Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021, Quasimodo (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
CHRIST IS RISEN! –
Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see. This line from the book and movie The Polar Express, a story about believing, speaks so well, I think, about the essence of today’s Gospel.
Seeing is believing – I quote from Wikipedia: “Seeing is believing is an idiom first recorded in this form in 1639 that means “only physical or concrete evidence is convincing.” It is the essence of St. Thomas’s claim to Jesus Christ, to which Jesus responded that there were those who had not seen but believed.
Seeing is believing leads to sophistry that “seen evidence” can be easily and correctly interpreted, when in fact, interpretation may be difficult.” (1)
The Gospel for this second Sunday of Easter tells us, among other things, of seeing and interpretation. Blessed Thomas makes a declaration to the ten disciples, who have already seen the Risen Lord in his absence, that he must see and touch the wounds of Jesus’s crucifixion before he believes the witness of the disciples.
Because of this, Saint Thomas now has the unfortunate moniker of Doubting Thomas.
I don’t believe this is fair to Thomas; after all, he didn’t ask for more proof than the other disciples had already seen. However, I don’t see Thomas as the patron saint of empiricism either. He had as much faith in the other disciple’s witness as they had in the women’s witness of the Resurrection. In this part of the gospel account, I think the ten disciples and Thomas have difficulty interpreting and understanding the Resurrection. As the evangelist tells us, “they did not yet know the Scripture that he must rise from the dead.”
John’s Gospel is full of seeing and believing. Mary Magdalene sees the risen Lord and hears him speak her name and believes.
The beloved disciple sees the grave clothes in the empty tomb and believes; however, even after their first resurrection experience in the upper room, they don’t seem very much changed. One really can’t blame them with Jesus popping in and out of their presence, leaving them alone once more – because interpretation may be difficult. The Disciples are still hiding out in a locked room, and even the ‘Beloved’ Disciple was in a sorry state of fear. Then The Lord appears to them again at the end of the octave of that first Easter.
The Second Sunday of Easter has several names. Low Sunday, I don’t know why, Thomas Sunday, for obvious reasons, but early on, the second Sunday of Easter became known as Quasimodo Sunday because of the introit Psalm antiphon:
Quasi modo géniti infántes, alleluia: rationabiles, sine dolo lac concupíscite, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. As newborn babes, alleluia desire the rational milk without guile, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. The antiphon is from 1 Peter 2:2.
On the second Sunday of Easter, the newly baptized put off their white robes from their Baptism at the Vigil and joined the congregation; the Church called them infantes, infants; this name connects them to the Introit Psalm.
“The rational milk without guile” describes, in part, the Church’s teaching on Baptism, also called illumination in the early Church.
By Baptism, we receive the gift of faith by the Holy Spirit, rational milk that elevates our reason to understand spiritual things, things about God that we can’t know by reason alone.
So, what happened to the disciples? Were they not baptized? Well, yes and no.
They all had probably received Baptism by water, but as John the Baptist testified as to God’s instruction to him, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one (Jesus) who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”
When he appears to the disciples, he first assures them with a greeting of peace on both occasions.
Peace be with you, Shalom Aleichem, an ancient Hebraic greeting, a divine greeting, a greeting from God to his children. A salutation of angles used to mark something new. Shalom, peace, do not be afraid. The risen Lord then sends the disciples out to continue the work that His Father sent Him to do, to bring shalom to the world and forgive sins.
Jesus next breathed the Holy Spirit into those gathered in the room, completing their Baptism, elevating their reason. Thomas gets the proof he asked for in Jesus’s second visitation.
Jesus invites him to touch the wounds in his hands and place his hand in his side. Jesus tells Thomas not to be unbelieving but believing.
Indeed, this elicits Thomas’s belief because he made the greatest confession of faith, I believe, in all the Holy Scriptures. “My Lord and my God!” Jesus then says blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” Hallelujah! That’s us!
Baptism in the Spirit affected a profound change in the disciples. They all went out into the world boldly proclaiming the Lord’s Gospel of forgiveness and shalom, even in the face of torture and martyrdom.
Here we are, some 2000 plus years from these events, and all of us who exclaim Christ is risen are blessed because we have not physically seen Him, yet we believe.
We believe through faith that was given to us by God’s grace at our Baptism of Water and Spirit. The Pure spiritual milk that nourishes our growth into salvation and sustains our faith.
Without seeing, we may believe because of the witness of Saints written in Holy Scripture, the Word taught and preached in the Church, the traditions of our Catholic faith, our sustenance from the very body and blood of Christ, and one another as members of the body of Christ.
If doubt creeps in, as it sometimes does, our faith will hold firm if we have each other on our journey of faith.
Look around at the other people assembled here. They are part of your blessing––the blessing that Jesus promised to those who believe.
The author John M. Sweeny wrote, “Doubt invigorates faith, demands more of it, and causes us to ask more of each other. “Doubt connects us. Doubt binds my faith to yours. It makes me reach out. Discover. Explore, Question, Challenge, and Learn. A person who doubts is one still on a journey.”
Our journey leads us to continue the work the Creator sent our Savior to do, to spread His Gospel of shalom, forgiveness, and love to the world.
The Church is not only a place of belief but work! Christ’s shalom is not to be contained in this place’s four walls or any church.
We begin by sharing shalom at the peace. We not only share peace, but we also share our faith and forgiveness. We share our humanness and our love for one another.
God means for us to carry it into the world, in our daily lives. Because as an unknown author stated, “the creed you believe is spoken not by your lips, but by your life.”
We share Christ’s shalom when we are kind to and tolerant of our neighbors, the people we work with, and most of all, those we dislike and who dislike us.
Shalom, when we hold a dying person’s hand and listen to them.
Shalom, when we visit and pray with a shut-in.
Shalom, when we demanded and worked for justice for immigrants and refugees. Justice for people who suffer because of racism and injustices in our society. Justice for those forced into poverty and starvation.
Shalom, when we work for justice and care for the Earth, God’s gift to us.
Shalom, when we act out of kindness, compassion, and love.
In this way, we live a resurrected life experiencing the Resurrection’s joy not just for ourselves but for the world.
Shalom Aleichem! Amen
- Seeing is believing – The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia. http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Seeing_is_believing
Children’s Homily for Easter, April 4, 2021: Rise Up (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
It’s Easter! Easter is my FAVORITE holiday! Who knows what we are
celebrating on Easter? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – Jesus! What about Jesus? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – Jesus coming back from the dead! Wait! What does that MEAN?! Do people usually come back from the dead? (Give them a chance to answer). No, not usually. Some of you guys know people who have died, and you know that they are in heaven now and aren’t coming back to earth. But Jesus DID come back and he even talked to his friends. In fact, in today’s gospel story, he came back and talked to his friend Mary. What was that about? (Give them a chance to answer). Well. lots of people have different ideas about it. So, let’s sort it out together.
First, I want you to tell me some things you know about Jesus. (Give them a chance to answer). Good! That’s right. Jesus was good What else? (Give them a chance to answer) Jesus healed people. That’s also right! Anything else? What’s the most important thing about Jesus? (Give them a chance to answer). Jesus loves us. That is right. Jesus loves us. That’s why Jesus lived. Jesus came to the world because he loved all the people so much he wanted to teach us to be nicer and better and not fight with each other and do good things. And that is the same reason Jesus died. He died to show people that sometimes you have to give up what is most important to you to make things better for other people. What is most important to you? (Give them a chance to answer) Well, for most people, the most important thing to them is their life. But sometimes people decide that some things are more important than their lives. Things like freedom, and goodness, and, most of all, love. And that’s what Jesus thought. He gave up his life because he thought showing that he loved us was more important than going on living on earth.
His friends were sad, so after he died, they did what we do. They wanted to have a service and remember him. Some of you know about that, right? (Give them a chance to answer). So, Mary went to where she thought she could find Jesus, but he wasn’t there! It was like a mystery! And she was very upset! But then she saw two angels at the tomb and someone she thought was a gardener. But it wasn’t the gardener, – who was it really? (Give them a chance to answer) That’s right, it was Jesus tricking her! She didn’t know who he was because he had been changed by dying and coming back. But, here’s the thing, his love was still the same – his powerful, powerful love – and when he said her name, she knew exactly who he was! Because Jesus’s love NEVER changes!
But Jesus did. After he visited his friends to let them know that he still loved them and would never really leave them, then he did leave his human body behind to go and be with – who? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. He went to be with God. He told his friend Mary he was going to do this. She knew that when he was alive he liked to call God his father because it made him feel happy and safe. Some people still do that. We also call God other things that make us feel happy and safe. Things like Mother and Creator and Friend. But Jesus used to say “Father.” He told Mary he was going to rise up to see his Father – to rise up to the place he felt most safe and loved and where he could give the most love. So, what did Jesus do? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. He rose up! He ascended. Who knows what it means to rise up? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. It means to get up. It means to wake up. For Jesus, it meant to stop being human and start being God. It meant he could do what he always wanted to do – he could give his love to all people in all times in all places.
And Jesus wants us to rise up too. Not to try to be God, but still to get up, to rise up, to love everybody we can as much as we can. Can you do that? (Give them a chance to answer). Can you show me? (Give them a chance to answer) Let’s see! (Take turns calling on the children to rise up, then play the last part of the Jackson 5’s “ABC.”). See, everyone, we can rise up in love like Jesus showed us. Alleluia. Jesus is risen. Rise Up. It’s easy to love. Do we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). And what do we say in church when we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right: AMEN. Let’s say it together. (AMEN).
Sermon for Easter, April 4, 2021: We are the Church (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Alleluia! The Lord is risen! (Wait for response). Okay. I know there aren’t many of us in here and you guys at home probably feel weird yelling in your family room, but it is Easter. So, I said, “Alleluia! The Lord is risen! (Wait for response). Much better. Now, I did sense a small bit of grumbling over the fact that our call and response was, once again, not done in person this year. The truth is that I know it is disappointing to get this close to worshipping indoors, in-person for Easter, but I have to say that I am incredibly grateful that we have not lost one parishioner to COVID-19 during the pandemic, so whatever frustration I feel about the missing hugs, lemon bars, and echoing Alleluias is more than equaled by my joy that you are still here –and we are still church.
We are still church. I know this because I actually had to answer that specific question recently on a diocesan form: “What has the pandemic has taught you about what it means to ‘be church.’” I was initially irritated by the question, mostly because I still have to answer essay questions at this stage in my life, but also because I believe this question has a very straightforward answer – one so simple that we can teach it to our children in a song: I am the church. You are the church. We are the church. The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is its people.
I know that over the last year many of us have felt and continue to feel isolated and alone, and I am not immune to this. I have been fortunate because I have had my family at home with me this year, but I am certainly lonely in my office at Grace. Nonetheless, Grace is still a family. I take great joy in reading the comments on the Facebook page, participating in Zoom worship and meetings with you, and enjoying texts and phone calls. I also worry about those of you I don’t hear from- folks that say they have given up on technology or have drifted away – those who have found other things to do with their Sundays. Because those folks are not alone. A Gallup poll published this week reported that, while most Americans continue to believe in God, for the first time since the late 1930s, less than half of Americans report being members of a religion.
I am not surprised by this, but I find it deeply ironic. One glance at the internet will tell you that we are living in a time in which people are urgently seeking spiritual guidance. Americans are troubled by what appears to be inexplicable behavior by our fellow human beings. It seems that we add the names of victims of new hate and rage-fueled shootings to our prayer list too often- as we did again this week. Young people are trying desperately to find safe places to figure out who they are and how to live in an immensely changing world. Folks of good conscious are looking for spaces where we can learn to respect the dignity of all human beings without experiencing name-calling and judgment. Sadly, it seems that church is the last place that most people look for these things. According to Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, “Christians have… suffered [from] self-inflicted damage: Surveys show that the identification of many white evangelicals with former President Donald Trump drove many millennials away, as did the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church over the previous decades.” In other words, instead of thinking of churches as places of unconditional love where they can safely explore their identities and develop a sense of connection with other human beings, young people have learned to fear and dismiss places of worship, identifying them with words like “political,” “hypocritical,” and “judgmental.”
That is not my church. I grew up in a congregation where I knew I was loved. When my father died, parishioners were zealous in showing interest in both my triumphs and difficult periods. This was true even when my nine-year-old self kicked Mr. Vezina’s shin with my shiny patent-leather shoe and when arrogant 15-year-old me almost decapitated the crucifer when I tried to swing the censor the way our rector did. I knew that no matter what I did, St. John’s was my forever home, and I could always go home again. Grace Episcopal Church Martinez has been that place for many others in much the same way.
The truth is that we have what so many people are seeking. We believe in unconditional love, thoughtful, civilized conversation in an unsafe world and, above all, being a place where you are known, loved, and forgiven. The problem is that people do not know this. Even worse, we do not always know this. We have forgotten the resources of our own community – going to therapists, google searching and soul cycling instead of using the ancient and proven tools of pastoral counseling, prayer, and reading scripture. No wonder the world thinks we’re irrelevant. We think we’re irrelevant. We’re not. Not even close.
For two thousand years the people of God have been sharing their lives and their stories so that we will know exactly what to do in difficult times like these. What is happening in our world is exhausting and disheartening, but it is not unprecedented. I would suggest the Bible is actually the most complete text on human emotion ever written. If you need help processing recent news stories about mothers torn from their children at our southern border, read the story of King Solomon forced to judge between two mothers claiming the same child. True parents have always sacrificed their own well-being for the good of their children. Unsure of how to think of the case of Breonna Taylor, woken in the night by armed law enforcement who admittedly had no cause against her? Think of our Lord woken deep in the night in the Garden of Gethsemane. The stories and practices of our faith are timeless, but only if we continue them – and only if we are open to applying them to the changing circumstances of our lives.
That is what Mary had to do. When she arrived at the tomb of her beloved rabbi, she saw that he was missing and felt only loss, just as when we see our churches change from the way we know them, we see only failure. He was supposed to be the Messiah, the one who would overthrow the unjust and return the Judeans to power. Instead, he has suffered the death of a criminal. It is only when he calls her by her name that she knows him and remembers. Jesus’s ministry was never about obtaining or maintaining power or privilege. It was about relationship. It was about knowing and being known. It was about community and love. Yet even then she wants to hang on to him. After all, she has gone from being a central part of a growing movement to an uncertain future – and her grief is coupled with tremendous fear. But when Jesus shows himself to her, he will not allow her to continue to grieve. “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus tells her, knowing that the teacher she knows is only a fraction of what he really is – that the human Jesus demonstrated only a small portion of the love and mercy that his sacrificial death made possible for him to give to all humanity for all time. By dying to earthly life, he was able to rise to a greater, more meaningful, and more loving divine life – one that would change the entire human race. “Do not hold on to me.” We can allow ourselves to experience the brokenness of the last year, the brokenness of a society that has changed beyond our reckoning, the brokenness of a church that will never be the same – and then we can look for the light that shines through the cracks.
Let go of what is temporal. Let go of what is earthly. Grab hold instead of what is heavenly and ascend with Jesus. Let him take you with him as he rises above this world and into a realm of pure and unceasing love. We are God’s hands and feet in the world. We carry the risen Christ in our hearts. We are the church. Alleluia! AMEN.
Bob Smietna, (March 29, 2021), “Gallup: Fewer than half of Americans belong to a church or other house of worship: while American still believe in God a growing number have dropped out of organized religion,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2021/03/29/gallup-fewer-than-half-of-americans-belong-to-a-church-or-other-house-of-worship/.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, (March 31, 2021), “Behind Gallup’s Portrait of Church Decline: America’s religious life will be shaped not by secularization alone,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2021/03/31/behind-gallups-portrait-of-church-decline/.
Sermon for the Easter Vigil, April 3, 2021, Passing the Torch (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Well. We almost made it inside the church! And we are a little closer to what we once considered “normal” worship. We are here together, looking at half of one another’s faces, and, only moments ago, we shared the incomparable joy of welcoming new members into our parish family. If you think about it, that is so much more that we had last year – and it is much, much more than many of our ancient predecessors ever experienced in some of their attempts to faithfully worship the Lord our God and remain a family of believers.
We heard some of those stories tonight. We listened to the tale of how God created the world and all that is in it and blessed that creation, voicing the intention to care for it and to be in relationship with it forever. We retold the story of how God led the Israelites out slavery, saved them from the pursuing Egyptians and led them into the promised land. We took note that we are not the first to have fallen into the trap of thinking that wealth and power were more valuable than wisdom and fidelity. And we were fiercely reminded that it is God and God alone who can take what is dead and restore it to life.
We tell our stories each week as part of our Sunday worship, but once a year on this day we share history from the beginning of time all the way through the death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ. We do this to remind us of one simple fact: God is with us. God held humanity in his heart and in her mind before we existed, through our evolution, despite our rejection, and alongside every biological and historical transition that has befallen us – and God remains beside us now. Every story we tell imparts the same moral again and again and again – no matter we do, God will send help, relief, comfort, and new life – even in the face of death. We, of course, have our own stories, some just as compelling as those found in our Holy Scriptures – and tonight I want to share just one more story with you. It is a Grace story, and it is near to my heart tonight of all nights.
Amelia, Nate and Sondre Brooks arrived at Grace already a complete and beautiful family, but still, they hoped their family would grow and, in the fall of 2018 the received news that they would be adding to it. The church family eagerly awaited the birth of Frederick Brooks, expected in early 2019. Unfortunately, Frederick had severe challenges and was born early. Despite the best efforts of all involved, he passed from my arms into the arms of God in December. The pain of his loss was tremendous, and he was mourned by the entire congregation and all who know the Brooks family – and yet, throughout, God was present. God was present on the day he was born and on the day he died. God was present to his parents, his grandparents, and his brother. God is present in Frederick’s spirit, whom I feel visiting Grace often.
It was no surprise then when God made her presence known in a new way almost two years to the week when I received a text from Amelia telling me that a birth mother had chosen the Brooks family to adopt her child – and then a week or so later when we discovered that that child was, in fact, twin girls. Nor was it a surprise that those girls did not wish to wait for Epiphany to arrive. Two years after Frederick’s death, Amelia, Nate, Sondre and I were once again frantically texting one another – this time preparing for birth rather than death – and just as before, God was present.
The Easter Vigil begins in darkness, just as God’s creation did, just as we, made of the ground we now so arrogantly walk on, did as well. We move into the light not through our own ingeniousness, but through the saving illumination of God’s attention and forgiveness. The last story we tell tonight is the greatest miracle of all, the one in which God sends the light of Godself into the darkness in which human beings constantly find ourselves in order that we may live. When Jesus’s friends go to the tomb, expecting death, they instead find life, and the wonder of it frightens them.
When we are baptized, we accept both the awe of Jesus’s sacrifice for us and the terror that goes with it. We recognize that we are letting go of our human desires for power, privilege, and self-interest in order to be part of something bigger – to be part of a community of believers. Baptism unites us not to Christ, but to one another in Christ. Through baptism we die to our individual selves so that we can live as a community of one people, with one history, sharing our stories, our lives, and our love. AMEN.
Sermon for Good Friday, April 2, 2021 (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
Years ago, in the early 1970s the church of which I was a member went on a
Lenten retreat. The retreat was organized by a seminarian doing an internship
among us, and with the intention of giving us a greater ecumenical perspective
hired a Unitarian leader. This person had an association with the Buddhist spiritual
teacher Ram Dass, so our perspective was very ecumenical.
The leader began his talk by asking the group if we knew what we were doing last
Good Friday. The flow of his talk came to an abrupt halt when everyone in the
group raised our hands. After the unexpected response from the group, he
recovered and said most Christians don’t experience Good Friday and so can’t
fully experience Easter.
Now, despite what I considered to be the leader’s condescending attitude, I agreed
with him. Indeed, the whole group agreed with him, because we had no problem
remembering what we were doing the prior Good Friday.
This afternoon we were led us through the Stations of the Cross, commemorating
fourteen events on the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow, starting with Jesus
condemnation by Pilot through his death and entombment. Of the 14 stations only
3, 4, 6, 7 and 9 have direct Biblical references.
The Stations of the Cross originated with pilgrimages to Jerusalem and a desire to
reproduce the Via Dolorosa, the path that led Jesus to his Crucifixion. As
pilgrimages to the holy land became more and more difficult, for example the fall
of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 1187, the Franciscans began to set up Via
Dolorosas outside the Holy Land that eventually moved into cathedrals and
The object of the Stations is to help the faithful make in spirit, a pilgrimage to the
chief scenes of Christ's sufferings and death, and it has become one of the most
popular of Good Friday devotions. It is carried out by passing from Station to
Station, with certain prayers at each and devout meditation on the various incidents
in turn. It is very usual, when the devotion is performed publicly, to sing
a stanza of the "Stabat Mater" while passing from one Station to the next.
It is too easy to romanticize Christ’s passion and suffering because the familiar
liturgical language has been worn smooth like a river pebble as it were. It is also
easy to identify Jesus as a hapless victim at the mercies of the power and
principalities, or in some way he serves as a victim in our stead. By entering into
the Stations as victims, we blind ourselves to our complicity in violence, and others
that may suffer from our blindness as a result. It is good to remember that Jesus
was in control throughout his entire Passion. At his trial, he was both accused and
judge, and at his death it was he who gave up his spirit.
In his Passion, Jesus laid bare the way that God’s children have used the death of
the innocent to distance ourselves from our own dependence on violence. By
removing the scales from our eyes, Jesus has broken forever the power of violence
in our lives. We will never again be able to convince ourselves that we can save
ourselves by violence without some concern for those who die. Without our
blindness to the cost to the victim, violence doesn’t offer the salvation it once did.
Instead, we have no choice but to rely on the one thing that does save us, God’s
God’s mercy… You may ask, why did Christ have to die, and how does his death
effect my life? Is our God a vengeful one who requires a human sacrifice to pay for
our sins? That Jesus bore God’s wrath in our place so we could go to heaven when
we die? St. Paul wrote in his First letter to the Corinthians: “For I handed on to you
as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in
accordance with the scriptures,” and in Second Corinthians “For our sake he made
him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the
righteousness of God.” Jesus’ sacrifice for us is that he became sin, the only
human being that knew no sin and sin died on the cross. The power of sin over us
was broken that Good Friday and freed us to turn from the idols we worship,
money, power etc. to God, and our vocation that God created us to have. As N.T.
Wright said, the main task of this vocation is “image-bearing,” reflecting the
Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation
back to its maker. Because of Good Friday humanity can again stand at the point
where the kingdom of heaven and earth come together. We are given the courage
to see ourselves as we are truly depicted in the Passion because we view it from the
perspective of God’s ultimate victory over our sin, from the perspective of the
Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 1, 2021, Mandate (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Does anyone remember why we call today Maundy Thursday (other than our deacon Walter)? It is one of those Latin terms that is left over from when all of our liturgy was recited in Latin and only the clergy knew what any of it meant. Some churches have substituted the word “Holy” for “Maundy,” but for many of us, the term “Maundy Thursday” has managed to stick around even though its meaning has been forgotten. The word “maundy” is from the Latin word “mandate” or mandate. A mandate is a decree or a rule. We hardly ever use even this term nowadays, except in government, but it is the term we apply to the command that Jesus gave his disciples on the night before he died – the command to love one another.
Although much is made of the fact that tonight replicates the last supper Jesus shared with his friends and sets the pattern for our weekly (lately yearly) remembrance of him through the sharing of Holy Eucharist, you will notice that John’s gospel story about the Last Supper does not contain the mandate – the Maundy – to eat bread and drink wine in memory of Jesus. Instead, it is focused on the more important command: to love one another. By this – not by whether you take communion, not by whether you attend church -but by loving one another everyone will know that you are Christian.
Jesus practiced what he preached. Knowing that he would soon be suffering from betrayal, denial, unspeakable pain and eventual death, Jesus did what any one of us would do: he spent time with those he loved, eating, drinking, resting, and talking with his friends – his family. His choice not to hold a political rally or preach one last sermon is completely consistent with his character. Instead of pushing to further his own cause, he spent his last hours demonstrating his willingness to do anything he could to comfort and care for those he loved – even those who would cause his death. Because, lest we forget, the gospel writer tells us that Judas, whom Jesus knew would betray him, was also present at that dinner. Judas was part of the family.
There is hatred in our world. There is division – just as there was in Jesus’s world and at his very table. Nonetheless, it is our job to show and sow love. The various components of this evening’s service – humbling ourselves by washing and having our feet washed, making ourselves vulnerable by caring for others and allowing ourselves to be cared for – demonstrate that this can be a difficult and uncomfortable task. Yet, this is how Jesus taught his disciples what it means to be one community, one family. This is how Jesus taught us what it means to love.
Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021: Humus (Columba Salamony)
In the name of the triune God: our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend.
As Jesus approached Jerusalem, the people adorned the road with palm branches and with their cloaks, and then followed behind Jesus and his disciples, shouting, “Hosanna! Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” At first glance, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem might not seem to be a story of tremendous humility.
If we read the passage through our cultural context, we might envision some elaborate papal procession with massive, fluttering palm branches, dense clouds of incense, a dramatic choir, and hundreds of acolytes and torch-bearers… joyfully moving along a road with throngs of people—thousands and thousands of them on either side. And look at our procession this morning! Rev Deb walked in with all of these bishops, a gaggle of priests, and a herd of deacons… We didn’t even borrow (or steal) someone’s donkey! Where were the bagpipes?! Maybe next year. In any case, we haven’t taken the humble approach, either.
Humility is a strange thing. It isn’t something we talk about very often. Preachers don’t like to preach on it. People don’t like to practice it. It forces us far beyond our comfort zones and can lead us to harsh realizations that can be painful for the blissfully-unaware. In our modern, capitalistic context, being humble doesn’t have much staying power. Humility doesn’t buy us anything; it doesn’t give us power. It isn’t sexy. It’s a weird, countercultural thing that many people don’t seem to understand.
And yet, humility is one of the great Carmelite virtues, along with charity and detachment. That alone speaks to the strangeness of living into a contemplative vocation. In Carmelite spirituality, those three virtues (humility, charity, and detachment) are often so interconnected that it is difficult to tell where one ends and another begins. Teresa of Avila viewed humility to be the foundational virtue from which all other virtues could grow. It is the humus, after all. Santa Teresa wrote, “If you want to lay good foundations, you must try to be the least of all. If you do that, your castle will not fall.” That is the simplest definition of humility: being least of all. Humility empties us of pride, arrogance, or an inflated sense of self. Humility creates a space within us that God can fill. It allows an openness to God, which can entirely reshape and restructure our individual lives. Being humble is us accepting that God knows better than we do, knowing that God has a plan for our lives, and sensing God’s work within us.
Within the two sets of lectionary readings appointed for today’s worship—both of the Gospel texts for Palm Sunday and for Passion Sunday—I find that there’s a little something-or-other hidden in the subtext of the passages. The best way I can think to describe it is with the Latin word humus. Humus has always been a theme for Lent, though we seldom talk about it explicitly. The word humus means ground, earth, soil, or dust—the organic material that makes up nearly everything around us. In agriculture, humus is what your compost becomes. Of course, we begin Lent with Ash Wednesday—remember that you are dust, that you are humus, the dirt from which God created all of humanity. And now, at the very end of Lent and diving into Holy Week, we find humus again, but this time in two derived forms of the word: humility, from humilis, to make oneself lowly, to bring oneself to the ground; and humiliation, from humiliatus, to be made low by another.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was an exercise of humility: Jesus rides into the Holy City on a donkey. Not a horse with a braided mane, nor a gilded chariot. A humble, lowly, smelly donkey. It’s much more like Jesus is riding into Martinez in a dump truck than in a Bentley… or even a Subaru! In Jesus’ context, the donkey was a symbol of industry and peace. It would have been mostly typical for the poorest people in Galilee and Judea to own a donkey—because it enabled them to carry their goods over longer distances to sell in the nearby towns.
In the time between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his trial before Pilate, his humility is replaced by humiliation. Jesus is mocked from all sides—the Temple chiefs endlessly question him and his authority. Judas betrays him, and he’s arrested in the middle of the night. His disciples were scared and scattered. The Temple council turned him over to the civil powers, who mock him. The crowd that was once excited to welcome him to Jerusalem now taunts him and calls him a criminal, demanding his crucifixion. He stands before the crowd, and the Roman guards strip him and beat him, brutalizing his body with chains and barbs.
His humble demeanor never seems to crack under the intense pain and rejection that he faces in Jerusalem. Once viewed as a miracle-worker and a prophet—the King who would come to topple Rome —Jesus is now an object of ridicule, violence, and scorn. And despite the torture and humiliation, Jesus picks up his cross and continues onto the death that he has been promised. It was Jesus’ humble fortitude that led him to Jerusalem, knowing it was the path to his death. In his great humility—his self-emptying—“he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death upon a cross” (Phil. 2:8).
In the Epistle to the Philippians, Paul continues, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ,” [who] “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but instead emptied himself […].” Jesus’ humility, in his self-emptying, enabled him to face his eventual crucifixion, knowing that his life and ministry was part of something greater than himself.
Frequently, we equate humility with weakness. If humility is made by choice—as an active, reflexive decision, rather than a passive humiliatus, being humiliated—we assume that person to be lazy or infirm—there’s something ‘wrong’ with them; they’re just not trying hard enough! They live in rundown houses, wear old clothes, and drive beat-up, hand-me-down cars. Being humble in this era is not attractive or marketable. We live in a society that privileges wealth, property, and power over simple, humble living… especially if that life is centered on God, on being Christ-like.
In The Way of Perfection, Teresa of Avila writes, “Humility, however deep it may be, neither disquiets, nor troubles, nor disturbs the soul; it is accompanied by peace, joy, and tranquility. […] Far from disturbing or depressing the soul, true humility enlarges it and makes it fit to serve God better” (39.2). Humility creates a space within us that God can fill. It requires us to be honest with ourselves about our journeys, our relationships, and our need for God’s embracing Spirit when things feel hard. That same humility allows us to live in the comfort of God’s love even when everyone and everything around us torment us. Humility allows us the internal space to truly experience the love and tremendous mercy that Jesus shows us each and every day, even though we so-so-so-so often do not deserve it.
In the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, we are challenged to examine the ways that we interact with the world around us. Remember that you are humus, and to humus you shall return. What has Lent taught you about humility? What progress have you made? As you enter into Holy Week, are you ready to let go of the fullness of the procession and empty yourselves in order to experience the humility and completeness of Jesus’ love and Passion?
Children’s Homily for 5th Lent, March 21, 2021 (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
Sermon for 4th Lent, March 14, 2021: The Episcopal Visit of the Rt. Rev. Dr. Marc H. Andrus, Bishop of the Diocese of California (The Rt. Rev. Dr. Marc H. Andrus)
Sermon for 3rd Lent, March 7, 2021: May the Meditations of our Hearts Always be Acceptable in Your Sight (The Grace Vestry, read by Sally Hanson)
Yesterday, the Grace Church Vestry got together for our Annual Retreat. We spent half a day praying, talking, and getting to know one another better. (Did you know that the mother of Grace’s newest set of twins once danced on stage with the Dropkick Murphys? Or that your Deacon worked on the Apollo program? Or that Stephanie Zichichi met the Six Million Dollar Man?)
The theme of our retreat was “Being attentive to our mission and our people.” Reverend Deb chose this topic because she was concerned that, despite our best efforts, the pandemic has made it difficult to communicate as clearly with one another as we would like. She wanted us to think about how we understand our ministry at Grace – and how we can talk about it with our fellow parishioners. She also decided that we should share what we figured out with you by having one of us give the sermon today. I drew the short straw.
One of the things the vestry does at all of our retreats is to look at where we’ve been before talking about where we are going. We always start with the data from the Search Committee, moving forward in time to look at our most recent mutual ministry review, and the mission and vision statements of the congregation. We talked about how the decisions we make now should reflect the mission statement created by the vestry in 2017 and the vision statement crafted by 2018’s vestry. Then we considered the vestry’s last retreat in 2019 and what our plans had been then and how much those plans have changed because of the pandemic.
We talked about how the pandemic has made all of us anxious and worried, especially the things we love most. Grace parishioners have always loved being together. We love our coffee hours, our 8 o’clock breakfasts, and our St. Patrick’s Day Dinners. We like taking care of each other by showing up with casseroles and cards. We like turning up at church to weed the flower beds and drop off papers towels when we buy extra at Costco. So, we don’t like not being able to see each other in person. We don’t like people taking out the rose bushes when we’re not at church. We don’t like it when it feels like people are making important decisions behind our backs. Basically, we don’t like change. Change makes us anxious. How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Change! We don’t want change! My grandmother donated that light bulb!
We understand. We also understand that we have a responsibility to you: to discern and carry out the will of God for Grace Church Martinez. We represent you and we want to hear from you – to know your concerns and listen to your ideas and answer your questions. But our primary task is trying to figure out the mind of Christ for the life of this parish. As one vestry member put it, “We need to let people know that as a vestry we don’t all agree when we talk about stuff; we all have different viewpoints, and we bring those to the meetings and our decision making. Sometimes hearing someone else’s point of view helps clarify our own point of view. We’re open to listening to each other to come to decisions as a group. We don’t agree every time on every decision, but we work together to figure it out.” Or as someone else put it, “We work on agreement. No one has an agenda; we have ideas that inform the discussion, and we build on those and chart our way forward with them.” Another vestry member said, “I look at myself as a servant to our community but also look at all of us on the vestry as God’s servants. Sometimes God’s concerns have to come before human concerns. We have to discern what is true, but it’s never going to be the easy road.”
It’s pretty clear that God knows that human beings have trouble agreeing a lot of the time. That’s why he’s always sending us laws to help us get along. Today we heard about what are probably the most famous of those laws, the ten commandments. Laws are good because they give us guidelines that help us to love God and our neighbors. That’s why in our work making important decisions about the future of Grace, like whether to try to develop the Upper Lot, we have carefully followed the rules and designations within the Church. But our scripture also says that the foolishness of God is greater than any wisdom of human beings. For example, someone may think that trying to develop the Upper Lot is foolish, but if you discern that God is calling us to do it, then God’s wisdom is greater than any of our wisdom. God asks us to use our dreams, wishes, and desires to make the world a better place and to enlarge our faith.
We depend on faith. It is what Jesus asks of all of us. Of course it is easier when having faith means walking a familiar path and knowing what’s at the other end of it, but that’s not enough. That’s what happened with the people in the temple in Jerusalem. Those people were not bad. They were just caught up in earthly things. There’s value in tradition and ritual to provide a framework to get something out of what we do, but that’s not the church. Church is the tools we use to do what we need to do for ourselves and our community. Just because something’s changed about how we use those tools doesn’t mean it’s broken, but that we need to pave a new path. Paving a new path can be scary. It requires faith. It requires us to lean on one another. It requires us to remember that with Jesus all things are possible.
We believe that the community of Grace has the courage, the strength, and the love to continue to walk the road that Jesus has laid before us, even if it is not the same path we started on. We believe that when we follow the law of the Lord it will not just guide us, it will set us free and enable us to take off without anxiety into the future that is meant for us as people of Grace.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. AMEN.
Sermon for 2nd Lent, February 28, 2021: Take Up Your Cross (Columba Salamony)
In the name of the triune God: our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend.
What does it mean to be a Christian?
This question is especially appropriate for our current liturgical season. After all, Lent is a time to consider our approaches to living a spiritually-engaged life. It is a time to reconnect with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves—forty days to examine, repent, and remember.
So, again: what does it mean to be a Christian?
Consider for a moment the most prolific symbol of Christian identity that we have: the cross. The cross is the focal point of the Christian calendar and of the Gospels. The cross is everywhere! Almost every church and denomination uses the image of the cross to signify their relationship with and belief in Jesus Christ. Most churches have a variety of crosses within their worship spaces—such as the brass cross behind me and the wooden cross above me. Our own shield of the Episcopal Church has a total of 11 crosses on it—the red Saint George’s Cross in the center, the nine small crosses that make up the diagonal white cross in the upper left, which itself is the saltire, the Saint Andrew’s Cross. The cross hangs in our homes and hangs from our necks. It symbolizes the power of Christ who overcame death for our redemption…
The vocation of Christian life that Jesus’ words present to us in this Gospel passage points us directly to the cross. We must “deny ourselves” and “take up our cross”. And only then, can we follow Christ! The crowd that gathered around Jesus that day knew very well what taking up one’s cross would entail.
The cross was an instrument of death. It would’ve been visible throughout Jesus’ life, along roadsides leading in and out of every city and town. In Jesus’ childhood, he likely would have seen over two thousand crosses erected throughout his homeland following the Galilean insurrection of 6CE. What an impression this would have made on him. Those crosses and the corpses that hung from them were constant reminders of who was in charge: The Roman Empire. The crucifixion event itself was centered around humiliation and torture. The person would be stripped and scourged. After that, they were often then forced to carry their cross to the place of execution. This is no easy task—the cross would easily weigh at least 300 pounds…
As my dear friend and mentor, the Episcopal priest and theologian Kelly Brown Douglas explains, “The cross reflects power’s refusal to give up its grip on the lives of others. It is the refusal of power to retreat. […]” She says, “The cross represents the height of humanity’s inhumanity.” The cross is an instrument of death, but also an instrument of control. It was the Roman Empire’s way of maintaining order, of maintaining their power. Think about who gets crucified: thieves and criminals, rabblerousers and insurrectionists, the poor, pirates and slaves. Crucifixion is to discourage troublemakers from making their trouble.
“Take up your cross” is not advice that the crowd could have wanted to hear. How is this the good news they expected?! Jesus directly asked them to become criminals: “For those who want to save their life will lose it.” Jesus does not offer them peace or freedom—he offers them death… death upon a cross. His response to them is startlingly honest: It’s not going to be easy. He tries to make them understand that they will be constantly facing challenges, but that they must do so with braveness and conviction.
Imagine the disciples’ confusion when Jesus told them, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” rejection, and death. But how can this be?, they must have thought… How is this good news? Would the disciples also have to undergo that same suffering and death? That is surely not what they signed up for! They sought glory and power, liberation from Rome… but before the crown comes the cross. Suffering has to be part of their journey alongside Jesus.
It is easy to love comfort. It is easy to love complacency. It is easy to love privilege. But being a Christian means giving up some of those things to suffer alongside those who walk the stony road to the cross. Being a Christian means removing my-self from the center of my own concerns. It isn’t always about a “feel good” theology. It asks us to do hard work. Being a Christian means waking up every day and choosing to walk with Jesus, no matter how much it challenges us—because being challenged to become better people, to become more Christ-like, is not meant to be easy, pleasant, or clean.
Discipleship means giving up parts of our own lives through sacrificial love, that which Jesus modelled for us on the cross. We sacrifice the cheap things of our life for eternal things. We give up candy or being uncharitable to strangers so that we might have a taste of that heavenly banquet that Jesus has promised us. Those who put themselves first will indeed be last. Those who are ashamed to be Christians do not honor the glory of the Lord Jesus who died for them, as Jesus so clearly explains.
God gave us life to spend, not keep. Living “abundantly” is to take up that cross and walk alongside Jesus and those who suffer, those who are humiliated, and those who are crucified by injustice. Walking with Jesus requires us to recognize our self-centeredness and help someone else first. I sense that what it means to be a Christian is to be Simon of Cyrene, to meet Jesus along the road to his crucifixion, to carry his cross, and to ease his burden for a while.
This is the journey of Lent. Taking up your cross does not feel like good news… And it shouldn’t. But we’re in it together. We do it together. We do this work as a community of believers—as friends and siblings and the people of God. And we all know what comes next: the cross that comes before the crown. And, so, while we carry our crosses, we must look toward the resurrection with the hope that Christ is always beside us.
Let the words of our sequence hymn be your Lenten instruction manual this week:
Take up your cross, then, in his strength,
and calmly ev’ry danger brave.
It guides you to abundant life
and leads to vict’ry o’er the grave.
 Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015), 180.
Children’s Homily for 1st Lent, February 21, 2021: The Story of the Rainbow (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White and Nicholas White-Spenik)
Today we heard a story about Jesus being baptized. Lots of the children of Grace have been baptized. Being baptized means that you are formally welcomed into God’s family and that we will all love you always. Right after Jesus is baptized (Show slide of Jesus being baptized), God tells Jesus that he loves him. But THEN, instead of going to coffee hour (like we do at Grace) Jesus goes out into the wilderness all by himself – and stays there for a long time (Show slide of Jesus in the wilderness). While he is there by himself, Jesus is tempted. Do you know what “tempted” is? (Give them a chance to answer) Being “tempted” is when someone or something gives you the idea to do something bad and you think you might really to do it even though you know it’s wrong. So when Jesus was alone, The TEMPTER came and gave him some very bad ideas (Show slide of Jesus and the Tempter in the wilderness). Today’s gospel story doesn’t tell us exactly what those bad ideas were, but other storytellers said that the TEMPTER told Jesus that since he was very important and God’s son, he could be mean to other people, and test God, and he should just keep everything for himself because he didn’t need other people anyway.
But Jesus didn’t listen to the TEMPTER (Show slide of Jesus sending the Tempter away). Maybe that’s because he remembered the story about Noah and the Ark – the other story we heard today. That story is about how things got to be very, very bad on the earth and almost all of it was destroyed, but God saved just enough for people to start over again. And as a sign of hope that things could be better, God sent a special sign. That sign was a rainbow. The rainbow reminds us that God will never send another flood to destroy the world- AND it can also help us to remember why we need to do as Jesus did when we are tempted to think that we don’t need other people. Let me tell you a story that explains how:
Once upon a time all the colors in the world started to quarrel; each claimed that they were the best, the most important, the most useful, or the most favorite.
(Show slide of GREEN) GREEN said, “Clearly I am the most important. I am the sign of life and hope. I was chosen for the grass, the trees, and the leaves. Without me all the animals would die. Look out into the countryside and you will see that I am in the majority.”
(Show slide of BLUE) BLUE interrupted. “You only think about the earth, but consider the sky and the sea. It is the water that is the basis of life and this is drawn up by the clouds from the blue sea. The sky gives space, and peace and serenity. Without my peace you would all be nothing but busybodies.”
(Show slide of YELLOW) YELLOW chuckled: “You are all so serious. I bring laughter, gaiety, and warmth into the world. The sun is yellow, the moon is yellow, the stars are yellow. Every time you look at a sunflower the whole world starts to smile. Without me there would be no fun.”
(Show slide of ORANGE) ORANGE next started to blow its own trumpet. “I am the color of health and strength. I may be scarce, but I am precious because I serve the inner needs of human life. I carry all the important vitamins. Think of the carrots, the pumpkins, and the oranges. I don’t hang around all the time, but when I fill the sky at sunrise, or give you a majestic sunset to admire, my beauty is so striking that no one ever gives another thought to any of you!”
(Show slide of RED) RED could stand it no longer. Red shouted out, “I’m the ruler of you all. Blood, life’s blood. I am the color of danger and bravery. I am willing to fight for a cause. I bring fire in the blood. Without me the earth would be as empty as the moon. I am the color of passion and of love, the red rose, the poinsettia and the poppy.”
(Show slide of PURPLE) PURPLE rose up to its full height. He was very tall and spoke with great pomp: “I am the color of royalty and power. Kings, chiefs, and bishops have chosen me, for I am the sign of authority and of wisdom. People do not question me. They listen and obey.”
(Show slide of INDIGO) INDIGO spoke more quietly than the others, but just as determinedly. “Think of me, I am the color of silence. You hardly notice me but without me you all become superficial. I represent thought and reflection, twilight, and deep waters. You need me for balance and contrast, for prayer and inner peace.”
And so all the colors went on boasting (Show slide of colors fighting), each convinced that they were the best. Their quarrelling grew louder and louder. Suddenly there was a startling flash of brilliant white lightning; thunder rolled and boomed out. The suddenly RAIN (Show slide of RAIN raining) started to pour down relentlessly. The colors all crouched down in fear, drawing close to one another for comfort.
Then RAIN (Show slide of RAIN speaking) spoke: “You foolish colors, fighting amongst yourselves, each trying to dominate the other. Did you not know that God made you all, each for a special purpose, each unique and different. God loves you all, he wants you all. Join hands with one another and come with me. (Show slide of all colors holding hands) God will stretch you across the sky in a great bow of color as a reminder that He loves you all, that you can live together in peace, a promise that he is with you, a sign of hope for all for tomorrow.”
Maybe THAT’S what Jesus remembered in the wilderness when he was tempted to show off and think he didn’t need other people. He remembered that every one of us has a gift to share and every one of us is loved by God – and that God will always love us. That’s the good news. Do we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). Good. Who remembers what we say when we agree in church? (Give them a chance to answer). Amen. So let’s say it altogether (Amen).
Attributed to Anne Hope (1978) https://cyc-net.org/today2000/today000330.html.
Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021, Cold, Dark, and Gritty (Columba Salamony)
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
Ash Wednesday is pretty high on the list of Holy Days that I get excited about. Between the readings that seem to surprise me year after year and the stark reminder that we are dust, I find great solace in the yearly reminder of my mortality and the call to be humble in the sight of God. Because of this appreciation for Ash Wednesday, I also carry many memories of this day from years before.
I remember Ash Wednesday in 2018: I was visiting someone in Milwaukee, one week after twenty inches of snow blanketed southeastern Wisconsin. That morning, we woke up to another four inches. We slipped into our snow boots and walked six blocks to the nearest Episcopal Church and received our ashes along with seven other parka-clad snowshoers. The large, beautiful church was empty; the congregation was somber; the weather was biting and cold.
I remember Ash Wednesday in 2016: I was studying at Goucher College in Baltimore. I read and served at the evening chapel service. Someone who I sang with in the college choir sat in the front row. As we read the psalm together, she was visibly upset. She ended up in my line for ashes. I spoke the words, “Remember you are dust,” and as my thumb left an ashen cross on her forehead, I demolished a dam of tears, grief, and sorrow. After the service, we sat in the dark chapel and talked for over an hour.
I remember Ash Wednesday in 2014: Early in the morning, I stood outside the sacristy with an old coffee can and last year’s palm fronds. The hiss of the butane torch is in my ears today—swirling around the rim of the can, again and again, waiting for the dry palms to incinerate and burn. When the service began, the ashes still felt warm and gritty in their bowl.
The world around us is full of reminders of God: the stars fixed in their orbit, the snow that rests as manna in the grass, the palm trees outside my window that dance in the wind. Even the smallest caterpillar helps us recall God’s care of creation, of us. And yet… Sometimes, these reminders aren’t enough. We turn our focus away from God. We overlook that we are made by God—that we are made in the image of God. We might retreat into our burrows, grappled by fear, doubt, and worry.
With this in mind, Ash Wednesday is about remembering. It is not only about our remembrance of things gone before, but also of God remembering us: as the psalmist writes, “For he himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust” (Ps. 103:14). It was God’s hands who scooped up the clay and formed Adamah—Adam—the creature of the earth. It was God’s breath that entered Adam’s nostrils and lungs and brought forth life. God remembers—for God has created us, shaped us, and given us life. Because we are God’s own creation, we trust that God will protect us. We look forward to God’s embrace at the end of our mortal life.
In preparation for the Lenten season ahead, we look to God and ask, “Create in me a new heart. Renew a right spirit within me.” Lent is the season where many Christians feel called to give things up, or take something on. It is an opportunity to make things right with our neighbors. It is a call for us to spend the next forty days in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But more than these, Lent is a time to wrestle with our own demons in the wilderness, as Jesus did. This inner wrestling of Lent is an invitation to renewal: an early start to spring cleaning… a chance to turn away from hypocrisy… a time to exorcise those evil thoughts and habits that pull us away from God. This is why Ash Wednesday is important to me and why I cherish it every year. It is a reminder of our mortality, a chance to reset, a time to humble ourselves before God and our neighbor.
Jesus’ lesson in the Gospel reading for today amplifies that Lenten call to humility. He preaches to the crowd a sermon on how to give alms, how to pray, and how to fast. For Jesus and his audience, these aren’t hypothetical or conditional suggestions. He doesn’t say, “If you give alms,” he says, “when you give alms.” These are instructions. They are reminders to work on our relationships.
This relational work is done in an exercise of remembrance. God always remembers us, but our prayer helps us remember God and improve our relationship with our Creator. Almsgiving enables us to see God in the face of another and to repair our relationships with those around us. Fasting helps us remember that we are part of God’s creation, and that we are made in the image of God, to repair our relationship with ourselves.
As the prayer of Confession from Enriching Our Worship reads, “We repent of the evil that enslaves us; the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.” I think this is a truly Lenten endeavor; it is to remember how our actions have affected others, to repent for the hurt that we have caused, and to repair our relationships with those whom we have hurt, either directly or indirectly.
Jesus asks that crowd—and us—to stay focused on God and God’s will for creation; to remember who’s in charge; to burn to ash all of the things that compel our anxiety; and to seek out that renewal and restore compassion, justice, and goodness with others and to the world around us.
There are forty days ahead of us to do this work before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Forty days to process our grief and bear a new awareness—one focused on God and God’s love. Forty days to let our bad habits die and be reborn as a passionate fire to stamp out the cold. Forty days to wrestle with the demons in the darkness as we wait for the light of Easter. Forty days to find God and God’s will at work in the gritty places of our lives.
So, this Lent, I ask you to remember. Remember others. Remember God. Remember that you are dust—that you are stardust, that billion-year-old carbon—and at the end of your time, to dust you shall return.
Sermon for February 14, 2021: Epiphany Last (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
You have probably heard it said that 2020 was a “dumpster fire,” in which so many things just went wrong. Worst of all was the dreadful COVID-19 pandemic that spread among us. The disease that has taken so many loved ones caused us to separate from one another out of necessity.
2021 has come, and we have elected a new President but have seen great turmoil around the installation of the new Presidential Administration. We see new hope in the development of vaccines against the COVID virus, but in the meantime, it still deals out death.
I recently lost a dear friend of almost 60 years to this dreadful disease. Káawan Sangáa or Woody Morrison his English name. He was an Elder in the Haida nation and, more importantly, their Story Teller in the oral tradition of history keeping. He was one of the most selfless persons that I have ever known, and although not a Christian, he was very much Christ-like.
Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany in which the Protestant Churchs use the readings for the Transfiguration of Christ in keeping with the theme of Light in Epiphany. The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ describes a theophany, an experience of God’s ever-near eternal presence. Mark tells the story with straightforward simplicity. Jesus goes to a mountain to pray, accompanied by his dear friends, Peter, James, and John. And there they see him transfigured, dazzling white, shining with the glory of God, and talking with the great prophets Moses and Elijah.(1) The scene reminds us of Moses’ Transfiguration in Exodus, when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the covenant, his face shining so brightly from his encounter with God that his people were afraid, and he had to cover it with a veil. In each story, a mountain act as a thin place, a bridge between heaven and earth.
The Transfiguration describes a mystical event on the mountain, a visible expression of the union of human and divine in Jesus. Like Moses’ people, Jesus’ disciples are astonished by what they have seen. Astonished and in awe of that glimpse of God’s eternal glory and Jesus’ unity with that glory. and indeed
the unity of all humankind in God and Jesus.
Contained within these stories of Transfiguration, these revelations of God’s glory, are human grief stories. Elisha accompanies his beloved mentor, Elijah, as far as possible until he can no longer see him, then tears his clothes in lamentation. Peter, James, and John too are reluctant to let go of the marvelous, concrete, human manifestation of God’s eternal light. Peter suggest that they might make dwellings for the prophets, keep them here with them. They do not want their beloved to leave them behind.
The two stories we’ve heard today are of thresholds, moments of crossing over, journeying toward the point of life and death, the temporal and eternal, with a loved teacher. I think it is very much like a scene from hospice care or my experience with my dear friend Woody’s passing. Family and friends were gathered vicariously via Caring Bridge to a vigil at the threshold of life and death. Using Caring Bridge, Woody’s daughter allowed us To accompany our loved one as far along the journey as we could. We may have had a glimpse of the shining light toward which Woody has already turned his face. “Please stay, I’ll build you a house,” you might plead your heart. Or, since you must go, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”
Like Elisha, we look for that light and that power in the Spirit. And we look to be that power in the Spirit. From the second epistle to the church in Corinth, Paul’s words give us some further guidance. “Let light shine out of darkness,” Paul affirms that we are the bearers of the divine light. Jesus shines in our hearts, giving light and reflecting the glory of God from within us. That uncreated light that shone from the face of Jesus and terrified the disciples is now inside us. We are bearers of the divine light.(2)
The psalm for today begins with a glorious manifestation of God who shines forth does not keep silent but is seen in fire and storm to judge the people, renewing the covenant in worship and declaring the righteousness of God. With the Transfiguration story in mind, today’s psalm clarifies that a glorious experience of divine presence is not an end in itself but is for both judgment and renewal.
Through that judgment, Jesus will reveal to everyone, including ourselves, who we are. No one will be able to hide from the truth. What we have made of ourselves, who we have become, will be clear. We will not dispute it.(3) We can deny nothing because it will be true, and we will know it is true. We will know ourselves, and what we do out of love connects us with the God who is love, and so is done for God.(4)
On the other hand, rejection of love distances us from God. What is done against love is done against God. Thus, as we grow in love, as we act out of love and help others around us, we will find, we did it for God, even as when we abandon love, and act with malice towards others and hurt them, we will find we have also done such to God.(5)
God gathers His covenant people who give praise and worship on the mountain top. Worship is so compelling because it is the one place we can come and be completely open and honest before God. Here we do not need to pretend. Here, at worship, before God, we can be who we most truly are. As we pray at the start of every Eucharist, ‘To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you, no secrets are hidden.’ At worship, there’s no need to pretend, no need to keep up appearances.(6)
Mountain top experiences do not last forever, and we, like Jesus, Peter, James, and John, as well as Moses, must come down to the valley. In our everyday life, we are to be the bearers of the divine light of God’s love in our hearts to the world. Grief and suffering are transformed by the mystical knowledge that we shall be together in God’s love again, as we always have been and ever shall be.
It is easy to compartmentalize our feelings, and hide our light under a bushel, so better to fit in the world, but we are called to share God’s light of love and to work to establish God’s reign in the world. AMEN.
Transfigurations Great and Small – February 11, 2018 – St …. http://www.stpaulsnorwalk.org/transfigurations-great-and-small-february-11-2018/
- Strange and Wonderful, Last Sunday in Epiphany (B …. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/strange-and-wonderful-last-sunday-in-epiphany-b-february-14-2021/
- A Little Bit of Nothing. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/henrykarlson/
- The Last Judgment, The Judgment of Love | Henry Karlson. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/henrykarlson/2021/02/the-last-judgment-the-judgment-of-love/
- The Last Judgment, The Judgment of Love | Henry Karlson. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/henrykarlson/2021/02/the-last-judgment-the-judgment-of-love/
- Sermon – SSJE. https://www.ssje.org/category/sermon/
Sermon for February 7, 2021: We shall not be weary (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):
Watch at this link:
Is anyone else tired? I don’t mean a little beat from one late night or early morning – I mean really tired- constantly tired, always having to dig deep for just enough energy to do what you need to do without ever feeling completely refreshed. If so, then today’s scripture readings are for you. This morning’s gospel is a continuation of the story we heard last Sunday; the actions of both readings take place over the course of one day. To recap: Jesus started the day with some fabulous preaching in the local synagogue where he exorcised a particularly rude and nasty demon, then walked across town to a friend’s house where he healed his friends’ sick mother-in-law. After a brief break, his “friends,” started to bring him every sick or demon-possessed person they could find so that he could heal them too – which he apparently did all night. In the morning, when his friends were sleeping, he tried to sneak off to pray – which was how he recouped his energy – but they hunted down and berated him for taking time for himself, reminding him that more people needed healing. “Get a move on Jesus; your public awaits.”
Jesus didn’t bite – because Jesus knew how to stay focused. In his excellent sermon last week, our Seminarian Columba commented that one of the most prominent words in Mark’s gospel is “immediately,” as in “Jesus went immediately.” Mark’s is the oldest and shortest of the gospels and, as Entertainment Weekly might put it, “the plot really moves.” Faced with a double-talking, fear-mongering demon, Jesus has only seven words to spare: “Be silent and come out of him.” Later in the day, confronted with Simon’s suffering mother-in-law, he doesn’t even bother to use words at all – he simply takes her by the hand and heals her by his touch. Jesus never refuses when asked to heal, but he does it quickly and without fanfare, because he never forgets that such small miracles are simply by-products of his primary reason for existing: to spread the Good News – to be the Good News – the news that God is with us and will redeem her people.
How different this focus is from that of his disciples, who are so diverted by his divine abilities that they often don’t understand a word he’s saying. They are thrilled with the powerful reactions to Jesus’s teaching, excited by his spreading fame, and overwhelmed by how people respond to his healing abilities. No one wants to help him and support him more than they do. They have given up everything to travel with him. They work hard to find food and lodging for him. They love him. And yet they are also the ones that welcome “the crowds” – crowds that will later turn on Jesus and demand his crucifixion. The disciples are the ones who deny Jesus the anonymity he repeatedly asks for. They are the ones who are so distracted by the trappings of Jesus’s ministry that they are prone to forget the message that God has come near.
It is easy to get distracted, especially when we are anxious. When I was pregnant with Nicholas, my second child, we were given the choice of moving right before he was due or right after. We chose after (two weeks, it turned out) so we spent the latter third of my pregnancy packing and Gary wanted to have a tag sale before the baby was born. On the morning my water broke, I told Gary that I thought I might be in labor. He said, “You can’t be. You just went to the doctor and he said two more weeks.” I said, “Well, now he says to go to the hospital and get checked.” So, I went and finished packing my bag, which was 90 percent ready as prescribed, and then packed Gary’s empty bag, and went ahead called someone to sit with Katie in case I had to stay at the hospital and then called my parents to tell them they might want to move up their flight, and finally I went to tell Gary I was ready. I couldn’t find him. I looked all over the house. No Gary. I looked in the driveway. The car was still there, so I knew he hadn’t tried to escape. Finally, I went out to our detached garage, which we used mainly for storage. I had no idea why he would be there, but I was out of options (and experiencing contractions) at that point – and there he was, busily shifting boxes from one spot to another. “What,” I asked, “are you doing”? “I’m getting ready for the tag sale,” he said.
Gary is not the only person in the world to completely lose focus under pressure. We work so very hard, putting in hours of overtime and cursing the length of our “to-do” lists only to realize that we are in a “lather-rinse-repeat” cycle of questionably meaningful work. Even our leisure activities seem unfulfilling when we arise from our couches no healthier, wealthier, or wiser than when we sat down. This seems wrong – and unfair. Surely, we should feel more accomplished if we are working so hard.
Maybe the problem is not how hard we’re working. Maybe it’s that we’re working so very hard on the wrong things. Maybe we, like the disciples, are focused on the wrong things. This is the message that Paul was trying to get through to the Christians in Corinth when he reminds them that proclaiming the gospel is not grounds for boasting. It appears that his community has, like many Christians since, decided that simply proclaiming themselves believers means that they can sit back and “be blessed.” Not so, says Paul. Of course those who choose to follow the way of Jesus the Christ are blessed – but our blessing has nothing to do with bragging rights. Our blessing is our ability and our obligation to spread the good news, to do the work of God. We do not experience the fullness of Christ’s love when we smugly or anxiously hoard it for ourselves. We only truly enjoy it when we freely and joyfully share it with others, especially with those who are different or weaker than we are. “True Christian [blessing] expresses itself [not in receiving but in performing] service.”
Simon Peter’s mother-in-law understood this. Over the years, many people have expressed dismay at the part of this gospel story where this woman, having been healed by Jesus, immediately starts serving the disciples; but if you read the text carefully, you will notice that at no point do Jesus or any of his disciples ask her to serve them. She makes that choice. She chooses to serve – and she is empowered by her choice. She is the first deacon of the Church.
We too receive power when we choose to serve – when we focus on the right work. Think about it. We know the difference between pushing papers and doing good work. Teachers place different value on helping students pass a standardized test and seeing a child’s eyes light up with understanding and eagerness to learn. Nurses can feel the moment when a patient truly begins to believe that she will be okay. Musicians intuit the vibe in the room when diverse souls join together with the love of song. And this congregation knows the difference between an annual meeting where we argue over tax codes and when we jointly envision the possibilities of what might happen if we take a leap of faith to try to truly welcome, support, and serve all God’s people.
There’s even better news – because God’s gift to us is that when we are focused on the right work, we find that because God has no limits our resources are also unlimited when we are doing God’s work. Last week Columba asked us how we would know Jesus if he showed up at Grace. The answer was that Jesus is easy to recognize because he is the one who is quickly and unpretentiously doing the work. This week our scriptures tell us how Jesus will know us when he walks into Grace. The answer? He will know us because we are focused on doing the work of God. And how will we know that we are doing the work of God? We will know, Isaiah says, because our exhaustion will disappear – because those who work for the Lord shall fly with the wings of eagles, walk and not faint, run and not be weary. Have you not heard? AMEN.
V. Bruce Rigdon, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 330.
Sermon for January 31, 2021: Mark 1: 21-28 (Columba Salamony, Seminarian)
Watch at this link:
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
One of Mark’s favorite words in his gospel is “immediately.” There is a constant urgency associated with Jesus’ actions—he immediately goes somewhere; he immediately does something. Jesus’ ministry seems a little… hectic. In many English translations of today’s passage, the word is omitted. But in Greek, the opening verse reads: “Immediately on the Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.” (Mk 1:21b, trans. from SBLGNT). Jesus seems to have only just arrived in Capernaum. The very first thing he chooses to do after sundown is to go to the synagogue, almost as if he knew this was the place he needed to be.
At this point in Mark’s gospel, we don’t know very much about Jesus yet. If you read the first chapter up to this point just as you see it: John baptizes Jesus, Jesus retreats into the desert, then travels through Galilee where he calls Simon and Andrew, and James and John to follow him. In these 20 verses, Mark presents Jesus as a rather compelling and mysterious presence in Galilee. And so, this stranger to the Galileans teaches in the synagogue, and his audience is captivated by his words. He is so unlike anyone they’ve ever seen. He is no ordinary preacher. The crowded synagogue is silent as his voice echoes through the chamber—his words full of passion and authority. Their eyes are glued to him as he speaks… Captive to his voice.
Jesus’ words swell their hearts and expand their imaginations. And then out of that sacred, reverent silence…
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
Heads turn in every direction as they seek to find the voice that dares to interrupt this rabbi.
“Have you come to destroy us?”
This new voice is troubling. It is rough and deep and dark. It echoes through the canyons between bodies as it grips the congregation in fear.
“I know who you are…”
Jesus turns toward someone in the crowd—sitting off by himself in the dark corner, with his hood drawn low over his eyes.
“The Holy One of God.”
Still, the crowd’s eyes are fixed on Jesus as he rises from his place and extends his hand toward the man who spoke. The entire congregation heard Jesus’ next words—crystalline, direct, and forceful:
”Be silent. Come out of him.”
The man’s body seized as he wailed and gnashed his teeth. The darkness emerged from him and it disappeared. The peoples’ amazement amplified. When they left, they spread the story to everyone they knew, and, immediately, the entire region was captivated by the reports from Capernaum.
The words of the unclean spirit lingered with me as I prepared this sermon. “What have you to do with us?” “Have you come to destroy us?” I expect these questions inspired both fear and skepticism. Those sitting in the synagogue must have been troubled by these words. This other man is now provoking the rabbi. I sense there’s a definite tension as people’s eyes oscillate between the two men. The crowd continued to watch the two strangers, and perhaps a division begins to erupt. Who speaks the truth? Which of these can they trust? Both have the potential to destroy the synagogue—whose side will they choose?
By a simple definition, what Jesus performed in the synagogue was an exorcism. Since the 1970s, our cultural imagination has created a pretty intense idea of how an exorcism happens. I don’t necessarily think that Jesus’ exorcisms involved any split-pea soup, like in The Exorcist. But I do want to suggest that it was very alarming and traumatizing for his audience to be face-to-face with evil and to see it as it leaves this man’s body…
Let’s remember that the ideas of demons and evil are throughout Hebrew scripture. They were real to the Jews in Jesus’ time. In the Gospels, we encounter them as the “unclean spirits” who possess the vulnerable. These spirits are present enough in Jesus’ timeline for us to know that his followers and the gospel-writers’ audiences would have regarded evil and spirits and demons as the ‘real deal.’ Shortly before Jesus appears in Capernaum, he wrestled with Satan in the wilderness. Jesus has seen evil. He has felt its temptation. When the unclean spirit spoke to him, saying, “I know who you are,” Jesus’s response might have been, “I know who you are, too—and I’m not impressed.”
I believe for certain that God intends each of us to grow into a fuller, more complete version of ourselves—to become a little more like Jesus each and every day. Yet, we struggle… with temptation, and doubt, and fear. We are much like that synagogue congregation in Capernaum. We have to pick a side. We are pulled between two, competing mindsets. We get stuck between awe and fear. We sit between good and evil.
The words that we heard today from Deuteronomy help steer us in the right path—in the Christ-like or Godly way. God says to Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet […] I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet […] But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name […] that prophet shall die.”
The people sitting in that synagogue were tempted by a false prophet, even by objectifiable evil. Their amazement at Jesus and his teaching infuriated the unclean spirit. When the spirit spoke to Jesus, I wonder how many of them doubted Jesus, or even feared him. But Jesus reminded them which of these strangers represented the good: “Be still and come out of him.” The spirit fled—perhaps out of fear of Jesus, or because it knew it wouldn’t win this fight. Exorcism doesn’t have to include screeching and spinning heads. At a very basic level, exorcism is us asking Jesus to cast out our fear and skepticism. To dispossess us from the allure of false prophets. Exorcism is turning to belief. Surrendering. Being amazed, instead of fearful.
As Christians, we are called to be evangelists of the Gospel, to be Christ-like. To resist evil. To proclaim the Good News. And sometimes we fall short. We get skeptical and turn away. We doubt. We fear. We hesitate. But at our core, we always want to turn again to hear Jesus’ reassuring voice which repels the demons that tempt us and compel us toward the darkness.
This story of Jesus in Capernaum pairs well with the lesson from Deuteronomy. They both teach us that we must be more diligent about recognizing the good prophets, the good in the world. To think critically about what guides our actions, our beliefs, and our values. To put our faith and trust in Jesus and in God. Yet, so often, we are easily captivated by false prophets, by the evil of the world, instead of focusing on Jesus. False prophets capitalize on our fear and our ability to be so easily distracted. We’re attracted to evil through fanfare and parades—ostentatious showings of power and prestige—while humble Jesus sits in a synagogue and teaches. That’s how we recognize him.
Jesus purges the evil from the world without fireworks or abusing his power. He helps the poor and heals the sick. He consoles the sorrowful and liberates the captive. And his goodness always wins. Maybe that’s what we still need to hear and remember today. If Jesus walked into Grace Church in Martinez, would we recognize him? Would we choose him over the false prophet? What demons would he command to come out from us? What kind of a church could we be?
Who might I become if I turn to Jesus and say through the darkness…
“I know who you are, O Holy One of God”?
Sermon/Rector’s Report for Grace Annual Meeting Service, January 24, 2021: Following God’s Call (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Watch at this link:
Jonah stood at a crossroads: Nineveh or – what? He had tried running from God once already- and everyone in the world knows how that turned out. Chased by storms; thrown off the boat by his fellow travelers; and swallowed alive, Jonah had experienced three long and nauseating days inside a big fish until he agreed to do as God had asked: risk his life by going to tell a large number of angry, violent, and unhappy people that they needed to change their ways. Some choices.
Our theology tells us that God gave human beings free will – that we always have the power to choose. This is an astonishing thing when you think of it. If you created an entire species, wouldn’t you make sure it always did what you wanted it to? But our God invested us with the ability to make our own choices, for good or for ill- and so it is that in today’s Hebrew scripture reading we find Jonah at a crossroads facing what are arguably two unappetizing choices: to do as God has asks and face down a nation of people who have lost their moral compass or continue to try to run from the will of an omniscient and angry God. It is choices like these that help us to understand why some people allow others to do their thinking for them.
The Episcopal Church is not a denomination where that comfort will be provided. As Robin Williams so succinctly put it, in The Episcopal Church you are not encouraged to leave your brain at the door. It is possible to be an Episcopalian and sleep through the sermons and dodge the Bible study classes, but if you expect your church leadership to provide you with easy to parrot “party lines” of belief – you have come to the wrong place. We are not here to take your money and tell you what to believe. We are here to do the hard work of discernment together – to figure out how to follow Jesus and to do what God asks of each of us as individuals – and as a community. This requires time, mutual support, and effort – and so we do this in the same way that the ancient prophets did: we listen for God’s voice. We do it in the same way that the early Christians did; we listen for God’s Holy Word. In addition, we follow the traditions of our own denomination to walk together in common life; worshipping, reading scripture, using common sense to apply it to our own lives, and then choosing how to live according to our discoveries. We make these choices as a community, as a people of God.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem like there are any good choices. Sometimes it feels like simply running away may be the best option. Certainly, many Christians are taking this option. Surveys suggest that numbers of people in the United States who call themselves “Christian” are down 12 percent over the last decade. Meanwhile, people identifying as “nothing in particular” or “none” has gone up about six percent in the same time frame. The Episcopal Church is in precipitous decline. In particular, young folks are leaving. “The Episcopal Church had the highest average age among the 20 faiths charted in the 2017 to 2019 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.” In 2019, the entire diocese of Northern Michigan reported an average Sunday attendance of 385. The Episcopal Church has seen a membership drop of almost 25 percent in ten years. Do the math: if this exodus rate continues, there will be no Episcopal Church in the year 2050. That means for many of us there is no running away; we will have to watch it die.
Perhaps some or many of you were not raised in The Episcopal Church as I was, so your heart is not breaking, as mine is. It should be though -because if you are here today then this is your community of Christ. This is your people, your tribe, your village. These are those upon whom your salvation depends – and so you are part of the decisions that we as a church must make – decisions about how we are to survive and how we are to thrive. We must do as Christians have always done. We must choose together – and then we must stand together.
Perhaps some of you got up this morning thinking that you were going to attend Grace’s Annual Meeting so that you could help make choices about things like whether there should be a labyrinth between our buildings, or if we should continue to allow people to decide which Lord’s Prayer to recite. You might be interested in whether there will be a new prayer book soon or if acolytes should be allowed to wear sneakers. These are certainly part of the business of the church, but I believe that the time is coming and perhaps now is when will no longer have the luxury to spend time talking about such things. I am saying brothers and sisters, that the appointed time has grown short… that the present world is passing away. We are returning to a time when, like the original Christians, we must be more concerned with existence than embellishment.
This may sound depressing or alarmist, and you may be starting to regret tuning in today. You may want your feel-good church vibe and be wondering where the Good News is to be found in all this. Fortunately for all of us, the answer to that question never changes: The Good News is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, given to us by the Grace of God. God alone is our rock and salvation, our safety and honor, and we may put our trust in God always – and in all things. By this and this alone we know that we can do anything – and we will – if only we choose to put our trust in God.
It is easy to trust God when things are going well- and it’s just as easy to lament being children of God when we are embroiled in cascading catastrophes. Yet it is during such difficulties that God most frequently and obviously shows herself, providing us with endless reminders of his power and grace. This past year has been a hard one for many people and it has been a painful one for the people of Grace – individually and collectively. Last year at the Annual Meeting I touted our growth. This year I can’t even tell you how we are supposed to measure it. Last year I reveled in our strength of community. This year I stand chiefly alone, surrounded only by a few stalwart helpers. 2020 was Grace’s year to be swallowed by a “big fish,” and during our “three days” of God’s time we learned that our choices have narrowed- and one has been eliminated. If we do not change, then Grace will die. Still, our time in the belly of the beast has taught us that we are not self but God-directed, and that we cannot fail when we seek to do God’s will. We have not only survived this pandemic, but in many ways we have thrived, worshipping more often and more creatively and welcoming new and diverse people to our midst. God has reminded us that we can go to Nineveh and Nineveh will, as it did for Jonah, bow before our God.
We opened today’s service with Cecil Alexander’s old southern hymn, “Restoration.” In this new year, I am asking that we seek not to restore Grace to what it was, but instead pursue its proper place in the restoration of God’s beloved community on earth. It is time for us to leave behind old habits of worship and make our lives a constant act of worship. This is no longer a question of how to get back to who we were; our survival is now inextricably linked to our willingness to devote ourselves to who we are meant to become. We must do as Jonah, Simon, Andrew, James, and John did. We must believe, turn, and follow God’s call into the unknown. We must go as a people to fish for the people who need us. Do not fear, sisters and brothers. We have all we need: Jesus has called us through the tumult – let us choose to follow the road he lays out before us. AMEN.
Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, (October 2019), “In U.S., decline of Christianity continues at rapid pace,” https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.
Terry Mattingly, (December 12, 2020), “Episcopal Church wary of aging congregations,” Arkansas Democrat Gazette (Online), https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2020/dec/12/episcopal-church-wary-of-aging-congregations/
Sermon for January 17, 2021: God calls each of us by name (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
So today since the children of Grace are watching us from home my own children Katie and Nick are going to help me talk to you about today’s Bible stories. Let me call them. Yoo hoo- children! (The children don’t come). Hey, you guys! I thought you were going to help me with the sermon today. (They still don’t come). Where could they be? Yo! Boy! Girl! (That’s what I call them sometimes). (Still no offspring). Hmmm. Let me try one more time. KATIE!! NICK!! (Katie and Nick come right away). Here they are. Where were you guys? (Katie and Nick answer that I didn’t call them by their names so they didn’t come). Ah ha ha. Very funny – as if there are other children here right now!
Sometimes it feels important for someone to call you by your name before you want to answer. Now, sometimes that’s because we think that the someone who is calling us wants us to do something and if we pretend that if we think she is calling someone else we can get out of doing it. Now admit it- who has tried that trick when they heard their mom or dad calling them just about the time the table needs to be set for dinner? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). I KNOW that these two have tried it.
I’ll tell you a secret: adults try it all the time. Adults even try to do it with GOD! When I used to hear God’s voice calling me and telling me that I needed to become a priest, I’d pretend not to hear him. Then, when God got so loud that I couldn’t pretend not to hear, I said to myself, “God must be talking to my SISTER. My SISTER would like to be a priest.” (It turned out that that was true, but it also turned out that God was talking to me). We have all kinds of tricks to try and get out of things God wants us to do – even when those things might be good for us. Have you ever maybe thought your teacher was calling on you to tell you did something wrong, but it turned out that it was really your chance to take home the class pet? Or maybe your grandmother called and you thought you were going to have to help her clean her car, but she really wanted to take you for ice cream? God is like that. You never know what God might want when God calls on you, but you can bet that whatever it is will be good, because God always wants what is best for us.
Today we heard a story about a little boy named Samuel who heard God call his name. Samuel lived a long time ago when children used to go and live in churches with their priests. Isn’t that a weird idea? Can you imagine living at Grace with Reverend Deb? Well, these guys can! (Gesture at Katie and Nick). And they probably wouldn’t recommend it. Anyway, Samuel was asleep, and God called his name. Samuel thought it was the priest, Eli, calling him, but Eli said it wasn’t him. After this happened a couple of times, Eli realized that God must be calling Samuel, so he told Samuel to answer God and tell God he was ready to talk. Now, that was some very smart advice – because let me tell you: if you try to avoid talking to God, God will just find you one way or another!
Later on, we heard ANOTHER story about when some people got called by God in a different way. In that story Jesus was out walking, and he saw Phillip and he told Phillip to follow him – and Phillip did because Philip just knew that Jesus was VERY special. He was so excited that he ran right off to tell his friend Nathaniel so he would come too. But Nathaniel wasn’t buying it. He figured Jesus was just a poor carpenter from a small town, so he couldn’t be very important – and he told Phillip so. But Philip just invited Nathaniel to “Come and See.” What a great idea! Phillip didn’t argue with Nathaniel or get mad. He didn’t go without him. He just suggested he come and see! So Nathaniel came and when Jesus saw him he not only knew his name, but he also knew what he was like and how he had thought Jesus wasn’t very important –and even where Nathaniel had been sitting when he said it! THEN Nathaniel KNEW Jesus was special – and he was very glad that he had come with Phillip.
So, what do you think Samuel and Philip and Nathaniel learned? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Yes, that you should answer when you hear your names called – even when you aren’t sure if it’s good news! What else did they learn? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). That’s right! God knows each and every one of us by our names. I think they might have learned one more thing too. What might that be? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Good! They figured out that it’s a really great thing to share the good news about Jesus with your friends because knowing Jesus will make your friends happy too! Do you think you would like to try to listen for God’s voice? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Will you try to answer when God calls you? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Will you share what you know about Jesus with your friends? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Great – and we will too! All right then, what do we say in church when we agree (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. We say “amen.” AMEN.
Sermon for January 10, 2021, 1 Epiphany, Year B, Out of the Deepest Darkness (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
There is a story in the Hebrew scriptures about a king who ruled Jerusalem in the seventh century before the common era who got word of an impending attack on the city and set out to make sure his people had supplies by connecting a pool of water within the city gates to the city’s major source of water outside the walls by way of a tunnel. Setting people to work from each end and having them miraculously meet in the middle, Hezekiah was able to quickly complete what was ultimately an “S” shaped 11,750-foot tunnel that joined the Pool of Siloam to the Gihon Spring. Astonishingly, this 3000-year-old marvel of engineering is still intact and about 30 years ago Gary and I walked through it with my sister Sidnie. My understanding is that nowadays the tunnel is paved and there are recessed lights in the ceiling, but when we went through it it was very much as the first archeologists found it – filled with sudden turns, erratic changes in height, and darkness – lots of deep, deep darkness.
My sister is a biblical scholar and an excellent tour guide, so we came equipped with extra lights and solid footwear. Even so, our inability to anticipate the next turn and sudden plunges from ankle to thigh-deep water produced quite a few nervous giggles and gave us the sense that we had been in there a lot longer than expected. We were (according to Sidnie) about a quarter of the way through when we saw two tiny flickering lights ahead of us. As we drew closer, we saw that they were matches – or rather a series of matches being lit in rapid succession by two young men whose increasingly visible faces were absolutely terrified. They did not speak English (or Hebrew), but we were able to discern from their gestures that they had been traveling from the other end of the tunnel without any light other than matches- and they were about to run out of them. Wet and dirty, they grasped our arms, pointing back the way they had come, clearly asking if they could remain with us. We offered them one of our flashlights and tried to explain that they were actually much closer to the end than we were and that if they just kept going, they would be out soon. I don’t know if they understood us or not, but either way they opted to stay with us and go back the way they had come, taking the longer but seemingly safer way out of the darkness into the light.
Many human beings express fear of darkness – not just physical darkness, but the metaphorical darkness of the unknown, in the hearts of others, and the dark desires and despair of our own souls. Perhaps this is because some deep primordial part of us remembers the darkness out of which the world was created – a deep, formless void without sound, without scent, without air. Maybe we sense that we might return to that ancient, chaotic darkness – to that dense and tangible nothingness. I think this why when we see primitive behavior our reactions are just as involuntary and combative as the actions that triggered them. Fight or flight is not just a trendy way to understand our emotional responses; it’s a biological imperative. When we feel darkness around us our instinct is to protect ourselves and those we love – either by physical or emotional withdrawal or by righteous aggressive engagement. Onward Christian soldiers.
We are in a time of deep darkness in our nation right now – and like the tourists in Hezekiah’s tunnel we must make decisions about how we are going to move forward in this unfamiliar and distressing gloom. This week we witnessed unprecedented conduct in our nation’s capital. Our moorings have been pulled from beneath us: civility, tradition, unity, shared values, and, for Christians, brotherly and sisterly love, can no longer be assumed parts of our communal lives. We wonder how we got to this place – and how we can move forward from here. We seek out light – any light – that we can follow to get us out of this darkness. It is tempting to select a path from among those offered by the human voices among us – especially those who tell us that we need not fear suffering or pain because we are chosen by God. “Have a blessed day” we tell one another -as if when we have a bad day we are not blessed. We mistake faith for favoritism.
The truth is that there is nothing in our theology that promises that we will not undergo trials and tribulations. Anyone who has read our Holy Scriptures knows that they are filled with stories of chaos, war, famine, disease, and death. It takes humanity just one biblical chapter to commit an act of theft and betrayal and begin our long separation from God and one another. Over and over again human beings act out of self-interest and fear despite God’s repeated efforts to teach us how to overcome our baser instincts.
The good news is that we can learn from our mistakes. There is much in our Holy Scriptures that suggests that periods of crisis, disunity, and chaos can be clarifying and unifying for God’s people. God’s chosen are repeatedly separated from God only to be reconciled each time with new knowledge about what God wants from the people. Each tragedy, each separation cleanses us from our sins and prepares us to move forward with a better understanding of what it means to be part of a beloved community. Our forebears valued such cleansing so much that they codified it into our worship rituals. Paul asked the people of Ephesus if they had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They answered that they had not, but they had been baptized in John’s baptism – a baptism of repentance. Similarly, we in The Episcopal Church weekly confess our sins against God and one another and are absolved of them. This ritual is called a “sacramental rite,” and is an important acknowledgement of our heritage- an acknowledgment that we are powerless without God. It is not, however, a sacrament; it is not an outward and visible sign of God’s blessing upon us.
The primary indication of our membership in Christ’s community is our willingness to share in his life and death through baptism. When we are baptized, we recognize and accept that Jesus died for us, and we enter that death with him. Today we remember Jesus’s own baptism by his cousin John. Because we perform infant and child baptisms, the light sprinkling of water received in baptisms in The Episcopal Church does not adequately replicate the serious dunking that Jesus would have received in the Jordan River. Baptism is a symbol of death and rebirth. It should feel like drowning. When we agree to be baptized, to become Christian, we agree to drown – to die with Christ. With Jesus we go down into the darkness of the deep water – where there is no sound or light, but only a great void of nothingness – so that we may, with Jesus, rise out of it again.
That is what it means to be a Christian in a time of darkness. It does not mean that we are the ones who will escape tribulation. It does not mean that we are the ones who will be proven correct. It means that we are the ones who are willing to move forward through the deep water, through the darkness, through death if need be – because we know that Jesus is with us in the chaos and gloom. Dive deeply then into the current night without fear. The cleansing may be painful. The losses may be hard, but we must not turn around now. Darkness is always only temporary, for our God is the creator of light. Have faith and hold fast -and at the appointed time we will like our savior rise up out of the darkness to see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove and the voice of God speaking and saying, “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” AMEN.
Sermon for January 3, 2021, 2 Christmas, Year B, Three Kings walk into a Barn (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
There is a sign in the Grace Church kitchen that reads, “Three Wise Women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and there would be peace on Earth.” I had, of course, seen it before but had forgotten it was there until wandering into the kitchen the week before Christmas to restock the Deacon’s Pantry and wash some dishes. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
I have never been sure whether I actually like that sign or not. As a woman I enjoy the suggestion that some folks of the female persuasion might have reacted to the Revelation of Jesus’s birth in a helpful and sensible manner. I do not, however, like the implication that they would have been so consumed by doing that they missed their chance to recognize and cherish the theological significance of the event. This balance – between doing “church” and being a worship community- is a tricky one to which we must give careful attention, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus himself gave Martha quite a talking to for getting lost in serving casseroles instead of listening to the words of the living God.
It is always interesting to look at a famous story from a different perspective, but the truth is that we don’t need to rewrite the tale of the “wise men from the East” who appear in today’s gospel – because – as the Grace Church youth group members found out at our most recent Christmas Trivia night- it’s already been rewritten. Most of us who grew up attending a Christian church are acquainted with “Three Kings,” named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, who arrive from “the Orient” at the end of the Christmas pageant wearing crowns and bearing gifts. As you just heard, however, other than the gifts, none of these things are found in today’s gospel, which is the only place in scripture that these wise people are mentioned. That is not an accident.
Those of you who have been in Bible Study at Grace know that while three of the gospels are very similar (synoptic) in content, they have some significant differences too. That’s because each of the gospel writers frames the good news about Jesus with a specific lens. Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience and focuses on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. That means that it’s likely that the story of the visit of the wise people is about the relationship between Jesus’s birth and the fulfillment of the prophecies found in the Hebrew scripture.
Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman suggests that, “Ancient readers would have recognized the Magi as astrologers from the East (perhaps Assyria) who could read the course of human events from the movements of the stars. These wise men are pagans, [non-Jews] … whose astral observations have led them to recognize that a spectacular event has transpired on earth, the birth of a child who will be king. The text never explains why Assyrian scholars would be interested in the birth of a foreign king. Perhaps their worship of him indicates that they understand him to be far greater than a mere mortal, king or otherwise.”
Matthew’s inclusion of the story tells us that the first people who took it upon themselves to answer the call of the Christ child were not the priests of the Jewish king or the scholars of Jewish prophecy, but outsiders. They recognize that Jesus’s coming has been orchestrated by nature itself and that he is worthy of worship, despite his humble circumstances. These foreigners – speaking another language, bringing gifts from another tradition, and believing in a different theology- were the first of the procession of non-Jews who would worship the Jewish Messiah – and they were the first people who put their lives in danger to do so.
They accepted him as he was. Every detail of the story of Jesus’s birth is consistent with our understanding of the man who was both God and human being. He was born as he lived – into the most unassuming of circumstances surrounded by people that his society accounted as practically worthless. Yet, despite the poverty and dangerous circumstances of his nativity, the joy and gratitude of everyone who hears the news demonstrates that God is present in this child. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was born among the very people he would continue to bring joy to for his entire life – the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. He also wants us to know that, as the prophets predicted, Jesus is, from birth, rejected by those who might have known him best.
Anthropologists tell us that human beings began to sort themselves into groups incredibly early in our history – and almost as quickly developed rules for keeping people out of them. Exclusionary criteria have and continue to include age, gender, physical ability, language, and belief. This was certainly true in the sixth century before the common era, when Jeremiah told the exiled Jews that they would eventually return home from their long sojourn with a broader community than they had previously accepted. The procession home described by Jeremiah is “a remarkable scene of healing and inclusion. The blind and lame excluded [previously] are here welcomed back. This fits with a broader theme of inclusion in postexilic prophetic texts; elsewhere, foreigners are also said to be welcomed to serve God.” God’s desire, it is clear, is for everyone to be part of the homecoming.
The early Christians struggled with issues of inclusion too. Remember that the first Christ-followers were Jews – and they weren’t so sure that they should welcome non-Jews into their midst. Today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Christ community in Ephesus is “a manifesto that proclaims full membership, equal status, and honorable place for Gentile Christians in the people of God.” Ehrman suggests that “It is the Gentiles, the non-Jews, who originally do not have the Scriptures but who learn the truth from those who do. [They, like the Magi, make the spiritual and physical journey to…] worship the King of the Jews.”
In the almost two thousand years since this communication was heard, church members and leaders have repeatedly participated in discriminatory practices that benefit certain people at the expense of others. We have often refused to share Jesus’s humility and universal acceptance, taking him from among the barn animals, removing his crown of thorns, and placing him in the heavens wearing the countenance of the prosperous and powerful.
This is not what is shown to us in the narrative of Jesus’s birth – and it is not what God wants. As today’s psalm makes clear, our God has the power to do anything, but what God does is to continue to try to bring all creation to Godself. The offer is clear. The signs are there– but we miss them when we forget that our earthly work and our love of God are inextricably linked. It is no accident that I was reminded of the Magi in a room where much labor has been performed for others on God’s behalf. As the Magi followed the star, so too we must follow the Magi – patient, diligent, and open-minded- growing in grace and gratitude until we too will be overwhelmed with joy. Ask for directions, arrive on time, help where you can, show your faith in practical ways, give thanks at all times and in all places – and there will be peace on Earth. AMEN.
Bart D. Ehrman (2002), The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings: A Reader (2nd edition), [Oxford, England: Oxford University Press].
Christopher B. Hays, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 172.
Luis R. Rivera, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 184.