent-of-americans-agree-with-at-least-one-anti

[2]Ibid.

[3]Leviticus 12:2b-4a.

[4]The Episcopal Church, (1988), “Guidelines for Christian-Jewish Relations.”

[5]The New York Times Editorial Board, (July 24, 1988), “Ideas and Trends: ‘Supersessionism’ Reconsidered; a Leap Toward Closing the Gap between Christians and Jews,”  https://www.nytimes.com/1988/07/24/weekinreview/ideas-trends-supersessionism-reconsidered-leap-toward-closing-basic-gap-between.html

[6]Rowan Williams (2016), quoted in Jerusalem Jackson Greer (February 2, 2019), “Blessing the Light: a Youth Activity for Candlemas,” Building Faith, https://buildfaith.org/blessing-the-light-a-youth-activity-for-candlemas/?fbclid=IwAR0_vJw3hhg8ZfEcJcIJepvc8AG5YfuB5OZmMbr-Rr-xML5aTmvHw7dJF0k.

Sermon for January 26, 2020: Walking and fishing in the light (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):

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Robin Williams used to do a routine called, “The Top Ten Reasons for being Episcopalian.” One of Williams’ most arcane reasons is, “because we have a color-coded calendar.” We do – and we are not the only ones. We share our multi-colored wheel of seasons with several other denominations. In addition, we share a schedule of Sunday scripture readings called “The Revised Common Lectionary (or RCL).” Using the RCL means that on any given Sunday, my mom in Connecticut and my Roman Catholic brothers-in-law in Virginia and Florida all hear the same portions of the Bible read aloud.

The RCL follows our liturgical (color-coded) seasons. During the current Season after Epiphany our gospel stories have been following Jesus as he grows from a baby into his full stature as the Messiah. Our psalms, Hebrew and New Testament scriptures are designed to complement the gospel narrative, fleshing out Jesus’s story and helping to explain why he came.

They also remind us of our similarities to the all people of God across time.  In our recent readings, we have followed the stories of ancient people just like us who have struggled between faith and fear, hope, and despair, dark and light – people like those who first heard Isaiah’s prophecy. There is debate about who exactly these people were, but it is clear that they lived in a time of chaos, fear, and darkness. Isaiah’s words reminded them that God was with them – and that if they were patient light would shine on the faithful. As Richard Ward says, “With a faith rooted in the character of God, Isaiah forecasts new possibilities through human and divine effort, even when nations with imperial ambitions are wreaking havoc on the world stage.”[1]

Sadly, we are still in need of Isaiah’s words today. Although we are fortunate to live in a wealthy and well-defended land, we are sometimes reminded that our peace and well-being are not assured. During the recent tension between the United States and the middle-eastern countries of Iran and Iraq, my college-age daughter went from posting cute animal pictures on Instagram to repeatedly checking national news feeds, expressing her fear that the world was going to end. I reassured her with what is perhaps the least comforting truth I could muster, “Don’t worry Kate.  This has happened thousands of times before.”

This is not God’s fault; it is the nature of humanity. God does not visit evil on us; we make our own evil. The history of human life as told in our holy scriptures is how we repeatedly betray God and one another, putting our own devices and desires ahead of the common good. Miraculously, it is also and more importantly about how over and over again God has attempted to save us from ourselves, ultimately sacrificing God’s own self for our salvation.

But still the people will not accept God’s deliverance. Still we refuse to believe that such goodness exists. Still we choose fear over faith and darkness over light. This is why church is a good thing – because it allows us struggle together to understand and accept the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. It’s also why the Revised Common Lectionary is a good thing – because it reminds us that the people of God have been dealing with the same internal and external conflicts for thousands of years – and that if we truly accept the gift of Jesus’s love and follow his way, our suffering will end.

But in order to be true disciples, we cannot just offer lip service to our God. Saying you believe in Jesus is not the same as following him. St. Paul makes this clear to the community at Corinth when he finds that they have been jockeying for position based on who had baptized them. It is not, he tells them, acceptable to claim the title “Christian” as a sign of superiority and separateness rather than humility and sacrifice. They must not argue about who is right, but instead be united in the same mind and the same purpose. That purpose, according to Paul, has little to do with rituals. It is “wrong,” writes Tim Sedgewick, “to identify Christian faith with…a particular understanding of baptism or with the beliefs and practices of a particular person or group. The gospel is given in the cross as self-sacrifice, giving oneself up in response to and for the other, the cross as bearing the burden of others…[and to do so] in joy and thanksgiving. To claim anything else empties the cross of Christ of its power.”[2] Or, as Pastor John Pavlovitz puts it, “one of the markers of a life emulating Jesus, [is] a heart capable of being broken at the distress of other human beings around you: when they are hungry and hurting, when they are homeless and afraid, when they grieve and feel alone, when they believe they are unloved and forgotten, when tragedy befalls them and when injustice assails them. These things are supposed to move the needle within us if Jesus is present.”[3]

This should be clear to us if we have been listening to the stories of the season after Epiphany, which is a time in which we are shown how God was made manifest in Jesus, bringing the light of salvation that God’s people so desperately needed. Our post-Epiphany readings show us what it means to accept the gift of salvation – what it means to follow Jesus. We see this in the actions of Jesus’s first disciples in today’s gospel. When they recognize Jesus’s call, they do not hesitate or negotiate; they do not pack their bags or empty their bank accounts. They follow him.

Christian faith is not just something you say you have; it’s something you do. And it is not easy. “The life of faith does not render us invisible, anonymous faces in the crowd. Instead we assume some personal risks in following God.”[4] Notice that the gospel story does not end with the calling of the first disciples. It ends with what happens after they follow Jesus. It ends with the Good News being carried out and carried forth. It ends with the disciples acting in faith.

It is my belief that the people of Grace Martinez have been called as disciples of Christ to emulate his way and spread the Good News. Our mission statement calls us “to welcome, support, and serve all God’s people.” This means we need to constantly discern the ways in which we can expand our ministry and, as Jesus commanded, fish for people. Our property includes an upper lot, which stands unused. I believe that in a time and place in which many people are in need it is our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation to determine how we might use this asset to support our mission. For that reason, in 2020 we will embark on a discernment process which will help us discover God’s plan for that piece of property. We will not be alone. Some of you may have seen Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle article entitled, “A whole new calling for sacred ground.” It details a trend that has spoken to my heart, a desire to welcome and heal rather than exclude and reject- a path to service rather than selectivity. The name that has been given to this movement is, “Yes in God’s backyard.”

I believe that during this time of discernment as we read scripture, talk, and pray together we will begin to see and follow Christ on a great adventure and to say “yes” to whatever God asks of us. That is, after all, the number one reason for being an Episcopalian. AMEN.

1Richard F. Ward, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 9802.

[2]Timothy F. Sedgwick, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 10050.

[3]John  Pavlovitz, (January 6, 2020), “Christians are supposed to care about people,” in Stuff that needs to be said, https://johnpavlovitz.com/2020/01/06/christians-are-supposed-to-care-about-people/

[4] Maryann McKibben Dana, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 9897.

Children’s Homily for January 19, 2020: God is calling! (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):

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(Start with phone ringing).  Oh no! Someone’s calling on my phone! Who would call me during church? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). (Sound of ringing. Look at children’s phone). Oh my goodness! Now that phone is ringing. Who could it be? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Maybe it’s GOD.  Could God be calling us? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Do you think God calls us on the phone? (Give them a chance to answer and respond).Well, I would be pretty surprised to hear from God that way myself, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Because here’s the thing: God does call us. What do you think about that? (Give them a chance to answer).  It says so in today’s readings from the Bible.  Who knows who Isaiah was? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). That’s right. Isaiah was in the Bible. He was a prophet. Who knows what a prophet is? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). A prophet is someone who speaks for God. Isaiah was one of God’s prophets a long time ago and in today’s story about him, he said that he was called by God before he was even born. What do you think of that? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). I know it might seem strange, but God knows us all just as well as we know ourselves, and God tries to talk to us all the time. How many of you have ever talked to God? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). What do we call it when we talk to God? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). That’s right – we call it praying! What kinds of things do we say when we talk to God? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Good. That’s right. What else? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). How many of you take time every day to listen to God? (Give them a chance to answer and respond).

Now, how many of you have ever heard God talking back to you? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). That’s good because it’s kind of unusual for people to hear God’s voice talking to them the way we talk to each other, especially as you get older, but there are other ways you can hear from God. Who can think of some? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Good. Sometimes God gives you a really strong feeling that it’s important to do something. Sometimes God sends someone your way who needs help and that’s God’s way of telling you that you need to help them. Most often, God talks to us through other people – people who are living and people who lived a long time ago, like Isaiah and John the Baptist.  Who knows who John the Baptist is? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). He was a prophet like Isaiah – so he spoke for God – and he told his friends that Jesus was “The Lamb of God” – God’s son. When John the Baptist said that, it made John’s friends Andrew and Peter follow Jesus because when they heard it they knew Jesus was the right person to listen to.

Sometimes it’s hard to know who to listen to. Who are some of the people you listen to? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Good. And how do you know that they are good people to listen to? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Yes, your parents are good people to listen to, and they can help you to know who are other good people to listen to. Here are two really good ways to know whether someone might have something to tell you from God. The first one is that the people you already know and love and who are safe people to listen to tell you that it’s okay. That’s what happened with John the Baptist’s friends. And that’s why we have church – because all of the people here – this community of God – are here because they want to do the right thing like you do, and we figure out the right things to listen to and do together.

An even better way to know whether someone is saying something for God is whether it hurts or helps someone. God only asks us to do things that will help other people, so if someone tells you they are talking for God and then they ask you to do something mean or hurtful to someone else, then you know that’s not a message from God. Okay? (Give them a chance to answer and respond).

Now, here’s the most important part: when you get a call from God – no matter how you get it, you need to try to do what God asks you to do. Doing what God wants you to do is called answering God’s call for you. So, do you think that you would be willing to listen for God every day and, when you think you know what God wants and you check it out with your safe people, you can try to do that? (Give them a chance to answer and respond).You agree to try to answer God’s call for you? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). All right then, what do we say in church when we agree to do something together? (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right. We say “amen.” AMEN.

Sermon for January 19, 2020: The Lord called me (reworked from January 19, 2014) (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):

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“Almighty God, grant that your people may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known to the ends of the earth.” Amen.

I grew up in the Episcopal Church. My family was always very active in my home parish – both of my parents served on the Vestry, my dad was a Lay Eucharistic Minister, and I often spent my Saturday mornings doing Altar Guild with my mom. My older sister was one of the first female acolytes in the Episcopal Church, and I was the first female Senior Sacristan at my college, where I once had the privilege of serving alongside Bishop Desmond Tutu. As an adult, I have served in liturgical and church government positions in five different dioceses. But I never wanted to believe that I was called to ordained ministry. My goal was to become one of those fabulous and revered elderly church ladies who gets an amazing turnout at her funeral. Unfortunately, that’s not what God wanted.

When I was 25 and working in broadcasting, I began to feel very uncomfortable – as if I was not right in my skin. I went to see my parish priest and he suggested that I might have a call to ordained ministry and perhaps I should start doing some discernment about that. Instead, I went to Social Work school and became a social worker. Two years later, while working with chronically mentally ill homeless people, I started to get that “itchy” feeling again. This time I knew what God wanted, which I promptly ignored in favor becoming a psychologist. I figured that if I could keep upping the ante on “helping people”, I could get out of this whole “priest thing.” Ten years later, the inability to live in my skin came back – and this time it was so unbearable, that I cried out to God in frustration, “I give Lord, I give!” Almost immediately, the discomfort in body, the fear in my heart, and the questioning in my mind, stopped. Because, although I knew I was not worthy on my own merits, I realized that God had chosen me for her own reasons, and would be my strength.

My battles with my calling are not unique. It is so common for people who feel called to ordained ministry to avoid that call for as long as possible that they have a slang term for it – they call it “doing a Jonah.” Stories about people who run away from God’s call seem familiar to us because although we each have a calling, most of us have no idea what it is, much less how to go about fulfilling it.

St. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle that the grace of God has been given to us in Christ Jesus…so that [we] are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” In other words, we have everything we need to fulfill God’s call for each for us. The question is, how do we know what our calling is?  We have to slow down and listen. We cannot hear God’s word when we are constantly “multitasking” in order to fulfill the obligations of our earthly lives. Today’s psalm tells us that we must wait “patiently” for the Lord. I know this is hard – but take it from someone who refused to listen to God for 25 years; God will get you in the end.

We must, says St. Paul, wait for Christ to be revealed to us. That means we have to open up the lines of communication between us and God. We have to pray – every day in every way. George MacLeod writes that “we are in touch with God every moment that we live…for the simple reason that God is life: not religious life, nor Church life, but the whole [of] life.” Every single thing we do shows God who we are and how we are called to be God’s hands in the world.

Today’s gospel says that John the Baptist was already baptizing before he even knew who Jesus was. “I myself did not know him,” he says, “but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” Andrew and Simon did not know Jesus either, but when they overheard John the Baptist, they followed Jesus. They didn’t know who he was or where he might lead them, but they went – because Jesus called them. I think that sometimes, like Andrew and Simon, we have to start following before we know exactly where we are going. As Bishop Yvette Flunder says, “Sometimes God will give you the what, but not the who, when, where and how.” That’s frightening – but not knowing the whole plan doesn’t mean we can ignore the parts we do know.

The good news is that we don’t have to search alone. Christians live in community for many reasons, including helping one another work through our doubts and fears – and remind us of the calling that we all share. The Book of Common Prayer tells us that “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ…The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members,,” because in order to fulfill God’s purpose for his creation, all of us are needed.

Tomorrow we will celebrate the life of a person who answered and carried out his call from God at a terrible cost. Six years before he was assassinated, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a sermon called, “Love in Action.” In it he said, “One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves…How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds?…This strange dichotomy, this agonizing gulf between the ought and the is represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.” As Mary Earle puts it, “We need to be living the Great Commandment, not just talking about it.”

This seems overwhelming. It seems like enough of a risk simply to cry out against the immoralities of this world. After all, we are small, the system is large, and many of us are already struggling to manage our own lives. It doesn’t feel fair that we should be asked to do more. But I’m going to share with you something that I am just beginning to understand: answering God’s call for you will not add to your burdens; answering God’s call will lift them. That’s because using your gifts to serve others gives us the chance to find out and be who we really are – and to get to know God better as well.

Our responsibility as part of God’s body the church is to figure out what it means for each of us to live our own lives as faithful Christians. C.S. Lewis said, “The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.’” Your calling may not be that of an ordained minister. Your calling may not be as a civil rights worker. But you have a calling – a calling to do the work of God – and any work that you do to fulfill the will of God – any work that you do to love your neighbor as yourself – any work that you do that shines with the radiance of Christ’s glory – that is your calling. Wait patiently for the Lord, knowing in your heart that God is always provides us with the gifts we need to fulfill our unique ministries. We are God’s chosen. We have been called and anointed by God. We have been given as a light to the nations that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.  We are blessed. AMEN

Sermon for January 12, 2020: I am a Christian (?!) (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):

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The current construction on our road may be a blessing in disguise, because so far it has prevented me from being able to accomplish one of my favorite goals: putting up a wayside pulpit. A wayside, or “street” pulpit, is a large signboard in front of a church that can be changed regularly. It can be used to highlight special services, inspirational quotes, sermon topics, and clever puns. Some of my favorites are:

“As you pass our little church, be sure to plan a visit. That way when you’re carried in, God won’t ask, ‘Who is it’?”

“Honk if you like Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet him,” and

“Having Trouble Sleeping? Come in and listen to a sermon!”

The question, as one website points out, is “when the Church reaches out with a message to passersby, what are we hoping to accomplish?  Is it outreach?  Marketing?  Witness? Is it a word of encouragement? Prophesy? Admonition? Or is it a variety of hospitality–a way to demonstrate that Christians can have a sense of humor and are a friendly people?”[1]  Or perhaps it is simply a shortcut way of letting people know who we are and what we believe.

It seems to me that it is becoming increasingly important for believers to do just this, as definitions and ideas that once seemed clear and indisputable shift more and more rapidly as we move further into the 21st century. Race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status – even our words for the clothes we wear no longer have the same meanings they did just 20 or 50 years ago. (For example, my son recently asked me to check out a pair of “skate shoes” he was interested in and I was really confused when the sneakers he brought over didn’t have any wheels). In this climate of rapid change, it is both arrogant and dangerous to make assumptions about what people think and who they are.

But it’s also hard to know when it’s okay to ask questions – or how to answer them. When I was a child, I was taught that it was rude to talk about politics, money, and religion because those were the topics that caused the most arguments – and polite people try to avoid arguments. Now the internet is filled with sites that exist solely so people can argue with one another, and the most acclaimed television show this year is about a vicious, greedy, double-crossing family – and it’s a comedy.  On the other hand, one young parishioner recently told me that she doesn’t talk about church at work for fear of being stereotyped. I can understand.  I have a clergy friend who recently went to a bar wearing his collar and someone, mistaking him for a Roman Catholic priest and assuming he was a pedophile, threw a drink in his face. Of course, no one wants to get a drink thrown in their face – or have their co-workers mistake them for someone who believes that God has a preference for a specific political party, but that doesn’t mean that we can afford to be ignorant about or afraid to express and act on our beliefs.

So, who are we and what do we believe? We don’t have to look far to find out. Class, please take out your Prayer Books (that’s the big red book with the gold cross on the front in your pew) and turn to page 858 to the explanation of Holy Baptism. Holy Baptism is the only membership criteria for Christianity.  It is the way in which God adopts us and we become members of Christ’s body, the church. Now, turn to page 302 to the service of Baptism, where it tells us what we are asked to do as Christians. At our Baptism (or Confirmation) we agree to renounce both spiritual and worldly evil; fight our tendency to separate ourselves from God and other people, and to put our trust in Jesus instead of earthly treasures. Now, turn to page 304 and look at the Baptismal Covenant. If it is familiar to you, that’s because it is the words of the Creed we say every week broken down into questions and answers. It says that we believe in one God, who created all things. We believe in Jesus Christ, who, like God, loves creation so much that he lived and died as one of us. We believe that God wants us to be one community of belief and that God will forgive us for all of the wrong we do as long as we truly repent of it and amend our ways. It says that God wants us to live in a state of peace, love, and unity forever.

We know that our God is good and that our God does good. Today’s first lesson describes what it means to be a true servant of God. Although many people identify this passage as a description of Jesus, it could also refer to any community or individual who follows his way. Such leaders (or peoples) establish justice. They do not draw attention to themselves with shouting or ranting. They treat broken people with gentleness and kindness. They do not conceal or deceive, instead opening the eyes of the blind and bringing people who are imprisoned by fear and hatred out of darkness and into the light. The servant of God offers hope.

Stephanie Paulsell says, “The prophet offers a portrait of the kind of leadership we should expect from one called by God; patient, nonviolent, merciful. God’s chosen does not ‘execute justice’ by force… Isaiah’s portrait of God’s servant provides a genuine…contrast to contemporary models of leadership”[2] because a real servant of God seeks to share his power with others and to provide the people with the blessing of peace.

The God we believe in does not do wrong things for the right reasons. God’s servant not only is not influenced by his own needs and desires, but willingly empties himself out in order to provide for others. Our God, according to Peter, is impartial. Peter knows this, because in today’s second reading he has just returned from a God-directed meeting with someone that he was deeply and fiercely prejudiced against – someone that Peter had always considered wrong and evil – someone that Peter resisted meeting because he feared doing so would contaminate him. But Peter found that God loves that person as much as he loves Peter – that God loves and accepts everyone who follows his way – that God is, in fact, generous and forgiving to all who ask.

Our God is also humble. Although he himself is worshipped by John the Baptist, Jesus allows John to baptize him to demonstrate his humility and solidarity with humanity.  He does not claim the glory and might that are due to him. He does not take the opportunity to break or shake or split any of God’s creation. Instead, he chooses to empty himself of all sinful desires just as we are asked to do. In Jesus, “we catch a glimpse of what it means to be fully human, and in baptism we are offered the possibility of embracing our humanity.”[3]

This is what it means to be a Christian. It means that (with God’s help) we will not just say we love God, but will demonstrate God’s love to others. It means that we will not just hate evil, but that we will actively resist it. It means that we must seek justice and peace not just for ourselves and those we love, but for everyone. It means we try to find and help the part of Christ that is in all persons, loving our neighbors – even those we have been taught to hate and fear- as ourselves. It means we will love and live in a Spirit of grace and humility, knowing ourselves to be beloved by God for and despite who we are. Or, as one wayward pulpit put it, “If God had a refrigerator, she would have your picture on it.” AMEN.

[1]“Wayside Pulpits,” (January 12, 2013), Grace is Everywhere, http://www.graceiseverywhere.net/2013/01/12/wayside-pulpits/

[2]Stephanie Paulsell, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 7937.

[3]Steven D. Driver, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 8551.

Sermon for January 5, 2020: Beanie Babies (The Rev. Kathy Trapani):

In the late 1960s, after a failed career as an actor, Ty Warner of LaGrange, Illinois went to work for the Dakin Toy Company. Whatever he may have lacked in acting ability, he made up for it in his ability to sell. At the time, Dakin was the world’s largest manufacturer of plush toys (aka stuffed animals), and Warner was its top sale representative. Some years later, Warner had an idea that would change the course of plush-toy history. At the time, most plush toys were filled with stiff, rigid cotton. Warner wondered about a toy filled with plastic pellets instead, which would make it much floppier and more life-like. He began selling some of his creations on the side, but when Dakin got wind of it they promptly fired him. So, Warner decided to start his own toy company. He called it Ty Inc. And his product, which he launched in 1993, was
Beanie Babies. Beanie Babies were hand-sized plush toys filled with (you guessed it) beans (actually, plastic pellets), mostly in the form of different animals. Each one came with a name, a birthday, and an accompanying poem. They even had their own “personality traits.” Some of the first Beanie Babies included Spot the Dog, Squealer the Pig, and Patti the Platypus. These are
Prickles the Hedgehog and Freckles the Spotted Leopard. For the record, Warner’s competitors initially told Warner that his toys would never make it. “Everyone called them roadkill,” he later said. “They didn’t get it.”

What they did not know, however, was Ty Warner was a genius marketer and market manipulator. He priced Beanie Babies at $5.00 so that kids could buy them with their own money. But he only sold them to small gift shops and specialty stores and limited the number they could purchase, which gave them an air of exclusivity despite their low price. The strategy also created shortages, which drove up demand and also created a secondary collectors’ market. Then, in 1995, Warner began “retiring” certain Beanie Babies unannounced, which added to the frenzy surrounding them. At a market in Connecticut, for example, fanatical collectors trampled children in order to get their hands on the retired tie-die “Garcia” bear. By 1996, parents were
paying $10 to $20 for beanie babies that originally sold for $5, and collectors were paying hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Eventually, however, the bubble burst. Collectors realized that Beanie Babies were not as rare a commodity as they thought (far from it, actually) so they panicked and took to eBay. Selling whatever they had for whatever they could, they flooded and ultimately collapsed the market. And those who thought Beanie Babies were their road to riches were left with nothing more than some very cute toys.

As the parent of a then-eight-year-old daughter, I remember the Beanie Baby craze very well. My daughter loved Beanie Babies! Over time, she acquired dozens of them. But my daughter did not love them because they were in short supply or were collectors’ items or because she thought they might make her rich. She loved them because (1) they were soft, (2) they were cuddly, (3) they were very cute and (4) they were babies.

Let’s face it. There is something undeniably irresistible about babies – even those of other species. Kittens, puppies, goats, elephants – even baby Yoda of Disney’s The Mandalorian, with its big head and pointy ears is all the rage right now. People find him incredibly adorable. Have you ever wondered why? It turns out there is actually a term for it – kindchenschema, or “baby schema”: infants of many mammal species have a set of features such as a disproportionately large head and eyes that we humans are innately drawn to. According to several studies we react toward those features the way we do because we are hard-wired to want to take care of and protect babies which, evolutionarily speaking, increases their chances for survival. “It is our natural parental instinct to protect or at least feel connected to babies,” says
Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist. “This automatic, nurturing… response is hard-wired, keeps us connected to our young, and is generalized to the young of other species.”

The problem, as we all know, is that cuteness doesn’t last. Babies grow up. And the adult versions are not nearly as appealing. Lots of people love kittens, for example, but want nothing to do with cats. Baby Easter chicks grow up into noisy chickens. Piglets are pretty cute. Full grown pigs not so much. You get the idea. All babies grow up – even the baby Jesus. You may hear parents of older children say that, when it comes to being a parent, the days are long but the years are short. I wonder sometimes whether Mary is the one who said it first. It has been only twelve days since we oohed and cooed at the manger when we met the baby Jesus, all wrapped up in swaddling clothes, with shepherds and angels all around. Is it any wonder that people poured into churches at Christmas to catch a glimpse of that scene? What’s not to love? He is soft, he is cuddly, he is cute, and he’s a baby. We are hard-wired to be drawn to him.

But in the blink of an eye, Jesus is twelve. He is growing up. Our Gospel story marks the end of Luke’s infancy narrative which began, as you may recall, in the Temple in Jerusalem with Zechariah, the priest and father of John the Baptist. Luke’s is the only story in the canonical gospels about Jesus’ life between his infancy and the beginning of his ministry. Matthew, Mark and John are completely silent on his boyhood. But Luke gives us a transition story. Jesus is not quite an adult, but he is definitely not a baby anymore.

We last saw the Holy Family when Jesus was eight days old. In accordance with the Law of Moses his parents had presented him at the Temple, where they met Anna and Simeon. Then, having accomplished everything that was required of them they returned to Nazareth where, as Luke puts it, “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was
upon him.” Now, they are in Jerusalem for Passover. When the festival is over, they return by caravan to Nazareth. But after a day’s journey Joseph and Mary realize that Jesus is not with them. And, unable to find him among their friends and relatives they go back to Jerusalem to search.

After three days Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the Temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions. “Child,” Mary says, “why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” “Child.” In Mary’s eyes, that is what Jesus is – a child, a baby. But Jesus knows, as soon will the rest of the world, that he is so much more than that. “Why were you searching for me,” Jesus asks his mother. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” An alternate, and perhaps better translation is, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” Jesus understands his purpose even if Mary does not yet – to do the work of God the Father. He is growing into the adult Jesus that God calls him
to be, not the Jesus Mary and Joseph might want or expect him to be. But, to borrow from Ty Warner, “they didn’t get it.” Nor will most of the people around him.

The challenge, of course, is that because Jesus is about the Father’s business he was, and is, to most people, far less appealing. The prophet Isaiah describes  it this way: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He
was despised and rejected by others…” (Isaiah 53:2-3).

No, the adult Jesus on God’s mission is not cute. Neither is the business of God that he was sent to accomplish. It is no wonder that the world will set out to destroy him. They just won’t get it. And why is he so unappealing? It’s not just his looks. It is what he says and does. He challenges the religious and political authorities. He assaults economic, religious and social barriers. He crosses boundaries and subverts conventional wisdom. He asks people to give up
what they own and give it to the poor. He says things like “love your enemies,” and does things like turn over the tables of the money changers in the Temple. He teaches hard lessons, demands obedience, and hangs out with all the wrong people. As Mary once sang of him, he scatters the proud, casts down the mighty, and sends the rich away empty. He heals lepers and forgives
sinners. He is not what people are expecting or hoping or looking for in a messiah — especially those who are insiders, powerful, wealthy, or comfortable.

But do you know what people really disliked about the adult Jesus? He claimed that there was no scarcity of God’s love. There was no shortage of God’s grace. There was no boundary on God’s kingdom. God wasn’t “retiring” anything in order to create a demand for it. God was not limiting salvation to just the boutiques and specialty shops. Everyone was included. So, for those who thought that their living the “right” way, or believing the right thing,
or belonging to the right religion were their road to spiritual riches, everything came crashing down. Because God had flooded the world with love and forgiveness and salvation and grace. It was everywhere and it was for everyone. Sadly, some people, many people, still don’t get this. They don’t want Jesus to grow up. They adore the baby Jesus but the adult Jesus, not so much. But what Luke has given us here is not just a story about Jesus growing up. It is about Mary and Joseph and you and me growing up – into a more adult, more mature, more truthful understanding of who Jesus is and what he is
about. And when we contemplate who Jesus is, let us not forget that he is human. Because as a human Jesus is hard-wired to be drawn to people who cannot help or save themselves – in other words, the likes of us. Whatever we look like, whatever we do, however pointy our ears or big our head, he finds us absolutely, irresistibly adorable. And that is very good news!