Sermons

All of Rev. Deb’s sermons, along with other material, can also be found on her blog, telloutmysoul.com

Sermon for October 15, 2017 (8 a.m.): God’s presence and ours (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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It has been a hard week for many people in our area. Lately, while editing our on-line newsletter “Grace Notes,” I have repeatedly found myself having to send out information about new natural disasters and ways that we can help their victims.  Floods, earthquakes and now fires have caused astounding damage in recent weeks, adding to the existing conditions of war, famine, and disease that have long been part of our daily news.  It’s enough to make a person lose hope.

Thank God for today’s readings, which remind us that “no matter how desperate the circumstance one starts from, a powerful vision for a better tomorrow can take hold.”[1] The key, we learn, is to remember who we are and, more importantly, who we worship. Today’s Hebrew scripture is a hymn of glorious promise, following a summary of terrifying destruction. It is a description of God’s power. It is an account of God’s faithfulness. It is the story of God’s relationship to his creation. In the writings of the prophet Isaiah God is capricious, often changing her attitude toward human beings in the blink of an eye. According to scholars,[2] Isaiah, which was written by at least two authors in different time periods, was pulled together by one editor, who lived long after the events described in it.  This particular passage is written with the voice of the Israelite refugees, who were soon to return from their exile. Isaiah’s editor describes their God as one who punished them harshly for their disobedience, but also the God whom they believe will restore them.  Theirs is a God of reversals, and in order to follow him, hope is essential.

Luckily, there is good reason to hope- because their God – and ours- is also a God who repeatedly offers her creation the opportunity for salvation.  In recent weeks I have heard more and more people discussing the idea that we are currently living in “the end times.” Such apocalyptic notions are based on biblical passages that predict a series of natural disasters that will occur prior to the end of the world – disasters like the ones we have been experiencing. The theological term for the study of the end of time is called “eschatology,” from the Greek for “the study of the last.” As Christians, we profess to believe in the salvation of the world through Jesus the Christ, suggesting that belief in Christ is all that is necessary to be what some Christians call “raptured” during the “apocalypse.”

Today’s readings, however, tell us that there is more to it. We know from scripture that God certainly wants to save his creation – all of his creation -and that God has tried many times to do so.  But we also know that humans have repeatedly rejected God’s efforts to warn us, to help us, and to save us. That is what Jesus reminds his followers in today’s gospel reading. In the story he tells, a king gives a wedding banquet, but when he sends for the people he invited, they refuse to come.  So the king invites different people to the wedding feast instead.  This story initially seems very similar to the one we heard last week. In that story the tenants of a vineyard refused to acknowledge its owner, killing his slaves and then his son, leading the owner to declare that the vineyard will be given -like the banquet – to others.  In today’s parable, however, Jesus adds something new. He says that when the “others” who were invited arrived, some were not dressed properly, so they were thrown out “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This has always seemed really unfair to me.  After all, those people were invited at the last minute.  They were unprepared.  Why should they be punished for a small thing like wearing the wrong thing? But it wasn’t a small thing; they were punished not because they didn’t obey a small etiquette rule.  They were punished for not appreciating the invitation they had received, and not committing themselves to it with their whole hearts. They were punished for being unable to answer for their unwillingness to fully accept the invitation that they have been given – for failing to, as Paul puts it, “be clothed with Christ.” You see, God’s invitation to the feast is open to everyone, but not everyone accepts it, and not everyone is willing to promise to follow all of its obligations. Once again, Jesus tells his people that simply saying we believe in his teachings and that he is the path to salvation is not enough. We have to demonstrate our belief by our actions, by “putting on” the way of Christ.

And that way is one of welcome and hospitality and hope. It is one in which we are both fed by and feed others on behalf of the God who loves us.  It is no accident that several of today’s readings focus on food; Isaiah’s eschatological vision describes the great feast “of rich food…of well-aged wines” that will be served to all of God’s people; in our gospel, God’s grace is described as a great wedding banquet, and in one of the most-beloved psalms in our tradition, we are told that God spreads a table before us, even in the presence of those who trouble us. Scripture is clear. God feeds his people – and not in a minimal way, but abundantly. “God’s hospitality does not passively wait for a guest to arrive.”[3]  God pursues us with the food of grace. Not only that, but God provides us with perfect food. “God the host is not only the one who provides the food and drink, but Christ himself is the food and drink. Because Christ comes from the Father and becomes the provision, he not only sustains life; he also initiates a unique form of life: eternal life.”[4]

Yesterday, Grace hosted a funeral reception. Although the family chose to have the individual’s service at a funeral home, I believe that having his wake in our Parish Hall was a reminder of the connection of all human beings to our creator. “A funeral wake celebrates the life of the deceased, their hope-filled salvation, and a continued legacy carried forth by friends and family.…[Such] meals remind us of the past, bring to light a reason to celebrate the moment, and give us a transforming hope for the future.”[5] These occasions are a gift, because they are reminders of God’s constant presence among us.

We need such reminders, because we are prone to too easily forget that God is always with us- until the end of time and in all circumstances. Paul knew this. He knew that it was too easy for his friends in Philippi to forget all they had learned during his time with them.  The same is true for us.  In our church calendar we are currently in a long stretch of what we call “Ordinary Time,” or “green time.” The shiny joys of Easter and Pentecost are behind us and the peace of Advent and Christmas are still to come. During such “down times,” it is easy to lose track of who we are, but Paul has some counsel for us. “Keep on with your everyday works of generosity and prayerful living,” he tells us, “Bake a loaf of bread for the woman down the street whose husband just died…Take a bag of groceries to the food closet. Visit a church member in the nursing home…Scripture and gospel acts of caring teach [us] about the persistent, every day, powerful, promises of God’s grace in Christ,”[6] even during times of difficulty and pain. It is during those times that it is most important to continue to follow the path of Jesus, because doing so reminds us not to fear the terrors of nature or human beings. It reminds us that God is always present in our lives whenever we choose to be present to God. It reminds us to hope.  AMEN.

[1]James Burns, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 151.

[2]Jay Emerson Johnson, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 146.

[3]Stephanie Mar Smith, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 154.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Jeffry W. Carter, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 150.

[6]Jill Y. Crainshaw, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 162.

Sermon for October 8, 2017: You will know them by their fruits (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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I like to refer to today as “Vineyard Sunday,” because our readings all seem to be focused on grapes.  This is no surprise, as grapes were both common and extremely important for thousands of years in Middle Eastern culture. “No plant is mentioned more times in the Bible than the grape and its products…The grape vine is grown solely for its fruit; there is no other use for the vine in the Scriptures. Even the wood of the vine is worthless…Pruning is essential if the vine is to produce grapes. This is referred to in several Scriptures including Isaiah…and John…The Greek word for prune and cleanse is the same… [It is crucial to protect the plants] when the vines are flowering…If left unprotected, they are subject to being ravaged by animals.”

Most people in the times of both Isaiah (about the eighth century BCE) and Jesus would have been familiar with these facts about grape growing and been able to understand their use as metaphors for God’s relationship to humanity.

In our Hebrew scripture, God, speaking through Isaiah, compares Creation to a vineyard, and human beings to the fruit it yields. This reading is actually a song – a love song, in which God expresses both his love of and disappointment in humanity.  “My beloved had a vineyard,” a fertile place filled with choice vines and all that was needed to yield healthy grapes that could be made into excellent wine – perhaps something like what we call “The Garden of Eden.” God did everything right to make this vineyard thrive, but somehow his children did not turn out the way he expected.  “A famous wordplay in [Hebrew, the language Isaiah was written in] drives the point home: God expected justice [in Hebrew, ‘mishpat] but saw bloodshed (mispakh); God sought for righteousness (tsedaqah) but instead heard a cry (tse’aqah), the cry [of the oppressed].” We can imagine God feeling much as we do when we suffer loss.  She has put so much time and work and resources into this project that means so much to her, only to have it turn out wrong.  “God’s love, care, and protection [came with the expectation that they would bring] justice and righteousness,” but instead God’s people have engaged in hatred and violence.  They have become more focused on being right than on being kind.  They have forgotten God’s desire for them to love one another.

According to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he, living seven hundred years later, has done the same.   This portion of Paul’s letter is both a confession and an invitation. In it, he shares with his people his own transformation from being an oppressor of the Jesus Movement to its chief evangelist. Paul makes it clear that he has not just re-evaluated his priorities or changed the way he looks at things; his entire identity as a person has shifted – and he is happier and healthier because of it. “Because of Christ, Paul’s perspective changed entirely. The very things that were once central to Paul- his God-given religious identity…plus a healthy dose of pride in his own achievement…-he could now discard…Paul renounces the past as the defining marker of who he is.” He has come to value relationship over rules and being known instead of knowing things.  Paul has experienced Jesus the Christ, and his relationship with Christ is now the heart and soul of his faith.

He is only able to say this because of God’s persistence. Way back in the time of Isaiah, God recognized his creation for what it had become, and what it would continue to be: prone to disobedience, selfishness, and willfulness. In other words, wild grapes. Despite this, God continued to answer the cries of his people for help with their unruly nature- over and over. “Again and again,” we say in our Eucharistic prayer, “you called us to return. Through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous Law. And in the fullness of time you sent your only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace.”  We are saved because God kept trying to be in relationship with us.  We are saved because God sent Jesus to live among us and heal us.

Of course, Jesus did not find the world in a much better state than had Isaiah before him. The passage from Matthew’s gospel that we heard today is the second of three parables that Jesus told against the ruling religious leaders, whom he flatly condemned. Today’s story occurs near the end of his ministry. He has traveled the lands of the Jews, listening to their problems, healing the sick, and even raising from the dead.  He has returned to Jerusalem in triumph to cries of “Hosanna” – “Save us” – Lord.  And what he finds in the great city of his ancestors appalls him: people paying for prayer; violent behavior at all levels of society; pride and hypocrisy even among religious leaders. He sees wild grapes – and it makes him angry – so angry that he vandalizes the temple of his ancestors, berates the moneychangers who serve there, and curses a fig tree simply for its “refusal” to offer fruit. Then, he stands in the temple itself and preaches this parable, thereby launching a direct attack on the rich and powerful, which begins the process that ultimately leads to his death.

In Jesus’s story, the landowner, like God, has planted a vineyard with all of the right ingredients, but when he gives its inhabitants free will, they abuse it – and when God returns to see what his work has produced, he finds the vineyard ruled by greedy, cruel, and callous stewards. Fortunately, this is the same God who sings love songs to his creation, a God who does not give up, so she tries again to turn her people to the right. But when God again offers a share of his kingdom, his beloved respond with more anger and more aggression.  Finally, when the great Creator sends love itself in human form to face this tragedy, they kill him. “What,” Jesus asks, “should God do to these people”?  And the disciples answer just like the human beings they are: “Kill them.”

But here is the amazing thing. God does not say that he will punish the wicked. He does not offer the justice that the disciples think is deserved. Instead, God says she will give humanity the justice they have asked for, the justice that answers their plea to, “Restore us, O God!” Instead of punitive justice, God decrees restorative justice. The difference is profound. “Punitive justice asks only what rule or law was broken, who did it, and how they should be punished. It responds to the original harm with more harm. Restorative justice asks…what are the needs and obligations of all affected.” Punitive justice repeats the cycle of violence and hate; restorative justice brings things back in sync with God’s desire for us to practice justice and righteousness, to love one another, and to be fruitful.

We know how to do these things because Jesus has shown us. It is not always the easiest path, as Paul knew, but it is the true way. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call in Christ Jesus.” Unlike grapes, our potential for goodness and fruitfulness cannot always be perceived with human eyes, but God sees it.  God knows our desire to do what is right, to practice obedience, and to be good. But how do we know when we are on the right track? In the midst of the confusion in our own lives, how do we become the good fruits of righteousness and justice?

Peter Scholtes had a simple answer and he put it to music:

“We are one in the spirit we are one in the Lord.
We are one in the spirit we are one in the Lord
and we pray that all unity will one day be restored.

And they’ll Know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

We will walk with each other we will walk hand in hand
We will walk with each other we will walk hand in hand
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.

And they’ll Know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

We will work with each other. We will work side by side.
We will work with each other. We will work side by side
and we’ll guard each other’s dignity and save each other’s pride.

And they’ll Know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  AMEN.

Sermon for October 1, 2017: Choices (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Oh how I love this gospel! – because I have two children – two teenaged children – and I am one of two children. My family will tell you that I trot out this gospel a lot – pretty much every time one of my children says, “I will Mom!” and then fails to do what they were asked. “Remember the parable of the two sons?, I will ask. Which one of those was the good child?” “The one who did what the father said,” either one or the other inevitably replies, complete with an accompanying eye roll.

But after reading the parable again myself, I started thinking that maybe doing this to them is not only unfair, but overly simplistic. Because what I have noticed is that almost every time I read this story – or quote it to my children – I am thinking of a different person.  The same is true when I apply it to my sister and myself. When we were teenagers, it was often my sister, who is quiet and hates conflict, who would say, “Yes, I’ll do it,” and then manage to be somewhere else when the job needed doing.  Nowadays, it is me who sometimes agrees to things and then immediately tries to get out of them. The truth is that we’re all sometimes the “good” child and sometimes the not-so-obedient child.

That is actually great news – because it means we are not slaves to our innate dispositions.  The age-old “nature versus nurture” debate has still not been settled despite recent innovations in genetic testing and brain science, but our scriptures for today certainly seem to have something to say on the matter.  In our Hebrew bible reading, the prophet Ezekiel confronts his people about doing what Dr. Phil might call “playing the blame game.”  Scholars tell us that Ezekiel’s congregation lived in exile following the ouster of the Israelites by the Babylonians.  They believed that these reduced circumstances were the result of God’s judgment – and they complained to Ezekiel that it was unfair of God to exile them for what their parents had done – for the sins of their fathers.  But God, speaking through Ezekiel, told them that they were not being judged for inherited sins. God told them that they were judged for their own choices.

That’s a big deal, because such choices determine the difference not only between physical life and death, but the state of our eternal spiritual life, something Paul frequently advised his congregations about.  Writing to the Philippians from prison, his letter is hopeful, expressing confidence in the community that he loves, which has always listened to him.  He knows that “God is at work” in them, especially when they properly imitate the way of Jesus and sacrifice for one another.  The Greek word, “kenosis” means “to empty” and the adjective “kenotic,” used to describe Jesus, denotes one who empties himself for another.  Paul suggests that in order to find the full joy of spiritual fellowship (“koinonia” in Greek), the Philippians also need to be willing to empty themselves for one another, to “look not to [their] own interests, but to the interests of others.”

That is a tall order for ordinary human beings – because we may not be liable for our familial predispositions, but there is such a thing as human nature.  And even though scripture tells us that we need not be defined by it, the bible does not say that we will not make mistakes because of it. The questions we need to ask are what we can do to avoid the most serious of these errors – and what to do when they happen anyway.

Today’s psalm is the story of an individual who is struggling with his own worries and impulses. Although this psalm has been attributed to David, scholars believe it is more likely that it was written in the post-exhilic period – in other words, by the descendants of the very same Israelites who complained about being punished for the sins of their fathers. Life was confusing for these returnees, who had to adjust to living with people that they didn’t know or understand. In this chaotic situation the psalmist asked for God’s help – just as we ask God to be present to us in our confusion, our anxiety, and our fear.

He also asked God to forgive and – perhaps more importantly – to forget his previous mistakes. “The person offering this prayer is a fallible human being whose past is littered with unfortunate decisions that are displeasing to God. However, the steadfast love…of the Lord outweighs any punitive instincts, and the speaker appeals to the divine tendency to forgive transgressions.”[1] In other words, he knows that God wants to forgive him.  How? Because, through Ezekiel, God tells us just that. “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God.  Turn, then, and live.” God’s love for us and desire for our salvation is why God gives us so many chances – to try to choose the right thing -and if we fail, to choose to ask for forgiveness – and then choose to try again.

In the Episcopal Church, we view baptism as the mark of membership in the Christian community, and we view Jesus Christ as the pathway to our salvation.  We do not, however, agree with the view that once you have chosen the way of Jesus you no longer have to be responsible for your behavior.  In terms of the old debate between “faith” (only believe and you will be saved) and “works” (what matters is not what you believe but what you do) – we understand both to be necessary. We believe that God asks us to try to match our actions to our beliefs and, when we can’t, to admit [our] need for forgiveness.[2] That is the process of Christian living.[3]

It is also the message of today’s gospel. This text has often been interpreted as a template for determining who gets “in” and who is “out” of the kingdom of God.  But Jesus’s presentation suggests that any such divisions cannot be set in stone.  In the parable, Jesus refers to the two sons only as “the first” and “the second.” In the version we read today, the first is the one who initially defies his father but later changes his mind and does what he is asked.  But there are some versions in which the roles are reversed, in which the first – the “good” son, is the one who did not ultimately do the father’s will.  This suggests that the point of the story is not who gets to go to heaven, but rather that anyone can inherit the kingdom of God.  Like Ezekiel, Jesus says that we are not bound by our genetics, or even by our previous behavior.  We are constrained only by the choices we make in the present.  He is telling us that it is never too late to change our minds- that we can “turn” to him, again and again and again.

Just like my children – just like me and my sister – just like all human beings – sometimes we will be the one that does the right thing immediately, sometimes we will be the child that makes promises we can’t keep, and almost all the time we will make mistakes and need to ask for God’s forgiveness.  God’s most gracious blessing is that we can. “The truest thing about us,” says Brother Geoffrey Tristram, “is not our sins, not the mistakes we have made, not the pain we have caused others.  The truest thing about you and me is that we are God’s beloved children, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image- and created for Life and Love.”[4] AMEN.

[1]Samuel L. Adams, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 107.

[2]Timothy B. Cargal, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 103.

               [3] Gilberto Collazo, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 114.

[4]Brother Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE, (September 28, 2017), “Children of God,” in Brother, Give us a word,”

Sermon for September 24, 2017: Testify (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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“Testifying” is not something that is particularly familiar to most Episcopalians. Although Jesus commanded all of his disciples to share the Good News of our salvation through him, individual “witness” is not a regular part of Anglican/Episcopal worship.  While some churches (and other institutions) regularly ask individuals to speak about their salvation through Jesus Christ, the Episcopal Church generally does not.  But I recently did.

You may or may not have recognized my call, which you can find in the last several editions of our online newsletter, “Grace Notes.” The title of the article was, “A Minute for Mission.”  In it, I asked parishioners to “step up and talk about their membership in the community of Grace.” You may or may not be shocked to find out that I have had very few volunteers. I don’t think it’s because our folks have nothing to say.  I know that the people of Grace love this parish. I know that our members and visitors recognize a sense of welcome and joy in our community of Christ.  And I know that God is present and active in the hearts of the parishioners of Grace.  I just think that we are uncomfortable talking about God’s grace and mercy.  So I’m going to give you a couple of examples of how it’s done.

First example: God.  In today’s Hebrew scripture we find one of our most well-known prophets, Jonah of “Jonah and the whale” fame in a temper.  He is upset with God because God, after saying that the people of Nineveh would be punished for their evil ways, has relented and decided not to bring calamity on them.  This makes Jonah mad. After all, God dragged him out of his home, scared him into running away, got him swallowed by a big fish, and sent him to talk to those mean Ninevites and after all that decided to show them mercy.  “Just kill me now,” Jonah says. Instead, God causes a bush to grow over Jonah to make him more comfortable and, perhaps, less cranky.  But the minute Jonah gets comfortable, God sends a worm to kill the bush and leave Jonah in the hot sun.  And Jonah gets mad all over again.  Because God is not being fair. And it’s true.  God was not being fair.  God was being merciful- and God gave Jonah a very simple reason why: because God cared for the people of Nineveh. God explains his own actions. God testifies to her own mercy.

Example two.  Today’s psalm is attributed to David.  In it, we hear that God is to be praised, because God is good.  God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. David is writing from experience – because he knew a thing or two about God’s mercy, having broken at least three of the Ten Commandments himself. This psalm is David’s witness not only to God’s power and glory, but also to God’s endless forgiveness and mercy.

Example number three: St. Paul.  After being blinded and converted to the Jesus movement, the former Saul spent the remainder of his life testifying to the salvation offered through belief in Jesus the Christ.  In the reading we heard today, Paul was writing from prison, where he was facing the very real possibility of his death and ruminating on whether it would be better for him to live or die.  Ironically, Paul considers death the more selfish option, because it is his greatest personal desire to be with Christ.  For him, it is a sacrifice to continue living, but he knows that it is his call to spread the gospel – so he chooses life not for himself, but in order to give others a chance to experience the wonder and mercy of the life he has come to know through belief in Jesus Christ.

Which is what the landowner in today’s gospel parable also offers: a chance. While he agrees to pay the first group of laborers he hires, “the usual daily wage,” he does not make the same promise to those he hires later in the day.  He merely tells them that he will pay them, “whatever is right.”  Notice he doesn’t say, “whatever you think is right.”  He doesn’t say, “what seems fair to you.”  He doesn’t say, “what you earn.”  He says, “whatever is right.”  And for Jesus, what is right is based not on the rules of humankind, but on the nature of God.  “Hard-working, ‘good’ people have always asked,” on hearing this story, “What kind of God would offer the same reward to those who have earned it and those who have not”?[1] The answer is “a merciful God,” – a God who gives everyone the same chance – the chance to know God.

God also gives them – and us – the chance to witness to God’s mercy -but somehow that is hard for us.  We find it easy to testify to the effectiveness of a diet we have tried, or the value of a product we use, or the competence of our physician or contractor, but we have enormous trouble telling others about the single most important thing in our lives: the gift of our salvation, forgiveness, and new life through our most merciful triune God. Perhaps it’s because it is so important – and so personal.  After all, it’s pretty difficult to talk about the presence of God in our lives without talking about ourselves – about the things that matter to us – about who we really are.  No wonder we don’t want to get up in front of everyone and “testify.”

But I have asked you to do it, and so I will give you one more example: my own.  This past week I attended the diocesan clergy retreat. The theme of the conference was “Clergy Health – Mind, Body, and Spirit” and Bishop Marc asked me to talk about clergy mental health.  What I found in the research I did for this presentation was staggering: members of the clergy – across denominations and even countries – are extremely prone to burnout and mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression.  My goal for my presentation was to provide an environment in which my fellow clerics felt comfortable talking about their own issues, and I felt that I could not do it without honestly talking about mine.  So I told them, as I am telling you, that I suffer from depression.  I was diagnosed with post-partum depression after my son was born and I spent several months of my life crying without being able to stop – and several years trying to rediscover the joy in my life.  I feared that I could not recover from my pain – but God was with me during that dark time, and the stories of people from our scripture and history gave me comfort on my journey through it, and the testimony of my fellow believers gave me strength and hope when I needed it most.  And now I am grateful and joyful to be able to witness to the mercy of God – and the power of Christian community.

I know that many of you are struggling through hard times right now, and I know how easy it would be for you to give in to the voice of despair, the voice that cries out “This is not fair.”  But you don’t.  You not only continue to work through your pain with faith and courage, but you also continue to give to others despite your own troubles.  You show up each week and do altar guild, and buildings and grounds, and office work.  You serve on committees and answer emails and wash dishes.  You testify with your good works to the saving power of God and of God’s people on earth. For this and for you, I am more grateful than you can know.

Today I have to ask you to testify in one more way.  This week we are beginning our fall stewardship campaign.  Stewardship in the church has become associated with money, and certainly that’s part of it, but what stewardship actually means is “what we do with what we have.”  It is how we demonstrate what is important to us and what we are grateful for.  I would request that if this Christian community is important to you, you testify to that with your time, talent and, if possible, your treasure.  Decide in your heart how you can best make your witness to God’s great mercy.  And I thank you.  AMEN.

[1]Kathryn D. Blanchard, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 94.

Sermon for September 17, 2017: Forgiving is necessary – and hard (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

I once read a really interesting article in “Psychology Today” with the title, “Why you don’t always have to forgive.”  In it psychologist Deborah Schurman-Kauflin argues that forgiveness is an optional part of the grieving process.  She writes:

“You’ve been hurt…Now you are left in tatters, at your lowest point in life…Eventually you must go through a healing process. As hard as it was to hit bottom, you will come to find that crawling your way out of the pit is equally as hard…Grieving and healing is a slow, slow process that cannot be hurried or skipped…With time, you come to realize that you are moving forward, and it is usually at this point that someone will ask about forgiveness…[But] though society pressures you to forgive the person who wronged you, the truth is that forgiving may be the worst thing you can do. Many religions and therapies focus on forgiving a perpetrator so that the victim can ‘move on’ …However, forgiveness is not something that just happens…Though many find a way to move forward in life, forgiveness truly eludes them. This does not make them bad people. This just means that it is not healing for them at this time…Under… pressure, victims will give in and comply. They say they have forgiven when in their hearts they have not… Forgiveness comes from within. It is not something that can be forced. Either you can do it or you can’t. If you cannot, then don’t think that you are a bad person or that you failed in some way. In some cases, forgiveness is just not possibleDon’t give in to peer pressure. Don’t say you forgive someone when you don’t. It won’t make you feel better, and it won’t make your life easier.”[1]

That’s quite a statement.  God knows that many of us have suffered – and that there are sins that are seemingly impossible to forgive, but I have to admit that when I read Dr. Schurman-Kauflin’s article I was put off by a lot of what she said – and her tone seemed pointedly anti-religion.  She seems to primarily see Christians as unfair, demanding that believers forgive even if they are not ready, even if they are not sincere.

Today’s gospel has been used to promote that view.  In it, Jesus tells Peter that he must forgive, not just “seven times,” but “seventy times seven.”  And then he provides the example of the ungrateful slave, who ended up being sentenced to torture until he paid his debt.  This certainly seems to say that forgiving is mandatory – and that if we can’t forgive someone we will be punished. But, unlike Dr. Schurman-Kauflin, I don’t think being forced to forgive is what the story’s about. I think it’s about relationships. I think it’s about how we demonstrate God’s love through our interactions with one another.

Matthew’s gospel emphasizes the connection between our love for God and our love of neighbor over and over.  And this story is consistent with that theme. Although his gospel places this story during Jesus’ life span, it’s probably not a record of an actual conversation, but rather it’s an illustration of how Jesus’ teachings should be applied to Matthew’s community.  We know this because in the story Peter asks Jesus what he should do if another member of “the church” sins against him – but there was no “church” in Jesus’ lifetime.  But Matthew’s gospel writer did have a church – a church he was trying to build up – a church whose members were in constant danger from authorities – a church in which unity was crucial.

In last week’s gospel, we heard about how we should deal with someone who has offended us.  This “three step process” was not something Matthew thought up.  We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that it was also practiced by a community called the Essenes who lived in desert communities in Qumran.  Scholars believe that both groups used this process because it promoted unity. So Matthew’s goal in promoting this ancient practice was both theological and practical. But why didn’t Jesus (or Matthew) simply say, “We have to forgive one another.  We have to stick together if we want to survive”?  Why the threats?  The simple answer is that Matthew understood human nature.  He may not have had a Ph.D., but he was still way ahead of Dr. Schurman-Kauflin.  He understood that one of the hardest – potentially impossible -things you can ask anyone to do is to forgive.  And he understood that just telling people to be merciful isn’t very effective – but giving them an example of it is. Which brings us back to the story of the ungrateful slave.

I used to think this parable was about the slave – about one who owed much himself and was forgiven but then refused to forgive the much smaller obligation of his debtor.  But I have come to believe that the core of the story resides in the character of the king, because it is the king that demonstrates the crucial difference between “forgiveness” and “mercy.” In the story, the bad slave does not ask the king to dismiss his debt.  He asks his lord for patience – for a little more time to pay.  But what the king actually does is to release him from his obligation entirely.  The lord goes beyond what he is asked to do –beyond forgiveness.  He demonstrates mercy.  You see, the doctor is right about one thing.  Human beings give – and receive- empty apologies all the time that do nothing to promote healing.  But it is not hollow forgiveness that we are being asked to afford one another.  It is mercy.  And mercy by its very nature is undeserved – and beyond our human capacity to grant.

Viewed in this light, the slave’s mistake was not simply failing to forgive his own debtor; it was failing to consider how his actions would affect others -and in ignoring the example and support of his king – a king who had much greater power than the slave and used it to give something more than what he was asked.  The bad slave thought only of himself, of what forgiveness would mean for him. He did not see that the king was showing him a different and better way, just as God shows it to us.

That’s what Dr. Schurman-Kauflin is missing.  She is not wrong about the necessity of honest grieving and gradual healing, about forgiveness needing to come from the heart, about not saying we forgive someone when we don’t- but I think she’s dead wrong when she says that sometimes forgiveness is” just not possible”- and when she says that forgiveness comes from within you.  Forgiveness doesn’t come from within us.  It comes through us.  It comes from God – and for God, forgiveness is always possible.  True forgiveness is allowing God’s mercy to move through us, because only God has the power to know us completely and forgive us completely.  Giving in to the demands of those who encourage us to forgive may feel like capitulating to peer pressure -and perhaps the demand that we forgive each other over and over and over again does seem hard and unfair.  But giving God the burden of the anger, hatred, and fear that we carry inside us as a result of unforgiven sins – sins we have committed and sins that have been committed against us – is absolutely right – and it’s what God wants us to do, to lay our burdens on him.  That’s grace.  And that’s God.  And that is always good.  AMEN.

1]Schurman-Kauflin, Deborah. “Why You Don’t Always Have to Forgive,”

Criminal profiling and the deviant mind, Psychology Today, August 21, 2012.

 

Sermon for September 10, 2017: God is watching (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen here:

So, a man walks into a bar and sees that it is empty, but that the full cash register drawer is open.  He is somewhat down on his luck and sorely tempted to pull out some cash.  He looks around carefully and, seeing no one, reaches his hand out toward the drawer.  Suddenly, he is interrupted by a voice, “God is watching!”  He jerks his hand back quickly, looking around again.  Seeing no one, he reaches out again, and again hears, “God is watching.”  This time he scans the room more carefully and sees a parrot sitting on top of the bar.  Very slowly, he reaches out his hand to the cash drawer again – keeping his eye on the parrot- only to have the parrot once again squawk, “God is watching!”  Finally, he glares at the parrot and says, “Is that you talking?  How can you talk?  Do you even have a name”? And the parrot says quite clearly, “My name is John the Baptist.”  “John the Baptist,” the man says, “Who names a parrot John the Baptist”?  “Well,” says the parrot, “Actually, it’s the same guy who named the Rottweiler ‘God.’”

The idea of God watching us is for me – and I think for most people – a little nerve-wracking.  It brings up images of a grumpy authority figure with a ruler in his hand just waiting to smack us for the slightest infraction of the rules.  And there seem to be so many rules – how can anyone keep them all straight, much less manage not to slip up every once in a while?  It’s scary to think of God knowing our every tiny indiscretion, every loss of temper, and every –heaven forbid! – curse word out of our mouths.  And, if that’s not hard enough, our Hebrew Scripture for today adds a new wrinkle: we are asked not only to be responsible for our own sins, but for those of others. This seems like very slippery territory to me.  I, for one, have enough to worry about with admitting to and repenting of my own sins without tracking those of others. And I don’t want to shock you, but I have found that most people – myself included – don’t like to be told that they are wrong, much less “sinful.” Julie Peeples suggests, in fact, that “the belief that churches are in the business of judging and condemning [may be one reason] for the decline in church membership in recent decades.”[1] Yet, there it is, right in our lesson from Ezekiel: “If I say to the wicked,” God tells the prophet, “‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.” So, does this mean that we are biblically mandated to judge one another?

I don’t think so.  First of all, that’s not what the passage says.  God does not tell Ezekiel to judge or punish his neighbors; God tells the prophet to warn them – because, says God, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” This tells us that God is not about punishment but redemption.  God does not make us responsible for one another so that we can make each other feel bad; God connects us in community so that we can help one another avoid sin – and find redemption from it. “A crucial point about faith in God is that the integrity or quality of the believer’s relationship to God is always contingent upon the integrity or quality of the believer’s relationship to others…It may appear that Ezekiel’s call…was…a matter of his receiving a divine command and obeying it, [but the truth is that he could not – and we cannot- fulfill this task] without concern for and attention to the welfare of others.”[2]  Ezekiel – like us – is called to be compassionate and caring to his neighbors. Just like God.

That’s why God is watching – not to catch us in a mistake, but to help us to live good lives by following precepts which are, at their core, about human beings living together in the kindest way possible. In this view, God’s law is not a straightjacket designed to keep us separate from the world, but a pathway to guide us to living fruitfully and honorably in it. God’s commandments are not meant to be a burden, but a gift. And God’s law, like God’s word, is not some irrelevant ancient code; it is alive and relevant to our lives today. Think about it; the Ten Commandments certainly still apply as much to us as they did to the ancient Israelites.  Be loyal; don’t lie, don’t take things that aren’t yours – be respectful of others, and, above all, love one another, because, as the apostle Paul so clearly puts it, love is the basis for all Christian belief, “the fulfilling of the law” – all of it.

Which makes the reverse true as well – if, in seeking to adhere to a rule that hurts our neighbors, we are not fulfilling what Paul calls the summary of the law.  “Law,” says Eleazar Fernandez, “must serve love of God and neighbor, not the other way around…This is the norm by which Christ-followers need to see themselves.”[3] It is, in other words, the bottom line.

And it is why we have Christian community.  I have often said that as a former prison psychologist and forensic mental health expert, I have seen much of the worst humanity has to offer – and I still believe that human beings are basically good. I know how easy it is for people to get lost in the fears and concerns of the world around us, but that doesn’t mean we are bad.  It simply means we need help.  I think most people try desperately to do the right thing, to make sense of their lives in a way that is kind and giving, to live in the light – and I see them looking for somewhere, for something – for some spiritual pathway and community of support and companionship –to help them do it. What our gospel tells us is that this should be that place. Christian communities have been wrestling with trying to be good and loving for two thousand years – and, as a result, we have learned much about how to do that.  “What makes us Christian is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but how we go about addressing and resolving these issues.” [4] Today’s scriptures tell us that we do it through communication and reconciliation, by believing in the power of forgiving one another, and by focusing on redemption rather than rightness. In other words, we do it through love.

My son Nick is a hugger.  When he is feeling down, he seeks physical comfort.  My husband, who is not as much of a hugger, once saw a television commercial for a “ThunderShirt®” for dogs – a “patented [dog coat that]… applies gentle, constant pressure to calm anxiety, fear, and over excitement,”[5] – and promptly suggested we get one for Nick.  The idea of the ThunderShirt® (which is allegedly “backed by science”), is that being held close (but not squeezed) makes the animal (or person) feel safer.  I wonder what would happen if we thought of God’s commandments as our own spiritual ThunderShirt®– applying constant, gentle pressure designed not to hurt us, but to comfort us – to guide us – and to remind us of God’s constant presence in our lives.  Our scriptures tell us that our God is available to us right here and right now, and that God wants to help us and guide us, and that God wants us to do the same for one another. If you think about it that way, the fact that “God is watching” becomes a very comforting thought indeed.  AMEN.

[1]Julie Peeples, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 32.

[2]Ronald E. Peters, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 30.

[3]Eleazar Fernandez, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 40-42.

[4]Jin S. Kim, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 46.

[5]Amazon.com product description, https://www.amazon.com/ThunderShirt-Anxiety-Jacket-Heather-Large/dp/B0028QK6EY

Sermon for September 3, 2017: The power of emotion, the power of God (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen here:

This has been a very emotional week for me.  It started last Sunday when, as you may remember, my daughter came up during the announcements to be blessed before leaving for her gap year on the east coast and I became a bit tearful.  It is, of course, part of the job of a priest to be able to carry on through strong emotions – to put aside our own feelings in order to help our parishioners work through theirs, but, honestly, it is sometimes hard to hold it together, especially when there are a lot of potent emotions swirling around.  That has definitely been the case this week – a week in which thousands of people lost their homes, possessions, and even their lives in the devastating hurricane and subsequent flooding in Texas; a week in which many families sent beloved young people off to colleges and “adult” adventures; a week in which we mourned the loss and celebrated the life of our sister Joyce Apostalo, and a week in which today we celebrate the blessing of our sister Jo-Ann and brother John’s fifty years of Holy Matrimony.  That’s a lot of powerful emotions to manage.

If you think about it, even the most joyful emotional events – like John and Jo’s renewal – can be exhausting. Although we tend to think of “feelings” as somewhat abstract, non-scientific sensations, there is ample evidence that emotions are both rooted in our physical bodies and fairly predictable.  Neuroscience tells us that when we “feel,” certain parts of our brain “light up,” producing specific chemical responses.  “Each emotion sparks a distinctive physiological reaction, the body’s program for dealing with the different situations that arise in our emotional lives. Happiness cues the brain to suppress worrisome or negative feelings and increases the body’s energy level. Sadness does the opposite, slowing down its metabolism, and manifests itself most visibly in tears. Research has substantiated the age-old theory that crying releases harmful toxins by showing that tears of sadness have a different chemical composition than tears of joy or those caused by irritants. Cardiologists have also found that crying can reduce stress and the harmful physiological reactions associated with it. Anger floods the brain with catecholamine hormones that prime the body for action and stimulates the nervous system, putting it on a general state of alert.”[1] In other words, when we feel dizzy with love, overheated by anger, or weak with sadness, we really are. Powerful emotions – negative and positive – can be overwhelming for all human beings – even prophets.

We know this because in today’s Hebrew Scripture we find Jeremiah struggling with feelings of anger toward God.  He has tried to be a faithful prophet – reporting the concerns and will of God to his people as it has been shown to him – and yet he has been teased, tormented and even physically hurt by those around him.  He’s had enough. He wants God to get back at the people who have upset him – and the amazing thing is that he’s not afraid to let God know about it, even going so far as to call God names.  That’s because, despite his anger toward God, he never doubts their relationship.  He knows that no matter what he says to God, God will not abandon him. Their bond is deeply loving, one “in which God’s overwhelming claim on Jeremiah’s life is delightful and devastating at the same time.”[2] God did not create humanity without knowing the nature of it. God understands Jeremiah’s strong feelings – even the negative ones.  God recognizes Jeremiah’s anger for what it is: a sign of love – because, really, “only those who love experience hurt, anger, and doubt.  The indifferent are just fine.”[3]

True love, what St. Paul calls, “genuine” love – or “un-hypocritical” love, as it is more accurately translated – is both complicated and very, very difficult.  Because of the way the Greek language works, Paul’s long list of love’s attributes are translated as “Let love be,” but they can also be heard as, “love is.”[4]Thus, love is un-hypocritical, love is ardent; love is patient – love is hospitable, humble, noble, and harmonious.  “The type of love Paul describes here is energetic and profoundly optimistic.”[5]

But it’s also practical.  Paul understands that human beings are what they are.  We may be created in God’s image, but we are not like God.  In fact, it’s when we make the mistake of thinking that we know what God wants from us that we are most likely to get into trouble. We “are often confusingly confident with our claims upon God – and more so in our claims on God’s behalf.”[6]  That’s what happens to Peter in today’s gospel.  In the portion of Matthew’s gospel we read last week we heard Peter correctly identify Jesus as the Messiah, one anointed by God. Jesus recognized Peter’s testimony as “the rock” upon which the church would be founded, and promised that the actions of his earthly followers would have repercussions for the kingdom of God.  And yet in today’s gospel passage, just two verses later, Jesus rebukes Peter.  Why?  Because Peter contradicts Jesus when Jesus tells the disciples that he must suffer and be killed.  Jesus’s response to Peter seems pretty harsh, given that Peter’s is, I think, a pretty normal response to have.  None of us want bad things to happen to those we love.  “We hear Peter [saying] ‘God forbid it, Lord!’ This kind of suffering must never happen to you…You cannot go through the tears and the sweat, the blood and the muck of humanity, because you are God.”[7]

But, of course, Jesus does.  That is the core of the gospel, the defining principle of our savior – his willingness to suffer and die for those he loves.  And he offers us the same opportunity – the chance to throw ourselves into the messy, scary, deeply difficult process that is living in relationship.  In some cases that has meant and will mean dying for our beliefs – but for most of us it is enough to simply engage in the struggle that is loving our neighbors as ourselves.  “Eternal living does not happen in a place of seclusion.”[8] God’s mansion may have many rooms, but that doesn’t mean we will necessarily get a single – or be able to choose our roommates.  Christianity is about community, about living in relationship with one another – and sometimes that is hard.  St. Paul knew this. He did not simply say, “Live peaceably with all.”  He said, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  He is telling his people not that they have to live in perfect harmony with one another – only that they have to try.  Because no matter how difficult it may be to try to live up to Paul’s ideals for Christian community, it is far harder to be cut off from it.  Scripture tells us that God lives within each one of us and, more importantly, among us.  If we want to be where God is, then we need to be among God’s people.  “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.”  May we do all that we can to make this community that place.  AMEN.

[1]Alive Editorial@alive.com (April 24, 2015), Emotions and Physiology, http://www.alive.com/health/emotions-and-physiology/.

[2]Angela Dienhart Hancock, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 7.

[3]Ibid.

[4] Christopher R. Hutson, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 17.

[5]Rochelle A. Stackhouse, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 16.

[6]Dale P. Andrews, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 23.

[7]Jin S. Kim, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 22.

[8]Eleazar S. Fernandez, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 18.

Sermon for August 27, 2017: God to the people: “Listen to me” (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen here:

The other day I approached someone to ask a question. She nodded and smiled at me, but didn’t answer.  So I asked again and this time she made some kind of hand gesture that I didn’t understand. So I asked again louder – and got the same response. I started thinking that maybe we had a language barrier (or maybe that this person was operating in some alternate reality). Then I noticed the ear buds.  She hadn’t heard a word I said.  I didn’t want to seem pushy by asking her to take them out, so I raised my voice and asked my question again – and again.  Finally, she removed one ear bud in time to hear me yell, at top volume, “I think it’s supposed to get hot out tomorrow.”  She reared back, saying, “You don’t have to YELL at me – and I’m not having anything to do with that political stuff this weekend.”

It took me a while to get that she thought by saying “hot,” I was talking about the planned protests in the Bay Area, when I was actually just talking about the weather.  I thought about explaining, but I couldn’t think of a way that I could do it without offending her – and really the conversation wouldn’t have gone well anyway, because what I really wanted to tell her was that she was rude to be wearing those stupid ear buds!  In other words, I wanted to tell her that I was right and she was wrong.

I think this country is having a metaphorical epidemic of this type of non-conversation right now.  Many of us have our spiritual earbuds so firmly in place that we can’t hear what other people are saying – and we don’t want to take them out – we don’t want to hear what’s going on outside of our own safe belief system- so when someone makes us take them out –either through persistence or brute force – we get angry at them for yelling at us – for being rude. Trying to communicate this way is very frustrating.  Ask God.

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord,” God says to the Israelites through Isaiah. “Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me.” God tells us that he has the answers we seek and yet we still don’t listen.  Maybe that’s because we are distracted by what’s going on in our own heads. “How often in life does a situation become so all-consuming that its pervasiveness literally drowns out all other sounds and voices around us … [how often are the] circumstances in life…so traumatic that they can numb and render us deaf to all but the sound of our own pain.”[1] How often do we figure that we’ve got enough going on without taking our ear buds out and listening to the chaos around us?

It’s understandable, but not acceptable – because our entire faith is based on the concept of relationship – relationship with God and with one another.  We hear this in today’s psalm, which is an example of the doctrine of God’s providence – the idea that God is active and interested in the world. Ours is a God who cares – and who cares specifically for the lowly. “God values those who seem to have nothing, and chastens those who have much.”[2] And God asks us to do the same- to care for the world and its people – all its people.

According to St. Paul, this requires sacrifice – not symbolic, but real sacrifice. Paul understood sacrifice. I believe that Paul’s letters are often misinterpreted because we take them out of context, seeing them from the perspective of people who live in a safe, comfortable world.  But Paul didn’t live like us. Paul was an itinerant preacher, witnessing in foreign and often dangerous places and trying to draw together people with significant differences.  His letters were written to “communities seeking understanding in relation to their lives,” people who were hunted and tortured for being different. And here’s what he told them: “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  In other words, you are not to be part of the status quo.  You are not to continue to live with the wrongs around you.  You are not to contribute to the unequal distribution of wealth.  You are not to allow people to be marginalized for who they are.  You are not allowed to keep your protective ear buds in.

You are to sacrifice for what is right.  Paul’s question to his people – and to us – is not, “How will you benefit from being a Christian,” but rather, “What are you willing to give up to be a Christian”?  I occasionally joke that I am willing to put myself in dangerous situations because my only hope for Christian renown is to be a martyr – since I have no chance of being a saint.  But as much as I think I would give up my life for my faith, I recognize that in reality, I haven’t really given up anything– not my comfortable income, not my home, not my family, not my job, and certainly not my freedom or well-being. And, in many ways, neither has God’s church – which, perhaps, explains why people aren’t coming so much anymore.

The passage we heard today from Matthew’s gospel is famous because it serves as the basis for the primacy of the Pope in Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.  According to Catholic doctrine, when Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” he was putting Peter and his descendants in charge for perpetuity.  But other scholars have argued that Jesus wasn’t referring to the person of Peter, but the testimony of Peter.  This means the basis of our faith is built not a person, but on belief – belief in Jesus, belief in the faithful actions of God in the lives of his people throughout history, and belief in his continuing inspirational presence through the Holy Spirit.

We sure need this inspiration- especially now – because “if churches are not inspired by the Spirit, they will eventually expire.”[3] The church will not grow – it cannot grow – if we don’t start living as if the kingdom of God is already here.  It’s a huge and potentially overwhelming responsibility, but it’s what we have to do.  Luckily, no one of us has to do it alone.  “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function” but between all of us, we have absolutely everything we need.  We just need to work togetherSt. Paul calls us to “move beyond our particular political and denominational factions… and our respective ethnic loyalties by speaking truthfully to one another in and through our differences about the impact of Jesus Christ in our own lives.”[4] Because when we don’t, we not only miss the opportunity to share God’s grace and glory with others, but we miss the chance to become closer to God in our own lives.

Because God is always present with us.  Do you really think that Jesus left the church in the hands of a bunch of ignorant, frequently-wrong, often-hot-headed, disciples without guidance? Think about what we know about Peter.  Does it make sense for Jesus to leave him in charge without help? Of course not.  Jesus did not leave us alone.  We always have the Holy Spirit among us – to help us whenever we don’t know what to do – to share in our sorrows and struggles – to hear our prayers, and to answer them.  But we have to accept that help. We have to avoid the tendency to focus on the noise of the world and the fear inside of us and listen instead for the voice of God – for the voice of reason – for the voice of community – for the voice of peace.  We know what to do. “Listen to me, you that seek the Lord.”  Take out your earbuds; God is waiting.  AMEN.

[1]Ronald E. Peters, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 362.

[2]Elizabeth P. Randall, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 371.

[3]Eleazar S. Fernandez, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 378.

[4]Jin S. Kim, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 384.

Sermon for August 20, 2017: God is bigger than hate (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

It is tempting when you are on vacation to ignore the news, but it can be equally hard to stay out of touch when watching people near and far struggle with issues that are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Such was the balancing act of my vacation last week, which happened to take place during a period of significant national upheaval as well as the final illness of a beloved parishioner.

My ambivalence about “relaxing” when so much was going on clearly bled into my “recreational” entertainment when I found myself watching the recent television production of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a “dystopian” story about an alternative or future reality in which things have gone horribly wrong.  When I was in school in the 80s and 90s, “The Handmaid’s Tale” was the least well-known of only a trio of books that represented the dystopian genre – and school was one of the only places you would find these books.  No one read them for “pleasure” – they were too depressing and frightening – and they had nothing to say to people whose lives were filled with the pleasures that come with a booming economy, boundless faith in a sunny future and, above all, a belief that our country represented the moral high ground.  Americans in the decades after World War II saw ourselves as a nation of scrappy go-getters who, like a collective beacon, shone light into the darkness of the world. We could not imagine ourselves ending up in a dystopian future that was so wrong when we were clearly so right.

One need only look at the best seller list to see how much things have changed.  Not only has there been a recent proliferation of new dystopian books and films, but “classics” like “The Handmaid’s Tale” have been experiencing a major resurgence in popularity.  Scenarios that once seemed ridiculously pessimistic and unnecessarily depressing now seem disturbingly possible – even familiar. And, perhaps more upsetting, it has become harder and harder to place ourselves in the role of the come-from-behind heroes of these novels –little people fighting against the seemingly unbeatable, monolithic powers-that-be with nothing but a suitcase full of optimism and a willingness to do what is right no matter what the cost.

Not that people aren’t trying.  We are living in a time in which it is difficult to know what to believe – when even basic history is constantly being rewritten to fit a narrative that justifies the opinion that specific races and cultures represent the will and nature of God – that being born into a certain group allows people to abscond from the responsibility to behave with civility, honesty, and justice – that “membership has its privileges.”

It’s a lie.  There is nothing in our scriptures that justifies depriving others of the love of God.  And there is nothing in our scriptures that tells us that any particular nation or culture has an exclusive right to the love of God. In fact, scripture shows us that God has long told his people exactly the opposite.

Today’s Hebrew Scripture was written during the time when the Israelites had returned from exile, filled with notions of getting revenge on the people who stayed behind.  But God tells them that instead they must focus on their own salvation – not by separating themselves from the community they find themselves in, but by inviting the strangers among them to share in God’s deliverance. They are not to identify themselves based on their status as Israelites, as God’s chosen.  Instead, they are to prove themselves to be God’s people through their actions. 

This is not something people who think they are already in the “in group” want to hear. We want God to belong to us – and to us alone. We don’t want to have to work to demonstrate the favor of God – especially if it means laboring with people who are different than we are. And we especially don’t want to humble ourselves in the sight of God and other human beings. Even thinking about it terrifies us. So we do what all animals do when they’re afraid: we hide. We hunker down in psychological caves of our own making – in dark, limited places where everyone thinks like we do and nothing different or challenging can get in. We seek the comfort of the familiar and put our trust only in what we know and can control. And in doing so, we make the world infinitely smaller. We make God smaller. And that is nothing less than heresy.

But it is a common heresy – one that Jesus himself briefly succumbs to in today’s gospel. “[This story] raises deep questions about prejudice, divine election, and the limits of God’s mercy.”[1] Exhausted by sparring with the Jewish leadership, disheartened by repeated rejections from his own people, Jesus is suddenly confronted by someone who is so completely foreign, so utterly incomprehensible, and so absolutely wrong, that he doesn’t even acknowledge her. She is not only a member of a national/cultural group that is despised by the Jews; she is also a member of a different, blasphemous religion. And she’s a woman – a woman who violates cultural norms by even speaking to Jesus- and whose daughter is possessed by demons. Why should Jesus even bother with her?  He owes her nothing and she can be nothing but trouble to him. His own calling is hard enough.  And he basically tells her so – in language so harsh that it’s hard to believe that it comes out of Jesus’s mouth. But she is undeterred. She refuses to allow him to ignore her.  She demands to be let in – not because she wants to hurt him – not because she is to be feared – but because she wants to belong – and in doing so she reminds Jesus himself that when it comes to God, there is no such thing as “limited resources.” She reminds him that God is more than big enough for everyone.

Of course Jesus knows this, but perhaps in this moment even getting the Israelites in line seems like too much. Perhaps he doesn’t want to think about dealing with people that are different. Perhaps he really needs a reminder. Or maybe he’s just exaggerating to make a point.  We don’t know. What we do know is that the Canaanite woman is not alone in her sin. We know, as Paul did, that all human beings are disobedient, all human beings are in need of salvation, and all human beings require God’s mercy.  And God willingly and generously gives it – but only if we ask – only if we recognize with humility that every one of us is in desperate need of God’s mercy – and one another.

This gospel reminds us that our survival depends not on our ability to keep out the “wrong people,” but rather that “No one [can be] left out… [that] everyone [must be] included”[2] –that it is through inclusion that the nations will be saved – that the nations are already saved. Paul reminds us that it was the outsiders and heretics who gave Christianity its initial life. Giving in to the evils of racism, privilege, and hatred of those who are different in our own time can only cause its death.

I believe the reason that dystopian books and films are so popular right now is because the darkness they represent – the fear they portray – is familiar to us.  These stories suggest what might happen if human beings act on their worst impulses – and they resonate with us because we see that happening in our lives right now. “Sadly, evil and wrong have… [often]…wrapped themselves in the clothing of faith. The perversity of white supremacists appropriating the cross, a symbol of a very real instrument of torture and death used against a member of a subjugated people, a person of color, is beyond ironic — it is deeply distorted.”[3]  We, as Christians, have the responsibility to correct that distortion by acting on the true principles demonstrated by Jesus the Christ – by welcoming the foreigner, by sharing God’s infinite glory, and by celebrating the wideness of God’s mercy and the immensity of his grace. Christianity is not a shield.  It is not a bunker to hide behind.  It is not a fortress of right.  It is an opportunity – an opportunity to experience and share the vastness of God’s love and mercy – an opportunity to heal the world with our faith.  AMEN.

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

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

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

 

Sermon for August 13, 2017: Love, Forgiveness and Trust  (The Rev. Laurie Moyer)

This sermon will be different.  It is a trip down memory lane, memories of two marriages.  You might even hear it as eulogy.  You might hear it as a story of contrasts.  Most of all, my hope for you, is that you will understand it as a story of love, forgiveness and trust.

PAUSE

To begin:  This is a quote from the book entitled The Falls by the novelist Joyce Carol Oates:

“Maybe love is always forgiveness to a degree.”

I think today’s story of Peter and Jesus is a story of love, forgiveness and trust.  Peter loved Jesus and trusted him enough to risk walking on water just because Jesus called him to come to him.  Jesus loved and trusted Peter enough to offer him the opportunity and then embraced him when Peter’s courage sank.  Peter was willing to risk his fellow sailors’ mocking either because he’d try such a stunt as walking on water or because he didn’t succeed.  He loved Jesus that much that he risked his macho.        “…love is always forgiveness to a degree.”  Jesus never held Peter’s doubt against him. Peter loved Jesus enough to give anything a try because he trusted him.  They simply loved one another.

PAUSE

It was seven years after my husband’s death that I was really able to say to myself:  “I’ve got this now.  Finally I am not so broken of heart that it grips my soul so intensely that I am in pieces.  I’m getting to be whole again.”  At seven years out from Bob’s death from cancer, I could see that never would I not miss him, but now I was becoming a life again.  Part of this growth of my character and my strengthening was, as I see it now, a new perspective of our life together.

No marriage is perfect.  Ours wasn’t.  Yet as the years away from it had/have increased I realize how much good there was between us.  For instance, I can honestly say that on the important things that bonded us, like a commitment to the children and their welfare, a commitment to financial stability including jobs we both endured, mortgage, health insurance, life insurance, bill payments on time, Bob and I were always on tract with one another.  But in all that commitment to those things that grease an easier existence in the world, we lost affection for one another.  My fault probably more than his, maybe not.  But somehow in the seven post-Bob years to my ‘ah-ha’ moment to where I now could endure life and even grow in selfhood, I had learned what I basically knew but didn’t acknowledge .  And that was:  within all the discipline of governing our life style we were loving, caring for each other and that is, in its way, was – is – an affection to each other too.  I learned that I could first identify my faults and then I could forgive myself.  I learned I could forgive Bob and myself for the fatigue that our marriage had experienced.  I learned in time that we HAD done the best we could do under all the demands of our lives.  I learned to forgive him and me.  And I truly believe it wouldn’t have taken him anywhere near seven years to forgive me, if he even would have found me lacking at all.  He was that kind of guy.

PAUSE

Trusting that the other — whether the other is a spouse, a child, a sibling, a parent, an in-law, a friend — is trusting that he or she and you can take risks together.  But the love part of the relationship shines most dazzlingly when forgiveness is needed and given.

PAUSE

I lost a friend ten days ago.  Donald was snapped out of life at the mere age of 98.  He was a psychologist.  His wife and the mother of his daughter, died in 2001 when I was in seminary.  They had shared their home with another man, Tom, about 18 years younger than Donald, for many years when I met the three of them when I was wooing – or hoped I was wooing – the Diocese of West Virginia to accept me as possible fodder for ordained ministry.  My Bob had retired and I was still working near Washington, DC when we bought a large fixer-upper on two and a quarter acres in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle.  Ruth, Tom and Donald allowed my husband to live with them for several weeks right after Bob and I took ownership of our new place and when it was not possible to live in the house until Bob got some basic work done like deconstruction and cleaning.  Ruth, Tom and Donald knew me but they hardly knew Bob at all and yet they welcomed this stranger to live with them.

Tom was quite open to us about his sexual orientation.  But the question Bob and I pondered was who his partner was.  Now West Virginia in 2000 was not San Francisco 2017 regarding such matters.  I dare say that West Virginia 2017 is not close to San Francisco 2017 either.  So it was puzzling to us and kind of a mystery.  Then one day it hit me.  Tom and Donald were partners.  Bob said, “Naw.”  But, yes, we eventually learned that they were and that Ruth had continued to live with them once the decision was made that they would move in together.  As a married woman I could not fathom how she was able to be there.  I certainly could understand her stepping aside for them but not continue as part of the household.

Ruth’s health, both mental and physical, was waning.  I would go visit her on the weekends after I retired and was then in seminary – yes, I had managed to woo West Virginia!         One day she shared this with me.  Ruth quite simply said:  “I thought the two of them deserved to be together.  They were creative people who thrived together.”  She didn’t want to stand in the way of their happiness.  Later, I spoke to Donald about what she had said, and he told me, “I would never have left her.  She was terribly scarred from her mastectomy and would have had a difficult time finding someone else.”  So the result was that the three of them worked out a relationship that worked for them.  I know that there were times when it was difficult.  Tom could be rather bossy Ruth would say.  But Tom could fix and build anything and was a brilliant real estate investor.  He was an asset without question.  He shared Ruth and Donald’s love of theatre and music and they had many trips to Europe and Canada, as well as within the US, to operas and theatre and concerts.       Ruth reached across the waters of a storm to her husband Donald with one hand and, with her other, to Tom and she drew them together.  And she stepped out of her wife role and let Tom be co-partner in the household.  And when Ruth passed away, having been lovingly cared for, not by Donald her husband who wasn’t able to attend to her, but by Tom who took most loving care of her every need, no matter how personal, Ruth left her housemates Tom and Donald to a life together of a miraculous near sixteen years as a two-some.      Love and forgiveness and trust.  Ruth and Tom and Donald loved one another, forgave each what needed to be forgotten, and trusted that life would work itself out.

 

Relationships are funny things.  They are extraordinary in their complexity.  It is when we do reach out to one another and draw the other to ourselves in love, forgetting the forgettable, and trusting the other   then we find we can do beautiful things beyond any expectation.       We need only to look at our Gospel story today to discover that:  because who could have known that that reach across the water of the rough sea when Peter accepted Jesus’ challenge that that act of friendship, need and trust was part of a journey that would bring Christ to the world with Peter as the Church’s first ringleader!  Love, forgiveness, and trust.  They are inexorably intertwined.

Thank you.

Sermon for August 6, 2017: We Shall be Changed  (The Venerable David Stickley)

You can listen to the sermon here:

And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. (Luke 9:29-30)

 

Transfiguration: a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.

 

You may wonder: did it happen?

 

It is pretty hard to believe.

 

And yet, it’s a decent bet that the Transfiguration really did happen, since there is an account in all three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke; it’s alluded to in the first chapter of John (and we have seen his glory – John 1:14); and it’s referenced in Peter’s second letter, which we heard a few minutes ago.

 

And why, you may wonder further, is the Transfiguration observed on August 6th?

 

Well… because that’s when it actually happened.

 

Okay, I made that part up.

 

The Transfiguration is a pretty big deal. Big enough that, when it falls on a Sunday as it does this year, the Book of Common Prayer stipulates that it takes precedence over the Sunday propers – the usual readings and collect for the day. That’s a big deal, considering that every Sunday, we celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection.

 

We find ourselves this morning, not only in Church, but also at just about mid-point in the season of Pentecost, which stretches from late Spring to late Fall.

 

Known in Godly Play as the long, green, growing season…

 

And the Transfiguration is plunked right down in the     middle of it.

 

If you look at the arc of the long, green, growing season, you can see that it begins with Jesus telling us a whole lot about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. It then segues – not coincidentally, I don’t think, right around this time of summer – into Jesus telling us how to get to heaven.

 

‘You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

 

Early in my career as a Night Minister (clergy associated with San Francisco Night Ministry who walk around San Francisco’s streets from 10pm to 4am), I was walking up Market Street from 7th to 8th one evening. A woman called to me from the doorway of a donut shop “Father, father!” she called to me, so I went over to her. And she asked, “Why were Moses and Elijah on the mountain top with Jesus?”

 

Wow – I thought to myself. She’s not taking any prisoners, is she? So we talked about the mountain top experience for a while, had a prayer, and bade each other good night. And ever since that particular experience, I am prompted to ponder the Transfiguration more deeply, as I think of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah way up on that mountain.

 

I think it boils down to the ways in which our spirituality compels us to live out our lives. And if you want to go on thinking those two things are not connected – our spirituality and they way we are in the world – then don’t ever talk to a deacon for more than a couple of minutes.

 

Symbolically, the appearance of Moses and Elijah represented the Law and the Prophets.- And all the law and the prophets are summed up in those first two commandments: Love God; Love Your Neighbor.

 

How many times have we heard this? And how many ways have we pondered who our neighbors are? And how many times have we wondered how far is far enough to go to love them? That last part – well, that’s between you and God… What I can tell you is that it will always be further than we thought we’d have to go, and will often be further than we wanted to go.

 

There’s also a line of thought that may be interesting to consider here: that, even though we read accounts of Moses’ death, the details are sketchy. And there is no account of his burial place. Because of this, some Hebrew scholars assert that Moses body was assumed – or taken directly up to Heaven, like Elijah.

 

Following this trajectory, we could posit that the symbolism of Moses and Elijah being with Jesus on the mountain when he was transfigured also points to us being in heaven.

 

Not some day…

 

…but now…

 

We hear that the Kingdom is with us, and within us.

 

My particular brand of theology informs me that any of us who want to go to heaven, are going. Sometimes we wonder if even the really bad people go to heaven too. I say, they are, if they really want to.

 

But maybe – just, maybe – The Transfiguration is how it is, and where it is, and when it is, to show us that in that tiny sliver of space and time between Jesus telling us what the heaven is really like, and Jesus telling how to get to heaven…

 

…Jesus is telling us…

 

…that we’re actually already there.

 

Anastasius of Sinai, a seventh-century Greek bishop, writes in a sermon on The Transfiguration: Today salvation has come to this house. With Christ, our hearts receive all the wealth of his eternal blessings, and there where they are stored up for us in him, we see reflected as in a mirror both the first fruits and the whole of the world to come.

 

We all have our defining moments. The moments that cause us to see the world in a whole different light – moments that change our lives, and leave us changed.

 

One day – years ago – I stopped to talk to a prophet. She sat in a doorway, persistently asking for money to get a hamburger. She couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds on a good day. And I would pass by her every day on my way to work.

 

But one day, I decided to stop and give her a dollar. And whether she knew it or not, she proclaimed the Kingdom to me. She told me that she – she, who looked nothing like I perceived myself to look – that she and I had things in common.

 

She taught me that, in the Kingdom of heaven, no one is ‘other’.

 

She taught me that when we stop what we’re doing long enough to love a neighbor, we’re already in heaven –  because that’s what they do there.

 

That day, I was about to pass her by, one more time, all dressed up for work, when she asked again for money for a hamburger. But this day, I stopped. And as I leaned over to give her that dollar, she looked me in the eye and said, “You look great! Are those pants linen?”

 

Yeah…

 

…I bet that’s what heaven is like.

Sermon for July 30, 2017: Teach us to pray (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

One day my husband came home really irritated.  He rides his bike to work and on his way home a teenager threw a full cup of soda out a car window at him.  “I was,” he said, “tempted to ride up to them at the next red light, take a picture of their license plate and turn them in to the cops – but then I thought I should be able to ignore it.  And then I thought if I didn’t report them that then they’d get away with it and do it again.  And then I thought I should be able to forgive them.  But then they turned the corner so I couldn’t catch them anyway.  Otherwise, I don’t know what I would have done.”

I don’t know what I would have done either – because while I can tell you that theoretically ignoring the slights of others, praying for your enemies – doing what Christians call “turning the other cheek” – is the right thing– the truth is, it’s really hard sometimes.  Maybe ours are small annoyances, but these little frustrations add up and, if you’re like me, you have days when it seems like it would be easier to remove the calories from chocolate than to let go of your irritation.

So, how do we do it?  First of all, we have to ask for help.  In today’s first lesson, God appears to Solomon in a dream and asks him what he’d like as a gift when he becomes king. Somewhat famously, Solomon asks for wisdom instead of riches or beauty, but that’s not the whole story. First of all, if you look carefully at the narrative, you will notice that Solomon does not ask for intelligence; he asks for discernment – or, in Hebrew, a “listening heart.”  I talk a lot about my belief that many spiritual seekers won’t go to church because of preconceptions about “religion,” even while what they are looking for is right here.  Solomon’s story gives us an example of how a popular modern construct can show up in an ancient religious text.  When Solomon responds to God in his vision, his answer is very similar to what we think of as the Serenity Prayer: “God,” says Solomon, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” – with the emphasis on wisdom to know the difference.

Solomon knew what he needed. Despite calling himself one, Solomon was not a child when he became king; he was an adult – a very sinful adult who had, among other things, murdered his brother in order to ascend to the throne. By admitting to his ignorance and immorality, Solomon demonstrated humility and, because he asked for the right thing, God gave it to him.

So, how do we know what we should ask for when we pray?  Because as far as I’m concerned, knowing the difference between what we want and what we need – knowing what to pray for -seems pretty hard.  Luckily, we have help.  We have been given a lens – a rule of thumb, if you will, to help us make these choices.  Jesus tells us that sin is “separation,” separation from God and one another – so we know that things that cause separation – that cause sin– are probably not things we should be praying for.  So, in Gary’s case, it meant not praying that the kid who threw soda at him would slip on his own ice and crash into a tree.

Praying for things that unify rather than separate is exactly what St. Paul told the Romans to do almost two thousand years ago.  According to Paul, like us they did not know how to pray as they ought. The way they ought to pray, he said, was with the understanding that all right prayers are already answered.  Then, after detailing some of the earthly powers that cause separation- hardship, distress, persecution, reckless leadership, famine, nakedness, peril, war, death, everyday life, dwelling on the past, and worrying about the future,– he told them that none of these things could separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Unless we let them. Unless we willingly separate ourselves from God and our neighbors by ignoring or subverting the ethics of God. For the psalmist, those rules were determined by Torah – “instruction”- from their ancestors. For Christians, our template is the wisdom, teachings and behavioral example of Jesus the Christ.  We believe that it is through Jesus that we are saved from sin – from separation. Given that understanding, all we have to do is to look to Jesus to figure out what– and what not – to pray for.

In order to do this, it’s helpful to remember that Jesus’s instruction always comes through two lenses – tradition and context.  As a devout Jew, Jesus bound himself to the laws of his tradition – to Torah- but he also tied these ancient ethics to the realities of life.  He talked to people with examples and images they could understand –farming, cooking, buying and selling –things his disciples did every day.  The question for them – and for us – is what these things have to say about the nature of Christian discipleship and the kingdom of God.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses mustard seeds, yeast, and hidden treasure to describe what the kingdom of God is like, so let’s look at these things.  Mustard is a weed that most farmers of Jesus’s day would have pulled out of the ground so it wouldn’t create chaos and take over their fields of more orderly crops.  Yeast was an unpleasant compound considered to be impure and potentially toxic.  As to the buried treasure dug up by the searching merchant, lest we forget: It wasn’t his field!  So the kingdom of heaven, then, is like a pushy only minimally useful weed; a polluted, potentially lethal bit of rotten food, and stolen merchandise.  The kingdom of heaven, in other words, is not what you might expect.

For Jesus’s followers, that was good news – that God’s kingdom was not like the one they lived in – the Roman Empire. The question that we need to ask ourselves is whether our church, our denomination, and even our country are consistent with Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of God. “What,” we might wonder, “if a society resembles the empire of Rome more closely than it does the empire of heaven, expressing in policies and budget the values of social inequality and redemptive violence”?[1]

If that’s true, then we need to change it- and one of the most significant things we can do to bring our world closer to that of Jesus is to pray. We need, like Solomon, to pray for the power to discern – to listen with an open heart.  We need, like Paul, to pray to understand how we are called to work together for good.  We need, like Jesus, to pray for a world in which “the marginalized, the unclean, and the left out” are as important as the accepted, the beautiful, and the wealthy.  We need to pray for the understanding and moral conviction that is true wisdom.  And we need to pray fervently for the arrival of the kingdom of heaven here and now.  Because when we are one with him and with one another the kingdom of heaven is in us -and it is the place where we do not need to worry about how we pray, because our prayers are already answered.  It is the place where our desires and those of God become one.  It is the place where our prayers and those of all people demonstrate humility in the face of God’s goodness.  The kingdom of heaven is the place where we are able not only to forgive – not only to live with –but to actually love those with whom we struggle- and in God’s kingdom, that will not be hard at all.  AMEN.

[1]Ibid.

 

Sermon for July 23, 2017: We are not God (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Last week I gave blood and during the course of my donation I chatted with my phlebotomist, who asked me what I do for a living.  When I told her that I am a priest, she said, “Oh, how nice for you.”  She said it politely, but it was clear that she was not a fan of religious folk.  I was not put off.  I love the opportunity to evangelize.

But she was a tough customer.  Raised in a strict black Christian family, she described herself as “barely believing” in God.  When I asked her what drove her away from the church, she said, “Hypocrisy” and mentioned, among other things, mega-churches with extremely rich pastors and priests who have committed sexual abuse.  “What,” she demanded, “does your church do?  Do you have a lot of fundraisers”?  I told her that we support people both in and outside of our congregation in a variety of ways. “You know who does a lot to help people,” she asked, “the Mormons.”  “Indeed they do,” I agreed, “but they also believe that it is important to convert everyone to their religion.”

This was interesting to her, as her biggest gripe with organized religion is that churches don’t practice what they preach. She wanted to know specifically what our church does to help others.  I told her that we work to feed and house homeless people, and advocate for those in need. She seemed suspicious, so I also told her about a study I had just read that found that while, ”At least half of Americans realize that churches feed and clothe the poor… far fewer are aware of other social services that congregations provide.”[1]  According to the author, “Though the Bible speaks of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, a significant number of Americans haven’t heard of churches providing [these things].”[2]

I said I thought this was sad because many people seek opportunities to help others but the church seems to be the last place they go to find them. She said that might be because religious people seem to believe that they have the right and/or the ability to decide who is good and who is evil – who belongs and who doesn’t. I agreed with her and suggested that most religions, including Christianity, including this denomination, have been guilty of this very sin of exclusionism.

The “My God is better than your God,” game is an ancient one.  We heard echoes of it in today’s Isaiah passage.  In it, God seems to be on the defensive from non-believers. “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.  You are my witnesses!”  Wait – it’s up to us to stick up for God?  But how can we, when we sometimes doubt God ourselves, when we like so many others have had prayers go seemingly unanswered?  We can, if we remember what God has done for us- not the material trappings of success, all of which mean nothing in the eyes of God – but the times we have tested God and been saved, the periods we have walked in darkness and been forgiven, and the moments we have been alone and found community.  “The true witness of one’s faith comes alive in the dark moments when it is difficult to see the blessings of God,”[3] but when we truly remember, we can see that “Even in the midst of suffering and pain”[4] God is present.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to complain. Today’s psalm is an excellent example of what scholars formally call “lament.”  The psalmist is afraid and anxious – perhaps even angry at having to deal with his enemies – but these feelings do not drive him away from God, but rather toward God. The psalmist is not ashamed to ask for help, as we so often are.  He complains directly to God because he believes that God is present and God will help him. He has faith.

He also knows what to ask for. The psalmist doesn’t ask God to destroy his violent enemies – instead he requests strength to deal with his enemies, that “those who hate me may…be ashamed.”  In other words, he doesn’t want his rivals to be terminated but rather transformed. And he understands that he needs to do his part for that to happen.

Paul also understood this. While Paul’s letters have often been interpreted to argue that if you are saved by Jesus Christ you don’t need to worry about anything anymore, what you believe is more important than what you do – I think that is exactly the opposite of what Paul repeatedly says.  He does not tell his people they can wait passively for salvation, but rather that they must wait actively – patiently enduring suffering with hope.  For Paul, all of our struggles, all of our pain, all of our worries are not a hardship but a gift – because they remind us of our intimate link to Jesus Christ.

This is not the most user-friendly message: “Join our group and you can suffer patiently for an unknown period of time for a reward we can’t prove you will get.”  (Let’s put THAT on our Facebook page)!  But explaining Christianity that way misses the point; the point is not that we suffer, but that our God understands our suffering and is willing to share in it –that our God is fully present to us – all the time.  Our God is patient.

Which is a good thing, because human beings generally aren’t.  Nonetheless, that is what the Parable of the Weeds tells us we are supposed to be whenever we are tempted to judge someone else. Written in the context of a growing and changing church in which members were dealing with issues of new cultural and racial diversity within their ranks, this parable acknowledges that there is evil in the world – and in the church, but we are not equipped to accurately identify it.  This story isn’t about categorizing evil – it’s about dealing with it – the same way God deals with us, patiently.  Despite the fact that the servants in the story, like us, push the master to help them separate the wheat from the weeds because they want to “settle forever the problem of who is in and who is out,”[5] Jesus tells them to wait -wait until both the wheat and the weeds are fully grown, because then the reapersnot us – will separate the evil from the good.  In other words, be patient – and trust in God.  “The God who is glimpsed in this parable models for us an infinite patience that frees us to get on with the crucial business of loving, or at least living with, each other…a God who does not merely tolerate endlessly a world that is a mixture of good and evil…but who finally, in God’s own good time, acts both to judge and to redeem the world.”[6]  This is a God with an endless capacity to love – a God to whom everyone has the opportunity to belong.  It is not our job to decide who is a sinner – who should be separated from God.  That is not our calling. We have been called to wait with patience for God’s judgement, and, while we wait, to contribute to God’s good harvest by seeking to bring about God’s kingdom in this world, welcoming and loving our sisters and brothers, attempting to alleviate their suffering even as we endure our own, and inviting into community all those who are seeking the path that leads to God’s eternal and unfailing light. Let anyone with ears listen.  AMEN.

[1]Adelle M. Banks, (July 20, 2017), “Good works of churches often go unnoticed,” Religion News Service,  http://religionnews.com/2017/07/20/good-works-of-churches-often-go-unnoticed/

[2]Ibid.

[3]John L. Thomas, Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 246.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Theodore J. Wardlaw, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 265.

[6]Theodore J. Wardlaw, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 265.

Sermon for July 16, 2017 (8 a.m.): Hope: the long game (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

One of the great privileges I have as a clergy person is to spend time with people during significant moments in their lives.  Sometimes these occasions are full of joy – such as seeing and blessing newborn babies – and others are quite sad, like when I visit with people who are seriously injured or ill.  These opportunities are one of the reasons that it is a blessing to be a priest.  But it can be difficult – and one of the hardest things to witness is the moment when people begin to lose hope.

I have been confronted with this loss of hope several times recently.  Many of you know that this past week the Canon to the Ordinary of the diocese, Stefani Schatz passed away after a long battle with ovarian cancer.  Stefani was first diagnosed while on pilgrimage in Iona, Scotland in May of 2016 where she collapsed and was subsequently and shockingly diagnosed with cancer.  Early this year, after having significant surgery, Stefani was doing well enough to return to work full-time and appeared on the road to recovery.  Unfortunately, in April Stefani was found to have a new tumor which was growing aggressively.  After a visit to Texas to meet with specialists she was told that “cure” was no longer an option. They were told there was no hope.

Many other people face hopelessness. There’s James, “a single, 60-year-old man…diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer” who lives in fear that Congress will enact a new health care bill which will dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and without its benefits he will “be bankrupt.”[1]  Janice is a homeless woman who was recently “cleared out” of a Martinez s encampment by police just two days before her appointment with an agency that places individuals in housing, and now believes she will never find a permanent place to live.  And there’s Donna,[2] whose spouse has been fighting chronic illness for years, and whose eyes I looked into this week and realized that she has begun to lose hope.

In such situations as these, it has always been hard for me to know what to say or do to help someone, and this feeling has intensified since I became a priest.  Perhaps it’s just my perception, but it always seems like I should have the ultimate answer to that omnipresent question, “Where is your God now”? Where is your God when people go hungry?  Where is your God when people are homeless?  Where is your God when people become sick and die?

For me, the answer to that question lies not in deep and complex theology, but in the realm of human experience – the place where fear, anger, and despair originate -and in our holy scriptures, which frequently and fearlessly address the struggles of humanity.  And, sure enough, today’s psalm responds to that desperate question, “Where is your God”?  The answer is “right here.”  Because the God described in Psalm 65 is not a clockmaker God who created the world, wound it up and stepped back to see what would happen.  The God of Psalm 65 is an active God – a god who visits, prepares, provides for and blesses the world he created.  This is not a god who takes away; this is a god who gives. And one of the things that God gives is hope.  And hope, I think, is what today’s lessons are all about – which is good, because we can all use more of it about now.

When I was a child and I would say my prayers, I would always ask God to bless things, “God bless Mommy.  God bless Daddy. Etcetera.”  And then I would ask for things.  “God please give me a new bike for Christmas.”  “God make my grandma better.” And when I got a little older, “God, help me to meet my one true love Jimmy Osmond.”  It didn’t occur to me until later that I almost always said the exact same things when I wished on a star.  “I wish so-and-so was better,” “I wish I could have thus-and-such,” “I wish Mr. Perfect loved me the way I love him.”  My wishes were prayers without God in them, and my prayers were often merely wishes.  “So what,” I began to wonder, “is the difference”?  The difference is faith.  Faith is the thing that says you believe that whatever you wish – whatever you pray for – is possible – and it’s possible for a reason.  It is possible because there is someone out there who loves you enough to listen to your desires – even the stupid ones like meeting Jimmy Osmond – and to give you what you need.

Notice I said, “what you need,” and not what you want.  Because, as we well know, believing in God does not mean you will get everything you want.  Believing in God does not mean we will not suffer.  Believing in God does not mean we will not die. Believing in God means that all things are possible.  Believing in God means that we have hope.  If we have faith – if we believe that God can and will give us what we need, then we will always have hope.  This is what Isaiah means by saying that the word of God does not come back empty.  Hope says that even in the midst of struggle, we expect that good will be the ultimate outcome.[3]

But hope can sometimes be hard to find- and hard to give.  As it was when I recently looked into the haunted eyes of someone whose beloved is emaciated, weak and laboring to breathe.  “We live on this side of the veil of heaven and can often see only pain and loss.  We do not see all that there is in creation.”[4]  We do not know the reason for what is happening to us.  We do not know God’s purpose.  That makes it challenging to see the possibilities for our lives – to envision an outcome without pain or fear or grief. That’s because we are always thinking in human terms.  And the greatest power that human beings ever experience is death.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about sin and I said that sin is separation – separation from God and one another.  In today’s reading from Romans we hear Paul tell the early Christians that we are condemned when we try to earn salvation through our own power –when we decide that we don’t need God to help us – when we separate ourselves from God.  But our power is limited. We are bound to this world and its restrictions, and ultimately there is nothing we can do to overcome death. But God has already overpowered death.  And if we believe that then we will have faith that anything is possible.  We can hope.

It’s a difficult concept to understand – that the things we think of as most valuable – money, power, fame, beauty – are ultimately unimportant and that giving up power could lead to life and peace.  It seems impossible to think that suffering could ever be a good thing.  We simply cannot accept that a god who is both loving and all-powerful would allow good people to suffer.  But God does not make sense.

The parable of the sower is familiar to most of us as a story about what makes a good Christian.  We have all heard the story of the seeds and the fates that befall them, and we have all been told that we need to careful not to be “bad seeds.”  Don’t be the seed on the path; deeply engage with God’s word, lest you be swayed by those who don’t believe in God (the birds).  Be faithful to your belief in God, or else when times get tough you will give up on her (like the seeds on the rocky ground).  And watch out for the hot sun, otherwise known as the worldly dangers of money, fame, sex, and pride.  Focus instead on the right things, and you will grow and thrive.  In other words, being a Christian, like anything worthwhile, requires effort.  It requires us to do our part – to be good seeds.

But I think that when we focus on the seeds we miss something important about the sower. What this sower does does not make sense.  This sower does not act like a rational farmer.  Think about it: instead of sowing seeds only on good ground, this sower sows seeds all over the place.  This sower throws seeds in bad and broken places.  This sower throws seeds out as if he believes that all of the seeds – no matter where they are planted – have the same potential to grow and thrive – that even in rocky, dry, thorny ground surrounded by predators, something wonderful can grow.  This sower believes that even when we are surrounded by illness, fear, poverty, and immanent death, something amazing can happen.  In other words, this sower, our sower, our God, has hope.  And so should we.  AMEN.

[1]The Editorial Board of the New York Times, (June 24, 2017) “If we lose our health care…” The New York Times Online, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/24/opinion/sunday/obamacare-repeal-health-care-bill.html?mcubz=0.

[2]Pseudonym

[3]John L. Thomas, Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 218.

[4]Thomas W. Blair, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 222.

Children’s Sermon for July 16, 2017 (10 a.m.): Good Seeds (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Today I am going to read you a story and then you can tell me what it means.  Ready, here we go:

Reading of the parable of the sower.

Okay.  Who can tell me what the story was about? (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s good.  So, how many of you have ever planted anything?  (Give them a chance to answer).  So what do you have to do to make the plant grow?  (Give them a chance to answer).  What happens if you don’t do those things? (Give them a chance to answer). You want me to tell you a secret?  I am very bad at growing things.  I forget how much to water things and whether they should go in the sun or in the shade and whether I should leave them alone or try to help them grow.  Are you good at growing things? (Give them a chance to answer). Good for you!

Well, here’s a strange idea in the story we heard.  The idea is that we can’t always make things grow the way they’re supposed to.  Even if you are good at planting and growing things like you – or if you are not very good at growing things like me, sometimes things just don’t grow.  Things happen to them.  The question is, does that mean we should stop planting things? (Give them a chance to answer).

So, I’m going to tell you another secret.  This one is about Jesus.  Sometimes he didn’t make any sense.  How many grown-ups out there think they understand all of the things Jesus said? (Give them a chance to answer).  Sometimes Jesus tells us things that are not completely clear – like telling us to plant seeds, but not telling us how to make sure all of them grow!  But he always tells us at least one thing we can try to do to make things better for people and in this story he tells us one thing that we should do.  Who knows what it is?  (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right: We should keep planting seeds!  Because, even though all of the seeds may not grow, the ones that will grow will grow really well.

Does anyone know how many flowers you might get if you planted one seed?  Well, from this story, it seems like it might be seven.  But what Jesus says that if you keep planting seeds, you can get like seven hundred flowers!  Is that a lot? (Give them a chance to answer). I think so too!  So, what should we do? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right: keep planting seeds!  I agree.  And, who remembers what we say when we agree in church?  (Give them a chance to answer). Amen.  And if you agree, you say it too (Amen).

Sermon for July 9, 2017: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (The Rev. Elizabeth DeRuff)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Sermon for July 2, 2017: How do I know? (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

This week I was challenged to welcome several surprising visitors to Grace, including a prophet of doom (the tree guy who told me that two trees behind the Parish Hall are dying), an angel in disguise (someone who dropped off a donation that will probably cover the cost of the tree removal), a bicycling evangelist, and a lunching “Charismatic Christian,” among others. It was a week in which I struggled with my own fears and biases to find grace in anxiety, trust amidst paranoia, and hope in a sea of desperation.  It was a week in which it was hard to know who to trust and what to do.

It’s an old problem, and one the people of Judah struggled with too.  About six centuries before the birth of Christ, the Judeans were living in subjugation under the Babylonians and deciding if they should rebel – so they asked their religious leaders what to do.  But, just as it so often happens in our time, they found that their religious leaders didn’t agree with each other.  And, like us, they didn’t know who to believe.

This led to that precursor of pro-wrestling: the prophet stand-off.  Two prophets with completely opposing views, both of whom claimed to be speaking with authority from God.  In one corner: Hananiah, popular, powerful and with a message that these oppressed people wanted to hear.  “We should rebel. We are God’s people.  God is on our side.” In the other corner: Jeremiah – wild, grubby, wearing a yoke tied around his neck, and delivering a really unpopular message.  “Don’t fight for your freedom.  God wants you to submit to Babylonian rule.”  Who are they going to believe?

It seems to me, that if it were us, we’d put our money on Hananiah.  After all, isn’t faith about believing that God is on your side?  Don’t Christians think that we have been saved by our belief in Jesus Christ and that our faith will protect us – no matter what?  Actually, no – that’s not what we believe. What we believe is that we have a covenant with God – that we are in relationship with God, and that God will be faithful to that relationship no matter what. But “that covenantal faithfulness is not an insurance policy that kicks in automatically when [we] think [we] need deliverance from hardship…[It is a] relationship that requires asking, what is God’s will today?… God’s will may very well be that our tribe is not ascendant in all times and places.

What is certain is that God does not abandon us.  Today’s psalm tells us that God pledges “hesed,” – a word that means steadfast love, loving-kindness, devotion, and faithfulness.  But God never promised to give us everything we want.  Contrary to what proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel” argue, scripture tells us that being religious is “no guarantee of material or spiritual abundance.”[1]  What it is a guarantee of is the opportunity to become our best selves – the opportunity not only to be loved for who we truly are, but the chance to love everyone else that way too.

One of my unexpected visitors this week really made me think about how to figure out what is right.  This person reported that she was baptized Roman Catholic, but then her mother was “seriously saved,” and she has been a charismatic Christian since that time.  We had a lovely chat, agreeing on many things, including the need for all Christians to find common ground, that Christianity is not about seeking and using power, and that “the bottom line” of Christian teaching is Jesus’s command to love God and love one another. She asked if she could pray for my ministry and I gratefully accepted.  It was a wonderful, hopeful encounter – until I said that it was important for people who do not have the same exact doctrine to support one another in their basic Christian beliefs. At which point she stopped me and said, tapping her Bible meaningfully, “As long as their doctrine is consistent with what’s in here.  The problem with religion these days,” she continued,” is that no one talks about sin.  People need to be told when they are sinning – and then she began to list groups of people whom she identified as sinners. When I suggested that perhaps it was not ours to judge, she agreed and said that she would never judge.  She said she believes that it is up to us to simply inform people they are sinful – inform them with love.

Our conversation left me with a significant amount of emotional turmoil.  On the one hand, our talk had ended pleasantly.  On the other hand, I had failed to tell her that I believed that what she was saying was, in fact, opposed to scripture -that it’s impossible to “inform” someone that what and who they are is “sinful” with “love.” That excluding anyone from the opportunity to live in relationship with God and with other human beings is simply wrong.  In fact, just as she had suggested, I, a church leader, had, in the interest of maintaining harmony between us, failed to talk about sin.  So I’m going to do it now.

Sin is not about breaking rules.  Sin is about breaking faith. I’m going to say it again: Sin is not about breaking rules, it’s about breaking faith – with one another and/or with God.  Sin is separation.  Yes, it is a sin to steal, to kill, to commit adultery, to lie, to cheat and to take God for granted – but not because those are rules, but because the result of breaking them is to separate us from one another and from God.  But sometimes keeping rules for their own sake is just as separating – just as sinful.  I believe that it is a fundamental contradiction to say you are a Christian and then argue that anyone should be condemned for who they are.  I think it is unchristian to say that there are some sins that are unforgivable.  And it is my opinion that it is completely inconsistent with scripture to suggest that hate is ever a good or godly thing.  What our scriptures actually tell us is that human beings are imperfect and prone to sin.  I don’t think that’s news for anyone here.  The real news – the good news – is that “holiness is [actually] what we were made for.”[2]  We are meant to be and can be without sin, but not by our own will.

That is what St. Paul was talking about in his letter to the Romans when he admonished them to be “enslaved to God.”  He was not suggesting that in order to be saved we need to give up our intelligence or our sense of justice or our compassion for other people.  To believe that is to misunderstand the context in which Paul was writing. When we speak of slavery, we are talking about the depravity of taking away the will and freedom of other people – of treating human beings as possessions – of the evil that people have perpetrated in order to serve themselves.

But that’s not what Paul is talking about.  When Paul talks about slavery, he is saying that everyone serves someone or something – be it your country, family, or some other passion.  For Paul, it is when you choose to focus on an earthly concern more than your relationship with God– when you become a true slave to fashion, or television or money – or religion – that you sin. That is why he calls it slavery – and it is a sin because it takes away our freedom to choose to submit to the holy relationship that God offers us.  It is a sin because it separates us from God and from one another.

And separation is the last thing God wants for us.  God sent Jesus Christ into the world so that we would never be separated from God’s love again.  That’s why Jesus’s last command to us was to share his love – to offer it to everyone and anyone who asks – to welcome others with the “hesed” – the loving kindness and compassion – that he gives to us.  This is not always easy -because we are not only called to welcome those who are like us.  We are not called to change those who are not like us.  We are called to welcome all people with love and compassion.  It doesn’t matter that ”love is not always met with love…Sometimes…we are called to love in the midst of hate…Jesus calls us to put our love in jeopardy so that that its blessings are made manifest in our lives and in the lives of others.” Because that is the right thing to do.  AMEN.

[1]Robert A. Cathey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 178.

[2]Ted A. Smith, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 186.

Sermon for June 25, 2017: The Third Sunday after Pentecost (The Rev. Laurie Moyer)

When we belong to a church – both in the small ‘c’ and the big ‘C’ senses – I believe we can become too protected by the umbrella we share with those who think similarly to how we do.  In many ways for the stabilization of our faith life that is a good thing because it helps lead us on a common straight and narrow.  In contrast, sadly, it also can keep us from stretching ourselves outside of that safe cocoon.

Often when I have come to visit you-all I’ve talked about my stretching of self – to the point of what almost has seemed like tearing, especially when I started and struggled through art grad school a few years ago.  Long before I took that leap of faith, one might even say, leap of insanity, I had long since realized that not all the world, not even all Christians in the US – believed in a Christianity that I embraced.  In fact most people don’t believe in the concept of two great Commandments that summarize all the Law, as Jesus taught us:  Love God, Love one another…which also implies the flip side:  not so much of Love thyself.  So I didn’t know what to expect when I went to school given that it was a secular school and secular art program.  I shortly discovered that my art comrades were good people but very leery of anything labeled “Christian.”  Their experiences with Christian thought included prejudice, social Injustice and misuse of wealth.  Churches sometimes taught intolerance and hate and my fellow students wanted no part of that.  So I had to keep my ‘church talk’ down to 0% because it wasn’t going to work with my art school cohort.  But where I was able to come to common ground with my fellow art students was through social justice art:  using our art to call out injustices in our culture, city and country.  Poverty was so prevalent near my school that it was a subject that screamed at me to investigate and to make art about.

Today’s psalmist talks about “shame covering his face” because he has stuck his neck out for God and now everyone around him thinks he’s a fool.  The psalmist went to bat for God and what did it get him?  Nothing but derision from his community.  Later the psalmist asks God not to cover his face  – asking God for His loyalty given how loyal the psalmist had been with God.  In the Gospel we also hear the words ‘covered’ and ‘uncovered’ meaning that all would be revealed, all would be told, nothing about living a life of giving like Jesus did would be hidden.  That kind of life, that kind of devotion and the benefits to the downtrodden would be revealed in time.

So, almost four years after I started my risky path in grad school, what has my art uncovered for me about my connection to God in my faith life?  What has studying social justice art done for me and my soul? And, more importantly this morning, what have I learned and can share with you-all that might give you something to think about?  (mini-pause)  Let me answer that with a couple of stories, simple stories, of people I’ve met who are revealing truth to me specifically regarding the social injustice issue of poverty.

Ten days ago, the mending library came together one more month at the Tenderloin National Forest on Ellis Street in San Francisco.  Seventeen years ago Michael Swaine, a college art instructor, began mending and altering clothes for the folks of the Tenderloin.  He named the monthly event the Mending Library as a play on words for Lending Library and also because it is a place that brings people together who share their stories and who might not, in their normal lives, be in touch with one another.  Now this team of three to five women, including myself, continues Michael’s example and mend at the Forest – a garden area between two resident housing buildings — on each 15th of the month.  On our mending day at the Forest last November we had a mix-up of jobs.  We gave a repaired quilt to someone other than its owner.  The new recipient wouldn’t give it back because she was ticked because we had given HER item to yet another person.  It was not a stellar day at the Forest for the mending team!  But Katie, our person who interacts most with the neighborhood, convinced the young woman, Christie, whose quilt was gone, that we would make this right.  Oh, by the way, this quilt was Christie’s only physical possession that remained of her mother AND Christie is, sadly, both mentally and physically disabled.  Katie calmed the waters by offering Christie a quilt that the mending team would make just for her.  Christie was not only willing to accept the peace offering but she was delighted and wanted us to make it with joy and love and to have lots of fun doing it.  [Did I tell you-all this story when I was here in February?]  Christie lives in the Tenderloin neighborhood for the same reason that her neighbors do:  she is poor.  There is no way this woman can hold a job; she is neither physically nor mentally capable of doing so.  Her sources of income are limited.  After all, she wouldn’t have brought us her precious quilt if she could have afforded to have a tailor or seamstress fix it for her.

So a week and a half ago Christie stops by at our day at the Forest to check on the progress of her quilt.  The finished top and back were in my car to show to the other members of the team who had had a hand in getting it made but hadn’t seen the finished top.  Christie, like a small child who wants to hold on to a surprise for the future but who really can’t stand not to sneak a peek, would only look at a opened up corner  — not the whole top nor bottom.  And she was so delighted with what she saw.  (SHOW QUILT TOP).

So, this is what this experience taught me:  my art could give delight, taking the edge off of the pain of someone’s poverty.  I could never have imagined the opportunity to do that when I started school four years ago.  God’s love is embracing Christie AND the team of sewers including me.  And we never called it God’s love; it was working on a social justice issue – poverty.  We work against poverty by showing up to sew once per month in the Tenderloin and this just happened; it evolved from just showing up and caring.  My skills and those of the other menders were used.  Christie’s child-like joy bubbled out and the team felt pretty swell that perhaps we will have made a difference in her life that she couldn’t have imagined either.

Here’s another twist of how taking a risk to be open to learning about and speaking out on poverty through art. This story is from last Thursday at Sanctuary Shelter — an Episcopal Community Services facility for adult men and women at 8th and Howard in SF.  I believe I’ve also talked to you about my time at Sanctuary in past visits here.  Sanctuary Shelter is located about three blocks from the Civic Center BART station, I lead an art hour and a half there on Thursdays for any resident who might be enticed to venture into the second floor meeting room.  I use ‘art’ loosely here.  Mostly the guys —or the occasional gal — color in coloring books or some actually draw, or some might weave lanyards with plastic lanyard string.  And, perhaps, most importantly, they come because they know I’ll bring milk and fresh baked cookies, brownies or something else that includes significant portions of fat and sugar.  [brief pause]

This past Thursday, for a while there was not one, not two but three schizophrenics talking to me – not all at one time, they did mostly take turns, but it just hit me as I was trying to figure out the conversations how amazing it was to be privy to this unique experience – at least unique within my kind of sheltered life, that is, middle-class, suburban.  On occasion I was able to follow each person’s conversation, sort of, but, just when I thought I was onto some string of thought, off the train of thought seemed to go in a different direction.  If any of you have experience with schizophrenic personalities you know of what I am speaking. But this is what was also going through MY mind while I was trying to understand what was being said to me:  “No wonder these souls live in a shelter, no wonder they live in significant poverty, there is no way they could hold down a job, no way they could sit in an office or at a construction site and follow through on a task, no way they wouldn’t drive other employees to distraction with their endless talking with no discernible logical ending.”  I was exhausted after only about an hour of this listening experience.

Some of the residents of Sanctuary Shelter who have been there for some time know that I am a priest.  I certainly don’t show up with a collar on nor with Bible in hand to thump.  I come more as a mother figure with my afternoon snacks. The thing is I do show up – every Thursday.  They can count on me.  Sure, I know they come for the goodies.  But they also know that I care enough about them to bother to bake for them and to listen to their stories.  But what they don’t know is that I have learned so much from them.  Before last Thursday I hadn’t an inkling of what it is like to have the constant noise in the brain that affects the thinking and behavior of schizophrenics.  But on Thursday I learned what these three individuals live with every day and the effect it has had on their lives for years, even decades.  It has interfered, even destroyed any opportunity to live a normal life, or to even hold a job for any length of time.      Poverty often has its beginning in impossible situations, like schizophrenia.  Poverty is about broken people who, even though they’d like to be out of it, in no way can they be out of it, nor will they even be able to lift themselves out of it in any way without help.

But another thought was going through my head as I listened to these individuals’ schizophrenic chatter:  “How fortunate I have been.  I had a brain that most of the time works, has worked, got me through many, many years of education, 33 years of federal government career employment, 33 years of a marriage, the raising of two independent, successful children, and the ability to put together a sermon when one is called for in a place called Grace in Martinez, California.  I feel very fortunate to have listened to those three conversations – well, more like three monologues – last Thursday.  No time in my life – except for at the time of the birth of my children – have I been shown so profoundly how blessed I am.  Through these individuals God uncovered to me the depth of cause of some people’s poverty.  It was like looking into three souls and three brains and obtaining insight most people are never privy to.  I could never have had that knowledge without stepping out into the social justice universe.  Because no matter what we call it:  social justice or Christian faith, it is God’s revelation to us of His call to be there for one another.  It teaches humility in the face of others’ enormous struggles.  It teaches gratitude for our own good fortunes.  It provides impetus to keep listening, to keep making cookies and to keep moving mending needles!

Some of you have stories of your experiences that stemmed from God’s revelations – God’s uncovering God’s face and being open to us for our learning from his children wherever they might be found.  Church is a good place to share those stories.  And I’d love to hear them after the service, if you’d share.

Thank you.

Sermon for June 18, 2017: Belonging (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

My daughter recently graduated from high school. The other night when I came home from work I found her in her bedroom crying.  I asked her what was wrong.  “Mom,” she wailed, “I was just laying here thinking that this is what the rest of my life is going to be like.  Every morning I will have to get up and there will be a really long list of chores to do and it will take all day and I will go to bed all tired and the next day it will be exactly the same!”  “Actually honey,” I told her, “you could get a job.  Then you wouldn’t have to do chores all day.  You’d have to do them after you got home from work.”  She was not comforted.

It’s easy to laugh at the dramatic intensity of her shocking realization that her high school years were not, in fact, the hardest thing she’d ever have to manage.  It is uncomfortable to think that she truly believes that she has a hard life, that she has become entitled, that she has forgotten how fortunate she is to have food, shelter, and the freedom to speak and do as she likes, as well as the ability to see things and learn things that are out of the grasp of two-thirds of the world’s population.  But I don’t really think that’s the case.  She understands that her father and I both work to provide her and her brother with these things.  She grasps that they have many things that her father and I did not have when we were her age.  She is not lazy or stupid.  She is not immoral or unethical.  She cares for others and shares what she has.  But I think that she is still genuinely anxious when she thinks about the fact that she is now, according to the rules of our society, responsible for herself. She is not sure what being an adult really means.  She doesn’t know if she can actually do what she is being asked to do – so she has decided that maybe it’s better if she doesn’t try.

She is not alone. We live in an era in which Americans are becoming more educated but less competent,[1] in which we are far from being “United States,” but instead are deeply divided on issues of race, politics and creed.  It is an era in which our standing in the international community has dropped considerably.[2] Nonetheless, Americans continue to think of ourselves more positively than most other countries in the world.[3]  And we are polarized among ourselves.  We are seeing a surge in hate crimes against numerous groups”[4] and divisive rhetoric has become normative, even in the highest councils in the land.

There are many opinions as to the reason for these declines, but I suspect that Zig Ziglar was right about one thing: It’s not our aptitude; it’s our attitude.  We have the ability to do much good in the world, but we have lost track of who we are. Rather than seeing ourselves as responsible for sharing our prosperity with other nations, many Americans now see our primary role as protecting what is ours.  These citizens believe that others are not worthy of what we have – that others are ungodly, unrighteous – that they do not belong.  This attitude reflects an exclusionist theological view – the notion that only Jews, by virtue of being God’s chosen people, and Christians, because we believe in the divinity of Christ, can achieve salvation – that is very popular within a certain segment of the Christian community.

That’s why today’s readings are so troubling – because they seem to support this notion.  In today’s passage from Exodus, the Lord makes clear his preference for the children of Jacob.  They are his chosen people, his sheep, a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation, predestined for salvation – while the rest are to be left out in the cold (or heat, depending on your perspective).  According to this exclusionist view, because the Jews did not, as they had promised, obey God, and keep God’s covenants, God sent Jesus to give them a second chance, to win by faith that which they had lost through their behavior.  Because of this, Christians are also “saved” – but that still leaves much of the world’s population in a state of spiritual doom.

This idea is accepted – and touted – by several groups of Christians and forms the basis for bias against people of other races and creeds; but for those of us who believe in the basic goodness of God’s creation, the idea that God would not offer salvation to all of us just doesn’t make sense.  That’s because we do not live in the context and time of the first apostles.  According to Guy Nave, “The Jesus movement began as an exclusively Jewish movement [but] by the time of…Matthew… [they] had abandoned Jewish exclusivity…While the historical Jesus was apparently concerned with an exclusively Jewish mission, the resurrected Jesus… [commanded] his followers to make disciples of all nations.”[5]  So, the Jesus who transcended his humanity tells us something different than the Jesus who was a man of his time.  That divine Jesus says very clearly that anyone can be saved.  Anyone can belong to God.  Anyone is good enough to be part of God’s community.  We need only admit our own powerlessness and accept the free gift of salvation.

Of course, that’s a pretty big catch for a species that has struggled with pride since Cain killed Abel.  In order for God to save us, we have to admit that we need to be saved. We have to recognize that for all our wealth and power, there are things we cannot control.  We have to acknowledge our fears.  “[Doing] this requires trust. It requires a trust that runs deeper than just expecting things to turn out the way we want them to. Sometimes they will, and sometimes they won’t. We develop equanimity and grace as we learn to trust that, with the guiding hand of [God], life will unfold exactly the way it should.”[6]

This doesn’t mean that we can sit back and bask in our “chosen-ness.”  “Self-satisfaction can lead one to thank God that one is not like other, flawed human beings.”[7] But there is nothing in the Bible that supports the idea that any one nation is better than another. The Hebrew Bible tells the story of one group of God’s chosen people, but it doesn’t say that there aren’t others.  The bottom line is this: the Israelites chose God and that’s why God chose them.  What God wants from us is to actively choose her – and then to follow the way of Jesus. Claiming to belong to God and then acting as if this makes you better than others is the opposite of what God asks us to do.  It is not only that you profess your faith, but how you enact it that matters.

This was made clear to the ancient Israelites throughout their relationship with the God they call Yahweh.  Although the election of the Israelites as God’s people seems to happen in one shining moment, it is, as Barbara Wheeler emphasizes, the result of a long process.  “God’s choosing and subsequent self-revealing has been going on for a long time…God’s choosing goes [on] constantly…threaded through the length of our lives… [and] requires difficult disciplines: obeying the Lord and keeping the covenant.”[8]  Being chosen by God is not an award or a reward, it is a challenge.  It invites us to assume a completely new identity and relationship status. We belong to God not because God loves us more than any other person or people.  We belong to God because we choose to be in relationship with God. And, like any successful relationship, it requires work.

That means that exclusionism is completely contrary to scripture.  What scripture actually says is that God is present to us when we act on God’s behalf.  This section of Matthew is not called the “entitled” discourse; it’s called the “missionary discourse.” Belonging to God means taking “little more than faith out into this world and [getting] Christ’s work done.”[9] And doing it despite the fact that we do not have Jesus’s compassion – despite the fact that we do not see those who commit crimes, and use government resources selfishly, and are moved to buy and use guns, as “harassed and helpless” sheep – despite the fact that we can’t seem to help viewing them as wolves who want to take what is ours – despite the fact that we are afraid of what it might cost us to invite them in.  But this is what God asks us to do – and Jesus believes we can do it. “Despite the challenges, despite the questionable likelihood of success, despite our inevitable difficulty in accomplishing what he could do far more easily than we, Christ confidently sends us out.”[10]  And God is with us – in danger and times of trial, in moments of persecution and when our courage fails.  God bears us on eagles’ wings and brings us to herself.  God saves us.  God has equipped us for our ministry, and everything the Lord has spoken, we can do.  AMEN.

[1]Drew DeSilver, (February 15, 2017), “U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries,” FactTank: News in the Numbers, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/15/u-s-students-internationally-math-science/

[1]Mikhail Zinshteyn (February 17, 2015), “The Skills Gap: America’s Young Workers Are Lagging Behind,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/the-skills-gap-americas-young-workers-are-lagging-behind/385560/

[2]Waseem Abbasi (March, 2017), “U.S. slips to seventh best country in the world after Trump election, Switzerland tops the list,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/03/07/us-slips-seventh-best-country-world-after-trump-election-switzerland-tops-list/98816470/

[3]Frank Newport, (February, 2017), “North Korea Remains Lease-Popular Country Among Americans, Gallup, www.gallup.com/poll/204074/north-korea-remains-least-popular-country-among-americans. Aspx?g_source=position3&g_medium=related&g_campaign=tiles

[4]Richard Wolf, (March 13, 2017), “Rise in Hate Crimes spurs launch of database and hotline,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/03/13/hate-crimes-incidents-database-hotline-lawyers-services-trump/99095440/

[5]Guy D. Nave, Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 145.

[6]Madisyn Taylor, (June 16, 2017), “Things we can’t control,” Daily OM, https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/?tab=cm#inbox/15cb0e7cfe85c512.

[7]Walter J. Harrelson, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 131.

[8]Barbara G. Wheeler, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 124.

[9]Alexander Wimberly, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 142.

[10]Ibid, 140.

Children’s Sermon for June 18, 2017: Talking about God

Today we are going to talk about sharing.  How many of you guys like sharing? (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s good, but tell me truthfully – aren’t there some times that it’s hard to share?  Like if your mom or dad or friend is paying more attention to your sister or brother than they are to you?  I’ll tell you a secret: I have a big sister and sometimes I don’t like it when I have to share with her.  When she was visiting last week, I didn’t like having to share all of you with her.  I think that’s because it’s the hardest to share what we like the best.  So, it’s really hard to share your favorite book or toy or food than it is to share something you don’t like as much.  Like I was happy to share the fried pickles that someone bought me the other night – because they were yucky!  What do you think of that? (Give them a chance to answer).  So, one hard thing is sharing stuff you really, really like.  But the secret (shhh) is that it’s when you share the things you really don’t want to share that you are the happiest.  It’s true – weird but true.

Okay.  Now let’s talk about church a little bit.  How many of you guys like church? (Give them a chance to answer).  What do you like about it?  (Give them a chance to answer).  I like those things too.  I especially like to be with people who believe the same things that I do.  It feels good when you say something and everyone says, “Yes, yes, I agree!”  (And by the way, who remembers the word we say at the end of our prayers when we want to say that we agree?  (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right.  It’s “Amen”).

But here’s the thing.  It’s much harder to talk to people when they tell you you are wrong or what you like is stupid.  Has that ever happened to one of you? (Give them a chance to answer).  It feels bad doesn’t it?

Now, how many of you talk to other people about church? (Give them a chance to answer).  How do they act? (Give them a chance to answer).  How does that make you feel?  (Give them a chance to answer).  So, sharing your feelings about church – and especially about God and Jesus – can feel really good if someone listens to you and tells you they’re glad you told them, but it can feel really bad if they think your church is stupid.  Well, I’ll tell you a secret: that’s the same way that grown-ups feel about talking about church.  The more God is really important to them, the more scared they are to share God with other people – because they might make fun of them, or they might tell them they’re wrong, and then they’d feel bad.  And sometimes we don’t want to share God because we think we each need him the most.  But God has asked all of us who go to church to go out and tell other people about her.  God wants us to tell other people how great Jesus is and how he makes us feel better when we’re sad.  God wants us to do that even if we are scared to.  What do you think of that? (Give them a chance to answer).   Do you think you could try that? (Give them a chance to answer).  Do you think you could help other members of your family to do that? (Give them a chance to answer).  Good.  I agree, so you know what I’m going to say? (Give them a chance to answer).  Amen.  And if you agree, you say it too (Amen).

Sermon for June 11, 2017: The Three in One (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

In the beginning there was darkness and nothingness. There was no time, no space, no energy. And suddenly – as quickly as the blink of an eye – there was music. It was music so clear that you could see eternity through its notes. It was music so sweet that you if you could taste it for a moment you would be satisfied forever. It was music more true than the purest soul on earth. And although this music was complex and resonant beyond imagining – although it was fuller than an orchestra and more dramatic than an opera – although it was nowhere and everywhere at once – this music was created by one musician.

This musician sang in many parts, through three great and powerful voices. And each voice sang with itself and to itself, in unity and harmony, and each voice was in the music and the music was a symphony of life. And within the nothingness the music rose to a crescendo and one voice exploded out of it with a melody that was cold and bright and sharp – and that melody sliced through the darkness and suddenly things were. There was time and matter and light and dark, and as the musician sang to itself each of its voices responded with delight to the results of the song. And the music receded for an unknowable interval, which was as a day to the singer.

When the music began again, one voice was louder than the others, the voice of “Love,” and that voice was light, and bright, and breezy, and her song blew through the light and the darkness so that they expanded and took shape. And the music became a lullaby, a gentle, simmering liquid pillow of sound that remained for another age.

Then the song grew into a richer tune that was deep and lush and full. And as the music swelled, the universe developed and separated itself into stars and planets until the island that is this earth appeared. And the musician loved this planet, and amplified the song, each voice singing its own part with power and authority, yet with attention to and synchronization with the others. And as they sang, the world grew as vivid and plentiful as the song itself. And the musician was pleased – and the voices rested.

And another epoch went by and the singer realized that the world could prosper only if the light was divided from the darkness and the darkness and light could share the planet. And so one voice pitched itself low and another high and together they made the world to circle one great star and to live by and in its light. And the musician was tired and rested for an age.

When the musician awoke, it felt empty and began to sing a new song and this was a song of life – so the world had breath and movement as well as beauty. And the tune was a frothy, lilting jig that caused ripples in the water and swelling in the dirt of the world, and out of those ripples and bulges rose living creatures – at first infinitesimally small, but like the universe that had been created before them they grew and they changed and were part of the world and lived in harmony with the world and with one another. And this gave the musician great joy for the time that it counted as a day.

But the song was incomplete, the symphony unfinished, for the musician had more to give and the desire for another to love. And in moving toward completion the music intensified and its beauty was beyond description. Each voice rang with power and with force and reckless abandonment, giving of itself with each note, pouring wisdom and purity and love from itself into the being that it made. And what evolved from the music was part of the music and the music was in the creation and creation was humanity. And the singer spoke to the human creation, blessing them for their uniqueness and dearness and the joy they added to the music. And the music was given to them to sing to one another and to dance with joy in the rhythm of it. And they were trusted and put in charge of all else that the music had created before them. And the words of their song were “love one another.” The words of the song were, “care for each other.” The words of the song were, “be at peace with one another.” And they were given this music for all seasons and all time.

And the music continued, and grew, and changed – and it was sung by a thousand, million, billion voices together in one voice, praising and exalting the creator.  It was a song of endless mutual self-giving and joyful love.[1]  It was about living together in peace and unity, just as the music was at unity with itself and sang with one spirit. And the universe flourished and the musician rested.

But the human creation did not. Because the music that brought with it joy and abundance and light also generated splendor and authority and power – and some of the beings that had been formed in the music began to think of what they might do if they alone possessed its power. So they divided themselves into factions and called each other “good” or “bad” and “right” or “wrong,” and they refused to sing with one another. They kept their portions of the music for themselves, and the words of the song were no longer “love,” and “peace,” and “unity,” but “hate,” and “fear,” and “division.” And the music became discordant and chaotic – and the musician awoke and viewed with dismay what had become of creation.

The creator saw that their beloved human beings were using the song to craft devices that made them forget the joy of good works, and machines that made thought unnecessary, and, worst of all, technologies that made it easy to destroy one another.  The embraced division and hatred and rejected the “cosmic unity” of spiritual oneness.[2] And all the while the plentiful world and the other living things that they had been tasked with protecting had begun to die around them. But the song of the human – the song that reverberated with the sound of “Me, me, me,” had become so loud that they could not – would not -hear the death cries of the rest of creation.

And the music became a lament. And one voice, whose song was “sacrifice,” separated itself from the music of creation and joined the clanging cacophony that was the human song. And this voice called, “Grace,” began to sing in the human world with a human voice – but the music it sang was the same music that cleaved the darkness at the beginning of creation. Its song was “love,” and “peace,” and “unity.” And people began to sing with him and to become part of the music – and there was hope in the world.

But many people did not listen. And because they were afraid of the power of the voice, because they were afraid to open their hearts to that voice, because they were afraid that if they did open their hearts they would be disappointed, the lone voice that had been willing to sing the creation music with a human voice died. But his was only one part of the music that had stirred the void in the beginning of creation- and when his human voice ceased, the others released their music into the darkness of death. And the music became a song of “resurrection” and “redemption.”

And the third voice, named “Fellowship,” spoke to the others and said, “I will go into the creation and remain there. And I will carry our music with me and sing it for those who will listen – and I will sing my song with the voice of the creator, which is the song of love and peace and unity, teaching them about power that is giving, that does not coerce but serves and persuades.”[3]And I will sing my song with the voice of the sufferer, which is the song of resurrection and redemption, teaching them that sacrifice for the greater good is a blessing. And I will sing with my own voice of “everlasting;” and my song will be a new song, and it will be a song of understanding and comfort and hope.” I will embrace them with our ceaseless love, our uniqueness, and our oneness, that they may love one another in difference as in solidarity.  And so the music remained in the world for those who would listen and for those who would sing. And the music is for all time and for all people. And those who will allow themselves to hear the music, those who will allow themselves to be swept into the music, those who will add their voices to the song, will be useful and good and as one, just as the music is one. AMEN.

[1]David P. Gushee, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 42.

[2]David P. Gushee, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 42.

[3]Stephen B. Boyd, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 48.

 Sermon for June 4, 2017: The Ember and the Flame (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

Last Sunday, a beloved long-term member of our parish announced that he is moving away and, necessarily, leaving Grace behind.  This is a loss felt by many of us, including me, but it is particularly painful for those who know his generous and loving heart best.  “What,” lamented one such person, “are we going to do without him”?  It is the same question that so many of us have asked on other occasions – when someone we love dies –after a divorce –when a long-term beloved rector retires from a parish – and it is the same question that scripture tells us the first apostles asked and prayed about during the fifty days after Easter.  “What will we do without him”?

Today we celebrate the event that answered that question: the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost, best known to most Episcopalians as “that Sunday when we wear red,” is probably the most undervalued feast day in the Christian calendar.  Few of us understand the great significance of Pentecost and many of us don’t even show up for it, since it often coincides with “summer vacation time.”  But we should, because, just as the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection on Easter teaches us what we believe, Pentecost – the fiftieth day after Easter- tells us what we should do – and gives us the strength to do it.  We call that power the Holy Spirit.

For the last several weeks, we have been hearing the story of the post-crucifixion disciples, who appear to have spent most of their time after the resurrection hiding together in locked rooms and arguing over whether Jesus really appeared to them after his death.  It’s hard to blame them for this behavior – remember that every one of them left their professions, families, and homes to follow Jesus.  They believed they were prepared to give up their lives for him, but after witnessing his death they were almost quite literally paralyzed with fear and grief.  Jesus was their friend, their teacher – their whole lives –and they didn’t know what they were supposed to do without him.

As with many things, Jesus anticipated this, which is why he reassured them prior to his death with the words that we heard just two weeks ago.  “I will not leave you orphaned,” he told them – or, as it is alternatively translated, “I will not leave you comfortless.”  I will send you an Advocate – and that entity will never leave you.  That is the Holy Spirit.

But what, exactly is this “Holy Spirit”?  That’s what Sally Hanson wants to know – so much so that she chose it as the topic for the sermon she won as a raffle prize at the Spring fashion show.  It’s not an easy question, and not one that Jesus answers very well himself, telling the disciples only that, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.”[1]  So, does that mean that the Holy Spirit is Jesus’s holy ghost?  Or another form of God?  Or, as George Lucas would have it, the Force?  No, yes, and maybe.

At the most basic level, what the promise of the Holy Spirit means is that the disciples – and all followers of Jesus – are permanently connected to him – and that that connection transcends life as we know it.  It is unbreakable.  Maybe that’s why we have so much trouble comprehending it – because there is no real analogy for it in this world, where, ultimately, everything – including the earth itself– is all too breakable.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit is hard to describe because it is bigger, stronger, and more elemental than anything we can think of to equate it to.  The Holy Spirit is simply more.  Nonetheless, Jesus’s apostles still tried to explain it – doing their best to express it in terms that we can grasp by relating it to the most powerful – and essential – things in our limited understanding.

It is from these comparisons that the church developed its Pentecost traditions.  For Luke, the Holy Spirit is fire – dangerous, powerful, and potentially deadly, but also critical to life- thus the color red.  Paul describes the Holy Spirit as water, essential for health and well-being –and in washing our souls clean through the action of baptism.  And in John’s gospel the Holy Spirit is represented by our very breath, without which we cannot survive.  Fire, water and air – three common, everyday elements, without which we will die.  Just as without the Holy Spirit we cannot truly live.

Which is why God has not only given us this Spirit, but provided us with an abundance of it.  Listen to Luke: “there came a sound…and it filled the entire house;” and, quoting, Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit;” and John: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”  The Holy Spirit is not a “light breeze.”  It is not a trickle of refreshment.  It is not a single flame.  The Holy Spirit is a hurricane.  It is a deluge.  It is an inferno.

But only when we share it.  Because God did not give the Holy Spirit to the disciples alone.  It was not sent to one nation or one culture.  It did not arrive in private.  The Holy Spirit came to people from “every nation under heaven,” in a place where many people were gathered – for a Jewish festival of Thanksgiving. And it brought them together.  Their sudden ability to “speak in tongues” did not separate the people; instead it “broke down [the] dividing wall [between them].”[2]  They all understood what they were saying – they just couldn’t figure out how they were doing it.  These apostles –these future evangelists – were given a spirit not of confusion or exclusion but of comprehension and inclusion.  They were given the power to speak like God – the power to speak for God.  The “pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the church [was] both the sign and the instrument of the launch of the church’s mission.”[3]

             A mission that belongs to all God’s people.  A mission that cannot be accomplished by any one person, sect, or denomination.  A mission that requires the followers of the risen Christ to work together – to trust one another – and to love one another.  “No man is an island,” John Donne wrote, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”[4]  We too must be “involved” with humankind, because each of our own gifts of the Spirit is worthless unless they are shared with the greater whole.  By describing the many disparate gifts of the Spirit, St. Paul tells us that the differences between us are not only acceptable, but necessary – that each of us has within us an ember of the Holy fire – a breath of God’s tempestuous wind – a drop of the sacred water – but without one another to immerse, stir, and fan that Spirit, it remains a token of God’s love, rather than the consuming force it is meant to be., a force for inspiration, instigation and creation.

“What will we do without you,”? the disciples asked, and Jesus answered, “I will not leave you comfortless.”  I will send you a Paraclete, one who walks alongside you.  I will send you an indestructible spirit of love.  You will see me no more, but you will see one another – and, if you look closely, you will see me in one an other.  Light the spark of the Holy Spirit within you by sharing it with your neighbor; breathe on one another with the breath of God that the tempest of God’s grace will blow wherever you are; baptize each other in my names and together you will become a river of life.[5]  Victor Hugo said, “to love another person is to see the face of God.”  May it be so.  AMEN.

[1]John 14:19

[2]Stephen A. Cooper, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 17.

[3]David P. Gushee, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 14.

[4]John Donne (1624),”Meditation XVII,” in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.

[5]Thomas G. Long, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 25.

 

Sermon for May 28, 2017: The Power and the Glory (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

“With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
[The nation] mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death, august and royal,
sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
and a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond [our coastal] foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight
to the innermost heart of their own land they are known
as the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.”[1]

And so we remember.  We remember those who have died in the service of their beliefs – in the service of others; those who have laid down their lives for us.  And we wait.  We wait to see them again as our faith tells us we will.  And as we wait, we pray.  We pray for a day when we will be comforted, when we will be fulfilled, when we will live in the light of God’s countenance and when we will have peace.

In this way we are no different than the apostles who met the resurrected Jesus and asked him if they would soon see the day in which the kingdom of God would be restored – the day when their nation, their people would be returned to power and achieve glory.  And we receive the same answer as they did, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that God has set.”  It is only for you to wait – and to pray.

The truth is, we are not good at waiting.  We hear that there is power to be had and we want it.  To be sure, we believe that we want it for the right reasons – that we are the ones who can best yield that power for the good of all humanity.  “Christian faith,” says Daniel Migliore,”is expectant faith.”[2]  But often we expect far more – and far less than we have been promised.  Like the original apostles, we see God’s promises to us only through our limited human vision.  “God,” we pray, “make us well, save our loved ones, give victory to our country.  Give us glory.”  And God can – but God doesn’t.  Why not?  That’s what the apostles wanted to know, “When will you give victory to us?  When will our people be given power over our adversaries”?  It is the same for many Christians in our country, for whom “’the restoration of the kingdom’ often remains bound to the return of the United States to the pristine ideal of a Christian nation.”[3]  These Christians see “power” and “glory” as things to be acquired – as things to be won – as things to die for.  But taking power from others is not God’s way.  God does not ask us to pray for the glory of a single, narrow, self-serving vision of what is right, of what is strong, of what is proud, of what is great – God asks to pray for “a new reality in which the new order that will be shaped eternally by God’s vision for love and justice and service can also be realized in relationships and communities now.”[4] The truth is that “if God’s creative and redemptive purposes depend [only on the future] of this country, [then] our hopes are as misplaced as those of the original eleven disciples.”[5]

Our hope should not lie on this country, but on the people in it – and on God’s people everywhere.  God’s purposes depend on us – to pray “in hope and fear, in faith and doubt, in obedience and wonder,”[6] in war and peace – and to stay together. This was Jesus’s last and most fervent prayer: that we should be one with one another.  This seems terribly hard for us, although it shouldn’t really – most of us learned “the buddy system” in preschool.  In a hazardous or scary situation – in a situation where someone is likely to get lost – always stay with your buddy.  And there is no place in which we are more likely to get spiritually lost than a world in which people believe that the power and glory that is rightfully God’s only can be claimed by any one nation or individual.  “No warring serves God’s kingdom, no zealous uprising, not even the expulsion of occupying forces, but simply the communal witness and their preaching of the Gospel,”[7] a gospel that tells us that we cannot rely on our own strength.  A gospel in which our savior prays for us.

Today’s gospel passage is taken from what is called “Jesus’s high priestly prayer.”  In it, Jesus asks God to protect his beloved people and to allow them to truly know him and to experience her glory.  Jesus does not suggest that his followers should seek glory, but simply asks that they learn to experience the glory of God that is already in them.  Jesus makes it clear: God’s glory is not something that can be taken.  It is something that God shares with us.  It is ours when we declare and show our love for God.  It is a gift.  We know this.  We say it every week:  For yours – God’sis the kingdom and the power and glory” – not mine, not yours, and not the province of any earthly nation or leader.  God is bigger than any one human being’s – any one nation’s experience of God.  “[It is only] when we cry out from the pit…when we cry out to God burdened by the cross we are called to carry, [that we] lean into the full [glory] of God’s faithfulness.”[8]  God is greater than our pain, our fear, our lives, and our deaths.  God is greater than our ideas of right and wrong.  God is greater than any power in all the reality that is known to us.  To God be praise and glory.

And to God be our loyalty and devotion, for it is for God’s kingdom that we should be willing to die – and for none other.  We live in a time and a place in which violence, anger, and hatred have become commonplace – a place in which children feel free to malign one another based on race or creed – a time in which we are encouraged to separate ourselves from those who are somehow deemed less worthy than we are.  We live in a time when “we all need God’s protection from our own worst impulses as well as from others whom God also loves.”[9] It is not too many steps from this place to one in which we will be asked to die for our beliefs.  So let us be clear about what those beliefs are – what our fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and friends and all of our honored dead laid down their lives for: freedom, honor, and community – for the ability to seek wholeness through relationship with other people – for the ability to seek unity with our neighbors – for the ability to love one another as God loves us.  It is this way of sacrifice that Jesus showed us in responding to hate with love, by living and dying for his God.  Live without fear.  Your creator loves you and has    always protected you.  Follow the good road in peace and you too will share in the free gift of God’s power and glory.  AMEN.

 

[1]Lawrence Binyon (1914), “For the Fallen.”

[2]Sean A. White, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 520.

[3]Ibid, 522.

[4]Nancy J. Ramsay, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 540.

Sean A. White, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 522.

[6]Randle R. (Rick) Mixon, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 522.

[7]Sean A. White, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 522.

[8]Thomas L. Are Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 530.

[9]Nancy J. Ramsey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 542.

 

Sermon for May 21, 2017, 8 a.m.: The Jesus Movement (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Today we heard about St. Paul’s efforts to spread the Good News of Jesus – and they were not without controversy.  That’s because Paul was willing to work with people of other faiths and draw parallels between his budding movement and their already-existing beliefs.  He’s a bit sneaky.  “I see you are very religious people,” he tells the Greeks, who have many gods.  “And I see that you have a statue to an “unknown god.”  I am here to tell you that your “unknown” God is known to us. And, coincidentally, that God is the only God you need.  Some people take exception to this way of evangelism, suggesting that it waters-down the Christian message by comparing it to other religious traditions rather than explaining what it is.

I don’t agree.  I think that as long as we know who we are – something I preached about the day we introduced our new mission statement – we can safely explain it to people in terms they understand.  Knowing what it means to be an Episcopalian and preaching it so people can get it is something our Presiding Bishop, The Most Reverend Michael Curry, does very well   This weekend the Diocese of California was blessed with a visit from the Bishop Curry, who was here to participate in the Eco Justice Weekend, which included a moderated panel on the role of the church in environmental justice, graduation at my alma mater, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, a reception and celebration Eucharist at the Cathedral on Friday night, and Eco Confirmation at the Golden Gate Overlook in San Francisco yesterday morning, at which two of our parishioners were confirmed and two others received into the Episcopal Church.  At the Friday evening Eucharist service, Bishop Curry preached what Bishop Marc called, “a transformational sermon that will form the basis for the Episcopal Church’s understanding of our relationship to the environment.”  It was, quite simply, amazing. Paul Brooks turned to me afterward and said, “I never knew an Episcopal priest could do that.”  I encourage all of you to listen to the sermon in its entirety when it is posted online.  For now, I wanted to share with you some of the things that came up for me in listening to Bishop Curry.

He preaches the Gospel.  He tells us, “This is the Bible.  This is right there in scripture.”  But he knows his audience too.  He says, “But I know Episcopalians.  Episcopalians think, “Well, yes, scripture is good, but if it’s not in the Book of Common Prayer….but it is in the Book of Common Prayer,” and he tells you where.  But he also knows that we are a thinking people, a rational people.  We are the crazy Christians that believe in – science and informed debate.  So he gives us some more evidence.  “If not the Bible if not the Book of Common Prayer, then the Pope” and the Journal of American Medicine.  And back to the scripture.  Because, although we do not as a denomination believe that the Bible is inerrant or literally true, we still believe that it is the bedrock of Christian belief.  And we should not be afraid to share it – and preach it.

He refers to the church as a movement, “the Jesus Movement.”  The part of church, he says, where we sit in the pews on Sunday – the part we’re doing now – is only a tiny percentage of what church is about.  We are, as St. Teresa of Avila reminded us, God’s hands and feet in the world.  We must be about doing God’s business.  We must be about spreading God’s word.  And we must be about doing this together, as a community because by doing it together we need not fear.

He is never overtly political, but he makes clear what the values of the Episcopal Church are: being good stewards of all that we have been given – all of God’s creation; living in relationship, striving to make communities of harmony and peace; keeping our mission, our high calling, in our heads and hearts at all time by seeking to live according to the words and actions of Jesus Christ; by working together to welcome, support and serve all God’s people. 

He spreads the Good News.

Bishop Curry did not preach at the Confirmation service.  Instead, he asked each of us to think of a moment of wonder that made us aware of the presence of God.  As I thought about my own “mountain top moments” – times when I felt a particularly strong sense of “Immanuel” (God with us), I realized that my own first reaction and, I suspect, beings and I think it is part of our God-given nature to share Good News when we receive it.  As part of Confirmation, we renew our baptismal vows.  Thus, yesterday morning, we found ourselves committing to a life of evangelism.  That’s because proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ is, in fact, one of our baptismal vows.  And it is also the definition of evangelism.

“Bishop Curry invites us all to join “the Jesus Movement,” which centers on sharing of the Gospel to our hurting world…The term evangelism stems from the New Testament Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news.” Evangelism is the sharing of the life giving Gospel of Jesus Christ in word (proclamation) and deed (actions)…Verbal proclamation, social justice, and the works of mercy and charity are linked by our incarnate Savior.”[1]  Evangelism involves three actions: proclamation, social action, and invitation.  We must tell people what we know to be true: that the way of Jesus is the path to salvation.  We must act on our words by demonstrating the way of Jesus through kindness, generosity and forbearance toward others.  We must, in other words, show we are Christians by our love.  Finally, we must invite others to join us, to offer them the opportunity to share our path toward peace and love.

Bishop Curry believes that, “In all of our work, we must especially remember that God is the great evangelist, and yet he graciously allows us, his Body, to be ‘his ambassadors, making his appeal through us… Evangelism wasn’t a dreaded task in the early Church, it was a joy to share the best news: of salvation for the world through Jesus Christ… [According to Bishop Curry], the Church will experience joy and abundant life as it stretches beyond its walls. We must, though, take heed to hold together, equally, proclamation, social action, and invitation in our evangelistic efforts.”[2]

I believe that Episcopalians fear the word “evangelism” because of its historical association with forcing others to change their beliefs and because it has been co-opted by other Christian denominations whose beliefs about the way in which to follow Jesus are different than ours.  But just because those associations exist does not mean we should not call ourselves “evangelists.”  Rather, it gives us that much more reason to learn to evangelize so that we can show people the true way of Christ, the path that follows the words he gave us when asked what the greatest commandment is: “Love God, Love your neighbor – everything else is secondary.”  That we love our God who gave us so much and that we actively seek to love our neighbors is the way of Christ, and it should be spread.  In fact, it must be spread.  It must be spread here at Grace.  It must be spread here in Martinez.  It must be spread to all those we love-and to all those we are tempted to hate.  This is exactly what Peter was talking about in today’s New Testament reading: know who you are and be ready to explain it to anyone who asks at any time.

The future of the Episcopal Church that Bishop Curry believes in is the same future the disciples believed in – the same future that Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker believed in.  The same future we have always had: life in Jesus Christ.  “Do not be afraid my brothers and sisters,” Bishop Curry told us, “We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement and we will not be silenced.  We will not be defeated.  We will not fail.  God is with us and God is good.”  Amen.

[1]Carrie Boren Headington (2016), “The Episcopal Church’s ‘e-word,’ – what is evangelism”? The Living Church, http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2016/02/02/the-episcopal-churchs-e-word-what-is-evangelism/.

[2]Ibid.

Sermon for May 21, 2017, 10 a.m.: Children’s Homily: I love you; you love me (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Sermon for May 14, 2017: Being in Relationship 2 (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Today we heard about St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew who was converted to Christianity by the apostles and appointed a deacon in Jerusalem.  The fact that he was already considered an outsider made it exponentially more dangerous to preach about Jesus -and Stephen knew it.  But he did it anyway and, according to the writer of Acts, he died for his witness.

But why?  Couldn’t he have just dialed down the rhetoric a bit?  Preached to more receptive converts?  Moved to a less hostile town?  We may admire his courage, but we can’t help but wonder about his common sense.  What would compel someone to knowingly put himself in a life-threatening situation if he didn’t have to?  But people do.  Not just ancient, seemingly remote people like Stephen– but saints in our own time.  We can pick up a newspaper or go online today and be inspired by Christians who die for refusing to renounce their faith.  But would we could we –do the same?

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

We all have our own ideas about what “home” means.  For many of us “home” is associated with a place, but for others “home” is a person or a state of being.  I sometimes say, “Home is where the husband is” because we moved so many times as a result of Gary’s military career (and because I love him).  For young people, “home” is often the place where the people who have raised and nurtured them can be found –be they mothers- or fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or beloved mentors.  Home, Robert Frost said, “is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in…Home is the primary connection between you and the rest of the world.”[1]

But where was Jesus’s home?  That’s what Thomas wanted to know – where was Jesus going?  And how were they going to find him?  But when Thomas asked, Jesus told the disciples that they already knew the way, because he was the way.  He told them he was the way they have been allowed to know God.  He told them that he was their home.

Those are probably the most confusing directions ever.  Thomas asked Jesus where to go and Jesus instead told him how to live.  He told his disciples that God’s kingdom is not a physical place but a state of being, a relationship -that God’s household is a dwelling made not of cloth or bricks, but of mutual loyalty and love.  It is a committed relationship grounded in faith and located in the collective soul.  “Know me,” Jesus tells them.  “Love me.  Trust me – and you will be part of God.  And, what’s more, if you do that, you will have power like mine.  You will have power greater than mine.  I will show the world the glory of God – through you.”

That’s an astounding idea if you think about it.  If you believe in Jesus, you will have the power of God.  Think how that promise resonated with the poor and oppressed people who followed Jesus.  Think how that belief has sustained demoralized and subjugated people for thousands of years since.  I think Jesus’ promise of power is one of the primary reasons that Christianity grew so quickly.  I think it’s the reason that people are still willing to die for it.  I think it’s the reason that people are willing to kill for it.  Because people – Christians –think they can harness the power of God.  But I don’t think it works that way.

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

I’ve thought about that incident many times over the years.  She believed that I lacked faith because I didn’t believe that God would provide what we needed.  But it wasn’t that I didn’t believe that God could provide what we needed.  I just didn’t think I had the right to decide if what we really needed was to get on a MAC flight.  (And for those of you who can’t stand to not hear the end of a story, what God ultimately provided was a new, promotional direct flight from Seoul to San Francisco, complete with a meal and hot towels and a credit card to pay for it.  Amen).

So what was different in our approach to prayer?  Was one of us right and the other wrong?  The writer of John’s gospel provides a very comforting answer.  He tells us that Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  Believe in God.  Believe in mebecause you know me.  I am willing to do anything for you.  We are in a relationship and because of that relationship I will always answer your prayers as is best for you.

I think anyone who is in a committed relationship can understand this.  Whether it’s a romantic partnership, parenthood, or a treasured friendship– sometimes you do things just because the person you love asks you to.   How many times have you gone to a movie that wasn’t appealing to you?  Or spent the night cleaning up after a sick person?  Or gone to church when you had no interest in learning about religion or even God for that matter?  That’s love.  And Jesus’ love for us opens the door so that we can find our place in God’s household.   Allowing himself to be bound to this sinful earth and its imperfect inhabitants in the form of Jesus is God’s priceless gift to us.

But what are we willing to do for God – and is there anything we really can give to God?  Peter’s answer is the same as the gospel message – believe.   “Grow into salvation…Come to him…Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house -” let yourself be built into God’s house.  God wants us to be part of him.  That’s all – and that’s everything.  Because I have started to believe that our good and bad behavior matter less to God than whether we accept her divine love and share it with others.  God asks us to open our eyes and see – see and believe that such complexity and beauty cannot be random.  To acknowledge that the challenging, confusing, and amazing people with whom we share our lives are not just replicated DNA.  To admit that there are places inside of us that cannot be filled by earthly things.  God asks us to accept what has already been given to us.  God asks us to believe.

For many people, that’s nearly an impossible task.  Many people can’t even imagine such a belief.  So we must imagine it with each other.  We may have to imagine it for one another.  We must keep showing and telling each other what we see and what is in our hearts.  We must, like Stephen, gaze into heaven and allow ourselves to be emptied of fear and filled with the Holy Spirit.  The power that comes with being in relationship with God is not the power to know things or have things or even be things.  It is the greatest and most important power of all – the power to love others as God loves us.  And that is worth dying for.  AMEN.

[1]Frank T. McAndrew (August 3, 2015), “Home is where the heart is, but where is home”? Psychology Today,  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-ooze/201508/home-is-where-the-heart-is-where-is-home

 

Sermon for May 7, 2017: Who are we? (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

This past week I attended a gathering of clergy where we talked about our concerns and hopes for our various parishes and the Episcopal Church as a whole.  Although it was not the stated topic of the day, our conversation eventually drifted – as it so often does – to the subject of “how do we bring people back to church.”  Eventually, someone introduced a topic that is the bane of many clergy: Sunday morning youth sports.  Most priests have at least one family in their congregation – and often many – who are not seen at church for long stretches of time because one or more of their children plays some kind of sport on Sunday mornings.  “How,” moaned one of my colleagues, “do we make church more meaningful and valuable than soccer”?

The thing is, I don’t think the real issue is whether people think church is more important than soccer.  I think that sports are just the thing that families do on Sunday mornings now.  In the 20th century, families went to church.  Now they go to youth sports.  And for a lot of people, church didn’t have much meaning anyway, which made it easy for them to switch when there was a shift in societal values.  So, for me the question is not how we make church more meaningful than soccer – or anything else.  The question is how we communicate that church is meaningful – that it is valuable – that it is invaluable.  The question is how we tell people who we are.

But first we have to know the answers to those questions.  According to John Nielson, “The question of identity is important to everyone. So much of our life is framed by the struggle to truly understand who we are and why we are here.”[1]  The same thing is true of institutions.  It was certainly true of the fledgling Christian community we have been reading about during this Easter season.  We have heard from the authors of letters of Paul, Peter, the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of John, all trying to explain what “the Way” – the original name of the Jesus Movement – was all about.

By most accounts they were pretty successful.  Not only did they sextuple their membership as the result of one apparently fabulous sermon, but they also attempted to live harmoniously by sharing both their material and spiritual lives, with the result that they continued to grow.  Theirs was an idealized lifestyle – one that has resurfaced again and again under different names over the many years since – communes, kibbutzim, socialism, and “intentional community” – all have been repeatedly tried with great hopes, but most, including that of these earliest Christians, have failed.  It seems that human beings are simply not evolved enough yet to successfully share everything.

Luckily, the growth of Christianity was not dependent on the manner in which its disciples lived.  Nor was it about being willing to suffer for our religion, despite the way our reading from Peter has often been interpreted.  The text does not say that we as Christians should seek out suffering in order to identify with Christ.  The author’s message is simpler than that.  Suffering, he says, happens.  It is present in our lives from birth – and it is a crucial part of rebirth – and rebirth is what becoming a Christian is all about.  Membership in the body of Christ necessitates the radical alteration of who we are.  And, as anyone who has tried to drastically change their body or behavior can tell you, transformation can be painful.  It requires enormous strength and motivation.  So, when Peter tells us that enduring suffering is good, he is not saying that pursuing it will make us like Jesus; he is saying that when we are struggling with it, Jesus is present with us, as our example and our reward.

To know Christ is to know the Good Shepherd, the gateway to salvation.  Some scholars have suggested that the twenty-third psalm, familiar to many of us as a poem of comfort, is better described as a Song of Confidence, because in its six short stanzas it reminds of us of what we will find in the course of our transformation.  It describes what it means to be reborn in the image of the true God – a God who revives not just our souls, but our “whole selves,” a God who “hounds” us with kindness, whether we want it or not – a God who fully knows us –enough to call us by name –enough to lay down his life for us.  It tells us how to recognize the Way of Jesus and to follow it.

Are we, like the early Christians, devoted to God’s teaching?  Do we make time to pray together, to break bread together, and to enjoy fellowship with one another?  Do we listen for the voice of Jesus as he calls us by name?  Are we willing to suffer for justice, to resist abusing when we are abused, and threatening when we are threatened?  Who are we?

These are some of the questions that your faithful vestry reflected on yesterday at our annual retreat.  Our goal was to review the amazing work done during the interim, when parishioners were asked to think about who we are as a community and our hopes and dreams for the future, and then to synthesize that  input into a formal mission statement and vision for Grace Episcopal Church.

Like the early Christians, your vestry members prayed, heeded the apostle’s teaching, broke bread together and shared fellowship.  They listened for Jesus’s call for Grace Church and considered what the greatest strengths and desires of this community might be.  I asked them to do this foundational work so that we can move forward together with a strong sense of identity.  A mission statement expresses who we are.  It describes the heart of our community, “our unique and strongest gifts for ministry… [and provides us with] a tool to communicate the personality, passion and purpose of [our] parish… [It will hopefully] energize and provide direction to [those of us who are already here, as well as create] an invitation for those seeking a community like [ours].[2]  A vision statement, on the other hand, is aspirational.  It helps us decide who we would like to be and what mark we would like to leave on the world.  I believe that in the best spirit of collaboration, the vestry accomplished this task and I am pleased to share these statements with you.  Our mission statement: “Grace Episcopal Church: working together to welcome, support, and serve all God’s people. “ Our vision statement: “We strive to be a vital, loving community.  We believe in practicing the way of Christ.  All are welcome at God’s table.  We grow spiritually by offering help and hope to all we meet.”

I am most grateful to be part of this vision for the future of our community and I encourage you to support our mission and to tell others who we are “with glad and generous hearts, praising God” and securing “the goodwill of…people,” so that “day by day the Lord [will add to the] number of those [being] saved.” AMEN.

[1]John W. Nielson, (May 17, 2012), “Who am I”? in The Les Mis Project: Finding the Gospel in the music of “Les Miserables,” https://thelesmisproject.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/who-am-i/.

[2]Linda Buskirk, (January 6, 2012), “The value of a mission statement,” Episcopal Church Foundation: Vital practices for leading congregations, http://www.ecfvp.org/blogs/937/the-value-of-a-mission-statement.

 

Sermon for April 30, 2017: Be known to us Lord Jesus  (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

All churches have traditions.  I’m not talking about the formal customs and procedures of religious practice.  I’m talking about the unofficial rituals that make a certain church our parish home.  And while most of these aren’t written down anywhere and their origins have usually been lost to history, they are nonetheless entrenched in the culture of the parish.  They are, in their own way, sacred.

I knew I had encountered my first Grace Church Martinez unofficial holy law of obligation when I asked why we have pancake breakfasts during Lent instead of Easter season.  “Isn’t that,” I inquired with innocent concern, “backwards”?  “Well,” I was told (gently but firmly), “I don’t know about the theology of it, but to me Lent at Grace Church is the smell of pancakes.”  And I, knowing that church doctrine is no match for the aroma of maple syrup and sausage, shut my mouth and said grace.

The truth is that for many of us food and God are inextricably linked. One of the very first conversations between God and human beings was about food.  After God strongly suggested to the first people that they not eat from one particular tree in the beautiful garden where they lived, they went right ahead and did it anyway, leading to all kinds of trouble – but also providing us with the comforting knowledge that we are certainly not the only p unable to resist attractive but forbidden foods.  We are also not the only people who miss food when we are deprived of it.  After God released them from lives of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites tried to mutiny because they were hungry – and when God gave them something to eat, they promptly got angry because they didn’t like the taste of it.

We do God a disservice, however, when we focus on biblical stories in which God’s people were deprived of food, because there are many, many more tales in which God provides food for the people.  God not only sent manna to feed the Israelites in the wilderness, but he also dispatched a raven to feed his prophet Elijah, Abigail to provide for David, and Joseph to be sure that the people of Egypt had enough food stored to survive a seven-year famine.  Ours is a generous God, a god who has continued to provide physical and spiritual food for the human beings she created and loves, despite the fact that we have been ungrateful for them – despite the fact that we have rejected them – despite the fact that we have often destroyed them, including God’s own child, Jesus, the unblemished sacrificial Lamb, the perfect spiritual food which we, in our anger and fear, despised, rejected, and crucified.

That’s what Peter was trying to help the people of Jerusalem to understand – and it “cut them to the heart” when they realized that they had misunderstood and rebuffed God’s mercy. This passage is not about how “the Jews killed Jesus.”  It is not about the collective guilt of the people of the city.  Peter was not there to condemn the group – why would he bother?  He’s there to offer forgiveness and salvation to each individual person.  Jesus is the Lord, he tells them, the Messiah whose mission was not thwarted but fulfilled by his sacrificial death.  Jesus is the one they were waiting for, and, miraculously, they could still be part of it – part of a new life, a life free of corruption and fear.  All they had they to do was not throw away the gift they have been given.

It’s all we have to do too.  I recently read an article touting the effects of a miracle drug that can, “improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans – at no personal cost.”[1]  That drug is religion. Long-term research suggests that although “the draw for many may be meaningful liturgy, perhaps a sense of forgiveness and ultimately, salvation,”[2] that’s not all regular church attendees are getting.  Churchgoers (as opposed to non-churchgoers) are more optimistic, less depressed, have a greater sense of purpose, exhibit more self-control, are less likely to smoke, and more likely to have a stable marriage.”[3]  And, just to be clear, these benefits are related to church attendance, not individual spirituality.  These findings fly in the face of what Jeff Paschal calls, “shallow, privatized, and individualized faith characterized by statements such as…’What I believe is between God and me’; ‘I am spiritual, but I do not practice organized religion’; ‘I am Christian, but I practice my faith by myself by being a good person.’  For too many church members, faith has become little more than mouthing the words ‘I believe in God and in Jesus’ as some sort of magic formula.  There is [no] public and communal dimension of thanksgiving and responsibility.”[4]

Yet, as today’s scripture readings so clearly tell us, it is exactly the public and communal aspects of the early Christian church that drew people to it, so much so that three thousand people were baptized in one day.  That seems impossible today – but I’ll tell you something.  I don’t think it is.  Because I think that people need something to believe in now just as much as they did then.  Human beings need something to give them strength, and something to share – and I believe that “something” is God –whether they know it or not.  The job of regular churchgoers is to show them.

One of the most beautiful practices we have here at Grace is when I invite forward those who would like to share the joys and sorrows of our lives together by disclosing a struggle or offering a thanksgiving with the group. This opportunity – to hear that one of our sisters only needs one more chemo treatment, or that a long-awaited heart transplant has occurred, or even that one of our friends is still struggling but remains hopeful – is an incalculable blessing – the same blessing that brought people to Jesus and to the movement that still bears his name.

That is what true Christian hospitality is all about, demonstrated over and over by Jesus in life and confirmed in his death.  It is the way in which Christians are supposed to be known – by our willingness to provide not just for one another, but to anyone who asks. Each time we break bread in community, whether it’s pancakes or wafers or granola bars; whether it’s in liturgy or fellowship or on the street- we are known to one another – and Jesus is known to us.

“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six,” Sara Miles writes in Take This Bread, “I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer but actual food—indeed, the bread of life.”[5]

That is the lesson and the promise of the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus; that “Jesus will meet his beloved ‘in the breaking of the bread.’ [That] the hospitality of…traveling companions [will become] the doorway to grace… [This requires] trust and hope…Hospitality expresses deep vulnerability; welcoming a stranger is always risk,”[6] but it is the way in which we are asked to demonstrate our faith, our gratitude and our understanding of God.  It is the way in which God opens our eyes to the gifts that he has given us and the way in which we learn to accept those gifts.  That bread is a miracle.  Take it. Eat it. Share it.  And be known in it.    AMEN.

[1]Tyler J. VanderWeele and John Siniff (2016), “Religion may be a miracle drug,” USA Today online, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/10/28/religion-church-attendance-mortality-column/92676964/

[2]Ibid.

[3][3]Tyler J. VanderWeele and John Siniff (2016), “Religion may be a miracle drug,” USA Today online, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/10/28/religion-church-attendance-mortality-column/92676964/

[4]Jeff Paschal, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 408.

 

[5]Sarah Miles, (2008), Take this bread: a radical conversion, [New York: Ballantyne].

[6]Molly T. Marshall, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 422.

 

April 23, 2017: The courage to witness (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Picture this:

The year is 2025.  Despite the fact that the majority of Americans do not believe in climate change, several areas of the country have become uninhabitable due to toxic environmental factors, and fertility rates have plummeted to a startling low.  Advances in technology have resulted in all financial transactions becoming virtual.  Several years ago, the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. government were gunned down, reportedly by Muslim extremists.  Martial law was declared and the constitution was suspended.  Political power was seized by a coalition of men who espoused an extreme fundamentalist Christian perspective that resulted in all non-Christians being given the choice of converting or leaving the country.  Women were removed from the workforce, their financial accounts shut off, and their access to reading materials eliminated.  New social norms were mandated: men had jobs; “legitimate” wives, (those who had been married only once within the state church), cared for the homes of the men; women of color were designated as household servants; older women, men of color, and those considered “heretical” were shipped to “the colonies” to perform manual labor, often consisting of toxic clean-up.  Those who would not convert or accede to the new social order were killed.  All marriages not blessed by the state religion were declared invalid and children from these marriages were “redistributed” among more worthy couples. Women of childbearing age who had shown the ability to bear children were given the choice of going to the colonies or becoming “handmaids” to powerful men. These new policies, according to the leadership, were appropriated from an impeccable source of goodness and right – the Bible.

Now, consider what your place might be in this new society.  For many of us, by virtue of our age, race, culture, and/or gender, we would be mandated to a certain path, without choices; but for others of us there might be options -for Christians with different beliefs, there would be a choice – to comply or dissent – to choose life or death.

This is the scenario advanced by Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” one of several dystopian books that have recently made a comeback on best seller lists.  Atwood’s book is powerful and frightening for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because it demonstrates the way in which the words of our scriptures can be shaped to justify and legitimize all sorts of evil.  And, although it might seem counterintuitive to connect a pessimistic futuristic story to the post-Easter joy we are experiencing, I think it raises some particularly relevant questions for us, like what it means to be a member of “the Jesus Movement” in a certain time and place.

It was certainly the question for Jesus’s disciples following his death.  In a short time they had gone from members of a growing cult to being the defeated followers of a disgraced religious blasphemer and state-condemned criminal.  They weren’t even sure whether he had been resurrected.  They were certainly not out dancing in the streets, singing loud Hosannas, and shouting, “He is risen.”  Instead, they were doing what many of us would do if we were terrified and grief-stricken: they were huddling together for solace and security, hiding among friends who felt the same way they did – people who understood them and made them feel safe.  They, like so many of us, were in Christian community seeking comfort.  They were probably not thinking about evangelism.

It’s not something Episcopalians like to think about either.  In the time and place where I learned to be a Christian, it was considered rude to talk about religion and downright déclassé to proselytize.  And when you were asked about, it was considered preferable to promote your faith through elegant argument and intellectual rigor rather than personal witness. Being “pushy” about your religious beliefs was a good way to lose your social status.  Of course, for the disciples, it meant they might actually lose their lives, so they understandably wanted to be ready before going public with it.  They wanted to be sure. So, who could blame Thomas for asking for a little proof?  The author of the Gospel of John, that’s who.

The story of “Doubting Thomas” is found only in the Gospel of John, which is primarily focused on Jesus’s divinity.  For the author of the Gospel of John, believing that Jesus is both God and Savior is the only path to salvation so Thomas, and by extension, all Christians, must experience Jesus as divine in order to be saved.  But other early apostles had different ideas about the meaning of Jesus’s reappearance to the disciples, and one of those was the author of the Gospel of Thomas.  According to scholar Elaine Pagels, that gospel, which didn’t make it into the New Testament, taught “that God’s light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially at least, in everyone.  Thomas’s gospel encourages the hearer to seek to know God through one’s own divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God.”[1]  In other words, the two gospel writers believed in the same God and the same savior, but they disagreed about how to find him.  By portraying Thomas as unbelieving, John’s author managed to convey that his view of salvation is the correct one, undermining both Thomas’ character and his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.  So John’s became one of four gospels in the formal Christian canon, and the Gospel of Thomas was lost for 1500 years.

For many of us, who believe that faith is a personal choice, the doctrinal wrangling of ancient theologians may seem unimportant, but I think it’s actually critically significant.  First of all, it teaches us that Christianity has always been political.  It also tells us that from the beginning there have been efforts to promote the idea that there is only one way to follow Jesus – and if you don’t take that path, you are not faithful.  And it shows us what happens when we fail to speak out about our own understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  Things get lost. Scripture is misunderstood.  Evil is done in the name of God.

That’s why being a member of the Jesus Movement is not a “personal” decision; it is a social, political, life-changing and life-threatening choice.  You need to believe deeply and irrevocably, to understand what you believe, to be willing to witness to what you believe – and potentially to die for what you believe – otherwise false prophets will rise – and the Jesus movement will die.

It is the last and greatest mandate that Jesus, both human and divine, gave to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  He charged his disciples to let go of their fears, to receive the strength and courage of the Holy Spirit and to become his representatives in the world – to be transformed from disciples to apostles – and evangelists.

We are asked to make the same choice.  Like the community of John, like Thomas – like David and Peter – we are asked to witness to what we have seen, what we have felt – what we know.  To tell our stories – to share the vastness and variety of God’s mercy and the fullness of joy found in God’s presence. That is what it means to be a member of the Jesus Movement in this time and this place.  It is the opportunity to share our Easter rejoicing, to love those who have not yet seen our Savior and to attest to his wonders, that through us they might also come to believe and through believing have life in his name.  AMEN.

[1]Elaine Pagels, (2004), Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, [New York: Random House].

April 16, 2017, Easter Day,  Why Not God? (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

I have file folders filled with sermon ideas.  The largest of these is, by far, a folder labeled, “The Changing Church.”  Because the church has changed – not just the Episcopal Church, but the Christian faith itself.  Some people believe that we don’t actually have a lot of choice about it, because the church as we know it is shrinking.  In 2015 a Pew Research study on Religion in America suggested that worship attendance across all formalized religions was declining, with greater declines shown among our youngest adults.  For many religious leaders, then, the new mandate is “change or die.”

Of course, it’s not completely clear how we should do this.  There are definitely lots of suggestions though.  Among some of the ones you can find in my changing church folder are the “faith, hops, and love” trend, which includes the story of a new United Church of Christ plant in Chicago which recently launched its “Balm of Gilead” Session IPA, “a craft brew made especially for the church and created right in the neighborhood.”[1] Instead of opening with a big worship service, Gilead Church started with social events, including a garlic-planting party.  According to their cool, young pastor, “We want to be church for and with people who’ve been turned out, turned off, or just left cold by church.”[2]  Other U.S. churches, including Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, have added physical fitness to their roster of programs.  This is not an isolated trend.  “The American Council on Exercise named faith-based fitness one of the top trends of 2016.”[3]

Other innovators think it’s as simple as a shift in church music, suggesting that what we sing “in here” is not what is inspiring people “out there.”  Christian music, they tell us, is now part of the mainstream.  You can find it on You Tube – Kanye West’s 2016 appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” Chance the Rapper’s performance at the Grammys – not to mention Beyoncé’s costume parade of feminine images of divinity, including a golden, halo like crown that looked suspiciously like icons of the Virgin Mary.

But for many regular church-goers, these ideas are simply horrifying.  There is a reason for the old joke about how many Episcopalians it takes to change a lightbulb (None – Episcopalians don’t change)!  For those of us who were raised in the church and for whom the church has been a major support throughout our lives, the regularity of our liturgy is a consistent balm for our souls.  As a military spouse who spent 25 years moving around the country for my husband’s career, one of the first things I always did upon arriving in a new town was to look for the red, white, and blue sign saying, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”

But the Episcopal Church did not always welcome everyone.  Far from being focused on the needs of the poor and oppressed as mandated by Jesus, we repeatedly concentrated on protecting the secular power that is part of belonging to a large and influential denomination. Rather than standing against slavery or for civil rights, the Episcopal Church in the United States has almost always sided with the status quo.  We were so confident in our “righteousness,” – our “rightness” -that we thought that when the psalmist exulted that “The right hand of the Lord has triumphed,” he meant us.

We know better now.  We, like Peter, “truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  In other words, it’s not about what you say you believe, it’s how you act on your beliefs that matters.

Maybe that’s why some people don’t come to church anymore – because they don’t think Christians are practicing what they preach.  Perhaps they sense that we are sometimes more concerned with things in our earthly lives than “things that are above.”  This passage from Colossians has been much abused, often being interpreted to mean that we are to concentrate on the spiritual instead of the physical – leading some denominations to discount “earthly” matters like poverty and global warning.  But that is not what the letter writer is saying – and it is not what the Episcopal Church believes.  “Seek[ing] the things that are above…does not mean world-denying asceticism,”[4] but rather working toward a better world- seeking to bring God’s peaceful dominion to the here and now.

The evidence in my “changing church” folder suggests that this is a goal that many people are seeking, even if they don’t know it.  Recent surveys of individuals who identify themselves as having no religious identity – the so-called “nones,” indicate that they actually believe in many of the things that the Christian church teaches, including helping those in need and advocating for those on the margins of society.  I subscribe to a blog called, “The Daily OM,” which sends out emails focused on well-being.  It is decidedly not religious, but in recent months, I have read posts about “finding your calling,” dealing with pain, acknowledging your brokenness, seeking out loving community, and creating ceremonies and rituals that enhance your sense of identity.  How very strange, that this wisdom aimed at non-religious spiritual seekers is based on practices that religions have been doing for thousands of years –things we do right here at Grace, all the time.

So what happened?  How did the popular understanding of Christianity get so far off track?  I would suggest that the actions of some Christians have led people to perceive Christianity as being more about “preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity [than] tackling human needs.”[5]  But that is not who we are.  That is not what this community of faith is about.  This is an Easter church, a resurrection church. We believe in a God that cared enough about a flawed, selfish humanity to die for it.  We believe in a God of sacrifice and thoughtfulness and love.  We believe in a faith that strives for “a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion”[6]and in working to repent and correct the errors of the past church in the name of our inclusive God.  That is who we worship.  That is why we worship.  The reasons we worship haven’t changed; they are the same reasons the women at the tomb had for loving Jesus even in death.

Christianity, then, hasn’t changed.  Christianity is simply the way of Jesus, demonstrated by his life, death, and resurrection.  And it is still a good way.  It is still our way.  That’s not what needs to change.  What needs to change is the willingness of those of us who are already part of this church community to make that way known – to spread the message of the risen Christ, just as the disciples did.  Our task is to drown out the voices of those who have hijacked the word “Christian” for their own purposes and to witness to the true belief of those who follow Jesus.  And for those who don’t often attend church, give it a try – or another try, as the case may be.  Love, community, service; these are Christian values.  These are the Lord.  Go then, and do as Mary Magdalene did: Tell your brothers and sisters, “I have seen the Lord”- and the Lord is good.

Jesus lives – and so shall his church.  Alleluia. AMEN.

[1]Connie Larkman, (April 7, 2017), “Chicago new church start attracts national attention before first worship service,” http://www.ucc.org/news_chicago_new_church_start_attracts_national_attention_before_first_worship_service_04072017.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Kelsey Dallas, (October 24, 2016), “Faith and fitness: Why a workout has become a reason to go to church,” http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865665352/Faith-and-fitness-Why-a-workout-has-become-a-reason-to-go-to-church.html.

[4]Martha Moore-Keish, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Easter Day), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 368.

 

[5]Nicholas Kristof, (Sept. 3, 2016), “What religion would Jesus belong to”? https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/04/opinion/sunday/what-religion-would-jesus-belong-to.html.

[6]Ibid.

April 15, 2017, Easter Vigil – From Night to light (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Happy Easter!  How’s everybody feeling?  Filled with joy?  Energized?  Relieved?  Refreshed, Renewed?  Or maybe just a teeny bit tired – or potentially a little confused.  After all, you might be forgiven if you are experiencing a little bit of the sensory shock that sometimes causes Puxatawnee Phil to run back into his hole on Groundhog Day.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Easter -but it can be a bit of a culture shock after six weeks of Lent.  And for good reason.

Easter, according to the Book of Common Prayer, is about renewal- renewal of body and mind, renewal that should stir up our souls and our collective wills, renewal that should encourage us to more authentic worship and more powerful advocacy in our lives.  Renewal that makes us feel as if we are “dead to sin and alive to God.”

The Easter Vigil liturgy is one of the oldest liturgies in the Christian church, and attempts to capture that transition – from darkness to light, from death into life.  It was initially part of what was once called “The Great Week” of Easter, which celebrates both Christ’s death and resurrection dates back to at least the fourth century (and likely earlier).  Instead of having separate liturgies for the three holy days preceding Easter – what we call “the Triduum” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the ancient Christians instead celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ in one long drawn-out festival.  It was the peace, freedom, and togetherness of Woodstock without the electric guitars, illegal substances, and sideburns.

The liturgy that we are taking part in this evening is designed to imitate that spirit of joy and unity, to recreate the sense of “Easter” as not one day or one worship service, but as a progression – from darkness to light – from waiting to fulfillment.  When we are finally given permission to say or sing or shout, “Alleluia,” we are celebrating nothing less than our own spiritual rebirth.

It’s like one of those beauty infomercials that promises a “whole new you” if you just buy this, eat that, or use what they tell you.  The protocol is always much harder than anticipated and the end result may not what you expected.  Who knew what you were getting yourself into?  Faith is a lot like that, but with much more significant repercussions.  You never know what will happen when you are remade in the spirit of God.

Mary Magdalene and her companion discovered this when they went to Jesus’s tomb.  They were anticipating the body of their beloved friend, but instead found a supernatural being so blindingly bright that it resembled lightning and whose appearance was quickly followed by that of Jesus himself.  It was not what they imagined.  But that’s what happens with makeovers.  Sometimes, it doesn’t turn out quite the way you thought it would – maybe because you weren’t really ready for it.

Which is a surprise, given that we have been preparing for Easter for at least six weeks – and it sure seemed like long enough.  That’s what Lent is all about after all, getting ready for Easter – cleansing our hearts and preparing a place for Jesus to enter, performing dermabrasion of our souls.  We thought we were ready – but then again maybe we weren’t. Maybe we did too much planning, too much anticipating.  Maybe we didn’t leave room for ourselves to be surprised by joy.

Easter can be like that.  It is both everything we wanted and so much more than we expected.  It is too big, too bright, too intense.  That’s because we have failed to take into account what it means to have been saved by Jesus.  We have failed to understand that we have not just been saved by Jesus, but we have been saved as part of Jesus.  We have been fundamentally changed.  And we have been changed for a reason.  We have been changed so that we can change others, so that we can spread the Good News.  And for some of us, that’s not good news at all.  It’s just plain scary.  In fact, it’s a thing that, if we think about it, may make us want to turn around like little Phil and run right back into the darkness of Lent.

But it is the core of what Easter is, the reality of what it means to have faith: we have been raised with Christ so that we can do the work of Christ.  We cannot simply enjoy the bells and the music and the light of Easter’s dawn.  We have to carry that light to others.  Do not be afraid.  Go, tell our brothers and sisters what you have seen and heard: Jesus Christ is risen today, and we are reborn.  Alleluia.

April 14, 2017, Good Friday –  The Paradox of Christ (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Good Friday is where the rubber hits the road.  It’s where we separate the women from the girls – the boys from the men – the shallow-water sailors from the squids.  Because for those who believe that we have each been saved from ourselves by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, today is the hardest day of the year.

The question is why such a bad day is called “Good Friday.” The standard answer is that Good Friday is good because the death of Christ, as terrible as it was, led to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, which brought new life to those who believe.  But “Good” Friday is actually known by seemingly more appropriate names in other parts of the world, including Sorrowful or Suffering Friday, Long Friday, Holy Friday, Black Friday, Great Friday and Silent Friday. Actually, the word “Friday” never appears in the Bible. The only day called by a given name in scripture is the seventh day, which is called “the Sabbath.”  Thus, the term “Good Friday,” is a relatively late invention. Historians tell us that early Christians initially commemorated Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in one festival, called the “Pascha” (which is Greek for “Passover”). They do not suggest that Jesus’ passion took place within a specific time frame – with Jesus sharing a meal with his friends on Thursday, being arrested sometime Thursday night, tortured, tried, and crucified on Friday, and rising on Sunday morning. But we follow a specific sequence during one “holy” week so that we can experience the passion of our Lord as an escalating, emotional journey, and give ourselves a chance to symbolically walk with Jesus as he blazes the trail to our salvation.

It’s a very hard walk.  We would not be human if we were able to sit and listen to the story of Jesus’s arrest, torture, humiliation and crucifixion without feeling distressed, if not downright sick.  And, unlike other services, Good Friday is almost unrelenting.  It seems to be all about suffering.  Even our Hebrew scripture graphically describes one who suffers on God’s behalf as “despised…rejected, stricken, struck down, afflicted, oppressed” – as “cut off, crushed, and anguished.”  Imaging ourselves enduring – or participating in – such abuse is extremely difficult.  So, why do it?  Does our Christian faith require us to be masochists?

The reading we just heard from the letter to the Hebrews suggests otherwise.  Because in it we, like the earliest Christians, are given a reason for enduring the painful journey that is Good Friday.  “We do not,” the writer says, “have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are …[Like us] Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears…[Like us] he learned…through what he suffered.” By his suffering, Jesus developed a deep connection with our human nature and Good Friday is our opportunity to explore that connection and use it to develop a closer relationship him.  This is the least we can do for the one who chose to fully experience a human life simply so that he can walk with us in ours.

Good Friday provides us with a second opportunity as well – the opportunity to consider what it means to truly trust in God the way Jesus did.  On Palm Sunday we read the passion according to the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus wondered aloud if God had deserted him, but the Jesus of John’s gospel is different.  The Jesus in this gospel is a man who is assured and even at ease with his fate, a Jesus who verbally spars with Pontius Pilate without fear, who fully accepts the cup that he is to drink, and who fulfills the scriptures even as he dies.  It is a Jesus who fully trusts in the Lord – and paves the way for us to do the same.

We are asked to do this with joy.  That is perhaps the hardest lesson of Good Friday- not only to accept that it is through the blood of Jesus and the curtain of his flesh that we can approach God “with a true heart in full assurance of faith,” but also that we must do it with gratitude – that we must face the horror of his death and then thank God for it.  That is the great paradox of our faith, as well as the key to surviving this Sorrowful, Suffering, Long, Holy, Black, Great, and Silent day; without death there is no resurrection, and without death there is no eternal life.  Trust in God.  Easter is coming. AMEN.

April 13, 2017, Maundy Thursday, Making an Example (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Foot washing.  Embarrassing, unusual and, for most of the faithful, blessedly optional.”[1]  A fact for which my husband Gary is eternally grateful.  He is not fond of Maundy Thursday.  It’s different.  It’s kind of weird and, perhaps worst of all, it’s just so casual.  Maundy Thursday is in many ways an introvert’s nightmare.

There are, of course, different ways to approach it.  The Episcopal Church I attended as a child generally had the entire service in the sanctuary.  When it was your turn to go and get your feet washed, you had to take off your shoes and socks and put your feet on the icy marble of the floor in order to receive a cursory splash, pat, and rub from a cold-handed priest.  In recent years, however, Episcopal Churches have developed versions of the service that include sharing an authentic Jewish Seder Passover meal and/or having parishioners wash one another’s feet.  (I’m pretty sure the extroverts were involved in the planning of that one).  But no matter how you do it, there’s no way around the fact that Maundy Thursday is a much more intimate experience than your average Sunday morning worship service.  And that makes some people uncomfortable.

It certainly makes a lot of priests – who are mostly introverts themselves – pretty uncomfortable – and I don’t think it’s because most of them are unwilling to practice humility.  After all, our example is the son of God, who strips down, and kneels at the feet of the pack of homeless, rebellious social outcasts that he hangs around with to wash their dirty feet.  It’s perfectly reasonable to expect priests to set the example by washing the feet of all who ask, kneeling before any and all, humbling themselves in imitation of Christ. After all, if Jesus was willing to humble himself in this way, surely we must be too!

Except there are some problems with that interpretation.  First of all, most Christian churches have progressed in their understanding of “ministry” enough to know that priests are no better, no more dignified, and no more worthy of being held in high esteem than any other child of God.  I’m sure that for many people in the hierarchical church of my youth, it was probably a kick to have your bossy, snooty, and holier-than-thou rector down on his knees coping with your athlete’s foot, but if we learned anything about the Christian church in the 20th century, it’s that a once-yearly ritual of having your priest kneel on the floor does not demonstrate his or her humility.  A priest is not made humble by being forced to his or her knees as part of an annual liturgical “show.” A priest is made humble by recognizing the blessing that has been afforded her by being given the opportunity to lead a community of committed, faithful, Christians.  In other words, you teach me humility every day.

I am humbled by the people who prepared the dinner we are eating.  I am humbled by those who got out the dish pans and towels.  I am humbled by those who will stand in the dark trying not to bang into things as we strip the altar.  I am humbled by those who prepared tonight’s bulletin and who are helping with the music.  I am humbled by this church family – a family that imitates Christ to the best of their ability all the time, not just once a year.  What teaches us humility is appreciating one another’s gifts.  And I think that’s what Maundy Thursday is about – not humiliating ourselves before God – not even about sharing the Eucharist together.  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 contains another even 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.  The example he set for us may have been one of humility, but it was also one of love, of the willingness to do anything you can to comfort and care for those you love – and those you don’t.  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.  It is our job to show and sow love.  It will probably involve humbling ourselves to do it.  But it will definitely involve making ourselves vulnerable – both by caring for others and allowing ourselves to be cared for, to have our feet washed.  Yes, it is kind of strange and pretty uncomfortable, but isn’t that what it means to be family?  Isn’t that what it means to love?

[1]William F. Brosend, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 272.

April 9, 2017, Palm Sunday, Choosing Death, Choosing Life (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Jesus knew what he was doing.  That’s what the gospel writer wants us to understand.  It’s why we hear two gospel passages on Palm Sunday.  Our first gospel tells us the story of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we are reminded of how successful his movement actually was – how his amazing words and miraculous actions were known all across Roman-occupied Judea and how people gathered to see the man they thought of as a great prophet.  When Jesus arrived in the big city, the crowd that followed him was so large that when they spread their cloaks on the road in front of him, the feet of his mount did not touch the dirty street.  He literally received the “red carpet” (or palm carpet) treatment.

  But he didn’t stay popular for long.  According to our second gospel reading, it took less than one week for Jesus to become so unpopular that he died the ignominious death of a political prisoner.  His was a quick and precipitous fall.  Which makes you wonder if someone made a mistake somewhere along the line – if Jesus got some bad publicity – or if there was some sort of a scandal that made the public turn on him.  You have to wonder how Jesus’s story took such an abrupt turn for the worse.

The short answer is that Jesus allowed it to.  In fact, Jesus planned it – planned to be put through the betrayal, abasement and misery that we now call “Holy Week.”  He chose to suffer and die.  That’s what the writer of this gospel wants us to comprehend – that everything that happened to Jesus on his journey from regard to ruin was not just passively accepted by him, but that he actively sought it.  All of it was part of the divine plan.  All of it was necessary.

The narrative we enacted today from the Gospel of Matthew is based on the report of Jesus’s crucifixion in the Gospel of Mark – but Matthew’s is much longer and far more structured.  Among other differences, Matthew’s gospel contains references to Hebrew Scriptures and character motives that never appear in Mark.  That’s because Matthew’s gospel is not a “historical” document; it is a passion play.  All of the gospel writers – and the authors of Paul’s letters before them – were no different than our own popular “nonfiction” writers of today.  They had agendas.  They were motivated by the desire both to emotionally touch people and to convince them of the truth of what they were writing. And to do it, they embellished.

That doesn’t mean that they weren’t telling the truth.  They were exaggerating to make a point – and for Matthew the point is that Jesus needed to die – and Jesus knew that.  One of the ways Matthew makes this argument is by referencing the Song of the Suffering Servant, part of which is found in the passage from Isaiah we heard today.  Scholars don’t know who the suffering servant really was, but by emphasizing Jesus’s treatment at the hands of his persecutors – the way they used stealth, bribery, trumped up charges, false witnesses, mockery, and shaming to destroy him – the author of Matthew draws a direct parallel between Jesus and the suffering servant described by the Hebrew prophets.  He also takes great pains to describe Jesus’s innocence and stoicism in the face of his impertinent questioners, as well as his willingness to stand down in the face of betrayal and denial by his closest friends.  Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was ready to die.

One of the most controversial books of the twentieth century (and films of the 1980s) is “The Last Temptation of Christ.”  Criticized and condemned by some Christians as “heretical,” the book is a meditation on that very question.  What would have happened if Jesus had opted not to die – if Jesus simply used his divine powers to step down from the cross and live his life as a “normal” man?  “The novel advances the argument that, had Jesus succumbed to…temptation, especially the opportunity to save himself from the cross, his life would have held no more significance than that of any other philosopher.”[1] Jesus would not be “the Christ” – the salvation of humanity.  That is what the letter writer means when he tells the Philippians that Jesus, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,” choosing to be starved, whipped, and beaten – to be degraded and diminished as a human being – so that he could become a worthy God.

It is not a choice that we are asked to make.  It is not a choice that we are able to make.  Beating and starving yourself is not what it means to imitate Christ.  While it is true that some people experience self-denial as a way of engaging the deep, sacrificial love of Jesus, it is not the only way – and for many of us it is simply not a realistic way.  And it is not what I expect you to do for Holy Week, because it is unnecessary.  Every one of us has already experienced humiliation, agony, and fear.  We know what is like to feel pain that we desperately want to avoid.  We already recognize the enormity of Jesus’s willingness to suffer voluntarily on our behalf.  But we can make our own choice.  We can choose to recognize God’s presence in our suffering – to listen when God speaks to us directly in response to our pain.  That is how we learn to trust God.  That is how we experience grace.

At the beginning of Lent I suggested that, rather than “giving up” something that you want to give up for your own benefit, you might think about adopting a Lenten discipline that would bring you closer to God.  During this Holy Week I invite you to consider what it is that helps you to understand Christ’s sacrifice.  To appreciate that the example that Jesus set for us by his willingness to accept his fall from superstar to scoundrel is not one of self-hatred but one of humility and trust.  Jesus humbled himself because he believed in God and put himself in God’s hands.  We can imitate him by choosing to believe that God will deliver us from our distress, our humiliations, and our fears.  Jesus chose death so that we can choose life.  Make that choice.  AMEN.

[1]Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Temptation_of_Christ.

April 2, 2017, The Nature of the Flesh (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

You’ve got to give it to the church. The liturgical calendar is a work of art.

Because the church year is very complex. If you don’t believe me, try to explain it to a

newcomer (or a teen in a confirmation class). We have our own seasons (which are

different than the seasons of the year that everyone else knows about), feast days (on

which we often actually fast), and days to honor saints that most people have never heard

of (Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, anyone?) Not to mention the fact that said

calendar is color-coded, so that we can spend lots of money on serious liturgical concerns

like making sure that the altar hangings match the presider’s chasuble. Still, you’ve got

to love a calendar that asks you to observe a 40-day period of meditation and preparation

in which we refrain from most of the things that make church (and life) fun, but then puts

in little breaks to help you get through it. For example, last week we enjoyed “Laudate,”

or “refreshment” Sunday, which basically just confused the Altar Guild, who tried

desperately to figure out why the church calendar was pink.

Which brings us to today, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, known in my house as

“Zombie Sunday.” Our first lesson tracks Ezekiel as he carefully following the directions

of the Lord to prophesy to a collection of bones in order to make them come alive, after

which we hear St. Paul admonishing the Romans that setting our minds on “flesh is

death,” and, for the finale, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, complete with Lazarus

wandering out of the tomb, smelling like rotten garbage and trailing dirty bandages

behind him. The mummy lives!

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The question is, what does all of this great night of the living dead action have to

do with becoming closer to God? The answer is, “resurrection.” Because the true art of

the Christian liturgical calendar is that it moves us through the cycles of our own lives

onto a path toward inclusion in the resurrection of Christ and oneness with God. It also

reminds us that resurrection is a process –a process that requires faith and patience.

Ezekiel demonstrated such faith. According to today’s Hebrew scripture, he was

bodily lifted by the hand of God and put down in the middle of a boneyard. That’s

frightening enough – but then immediately the Lord asked him to “Prophesy” to the

bones around him in order to make them live- a feat he could only accomplish by

allowing himself to become the vessel of the mighty power of God. By obeying the

commands of God, Ezekiel was able to resurrect his dead ancestors and to bring them up

from the depths of the grave to their proper place in the sight of God. This scripture is

incredibly important from a theological point of view, because it is the first indication in

the Hebrew Bible of the possibility of life after death and, for Jews and Christians alike,

an extraordinary sign of the power of God.

It is also a sign of the way God considers the body – our flesh. Most early

Christians believed that resurrection required a body. “Without flesh,” [they believed],

there is no person to overcome death, because a human being, in this life and the next is

an intermingled soul and body… [so] for the miracle of resurrection to occur, there must

be a corpse.” 1 But here we are told that even in a valley filled with bones that have no

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flesh – that have been separated and broken- that have dried up – God can bring life. God

can bring life to arid bones and to parched spirits, to spirits that are mired in concerns of

the flesh, that long to drink from the waters of forgiveness, that thirst for the fountain of

new life. That desperate thirst – that deep well of despair – is what happens when we

become too focused on the flesh. That is what the author of the letter to the Romans

means when he says, “to set the mind on the flesh is death.” The evangelist did not, as

has often been argued, say that all material things are evil, that our bodies are innately

bad. He knew all too well that we are human beings, made of flesh and subject to it; he

knew that we have fleshly desires. He knew what it was to crave chocolate, Diet Cokes

and pancakes – to experience hunger and fear and cold – and he never said that we should

be able to resist all these physical desires or ignore our material needs. He said that

things of the flesh are natural, but worshipping them is not. When we choose to put our

material needs before God, we are misusing our flesh. We are “putting [ourselves] rather

than God in the center of the universe.” 2 “Christian life is a material life…. [What we

need to worry about is not ignoring our bodies so we can practice our faith, but how we

use our bodies]…how we use our physical energies and our material resources, how we

care for our neighbors and for our planet.” 3 It is about how we conduct ourselves when

1 Kelton Cobb, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fifth Sunday in Lent),

David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 124.

2 Kenneth L. Clark, Sr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fifth Sunday in

Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 138.

3 Amy Plantinga Pau, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fifth Sunday in

Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 134.

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we are in the depths of our lives. It is not about whether or not we can, but how we wait

for resurrection – how we wait for the Lord.

Because we do wait. God does not always answer our prayers immediately – or in

the way we think God should. Jesus made the disciples wait to go to their friend Lazarus,

even though he knew that during that delay, Lazarus would die. Jesus did not answer the

prayers of Martha and Mary as they would have liked, by saving their brother. Instead he

waited. He allowed them to suffer – to mourn and to weep – and to fear. He allowed

them to consider and question and worry and wonder until they knew, deeply in their

hearts, that any life they had -and any rebirth their brother could have – would come

through Jesus Christ their Lord. And their faith was rewarded.

It is hard to wait for the Lord, much less with such faith and patience. In 1994,

after six years of marriage, my husband and I decided to start a family. The fact that our

first attempts did not work did not initially bother us. After all, we had married young.

We had time. But two years later our attitude had changed. We had begun to be afraid

that we could not conceive a child. Over the course of the next three years, we attempted

all of the homeopathic, medical and even superstitious treatments that we could try – all

without result. And during that time I tried to do things to bolster my chances that God

would answer my prayers; I read the Bible stories of Sarah, Elizabeth, and Miriam. I

proclaimed my belief in God’s faithfulness. And I prayed. I prayed loud and I prayed

long. And I wept, just as my sisters Martha and Mary wept for their brother Lazarus.

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Just as so many others have wept in pain, in fear, and in desperation. Just as we have all

wept while waiting for the Lord.

God knows our pain. We know this. We know this because in what is perhaps the

shortest and most significant verse in the Bible we hear the words that can, if we allow

them, provide us with all the comfort we need to wait patiently and with faith. We hear

that Jesus also wept. He wept because, like us, he was disturbed and distraught by the

sorrow of his friends and by the finality of death. But unlike us, Jesus had the power to

overturn it. Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus from the power of the greatest and

deepest darkness of all – the power of death. Jesus never doubted the power of God.

Jesus knew that Lazarus could and would be raised. We know this because he thanked

God for his miracle in advance. Jesus believed that God would provide for him and God

did.

That is what we must do. We must believe. As the calendar of our church and our

lives marches on toward the day when we can again celebrate the resurrection of our Lord

Jesus Christ we must wait – but not quietly, not stoically, and not passively. We must

wait as Mary and Martha did – as Jesus did – actively, hopefully, and gratefully. God has

heard our cry – and God has already given us what we need – but we must be ready to

receive it. That is what Lent is about – making ourselves ready to receive the miracles

that God is so very eager to provide for us. As God did for me. “Wait for the Lord, for

with the Lord there is mercy. With him there is plenteous redemption.” With him there

is resurrection. AMEN.

 

March 26, 2017,  The Light of Christ (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

There is a movie called, “Defending your life.”  The film is about Daniel Miller, who, on his 40th birthday, buys a new BMW and promptly kills himself by running it head on into a bus.  When he comes to, he finds himself in a place called, “Judgment City,” a sort-of Purgatory, where the recently dead are put on trial to decide their fates.  He learns that if you are judged worthy, you move on to a “better world,” but if not you go back to Earth.  (Daniel is informed that there is no “hell,” “although,” his defender tells him, “I hear Los Angeles has gotten pretty bad”).

What is most interesting about this film to me are the criteria for judgment, which are not whether you were “good” or “bad,” but how you faced your worst fears.  As part of the process, Daniel watches scenes from his life.  When he meets a woman named Julia and views a few scenes from her life, he realizes how fear-driven his own life has been. Julia’s film clips are a shock to Daniel – she’s Joan of Arc and he’s the Cowardly Lion.

While the theology of this film does not quite match my own, I like it, because it provides a really concrete vision of what it means when we talk about the omniscience of God.  Whatever we do in darkness, scripture says, God can and will bring to light.  In other words, imagine your entire life playing on a movie screen for everyone to see.  Then imagine finding out that the standards you thought you were being judged by were wrong – that instead of correctness and adherence to the rules of society, you were being judged by how you dealt with your greatest fears, your meanest instincts and the darkness in your soul.  I don’t know about you, but that scares the living daylights out of me.  Because while I am generally an excellent rule-follower and I frequently (although certainly not always) do what society would call, “the right thing,” I am certainly not confident enough to have my every thought and impulse presented to the Youth Group at tonight’s movie night.

But that’s what it means to walk as a child of the light.  It means revealing yourself not just to God, but to one another.  It means being compassionate to one another.  This was a new idea to the Ephesians, who believed that the path to salvation was through individual adherence to the law. But Paul and his followers were not interested in personal righteousness; Paul was interested in forming communities of Christians who lived cooperatively – and his letters reflect that single-minded agenda.  That’s why some of his advice is so problematic for modern Christians.  For example, today’s reading (which may not have been written by the person we think of as “Paul”) does not include any specific rules, but among those that occur in the passage that follows this one are: “Wives, be subject to your husbands,” and “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.”

Ouch.  Such allegedly “right” behaviors – offered by the author to a specific people in a specific context to meet a very narrow agenda, have been used to justify the maltreatment of people of specific genders, races, and ethnicity by Christians for millennia.  How, you might ask, can people who profess to believe in what is represented in the words and behavior of Jesus – and in his clear statement that the second greatest commandment is to love one another -reconcile these seemingly opposite directions for how to live.

It’s an important question – perhaps the most important question that 21st century Christians have to consider – because the way we interpret the words of scripture have a tremendous impact on how we behave.  Like the Ephesians before us, “we live in an age in which theologians and prophets, including many of the self-appointed variety, rarely hesitate to make pronouncements about the will of God,[1] and we are susceptible to them because we crave a litmus test for what is truly “Christian” and what is not.

I recently read an article about the battles between different Christian leaders over the proposed federal budget.  While the leaders of many denominations have expressed distress over proposed cuts in funding to services to individuals in need, others have argued that such cuts are actually completely consistent with the words of Jesus.  For example, one conservative blog editor opined that “When Jesus talks about caring for ‘the least of these,’ he isn’t talking about the poor in general, but fellow Christians…about how you treat only his disciples, not the poor… [And according to another writer], “It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor…It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ .  [It’s about helping Christians, not unbelievers…And, of course] other theologians and Bible scholars can and have easily argued that the wider context of Jesus’ preaching and the rest of the New Testament — as well as the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus and his followers drew on — clearly show that Christians are called on to care for all those in need.”[2]

Such arguments can be confusing, because even teachers and seers called by God can make mistakes.  Samuel discovered this when God unceremoniously ousted the man divinely chosen as the first king of Israel.  Today’s Hebrew scripture tells us that Samuel was angry and hurt and grieved over God’s decision, but God was unmoved, telling Samuel to get over it and go to anoint God’s new choice – a choice that Samuel did not understand.  Why would God pick the youngest and weakest son of a poor shepherd of the tribe of Judah to replace a handsome warrior king?  Surely not because he had pretty eyes!  But Samuel nonetheless did what God asked because Samuel knew something that we would do well to remember.  Samuel knew that we are not God – that God does not think like us.  We see through the darkness of our human nature, but God sees in the light.

That light is the light of Christ.  Jesus is the one true prophet who does not misunderstand God – because he is part of God.  But seeing clearly by this light requires us to comprehend that Jesus is not defined by our beliefs.  We are defined by our belief in him.  The Pharisees, who were asked to judge the “rightness” of Jesus’s miraculous restoration of sight to the blind man failed to see this.  Rather than rejoicing at the blessing before them they instead focused on the ways in which it did not fit into their idea of things, ways in which Jesus’s behavior branded him as a sinner rather than a savior.  Like Paul, they had their own agenda to advance.  This kind of thinking – the desire to make new ideas or events fit with what we already believe- is called “confirmation bias” and it is rampant in today’s society.  Such willful spiritual blindness is the very definition of sin – because “sin lies not in being born blind, but in refusing to see when one is confronted with the light.”[3]

It is a blindness born out of fear.  Because sometimes it feels safer to live in the ignorance – the darkness– of our fear – to hide behind our habits and rationalizations, our need to remain safe in our own cozy, limited perspectives.  But we are not children of darkness.  We are children of the light- and we must find a way to overcome our fears and face the truths of our world.

This is where we do it.  It is in Christian community that we can “surrender our lives and wills to God… thrive through serving others…[and]…no longer feel threatened and alone…From within [a] community that honors the dignity of every human being we are free to listen…to express our understanding, and…to find [the]…truth.”[4]

That truth is simple.  God is with us – and our deliverance from our own darkness is already assured.  If we truly believe in the redemptive power of Jesus’s love for us, we need never have to defend our lives.  Because the Lord is our shepherd and we need fear no evilTrust him.  Walk into the light.  Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.  You’ll never walk alone.  AMEN.

[1]Frederick Niedner, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fourth Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 102.

[2]David Gibson, (March 20, 2017), “Trump’s budget slashes aid to the poor. Would Jesus have a problem with that?” http://religionnews.com/2017/03/20/trumps-budget-slashes-aid-to-the-poor-would-jesus-have-a-problem-with-that/.




[3]R. Alan Culpepper, (1998), The Gospel and Letters of John, [Nashville: Abingdon Press], 178.

[4]Ward B. Ewing, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fourth Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 114.

 

March 19, 2017, Leading One Another (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

I have been thinking a lot about Leadership lately – particularly Christian leadership.  I can’t imagine why that’s been on my mind!  There are, of course, many books about leadership – about different styles of leadership, the differences between how men and women lead, and what people want from their leaders.  This last question is particularly important in this day and time as people in this country struggle to understand and cope with deep moral and philosophical divisions that span political, religious, and social issues.  Many people see this as a crucial period in Christian history – as an opportunity to determine who we are as a people.

So you would think that this is a time where Christian leadership is crucial – but a quick search of the internet suggests that it’s not that simple.  First of all, many Christians don’t trust their leaders.  A recent survey indicates that “just over half of Americans trust religious leaders — more so than businessmen, politicians and the media but less than scientists… and the military… [And] only 13% [of respondents] said they have “great trust” in religious leaders – [while] 14% said they had no confidence at all.”[1]

For those who do look to religious leaders for guidance, they are apt to receive mixed messages.  Among evangelical Christians, for example, a group of people which is accustomed to receiving very clear, unified directives from the pulpit, recent well-publicized divisions about political issues have sown seeds of confusion and doubt.  For Episcopalians, who belong to a tradition that, according to Robin Williams’ famous “Top Ten Reasons for Being an Episcopalian,” encourages free thinking to the extent that “No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you,” opinions among church leaders are about as individual as hairstyles.

Given this vacuum of clear counsel, it’s hard for Christian people to know where to turn and who to follow through the maze of facts, fiction, and opinion that swirl around us.  Luckily, we have a really good resource, which, it turns out, has a lot to say about many of the concerns that plague us.  Not only that, but when we go to this source for advice and counsel, we find out that we are not the first people to find ourselves in moral quick sand.  People have been fighting with God and one another since the beginning of the world- and God has been with us through it all – we know this because our holy scriptures tell us so.

The Israelites who escaped from slavery in Egypt didn’t have such clear, written directions to sustain them.  All they knew was they had asked the Lord for their freedom and he had directed them to follow Moses– only to end up starving in the wilderness.  What kind of useless leader was Moses if he couldn’t take care of them? Poor Moses – pushed into a job only to get threatened with being fired.  “Lord,” he cried, “what am I going to do with these whiny, inflexible people”?  God’s answer was simple; “I will give them water.”  Once again, as he did with Abram and David, God provided for his people when they showed no signs of deserving it – and he did it for one reason and one reason only – because God wanted them to know that he was in relationship with them.

Relationship is how God leads us – then and now.  That’s what Paul says in his letter to the Romans.  The faith that binds us to Jesus Christ is based not on what we do, but on what we believe – which is a good thing, because no one in our scriptures, – and no one in our lives –can ever behave perfectly enough to earn salvation.  “Law is unable to bring us into…relationship with God.  No matter how sincerely we try, we always fall short of fulfilling the requirements of [our laws]…the very effort to seek perfection leaves us isolated, focused on self, and often torn with feelings of guilt.  Therefore we need another way, a way that does not depend on our efforts.”[2]  That way is relationship – relationship to God and to one another.

This requires us to give up a great deal of control – a task that is nearly impossible for those of us raised in a time and place in which taking ownership of your own destiny is a primary tenet of our secular code.  It also requires us to do something that is antithetical to what many Christian denominations preach; we have to be flexible.  We cannot, as the psalmist says, “harden our hearts.”  We must stop putting God to the test.  We learn nothing and cease to grow when are “stiff-necked” and rigid.   In today’s psalm we are asked to give thanks and praise God – things we are good at and don’t mind doing.  But then we are asked something much harder.  We are asked to give up control of our lives to God.  But “for many [of us], this is next-to-impossible.  [We] have been duped so many times and by so many people that trusting and submitting are next to impossible acts.”[3]  That’s because we forget one crucial thing – we forget that all of the unreliable and unfair treatment we have received – all of the poor leadership we have experienced – all of the neglect we have suffered – was done by human beings, not God.  But it is God who is asking for our trust.  It is God who answered “yes” to the Israelites and the Romans – and answers us again and again when we ask, “Are you there God”?

It’s a perpetual human question – the same question the Samaritan woman at the well asked Jesus – whether this strange and inappropriate Jewish man might possibly be a sign of the presence of her God in her world.  Like Nicodemus before her, the Samaritan woman was questioning her faith and culture, but unlike him, she was open to Jesus’s message.  Despite being separated from Jesus by class, social status, race, nationality, religion and gender, the Samaritan woman was able to intuitively understand Jesus’s message in a way that Nicodemis, a faithful Jew of the ruling class, was not.  And, as a result, the Samaritan woman – a person of no status in Jesus’s world, was the first character in the Fourth Gospel to whom Jesus revealed himself as the great “I am” – the Saviour of the world

The gospel writer goes to great pains to tell us that this woman’s faith was not based on her behavior, but on her willingness to believe.  Simply by opening herself up to an encounter with Jesus, she was able to let go of the hardness of the laws which pushed her to the margins of society and accept the hope that Jesus offered her.  Just as Jesus accepted her, despite all of the worldly reasons that he should not have.  Their relationship was one of pure grace.

Just as ours can be.  Because “all interpersonal relationships are created and sustained through grace.  Just as we are unable to earn God’s love, so we cannot earn” each other’s.[4]  We have to be willing to accept one another as God has accepted us – and that’s hard.  Fortunately, we have examples who can lead us in our efforts to do this – and they are close by.  Look next to you in your pew – look ahead and behind – look in your kitchen when you get home and in the emails you receive and the books you read.  There are people of God all around you – and they will lead you toward a life of grace -just as you are leading them.  Christians lead not by any power or understanding of our own, but by and through God.  When we are confused and afraid, we must turn not to human wisdom, but to God’s.  And to do this we must remain open to God’s grace in all things -and in all people.  We must, like the Samaritans, be willing to “Come and see,” and, like the woman at the well, to lead others by asking them to “come and see” – to come and see the joy that can be found in Christian community – to come and see that God abides with us always – to come and see the amazing grace that is being in relationship with one another and with Jesus Christ our Lord.  AMEN.

[1]Los Angeles Times, (November 1, 2016),In Theory: Survey raises question of trust in religious leaders,” http://www.latimes.com/socal/burbank-leader/opinion/tn-blr-me-intheory-20161101-story.html.

[2]Ward B. Ewing, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 86.

[3]David M. Burns, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 83.

[4]Ward B. Ewing, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 88.

 

March 12, 2017, Who’s Your Daddy? (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

As many of you know, my husband Gary was in the military for 27 years.  When we first started seeing each other I was in college and he was on a ship, so we dated long distance.  After a year of this, we agreed that it was important for us to live near each other before committing to marriage.  Gary said he’d try to get a position where I wanted to live, so I said I’d go wherever he was stationed.  It turned out to be California.  Now, as a Connecticut Yankee, my idea of California was based on old episodes of “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun”- and I had only been as far west as West Virginia, so this was more than a bit out of my comfort zone.  But I was determined to try and Gary was extremely patient, encouraging me to “think of it as a vacation.  Just stay two weeks and if you hate it you can go back home.”  He was also patient about putting up with the things that I insisted I needed to do to make it through the trip: driving only six hours instead of the 12 per day that he’d imagined; calling home daily; and, most importantly, wrapping myself up in the comforter from my childhood bed and playing the Bing Crosby Christmas tape – over and over and over – in July.

It’s a funny story now, but at the time it almost ended our relationship, which would have been a tragedy for both of us – not to mention our two children.   But that’s what we do with stories that make us sad or anxious – we turn them into something funny.  After all, humor is a very high level defense mechanism and one of the best ways to deal with the things that upset us most.   And, while we all have our own triggers for emotional upheaval, some things seem to be almost universally anxiety- provoking – things like road trips.  Which is probably why one popular website lists over 100 Road Trip movies – because, really- don’t we all have a horror story in which we set out in a car full of dreams (or family members) for an exciting new destination only to experience disastrous consequences?

Migration – especially when it is forced and, even more importantly, when it requires you to leave behind things and people you love, is a hard thing.  For Abram, who lived almost two thousand years before the birth of Christ in a culture in which your family was not just your support system but your assurance of survival, leaving his father’s house was not just brave, but arguably suicidal.  And yet it is the very first thing God asked Abram to do; God didn’t tell Abram why he wanted him to do it or how it would work out, God just said that if Abram went, he would be blessed.  So Abram took his nephew Lot and answered God’s call – for the simple and almost unfathomable reason that Abram believed God’s promise.  He left almost everything he had and risked everything he had left because God told him it would be okay.  Now that’s a leap of faith – perhaps the most famous leap of faith in religious history.

Today’s reading doesn’t say anything about how Abram felt – if he was confused or scared or even, potentially, enthusiastic.  The same is true of the Israelites who spoke to God through the words of Psalm 121, known as “A Psalm of Ascents” – ascent as in “going uphill.”  Commentators suggest that Psalm 121might not have been a spoken poem, but a song – done in the call and response style familiar to us from gospel music – sung by either soldiers before battle or by a community embarking on a long journey – a trip from which they might not return.  Similar to the rituals used by athletes and performers to pump themselves up prior to a big game or show, this psalm may have been used as a way to calm their jitters and strengthen their resolve – a way to remind the people that no matter what happened, they would be okay, because the Lord God would keep them safe.

The question is why God continued to do so.  Scholars aren’t sure about the circumstances of this psalm, but there’s no suggestion in it that these people earned God’s protection.  And neither had Abram.  This story represents the first time Abram appears in the Bible, so we don’t really know anything about him or, more importantly, why God chose him to be the patriarch of what would become three major religious faiths.  We only know that God’s actions in this narrative are consistent with how God behaves throughout human history: God gives things to his people and the people destroy or misuse them.  After getting angry and reprimanding the wayward people, God gives them another chance – and we mess it up again – and again and again.  But this particular opportunity is special, because this time, instead of cursing them for their disobedience, God promises to bless them – if only they will choose to remain in relationship with him.  God tells Abram that if Abram chooses God, God will bless him and through him all of humanity.  This, according to Frederick Niedner, is how God stays in relationship with us.[1]  God simply provides us with the chance to choose God.

That’s what it means to be born again- not, as Nicodemus understandably wonders aloud, to come out of your mother’s womb for a second time – and not, as many Christians believe, by being baptized.  Baptism is a human ritual which uses water to invoke the Holy Spirit, but it doesn’t necessarily change who you are.  It is, according to the Episcopal Church, initiation into what we think of as Christ’s body on earth, the church.  It is a sign of membership, not of transformation.  The Greek word that follows the word “born” in this passage from the Gospel of John “anothen” – can be translated three ways – as “again,” “anew,” or “from above.”   But no matter how you read it, there is nothing in what Jesus says that suggests that any physical action will fulfill the requirement that Jesus sets for eternal life.  In fact, Jesus very clearly tells Nicodemus that what he’s saying has nothing to do with our flesh at all.

What Jesus is talking about is the rebirth of our spirits – the renewal of our souls.  He is talking about something that no human idea or action can achieve. In his interaction with Jesus, Nicodemus was looking for a prescription for salvation, a path that he could walk to reach the kingdom of heaven.  But Jesus told him that it’s not that simple, that changing our behavior means nothing if we do not change our hearts – and changing our hearts is not a procedure, but a process.  Having faith is not just one leap, but an ongoing journey – a long and difficult passage of trying to believe in something that on its face is completely unreasonable and irrational – the idea that there is something – someone – who cares more about us than we care about ourselves.  Faith is a road trip.

And it requires us to embrace an even stranger notion – that God’s completely unselfish, constant, and saving love is free and unearned.  It simply requires us to accept it.  In fact, according to today’s reading from Roman’s, it is actually offensive to God to try to earn it.  It is not up to us to give birth to a new and better world.  We have shown time and again that we are incapable of doing it alone. “It is God who will give birth in water and Spirit.  Rebirth is God’s gift to give, God’s work to accomplish, and it is God who labors to bring us new life.”[2]

It is up to us to accept that new life – to attempt to live as Jesus has shown us – to risk -as Abram did -everything we have for everything we might become.  It is up to us to trust, as the Israelites did, that when we lift up our eyes to God, help will come.  It is up to us to believe – to believe that God so loved the world – so loved us –that he gave his only Son, so that we may not die to sin, but live to complete our journey to eternal life.  AMEN.

[1]Frederick Niedner, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Second Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 50.

[2]Deborah J. Kapp, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Second Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 72.

 

March 5, 2017, We’re All In This Together (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Temptation comes in many forms – and as someone who has recently gone back on Weight Watchers, right now temptations smell exactly like Grace Church’s Sunday Lenten pancake breakfast! And the truth is that I lost the battle to resist those pancakes the minute I heard about that breakfast, because for me breaking bread with the members of my new parish family is more important than getting back to a size – well, let’s just say it’s more important than dieting.  Of course, the Weight Watchers police might not agree with that analysis.  They might, in fact, call it an excuse.

Which is one of the hardest things about being tempted.  It’s usually pretty easy to find a rationale for giving in, but it’s hard to know if it’s a real reason or a justification.  For example, many of us may have grown up with the tradition of fasting during.  My family did not eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent and, as an adult, my husband and I also began the practice of foregoing all solid food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  It was a choice that I thought was pretty pious.  Recently, however, a priest I know and respect gave a sermon in which she said that she no longer tries to fast because it’s not a spiritual experience for her.  Rather than imagining Jesus’s suffering on the cross, she visualizes what she will be having for breakfast the next morning.  My reaction to her thoughtful and honest confession was to think, “What a wimp!  She doesn’t even have the willpower to fight temptation for one day!”  I felt pretty superior – until I realized that by reacting with pride, I had just given into temptation myself.  Devil: 1; Deb: 0.

But that’s the way temptation is.  It’s sneaky.  It’s subtle.  It is inevitable.  But not, perhaps, for the reasons we think.  Today’s scripture readings all deal with the issue of temptation, drawing a parallel between what happened to the people that God put in the garden of Eden and Jesus’s experience with “the devil” in the wilderness.  All three people were tempted but only Jesus did not sin.  Why is that?  Well, what I learned in Sunday school went something like this: The snake tricked the woman into eating the fruit (which was not, according to the Bible, an apple), the woman talked the man into eating the fruit, and they got in big trouble with God.  That’s why, according to the theological doctrine of original sin, all people are born “sinful.”  Even though God created people without sin, Adam and Eve spoiled everything by biting that apple.

Personally, I don’t subscribe to that doctrine – because it suggests that humanity is basically bad – and, despite the fact that I worked in the prison system for almost twenty years and have probably seen the worst of human nature, I still believe that human beings are inherently good – that we are made in God’s image.

This view is consistent with today’s reading from Genesis, which is actually not about “sin” and “punishment.”  In fact, the words “sin,” “fall,” and “punishment” never appear in this passage.  Here is what the story does tell us: God created people and, like any good parent, gave them boundaries.  “Please,” God said, “take care of this nice world that I have given you and don’t eat from that tree because it’s not good for you.”  And, just like any teenagers, the man and the woman got distracted by the popular media of their day and did exactly what they had been asked not to do.  And God, like any good parent, did not kill them (even though he may have wanted to), but instead sent them out to experience the “real world.”  And, as we know, it did not go well.

So, what does this story about the “original sin” tell us?  It tells us, first and foremost, that sin is not natural.  God did not create people who were naturally bad and set out to do something wrong.  He created people who were basically good who made a mistake.  And their mistake had a terrible cost – for them and for God. The consequence of their disobedience was to be sent away from God, to be separated from their creator.  That is what sin is: separation from God.  And it is painful, and it makes us sick.

Jesus is our physician.  God sent him to make us well and to show us how to deal with temptation – not as a god, but as a human being.  Jesus was tempted just as we so often are – when he was tired, hungry, and stressed- and probably very afraid.  But unlike the first man and woman – unlike us, Jesus triumphed over temptation, because Jesus did not allow the “devil” or, as it is more properly translated from Greek, “the one who misleads,” to cause him to sin – to separate him from God.

That is what true temptations are – the things that separate us from the love of God.  And that is how we can tell whether we are “giving in” to temptation or not- by whether what we choose to do separates us or draws us closer to God.  After all, what are the seven “deadly sins” but the ways in which we are most often separated from the way of Jesus?  Envy is the temptation that comes “when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough.”  Pride is the “temptation [that] comes in judgments we make about strangers or friends who make choices we do not understand,” wrath is, “when we allow our tempers to define our lives”[1] – and so on.  Just as the serpent distracted the first humans from the purpose God had given them, so the distractions – the temptations – of our lives keep us from the purpose that God has given us: to love one another as God loves us.

But Jesus has shown us how to deal with temptation -and it is not through our own willpower.  We must deal with temptation in the same way Jesus did, by remembering that we do not face it alone.  Scripture tells us that people have made mistakes from the beginning of time, but it also tells us that God has never abandoned us when we make them.  God has always and will always be with us in our temptations.  And we, like Jesus, know that.  We know what the first man and woman did not when they hid from God.  We know what the psalmist knew.  We know what Paul told the Romans.  We know that when we acknowledge our sin to God, when we do not conceal our guilt, when we confess our transgressions to the Lord, God forgives us.  That’s why in Lent we are asked not beat our breasts and wallow in our unworthiness, but instead to examine ourselves and see our weaknesses and acknowledge them –  to look into our dark places so that God can bring light to them.

And we do not do it by ourselves.  Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” but I say, One does not live alone, for we are best able to hear the word of God when we hear it from the lips of our fellow human beings.  We are not alone.  God did not make us to be alone and God has never left us alone. We are in this together – and we are in this together with Jesus.  We have been blessed with the joy of belonging to a Christian community –this Christian community – this community of amazing grace.  My prayer on this my first day as your spiritual leader is that we will continually and joyfully walk in Christ’s love and share our lives with one another – the good and the bad – the joy and the sorrow – the temptations and the triumphs – and that we will do it together.  AMEN.

[1]Maryetta Anschutz, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (First Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 48.

March 1, 2017, Ash Wednesday, Fast, Pray, Love (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

At a recent vestry retreat as an icebreaker we went around the room and identified our favorite holiday.  No one said “Ash Wednesday.”  I wasn’t surprised.  While many of our biggest holy days are about adding things to our usual worship, Lent is all about subtraction.  We take away the fancy vestments, the parties and, most painfully for many of us, the “Alleluias.”  Quite honestly, one of the first things that came to my mind when we decided that Ash Wednesday would be my first day as the Rector of Grace was that no matter how excited we were to embark on this journey together, we would have to wait a full forty days before expressing that joy by saying the “A word.”  No wonder people find Lent depressing.

But the truth is that it’s not supposed to be.  Lent is not some kind of   endurance test to pass in order to be allowed to celebrate Easter.  Lent is not about making church boring.  And Lent is absolutely not about keeping people away from church – away from God.  Lent is about becoming closer to God – not by making ourselves sick or angry or depressed, but by making us think about our relationship to God – and to one another.

That was the original idea behind the ancient customs of self-sacrifice instituted by the first Christians, who created Lent as a season of “penitence and fasting” for all Christians, but especially for those who had committed “notorious” sins and were separated from the church.  It was a way to get people back to church.  Of course, those people had to wear hair shirts for the entire 40 days to do it, so it required quite a bit of dedication.

The modern church doesn’t generally ask for that level of repentance and self-denial, but we do ask for some dedication – dedication not to suffering, but to learning and growing.  Because the idea of adopting some special discipline for Lent is not about the action itself, but what it means to each of us.  If it helps us feel closer to God and one another, then it’s accomplishing its purpose.  If we simply lose five pounds and make a one-time donation to charity, we might be missing the point.  God wants us to pray and fast and give things away not because we deserve to suffer (although we may), but because God wants us to experience his compassion and mercy when we do repent from our sins.

Physical deprivation has become, for many of us, what Lent is about.  “What,” we ask each other, “are you giving up for Lent”?  For the 25 percent of Americans who observe Lent, half say they do it by giving up a favorite food or beverage.[1]  The idea is that for many of us, giving something physical up causes us physical suffering – and we think that’s good because God we believe that God wants us to suffer.  But that’s not necessarily the case.  What our scripture tells us that if we feel closer to God when we suffer – if physical discomfort helps us understand how much Jesus suffered for us – if emotional catharsis opens us up to the Holy Spirit, then we will experience God’s compassion and grace.  But not if our Lenten discipline is a leftover New Year’s resolution that we have decided to give another try.

The key, I think, is to start thinking of Lent as an opportunity instead of a punishment – to experience our faith in a different way, to grow as Christians and as human beings; to rend our hearts and not our garments.

A few years ago I decided to try “taking on” something instead of or in addition to giving something up.  I don’t know if it is ultimately any more helpful in bringing me closer to God than giving up chocolate, but it definitely gives me something to think about, requires me to lean on God to do it, and provides me with a sense of love and hope that giving up chocolate never could.

This year, I encourage you to do something different for Lent; take something on instead of giving something up – or give up something different.  Give up the internet instead of chocolate!  You can participate in the diocesan carbon fast or join national church efforts for social justice.  Repent, grow, and seek the presence of God in whatever way works best for you.  But whatever you do, do it with joy and compassion – do it faith and love – do it with – dare I say it? – the spirit of Alleluia.  AMEN

[1]Bob Smietana, (February 15, 2017), “Eat, Pray, Lent: Here’s what Americans actually abstain from,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2017/february/eat-pray-lent-what-americans-actually-abstain-from.html. 

January 15, 2017 – The Rev Jeff Frost

January 8, 2017 – The Rev Jeff Frost

December 24, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

December 11, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

December 4, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

November 13, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

October 23, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

October 16, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

October 2, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

May 29, 2016 – The Rev Carol Cook

May 22, 2016 – Denise Obando, Transition Minister, Diocese of California

May 15, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

March 27, 2016 – Easter Day – The Rev Jeff Frost

March 26, 2016 – Easter Vigil – The Rev Jeff Frost

March 25, 2016 – Good Friday – The Rev Jeff Frost

March 20, 2016 – Palm Sunday – The Rev Jeff Frost

March 6, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

February 2

 

February 21, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

8, 2016 – The Rev Carol Cookt

February 14, 2016 – The Rev Canon Stefani Schatz (printed text only)

Lent 1 Stefani Schatz 2-14-16 at Grace

February 7, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

January 31, 2016 – The Rev Laurie Moyer

January 17, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

January 10, 2016 – The Rev Jeff Frost

December 13, 2015 – The Rev Jeff Frost

November 29, 2015 – The Rev Jeff Frost

November 22, 2015 – The Rev Jeff Frost

November 8, 2015 – The Rev Jeff Frost

November 1, 2015 – The Rev Jeff Frost