Sermons 2020

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):

Listen here:

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):

Listen here:

(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):

Listen here:

“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):

Listen here:

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!