Sermons

Sermon for September 23, 2018: Things Heavenly (The RIght Rev. Marc H. Andrus, Bishop of California, read by the Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Sermon for September 16, 2018: Discipleship of Faith (The Rev. Walter Ramsey):

Listen here:

I’d like to tell you a short story about a young successful woman walking home to
her upscale apartment from work. As she approached a street corner she noticed a
little girl standing there begging. As she approached her she was reminded of a
scene from a Charles Dickens or Hans Christian Anderson story. The little girl’s
clothes were paper thin and dirty, her hair matted and unclean, and her cheeks and
runny nose red from the cold. She dropped a few coins into the girl’s bowl gave
her a little smile and walked on. As she walked she started to feel guilty. How
could she go home to her warm house with its full pantry and well supplied,
expensive wardrobe while this little girl shivered on the street. She also began to
feel a bit helpless. In her helplessness the young woman began to feel angry, angry
with God. She prayed a prayer of protest saying “God, how can you let these sorts
of things happen? Why don’t you do something to help this girl?” And then, to her
surprise God answered. God said, “I did do something. I created you.”
The story ends with God’s call to this young woman to discipleship. It wasn’t just
God’s explicit answer to her prayer but the Holy Spirit’s leading her in becoming
aware of and caring about the little girl’s poverty and need.

Discipleship or following Jesus takes many forms, possibly as many as there are
people called to be disciples, but they all begin in one way, by denying oneself
taking up your cross and following Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, Mark pictures a scene that takes place on Jesus’ and his
followers’ journey north to Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks his disciples what they
have heard people say about him. It is obvious that people have been talking about
him because the disciples have something to report. Then Jesus moves to the
critical question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers based on what he
has come to know of Jesus, from his teachings, and from what he has seen Jesus do

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he affirms, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus seems to accept this title that Peter uses,
but he tells them to keep quiet about it. – – – Why? Why wouldn’t Jesus want to
spread the word that he is the long-awaited anointed one of God.
There are very many reasons why Jesus might not want this spread about, mostly
political, but the subsequent conversation with Peter suggests at least one reason. It
becomes clear that when Peter calls him the Messiah, he may have the right title
but the wrong understanding of what the title means for Jesus.
Jesus explains to them that it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many
things, and to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and to
be killed, and after three days to rise again. This is certainly not the kind of
Messiah Peter was expecting but we mustn’t be too hard on Peter. he is a human
being after all, and at this point can only see things from the perspective of a
human being, not God’s as Jesus pointed out.
Jesus calls the crowd together along with his disciples and tells them “If any of you
want to come the way I’m going, you must say no to your own selves, pick up your
cross, and follow me. Yes: if you want to save your life, you’ll lose it; but if you
lose your life because of me and the Good News you’ll save it.

So here we have it, our roadmap for discipleship, self-denial and cross-bearing.
Self-denial and cross bearing are one action.

What does it mean to deny oneself? It’s not depriving oneself of something like my
giving up ciabatta bread drizzled with olive oil for Lent, so I can lose 10 pounds.
It’s not even like ascetics who deprive themselves of food and sleep to get closer to
God. To deny oneself is to say “No” to yourself and “Yes” to God. To view our
lives according to our fellowship with Jesus and living in God’s kingdom. Jesus
calls his followers away from self-centeredness and from loyalty to the world’s

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norms of status, power, and achievement. Denying oneself, occurs when one
embraces Jesus as the one to follow. Self-denial and cross-bearing, losing one’s
life for the sake of the gospel are key elements of a person’s following Jesus. To
take up a cross is to recognize that the dominant ways our of society stand opposed
to a life of self-denial and sacrifice. It displays to the world what it is to live in
God’ Kingdom. The focus is not on losing one’s life for any reason but doing so
because of embracing Jesus and the gospel.

WOW, if this sounds really hard and very uncomfortable, IT IS. Jesus didn’t
promise us comfort as a disciple but a cross. Jesus did tell us that his yoke is easy
because we don’t do this alone. Jesus helps us bear our cross when we share his
faith.

So, if we respond to the calling to be a disciple of Jesus how do we accomplish this
self-denial and cross bearing? How do we begin?

It begins for us in our baptism. By baptism, we receive the gift of Christ’s faith by
the Holy Spirit that elevates our reason to be able to understand spiritual things,
things about God that we can’t know by reason alone.

Notice that I said we are given the gift of Christ’s or Messiah’s faith not our own
faith. The human Jesus’s faith in God’s Will that allowed him to empty himself, or
deny his own godhood, suffer and die on his cross for our salvation. This is the
faith that Jesus’ Spirit so lovingly places in our hearts.
We nourish this faith by self-examination, confession, the Eucharist and
communion with God and one another. by worshiping God and living as a
community of the faith of Jesus. Through this we daily die to ourselves and rise to

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new life in Messiah Jesus. The Good News of Christ defines our identity as it
claims the entirety of our lives. Our witness to this new identity is personal,
complete, and public.
By taking up our crosses and following Jesus individually and especially as a
community in all its levels we are part of the Jesus Movement. As the Most Rev.
Michael Curry our presiding Bishop defines it.
“The Jesus Movement is the ongoing community of people who center their lives
on Jesus and following him into loving, liberating and life-giving relationship with
God, each other and creation.”

“In all things, we seek to be loving, liberating and life-giving—just like the God
who formed all things in love; liberates us all from prisons of mind, body and
spirit; and gives life so we can participate in the resurrection and healing of God’s
world.”

“As the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, and followers of Jesus’ Way, we
seek to live like him. We’re serious about moving out to grow loving, liberating,
life-giving relationships with God (evangelism); to grow those relationships with
each other (reconciliation); and to grow those relationships with all of creation
(creation care).”

When we, like the young woman, cry out to God why don’t you do something
about poverty, injustice, and destruction of our world God answers, pick up your cross; you are my solution. Amen.

Children’s Homily for September 9, 2018: Let’s Make a Deal (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):

Today we are going to talk about choices.  How many of you know the television show “Let’s Make a Deal”? (Give them a chance to answer).  Who can tell me what it’s about? (Give them a chance to answer).  Well, it was my grandma’s favorite show and, for those of you who don’t know, it’s about choices.  People had to decide between what was behind one curtain and another curtain – or they had to trade something they already had for something else.  The idea of the game was to get the best thing!  But sometimes it was very tricky, because sometimes one thing looked better but it wasn’t.  Can you guys think of anytime that has happened to you – when you thought picking one thing was the best idea, but when you got it, it didn’t turn out to be too great?  (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s a good example.  Anything else?  (Give them a chance to answer).  And did it ever happen to you that you got something you really liked and you thought that it would be great to have MORE of that?  (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right.  Except sometimes – and maybe your folks say this- sometimes you can have too much of a good thing!  Like when you eat too much and get a tummy ache. (Give them a chance to answer). 

So today we heard several stories from the Bible about making choices – and in one of the stories Jesus has to make a choice.  Does anyone remember what happened in that story? (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right.  Jesus had to decide whether he was going to help a woman.  The woman’s daughter was sick and she asked Jesus to heal her.  And what did Jesus say? (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right.  At first he said “NO!” That doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it? (Give them a chance to answer).  So then the woman reminded him that it was important to help people, even when you don’t know them, and even when you don’t feel like it – even when you are tired and cranky. So, Jesus made the right choice and healed the woman’s daughter – but only after he thought about it, and only after someone helped him remember how to make a good choice.

Okay, so when you play “Let’s make a deal” you have to remember to think about your answers – and sometimes we have to help each other to get the right answer.  Who wants to play? (Give them a chance to answer).  Great!! Let’s play “LET”S MAKE A DEAL!” (Assign students to various roles, including “Door #1 and Door #2 and Curtain #1 and Curtain #2, money, grace, power, justice, fancy stuff, compassion.  Help them play by making choices and acting out the consequences.  Declare everyone winners).

So, what did we learn by playing this game? (Give them a chance to answer).That’s right.  Sometimes it’s hard to make good choices, and it can be tricky, but you will never lose if you always choose to help someone else and to love God and one another.  Do we agree?  (Give them a chance to answer).  And what do we say in church when we agree? (Give them a chance to answer).  Amen.  And if you agree, you say it too (Amen).

Sermon for September 9, 2018: Love God and fear nothing (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

My mother used to speak to me in proverbs. If I got angry with someone, she would say, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” When I would argue that I only yelled at my sister because she yelled at me first, I heard, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” and when I told her Gary and I were moving in together, she simply shook her head and murmured, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free”?

Many common proverbs come from scripture and quite a few are from the book of Proverbs itself. Although the first chapter of Proverbs suggests it was written by King David, scholars believe that Proverbs is a collection of sayings dating back thousands of years. As evidenced by its continuing quotability, Proverbs covers a lot of issues of interest to both ancient and modern people, but is largely concerned with “the moral character of the individual [and] the formation of a wise community rooted in the peace and justice of God.”[1]  It is, in essence, a guide to knowing who we are as people of God, and, as such, how we should act.

Proverbs is generally pretty practical. It accepts that people are not always faithful, fair, and compassionate and recognizes that money is an issue that separates us from one another. Primarily, though, it teaches that regardless of the problems of the human condition, all people live by the grace of God and all people can contribute to the development of God’s kingdom on earth. The sayings in Proverbs not only guide us in doing our part to make this happen, but they form the basis for the writings of the New Testament, which applies them to the teachings of Jesus. “The letter of James, like Proverbs, incorporates a wisdom tradition for its ethical teaching; however, its proverbial character is based on the prophetic vision of a community in which rich and poor are united, where good works follow faith, and where rich oppressors of the community will be judged in the last days…The readings from James and Mark envision a beloved community of compassion and sufficiency for the oppressed.”[2]

This idea, of a fully realized community made up of perfected humanity is what we as Christians believe we will experience by teaching and following the ways of Christ. It is also something that frequently seems impossible. It often feels like all of our efforts to be “good” end up being thwarted by the turmoil and ugliness in the world around us. We are not the first to feel this way; the struggle to be faithful in a hard world was familiar to the earliest Christians and, as the author of James knew, to their ancestors. “James does not want the oppression generated by secular social structures to impose itself upon the moral values of the church.”[3] He reminds the early Christians that it is faith that will carry them through – but not faith without works.

The issue of faith versus works is an old and complicated one. Our theology says that God provided the law (what to do) to the ancient Israelites in order to draw them closer to him. Christians believe that God provided Jesus to us for the same reason. While some have argued that Jesus made the law of the Jews null and void – that he superseded it, our denomination does not subscribe to this belief.  We understand that the law is not superseded by faith, but believe that when we have true faith we are able to live out the law without being bound by it.  In other words, works come with faith.

The bottom line is our relationship to God and to one another. “It is our [connection] with God that bears safety and security in the promise and power of good to do good and bring forth righteousness.”[4] It is by clinging to what we know of God and attempting to do what we have been shown by the ministry of Jesus that we are able to work through our struggles with worldly terrors. “Brokenness, sin, and evil are real in this world, in both individuals and institutions, but this is not the last word. God’s relationship to evil is one of resistance, judgment, and, ultimately, victory.”[5]

What does that mean, though – that God wins? In our society, “winning” generally means getting something that someone else wants – but that is not a Christian notion. A Christian view of “winning” is not getting what we want, but for everyone to get what they need. No matter who they are. And that’s the hard part – so hard that even Jesus seems to have forgotten it – because in today’s gospel, we see Jesus exhibiting behavior that looks suspiciously like racism.

Granted, Jesus has been going around the country, preaching and healing and trying to do God’s will. He is clearly tired and travels to a fairly isolated place, hoping that no one will bother him there. But at the very first house he comes to a woman asks him to heal her daughter, who has a “demon.” Now, it’s not completely clear why Jesus initially refuses to heal this woman’s daughter, but it’s certainly reasonable to think that it’s because of her race and religion. And he doesn’t just turn her down, he suggests that she is less than human by calling her a dog. Jesus does exactly what his apostles will later tell Christians not to do. He makes a distinction between himself and the woman. He judges her. He dishonors her. He shows partiality. What are we supposed to do with that?

First of all, I think we’re supposed to remember that Jesus was human, and it is passages like this one that remind us that he was fully human. Jesus was a person of his time and, as countercultural as he was in many ways, he was still an itinerant Palestinian Jew living in an occupied country who was regularly harassed and mocked. Why should he make time to help the child of a rich foreigner? After all, as my mother would say (and Jesus seems to say), “Charity begins at home.” Except that proverb’s not in the Bible. Today’s gospel suggests that even Jesus might have needed a reminder of that, and the Syrophoenician woman gave it to him.

Because when he refused her, she did something unusual. Instead of demanding he heal her daughter, she acknowledged her own inability to help herself and indicated her willingness to trust Jesus – despite the fact that he was of a different race and gender than she was – and despite the fact that he had insulted her. She responded to unkindness with humility. And it was her humility that reminded Jesus that the salvation he brought from God was for everyone – even pushy, non-believing outsiders.

We would do well to follow her example – first, by recognizing and speaking out about who our God is – a God who promotes all that is good and resists and destroys what is bad[6] – a God that is so powerful that even the crumbs that we receive from him are more precious than any human power. Secondly, we must respond to God and to those around us with trust and humility, as befits a people that know that God does not allow the wicked to triumph – that believes that we have nothing to fear – that has faith. The true wisdom of scripture is simple; Love God. Love one another. Do what is right – and fear nothing. AMEN.

[1]Stephen C. Johnson, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 27.

[2]Charles E. Raynal, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 30.

[3]Aaron L. Uitti, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 43.

[4]Allison Read, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 34.

[5]Leanne Van Dyk, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 34.

[6]Leanne Van Dyk, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 36.

Sermon for September 2, 2018: Pure and Undefiled (The Rev. Molly Elizabeth Haws)

Listen here:

Blessed are you O Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe,
who has called all things into Being through your Word.


This is always a fun Gospel passage to wrestle with, because, let’s face it, the Pharisees were right.  It’s kind of important to wash our hands before we eat. We know this. We know it better than they did. It’s important to wash our hands, and our cooking vessels, and to wash produce and meat we buy at the market. The Pharisees are an interesting bunch. It’s interesting that they come in for so much flak in the Gospels. I don’t know about you, but no one can make me as furious as the people I love the most. My family, for example.
Chris Rock, one of my favorite stand-up comedians, says—and I’m paraphrasing here, I didn’t look it up, but it’s something like, “If you never contemplated murder, you ain’t never been in love. If you haven’t bought a shovel and a rug to roll up the body in, you ain’t never been in
love.” And only the religious arguments I have with other Episcopalians have provoked me to burst into tears. So the extent of the pounding that the Pharisees take in the Gospel accounts really catches my attention. Here are some things I’ve found out, and you may already know all this, but I’m going
to lay it out so we can talk about it:
Among other things, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection; they believed that humans had free will and that God has foreknowledge of events but does not predestine them; they believed that God speaks to God’s people through the experiences and traditions of their heritage as well as through scripture; and they believed that every member of the nation of Israel–not just the
priests–was called to righteousness: righteousness, defined as “right relationship with God”. The Pharisees believed that everyone was capable of, and called to, right relationship. Holy cow, the Pharisees were Episcopalians!
They believed that every Jew could study Torah and live into the covenant by keeping the commandments—not just the scholars and judges. Most of all, they believed that the study of Torah, the engagement with their own heritage, and the day-to-day life of faith was just as important as the sacrifices made by the priests in the Temple on behalf of the people.1 They
believed that it was important and possible for every Jew to live a life centered around God.

All this probably has a lot to do with why we keep finding Jesus hanging out with Pharisees, in all four Gospel accounts: having dinner at their houses, talking with them, arguing with them— scholarly argument being a time-honored pursuit and primary method of teaching the Law.
So where does the car get ridden of the rails? How do we get from this egalitarian ideal of everyone being called to right relationship to “you hypocrites”? I think the trouble for the Pharisees starts when they begin to confuse “righteousness” with “being right.” It’s a fine and flimsy line between dedicating ourselves to righteousness and dedicating
ourselves to being right. Because once we’ve embarked on a course of action or a way of life that we believe is righteous, it’s all too easy to become invested in being right about it.  And the next thing you know, we’re “teaching human precepts as doctrines.” Of course it’s important to wash our hands before we eat, and to wash food bought in the market before eating it, and to prevent cross-contamination by preparing different kinds of food on separate surfaces.  All these traditions, and many others, were part of living into the Abrahamic covenant in which God promised to make Abraham’s descendants into “a great nation.” They’re all part of giving people longer lives, cutting down on communicable disease, increasing the birth rate. So these traditions are connected to the covenant, they are means of living into the covenant, but
they are not the covenant itself. And to claim that they are is untruthful.
As humans, we have to figure out how to live in the world, how to live into right relationship in the midst of our own circumstances and physical conditions. We have to come up with precepts. We need our human precepts

“[The Pharisees] … stressed the religious importance of study and denied that knowledge was the prerogative of the priesthood. Their own membership was by no means homogeneous, and they all tended to popularise the Jewish
religion and decrease the exclusive importance of the Temple cult.” Source: World Union of Jewish Students, www.wujs.org.il

“Fundamentally, the Pharisees continued a form of Judaism that extended beyond the Temple, applying Jewish law to mundane activities in order to sanctify the every-day world. This was a more participatory (or “democratic”) form of Judaism, in which rituals were not monopolized by an inherited priesthood but rather could be performed by all adult Jews individually or collectively; whose leaders were not determined by birth but by scholarly achievement. In general, the Pharisees emphasized a commitment to social justice, belief in the brotherhood of mankind, and a faith
in the redemption of the Jewish nation and, ultimately, humanity. Moreover, they believed that these ends would be
achieved through halakha (“the way,” or “the way things are done”), a corpus of laws derived from a close reading of sacred texts. This belief entailed both a commitment to relate religion to ordinary concerns and daily life, and a
commitment to study and scholarly debate.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisees

But we are hypocrites when we teach our human precepts as divine ordinance.
Human precepts have to do with external circumstance and condition, and those things change over time and are not the same for everyone.
You know what is the same for everyone? The desire, the craving, to be right.
This is why, as Anglicans, we say, “the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation.” This is why nearly 70% of our Book of Common Prayer comes directly from the Holy Scripture.  And we still manage to wander off into the brambles of making a priority of our own “rightness”, with alarming regularity, just as the Pharisees did. The problem is that the Pharisees’ concern was not for the disciples’ health. Their judgment was about defilement, and defilement is not a physical reality, it’s a spiritual reality having to do with
adherence to ritual tradition. The good news is, Jesus tells us, our external circumstances cannot spiritually defile us. Our changing conditions cannot defile us. “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing
outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Nothing that happens to us can defile us. Intentional actions that are death-dealing, actions that break relationship, actions that are
unloving: these are what damage our spirits and defile us. Our human precepts are good and useful as long as they help guide us away from these actions and lead us into actions that are lifegiving, relationship-building, and loving. Using human precepts to pass judgment, to ostracize, to shame one another is not loving and it is not in accordance with God’s law. Beloved James writes
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. …
[T]hose who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their
hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. [James 1:22-27] “Unstained by the world”: James is not talking about all the terrible things that the world can do
to us. Nothing that is done to us can defile us. To keep ourselves unstained means that we keep on following Jesus—whatever happens, we keep on caring for the orphans and widows, we keep on feeding the hungry and touching the lepers and welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the
homeless, the alien—we keep on following Jesus, and in a world that insists on shouting fear and screaming blame and selling hatred, we keep on speaking
Good News.

Sermon for August 26, 2018: Home is where God is (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

What do you say when people ask you what it means to be a Christian? Most dictionaries suggest that Christians are people who believe in Jesus Christ. Some definitions mention following Christ, while others suggest that Christians belong to a religion that practices Jesus’s teachings. Such understandings are limited, even confusing, but it’s hard to blame the lexicographers; Christians differ so significantly in their self-understandings that I sometimes wonder if we are all acquainted with the same Jesus Christ.  Nonetheless, I think that most Christians would agree that the teachings and actions of Jesus are the foundation for Christian belief. Still, I am often dismayed when I witness what people describe as and do in the name of “Christian values.”

It seems that the apostle Paul had the same trouble. As most of you may know, approximately two-thirds of the New Testament is composed of letters written either by or in the name of the person we call St. Paul. The primary purpose of his correspondence was to establish guidelines for living in Christian community, and his instructions remain a primary source of wisdom for Christians today. For me, the beauty of Paul’s missives is that they remind us that the early Christians were just as human as we are, displaying the same concerns, questions, and problems getting along with one another as we do today. Sadly, they are also often taken out of context and misinterpreted as supporting the very things that Jesus railed against.

Today’s lyrical letter to the Ephesians, which describes what it means to be a Christian, is a good example. This passage is something of a spiritual pep talk – one which was probably desperately needed. Remember that unlike us, most of whom have grown up in a culture in which Christians are a powerful and influential majority, the early Christians were members of a minority who were ridiculed and discriminated against for their faith.  They were virtual (and sometimes actual) slaves of Roman political and military force. Paul understood their feelings of powerlessness and in his letter uses a military metaphor to help them understand the differences between them and their oppressors. Far from suggesting that the community embrace the militarism of the pagans, Paul’s message exhorts the Ephesians to engage in spiritual struggle against it by promoting the values embodied in Jesus the Christ. It is these ideals – truth, righteousness, peace, salvation through Christ, and the word of God, demonstrated in the movement of the Holy Spirit- that can be identified as Christian values.

Violence is not one of them. “Our struggle,” Paul says, “is not against enemies of blood and flesh…but against the spiritual forces of evil.” In other words, Jesus followers are obligated to stand against any and all opposing values, including lying, indecency, division, and, perhaps most insidious, fear. “Theologically,” says Haruko Ward, “if [Paul’s message had been] understood, we Christians would be exemplary peacemakers. But the history of the Christian church reveals a bewildering array of Christian violence, in which [Paul’s] rhetoric of spiritual warfare against the dark forces of evil became literal warfare. No early Christians took up weapons against their persecutors, and many died as martyrs. Yet by 325, when Christianity became legalized, Christians [had started persecuting] ‘other’ Christians”[1] and those we deemed enemies of God.[2]

Such persecution is born of fear. Science tells us that human beings are “herd animals.” We tend to be frightened of things and people that are alien to us. This fear of the “other” makes us long for what we think of as “home.” We want to be where we feel familiar and secure, sheltered from “outsiders” and the different.  Many of us think of church this way – as a place where we can interact contentedly among others who believe as we do while resting from the challenges and cares of the world.  This belief does not come from scripture.

Scripture says that the true believer’s home is with God – that God is always present to us – that “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain God,” much less any human house that we might build. God’s house transcends race, culture, gender, and nationality. In God’s house we are all, always, at home. What an amazing blessing! It seems astonishing that anyone who has the opportunity would not embrace this gift with both hands. And yet many of us, like the disciples that first heard Jesus’s word, turn back from it, finding Jesus’s teachings “too difficult.” Our gospel tells us that although Jesus reminds the disciples that his words give life – that they “’are spirit and life’…many… will not believe, many… refuse the safety [and] the security of [true] home. The very thing they have yearned for is being offered them, and still they turn away from the gift.”[3]

It is because they are confused about what “home” is. Amy Howe suggests “that we prefer religion to God. We, like the disciples, are offended by Jesus’ offer of spirit and life. [We are happy to help ‘the needy,’ but cannot forgive our friends for disagreeing with us]. We make religion about the rules because we can control the rules. We can amend books of order, we can use Scripture to oppress, and we can punish the rule breakers – [because that is] much easier than compassion and forgiveness.”[4] Contrary to this, scripture tells us that true “home” in God requires struggle and risk. It insists that we put others first, even when it is painful. Finding true home necessitates putting on the whole armor of God and standing firm in it.

This does not, however, mean refusing to bend.  “There is a difference between being stubborn and standing firm. Paul is not asking us to be… wedded to an opinion, rooted in prejudice, or close-minded…He is asking us to stand in something [eternal]…transcendent and renewing. This means being willing to be humble, and to risk being unpopular… Stubbornness is not self-or-other discerning…It is enshrined in a closed circle of certainty and becomes fearful…Standing firm is different. [It] means that one is willing to debate, listen and consider alternatives in order to reach a beneficial goal, while at the same time not sacrificing basic principles.”[5]

This requires remembering what “home” really is. Home is not the familiar or the comfortable. It is the knowledge that when “we choose to eat Jesus’s flesh and drink [his] blood – [truly uncomfortable ideas] – and we truly abide in him and he in us – we choose life”[6] – and life is complicated. Espousing Christian values means making a choice to follow Christ wherever he leads – no matter how unfamiliar, countercultural, or scary it might be. Being a Christian means recognizing that happiness is not found in the promises of this world, but in the fulfillment of our longing and desire for God – in knowing that one day in the house of our God is better than a thousand in our own safe and familiar human rooms. Being a Christian does not mean following a religion. It means following Christ. AMEN.

[1]Haruko Nawata Ward, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, 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.

[2]Ibid, 374.

 

[3]Amy C. Howe, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 382.

[4]Ibid, 382-384.

[5]Archie Smith, Jr., (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 376.

[6]Amy C. Howe, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, 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 19, 2018: Bread of Life  (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

Who doesn’t like bread? I love bread, all kinds. When I was young my mother would bake bread every Tuesday. The wonderful smell of the baking bread would fill our house, to me the smell of love and home. My sisters and I would vie for the first slice of the still warm bread.

Bread has an importance beyond mere nutrition in most cultures in the West and Near and Middle East because of its history and modern-day importance. A Recent archaeological discovery in the Jordanian desert discovered that bread has been around for approximately 15,000 to 12,000 years. 6,000 years earlier than had been thought. The sheer number of types of bread testifies to its importance. There are 1300 varieties alone across Europe alone.  The word companion comes from Latin com- “with” + panis “bread”. Bread is so important that it is used as a metaphor for companionship, and a whole meal. We say we break bread together to share a meal, “bread and butter” is used to refer to the basics of sustenance, and “bread basket” to an agricultural area where wheat etc. is grown.
Bread was also an important part of the Jewish temple sacrifice. In Exodus the Hebrews were fed manna (bread from heaven) by God in the wilderness for 40 years.

The last few weeks we have had Gospel readings from John chapter 6.  We heard that out of compassion for more than 5,000 hungry people, Jesus used a boy’s lunch to feed them all. If that wasn’t astonishing enough, that miracle or sign as John likes to call Jesus’ miracles became the background to what Jesus said next, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  If you eat this bread, you will live forever”

The bread he shared with them in the first encounter would last for a day at most but eating and drinking his flesh and blood would lead to eternal life. It’s not surprising that not everyone found this appetizing.  Eat me, consume me, swallow me, gnaw on my flesh, get as much of me as you can because in me you will have life forever. It serves as a reminder why many of Jesus’ early followers were so put off they abandoned him, and many contemporaries of early Christians thought they were cannibals.

Bread has been a basic food down through the ages and like water so important to daily survival.  When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life”, “I am the living bread” he is saying that he is essential to the life of every person on this planet.  No-one can do without this bread if they want to get out of this life alive.

Now it is obvious that this discourse in John takes on a Eucharistic interpretation. In the Gospel of John there is no institution narrative as there are in the three synoptic Gospels. Instead John tells of Jesus getting on his knees and washing his disciples’ feet.

By the time this gospel is being written the Eucharistic institution is well established as we read in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Which is pretty much the same institution narrative you hear in our Eucharistic prayer. John is writing to his community in Jesus’s words what they and we receive from participating in communion; eternal life.

I find NT Wright’s contemporary translation The Kingdom New Testament makes what Jesus is saying more understandable about eternal life.

“Anyone who feasts upon my flesh and drinks my blood has the life of God’s coming age, and I will raise them up on the last day. My flesh is true food, you see, and my blood is true drink. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I remain in them.” Also “This is the bread which came down from heaven; it isn’t like the bread which the ancestors ate and died. The one who eats this bread will share the life of God’s new age.”

In Wright’s translation Jesus’ offering eternal life is phrased the life of God’s coming age and the life of God’s new age.

We have two options for our reading readings during this post Pentecost season or ordinary time. They are given as track one or track two. In track one we generally proceed through one book of Hebrew Scriptures at a time. Recently we’ve been hearing readings from the book of Kings. In track two the Hebrew Scriptures are chosen to mesh with the gospel appointed in the readings. The track two Scripture reading for today is a section of the book of Proverbs. This section is a poem about Wisdom setting a banquet for all. This echoes the parable of the wedding banquet in the Gospel and of course the Holy Eucharist.

John contains Jesus’ promise of eternal life for those who partake of his flesh and blood. Wisdom’s Feast echoes that promise, making it clear that eternal life is about much more than life after death. Wisdom’s banquet is happening now, as evidenced in the sacraments shared at the communion table. There is no other way to get this kind of nourishment; people try all sorts of different things and others deny they need this important life-giving food.  They are starving themselves.

In 1 Corinthians Paul speaks of partaking worthily and discerning the body. It seems clear to me that Paul is speaking of the horizontal dimension of the supper.  That leads to the question—how do the vertical (divine-human) relationships intersect with the horizontal (human-human) relationships?

Remember right at the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus is referred to as the “Word who became flesh” – the eternal God became a human being.  So, when Jesus is urging us to “eat this bread that you will share in the life of God’s coming age and in the life of God’s new age. When he said “this bread is my flesh” he is first saying, Believe in me.  Swallow the truth that I am the eternal God who created the universe, the world and everything in it and then came into this world as a human being with skin and bones just like you.  I was born as my mother Mary cried out in pain in the same way as your mothers cried out. I bled just like you.  I bled and died on a cross”.

Again in 1 Corinthians Paul writes the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participating in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participating in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

In this vertical – horizontal intersection we are all made one body in Christ in which we are assured that Eternal life is not just about timelessness and death but is full-filled life here on earth that makes us yearn it will never end. Living life to the fullest as disciples brings joy in the present and a hope for the future that we must share with the world, even with the least of God’s children.

Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 12706-12708). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T.. The Kingdom New Testament, eBook: A Contemporary Translation (p. 186). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Sermon for August 12, 2018: Telling the Truth (The Rev. Laureen Moyer)

I’d like to start the homily part of the service with everyone turning to page 350 of The Book of Common Prayer. The Prayer Book is in your pews.  I will read “The Decalogue” or “The Ten Commandments” and ask that you respond with the words in italics.     Page 350.

(Wait until folks find it.)  And I begin…

Thank you.

The sermon this morning speaks of the 9Th Commandment:  “You shall not be a false witness.”

 

Truth telling is newsworthy these days.  I’ve thought a lot about telling the truth during the last couple of years.  I’d like to share some of my own personal truth telling –and truth lapses—history with you.

 

I learned truth telling at home.  My father would not tolerate a lie.  I heard that message from my father; some of my sibs took the risk by ignoring our father and sometimes paid for it.  I felt it was part of honoring my father – the 5th Commandment we read this morning.  I believe that telling the truth, as my father insisted, has served me well when I have been wise to remember his good advice.

(Pause)

Sister Mary Fourth Grade Teacher assigned a book report for each of our ten summer books.  I read the dust jacket summary of the story and decided I couldn’t possibly do better than the writer so why not use her words for my report?  Sister Mary 4th showing her discomfort with my report on her face, but she said nothing.  But I knew I had taken a shortcut and so it hadn’t done right and shouldn’t try that again.  I learned truth telling that day.

 

(Pause)

I believe I was in my forties when one day I had an insight into my own behavior regarding telling the truth.  It just came to me that I was providing near-real-reasons for choices I was making.  For instance, if I didn’t want to do something, I provided a second or third level reason that sort of was true, but not the real reason for my choice.  If I really didn’t want to go to an event, instead of saying “it just isn’t something I want to do”, I’d give some lame reason like I had something already planned for that weekend and would love to come but couldn’t fit it in while smiling a “thank you very much for the invitation.”  Heck, didn’t I have lots of things planned for the weekend:  the wash, the ironing, the bill paying on and on.  I just didn’t want to admit I didn’t want to go.  The person knew my excuse was lame but she was stuck with a sort-of excuse she was forced to sort-of believe because it sort of made sense.  I’d also say things like: “I just don’t buy much jewelry – or Tupperware – or whatever product” when invited to a home party I just didn’t want to go to. Once I realized what I had gotten in the habit of doing, that is, I’d acquired a habit of lying or denying the person the truth, I decided to correct that habit.  But how to do it without hurting someone?  I didn’t want to say, “I just don’t want to come to your party.” I didn’t want to destroy the relationship after all.  But I learned I could be frank and kind at the same time.  I learned I could say parties like that are just not my thing and then I thanked them for including me. This was absolutely true and I hoped, not hurtful.  I was respectful to me and respectful to the other.

 

What I realized when I caught myself in the growing habit of “stretching the truth” was that I was becoming a different person than what I thought I should be.  I was becoming someone who thought she was fooling people, someone who thought she was better than others because she could pull the wool over their eyes so easily.  What I now know was that I was the only one I was fooling and I was the only one who was changing morally because of my duplicity.

(Pause)

The day after the 2016 Presidential Election I called three male relatives to congratulate them because their pick had won.  My brother Michael and I had a talk on the phone followed by a back and forth on email.  The one thing I remembered was our discussion about telling the truth.  Michael’s reply to me was:  “Everyone lies.”  I was amazed at this summary statement from someone who came from the same household I did where lying was not allowed.  I have given that exchange a lot of thought these last two years.  I still disagree with my brother but I also know that, from some people’s perspective, lying is just part of life, part of getting by or getting ahead.  I do still want to believe, naively or not, that a lot of people don’t lie, in fact I believe that most people don’t lie or at least strive very hard not to.  They are respectful of the 9th Commandment and its guidance.

(Pause)

Today’s Epistle begins:  “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”  I do think most of us want to tell the truth.  I think most of us want to be told the truth.  We don’t want to be lied to.  It is destructive to a relationship if people cannot trust that the other is telling the truth.  You really can’t proceed together without truth because some of the energy of the relationship is being put into trying to figure out if the issue of the moment is being dealt with honestly or not, or some mix of both.  Time is wasted.  Energy is wasted.  You become exhausted and the relationship falters or fails.  Paul in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus understood this.

 

So how do we be honest in our world where telling the truth is in a murky place right now?  How do we stick to keeping our 9th Commandment – ‘no false witnessing’?  I think Paul’s message to “put away…all bitterness, and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice    and be kind to one another…” I think that is a good start.  We need to practice telling the truth.  We can practice truth-telling at home – being kind in the way we do tell the truth.  First, we take the time to share the truth in our families.  First we practice there.  Then we can practice at church where we come together as community.  Then we expand to our work communities, our school communities, our social communities.  We learn how to run all aspects of our lives with kind honesty.  After all, being honest is one of the directives – the commandments — we’ve committed ourselves to by being members of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  (Slowly—à)  It is an adult understanding of those commandments that allows us to be kind and loving as we fulfill them.  Our church communities are a wonderful place to practice kindly honesty towards one another.  Sitting down and discussing issues.  Expressing your opinions and your real reasons for having those opinions builds healthy adult relationships, healthy parishes, healthy societies.  Practicing truth telling, practicing being honest with yourself to begin with and then kindly being able to share real reasons with others, builds a moral self and moral families and moral communities.

(Pause)

Learning to be honest, truly honest with oneself and with one’s communities, can be hard work—especially if you commit to expressing your honesty in kind and loving and caring straightforwardness.     I can tell you that I know from my own experience of now telling the real reason I have for my choices, that people respect me more for my honesty, I like me more for my honesty, and frankly I’m a more likeable person!  Being a liar – even a sort-of liar – begins to turn you away from goodness.     And truly wrapped within the fold of goodness is where you always want to be.  Amen.

Sermon for August 5, 2018: We are the man (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

One of my least and most favorite biblical stories is today’s Hebrew scripture about King David. That’s because, similar to our New Testament friend Peter, David is one of the most human of our religious patriarchs. Unlike many of our more famous biblical figures, we are able to follow David from childhood to death – to watch him develop and grow in grace and, especially in our most recent lessons about him, to see him make some of the most terrible mistakes a human being can make. David, reminds us of ourselves – the good and the bad.

This is the hero David, who was innocently tending sheep when his brothers marched off to war against the Philistines. And just like the arrogant teenager that he was, when they came back chattering about a Philistine giant that no one could kill, he said he’d give it a try. This is the same David who, after actually managing to slay Goliath, enjoyed the favor of the king, only to experience a complete turn-around when he subsequently became the object of Saul’s paranoia, jealousy, and persecution. This is the same David who wrote beautiful love poetry and, in our lesson a couple of weeks ago, danced joyfully and unselfconsciously for God. But it also the same David who saw a beautiful, married woman, got her pregnant and, when he couldn’t pass the baby off as her husband’s, sent her husband to the front lines of war so he would be killed.  It is the same David who married the beautiful woman and had a beautiful child without giving her dead first husband a second thought. This is someone who had the capacity for tremendous good and reprehensible evil – in other words, a human being.

Then, as we heard today, the prophet Nathan appeared at his door to tell David a tragic story about a poor man who was forced to sacrifice his beloved lamb to the hunger of a spoiled rich man. Hearing this story, we are told, David burned with anger at the crimes of such a horrible, greedy rich man. Until Nathan pointed his finger right in the self-righteous king’s face, informing him that the story was about him, that he is the man. Just as we sometimes find when we take an honest look at ourselves. If David, the great king and favorite of God, can also be a truly repulsive sinner and disappointment to God, then anyone of us can too. We are the man. It’s one thing to believe in loving our neighbors, but it’s often another thing to actually practice it.

Paul’s disciples in Ephesus also struggled with putting their beliefs into action, mostly because they were so busy fighting with each other over whose ideas were right that they forgot to act right. In the letter we just heard, Paul tells them that they have to learn to get along, to be honest with each other, to be kind to each other, and to help one another – because that’s what Jesus did for them. What a waste of Christ’s sacrifice, Paul tells them, for the people he died for not to use his life and death as an example of how human beings should get along, but instead use it as an excuse to fight with one another.

What a waste indeed – a waste we should be familiar with. Because more than one thousand years later, instead of using our Christian beliefs to find common ground with others, we use them to argue about the differences between us. Like the Ephesians, we sometimes act like children, “blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” We are afraid to confront the truth of our own sin – the behaviors that separate us from God and from one another. We are as far from being one body and one Spirit as the people of Ephesus.  We have, like them, become susceptible to clinging to our truths – our gifts, our traditions- rather than seeking deeper faith in ourselves and other people. We’re taking so many selfies that we’ve lost the big picture. We have become too focused on the method and lost the message. The big picture is not about people being of different faiths. The big picture is not about people without faith. The big picture is not “other” Christians. The big picture is Christ.

Jesus said to the people, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And when he said it, the people around him had no idea what he was talking about. How can a man be bread? That not only doesn’t make sense, but it’s a disgusting idea. It’s cannibalism. And, by the way, the idea of eating flesh would have been just as shocking to the crowd around Jesus as it is to us. Drinking blood was considered even more repulsive, because eating bloody meat violated Jewish dietary laws.

Jesus chose a deliberately vulgar idiom to explain the saving grace that was to come from his sacrifice to demonstrate that he recognized the base nature of human beings. Jesus was telling us that he knows that we are more interested in ourselves than our fellow humans, that we lie to ourselves and to one another – that we praise God with our mouths while typing evil with our hands – and that he still accepts us as we are. Jesus never said, “Be kind to one another,” and then I will forgive you. God did not forgive David because he had previously done good. God forgave David not only because he immediately recognized his sin, but also and more importantly, because he instantly acknowledged his complete reliance on God.  David knew that he could not talk, lie, or earn his way out of it.  He could not depend on his own righteousness. He had to throw himself on God’s mercy. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin…Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.” David knew that his forgiveness could only come from one source: the Lord God Almighty. Fortunately for David – and for us – God is always merciful. That’s why he sent his son into the human world to love us as ourselves – to love us in spite of ourselves.

Jesus loved us first –knowing that we would be mean, judgmental, and self-absorbed. Jesus loved us first so we would know how to be tenderhearted and forgiving by imitating him. Jesus gave himself to be the bread- the bread that represents his very essence – so that we could learn to absorb its goodness, not because the people believed, but because without it they couldn’t believe. He did not wait for those around him to be kind to him or to one another. He did not preach and teach until they were ready to accept his sacrifice. Jesus gave himself without regard for how his gift would be received. He gave himself as an example of the good humanity was capable of. He gave himself because he believed in the saving power of God. He gave himself because he was the saving power of God.

It is up to us to accept that saving power. Like David, we have to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord. Like the Ephesians, we have to put aside our bitterness in order to build up and give grace to others. If we want justice in this world, we have to bring it about. If we want truth in this world, we have to tell it. And if we want love in this world, then we have to be that love. But first we have to accept the gift of life that will give us the strength to do those things.

We do it by sharing in the essence of Jesus Christ through symbolically eating and drinking of him. When you take communion, you acknowledge that you are part of the body of Christ – of both the unruly humanity he died for and of the kingdom of God that he lives for. You are being offered the bread of life. If your spirit is hungry, take it. If your heart is heavy, revive yourself through it. If you are weak and tired, gather strength from it. And when you are filled, go out into the world, no longer merely human but purified, powerful, and perfected, and feed God’s people – feed them in the name of the one who gave himself to be the true and saving bread of life. AMEN.

 

Sermon for July 29, 2018: Put your hand in the hand of the man (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

On Friday night, as I was lying in bed, not sleeping and worrying about whether we should grant an easement to our property, how I could help someone in need who doesn’t want to be helped, and when in the world I was going to write this sermon, I realized that I was not only wearing myself out completely, but entirely missing the point– because today’s texts are clearly about trusting in God – and I was not doing it.

I had spent the entire week talking to other people about putting their faith in God – about not being afraid – about, as they say, letting go and letting God, – and there I was, completely ignoring my own advice. I had read today’s scriptures at least five times, trying to figure out what to preach about and there it was, staring me in the face: “It is I,” says Jesus, “do not be afraid.”

One of the hottest topics of debate among and between Christians and others is miracles. Many people argue that there is no such thing as miracles – that events that we think of as miracles – the sudden return of sight or life to those thought to be incurable; mystical visions; pregnancies among those thought to be infertile – can be explained by science. “Same thing,” they say, “with Jesus’s miracles. He didn’t cast out demons; he was dealing with individuals with mental illness. He didn’t bring anyone back from the dead; he was just there when they came out of a coma. And he didn’t walk on water – he walked ‘by’ the water (the Greek word is the same).” Such skepticism is so common, even among Christians, that arguing for belief in Jesus Christ based on his supernatural powers is an uphill struggle at best.

As it should be, because faith should not be based on “signs.” For one thing, it’s too easy to miss them when they come. It is like the old joke about the drowning man who asked God to save him and was so convinced that God would send a miracle that he turned down a life raft, a boat ride, and a helicopter rescue – and then drowned. Upon encountering God in the afterlife, the man confronted him for failing to save him.  “What do you mean,” said God, “I sent a life raft, a boat, and a helicopter.” We are like this man. We ask for miracles and fail to see them all around us.

We also miss the point of them when we do recognize them. Miracles are not about impossibility; they are about inspiration. Just because we can explain something, doesn’t mean it’s not a miracle. “What is truly awe-inspiring [for example] is not that someone could walk on the surface of the water without sinking, but that his presence among ordinary, insecure, and timid persons could calm their anxieties and cause them to walk where they feared to walk before.”[1] Miracles demonstrate to us that with God, anything is possible – whether it’s walking on water, feeding five thousand people, or turning a small ministry on a Georgia farm called Habitat for Humanity into an international organization that has provided housing for 13 million people worldwide.

Don’t forget: the feeding of the five thousand began as a very practical matter with the kind of situation we have at Grace all the time. How many times have we planned a meeting or dinner expecting 50 people and had 100 show up?  That’s exactly what happens to Jesus and his disciples when they cross the Galilee and see a large crowd following them. “Oh no,” says Jesus turning to Philip, “How are we going to feed them all”? Poor Philip doesn’t know; it’s not his job.  He’s just there to learn from Jesus. And don’t we often feel the same way? We’re just here to be in community, learn about Jesus, and try to help other people. We “serve out of a sense of duty or because [we] enjoy the work, or to contribute to a cause larger than [ourselves. We] identify a few reasonable goals, set some workable plans in motion, and carry out [our] endeavors with the resources at hand. [Our] work together is not [generally] viewed as a venue for God’s glory and mercy to [suddenly and breathtakingly] break forth in the world.”[2] We rely on ourselves to get the job done. We do not expect miracles to happen.

But miracles happen all the time, if only we are willing to see them – not by rational “knowing,” but through spiritual understanding. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” the psalmist says, “The Lord looks down from heaven upon us all, to see if there is any who is wise.” In our minds, this passage is about intellectual knowledge- about facts that can be proved, evidence that can be seen.  But for the ancient peoples who first heard these psalms, knowledge did not reside in the head, but in the heart. “As Immanuel Kant has taught us, if there are limits to what reason can know, then whatever is beyond those limits cannot be known by reason. Reason is not, however, the only human faculty that ‘knows.’ The heart has its reasons and its own knowledge as well.”[3] God is beyond reason and knowing God requires a willingness to let go of what we think is rational.

It also requires courage. It requires letting go of societal definitions of what is “true” and what is not. That is what Paul prayed for his followers at Ephesus to be able to do. “Please God,” Paul begged, “help them to let you in.” True belief requires us to open ourselves up to Christ – and to the changes he may bring with him. “The issue is letting Christ in to change us.”[4] The issue is giving up control.

This sounds exciting – and it is, but it is also terrifying. I know very few human beings that easily and joyfully give up control of their lives. That’s because most of us think that we are the captains of our own ships and have the right to steer our own destinies. King David made this mistake – believing that the power that God had given him actually belonged to him and he could do with it as he wished.  Even those who live under extremely difficult circumstances will remain in intolerable situations rather than give up what little power they have. Individuals who abuse substances will continue to drink and drug even after having lost jobs, families, and finances, rather than leap into the unknown of sobriety. People suffering from mental illnesses will continue to wrestle with petrifying demons rather than take medications that make them feel helpless. And for the many of us who do not deal with such extreme concerns, it is that much harder is it to give up our comfortable routines and assertions in order to risk witnessing a miracle.

I couldn’t do it this past week. I kept hanging onto control of the various issues floating around me, instead of giving them to God. Tired and frustrated, like Philip I didn’t want to deal with new and scary people and problems. Like him, I only saw a crowd of hungry people closing in. Like the disciples in the boat with Jesus, I saw only waves and wind and deep water. I did not see the potential to feed thousands of people. I did not see the inspiration of watching Jesus demonstrate his power and glory. I did not recognize that by asking me to let go of my control of things, God was providing me with the opportunity to witness a miracle.

Mercifully, God is persistent and God is consistent. God continues to show her presence in our lives over and over again and God persists in inviting us to see his hand in all that is around us. When we let him, God helps us to understand that every deficit, every pain, every hunger, every “dance with the devil,” is a miracle waiting to happen. I’ve got it now.  Do not be afraid. Believe. God is with us. AMEN.

[1]Douglas John Hall, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 288.

 

[2]Karen Marie Yust, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 284.

 

[3]George W. Stroup, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 282.

[4]Karen Chakoian, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 280.

Sermon for July 22, 2018: Unity (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

Listen here:

When I was a young boy growing up in Texas I would often see my mother along
with other church women sit in a circle and carefully rip the seams of brand-new
pieces of clothing and partially take them apart. They would package the
disassembled clothing to be sent to relatives and friends in East Germany. My
mother explained to me that it was necessary to take the clothes apart because if
they didn’t the Russians would take them. The people who received the clothes
would stitch them together as needed. As this was in the very early 1950s and I had
only started elementary school, I had little concept of a divided world, so their
activities didn’t make much sense to me.
As I grew I learned that there was a division between the society that I lived in,
“the free world” of the West and the communist world of the East. The division
was given the name, the Iron Curtain. Then in 1961 the East Germans build the
Berlin wall – a visible, tangible representation of this division. The wonderful
women of our church had long since halted their garment subterfuge because all
contact with the friends and family on “the other side” had been lost.

Fast forward to 1989 and something happened that very few believed would ever
happen, the Berlin wall was torn down. With great celebration the wall was
chipped, Jack hammered and brought down. Sadly, after the euphoria wore off we
looked around and saw that there are still dividing walls everywhere.

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Walls have basically two uses, to keep things and people in or people and things
out. The Berlin wall was built to keep people from fleeing East Germany to
freedom in the West while the famous walls of Jericho was built like most city
fortifications to keep enemies out.

In our epistle reading this morning St. Paul is telling the church at Ephesus that
Christ has broken down the wall that separated the Gentiles (those far off from the
law) and the Jews (those near the law). The wall that Paul references is the Soreq, a
5-foot-high wall with 13 openings that separated the court of the Gentiles from the
court of the women in Herod’s Temple. A Gentile, or non-Jew crossing this barrier
would be subject to the death penalty. This wall represented the prejudice that
existed between Jews and Gentiles that had found its way into the early church.

Robert Frost wrote an interesting poem entitled “Mending Wall.” In the poem, he
described the New England farmer’s job of patching up a rock fence in the spring
after the ravages of snow and ice had broken it down during the winter. Together
he and his neighbor between whose properties the wall ran patiently put the fence
back together stone by stone. Frost was convinced the wall was unnecessary. One
line in the poem says, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” But his
neighbor was of a different mind. He still believed the word that his father had
taught him: “Good fences make good neighbors.” I am not convinced that this

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famous line is necessarily true, but many must believe it, for there are fences and
walls everywhere.

A Baptist Pastor Don Harbuck once said that all these walls are just one wall. He
said, “The wall is everywhere. All of us know about it. No age or age group has
gone unshaped by its pernicious power. Its menacing power moves the length and
breadth of human existence. What wall is it? Paul calls it the dividing wall of
hostility. It is the wall that separates and fragments and isolates. It is the wall that
keeps people apart. It makes them suspicious and distrustful of each other. It kills
fellowship and breeds prejudice and spreads gossip and sets loose the dogs of war.
It takes many forms, but it always remains the same wall wherever we encounter
it.” There is the wall that separate the affluent from the needy, the wall that
sometimes separate the educated from the uneducated, the wall that separates the
churched from the unchurched, and even the wall that separates residents from
aliens. I am sure you could add many more walls that separate us to this list but
suffice it to say we live in a wall weary world.

As Paul attests the wall that separated Jews and Gentiles was destroyed by the
blood and flesh of the crucified, who is our Peace. Jesus does not simply represent
peace but is our Peace just as God is love. Paul describes Christ’s peace as
reconciling “both groups to God.”

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Paul wrote “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and
has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has
abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in
himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might
reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death
that hostility through it.”

This is the very peace we share with one another during the Eucharist. We don’t
simply share a greeting with one another but share Christ’s Peace. In the biblical
tradition, peace is a very rich concept. It implies much more than simply an
absence of war and strife. It implies more than simply a passing feeling of
contentment, relaxation, and order. It implies the fullness of joy and life that can
only be attained and experienced in a climate of justice, order, truth, respect, and
good will. Saying “peace” in biblical language is akin to what we moderns might
imply by the phrase “peace and prosperity.” By wishing this for those around us,
and asking Jesus to give it to us, we are invoking our hope and faith in God who is
the source and sustainer of all good things, material and spiritual.
The peace of Christ is a new reality in which former enemies who would not touch
or eat with one another may now reach out to one another in recognition of their
common humanity. By this we affirm that there are no walls between us. We may

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imagine that reconciliation involves two parties, but human schisms cause an even
greater separation than the hostility between clans, tribes, and nations. They
alienate us from God. Our reunion in Christ reunites us not only with one another,
It is the path to our reunion with God.
Through the rite of exchanging the peace of Christ, we give concrete expression to
our sincere desire to love our neighbor, which no wall can contain. Is it even
possible to sustain enmity between our neighbor if we are wishing them divine
peace? Also, this exchange of peace becomes a wonderful expression of divine
love for one another, which opens our hearts to receive more fully and fruitfully
the grace of God. It is a fitting preparation for our approach to the altar and to Holy
Communion.
Peace be with you, Shalom Aleichem is an ancient Hebraic greeting, a divine
greeting, a greeting from God to his children. A greeting of Angels used to mark
something new. Shalom, Peace, do not be afraid.
Shalom Aleichem – Amen.

 

Sermon for July 15, 2018 (8 a.m.): Getting what we deserve (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

My son, as some of you know, is a big fan of horror movies. He spends his spare time making movies with his friends, most of which require his skills as a special effects make-up artist to create wounds, scars, and exposed entrails. Sometimes it worries me – but I have been assured by a number of sources – including psychologists, clergy persons, and teachers – that his interest in fantasy violence is unlikely to be related to a similar preoccupation with real-world bloodshed. Which is, of course, good news. But it also leaves me wondering how a kid who was not allowed to watch scary movies or television programs, and who burst into tears during “Santa versus the Snowmen,” became so interested in celluloid carnage.

Of course, he has gone to church his whole life, which means that’s he’s heard today’s “R”-rated gospel numerous times. And, let’s face it, the story of the death of John the Baptist has all the makings of an episode of “Game of Thrones” – incest, cutthroat politics, unfaithful husbands, plotting wives, endangered virgins, and the beheading of a popular main character. We should have had a parental warning along with the gospel proclamation. And yet I don’t think I’ve ever heard a parent complain about the negative influence biblical violence might have on their child.

That’s interesting, because the Bible is full of violence – as are many “Christian” books. I recently uncovered “A Child’s Book of Saints” that was given to my children when they were probably around five years-old. Thumbing through it, I found some of the most violent art I have ever seen: depictions of Christian martyrs rendered in beautiful, careful, and frequently disturbing detail in which the horror of physical suffering is paired with facial expressions that depict the apparent emotional ecstasy that accompanies it. These images suggest that the desire and ability to suffer and die for our faith is an integral part of Christian identity. As a result, many of us believe that when we suffer, the “Christian thing” to do is to endure it bravely and stoically. The Christian thing to do is to provide encouragement to others who suffer to bear it with humor and dignity. The Christian thing to do is to suffer beautifully and silently.

I think this is unfair and even cruel. Disease, chronic pain, and emotional upheaval feel bad, and I believe that sharing our pain and helping others bear theirs is a crucial part of Christian community. I am not alone. Some writers have suggested that in an era in which self-fulfillment is prized over community cooperation the Christian focus on sacrifice and humility seems irrelevant to young people. As a result, some people are pulling away from “traditional,” “mainline” religion in favor of “spiritual but not religious” practices that focus on self-fulfillment over responsibility, or to churches that preach a form of Christian doctrine that focuses on individual salvation.

In this country, one popular theology is based on the prosperity doctrine. The prosperity doctrine proposes that the strength of someone’s faith is related to their level of health and wealth. This idea is not a new one – and not solely Christian. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of stories of “righteous” people who are “rewarded” with good fortune. In today’s Hebrew scripture we see David blessing and providing food for his people in response to their “getting right with the Lord.” The psalm we read today suggests that those who have clean hands and a pure heart will, “receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God of their salvation.” And in this morning’s New Testament reading, St. Paul tells the Ephesians that by believing in Christ we will inherit redemption, salvation and enjoy “the riches of his grace.”

The notion that wealth is somehow related to goodness has been reinforced across cultures and over time in a variety of ways – through the “divine right of kings” which says that people who are born into power are somehow favored by God, by the way in which popular media encourages us to emulate the rich and famous, and even inadvertently in our own lives when in response to a compliment we humbly allow that we are “blessed.” Except that’s not really what we mean. What we mean to say is that we have grace – free, unmerited and available to all. That’s not the same as saying we are blessed by having things. Saying we are blessed, implies that our gifts are a sign of God’s favor, which suggests that if we do not have good things – if we are suffering in some way, that we are not blessed by God. But prosperity and reward for the righteous and suffering and punishment for the unworthy is not the Christian gospel. It is an American nationalist gospel, and it is preached by politicians, pop culture, and, sadly, in countless pulpits. According to that doctrine, suffering is a warning against acting outside of societal norms. This prosperity creed sees poverty as punishment for laziness; inequity as the result of ineptitude; and mental and emotional illness as moral weakness. In this view, suffering is ugly.

But suffering is neither beautiful nor ugly. It is simply part of the human condition, as well as part of our Christian identity. Christians should not be surprised that the world is full of suffering. We know that we live in a fallen world, albeit one full of God’s grace. Suffering is not the result of individual fallen people. Suffering is the result of the fall of God’s kingdom in this world. We live in a world that is ruptured by resentment. A world in which the peace of the holy is drowned out by the powerful voice of prejudice. A world in which faith is used to create fracture. The fact that we are Christians does not separate us from it. The fact that we are Christians does not elevate us above it. Rather, the fact that we are Christians obligates us to suffer for this world that we have brought so far from what God created by crying out against ignorance, injustice and inequity at the top of our lungs.

We don’t really know how much John the Baptist suffered, but we know why he did. John believed that Jesus was the Messiah who would free the Jewish people and preached that freely. But today’s gospel tells us that ultimately it was his politics – not his faith – that killed him. John the Baptist did not die because of the work he did in the name of Jesus. In fact, King Herod believed that John was holy and righteous. Some scholars have suggested that Herod actually imprisoned John as a form of “protective custody,” because he wanted to keep him safe from his wife Herodias. It was Herodias that had a grudge against John, because he had preached that their marriage was illegal. That’s important – because it was John’s beliefs that compelled him to speak out about the marriage, but it was invocation of the law that earned him Herodias’s enmity.

The place where John the Baptist found himself was at the intersection of principle and policy, conviction and legal commandment. For John the Baptist being faithful to the word of God meant dealing with the issues of the world –not by aligning with a certain leader or dogma – but by seeking to alleviate the “unavoidable harshness of life,” by speaking truth to power, and by pointing out the difference between being “blessed” with prosperity and being given the free grace of God.

We are not blessed because we believe in God, but because God believes in us. God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love…according to his good pleasure.” All that we have are free gifts of grace. God does not reward us for our goodness and God does not punish us for our errors by making us sick or poor. God loves all of us equally and offers each of us the opportunity to share in God’s goodness. This means that no matter what our human conditions is we can “live for the praise of God’s glory,” preach the true gospel, and, if necessary, suffer for it. Christian suffering is not something to avoid or endure or desire. It is simply one way to demonstrate who we are – not meekly or stoically – and certainly not silently – but as King David did, brashly, stridently, and joyfully – paving the way for the true King of glory to come in. AMEN.

Children’s Homily for July 15, 2018: Footloose! (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Wow! There was a lot going on in our bible stories this week! What kinds of things happened? (Give them a chance to answer). There was a king who had friends who had names which are very hard to say. We were told that God saves us and blesses us.  Who knew that already? (Give them a chance to answer). AND, we had a very sad story about John the Baptist dying.

Who remembers who John the Baptist was? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. He was Jesus’s cousin. He baptized Jesus. He sometimes lived in the wilderness and at locusts and honey. And he often told people what he thought were the right and wrong things to do. (Give them a chance to comment). But in today’s story, someone got really mad at him and got the king to kill him. That’s so sad! (Give them a chance to answer).  I don’t think it’s a good idea to get that mad at someone just because they disagree with you – do you? (Give them a chance to answer). So that was really sad, wasn’t it? (Give them a chance to answer). 

Okay, this is tricky.  Who can tell me why the king decided to hurt John the Baptist? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. Someone asked him to. How did she get him to do it?  (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right – she danced!  That’s really weird – that someone danced and just because she did a good job, the king had to do what she asked – and it was a bad thing.  It was a thing based in hate.  That’s pretty powerful!  But sometimes doing this like dancing (and singing and telling stories and drawing!) can be very powerful.  I am going to tell you a story about that.

Once upon a time in America, there was a boy named Kevin Bacon.  And he was in all the movies. And he was in a movie where he played a boy who LOVED to dance. His name was Wren. Well, Wren moved to a town where dancing wasn’t allowed! It wasn’t allowed because the people in the town believed that dancing made teenagers act stupid and get hurt. They had read this story about how John the Baptist died and they thought that dancing was about hate.  But what they hadn’t read was the OTHER story we read today – the one about King David.  In THAT story, King David danced.  Who can tell me why he danced? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right.  Because he was happy to be friends with God.  He danced “before the Lord with all his might.” He danced because just knowing God and loving God made him SO happy! For David, dancing was about love.

Now, back to our friend Wren. Wren knew that dancing could be about love, so he had to remind people that not all dancing was about hate.  He had to understand that dancing could be about – what do you think I’m going to say? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right.  Dancing can be about love – and so can singing, and drawing, and telling stories.  So you shouldn’t think that any of those things – any kind of art – just like any kind of people – is necessarily good or bad.

Now, I think you know that one of the things I think is that church should always be happy, because we are so lucky to have God to love and to love us!  And some of the ways that we can have fun and be happy is by reading stories, and singing and – what else? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – dancing! So who would like to dance for God like David did?  Good – and let’s use the music Wren liked to dance to.  Do you agree that this is a good idea? (Give them a chance to answer). What do we say in church when we agree? (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right: AMEN. AMEN. (Play music and dance).

Sermon for July 8, 2018: Power and belief (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

From the very beginning of our existence, human beings have had to grapple with what it means to believe in something. “A belief defines an idea or principle which we judge to be true. When we stop to think about it, functionally this is no small thing: lives are routinely sacrificed and saved based simply on what people believe. Yet [we all] routinely encounter people who believe things that remain not just unproven, but which have been definitively shown to be false.”[1] Research demonstrates that once we believe in something, it’s very hard to convince us that it’s not true.  In psychological language, this is called “confirmation bias.” People will go to great lengths to continue to believe things that are obviously false by any reasonable standard of evidence.

Of course, reason has little to do with belief.  Most belief is related to emotion, which is why we are so invested in our beliefs. It can be incredibly painful to change long-held beliefs, especially if we think those beliefs have somehow been taken away from us by someone else. Some of our beliefs are so deeply intertwined with our self-identities that we can lose our entire sense of self if our beliefs are threatened. That’s one of the reasons that most of us have difficulty with change.

It was no different for the people we encounter in the Bible. Over the last several weeks, we have been following two story threads: one about the ancient Israelites and the changes they underwent when they asked God for a king to rule over them, and another which follows Jesus and his disciples as they grapple with the idea of Jesus as a king. These two narratives have been seasoned with words from the great evangelist Paul, written as he struggled to keep the fledgling “Christian” church on the right path. Paying attention to the roadblocks our ancestors encountered in developing and remaining faithful to their belief systems can help us to figure out what it means to “believe” in our own day.  This is the gift of Holy Scripture.

In this week’s Hebrew scripture, we witness the ascension of the great king David to the throne of Israel. If you remember, a few weeks ago we heard the people of Israel ask God to give them a king to rule over them. They did this because they saw enemies on all sides and severe division within their community. They thought that a king would keep them safe by defending them against “outsiders.” So, after warning them against this, God sent them Saul, a strong and charismatic leader who seemed ready and willing to protect them against other tribes and tend to their needs first and only. But things did not go well. Saul was emotionally unstable, driven by paranoia and the desire to have and keep power, leading, as we heard today, to his eventual replacement with David.  Evangelical pastor A.R. Bernard suggests that, “Saul [was] someone who was put into power not at the desire of God but as a concession to the people, and who ended up exposing the spiritual and moral condition of the nation.”[2] The ugliness among the people had to be exposed before it could be healed – and it had to be mended by all of them together, not through the exercise of power by one person.

A primary difference between David and Saul was that David recognized that his power came from and through God. Like the psalmist, he knew that, “Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised…this God is our God for ever and ever.” Power- all power- comes from God. Saul forgot this, just as David himself eventually did– just as Christian believers have continued to forget it throughout the history of what began as a simple movement centered on the teachings and actions of one man, Jesus of Nazareth.

It started while Jesus was still alive.  Today’s gospel is part of a longer section of the Gospel of Mark that addresses Jesus’s kingship. In recent weeks we heard the story of Jesus’s healing of the demoniac and the “dead” daughter of a Roman official.  In each story, the question arose, “Who is this person and where did he get this power and authority”?  In today’s story, Jesus returns with his disciples to his home town of Nazareth, where he immediately goes to the synagogue to teach.  Although initially impressed with his wisdom and power, the people soon remind each other that they know this guy.  He is not some great and impressive official; he is the son of the town carpenter – one who has long been rumored to be illegitimate. And because of their own preconceived notions – because of their “confirmation bias- they are unable to believe the evidence of their own eyes. “The theological assertion beneath this vignette is uncomfortable, but plain: the human capacity for investing in social norms, for believing in one’s own preferences, is greater than the human capacity for faith.”[3]

That seems harsh, but, unfortunately, there’s a fair amount of evidence to back it up. The portion of Paul’s letter to the people of Corinth which we heard today tells us both how difficult and how important it is to depend completely on the grace of God rather than our own resources. History demonstrates that each time human beings decide that we have the right to impose our will on other people, on animals, or on creation itself, we experience painful reminders that we are not God.

For Paul, forced to defend his spiritual understanding of God’s work in the world, the temptation to exercise his own spiritual power to “prove” his point of view was acute.  Paul saw superapostles bragging about revelations from God as distracting the people from focusing on Jesus and his words and mission. The desire to claim authority through relationship with God is consistent among those who would rule. “The ancient church [itself], once it was [free of persecution and endorsed by political leaders], all too quickly succumbed to the temptation to make itself powerful in the world, to present itself as spiritually superior to the pagan religions.”[4] Things have not changed too much. “One has only to click through… television channels to be reminded that contemporary superapostles still seek to establish their authority through vivid descriptions of personal revelations that demonstrate their privileged relationship with the Almighty.”[5]

But Christ’s power is not to be used for our glory. It is not to be used to hurt others. The true demonstration of belief in Jesus Christ is, according to Paul, a willingness to be weak for him, to be a fool for Christ. Garrett Green suggests that “The Christian community forgets that Christ’s grace is sufficient for it every time it seeks to secure its existence in the world by means of its own strength and influence, every time it allies itself with worldly power rather than allowing Christ to be revealed in its weakness.”[6]

Allowing God to work through us rather than seeking to wield God’s power for our own use is what it means to act with faith. It is not rational, but it is consistent with all we know about our God and the history of God’s work in the world. Our Eucharist prayers remind us that over and over again God has tried to save his creation – to give us the gift of his unfathomable love. To receive it, we have only to surrender our own biases. The Israelites were unable to do it. The people of Nazareth were unable to do it, and the people of Corinth struggled to do it. We can learn from them. We can learn to see our own confirmation biases and resist them. We can open ourselves to the words and stories of scripture – holy writings that tell us that true faith is demonstrated in servant leadership- and the understanding the power comes from God and must be used not for ourselves, but instead in service for others. Only then will we, like Jesus, have the power to heal and to see with clarity what it really means to be loved and to love with the power of our God. AMEN.

[1]Alex Lickerman (April 24, 2011), “The two kinds of belief: why infants reason better than adults,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201104/the-two-kinds-belief.

[2]A.R. Bernard, in Leah Marie Ann Klet, (December 27, 2017), “Dr. A.R. Bernard Compares Trump to King Saul; Says President Doesn’t ‘Legitimately’ Know Bible,” http://www.gospelherald.com/articles/71765/20171227/dr-r-bernard-compares-trump-king-saul-president-doesnt-legitimately.htm.

 

[3]Mark D.W. Edington, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 214.

 

[4]Garrett Green, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 210.

[5]John T. McFadden, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 206.

 

[6]Garrett Green, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 210.

Sermon for July 1, 2018 (The Right Reverend Marc H. Andrus)

Listen here:

Sermon for June 24, 2018: Do not fear love (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

As many of you know, I recently attended a continuing education workshop called “The College of Congregational Development.” This is a two-year intensive certificate program designed to help congregations grow and thrive. Among the many tools that were introduced at the course was the Myers-Briggs, a personality measure that describes people based on the way they interact with the world.  Personality descriptions are based on four pairs of opposing traits, which result in one of 16 potential personality “types.” The idea of learning the Myers-Briggs – and knowing your “type” – is to recognize that people have preferred ways of acting and that how each individual acts influences how we interact with one another.

People love the Meyers-Briggs.  I am not such a fan; I worry that people will use it to diagnose themselves or to put other people into neat categories, which I think is never a good idea. People are complicated and each one of us is unique. Our responses to the world around us are complex. We are not simply one thing or another. To forget that is to forget what it means to be a child of God.

But seeing things in terms of opposites – as “either/or,” is a very common human behavior. Life is simpler if we know who is “good” and who is “bad,” what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what is “true” and what is “a lie.” This tendency is especially pronounced when we are worried or afraid.

St. Paul knew this. Throughout his letters his spoke in dualities- comparing the world of the flesh to that of the spirit; the old law versus the new; sin and righteousness; death and life. For Paul there are many opposites, but there is also a place where all things are of value, all things are needed, all things are joined. That place is the cross of Christ. “Now,” he says, “is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.” Now is when we turn ourselves over to Jesus – when we learn to have faith.

The problem is that, as human beings, we still want to put parameters around our faith, to define it as an “either/or” proposition: either you are a Christian or you are not, either you are saved or you are not, either you are in or you are out. But faith, like personality, can shift. The letter of Paul to the Corinthians that we just heard proves that. After developing a joyful and enthusiastic community of believers in Corinth, Paul left them to go on to other cities. In his absence, however, the people started listen to new preachers, “superapostles,” who followed Paul and denigrated him. These missionaries also probably offered the Corinthians a more attractive road to redemption- one without the hardships, afflictions, and calamities that Paul so readily accepted. It seems that these well-spoken and impressively dressed evangelists were convincing – and comforting. They apparently did not ask the people to suffer for their beliefs as Paul did.  “From the false perspective of [their] world, the [true] apostles appear as imposters and nobodies who are dying, punished, sorrowful, poor, and possess nothing; but the apocalyptic light of the gospel reveals them in fact to be truthful and well-known, ones who are living, rejoicing, bestowing riches, and possessing everything.”[1]

It’s a matter of knowing what is of true value. There is a scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where Indy must choose the authentic chalice of Jesus – the Holy Grail – from among hundreds of options. But before he can pick, Indy is pushed out of the way by a Nazi official, who chooses the most ornate of the cups, drinks from it – and dies. Having witnessed this, Indy promptly seizes the most unimposing of the available vessels with the words, “That’s the cup of a carpenter”- and is rewarded with life. This scene demonstrates a biblical lesson that continues to be forgotten by those who would equate Christian membership with wealth and power instead of sacrifice and humility. We must not forget that our God was rejected, scorned and bruised – that our God, as mighty and awesome as he is, died for the love of us. This is the primary paradox of Christianity -that our God is both the creator and ruler of all things and the lover of the no account species that we are. No wonder we are susceptible to the “superapostles” of our own time.

It was no easier for the first disciples. In today’s story we find them doing something that was incredibly mundane for them – riding in a boat. But suddenly the scene changes: a severe storm arises and they are in serious danger. Instinctively, they look to their beloved teacher to tell them what to do – and find him sound asleep! “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing”? they cry. Jesus, apparently cranky at being awakened from a good nap, cracks open an eye, tells the sea and the wind to cut it out, and then shakes his head with disappointment.  “Have you no faith”? he asks his disciples. This is an astonishing story – not only because it fully and clearly demonstrates that the power of God resides in Jesus, but also because instead of comforting his disciples, as we might expect, Jesus reprimands them for being afraid.

That’s because fear is deadly. Fear is what drove the Corinthians away from Paul and his teachings. Fear is what drove Saul, the first king of the unified Israel, insane. If you remember, a few weeks ago we heard about how the Israelites asked God for a king, even after Samuel told them how they would suffer under his reign. But they were afraid. They wanted a protector. They wanted someone to tell them what was right and what was wrong.  They wanted someone to tell them what to do and how to think.  They just wanted to go about their lives in safety and peace. But that’s not the way things work, as David soon found out. Despite his faithful service to the king, despite his victory over the giant Goliath and many other foes, despite his musical talents, and despite the fact that Saul’s own son Jonathan loved David “as his own soul,” the king attacked David because he was jealous – and afraid.

Sabaa Tahir writes, “Love is joy coupled with misery, elation bound to despair. It is a fire that beckons…gently and then burns when [you] get too close.  I hate love. I yearn for it. And it drives me mad.”[2] Love – the desire for it and the loss of it – drive human beings to do terrible things simply because we do not understand it; we refuse to see what God has shown us love is meant to be. We think it is something consoling instead of challenging – something we can “have” rather than something that we must share.

It is the same with faith. We want our faith to be a shield against the world, when God intends it to be a guide for living fully in it. We allow our faith to separate us from others, rather than to bless us with unity. And all because, like the disciples, we are afraid. “Fear. The visceral response of Jesus’ terrified disciples in a frail storm-tossed boat resonates both in the individual lives of Christians and in [our] corporate life…We are afraid of the ‘wind and waves’ that assail our fragile vessels- our lives, our churches, our cities, and nations. We fear disapproval, rejection, failure, meaninglessness, illness, and, of course, we fear death.”[3] Fear makes cowards of us. Fear makes persecutors of us. Fear makes us hate. It is fear – not doubt – that is the opposite of faith.

No wonder Jesus rebuked his disciples. To live without fear is a hard but necessary lesson for those who would follow him, and one the people on that boat needed to learn quickly- because they were not on their way home, but en route to the land of the Gentiles, to foreign shores where they would be unwanted immigrants with strange and unfamiliar beliefs. They had plenty to be afraid of.

Notice that Jesus never denies that. Jesus does not pull them into a warm embrace. Jesus does not rock them or soothe them. He never tells them there is nothing to fear. He tells them – and us – instead “that even though there are very real and fearsome things in this life, they need not paralyze us; they need not have dominion over us; they need not own us; because we are not alone in the boat.”[4] Jesus is with us. Jesus is always with us – ready to show us what true love is – love that is redemptive, inclusive, and faithful: love that casts out fear. Be of good courage. Our God is an awesome God, a faithful God, a loving God, and we are all God’s children. AMEN.

[1]Garrett Green, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 162.

[2]Sabaa Tahir (2018), A Reaper at the Gates, [New York: Razorbill], 173,

[3] Michael L. Lindvall, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 164.

[4]Michael L. Lindvall, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 168.

Sermon for June 17, 2018: Bloom where you are planted (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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I am not much of a gardener.  This is a source of shame to my green-thumbed mother, who one gave me a seedling from a plant that had been in my stepfather’s family for generations with the words, “Even you can’t kill this.”  I did.  When I first came to Grace, our Altar Guild leader Elaine would ask me my opinion about the altar flowers and I would say, “I really don’t know anything about flowers.  I trust your judgment.”   I don’t think she believed me at first, but I know she does now. Her incredulity reflects the widely held opinion that a priest- who is, after all, in a profession which requires patience, nurturing, and precision, cannot apply those skills to cultivating the growth of one of God’s simpler creatures.

Perhaps that’s why today’s gospel is comforting to me. In it, Jesus presents two parables, one of which is only found in the Gospel of Mark.  Some scholars call this story “The Parable of the Automatically Growing Seed.” In it, Jesus tells his disciples that the kingdom of God is “as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”  Now that’s my kind of gardening: throw the seed on the ground, go to sleep, and wake up to, if not a beanstalk, then a very healthy and useful plant.

I can see many of you shaking your heads, thinking, “but that’s not really how it happens – or at least not with nice plants and flowers. Good landscaping requires painstaking planning and almost constant labor.  There is feeding, watering, weeding, mowing, and trimming to be done. Things do not simply grow – unless they’re weeds- and we don’t want that sort of thing in our garden. We tend to think that it is the same with our faith; we can’t just go out and plant the idea of God. We can’t just say, “Jesus loves you and so do I.” We need to have doctrine and liturgy and structure because without these things religion will die – won’t it?

The answer to that question can be found in what the Gospel of Mark records as the first parable that Jesus told his disciples – which we did not hear last week because the Revised Common Lectionary gave us the story of Jesus casting out a demon instead, but is well-known to most of us. In the Parable of the Sower, we meet another gardener who sows seeds but we hear a great deal more detail about what happens to those seeds. Depending on where they land and what they encounter, some of those seeds flourish and some wither and die. The cares of the world, lack of understanding, greed, and selfishness – all intervene to destroy God’s creation.  And yet many are saved – how? It is not by the quality of the seed or the care of the gardener; it is by the grace of God – and by God’s grace alone.

This simple fact has been – and remains – a stumbling block for Christians wherever the seed of faith is planted. We can pray and volunteer – prune and trim – study and water -but we gain nothing by our own efforts if we do not ultimately give ourselves over to the will and Grace of God. We say that we seek the kingdom of God, but forget that it is not something that we can achieve through our own labors. Make no mistake; there is work we can do on behalf of that kingdom – coming to church, studying the Bible, helping others. “A righteous life is expected at the judgment. But it is accomplished not by trying to achieve a righteousness of one’s own but by receiving righteousness from God as a gift.”[1] Accepting that gift and surrendering to it is our primary job in this celestial equation.

This may be bad news for hard-core gardeners -because this means accepting that no matter how much we seek to intervene in the life of the seeds we plant, all of our work can disappear in the wake of a single hurricane, flood, or fire. But this is part of God’s nature; God often does things that are completely unexpected – things like making a zealous persecutor of Christians into their primary evangelist. Things like making a shepherd boy into a great king who unites the disparate tribes of Israel. Things like allowing his only son to live and die as a human being. The crucial – and extremely difficult – part for us is to let go of trying to control the growth process – to trim and prune and mow the seedlings that come out of our faith – and that of others – into our own vision of God’s kingdom. It is human nature to attempt to control the world around us, to build it in our own reflection. We are always more comfortable when look around and see things – and people – that are familiar, that mirror our image. We pray, as the psalmist did, to have God accept our offerings, anoint us as his beloved, to give victory to our people. But God answers us by doing not what we want, but what we need – and asks us to continue to put our trust in him. This is what we must pray for. Not that we are excused from judgment – for we will not be – but that when we are judged we are able to say that we trusted God and put Christ at the center of our lives.

This is so much harder than it looks, because it means that we need to open ourselves up to allow God to make something new out of us. The truth is that many of us struggle with our self-identities and whether we are “good enough,” but we still prefer to hang on to the old familiar us than to make wholesale changes in who we are. Change through Christ, however, “does not mean disappearance of the old and a fresh creation ex nihilo; it is more like a re-creation, a transformation of the humanity that is already created but has been subjected to sin and death.”[2] In other words, what is good in us will endure and what is not will be extracted with care.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy, but, fortunately, we don’t have to do it alone. Research demonstrates that human beings are “pack” creatures, drawn to living in community – and God knows this. For every individual that is remade through relationship with Jesus the Christ, the community of Christ grows.  “The remade creation is the image for a community of people transformed in Christ. [We are communally a new creation]. [Our] relationships with one another in the community of Christ’s body are reshaped toward mutual concern, grounded in confidence in God…The transformation of relationships in the new creation will be described with another word, ‘reconciliation,’ with one another and with God.[3]

God transforms us because God loves us and God wants to be with us. “The harvest will come without us having to work for it, because God adores us and it is this love that is the power of growth.” [4] This, according to Paul, is what gives us confidence, and what will allow us to stop trying to micromanage our relationship with God and one another. Have faith: let the seeds scatter and land where God wills; let the world and its people grow as God would shape them, and trust that the kingdom of God will come, not through our own works, but through God’s grace and glory. AMEN.

 

[1]Eugene Teselle, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 136.

[2]Eugene Teselle, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 138.

[3]Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 139.

[4]Wendy Farley, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, 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.

Children’s Homily for June 17, 2018: Grow! (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

It’s almost summer! What are some of the things you like to do in the summer? (Give them a chance to answer). Things also look different in the summer.  What makes them look that way? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right.  It’s hotter. It’s sunnier usually.  And there are more and greener plants and flowers.  They seem bigger and brighter sometimes, don’t they? (Give them a chance to answer).

Who knows how plants grow? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – they grow from seeds. There are lots of different plants so there are lots of different seeds. One kind of seed is the mustard seed. The mustard seed is very, very small.  Here are some. (Show them). Do you know who talked about this tiny little seed? (Give them a chance to answer). Jesus! He reminded his disciples that mustard seeds are very small, but they grow into VERY big plants.  Guess how big. (Give them a chance to answer). Even bigger than that – so big that you can take a nap under one. That is pretty amazing – that a HUGE plant can grow out of a tiny seed.

What other big things can grow out of something really small? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – people!  Look at my big, tall son Nick.  He was smaller than Gigi and Anna once. What else that is really big can grow from something really small? (Give them a chance to answer). FAITH! Who can tell me what faith is? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s a really good answer.  Faith is believing in something, even when you don’t see it – things like God. Sometimes you start out having trouble believing, having just a little bit of faith – just like a tiny seed – but if you plant it and keep on believing, it will grow enormous! Now, here’s a question for you.  Who can have faith?  (Give them a chance to answer). And who makes faith grow? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. God.

So here’s what I want you to do.  I want you to each take a seed and a sign to remind you that your seed is a symbol of your faith – it might be small now, but it will get very big if you just let God grow it. Then I want you to plant your seed. If you don’t have a place at home, you can plant it here at Grace – because church is a very good place for there to be faith – or you can plant it anywhere you want (as long as your grown-up says it’s okay) – because you can plant faith anywhere!  Can you do that?  (Give out seeds and signs). Do you agree to do plant these?  And what do we say in church when we agree?  (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. AMEN.  Let’s say it together: AMEN.

Sermon for June 10, 2018: Our family (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

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We are studying St. Paul at our Wednesday Eucharist / bible study, and as Rev. Deb told us last week there is an overarching question in our study of how you know that you or anyone is indeed called by the Holy Spirit to a specific ministry. She also posed the question that when someone is so zealous in their calling, as with St. Paul, how do you know they’re not totally out of their minds? Or put another way, does faithfulness to Jesus sometimes make people act in ways that others consider to be crazy? This can be especially troubling if the person is a family member.

My half-brother, 20 years my senior, was in every way a model citizen. He loved the Lutheran Church and was a member of Trinity Lutheran Church in our town. Most members of that church considered him a pillar of that community, for he was in many ways a peacemaker and lover of all people.

My brother, through his wife, became very involved in the Lutheran charismatic movement, and when my sister-in-law couldn’t convince the pastor of the church to incorporate charismatic, (speaking in tongues) into the worship life of the church my brother and sister quit and became Pentecostals.

As time went on the nuclear family of my brother sister-in-law and niece became more and more withdrawn and separated from our extended family. The Pentecostal church had become their family. The reason I tell the story is that my brother exhibited more and more “crazy” behavior in his practice of his religion. For instance, he would dress up like a clown makeup and all and handout religious flyers to the tourist in Galveston or he would drag a big wooden cross with a wheel on the end evangelizing. Rev. Deb, our resident psychologist and rector explained to me that his behavior, might seem crazy to me and other people but could be perfectly normal within his church community. After all he was a functional member of society, having an important career, and loving and caring for his family.

My experience with my crazy brother makes me very sympathetic toward Mary and the rest of her family with what they were experiencing at the reports of her Son’s behavior.

Jesus had probably become a well-trained carpenter or tekton, like his father, and was perhaps the main support of his mother. But after his baptism by John the Baptist he just walked away from that life. He convinced fishermen to abandon their important vocation and follow him as well as a tax collector. He had amassed a multitude of followers trying to press in on him to hear his teachings and receive his healing. His family was there for an intervention, to rescue him from his own “cult.”

While Jesus’s family are attempting to rescue him and bring him home he is in the house having a debate with some irate Pharisees and Scribes who are attempting to use lies to discredit him. They claim that he is casting out demons because he has Beelzebub, an upper echelon demon, working for him giving him power to exercise demons. Jesus uses an analogy that a house divided cannot stand and if Satan cast out himself then he will surely fall.

He goes on to say that the only way a strong man’s house can be plundered is if the strongman is first bound. Jesus is stronger than Satan and binds him and casts out his demons.

I know that this may sound like something from a horror story featuring the devil, demons, and exorcisms but Jesus took seriously the realities of Satan and other demonic powers. Jesus likely believed, as many of his society did, that a personality named Satan existed, but the reality signified by the name Satan does not necessarily mean a personality with horns and a red tail.

It does name the demonic power that is actively engaged against the compassionate and reconciling love of God. The reality that Jesus names here is our captivity to the powers of evil signified by Satan, powers that continue to seek our allegiance.

They are the forces and structures of power that capture us and cause us to hurt ourselves, to hurt others, and to hurt God. Their numbers are legion (pun intended). To name a few of these, there is the power of racism, which tells us to believe that one group is superior to another simply because of skin color or cultural heritage. The power of nationalism that thrives on the fear of an imaginary foe and believes that citizenship in a state should be limited to one ethnic, cultural, religious, or identity group. There is the power of patriarchy, which tells us that men should dominate women. The power of materialism, which thunders at us that money gives us life. The power of militarism, the belief that only weapons and war bring us peace and security. There is redemptive violence that demands vengeance and retribution as a way of responding to a wrong, and an injustice that causes us to kill one another, often in the name of God.

These demons exact power over us not on their own, – no, we hand our power to them. And just as the prophet Samuel delivered God’s message to Israel of what the dreadful cost of having a king would be, fear drove them to give over their power to a human king.

These are the idols we worship and sins that separate us from God. The same fears can drive us to hand over to Satan our precious life that Christ won for us and not to know the Holy Spirit he sends to us.

To question or reject that presence and the signs of his kingdom are to risk missing out on the good news that God has in store for us in the person and message of this Jesus.

If we go back outside the house, which is a symbol of the church, Mary and Jesus’s siblings are calling for him to come out to them for they think he has lost his mind. Word is sent to Jesus but instead of him going out to them or having them brought in he makes the statement that his true family are the ones that do the will of God. These are his mother, brother, sister, and father.

Those who follow him and believe in him are his family. We are his family, the Church, his Body in the world. – Saying that Mary and his siblings are not his family apart from everyone who does God’s will through him means that no one has an exclusive in by bloodline or pedigree but only by faith in the Gospel. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

An ancient rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended, and the day was on its way back.

“Could it be,” asked one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the rabbi.

“Could it be,” asked another disciple, “when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” said the rabbi.

“Well then, what is it?” the rabbi’s pupils demanded.

“It is when you look on the face of any woman or man and see that she or he is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot do this, then, no matter what time of day it is, it is still night.”

May we all, my sisters and brothers, always walk in the bright light of Christ, amen.

 

Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 4054-4057). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

 

Sermon for June 3, 2018: Hearing God’s Call (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Over the last couple of weeks our Wednesday Bible Study group has been talking about what it means to communicate with God through the Holy Spirit. How do you know that it is God’s voice you are hearing? What do you do once you are convinced? What do you do if no one believes you?

If you are the boy Samuel, you are confused. Samuel is the son of Hannah, who, after being unable to bear a child for some time prayed to God, promising that if God gave her a child, she would dedicate him to God’s service. That didn’t just mean bringing him up right and encouraging him to volunteer at church. It meant that Hannah actually handed him over to live in the temple and be trained as a priest. In this particular story, Samuel is sleeping in the temple itself when he hears someone call his name.  He assumes it is Eli, the prophet and priest who is training him. Samuel himself has no way of knowing that it is God who is talking to him– but Eli does.

Eli recognizes God’s call to Samuel in several ways.  First, God is persistent, calling Samuel repeatedly until he gets an answer. Talk to anyone who has felt a call from God – me included- and they will tell you that God is annoyingly persistent. Secondly, God is unpredictable. God does not act as we humans would- calling in the most qualified person for the job. God does not call Eli – a seasoned priest – to share his prophecy. Instead, God calls a naïve and untrained novice to tell the people that he is about to do something so incredible that will make their ears “tingle.”

This is a consistent pattern in both Hebrew and New Testament scriptures. God calls the most unlikely of his servants to do the most significant of her work. St. Paul makes this point repeatedly throughout his letters, detailing his own unworthiness as a prophet and using his own weaknesses to demonstrate God’s strength. According to Paul, although he has suffered and even failed in his mission many times and in many ways, he remains assured of the truth of Jesus’s life and mission because, despite Paul’s own frailty, he continues to find life – and joy – through belief in Jesus.

Perhaps most tellingly, Samuel knows that he is truly hearing the voice of God because the task that Samuel is asked to carry out is not a happy one. “In the Bible, every instance of the prophetic call from God entails the commission of the prophet for some crushing burden.”[1] I have yet to hear a story in which God calls someone to do exactly what that person wanted to do anyway –one in which God ask them to get rich and spend money on themselves – one in which God tells them to sit down and make themselves comfortable. When I am asked about my own call to ordained ministry, I often say, “People say it’s a ‘calling.’ I call it a “dragging.” Whenever I have felt an irresistible compunction to do something I would never have considered doing before (and often really don’t want to do at all), my first reaction is always, “No, God, really!?” because my very reluctance to answer tells me that it is the Holy Spirit who is calling on me.

God’s summonses are also personal. God does not call out for “the little boy who’s sleeping in the temple.”  God calls for “Samuel.” God has known Samuel from before he was in his mother’s womb; God knows his sitting down and rising up. God discerns his thoughts from afar. There is nowhere where Samuel can go where God is not; wherever we go, God is there. God has laid her hand on Samuel, just as God has laid his hand on each of us. God knows us each by name.

In one sense, that is reassuring – the notion that we are never alone- but it quickly turns terrifying when we recognize how very steep the cost of doing God’s will may be. We know that God’s will is frequently disruptive. We know that people lose their lives in seeking to do God’s will. No wonder we resist it. We may want to do what is right, but we are only human beings – self-interested and fearful by nature. Our instincts are to protect what we believe is ours – to defend what we can comfortably believe. “To claim divine authority on behalf of the church is…to stand vulnerably under the living gospel…Good people in the name of God are capable of opposing the very good that [God sends]. In every generation there have been human attempts to invoke the name of God on programs and policies that end up subverting the love and grace [of God].”[2] This tendency is represented in the gospels by the behavior of the Pharisees.

Most of us have been trained to view the Pharisees as “bad guys” – but it is important to realize that the Pharisees loved God, and acted as they believed God wanted them to. The problem with the Pharisees was that they were rigid in their beliefs. “The Pharisees represent the basic temptation of religion to absolutize those things that mediate faith to us… [They] are portrayed as obsessed with religious authority, traditional observances, and righteousness. [They let their obsession with what they know] blind [them] to the compassion and joy that pour off Jesus toward all humanity.”[3] We are susceptible to this as well. I was raised in the Episcopal Church. All my life I have found peace and comfort in our liturgy. Religious tradition has much to recommend it. Tradition is, after all, one of the three sources of authority of Anglican belief.  But traditions – and comfort – and peace – are not the primary basis for our faith. Jesus is. Our structures are designed to enhance our desire to enact our beliefs as found in the words and example of Jesus – not distract from it. We cannot become so focused on the patterns of our worship that we forget its meaning. That is what Jesus was saying when he told the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. God provided human beings with rituals and rules to help us to get along with each other, to love one another. To use God’s laws to validate hatred, greed, and separation is not consistent with the loving, compassionate, joyful, Holy Spirit that God has given us as a guide.

If we want a measure of whether the Holy Spirit is genuinely present in our intentions, then we need to consider whether what we are being asked to do opens us to the world around us – or closes us in. The Holy Spirit is about expanding – not contracting – about widening, not narrowing. We cannot say that we are grateful that God’s arms are open to everyone and then close ours. The same thing goes for our minds. The Holy Spirit helps us to learn and grow – to gather fresh information and assimilate it into our beliefs, to experience God in new and enriching ways, and to share our faith. The Holy Spirit is about giving, not keeping. In every scriptural story in which the Holy Spirit is identified as a driving force, the task set before the hearer is not to get but to give something. The Holy Spirit asks us to focus on what we are sending out, not what is coming to us – and whenever we become focused on what we have or want we stray from the mission of the Holy Spirit.

The last thing Jesus did before he was separated from his disciples was to charge them with the Great Commission. “Go forth,” he told them, “and make disciples of all people.” This is the same Jesus who repeatedly talked about “feeding the hungry and caring for the naked and visiting those who [were] alone, (and) is the same Jesus who… [talked] about loving your enemies and [blessing] the poor and the poor in spirit and the persecuted.”[4] That means that in order to follow his command we have to speak to and break bread with people who are different from us and who do not believe as we do – to take risks in order to spread the gospel – and we have to do it without judgement, and without fear.

I know this is hard. I know this is frightening – but I truly believe that God has always and will continue to tell us how to best emulate the generosity and mercy exemplified in the life of Jesus – and I believe that it is by doing God’s will that we will be revitalized, reborn, and saved. Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.  AMEN.

[1]Bert Marshall, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 77.

[2]Don E. Saliers, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 77.

[3]Wendy Farley, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 94.

[4]The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, quoted in Jack Jenkins, “Bishop Michael Curry walks a fine line in the political fray,” in Religion News Service, 5/31/18, https://religionnews.com/2018/05/31/curry-fray/.

Sermon for May 27, 2018: Trinity Sunday, the Three in One and One in Us  (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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“Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me. Christ to win me. Christ to comfort and restore me.” Amen.

Today is the first Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Trinity Sunday – also known as the most confusing day on the church calendar. Even though every week we affirm our belief in a Trinitarian God, I suspect that very few of us – including me – are able to get our heads around the concept of the Trinity without feeling a migraine come on. But the Trinity is one of the foundations of our church and we affirm our belief in it weekly by reciting the words of the Nicene Creed, which has been the statement of our faith for almost two thousand years. We do this because the creed describes what the church has to say about the nature of God and, more importantly, our relationship with God and one another.

Most of the biblical passages that make up the ideas in the Nicene Creed are found in the New Testament, with the exception of today’s Hebrew Scripture from Isaiah, which some scholars suggest “points” to the idea of the Trinity. This passage also speaks directly to the question of who – or what – God is. When we listen to this passage, we hear that God is both powerful and compassionate – able to judge whole worlds, yet willing to forgive and renew any individual who cries out for it.

It also establishes who we are, and the news isn’t great; we are people of “unclean lips” living among others of “unclean lips.” We are sinners in a sinful world – and yet God still seeks us out and heals us in and through Jesus the Christ. That is what the second part of the Creed is about – what we believe about Jesus- and the primary thing we believe about Jesus is that Jesus is part of God. Just as God can only be understood in relationship to Jesus; Jesus can only be viewed in relationship to God. Specifically, what we say we believe is that Jesus is “begotten” from the Father – begotten but not made. The difference between these two words – “Begotten” and “made” is lost on most of us twenty-first century Christians, but it was important enough to split the Christian church into two parts in the third century. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “We don’t use the words begetting or begotten much in modern English, but everyone still knows what they mean. To beget is to become the [parent] of: to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. .. But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. ..That is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man.” Jesus was not made by God as we were. Jesus is something new and different but equal to God and made of the same essence as God. That’s why we say that all things to have been made by both Jesus and God. It is why Jesus can speak for God and act as God, even as he shares our humanity with us. Jesus is the way through which God experiences us and we experience God. It is the way through which God calls us.

The question is, how do we know if we have answered that call? That was what Nicodemus wanted to know. Nicodemus was a “secret” disciple of Jesus, interested in what Jesus was saying, but “who held back from a full and public commitment to him because of his fear of persecution.”[1] Nicodemus’s doubts and questions were not so different from our own: how do we know what is right and, when we are confronted by those who would persecute us for trying to do what is right, how do we endure? That’s where the third part of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit – comes in.

If we think of God as our Creator and parent, and Jesus as God humbled to live as one of us to show us how to live faithfully, then the Holy Spirit is the constant presence of God among us, reminding us that we were created and saved by God – and that we are called to share and live that Good News at all times and in all places. The Nicene Creed reminds us that we believe not only that Jesus will come again, but that he is here now. The same God who created us is the same God who saved us and the same God that is in us always.

As Nicodemus found, this is both a comforting and frightening idea. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be reborn, Nicodemus asks how that is even possible. It is from this passage that the phrase “born again” comes. Interestingly, interpreters tell us that the Greek word that has frequently been translated as “again” is actually more accurately rendered as “above.” Jesus is not talking about rebirth through any human action, but through the will and desire of God. Baptism represents rebirth, but it is only an outward sign of an inward spiritual grace. Like birth itself, experiencing the grace of rebirth can be traumatic.

For one thing, there’s a lot to change – and the first thing that has to go, according to John’s gospel, is our complacency. The truth is that even “nice, normal people [can also be] malicious, arrogant and lazy. We flee from a righteous God while we continue to think of ourselves as religious.” And we are
prone to think in terms of what is “enough.” This is dangerous. “Rebirth is a
spiritual experience available to all, but perhaps most needed by…people who
think they do not need it…[who think that faith is simply] a matter of the
correct observance of particular practices. [But] when these practices become
routine, they may actually serve to hinder spiritual sensitivity.” In other words, when our faith becomes rote and
being a Christian seems easy, then it is likely the Holy Spirit is absent. We
know this because whenever God’s people become complacent, God sends prophets
to speak to us – and people have never
liked what the prophets had to
say- and we still don’t.

But “God’s intention is never to condemn [his children] but to save [us]”[2] – to save us from ourselves if necessary. God does this because God wants to be in relationship with us. Understanding and celebrating the Trinity reminds us that, quite simply, God is all about relationship – relationship within Godself, represented as the Trinity; relationship between God and his beloved creation; and the relationships among the members of that creation. That is why life in Christ is meant to be experienced in community. Whether we rejoice or suffer together, triumph or struggle in doing God’s will, God wants us to do it together. Just as Jesus came to experience our human nature so that he could save us from it, so too we, in relationship, can confront our own baser instincts – our prejudices, self-righteousness and fear -and work through them together. Worship was the setting for the call of Isaiah, and it is through communal worship that we gather the strength not to go home and rest, but to go out and do the work of the Holy Spirit. “The Lord shall give strength to his people” the psalmist says- and that strength comes through community. It comes when all people together demonstrate the Glory of God by doing God’s will.  That strength comes through the third part of the Holy Trinity: the Holy Spirit, God among us- Christ in hearts of all that love him, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. AMEN.

[1]Randall C. Zachman (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 44.

[2]Paul L. Hammer, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation],49.

Sermon for May 20, 2018, 8 a.m.: Pentecost (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

Like some of you, I was raised with the 1928 Prayer Book. For those of you who don’t know, this was the third revision of the Episcopal prayer book and was officially used in the U.S. for approximately fifty years. Among other differences with our current prayer book, the 1928 Prayer Book referred to the Trinity – the three aspects of God – as, “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Now, when I was a child, I understood the idea of God as a kind of father because in those days many households – and certainly television families – had fathers who were in charge of the discipline in the house – so I thought of God as the one who made and enforced the rules. In Sunday school, I was told that “the son” referred to Jesus, who was God’s son. But no one was ever really able to adequately explain to me who this “Holy Ghost” was. All I knew about ghosts was from Halloween – and they were scary. How could a ghost be part of God?! So, I was secretly relieved when in the “new” prayer book the Holy Ghost became the Holy Spirit.

But I still didn’t understand it. “Spirit” is certainly a less creepy way of referring to the third member of the Holy Trinity – but I don’t know if it makes it any clearer who – or what – The Holy Spirit is. I realized how hard it is to explain the Holy Spirit when I set out to write the today’s Children’s Homily – and I knew for sure that the church had been falling down in its duty when I asked my husband what he thought and he said, “Well, there’s lot of support in the Bible for the Holy Spirit being like a scary ghost.  What about when God sent the Holy Spirit to drown all of the Egyptians so the Israelites could cross the Red Sea? “Honey,” I said, “that happened in the Hebrew Scriptures –and it wasn’t the Holy Spirit. It was an angel. The Holy Spirit doesn’t come until the New Testament – until after Jesus is crucified, resurrected, and ascends – until Pentecost, to be specific.

“Well,” Gary said, “That doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist before. Don’t we believe that God – all aspects of God – existed from before time? So, the Holy Spirit was there then.” He’s not wrong.  At our baptism at today’s ten a.m. service we will renew our baptismal vows in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, part of which says, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth; I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Yet, in today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he will send them, from the Father, a Spirit of truth to guide them – and in today’s lesson from Acts, that Spirit arrives.  How can the Holy Spirit have conceived Jesus if Jesus sent the Holy Spirit after he died? It is pretty confusing- so let’s try to sort through it.

Here is what we profess to believe: before time as we know it, an entity with power we can’t imagine and a mind we can’t begin to comprehend was set over all beings, including supernatural creatures we call “angels.” At some point in time, this creator God made the world as we know it. We call that entity “God the Creator.” Jesus called him “Father.” Part of God’s creation was life – again, all of it, with human beings being the last and most complicated thing God made – and God loved this creation. Our scriptures are the story of the relationship between God and creation – about how human beings made bad choices and rejected God’s love – and about how God kept trying to make that relationship work. Finally, in the fullness of time, God sent a part of Godself to live as a human being among human beings to demonstrate God’s great love for us and to save us from ourselves – and yet again, we rejected God’s gift and sent him away – and that’s where today’s story begins.

Since Easter, we have been hearing about how after Jesus’s death, the disciples, mourning and fearing for their future, witnessed his return. He appeared to several people in several places, which gave them hope and heart to continue his movement. The resurrected Jesus echoed what the living Jesus told the disciples prior to his crucifixion – what we heard in today’s gospel- not to worry, that he will continue to be with them and show them the way. What they did not understand when he was alive, they will now come to experience after his Resurrection. “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth…will testify on my behalf.” It is crucial, he tells them, that you receive this Spirit, because it will explain to you the things you can’t understand now, and it will help you to explain to others what my life meant. This Spirit –“Paraclete” in Greek – will have three aspects. First, it will be an Advocate – something that will speak on behalf of Jesus and Jesus’s movement – something that will prove the truth of what Jesus said. It will also be a comforter, helping them get over the loss of the earthly Jesus by being “the presence of Jesus when Jesus is absent.”[1] Finally, it will be a helper. The Holy Spirit will help God’s people to see the truth that others cannot and give us “the grace to courageously live and bear witness to it.”[2]

This “Paraclete” arrives in full force on Pentecost. There’s a reason for that. In our Wednesday Bible study, one of the things we’ve been talking about is how the author of Luke/Acts ties together events of the Hebrew Scriptures with the story of Jesus and his apostles. Today’s reading from Acts does this in abundance. First of all, it puts the disciples all together in a very public place on a very important day. Jews had come from all over the known world to celebrate the Jewish Feast of Weeks – called Shavuoth – which happened on the fiftieth day after the second day of Passover – thus the name “Pentecost”  – fifty. The Feast of Weeks was associated with the commemoration of the giving of the law to Moses. The Jews, then, were there to honor their relationship with God and the promises that God had made to them. Suddenly, this great festival was disrupted with “violent wind” and tongues of fire appeared in the crowd and rested upon them, and all of them suddenly had the ability to speak so that the others could understand them. For Peter and the disciples, this event clearly signaled the fulfillment of God’s promises – and Peter told them so. “God told us,” he preached, “that God’s spirit would be poured out on us, and everyone would prophesy, and everyone who returned to relationship with God would be saved.”

There are a couple of very important things to remember here. First; God sent the Holy Spirit to everyone. The disciples didn’t get to pick who their representatives would be; it’s not just the smart or the rich or even the nice people – everyone can be touched by the Holy Spirt. Secondly, although many are drawn to the ruckus, the Spirit is first evidenced – and Peter’s first sermon is preached – to the Jews, not the Gentiles. Third, and most importantly, the arrival of the Holy Spirit is not about replacing or defeating one set of beliefs in favor of another. It is about renewal. It is not a unique attempt by God to redeem creation, but it is a spectacular one that demonstrates God’s continuing interest in us. God didn’t just create us; God watches, helps, and delights in us. As today’s psalm clearly states, “God is a God of creation, sustenance, death, and a God of renewal… [Just as Ezekiel found in the valley of the dry bones], the dead can be made to breathe again. The bones dried up to dust can be revived. The parched earth is made to teem again with living creatures upon the return of God’s spirit”[3]– and human beings can turn back from evil to good.

That is what the Holy Spirit is – not the revival of one soul, but the renewal of all souls. It is the experienced presence of the risen Christ in our hearts and in our lives, a perpetual reminder of God’s desperate and determined love for us – and it manifests itself in community. That is why Pentecost is called “The Birthday of the Church,” because even though the Holy Spirit rested on many individuals, it showed itself to them as a group, as a people – and it continues to do its best work in the same way today. The people of God are connected to God and one another in the church through the power of the Spirit and through God’s church the world can be renewed and reborn. AMEN.

 

[1]Judith M. McDaniel, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 21.

[2]Emmanuel Y. Lartey, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 22.

 

[3]Robert Warden Prim, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 13.

Sermon for May 13, 2018: In the World (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

I had the experience, years ago of sending my daughter off to her first day of school. I watched my little one, who seemed to have only celebrated her first birthday, gather with the rest of her classmates and enter their first classroom. Some may have had the experience of sending a child away to college, or maybe to serve in the military. Some might have put a child who has grown up much too fast on a plane or bus and watched it depart and leaving us alone. We may have felt we won’t be there with them to protect them or even remind them of simple life things that need to be done.

We may have prayed: “Dear God, these children you gave me are growing up so fast; and I can’t be with them to take care of them all the time. Lord, please protect them. Keep them safe as they travel. Bring them back in one piece. Guard them from anyone who would hurt them and take advantage of them. May they remain faithful believers in you in the face of everything the world throws at them.” (1)

Sadly, this may also be the same for a person who is going to die and leave loved ones behind.

This is what we hear in our Gospel reading for this seventh Sunday of Easter. Jesus is in the garden and prays for his disciples knowing that he is about to be arrested and eventually crucified.

What we hear is part of what theologians call Jesus’ High Priestly prayer that Jesus offers up in his role as mediator between God and humanity. It’s plainly a prayer for those who had become followers of Jesus during his ministry, but equally clearly it extends to encompass all who would become followers of Jesus in the future.

Jesus prays to God to enable his disciples and us to be in the world without his physical presence to be witnesses of his Good News: The Good News that God loves us; and God sent his Son for our sake.

In his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus was praying to the Father to take care of the disciples and us after he was gone.

Jesus prayed for God to provide protection, unity, joy, and sanctification for his disciples and to all of us who follow; We can’t fully protect ourselves, or create true joy, or sanctify ourselves, or build unity from within ourselves. We need to entrust ourselves to the prayer Jesus made to God on our behalf.

Jesus specifically prays to his Father not to take us out of the world but to protect us and guide us in the world so that we may continue the work Jesus started on earth. Jesus prayed that that he is not of the world but in it, so likewise are we.

 

While I was growing up I would be told from time to time that I am in the world but certainly not of it. I kind of understood what it meant, but it was mostly used to encourage me to behave like a model Christian boy and stay away from the bad things and behavior in the world. I have to say it probably didn’t always have the intended effect, but that’s a subject for another sermon.

What distinguishes the disciples and us from the world is very simply that we belong to Jesus and do not belong to the world. In other words, we don’t conform to the world’s values, our ultimate loyalties are not those of the world.

We don’t bow down to the idols the world worships, we might say that we followers of Jesus are not seduced by the idols of greedy individualism, hedonism, and consumerism.

What Jesus is even now praying for us, among other prayers is that we should be protected from those things.

The ‘world’ here means something like a structure of values and life-commitments that opposes God and God’s values. Jesus’ disciples are different because they belong to Jesus. Belonging only requires that we believe in the Gospel of Jesus. Belonging is something the culture of our day is rather ambiguous about.

Belonging doesn’t mesh well with the kind of freedom and autonomy people want and value. Belonging isn’t the kind of relationship you can opt in and out of as you please. It insinuates commitment and being identified with.

It clashes with the individualism of modern society. But there are also plenty of signs that – within the contemporary breakdown of community, family and committed relationships – people still long to belong. We were not made for freedom from belonging, but for freedom in belonging.

Jesus also prayed that his disciples be made one as he and the Father are one and furthermore be made one with him.

This is what we find in belonging to Jesus is that it entails belonging to one another.

As the disciples, we also find our identity in belonging to Jesus, this is a primary thing that distinguishes us from the world.

By this we share in the joy of the Holy Spirit that binds the Holy Trinity and that binds us into the Body of Christ, the church in the world. We are one in Christ as He is one with The Father

This certainly doesn’t mean that we are all made identical, we still have our personal identities. The Church has a sense of a variety of personal charisms or gifts to make Christ’s gospel known to the world.

In his prayer Jesus reiterates over and over that his disciples are in the world, meaning his church is in the world. We are now Jesus’s arms legs eyes ears and mouth in the world that bring good news of salvation to the world.

It is understandable that because the world is sometimes such a disagreeable place we would like to withdraw from it, having glimpsed what is holy and good in hearing God’s Word, worshiping Him, and receiving Communion.

The history of Christianity is filled with accounts of such human arrangements: reform movements, communal living, utopias, retreat centers, small groups centered on prayer and piety, attempts to reclaim the practices of primitive Christianity as interpreted by charismatic leaders.  

While each of these developed its peculiar shape and ethos, all of them have been efforts to create a space, unencumbered by the world, that would allow for a fuller realization of a faithful, holy life. But as good and righteous as some of these efforts are the church is called by Christ to interact with the world.

Even now the church is a balancing act. On the one end we see a church that would withdraw from the world and concentrate only on personal piety, spiritual development and withdraw from the world’s cares. On the other end a church that endeavors to uphold the achievement of personal prosperity and political gain to create a theocratic rule.

The church that Jesus calls us to be is one that cares for the world, especially the poor and the helpless. One that works for the protection of God’s creation and one that reflects the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflects the praises of all creation back to its maker.

As C. K. Chesterton said “We do not want a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world.” Amen.

 

(1)http://podcast.wbts.org/2015/05/

(2)David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 18988-18989). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

 

Sermon for May 6, 2018: What God has made clean (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

On Friday as I was preparing to write this sermon, my husband Gary interrupted me to ask a question about cell phones. He was planning to change our service and part of the deal was for two of our four family members to get new cell phones.  “So,” he concluded at the end of his explanation, “do you want to keep your phone or do you want to get a new phone and give yours to Nick.” “Are you kidding”? I asked. “Give Nick the new one. You know I don’t like new things.”  And then we both started laughing – because we both knew that last Saturday I spent a fair amount of time with the vestry talking about new things – about change- and I was the one speaking in favor of it.

Most people I know don’t like change, but maybe that’s just because I hang around with a lot of church people, who are notorious for hating change. (How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb? CHANGE? We don’t change)! There are reasons for this. Change is often disruptive. One of the reasons we have longstanding rules is so that people know how to act in different situations. It’s important to know, for example, if the hot tub you are using has a bathing suit policy or not – otherwise, getting in could turn out to be very uncomfortable.

The people from whom the first apostles were descended had lots of rules. The biblical book of Leviticus is pretty much full of rules- so full that even the leaders of the Jewish people were not sure whether any of them could be bent (or broken) and which of them were the most important.  This was such a huge topic of debate that the Pharisees figured it was the trickiest question they could ask Jesus to make him look bad. Luckily for his disciples – and for us – Jesus had a very decisive answer for them. “Love God. Love your neighbor. None of the other rules mean anything if you don’t keep these two.” It seems very simple, but can be extremely complicated in practice, because there are just as many opinions about what it means to “love” as there are about what rules we ought to follow. It’s easy to get tied up in knots.

I once conducted a wedding in which the groom asked me if he could be baptized – right then and there. He had been so taken with what he’d learned about Christian community during their premarital counseling that he wanted to enter his marriage knowing he would be part of it. After some thought, I baptized him – and his best man – immediately after the ceremony. There is no doubt in my mind that this was the work of the Holy Spirit and that I would have been wrong to stand in the way of it. Nonetheless, it was still a little nerve-racking to explain to my bishop why I’d broken the rules.

This kind of dilemma – how to discern when the Holy Spirit compels you to break a human law- was a common problem for the first apostles.  As Jews, and followers of a Jewish Messiah, they believed that the new recruits to their movement should also be Jews and continue to follow the rules of Judaism.  Among other things, this meant that the new Christ-followers needed to be circumcised and observe Jewish purity laws, which included strict rules about communications between Jews and Gentiles. Initially, Peter was the loudest defender of this belief, but then something happened that changed all that; he had a vision. Peter had a dream in which a sheet full of forbidden foods was put in front of him and “a voice,” seemingly God’s, told him to eat it. Peter protested that as a good man he couldn’t break the rules against eating these unclean foods, but God answered him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”[1] In other words, God is above human rules. God was not just talking about food either. That became clear when a messenger arrived that very morning to tell Peter that he was wanted at the home of a Roman centurion named Cornelius who had had a dream of his own, telling him to listen to what Peter had to say. So, in order to follow where God was leading him, Peter had to break two more rules – he had to enter the house of a Gentile and accept hospitality from a Roman. Neither Peter nor Cornelius was happy about this arrangement. Neither of them jumped up and said, “Yay! I hated those old rules anyway.” Neither wanted to change – but they did it because God told them to.

The question is, “how did they know that doing this was right”? How did they know that their dreams were coming from God and not the devil? The answer is that what God asked them to do was completely consistent with what they already knew about God. God is a God of connection not separation. God is a God of justice, not discrimination. God is a God of generosity, not greed. God asked Peter to put aside rules that encouraged prejudice and inequity and share the impartial and boundless love that the apostles experienced in their relationship with Jesus the Christ. That’s the God Peter knew – the God you and I know.

This concept – that membership in Christ is not based on whether we are able to adhere to certain rules, but instead whether we truly love God and want to obey him – is confirmed in the story of Phillip and his encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. After talking with Phillip, the eunuch was so filled with the Spirit that he shouted “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized”? Well, everything really. “Those who heard the story could have shouted, ‘You’re a different race, you are from a far-off country, you are a sexual misfit, and you have had very little instruction,’”[2] but the response that Phillip received through the Holy Spirit was quite different -“actually, nothing, nothing prevents this.” It’s the same answer that Peter recognizes in today’s reading from Acts. When the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his family, Peter was astonished – but still understood that what was happening was a gift from God. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit, just as we have”? And the answer is again, “no.” No one can.

The church has long followed a membership model in which we require people to believe and behave in order to belong. “But…Jesus modeled a backward pattern of inviting people into [his circle], proclaiming belonging and homecoming to the outsider, before beliefs or behavior were taught or tailored.”[3] That’s because Jesus knew that human beings had begun to use rules and patterns of worship to separate people from God and one another – and that was the last thing God wanted.

If we want to know what God does want from us, we need look no further than today’s gospel. After telling his disciples, once again, to keep God’s commandments, he says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” God wants us to experience true joy – the joy that only comes from dwelling in God and following God’s Laws. And what are God’s primary laws? “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.” All the other commandments are based on seeking to know God and discern God’s will and loving one another.

For the apostles, that meant changing how they were doing things in order to spread the love of Christ to others – and sometimes it means the same thing for us. It is not human rules, but “the rule of the Lord that alone provides the stability and dependability that makes it possible for us to live full lives…God’s new, unexpected, and marvelous acts do not just sustain order but point toward the creation of new possibilities of life beyond all human expectations.”[4] When we sing a new song, we can be safe in the knowledge that all the beautiful music in the world is from God, and all changes that promote the love of God and the love of our fellow human beings, are truly righteous. God’s commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. Sing a new song. Shout with joy; lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing. Go and bear fruit. Go and love one another. Amen.

[1]Acts 10:15

[2]Barbara K. Lundblad, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 481.

[3]Paul Rock, (2016), in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic plans for Years A, B, and C,” compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 121.

[4]Ismael Garcia, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 484.

Sermon for April 29, 2018:  (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

Listen here:

I attended an ordination this past January and while at the chilly reception on the Cathedral close or patio I happened to talk with a person that I knew from the church I served in San Francisco. As we talked it came out that she wasn’t worshiping at that church any longer. I was somewhat disappointed because she had been very active there. I assume that she had joined some other congregation but when I asked her where she was now she informed me that she wasn’t a member of any congregation. She told me with a big smile she didn’t need to be part of “organized religion” for her spirit to be nourished. The conversation ended with her statement and I was left with a sinking feeling.

On the BART ride home, I kept seeing her beautiful smile and her words that she didn’t need a community to worship. I was also bothered by my lack of response to her words, but in such a short time and in a very public area it was probably best that I didn’t.

As I was praying and thinking about this incident I was reminded of an apocryphal story that I had heard in a sermon years ago. It was about a pastor of a parish who had gone to visit a parishioner who had dropped out of the community.

It was a gray winter evening and the person he was visiting had a nice fire going and had poured a couple of sherries. There was very little conversation between them, instead they just sipped their sherry and watch the warm glow and dancing flames in the fireplace. After a time, the pastor suddenly stood up and walked to the fireplace and taking a pair of tongs reached in and picked up an ember from the glowing fire and set it on the hearth. The pastor returned to his seat and the two finished their sherries while watching the glowing ember slowly dim and finally go out. The pastor went to the hearth picked up the cool ember in his hand and tossed it back into the fire. In a short time, the ember returned to the warm glow of the rest of the fire. As the pastor stood to leave his host shook his hand and exclaimed; “that was the best sermon I have ever heard.”

In the Gospel for this Sunday Jesus teaches with yet another metaphor. This is Jesus’ final “I am” saying and is part of his Farewell Discourses. His parting words that are meant to give his followers strength for the days after his death.

Throughout the Gospel of John Jesus uses seven I am metaphors each describing his relationship with God the Father, his disciples, and the whole cosmos.

“I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the good Shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way and the truth and the life.” And finally, in this last metaphor he describes himself as the True Vine.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel saw itself as the vine planted and cared for by God. But, Israel, according to the prophets, often disappointed God because it failed to be fruitful by holding things in common, being compassionate, and focusing on justice. Israel proves not to be the true vine. So, God sends his incarnate Son to be his vine.

The power of any metaphor, be it a dying ember or the vine is not that it defines a thing, but that it points to something else. Jesus self-identifies in images that are familiar to his followers and that hold theological meaning.

Our Gospel reading begins after the Last Supper where Jesus leads the eleven disciples out to the garden where he intends to pray. On the way he tells them that he is the True Vine and the Father is the vinegrower or vinedresser. He continues the metaphor by saying that the Father removes any branches that do not produce fruit and prunes back the ones that do produce fruit, so they grow even more.

Most of us in this part of Northern California are familiar with vineyards. When we drive by or visit them we notice that the vines are growing in an orderly fashion and there are no tangled branches that reduce the yield of the vine. The vines are pruned before the beginning of the growing season to remove all the tangled stray branches and the ones that produce leaves and fruit are pruned back so when they grow out they produce even more. The pruning is always done by a skilled vine dresser to ensure the greatest production of fruit.

In our reading the Greek word kathairō is translated as “prune” and “cleanse” in this text it carries the sense of cleansing, making pure, free from blemishes or shame. It has the same root as the word used in the foot-washing.

After Jesus explained that the disciples are the branches that bear fruit he tells them that they are already clean in the same manner he told Peter that he didn’t need to be washed but it’s already clean. Jesus assures them that they have already been cleansed by His Word.

The disciples and we by extension are connected to Jesus the Vine, members of the Body of Christ, cleansed by our baptism and His Word.

How are we to produce fruit? We, the branches, certainly cannot squeeze out of ourselves fruit on our own any more than the branches of a vine. Jesus tells us that when we abide in him and he in us we will bear much fruit. The Greek root for “abide” (menō) carries a range of meanings— “staying in place,” “enduring,” “holding out”—that imply the faithfulness and reliability of God’s presence in and for God’s community. Our abiding gows in two directions and as such is very intimate. Jesus gives us his life and we return ours to him. It is intimately relational.

The branches that do not produce fruit fail to live in love and are concerned only with themselves. It is all about them and not the community. Those who cut themselves off from the vine.

The evangelist did not write this metaphor to describe those who were in and who are out, but to ensure us that we through the Sacraments are continually being cleansed by the Holy Spirit of God of our tangled branches. The tangle of things that interfere with our spiritual growth and bearing of fruit.

What is the fruit that we bear? – Love. – In our Epistle lesson from 1 John we hear “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” And “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”

Christ abiding in love in us and we in Him produces the fruit of love that we share with the world. We share His love by proclaiming the Gospel in our lives by caring for one another especially for those who by whatever circumstance are unable to care for themselves adequately, working for social and economic justice for all people. By being good stewards of God’s creation and working to leave to our future generations a beautiful and inhabitable world, and for our love and care of the very least of God’s children.

May our love and prayers also work to bring back those who for whatever reason have cut themselves off from the true Vine our risen Lord. Amen

David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Location 15937). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Sermon for April 22, 2018: In the hands of the Good Shepherd (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You may listen here:

As someone who performs weddings, I am often asked to assist with choices ranging from what music should be played to whether the bride (or groom!) can wear white. Recently, I was asked about the appropriateness of using of a specific psalm at a wedding – the psalm we recited today.  The “shepherd psalm,” as it is often called, is one of the most popular passages of scripture. The beautiful imagery of lush and quiet green lawns and gently lapping waters and the assurance that the Lord will take care of us no matter what has soothed generations of people. And yet, for some folks – including the mother of the bride in this wedding- it is associated with death – maybe because it is so often used at funerals. Certainly, if there is ever a time that people need reassurance that God is with us, it is when we are separated from those we love by death, but Psalm 23 is not about death. It’s about how God support us in life and death – and what it means to fully put ourselves in the hands of God.

The familiar image of the Good Shepherd – Jesus as a cherubic, glowing, white-robed figure surrounded by fluffy white sheep that match the cottony white clouds in the clear blue sky that inevitably surrounds them- is both common and popular. It’s also wildly inaccurate. In ancient Israel, “the life of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. It was dangerous, risky, and menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say, ‘I am the good shepherd,’ would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated… A modern-day equivalent might be for Jesus to say, ‘I am the good migrant worker.’”[1] Thus, by using this particular analogy, Jesus was communicating his willingness – and the willingness of God – to share our human life – as humble and rough and tumble as it might be. More amazingly, Jesus was saying that God not only cares enough to live with us, but he actually loves us enough to chase us down. The best Hebrew translation of the phrase, “follow me” in the line “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me,” is actually “shall pursue me.”

That’s not something the religious leaders in this morning’s reading from Acts who assembled to judge Peter and John after they were arrested for healing a disabled man were ready to hear. They were focused not on God’s faithfulness, but on his power. “By what power…did you do this [healing]”? they asked Peter. They wanted to know what other power had begun to attract so many people. They were worried that the disciples’ actions on behalf of a crucified Messiah would divide the already powerless Jewish people. From our perspective Peter’s response- that he had healed in the name of Jesus and that “there is salvation in no one else” – suggests that Jesus was being presented as a replacement for these leaders – but when you remember the context, that doesn’t make sense. Peter was not speaking to outsiders; he was talking to his own religious leaders. The first members of the “Jesus movement,” were Jews.  There was no such thing as “Christianity.” Peter was not telling them that Jesus the Christ was sent to overthrow the Jewish leadership.  He was telling them that Jesus was sent to save them. “The function of this text [therefore] is the opposite of division. The purpose of this passage, instead, is to announce that no human being or human authority can erect a religious tent…and say, ‘Unless you come into my tent, you cannot have God.’ God has acted on behalf of the whole of humanity in Jesus Christ, and there is ‘no other name,’ no human channel, that can make exclusive claim to religious power.”[2]

This is still true. Jesus, like a shepherd, came to demonstrate to all people the way to salvation. “Palestinian shepherds during the Ottoman Empire were known to travel ahead and ‘arrange’ a field for safe grazing.”[3] This is what Jesus does for us. He goes ahead to prepare the way of the Lord. All we need to do is to follow – and yet we are afraid. We are afraid of where following Jesus might lead or what might be asked of us if we follow him –will we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death; love not only in word or speech, but in truth and action; lay down our lives for one another? It seems like too much.

Of course it’s too much – for us. But let’s remember who we are in this story. We are not the shepherd; we are the sheep. God knows that we cannot do any of this alone – and God does not expect us to. “The relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is based on what the shepherd does [not] what the sheep do.  It’s all about who the Shepherd is rather than who we are.”[4]

There has long been a theological debate over the nature of salvation. Are we are saved by our faith alone, or if it is necessary for us to do good works as well?  The truth is that it is a package deal; genuine faith actually changes us so that we can do good works- so that we can, in fact, do anything that is asked of us in God’s name. “Believing in Christ means believing that Christ saves us by making us like himself…When God creates saving faith in our hearts, God creates active love. Faith in Jesus Christ is faith that transforms the believing heart, making it a self-sacrificing heart.”[5]

It’s easy for us to find reasons that we cannot do or be what God asks of us. It is easy to worry, as the Sadducees did, about all that divides us – to fear, as the disciples did, those who are of the other folds- to shrink away from the shadows in the world and in our hearts. We live in a time in which fear, doubt, and suspicion are rampant – in which the things we thought we could trust have proven false – but those are human things. We are the people of God. We do not follow the path of those who are led by the false gods of power and wealth. We follow Jesus, who prepares the way for us. We are in the hands of the Good Shepherd – and we need fear no evil. Amen.

[1]Nancy R. Blakely, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 450.

[2]Thomas G. Long,  (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 434.

[3]Kent M. French, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 441.

[4]Nancy R. Blakely, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 452.

[5]Ronald Cole-Turner, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 444.

Children’s Homily for April 15, 2018: Mission Possible (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

 

How many of you guys have heard of the movie, “Mission Impossible”?  (Give them a chance to answer). “Mission Impossible” is a movie series now, but a lot of grown-ups probably remember it as a television show from when we were younger.

“’Mission Impossible’” is a spy story with a lot of mystery and excitement. On the old television show, it always began the same way — secret agent Jim Phelps would receive a tape recorded message which said, ‘[Good morning] Jim. Your mission, if you choose to accept it is…’ and then it would give him an assignment which seemed impossible to accomplish. Of course, he always accepted the assignment. [Then] he would then choose a group of agents — each one with a special talent — who would help him to accomplish his mission. As you might guess, the super-secret agents of the ‘Impossible Mission Force’ were always able to complete their missions.”[1]

So, what has this got to do with the gospel story that we just heard? (Give them a chance to answer). Well, remember that on Good Friday – way back like two weeks ago –we heard the story of how Jesus died. (Give them a chance to answer). And on Easter, we heard the story of how his friends went to visit his grave and he was not there! He had risen! (Give them a chance to answer). But in today’s story, who showed up to see them?  (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right – Jesus!  And that was really weird, because they knew he had died and yet, there he was! What do you think they thought? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – they thought he was a ghost! But then he ate with them AND talked to them and they knew he couldn’t be a ghost. That seems IMPOSSIBLE, doesn’t it? (Give them a chance to answer).  But it wasn’t impossible, because NOTHING is impossible for God!

Okay, so when Jesus talked to his friends, he asked them to do something for him – something that seemed very hard.  He asked them “to tell the whole world about Jesus’ love and forgiveness. Now, that [might] seem to be an impossible mission for a group of boys and girls, but it isn’t. [That’s because] we don’t have to do it alone. The Church, like the “Impossible Mission Force,” is made up of many people [and] each of us has been given special talents to help accomplish the mission. If we choose to accept our mission, then ‘Mission Impossible’ becomes ‘Mission Possible.’”[2]

So, here’s what we’re going to do.  First, we are going to put on our Super-Secret Agent Mission glasses.  (Hand out sunglasses).  Then, I am going to hold up cards that each have a special Impossible Mission Force Agent Talent on them.  Your mission (should you choose to accept it) is to think about which of these talents – these gifts from God – that you have.  Then when I give you the card, your mission possible is to go out and use your talent to tell people about Jesus and how he loved us and told us to love other people.  What do you think? Can you do it? (Give them a chance to answer). Okay, here we go! (Give out cards). Now, there may not be one for each of you – but don’t worry!  More than one person can have the same talent and that’s good, because that’s more people doing good things for Jesus! AND, if you don’t see one that says what you think is your special talent, you can take a blank card and write your talent on it to show me later!

Okay – does everyone have their mission? (Give them a chance to answer). And everyone agrees to try to do their mission? (Give them a chance to answer). Good – and what do we say in church when we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. AMEN. AMEN.

[1]Charles Kirkpatrick, “Mission Possible,” Sermons4Kids, https://www.sermons4kids.com/mission-possible.html.

[2]Charles Kirkpatrick, “Mission Possible,” Sermons4Kids, https://www.sermons4kids.com/mission-possible.html.

Sermon for April 15, 2018: “You are Witnesses” and We Are Witnesses,”
An Early Eastertide Commission 
(Dr. Donald F. Morgan)

In our readings from Acts and Luke this morning, the disciples and those who
have been in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and post-
resurrection appearances are labeled as “witnesses,” folks who have experienced
new, and different, and unexpected things. To be sure, something has
happened—and it seems impossible not be affected. Surprise and the unexpected,
either through appearances of the risen Christ or miracles done in his name, like the
healing of a man lame since birth—all of these things create feelings of joy, wonder,
and amazement, on the one hand, as well as doubt and fear, on the other.
In light of these new experiences and our legitimately conflicted responses to
them, it seems appropriate to ask: “What does it mean for us to be witnesses to
these things?” Does it mean, for example, we actually had to be “there,” wherever
that was? Clearly, as our lesson about Thomas and his doubt told us last week, we
don’t need to be there to experience the risen Christ in our midst. Still, as
witnesses, we have heard about and been touched by these new things. We, like
the disciples of long ago, have lots of different feelings—some that may motivate us
and energize us, some that may confuse us and make us fearful.
So again, in the midst of our joy and wonder and praise, on the one hand, and
our fear and doubt and lack of understanding on the other, how can we be good and
faithful witnesses—as both Acts and Luke commend us to be?
In trying to answer this question, our lessons provide some clear direction,
some help. To begin, an understanding of what has actually happened and what it

2

all means is surely a significant part of being a good witness. Scripture—an all-
important repository of the experience and learning about the story, norms and
values of the people of God– provides a critical piece of our understanding. In Acts,
for example, while addressing the people, Peter presupposes they know the God of
our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and all the stories about them and
God)—declaring this God to be the primary actor in this post-resurrection healing.
“You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by
our own power or piety we had made him walk?” In Luke, Jesus teaches the
disciples, once again, the stories and laws and prophecies that make it clear what
God had promised and accomplished through him. “Then he opened their minds to
understand the scriptures.” So, studying and learning , remembering and recalling,
asking questions and being open to the ways in which new revelations are
foreshadowed and foretold in the experiences of God’s people recounted in
scripture—this is a critical part of being a faithful, and good, witness.
For Peter and all the disciples, then, what has been seen and experienced and
witnessed to is ultimately rooted in mystery, in God’s action. Why a Messiah, a
chosen one, has to suffer and die; How such a One rises from the grave; How further
miracles are accomplished in his name—all of this points to something beyond our
comprehension, if not our grasp, to an affirmation of power and control and purpose
lying with the One who creates and destroys, who brings new life and healing. In
everything from table fellowship to study and prayer, we are witnesses to all this. It
is grounded in both scripture and in our own experience.

3

But there is yet one more dimension to what it means to witness in Luke and
Acts this morning. And, despite the many different ways in which we experience
the risen Christ, this dimension of witness, this action mandated by scripture, Jesus,
and God, is the scariest one of all. “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells us,
now go and tell others. After all our study and prayer and experience of things old
and new, after all of this witness involves a faithful response to a mandate, to a
commission, to a vocation—a common calling for all Christians. Whether we are
filled with joy and energy and motivation, or sorrow and doubt and fear—we are all
called, as witnesses, to proclaim the story in his name, the story we have seen and
been a part of, to everyone. Being grounded in scriptural learning, open to the new,
to surprise and the unexpected, accepting the many ways in which the risen Christ is
experienced, we now live into our vocation as witnesses and proclaimers of the
risen Christ.
In this Easter season it’s sometimes easy to become a little distracted, just
listening to all the voices, the disciples and our own, filled with questions, with
sadness, with disbelief, with fear, with joy. But witnessing requires a commitment
to look at our experience clearly and with focus, ready to be truth-tellers about what
we see, regardless of whether we can understand it or whether it might have
adverse effects on us or others. We are asked to be both bold and confident as we
look carefully at our world, finding the risen Christ in places unexpected and
sometimes unexplained. To do this well might from time to time demand that we let
go of the voices “in our head” of joy and doubt and fear and just focus on the task at
hand: to look carefully at our world, to be open to seeing and embracing mystery,

4

ready to testify that “it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the
dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be
proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses
of these things.”
Amen.

Sermon for April 1, 2018, Easter, It’s personal (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Your may listen here:

I have begun to think that what human beings – collectively and individually – really need to do is to get over ourselves. We take things too personally. I used to think this was cultural. The United States is built on the power of individualism – on the notion that each of us the ability to make of our lives what we will, that we are the captains of our destiny, that we are “self-made” people. This self-image has become part of the way we practice religion. It is the basis for what has been called “The Protestant ethic” – the idea that we can through our own good works somehow earn salvation. But I don’t think this is limited to our culture. People all over the world chase “enlightenment,” climb paths to fulfillment, and try to advance their “operating levels.” Whatever language you use, the desire for spiritual advancement is everywhere – as is the idea that we can achieve it.

Good luck. Because I don’t believe -and there is nothing in our scriptures that suggests -that any of us can earn salvation. So – and I say this with love, affection, and deep understanding: we need to get over ourselves. We need to get over ourselves and accept the fact that we have already been saved. That, after all, is what today is all about: the fact that we have been saved. Can I get an “Alleluia”?

It deserves an “Alleluia” because if you think about it, that is quite simply a miracle.  Whether any of us personally thinks we have been doing pretty well walking the path of Jesus – giving to those less fortunate than us, performing good deeds, trying to love our enemies – or whether we think we are the most awful people that ever lived – if we believe that God loves us enough to have sent Jesus into the world to live and die as a human being, then we are saved. Who believes that?

That’s what we say anyway – but if that’s the case, why do we spend so much time thinking about what bad (or good) people we are?  Why is there a multi-billion dollar market for spiritual self-improvement? Why do we keep trying to earn salvation?  Perhaps it’s because it’s so hard to fathom anyone loving us that much – anyone loving us no matter what we have done- anyone loving us even when they know who we really are. And yet, that is what our scriptures tell us, that God created us and gives us the opportunity to live as she does – in a world of justice, love, and peace.

Our Hebrew scripture for this morning provides us with an example. The section of the prophet Isaiah we heard today speaks of the promise of God’s salvation, but it actually occurs in the middle of a passage in which God promises to judge the world- harshly. “After a review of oracles against many nations, including Israel and Judah, chapter 24 [of Isaiah] presents an apocalyptic vision of God laying waste to all the land and its people. The day of the Lord is… a cleansing or purifying of all those forces and institutions that stand against the love and justice of God.”[1] This context tells us a couple of important things. Number one: we are not the first of God’s creatures to act thoughtlessly and violently or to live in times of injustice, sorrow and death. Perhaps more importantly, it reminds us that God does not judge us as individuals, but as a people. “There is certainly a tension in Scripture between the fact that God intends to redeem the whole earth…and the persistent theme of stubborn human resistance to God’s will on the part of persons and institutions.”[2] In other words, we suffer because we as an entire race of people continually refuse to accept God’s grace.

Maybe the idea that we simply have to say “yes,” just seems too easy. The earliest Christians certainly had trouble believing it themselves. Look at how they reacted to the resurrection.  For one thing, it’s pretty clear they were not expecting it. None of the gospels suggest that they were sitting outside the tomb waiting with eager anticipation for Jesus to come back out. They had, in fact, left Jesus’s body in the care of the pretty peripheral figure of Joseph of Arimathea. Then, at the end of the Sabbath, most of the disciples don’t even go to the tomb. “Notice [that]…the followers who had proudly walked at the head of Jesus’s pack are nowhere to be found. They have left the scene of the story, having finished their work. The only ones left in this weird trauma-rife grave space are those who in the course of daily life tend to the unseemly but necessary – cooking, cleaning, grieving, bearing children, and perfuming bodies that hold the stench of death. They are the ascribed custodians of crucifixion – the trash-collecting body bearers of Easter.”[3] It is to these women that the resurrection is revealed – and it is to their credit that, although they are a bit ambivalent about the news – receiving it with “fear and great joy” – they immediately run off to tell the other disciples about it. They are the first to believe that Jesus has risen. These women do almost without thinking what generations of Christians and we ourselves struggle to do on a daily basis; they believed.  And what was their reward? Their names are forgotten or mixed up and the church has focused on the later “proofs” of the resurrection offered to other disciples.

Perhaps it’s because they were women – but perhaps it’s also for another reason. Perhaps the early Christians, like us, couldn’t understand that believing was enough. Today’s New Testament reading demonstrates that even the great evangelist Paul struggled with this. After focusing on the Good News of salvation through Christ for most of his letter to the Corinthians, he suddenly starts talking about himself. “For I am the least of the apostles,” although, “I worked harder than any of them.” “Like the autobiographical flashes in other letters… [this] is an all too human mixture of self-recrimination… vanity… second—guessing…shrugging…and confidence.”[4] For Paul, salvation is personal.

As it should be for us – because salvation is personal – and it is all about us, but not in the way we may think. The truth is that Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross redeemed humanity – and it redeemed each and every one of us.  That is the miracle of Easter – that God not only has the power to transform the world but, perhaps even harder to believe, God has the power to transform us. Jesus’s death and resurrection changed – and continues to change – everything, the “us” that is humanity and the “us” that is Deb, and Gary, and Dick, and Sally, and Michael, and Lynda, and Kent. That is grace. Our work is to accept it, to get over ourselves – to understand that we can do nothing to save ourselves – and we don’t have to. Jesus has done it for us. Believe it. “This is God’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Alleluia. Amen.

[1]Alan G.Padgett, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 358.

[2]Ibid, 360.

[3]Serene Jones, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 354.

[4]C. Clifton Black, (April 5, 2015), “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2415.

Sermon for the March 31, 2018, Easter Vigil, Part of the Journey (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Happy Easter!  I hope you are feeling very excited and privileged because you are the very first people at Grace to get to say, “Alleluia!”  In all seriousness, however, I do hope you really are glad you are here. The Easter Vigil liturgy is one of the oldest and, I think, most beautiful, liturgies in the Christian church. According to our brethren in the Church of England, “From earliest times Christians have gathered through the night of Easter to recall the story of God’s saving work, from creation through to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, the Easter Liturgy is not merely a presentation of God’s work. It is meant to be a real experience of new life for the worshipper…

The Easter Vigil marks the end of the emptiness of Holy Saturday, and leads into the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The singing of the Exsultet, the ancient hymn of triumph and rejoicing, links this night of our Christian redemption to the Passover night of Israel’s redemption out of Egypt. Christian baptism is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ… It is fittingly a time when those who are already Christians may repeat with renewed commitment the promises of their own baptism, and strengthen their sense of incorporation into the royal and priestly ministry of the whole people of God.[1]

The Easter Vigil celebration is actually older than our Easter Day Feast. It was initially part of what was once called “The Great Week” of Easter, which celebrates both Christ’s death and resurrection. Instead of having separate liturgies for the three holy days preceding Easter – what we call “the Triduum” -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.

“During the fifth century, in the North African town of Hippo, where Augustine…was bishop, Christians fasted on Holy Saturday and then in the evening brought oil lamps to the basilica for the vigil of the Lord’s resurrection…The long night was one of waiting, watching, prayer, and anticipation. It began in darkness and concluded in the first light of Easter” [2]and tonight’s liturgy attempts to capture that transition – from darkness to light, from death into life, and from waiting to fulfillment.

The scriptures assigned for the vigil follow the idea of progression – the belief that faith is not as a single entity or event – something you either have or you don’t- but is rather a journey. We live in an individualistic culture, and, as a result, we are prone to think everything is, to coin a phrase, “All about us” as individuals – but that is not how the people who lived in ancient times thought. They viewed everything in terms of how it influenced the communities they lived in – how it demonstrated the state of their collective soul – and our scriptures reflect this understanding.  Psalm 114 is all about the power of God throughout all time and space. Paul’s letter to the Romans is a reminder that they walk in Christ not as individuals, but as a community.  Our gospel hints at what the Christians will say as they begin to share their faith. We too, then, need to remember that ours is not the first – or the thousandth – Easter. We stand behind generations of people who have put their faith in God, and who have seen God’s mighty acts in their own lives.

This is important for our own faith – because the kind of “ritual remembering” that we have done this evening is not just an opportunity to share song and stories, but also a good cure for self-absorption. Lest we should be tempted to let our minds wander to our own sins and salvation, the very structure of the Easter Vigil stops us cold, reminding us why we are here. By demonstrating the progression of God’s people “in moving from darkness to light and tracing the history of God’s activity [throughout time… we recognize] the scope of life lived in Christ. The vigil [gives us the] opportunity – [just as it gave our Christian ancestors in Rome and Hippo…] – to reflect on what God has done [in] bringing us to this point [in time] and where, by grace, we will go from here.”[3] AMEN. Alleluia.

[1]https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/churchs-year/times-and-seasons/easter-liturgy#mmm175

[2]George W. Stroup, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 346.

[3]James D. Freeman, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 350.

Sermon for March 30, 2018, Good Friday: Inquiring Minds want to know (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

“If you had the chance to talk to anyone, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be? There was a time when that question was pretty standard in job interviews.  I’m not sure what the prospective employers thought they’d find out by asking it – but to me the follow-up question is much more important.  I’d want to know why you’d choose that person. If we pick a “good” person, is it because we want to be like them or because we think we’re already like them? And if we pick a “bad” person is it because we want to learn how not to act or because we enjoy seeing people doing bad things we secretly fear we might do ourselves?  Or maybe we’re motivated by a simple desire to find out why these people did whatever it was they did.  We care about them because we think that knowing why they did suggest extreme things might tell us something about ourselves.  Knowing why might help us figure out how to make better decisions.  Understanding why might be a step toward forgiving others for things they have done to us.  We believe that there’s a reason for everything, and if we know what it is we will be safe.  Perhaps that’s why today, on a day filled with sorrow and pain, when I think about who I would talk to, I find myself wanting to meet Judas Iscariot.

For many of us church-going folk, Judas clearly falls into the category of “bad guy.”  After all, we think, Judas didn’t just betray his best friend for money, he got him killed.  And his best friend wasn’t just anyone.  His best friend was the son of God.  Judas is so famously bad that Dante named an area in the ninth circle of hell after him.  His very name has become a slang word for “traitor.”  But what do we really know about him?  It turns out to be not much.  He never appears in Paul’s letters, which predate all of the gospels.  He’s not mentioned in the gospels prior to his betrayal of Jesus.  Unlike many of the disciples, Judas has no origin or “call” story.  Even Judas’s name was common in first century Palestine – there’s at least one other Judas called by name in the book of Acts.  There are many theories about the meaning of his last name too.  In ancient Palestine, a man’s surname indicated who his father was, or potentially where he was from, but some scholars believe that “Iscariot” is actually a play on words meant to identify him as Jesus’s betrayer.  Others think it was just a clue as to what he looked like.  We don’t know if any of them are right.  What we do know is that the popular idea that Judas was Jesus’ closest friend and most loyal disciple is not found in the Bible.  Sorry, but “Jesus Christ Superstar” was only loosely based on the gospels.

Most importantly, we don’t know why Judas betrayed Jesus.  There are differences in how Judas is portrayed in the four gospels.  Mark’s gospel says Judas betrayed Jesus, but doesn’t offer any explanations as to why he did it.  The next gospel, Matthew’s, provides a bit more information.  In it, the Sanhedrin offers Judas money to betray Jesus – but the gospel writer stops short of saying that’s why Judas did it.  Matthew’s gospel is the earliest to acknowledge that after Jesus’s death Judas felt so guilty that he hanged himself.  The author of Luke offers a different reason for Judas’s betrayal: “Satan” entered into Judas’s heart and compelled him to betray Jesus.  In the Book of Acts, which was probably written by the same person as Luke’s gospel, Judas is punished by God for his betrayal when he buys a field with the silver he earns for his betrayal and promptly dies there after his body breaks open and his innards fall out.

The most recent gospel also has the most detailed account of Judas’s actions.  According to the Gospel of John, “The devil put it in [Judas’s] heart” to betray Jesus – and Jesus knew it.  In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him, and when Judas is identified as the one, Jesus orders him to go and do quickly what he needs to do.  John’s account is actually most consistent with a fifth gospel – one that is not found in our Bible.  The Gospel of Judas, written in the second or third century and found in the twentieth, is a “gnostic” text which provides a much different version of Judas’s discipleship.  The Gnostics were a Christian sect that believed that salvation was not about faith or works, but about secret knowledge passed down from Jesus to his followers.  In the Gospel of Judas, Judas is the hero of the story.  He understands Jesus and believes in him and his teachings.  That’s why when Jesus asks Judas to betray him, although he doesn’t want to, Judas does it.  So for the Gnostics and some Enlightenment scholars (and Andrew Lloyd Webber) Judas is a victim too.  It’s hard to know what to believe.  You can see why I’d like to sit down and talk to him.

Of course, asking Judas directly about what he did and why he did it probably wouldn’t help us figure out the truth either – because people lie -and we have ample reason to believe that Judas in particular cannot be trusted.  It’s also quite possible that Judas himself isn’t sure why he did it.  Maybe none of us can ever really be sure – because sometimes we just don’t know why we do things ourselves.  Sometimes we simply don’t know what to do.  It’s at those times – those scary, hard times – that all we have is what we believe – not what we think – not what we know – only what we truly believe -because authentic belief is beyond rationality.  If we genuinely believe in something – if it is stamped on our hearts – it is too much a part of us for us to explain “why” we know it to be true.  That’s why they call it “faith.”  And what Christians believe – what I want you to believe – is simply this: God is the reason “why.”  God is the reason for the darkness – and the light.  God is the reason for death – and for life.  God is the reason Judas did what he did.  God is the reason Jesus did what he did.  God is the reason.  “Wait patiently for the Lord,” the psalmist tells us – be strong, and let your heart take courage; believe and you too shall see the goodness of the Lord” – and you will understand why.  AMEN.

Sermon for March 29, 2018: Maundy Thursday, Ritual (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Today is the first day of the Paschal Triduum – the three days of preparation for the greatest feast of the Christian church: Easter. Although most Christians – even those who do not set foot in a church at any other day of the year (except perhaps Christmas) -celebrate Easter, generally it is only the most faithful that join together for these three services.  That’s a shame – because the liturgies of the Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Even – are some of the most beautiful of the entire church year. Unique and different from one another as well as from our common worship in both tone and practice, these three holy observances are religious ritual at its very best – which means that taking part in them is good for you.

According to a 2013 Scientific American article, “Research suggests that rituals [are good for you] – and may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence.”[1] The reason for this? Belief. Rituals work because people find meaning in them – and the rituals we practice in the days leading up to Easter have tremendous meaning. Not only do they help us to remember why we believe what we believe, but also the importance of how we practice those beliefs in our daily lives.

Our scripture stories tonight take us back to the Jewish Exodus, when God called upon Moses and Aaron to lead the Israelites out of bondage in the land of Egypt. “The structure of this passage reveals the relationship between the ritual and story” – how the story is the basis for the ritual, and how the ritual is centered in a community of faith.[2] Notice that the Lord recognizes that people will probably have to join together to fulfill the terms of the ritual, noting that, “if a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor.” “In other words, those who face this perilous time together should remain together and work together to do what needs to be done. When we are sundered from community, hope fades and disappears. But in community, hope is found, strengthened and preserved.”[3]

This is undoubtedly true of Christian community, because the primary ritual – the primary remembrance – of our faith is always performed in community. Paul gave to the community of Corinth the story and ritual that was given to him – an account of Jesus’s last meal with his friends and how he asked them to remember him each time they shared it together. “The body and blood are given for each individual personally, but the Eucharist also has a communal dimension, such that the meaning of the Lord’s Supper does not become individualistic.”[4]

John’s gospel adds another element to the story – and the ritual – by sharing how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet on their last night together. Although we tend to focus on Jesus’s humility in performing this act, we are also meant to understand that accepting this gift is also an act of vulnerability that strengthens our connection with him. As part of tonight’s ritual, we humble ourselves in each other’s presence by putting aside our pride and need for control and gratefully accepting the gift of love that is offered to us in Christ’s name. Most importantly, on this first night of ritual commemoration we are asked to remember in community and, as we think of “how God has been present with [his people throughout time and with] us along our life’s journey, [to] trust that God is present with us now, and will be present as we go forward.”[5] AMEN.

[1]Francesca Gino and Michael I. Martin, (2013), “Why Rituals Work,” in Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-rituals-work/.

[2]Danny Matthews, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 261.

[3]Gregory Ledbetter, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 263.

[4]Philip D. Krey, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 274.

[5]Margaret Ann Fohl, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 274.

 Sermon for March 25, 2018: Palm Sunday, The Suffering Servant (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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The other night while I was cooking dinner, Gary, who was checking his email, called out, “I just got an email from you.”  “Really,” I asked, “What did I have to say”? “Actually,” he told me, “it’s not from you. It’s from Marj Leeds on your behalf. She says you are a slave driver and are making her get people to be in the Passion on Sunday.” “Well,” I said, not missing a beat,” you write right back and tell her she has no idea how much of a slave driver I really am – and by the way why not be the centurion? He gets to say, “Surely this man was the son of God.” “I told her I didn’t care which part I did,” he said.  So she made him a soldier – which is not, I would like to point out, typecasting in any way.

This casual attitude about the casting for the dramatic reading of the Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday is new for me. For years – long before I was ordained – I sweated the moment when the rector or head lay reader would approach me and ask me if I would take a certain part. “Please,” I would think to myself, “not ‘Servant Girl’ again!” Every year though, no matter what other part I might play, I was always part of “The Crowd” – and I always played that role with what I would describe as “painful enthusiasm.” I shouted out “Crucify him!” as loud and as meanly as I could – because I was told at a very early age that that was the role I should identify with – that I, as a Christian, was responsible for Jesus’s death – that I killed Jesus.

It took me a long time to realize that many, if not most, Christians hadn’t been raised with this belief. Many Christians, in fact, avoid saying the words at all –distancing themselves from those “other” people from long ago who caused Jesus to suffer and die. But the truth is that we are those people. The people that cried out for Jesus to be crucified were not “bad” people. They were human beings who lived in a certain time and place. They believed what they had been told by their religious and political leaders – that Jesus was a crazy, radical who was intent on undermining the financial and social security they had worked hard for. That Jesus advocated for a whole new way of life, one in which people lived together in communities of shared belief rather than family and cultural ties. That Jesus was dangerous, because he encouraged people to engage with individuals of the lowest social status and to treat them as equals. They were afraid of losing what they had and angry with Jesus for making them feel bad about it, and they wanted him to suffer for it. Can you really blame them?

I can’t – because it’s likely that I would have done the same thing- which is the point. It’s why we are all part of “the crowd” – why we all are required to cry out – “lock him up,” “make him pay,” “let him suffer,” – “crucify him.” Over and over again our catechism tells us that Jesus suffered and died for us. Today is the day we are asked to own that, to feel it – to understand that suffering and pain are part of the deal, because without them there is no redemption, and without them there is no resurrection.

No one likes to suffer – nor to see others suffer. That’s why the question of suffering is such a significant theological issue – and why all of our scripture texts this morning have something to say about it.  Today’s passage from Isaiah is actually called a song of the Suffering Servant. There are several of these in the second half of the book of Isaiah and, although no one really knows who the writer is referring to, many people have read it as a prophecy of Jesus’s future suffering. That’s because Jesus, like the servant in Isaiah, was willing to suffer – and to teach others through his suffering.

The word that is used in Greek is “kenosis” or “self-emptying.” Jesus, who was fully human as we are, emptied himself that he could teach us how to find our way out of the pain we endure because of our humanity, and to teach others “to persist in the face of life’s struggles, finding new energy to continue on the path that God would have people follow.”[1] Suffering also teaches us to trust in God, to put our times in God’s hand, as Jesus did. As hard as suffering is, when we share it with God and one another, we learn to lean on God, and we learn to hope.

Does this mean that we should seek out suffering, as some theologians have suggested? I think not. In our passage from Isaiah, “it is important to recognize that the path of suffering love is…willingly endured [but not sought out]. This text is not a call to remain in suffering or abuse because one thinks abuse is somehow part of God’s ‘purpose.’”[2] I do not believe that God causes us to suffer to punish us. I believe that God is with us in our suffering – and that God can help us become stronger and better as a result of it.

The other important thing about suffering that we forget is that it “is not limited to individuals. Communities such as congregations can also suffer because they stand up for what is right or offer ways out of captivity. This is true in our day as the church is buffeted with many issues that sorely divide its people. The message of love and hope in the face of determination to stay safe in the status quo [is] very necessary.”[3] That is what St. Paul is saying to his friends in Philippi; when he tells them, “Let the same mind be in you” he is talking about the collective mind.  “Faith does not occur in isolation. Despite the rugged individualism of our culture, faith is not just something private between God and me. Rather, faith is, by definition, communal.”[4] Thus, we must, as a community of Christ, consider the meaning of the suffering around us. “We come to understand, for example, that our call is not merely to bear our own cross, endure our own crucifixion, as Jesus bore his. The cross of Jesus, we believe, signifies the suffering of all human persons – that burden that Jesus…took upon himself… [This means that] Christians are called to stand in solidarity with all those who suffer – [and most especially those whose]…suffering that is the consequence of injustice – the kind of suffering that does not have to be, that cries out for an end not in death but in change.”[5]

Each year as we each take our part in the story of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have the opportunity not just to witness his suffering, but to share in it by acknowledging our part in it. We are the crowd – but, unlike those who stood at the foot of Jesus’s cross and watched him die, we have the chance to empty ourselves of those things that hinder our ability to act as he did – hatred, prejudice, and, above all, fear – because the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. We must allow ourselves to feel his suffering and our shame so that we, as a community, can learn to truly follow his way, crying out not “crucify him,” but “Hosanna! Blessed in he who comes in the name of the Lord.” AMEN.

[1]Jon L. Berquist, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 161.

[2]Richard Floyd, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 162.

[3]Woody Bartlett, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 163.

[4]Stephen R. Montgomery, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 166.

[5]Margaret A. Farley, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 182.

Sermon for March 18, 2018: A New Covenant (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

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What are two things we aren’t supposed to discuss in polite company?   I was always told never talk about religion and politics. But there is one subject we avoid even more than the afore mentioned, and that is death

We tend not to talk about and deal with death, not because we have strong opinions, but because it makes us feel so uncomfortable. The death of a loved one is too real, too painful. The relationships and parts of our lives that have died are much too difficult for us to easily discuss.

For the most part, we just avoid the topic of death because it’s a downer in a culture that mostly wants to be happy, feel good, and avoid difficult realities. But most of all the thought of our own death is so very scary. How many of us would like to know exactly when our hour will come?

I don’t suppose the Greeks that petitioned Philip to see Jesus were expecting to get a discourse on death, or death as they understood it. They just wanted to see Jesus, and who could blame them, his reputation had proceeded him. He had turned water into wine, return sight to the blind, raised Lazarus from the dead, fed the 5000, and cleared the Temple.

Don’t we all want to see that Jesus, – but why do we want to see Him?

There are probably as many reasons for wanting to see Jesus as there are individuals.

If you want to know your reason for wanting to see Jesus, examine your prayers to him.

We may pray for a good and prosperous life, for good grades, for the ideal job and we often pray for Jesus to get us out of a jam. We pray for health and healing, alleviation of our pain both physical and spiritual.

Please don’t get me wrong, most of these things and many more are good things to ask in our prayers to Jesus, but mostly we want to see Jesus on our terms.

We don’t want to face the pain of loss and death in whatever form it comes.

Sometimes we want something from Jesus more than we want Jesus himself. But if we pick and choose only what we like and want and skip over and abandon what we do not like, want, or comprehend there is a real danger that we could become consumers of God’s life rather than participants in His life.

Christianity isn’t a smorgasbord or a spectator sport, it is fully participating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is what Jesus lays out for the Greeks who want to see him.

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”

Like those Greeks, if we wish to really see Jesus, then we must look death in the face. As much as we refuse to acknowledge the certainty of death, to the extent we elude and deny death, we refuse to see Jesus.

Frankly looking at, acknowledging, and facing death is some of the most difficult work we ever do. It is, as Jesus describes, soul troubling. It shakes us to the core.

Just as an aside, while on this subject, I recommend if you haven’t already done so, pick up an End of Life Planning Packet, or get it from Grace’s website. It will certinly be a help for you, your family, and the church when your hour has come.

Today the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the Church points us toward Holy Week.

In fact, in the past the Fifth Sunday in Lent was called Passion Sunday and began Passiontide, the two weeks ending in Holy Saturday. Now of course Passion Sunday is combined with Palm Sunday.

I bring this up to point out that the last four Sundays the Gospel has been talking about Jesus’s impending death.

In this way the Church teaches us not to avoid or deny death, for truly we must go through Good Friday to reach Easter. – There can be no resurrection without death.

Jesus describing what kind of death he would undergo said “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

The ruler of the world that is driven out is idolatry.

As NT Wright describes it: Sin, the consequence of idolatry, is what keeps humans in thrall to the nongods of the world, dealing with sin has a more profound effect than simply releasing humans to go to heaven. It releases humans from the grip of the idols, so they can worship the living God and be renewed according to his image. (1)

The idols, or systems, that keep our fallen world enslaved are things like worship of money, and power, –  of ourselves.

The systems are driven out by Jesus being lifted up and drawing all people to Himself.

In this way Jesus ushers in the New Covenant as Jeremiah prophesized: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. That law written on our hearts by being gathered to Jesus is that of love.

As our Savior taught us: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

The law is written upon our hearts in our baptism and gives us strength to cast out of our lives the ruler of the world – those idols that enslave us.

We die to ourselves and those idols and are risen with Christ in the New Covenant of Love.

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Through our baptism, through our spiritual practices and prayers, through our love of neighbor, even our enemies, through our ministry and care of the very least of God’s children, through our participation in Holy Eucharist, through our gathering together as the faithful, we—like the seed— die and sprout and grow into the Body of Christ to bear much fruit.

It is in these practices that we take up our crosses and grow in the knowledge of the love of God. We affirm through these that we have been redeemed. And we share that knowledge and love with the rest of creation.

 

(1) Wright, N. T. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 1242-1244). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

 

Sermon for March 11, 2018: John 3:16 (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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I once read a study that suggested that complaining is good for your health.  My first reaction was, “Well, I guess that means my kids are going to live forever!”  Then I began to wonder exactly what the study results meant.  Is it that complaining allows us to vent our pent-up feelings?  Or is it possible that when we voice our complaints out loud they don’t seem so bad?  Or perhaps it’s just that we get a tiny bit of satisfaction by making everyone around us as miserable as we are.

The Hebrew Scriptures don’t tell us whether the Israelites felt any better after they complained to Moses in the wilderness.  We just know that they did a lot of it.  Despite the fact that they were being rescued from a life of slavery, the Israelites started complaining almost immediately after escaping Egypt.  There are numerous passages in the Exodus narrative – called “the murmuring stories” – in which the Israelites sound just like children in the back seat of a car.  “I’m thirsty.  I’m hungry.  Are we there yet”?  God is pretty patient with them, but today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures suggests that at a certain point in the exodus God had had enough – so he sent poisonous serpents among the people – and many were bitten and died.  It’s safe to say that in their case, complaining was not good for their health.

Actually, it’s not necessarily good for us either.  According to study author Guy Winch, “We complain today more than ever before in history but few of our complaints get us the results we want. Instead we usually find ourselves repeating the same tale of woe or dissatisfaction to one person after the other in an effort to rid ourselves of our frustration… The problem is that today we associate the act of complaining with venting far more than we do with problem solving.”[1]  It’s like my mother always said: “Don’t just complain about it. Do something.” You see, it turns out complaining is only good for your health if it motivates change – if it gives you the sense that things can get better – if it brings hope.

Maybe that’s why the Israelites kept complaining –because they had lost hope.  After all, they were in the middle of a desert.  They didn’t know where they were going or how long it was going to take to get there.  They had given up everything they had based on the word of one man for the worship of a God they had never even seen. Is it so surprising that hopelessness – like poisonous snakes – started to make its way among them?

The members of the early Christian communities complained a lot too.  We know this because so many of Paul’s letters seem to be written in response to disputes among them.  Most of these epistles are about teaching people how to live with each other – but this one seems different, and, according to scholars, it is, having been written not by Paul but in imitation of him. It varies from Paul’s writings in several ways, but primarily, unlike Paul’s instructive letters this epistle is not about what Christian communities should do but rather what has already been done for us. The Greek rhetorical structure of it may seem a bit convoluted, but the message is clear; before Jesus we were victims of our human nature – sinful, disobedient, and spiritually dead. After Jesus we are saved. We are wholly and fully alive. This change is not the result of anything we have done; it is simply a gift – the gift of grace.

The belief that God sent Jesus to save us from ourselves is the core of what Christians believe. John 3:16. It can be found on t-shirts, posters, overpasses, and football players’ eye black. It is hung up and held up with no explanation- like it’s the secret password of salvation: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”  Humans are bad.  God is good.  Jesus died for our sins.  If we believe this we are saved, but if we don’t believe, we are condemned.  Simple.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps that second part – the bit about nonbelievers being condemned – troubles you a little. After all, don’t we all know some mighty nice people who don’t believe? Are we supposed to believe they are condemned? If this worries you, you are not alone. Jesus’ words troubled the person he was talking to too. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and an underground disciple of Jesus.  He was a member of the ruling class, which means that according to Jewish tradition he was assured entry into the Kingdom of God by birthright.  But in an exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus that took place right before today’s passage, Jesus told him that entry into the Kingdom of God had nothing to do with birth.  It has to do with spiritual re-birth.  It is not about what you do or who you are.  It is of what you choose that mattersand it has to be an informed choice.  That part is crucial. It is, in fact, why Jesus had to come into the world.

“The Greek word for judgment …is krisis, from which our English word ‘crisis’ comes. The coming of Jesus results in a crisis that demands a decision.  Neutrality is not a possibility.”[2] In other words, Jesus came into the world so that we might know him – and then make our choice. God’s “judgement is based on one’s response to the light that reveals a person’s true identity.”[3]  It is not those who have never perceived God’s grace but rather those who have experienced it and still choose to turn to darkness who are condemned.  It is those of us who call ourselves Christian but act otherwise who are doomed.

The good news is that we have many chances to choose the light – to choose the good – to choose God.  Faith is not a test. It is a process. It is a choice we make over and over again -whether to do good or evil- to love the light or hide from it -to promote life or participate in death. We are always making these choices – whether we recognize them or not. Maybe that’s why the Lord told Moses to put the snake on a pole where the Israelites could look upon it.  Maybe they needed to see that the snakes that bit them weren’t a punishment sent from God; they were a demonstration of what was already in them, in human nature. Human beings have the capacity for great evil – but also for tremendous good. The serpent is not necessarily a symbol of evil.  It can be a symbol of fertility and life. Thus, by changing a vessel of death into a sign of life, God took what was evil in their hands and turned it into grace in his. “They cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” – but they had to ask – to choose to believe and to be healed.  The Israelites chose salvation over sin, faith over fear, life instead of death.

It is the same choice Jesus offers us.  We live in a world in which sacred symbols are used to justify evil as often as they are used to inspire good.  It is a world in which it is easy to see darkness and one in which people no longer trust the Church to lead them into the light. In such a world it is hard not to complain, hard not to fear, hard not to give up hope – but hoping is exactly what we must do. Stop complaining and get up.  Choose to believe. Take up your cross and be saved.  AMEN.

[1]Guy Winch, “Does Complaining Damage Our Mental Health,” Psychology Today Online, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201201/does-complaining-damage-our-mental-health {accessed 3/13/15].

[2]W. Hulitt Gloer, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 121.

[3]Ibid.

Sermon for March 4, 2018: On these two commandments (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You may listen here:

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable to you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”

Seven years ago my brother-in-law committed suicide. He was 52. He had a wife and two children and an extended family who loved and needed him. He was a brilliant engineer with many patents to his name. He was smart. He was funny. He was incredibly generous. John bought our first living room furniture set for no reason other than that he knew I didn’t like the inherited furniture we had. I loved him. And I miss him. And I am still angry with him. Why did he do this? What in the world was he thinking?

These are the questions that almost always get asked when someone kills him or herself. Many Christians also ask another: “Will this person go to hell”? This was the question that people asked me after John’s death. Did the fact that he killed himself mean that he hadn’t gone to heaven – that he was not “saved”? As a priest I get asked a lot of hard questions, but none is more difficult than this one. It is devastating enough to suffer the loss of a loved one; knowing that the person you are grieving caused that loss himself multiplies that devastation – but the most crushing blow of all is the idea that your beloved is someplace that you will never experience them again – that he or she is outside the presence of God.

Yet that is what Christian churches have historically taught. Traditionally, the explanation for this is that suicide – killing of self – violates the commandment against murder – although that is actually not what the Roman Catholic catechism says. What it says is, “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations.”[1] In other words, although you find the teaching under the heading for the commandment against murder, the church’s reasoning appears to suggest that it is against two other commandments – love of God and love of neighbor.  I find this confounding for a variety of reasons. First of all, there are other human behaviors that suggest that many people do not have a “natural” inclination to preserve life. Also, although suicidal thinking is indeed contrary to the love of self, that’s not exactly voluntary – plenty of individuals who are suicidal have tried, even struggled to love themselves but failed. Finally, for many people suicide is driven by a desire to be removed from the pain of this world and be immersed in the love of God. How can it possibly be right to say that these individuals are to be eternally deprived of this love?

I don’t think it can. I think this reasoning misunderstands the nature of sin. I have said it before: sin is separation. It is the willful choice to live out of harmony with God and one another. Suicide is not the result of a rational choice to be separated from others. Suicide is the product of the belief that you are already hopelessly separated from others. Suicide is the result of an illness. People who commit suicide do not choose to die.  They are subject to the influence of brain malfunction -just like those who suffer from strokes – and we do not blame people for being ill.

Just as we do not condemn a child for seeking justice against an abusive parent based on the command to “honor your father and mother.” Just as we do not believe that it is okay to refuse to help someone on a Saturday or Sunday because we are bound to honor the Sabbath. This type of thinking misrepresents the nature of the Ten Commandments. It is this type of rigidity that Paul railed against and Jesus fought. Reasoning like this is why Paul told the Corinthians that they needed to stop focusing on who was the smartest and to start trying to live with each other in gratitude and humility. It is why Jesus, according to John’s gospel, took a whip to his local religious establishment.

Today’s is a hard gospel, because, although we would desperately like to believe that we would be right behind Jesus as he confronted the hypocrisy of his religion, we know in our hearts that it is far more likely that we would be on the receiving end of that whip. We know that we are no different from the people in that temple. They were trying to obey the laws of God. They were following the rules. They were doing it right. The problem was that they were so busy making sure the ritual was correct, they forgot the reason for what they were doing.

It’s easy to do. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of our traditions and forget why we do them. It is easy to start “thinking we understand Jesus, when the Jesus we think we understand is a Jesus of our own design.”[2] It is easy to forget that, as Psalm 19 tells us, God’s laws exist not so that we can achieve salvation –remember, we already have the gift of grace through our Lord Jesus Christ- but to help us to see God’s glory, to revive our souls, and to cause our hearts to rejoice. God’s laws, and God’s judgment, are a blessing. What they are not is a tool to use to hurt one another. When we employ God’s commandments to judge one another, we are defeating their purpose, which is to teach people how to “live before God and… how … to live with one another.”[3]

This concept is so simple that even a child can understand it – literally. In Godly Play, we explain that all of the Ten Commandments (or “The Ten Best Ways”) can be placed into one of three categories: Love God, Love your Neighbor, and God loves us. What an amazing exercise! What would happen if we adults looked at every one of our actions and asked ourselves how it fits into “love God, love your neighbor, and remember that God loves us”? I bet it would change our behavior. I think it also helps us to answer hard questions –like whether suicide is a sin.

Because when you look at it that way, the answer is always the same: The bottom line is love. We are all human – all flawed, all frightened, and most often confused. None of us knows what we will do in any situation until we are called upon to do it. We can only hope that we will act rightly, with courage born out of love.  That’s why we live in community – to help each other to do the right thing, the loving thing. In fact, that’s how we know we are doing the right thing – by whether or not it demonstrates love. Conversely, if what we are doing separates us from one another and from God – that’s sin.

So, when I was asked if John’s suicide was a sin, that is what I considered, and here’s what I concluded. John’s death did not separate him from those he loved; his illness had already done that. It did not separate him from the love of his family, because we still love him. And it did not separate him from the love of God, because nothing can do that. Sin separates. Love knits together. God asks us to love him even when it’s scary, and to love one another even when it’s hard. That’s the bottom line. We know this because Jesus told us. May God’s will be done. AMEN.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article V, section 2281, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm.

[2]Ibid, 97.

[3]George W. Stroup,  (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 76.

Sermon for February 25, 2018: The Way of the Cross (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

You may listen here:

“But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Rebuked Peter?  ‘Ya think!

I think we have all been in a setting, at one time or another, where we’ve regretted saying something a little too directly, or in a way that openly humiliated someone else. We have done this with opponents and found it bad enough, but it was always so much worse when we did it to someone we loved, someone who trusted us.

But look at this gospel.  This is unimaginable.  Peter, who Jesus called the rock, the one, who many believe, upon whom Christ would build his church.  Peter the Prince of the apostles, given the keys of the kingdom.

“But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter must’ve felt so belittled, been crushed, and devastated. As Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

But what had Peter done? What had he said? Yes, he rebuked Jesus, but why had this provoked such a response from Jesus?

The Gospel of Mark is quite abbreviated, compressed, and is scant on many details. It is the shortest Gospel after all. Other Gospels fill in the details of this incident. We learn that Jesus says he will be betrayed, suffer many things, be rejected and killed and Peter says: “God forbid, Lord, this will never happen to you.” Was that so wrong a thing for Peter to say? Did that deserve so strong a rebuke? – Evidently it was.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus is never described as being subject to mood swings, or certainly not cruel. It seems that Peter hadn’t made simply one of his legendary gaffs or made some simple mistake. Peter, probably innocently, had proposed a course of action that was – so wrong, so misguided, it was evil.

He was utterly rebuked, in language that cannot be forgotten, because it was meant never to be forgotten by Peter, not by the disciples who overheard, and not by those who would read of this moment, even today.

Jesus has said this before, “get behind me Satan.” When he was in the wilderness, tempted by Satan and he commands his adversary: “get behind me Satan.”

As Jesus was explaining how the Messiah must suffer, die, and rise again, the situation repeated itself. You don’t have Satan with horns, hoofs, and the smell of sulfur appearing, you almost never do. As C. S. Lewis, our great Christian apologist, points out – it’s a lot subtler than that.

Faithful, compassionate, the “Rock” himself, Peter, tells Jesus there is a better way to Messiahship. One that is safer, more comfortable, maybe more glorious, and much more human. To alter the will of God to a more human way. Jesus no longer sees Peter, he sees Satan. Even for Peter it’s possible to say all the right words about Jesus, he had just proclaimed Jesus Messiah, and yet still miss what it means to be his follower. Peter seems to have forgotten Isaiah’s insight that God says: My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts.”

The exchange with Peter prompts Jesus to gather the people following him along with the rest of the 12 disciples. Jesus tells those gathered that if they wish to be a follower, a student, or disciple of his, they must deny themselves take up their cross and follow him.

My homiletics teacher at the School for Deacons would often remind us students that we should proclaim the “Good News” in our sermons, but where is the good news in that? Deny ourselves and take up our cross so we may follow Jesus?

Deny ourselves and pick up our cross – that sounds difficult, maybe even painful. But what does that mean and why must we deny ourselves?

Ourselves, our need, like Peter, to rearrange our Salvation. – To have it done our way. To follow our human nature that has been named original sin.

Quoting part of the Episcopal Church’s definition of original sin in the Episcopal Dictionary: “Original sin may be understood as humanity’s innate self-centeredness. A consequence of this condition is human weakness and fallibility relative to sin. Another consequence is the influence of human sinfulness in our history and environment, to which we are subjected from birth.” (1)

Our self-centeredness, our human nature, this setting our minds on human things. Isn’t this Jesus’ critique of Peter’s rebuke?

Our culture’s tendency is to reduce Christianity to the therapeutic values of comfort, self-esteem, and warm, fuzzy feelings. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with those things. They do have a place in our lives. But if they become the exclusive values that guide our choices and determine how we understand our Christian faith, we run the risk of failing to hear and respond to the message at the heart of the Gospel. That message is established in the way of the cross.
CS Lewis and his book Mere Christianity describes Christianity this way:

“Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.’ (2)

So how do we to deny ourselves? What do we do with ourselves to have Jesus give us himself? – By taking up our cross, putting ourselves – our self-centeredness – on our cross.

Our Lenten discipline of prayer, fasting, and self-denial teaches us to do just that. By this discipline we can daily put ourselves on our cross and walk in the way of the cross.

The way of the cross is the central paradox of the Christian life. It says that we find our true selves by denying ourselves, that we save our lives by losing them, and that we enter eternal life by dying. The way of the cross is so deeply counter-intuitive and runs so hard against the grain of our natural instincts for self-preservation, that many recoil from it.

Blessed Paul writes “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

When we earnestly practice our Lenten discipline, and it becomes our daily routine, we learn to daily die to ourselves and become little Christs.

The Friday collect for morning and evening prayer speaks of the paradox of the way of the cross:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (3)

That is the Good News!

  • An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.
  • Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (pp. 81-82). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  • Oxford University Press. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer (Kindle Locations 659-661). Oxford University Press – A. Kindle Edition

Sermon for February 18, 2018: I do set my bow in the cloud (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

I don’t know how many of you saw this, but after the last big rain we had, there was an enormous rainbow over the Bay Area. I saw it from my driveway, then intermittently throughout my drive to work, and finally, from the Grace Meditation garden, majestically spread out over the hills of Martinez. What was fascinating was that it was different in every location I saw it, but equally beautiful in each – and I felt tremendously grateful for the opportunity to witness this powerful sign of God’s presence in the world.

In today’s Hebrew Scripture, we heard about the very first rainbow, which is the less famous portion of the Noah and the Ark narrative – the “postscript” that also happens to be the most important part of the story. Most people know the saga of Noah’s Ark. God gets angry with humanity and decides to destroy the world, leaving only Noah’s family to escape the great flood, along with two of each lifeform on the planet. The charm of God’s specific building instructions and the way the animals go aboard two by two often eclipses the starkest reality of the tale: millions of people die in it – and God feels bad about it.

We know this because afterward, God says he will never, ever do it again. The covenant of the rainbow “is the divine response to a theological…paradox: [God has taken on an] unstoppable purpose to create a peaceful cosmos [but this has] collided with God’s immovable compassion for destructive, recalcitrant humanity.”[1] God made a perfect world and wants to see that world restored, but God also created human beings and, despite the fact that it is these creatures who have corrupted that world, God cannot bear to destroy them, even though it is clear that she can do so. The story of Noah’s Ark tells us two things: one is that God is complex and powerful beyond our understanding. The second is that, regardless of that power, God is deeply and lovingly involved with each of us, and willing to make sacrifices that we may be saved.

God’s willingness to curb his might on our behalf is demonstrated by the unusual nature of the rainbow covenant. A covenant is, by definition, an agreement between two parties – but the covenant of the rainbow “requires nothing whatsoever of creation.”[2] It is a one-sided deal. In it, God “accept[s] self-imposed and unilateral boundaries…God places a restraining order against God’s self to defuse brutal retaliation upon unrestrained, violent creation and sets a sign in the sky to see and remember the vow. This covenant also reveals…the intractable sinfulness and undeserved blessedness of humanity, and all creation’s total dependence upon God’s active compassion.”[3] “God repents, turns from vindication to forgiveness, patience, and steadfast love for creation and for humanity, despite the knowledge that the human heart may (will?) never change.”[4] “The God revealed here is adaptable, touched to the heart by creation, and willing to accept hurt to keep hope alive. Often, Christian redemption is associated with mutable humanity fitting itself to an immutable God. The God of this covenant is unchanging only in refusing to give up on creation.”[5]

Most of us struggle with the idea of a God that is both omnipotent and tender, focusing either on God’s power and authority or forgiveness and mercy. Our scriptures are full of examples of both attributes of God, and, depending on which aspect of God we are drawn to, we make seek out passages in which one or the other is demonstrated. This is fruitless – because God is not one or the other, but undivided, both our judge and redeemer. The story of Noah’s Ark tells us that God will judge the nations for our sinfulness, but also assures us that God always gives us reason to hope. It can be viewed as an early milestone on the path that God walks on our behalf throughout human history. “The self-limitation and willingness to sacrifice divine freedom that [God displays in] this passage … reach their climax in the passion of Jesus Christ,”[6] because it is through Jesus that we most fully experience God’s presence among us.  Through Jesus, we recognize God is with us in suffering – even and especially the suffering we bring upon ourselves, the suffering of our sin. Through Jesus, we realize that God is not simply a rigid, judgmental power or an undefined and indiscriminate deity. God is an authority both beyond our reckoning and as recognizable as our own hearts. God can destroy and God can save: just as God used water for destruction in the Noah story, God uses water for salvation through Holy Baptism. “The power of God is so awesome that God transforms the flood water into the means of salvation.”[7] Baptism, then, is our ark – and, unlike Noah’s, it is a boat that everyone can get on. It is for the righteous and unrighteous, for the imprisoned and the free, for those who have waited long and for those who will yet come to believe.

Baptism is also the way in which Jesus first chose to reveal the power and authority he derives from God. John the Baptist’s “appearance in the wilderness was an apocalyptic sign of God’s coming, bringing both judgment and hope”[8] and Jesus’s acceptance of John’s baptism cemented its authority and reminded the people of God’s earlier promise that he would not destroy, but redeem them. “As in so many other transformative religious experiences, [Jesus’s baptism shows God as]… at once gentle and dovelike, yet acting with awesome, disruptive effect – descending without warning from a heaven ‘torn apart,’ reorienting one’s self and the world, and setting one on a new and revolutionary spiritual path.”[9] It is a decisive demonstration of God’s mighty power and God’s unstoppable mercy, of God’s consistent presence among us, and of how far God will go to save us from ourselves- even so far as to allow his son to triumph over earthly temptation in order to rewrite the human story, “recasting the destiny of all God’s people.”[10]

It is a lot to wrap our heads around, which is why the church provides us with a season in which we are asked to study and to pray, a time to learn to accept and be grateful for the mind-boggling complexity of God,   and to remember that God is with us in all things. “The psalmist sought to learn of God’s ways, not in a time of comfort, but in the midst of difficulties,”[11] and we can do the same. Whenever we feel powerless in the face of tremendous loss, whenever we cannot make sense of the pain and sin in our world, whenever we feel hatred, anger, and fear rising like bile in our throats, we must remember God’s presence among us and ask for God’s help – and if we forget, we need only to seek his bow in the clouds. Amen.

[1]William Loyd Allen, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 28.

[2]Ibid.

[3][3]William Loyd Allen, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 28.

[4]Jane Anne Ferguson (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 28.

[5][5]William Loyd Allen, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 30.

[6]David J. Lose, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 31.

[7]Ronald J. Allen, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 42.

[8]Stanley P. Saunders, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 49.

[9]Rodney J. Hunter, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 48.

[10]Stanley P. Saunders, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 49.

[11]Charles L. Aaron, Jr., (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 34.

Children’s Homily for Sunday, February 18, 2018: Follow the Rainbow (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

How many of you guys have ever seen a rainbow?  (Give them a chance to answer). Do you like rainbows? (Give them a chance to answer). What can you tell me about rainbows? (Give them a chance to answer). Did you know that rainbows are a gift from God? (Give them a chance to answer). Who knows the story of Noah’s Ark? (Give them a chance to answer). Good.  But can you tell me what happens AFTER they get off the ark? (Give them a chance to answer). God sends a rainbow.  Do you know why? (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right – to remind us that God will never get so mad again that he will send a big flood. And for another reason.  Do you know what that reason is? (Give them a chance to answer). Well, I want you to help me tell a story so that we can figure out that other reason.  Ready? (Assign seven children to be the seven colors and someone to be the RAIN). (Tell the story):

“THE STORY OF THE RAINBOW” (Thanks to http://www.davidsemporium.co.uk/rainbow.html)

Once upon a time all the colors in the world started to quarrel; each claimed that they were the best, the most important, the most useful, or the most favorite.

GREEN said, “Clearly I am the most important. I am the sign of life and hope. I was chosen for the grass, the trees and the leaves. Without me all the animals would die. Look out into the countryside and you will see that I am in the majority.”

BLUE interrupted. “You only think about the earth, but consider the sky and the sea. It is the water that is the basis of life and this is drawn up by the clouds from the blue sea. The sky gives space, and peace and serenity. Without my peace you would all be nothing but busybodies.”

YELLOW chuckled: “You are all so serious. I bring laughter, gaiety and warmth into the world. The sun is yellow, the moon is yellow, the stars are yellow. Every time you look at a sunflower the whole world starts to smile. Without me there would be no fun.”

ORANGE next started to blow its own trumpet. “I am the color of health and strength. I may be scarce but I am precious because I serve the inner needs of human life. I carry all the important vitamins. Think of the carrots, the pumpkins and the oranges. I don’t hang around all the time, but when I fill the sky at sunrise, or give you a majestic sunset to admire, my beauty is so striking that no one ever gives another thought to any of you!”

RED could stand it no longer. Red shouted out, “I’m the ruler of you all. Blood, life’s blood. I am the color of danger and bravery. I am willing to fight for a cause. I bring fire in the blood. Without me the earth would be as empty as the moon. I am the color of passion and of love, the red rose, the poinsettia and the poppy.”

PURPLE rose up to its full height. He was very tall and spoke with great pomp: “I am the color of royalty and power. Kings, chiefs and bishops have chosen me, for I am the sign of authority and of wisdom. People do not question me. They listen and obey.”

 

INDIGO spoke more quietly than the others, but just as determinedly. “Think of me, I am the color of silence. You hardly notice me but without me you all become superficial. I represent thought and reflection, twilight and deep waters. You need me for balance and contrast, for prayer and inner peace.”

And so all the colors went on boasting, each convinced that they were the best. Their quarrelling grew louder and louder. Suddenly there was a startling flash of brilliant white lightning; thunder rolled and boomed out. The suddenly RAIN started to pour down relentlessly. The colors all crouched down in fear, drawing close to one another for comfort.

Then RAIN spoke: “You foolish colors, fighting amongst yourselves, each trying to dominate the other. Did you not know that God made you all, each for a special purpose, each unique and different. God loves you all, he wants you all. Join hands with one another and come with me. God will stretch you across the sky in a great bow of color as a reminder that He loves you all, that you can live together in peace, a promise that he is with you, a sign of hope for all for tomorrow.”

So whenever God uses a good RAIN to wash the world he puts the RAINBOW in the sky, to help us to remember.

What do you think God wants us to remember? (Give them a chance to answer). Good! We need to remember to live together and  appreciate each other and help one another to know God, because God will never forget us and will always give us hope. Okay? (Give them a chance to answer). Do we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). Good. Who remembers what we say when we agree in church?  (Give them a chance to answer). Amen.  So let’s say it altogether (Amen).

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, 2018: Don’t give up (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a priest is “What is Lent”? If I asked you to shout out words or phrases that you think of when I ask you what Lent means to you, you might say, “40 days” or “penitence” or “purple” or, most likely, “giving something up.” The custom of self-sacrifice and fasting is an ancient one, finding its roots in today’s Hebrew Scripture from Joel, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children…let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.”

As you will hear in a few minutes, the first Christians instituted 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 the custom for those people to wear hair shirts for the entire 40 days. Those shirts were sprinkled with the ashes from burned palms left over from Palm Sunday. For them, the focus was on penitence, of thinking about and trying to make up for our sins.

In modern times, the focus of Lent seems to have shifted to one of self-denial. Most Christians I know give up something for Lent. In fact, I came across an article on the internet entitled “The top 5 things people give up for Lent.” Number one? Chocolate – followed by cigarettes, alcohol, Facebook, television, and junk food. I suspect that most of us have given up at least one of those things for Lent in the past – I know I have. And that’s fine – but why do we do it? The reasoning I grew up with was this: if you fast or give up something, every time you miss it, you think of Jesus and his much greater sacrifice for us. If we’re hungry and tired after fasting for one day, think how much Jesus suffered during his 40 day fast. This makes sense – and probably works for most of us – but it still doesn’t tell us how to choose what to give up. And here’s the problem with it: I suspect that the things we give up for Lent are things that we think we should do anyway, but need something to motivate us. For many of us, they are leftover New Year’s resolutions that we have already given up on. I have actually said, “I can’t do it for vanity, or for my health, but I can do it for God.” Like God cares if I eat chocolate. I’m sure there are many people who use the tradition of giving up something to become closer to God – but I’m also sure that for many of us giving up something is more of an exercise of willpower than a path to spiritual growth.

It might help to remember that today’s lectionary readings start with Joel, but do not end there. We also hear from Paul and Jesus about what it means to give up something. For Paul, it’s about belief, about continuing believe in Jesus the Christ despite trials and hardships.  Notice he doesn’t suggest we go out and find ways to suffer for our faith. Rather, he tells us that in all things, we need to remember that God is present, and that when we suffer for doing the right thing, we do not do so in vain. Jesus goes one step further.  He tells us that that what really matters is our relationship with God. For Jesus, it’s not about doing what we think is prescribed by the church or tradition. What really matters is that whatever we do is between us and God –no one else, and whatever we do, it brings us closer to God.

A few years ago I decided to try “taking on” something in addition to giving something up. I will admit that it’s often something that I am working on anyway – but it’s also often harder than giving up something because it requires thinking – and praying. It requires me to lean on God to do it – and it provides a sense of love and hope that giving up chocolate never could. Jesus tells us not to be dismal and cranky during Lent. God does not want us to fast if fasting separates us from one another and from God. Paul tells us that an acceptable fast is not about giving up – it’s about giving – and it’s about joy. A wise friend of my recently told me that her new credo is “joy every day.” She said, “I have to remember that it’s not about weight or exercise or being too busy or anything else. It’s about finding joy every day.”

This Lent I encourage you to find joy every day: to use this time to draw nearer to one another and to our God. Give something up if it helps you to do this – but remember to give something out too. “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. He will not always accuse us, nor will he keep his anger forever.” Don’t worry.  Be happy.  Lent is here. Amen.

Sermon for February 11, 2018: Transfiguration (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Recently, one of our parishioners asked me why God is always changing people’s names in the Bible. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel; Simon becomes Peter; and Saul becomes Paul. The short answer is that the change in these people’s names represents change in them. For Abraham, it signaled a move from being the father of a covenant to being the father of multitudes. In Simon’s case, it meant assuming a leadership role in a fledgling religious movement that the poor fisherman probably could never have imagined. And, in Saul’s case, one letter took him from being a persecutor of Christians to their chief evangelist. Each of these individuals met God and was transformed. The message is clear throughout both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures: meeting God changes us in some fundamental way.

For some of us, this may be an exciting and inspiring idea. Certainly, as any look at the internet will tell you, people seek out the divine in any number of ways. I have mentioned previously that I subscribe to a blog called “The Daily OM.” The blogger sends out affirmative advice like, “Be your own voice of reason,” and try to find inner peace when you are frustrated. What is interesting to me about her counsel is that in almost all cases, the suggestions she gives for finding “your true ideal self” or “that spark of the divine in all of us” is that they are inherently Christian. When I read her new “inspirations,” they are as familiar to me as an old shoe; the only difference is that while I as a Christian talk about God’s love, God’s peace, and God’s transformative power, she talks about our own “inner” power. As if they are the same. This is a fundamental difference between new age spiritualists who focus on the divine in us, and Christians, who recognize the need for the divine who created us. If human beings were able to transform ourselves, much less the world, why have we failed to do so over and over throughout again history? I don’t care how motivated or enlightened you are, no one is able to truly transform themselves. We need God.

That is what the primary characters in each of today’s scripture readings have in common: each recognizes their need for the power of God, and just how life-changing that power is. Elisha has served and witnessed the acts of the mighty prophet Elijah for (we think) many years. Although he knows that Elijah will soon be taken from him, he refuses to leave him, understanding that even at the end of Elijah’s life, Elisha will have the opportunity to experience God’s might – and he is not disappointed.

Paul is in a different position.  Having witnessed God’s transformative power himself, he is struggling to communicate it to others. Like many of his letters to the people of Corinth, today’s passage demonstrates Paul’s struggle to keep his fledgling community on the straight and narrow. You see, Paul’s theology centered around his belief that Jesus’s life and death demonstrate God’s movement in our world, which will end in a new world. “However, ‘superapostles’ came to Corinth after Paul and preached another interpretation of the gospel. They held that Pauls’ gospel was ‘veiled,’ that is, that the apostle had misunderstood God’s purposes. The superapostles (according to some scholars) taught a gospel of glory without suffering.”[1] You can see how much more appealing their message was. “The theological difference between Paul and the superapostles [is that] Paul advocated what might be called a ‘holy discomfort’ with the present status of the world. Paul’s gospel calls for people to be discontent with brokenness, injustice, scarcity, exploitation, violence, and death, and to believe that God seeks to increase community, wholeness, justice, abundance, peace, love, and life. On the contrary, the superapostles believed that God’s purpose was to create a religious experience that allowed one to feel good within oneself…without seeing the need for social change. The gospel of the superapostles provided an escape from the present social setting, whereas Paul’s gospel envisioned the transformation of the world.”[2] Sound familiar?

Paul’s theology presumes that truly encountering God transforms us in a very specific way – by equipping us to do God’s work in the world. This is also the message of the psalmist, who speaks in the voice of God, asking us to listen to his call. This call is to loyal followers who have sacrificed for God. But “who are these ‘faithful ones’ and what has been their ‘sacrifice’? God’s ‘faithful ones’ are all who enter God’s love through faith and who make the sacrifice of being merciful to others.”[3] And who will decide who these people are? Only God.

Luckily, God gives us every opportunity to ready ourselves for this judgement- to transform. The first step is to recognize that we need to. Just as many self-actualization plans suggest that we are our own pathway to the divine, many Christians suggest that Jesus’s divinity is “a possession on the basis of which we can claim spiritual status and institutional or personal power, as if to make little gods of ourselves by ruling the world in his name as many have sought to do.”[4] But that is not what the story of Jesus’s own transfiguration tells us – because Jesus’s transfiguration was not about him changing. It was about his disciples seeing him for who he really was – and how that changed them.

It’s hard to imagine the scene. Although they have been so influenced by Jesus’s message and his ability to preach and heal that they had left their homes, Peter, James, and John could still not have been prepared for what happened when they climbed that mountain with Jesus. “He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white…And there appeared to them [with him the greatest prophets known to them]” and they did not know what to say, for they were terrified. “Jesus’s outclassing glory rends the veil of their horizontal world from top to bottom, exposing it as neither permanent nor foundational.”[5] What they witnessed- what Elisha testified to, what Paul experienced and tried to explain to the Corinthians, what the psalmist proclaimed to the Israelites, changed them. It caused them to question everything their culture has told them is true – and they didn’t know what to do. So they came up with ideas designed to demonstrate Jesus’s power and authority to those who weren’t there; they suggested they align with already famous people, build a memorial, and shout out the news.

But that is not what God wants – and not what Jesus tells them to do. “Listen” says God. “Be silent,” Jesus tells them. On Wednesday, we will enter the season of Lent, a solemn time of silence and darkness. But we need not fear that darkness, because there is no darkness that can veil the transfiguring power of God in Jesus Christ, no silence that can mislead us if we are listening for the voice of God. As we leave the season of light and move into the solemnity of Lent, I urge you to embrace that silence and, in it, seek the presence of God so that we, like those who have come before us, might to be transformed. Amen.

[1]Ronald J. Allen, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 448.

[2]Ibid, 450.

[3]Charles Quaintance, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 444.

[4]Rodney J. Hunter, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 456.

[5]Marilyn McCord Adams, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 456.

Sermon for February 4, 2018: The evidence of God (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Two newsworthy events happened this past week. One was the State of the Union address and the second was the super blue blood moon. What is interesting to me is that both of these events – one dedicated to human concerns and the exercise of human power and the second a tribute to the power of nature itself – had something to teach us about the presence of God among us.

If you got up early enough on Wednesday morning, you might have observed three things: the moon was brighter, it appeared somewhat elongated, and it was darkish red over much of its surface. These characteristics identified it as “the third in a series of ‘supermoons,’ when the Moon is closer to Earth in its orbit… It [was] also the second full moon of the month, commonly known as a ‘blue moon’ [and] the super blue moon [passed] through Earth’s shadow to give viewers in the right location a total lunar eclipse. While the Moon is in the Earth’s shadow it [takes] on a reddish tint, known as a “blood moon.” So, super blue blood moon. That’s the scientific explanation; yet, although “cosmic events may be explained scientifically, their full beauty and meaning are often unavailable, indescribable.”[1] For me, such galactic events are a reminder of the unknowable power of God, a power that is too great to comprehend, but at the very same time brings us closer to God by reminding us of his perpetual presence among us.

“The season following the Epiphany invites us to think about [the concept of] God made manifest,”[2] God among us. Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah tells us that God is both “out there” – like the super blue blood moon – and in here, knowing us intimately and constantly available to us. “The more we look and bring things into the light, the more we see God in the most ordinary of circumstances. God is not only in mountaintop moments, but around every corner and daily human encounter.”[3]

Such God-filled everyday moments were recalled at the State of the Union address in the stories of several special guests. The practice of presidential special guests at the speech is relatively new. “In his 1982 State of the Union speech, [Ronald] Reagan… started a tradition by inviting Lenny Skutnik to attend…On Jan. 13, [when] an Air Florida jet crashed into Washington D.C.’s 14th Street bridge. Skutnik jumped into the Potomac to pull a victim ashore…But Reagan’s appreciation didn’t stop with the invitation to watch the speech, and as Reagan discussed ‘the spirit of American heroism at its finest’ he also spoke of ‘the heroism of one of our young government employees,’…[thus launching] the inclusion in the State of the Union routine of what speechwriters henceforth called ‘Skutniks,’ meaning guests invited to attend the State of the Union who are also honored in the text of the President’s speech. Not every year has a ‘Skutnik,’ but since then every president has invited ordinary citizens whose actions and lives exemplify themes and ideals of the speech to attend and praised their actions during the speech.”[4]

Inclusion of these every day American heroes may be done for political purposes, but the presence of these people actually reminds us that it is through the grit and courage of individuals simply trying to do the right thing that the world changes for the better. Lenny Skutnik, David Dahlberg, Todd Beamer, Daniel Hernandez, and Ashlee Leppert, were not thinking of the will or power of earthly rulers when they selflessly acted on behalf of others. That is why they inspire us. Each of these people did what they did because they understood what it means to truly love your neighbor. Their behavior was, especially to the people they saved, not about any specific political idea, but rather evidence of God’s constant healing presence among us. Each of these people is an example of preaching the will and power of God through our actions.

It is what the author of the letter to the Corinthians means when he talks about using freedom to become a slave. In our culture, we tend to think about freedom in terms of how it benefits us. But Paul’s definition of freedom is different. For him, “freedom,” is the opportunity to understand and identify with those who have need of God. “Paul’s point [is] that “the gospel envisions freedom as the right of individuals, not to do as they choose, but rather to relinquish their rights for the sake of others [-to choose self-sacrifice]. True Christian freedom therefore expresses itself in service.”[5]

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law seems to have understood this. Over the years, many people have expressed dismay at the part of this gospel story where Simon’s mother, having been healed by Jesus, immediately starts serving the disciples, but if you read the text carefully, you may note two very important things. First, Jesus heals her simply by lifting her up. Just like the exorcism we heard about last week, there is no fancy show, no political statement; Jesus merely helps her up. Secondly, at no point does Jesus or any of his disciples ask her to serve them. She makes that choice. “This is no woman bowing to cultural convention and keeping in her restricted place as a servant; this is a disciple who quietly demonstrates the high honor of service for those who follow Jesus.”[6] What she does is not slavish duty, or obedience. It is not done out of a sense of disempowerment or fear. “Simon’s mother-in-law interprets the gift that she has received; her service cannot be understood as a woman’s menial work under the domination of lazy males, but as a true messianic ministry…For that reason, this woman is Jesus’ first servant and joins him in the radical announcement, in action, of the kingdom of God. [She is] his first deacon.”[7]

This story gives us a great deal of information about the nature of God and how Jesus demonstrated it in his ministry. First, it tells us that God’s healing does not need to involve a complicated ritual. It can be a simple as reaching out a hand to help someone up. Secondly, we learn that it doesn’t matter where it happens. In last week’s pericope, Jesus healed in a synagogue. This week, it’s in the house of a friend. “Christianity began [by] being affirmed socially…in daily life, in small communities.”[8] “Jesus’ grace transcends all the limits imposed by the dogma of religion.”[9] It happens whenever and wherever it is needed. Finally, this story shows us that preaching and healing go hand in hand. In both last week’s gospel and the story we heard today, word of Jesus’ ministry is spread not because of what he says, but because of what people have seen him do. These three things: unassuming kindness, everyday opportunity, and demonstrating our faith, are the same basis for spreading the gospel in our own time. They are astonishingly simple and, I believe, instinctual. Human beings may be incredibly flawed and foolish, but we are made in God’s image, powerfully connected to God, and pulled to act as God would have us do. So, let us do what is natural to us: look for God in the breathtaking wonder of nature and in the inspirational actions of our fellow beings, and when we recognize it, thank God, praise God, and preach God. AMEN.

[1]Verity Jones, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 314.

[2]Elizabeth C. Knowlton, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 325.

[3]Elizabeth C. Knowlton, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 323.

[4] Merrill Fabry, (January 30, 2018), “This is why U.S. presidents started name-dropping their State of the Union Guests,” TIME online, http://time.com/4175037/skutnik-state-of-the-union-history/.

[5]V. Bruce Rigdon, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 330.

[6]Gary W. Charles, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 304, 337.

[7] Ofelia Ortega, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 304, 334.

[8]Ofelia Ortega, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 334, 336.

[9]Ofelia Ortega, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 336.

Sermon for January 28, 2018: Making Decisions (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Some of you may have noticed a new sign on my door.  It is a quote from C.S. Lewis, of whom I am a great fan.  It says, “I didn’t go to religion to make me ‘happy.’ I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I can’t really recommend Christianity.” Oh, ouch! That hurts! Because for many of us, including me, we want to church to be a place of comfort, peace, and retreat – a place where we go to escape from our problems -certainly not somewhere we are asked to take on someone else’s troubles.

The truth is, church is both, because the church is its people and people re complicated. The beauty of being part of a Christian community is that within in we find loving people who soothe us when we are distressed, help us in our need, and pray for us in our extremities. For many of us, we also find a sense of tranquility within the walls of our sanctuary. This is good – but it is also not all there is to being a Christian.

Over and over again, throughout the gospels, Jesus preaches and demonstrates “active” ministry geared toward meeting the needs of others rather than our own. For the past several weeks through our scripture readings we have been witnessing the beginning of Jesus’s ministry – from his own baptism to the recruitment of his first followers. In today’s story we see him demonstrate how very different his message will be from those that came before him. Faith healers in Jesus’s time were actually not unusual – many of the ‘miracles’ we think of as specific to Jesus – healing illness, even raising from the dead – were demonstrated by “prophets” long before Jesus and even during his life. So the fact that he could exorcize a demon is not what was unusual about him. What was unusual is that he did it in a synagogue – and how he did it. He did not give a speech; he did not quote scripture; he did not make a show of it. He simply helped someone who needed it, thereby showing us what it means to have the authority of a true prophet of God.

It is sometimes hard to know what the right thing to do is, and it is hard to know who to listen to when you’re trying to figure it out. For the ancient Israelites, their “go to” spiritual leader was Moses so, like any other church community, they were traumatized when they found out that Moses was retiring and they would have to adjust to a new one. (You see, we are certainly not the first of God’s people to have trouble with change). That’s why he gave them some guidelines for knowing a true leader from a false one – and these things make perfect sense.  First of all, a prophet is called – that is what the name “prophet” means – one who is called. Secondly, he tells them, the prophet will come from your own people. That person will be a believer just like you – and that means he will have all of the failings that any human being has. Most importantly, the prophet will always speak in the name of God. This last one is a little tricky, because, as we know, most false prophets will tell you they are speaking in the name of God too.  So how do we tell the difference? We have to think about whether what they are saying – and asking us to do – are consistent with what we know about God- whether it makes sense.

Today is our Annual Meeting, so it is a good time for us to check in and look at what we are doing here at Grace.  After all, like the ancient Israelites and the Corinthians that Paul spoke to, it is perfectly normal to wonder if your leaders know what they are doing – if what we are asking of you makes sense. So, what I want to do for a few minutes is to talk about how and why we, Grace’s leadership – (which is not, by the way, just me. The Rector is the Spiritual Leader of the Parish, but the laity of the congregation have equal power in making administrative decisions) – have made the choices and changes we have.

First of all, we pray. We start every vestry meeting with prayer and a Bible study so that we can center ourselves in God and ask for his guidance in our work. Secondly, we attempt to look at everything we do here in terms of how it does or does not contribute to the mission and ministry of our Savior Jesus Christ.

This can be a struggle. Many of you know that I am not a fan of voting on things.  That’s because when we “vote,” there are always winners and losers – and no one wants to be a loser. But when we simply talk to one another until we reach a consensus there are no losers. Some people will be happier than others, but ideally everyone will feel that their point of view has been heard and considered. These conversations can be very hard. It is human nature to try to change others’ minds to our perspective and very few people enjoy being in conflict with other people. What I have found, however, is that allowing bad feelings to fester always ends up worse. When you read the gospels, you will find that Jesus spoke many hard truths and many people walked away from him and his burgeoning ministry as a result, but his actions always reflected his words, and his words were always consistent with what he believed.

Today’s psalm tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” This statement is echoed in Paul’s response to the behavior of the Christians in Corinth. Anything we think we know has to be weighed and measured against the inclusive love of God. We here at Grace, like many other people, struggle with many concerns: “What are the appropriate relationships between the church and its surrounding cultures?…How can the church act prophetically in society and at the same time maintain appropriate pastoral relations with its divided membership? How does the church relate to the pluralistic environment in which it finds itself? The range of issues is immense… [but] at the heart of it all is whether the church views Christ as one who teaches us to build fortresses to protect Christian community or as one who is himself the bridge to neighbors of other faiths and traditions. Paul wants his Corinthian friends and all of us to know that being certain of what is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate is not sufficient, even if one’s position is correct. Love is greater than knowledge.”[1]

Which is good, because there is always a lot we don’t know.  That’s why there are three things that I always do when I need to make a decision: I find out as much as possible about whatever it is I’m deciding about. I try to think about what is most likely to bring the most people closer to God, and I pray. And I always try to remember two things: in the scope of God’s power, majesty, and splendor, I know nothing –so I have to always be willing to change my mind. Most importantly, I attempt to weigh every choice based on “the bottom line” of Christianity – love God, and love your neighbor, because Jesus told us that everything else is secondary. That means if someone suggests doing something at Grace that I know may be uncomfortable for some folks – which may be uncomfortable for me – we consider it nonetheless, because prophets come from among God’s people, and we need to listen for the prophets among us. We need to listen for the love. Your leadership understands that change is hard and living in Christian community is harder, but I have always believed and continue to believe – and hope you believe – that it is always, always worth it.  AMEN.

[1]V. Bruce Rigdon, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 304, 306.

Sermon for January 21, 2018: Gone fishing (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

If you Google “How many fishermen are there in the United States,” you get two types of answers.  First, you get the number of people who reported “going fishing” in 2017 (approximately 50 million).[1] Such folks are referred to as “anglers” – people who fish as a form of recreation. The second statistic is about the fishing industry, which supported 1.3 million jobs in the same year.[2] That’s a big difference in numbers – and I bet there is a big difference between the people in those two categories.  For the first group, fishing is a sport or hobby, something that is relaxing and fun and, as a result, whether or not you do well when you fish is not that important. The people in the second group, however, need to get good results on their expeditions. For them, fishing is probably not fun or relaxing but back breaking and dangerous work – work that feeds and clothes them and their families. For “fishermen,” results are critical.

Which made me wonder: what kind of fishers did Jesus expect us to be? Jesus’s invitation to “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” is one of the most famous phrases in scripture, although it is more famously translated as, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Apparently, in an effort to be less sexist, it was changed which, in this case, is too bad – because the older translation is actually more accurate to the original Greek – and there’s a big difference in the meaning. To me, “Fishing for people” suggests some kind of recreational endeavor – the kind that “anglers” do. On the other hand, becoming a “fisher,” suggests an entire change in identify, one that would make you a lot more invested in how you do with your fishing.

It’s kind of like being a prophet. It is perhaps one thing for God to ask you to deliver a message for him.  It’s another thing for God to tell you to prophesy– to proclaim her word to the people – especially if it’s bad news.  That’s the position that Jonah found himself in when God ordered him to go to Nineveh – one of the scariest and most dangerous places in his world (and, by the way, in ours. What the scriptures call “Nineveh” is now part of the Mosul region of Iraq). Most people think they know the story of Jonah– that he ran from God, “fell” off a boat (he was actually thrown) and was swallowed by a whale (it wasn’t a “whale.” Scripture simply says, “big fish”)”- but they probably can’t tell you what Jonah was running from. It was God – and his command to go to Nineveh and prophesy its destruction. Jonah’s story is unique among prophetic books because “it is primarily a narrative about a prophet’s adventures rather than a collection of prophetic utterances…The story portrays the human response to the call of God rather than focusing on the causes for the call.”[3] Jonah, like many human beings before and after him, did not want to answer God’s call. He was so resistant to “fishing for people,” that he ended up getting eaten by a fish himself! Speaking as someone who resisted her own call to ordained ministry for 30 years, he’s a guy after my own heart!

I’m not the only one. Answering a call from God is a terrifying thing. First of all, God does not usually ask for small things, although that is often what we offer. God does not ask us to donate the clothing we have grown out of and can’t use anymore. God does not ask us to spend our spare time reading books we enjoy to underprivileged children. God does not ask us to pledge the salary difference we received because we got a raise. God does not ask us to do what we can. God asks us to do what we can’t. God asks us for nothing less than everything we have. God asks us to have faith.

It is common to use the word “faith” as a substitute for “belief,” but many theologians have suggested that “the fundamental question of faith is not ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘Whom do you trust’?  In [the psalm we read today] the psalmist confesses and exhorts trust in God as the only sensible way of orienting one’s life…God alone is worthy of absolute trust and the foundation of persistent hope…Every human effort, finite cause, and mortal relationship is an unsuitable object for our absolute trust…There is no resting place for our hearts, no trustworthy object of hope and meaning other than God…Apart from it, family, work, nation, even church” are fleeting, untrustworthy – vanity.[4]

We know this – but it still seems so risky. What does it really mean “to trust God in a risky, precarious world in which such expressions of trust can easily appear out touch with reality”?[5] Among other things, it means living in two times at once – the “here and now” where we exist on this earthly plain, and the world to come, where the kingdom of God has already been accomplished. It’s a tricky task. For some of us, living in the present is so hard that sometimes it feels impossible to continue. For such individuals, pain, sorrow, and despair are constant companions and the arrival of God’s kingdom is devoutly to be wished.  But for many others – maybe even for most of us, if we’re honest- the here and now is not so bad. We have people to love, places to go, and things to protect. It seems unreasonable to ask us to risk these sure comforts for the possibility of a world we can’t really imagine.

It is also exactly what Paul asks the people of Corinth to do – to live as if Jesus is returning tomorrow – to give up their “now” for a “then” that will belong to everyone. He asks us to take the same risk – the risk of trusting that when we do what is hard because it is right, we benefit everyone. Clyde Fant suggests that this is because “when we become preoccupied with social work and good deeds merely in the name of our organization, we run several risks. First, we lose the opportunity to transform others – and ourselves – in the name of Christ and become nothing more than a religious Rotary Club… Furthermore, offering all that we do out of love for Jesus…leads other Christians to similar commitment.”[6]

This is what it means to respond to God’s call. “All through Scripture, the key to faithfulness is responsiveness… [to] hear a call and go; [to receive an invitation] and follow.”[7] Unfortunately, we can’t pick and choose which call we would like to answer. We can’t negotiate with God about what we might or might not like to give up. Trusting in God does not happen without risk. When Jesus called Simon and Andrew, and James and John, he was not asking them to go on a weekend fishing trip with him. He was asking them to change who they were – to leave behind their livelihood, their possessions, and their families to answer God’s call for them.

What is God’s call to you? What will it cost you to answer it? Are you willing to do as Jonah and the people of Nineveh and the disciples did and respond to that call? And what will happen if you do? You may never know in this lifetime, but one thing we do know: you will never know if you do not answer. AMEN.

[1]https://www.statista.com/statistics/227418/number-of-people-fishing-fisherman-angler-usa/

[2]http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/mediacenter/2016/05_May/26_05_feus_2014_pr.html.

[3]Joseph L. Price, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 266.

[4]Timothy A. Beach-Verhey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 274.

[5]Allen C. McSween, Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 276.

[6]Clyde Fant (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 283.

[7]Richard Boyce, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 269.

Children’s Homily for January 21, 2018: Fish for people (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

 So, today we heard a story about Jesus making some new friends and telling them to go make new friends. Except that Jesus kind of made it into a game. Instead of telling his friends to make friends, he told them to “fish for people.” Who here has ever gone fishing? (Give them a chance to answer). How did you catch the fish? (Give them a chance to answer). Do you think that is the same way you can catch people? (Give them a chance to answer). How did you think you can catch people? (Give them a chance to answer). Ask them! Excellent! But first you have to talk to them. Do you think it’s hard to talk to people? (Give them a chance to answer). Is it harder to talk to people that you agree with or disagree with? (Give them a chance to answer).

I’ll tell you a secret. Lots of grown-ups are afraid to talk to people they don’t know – especially when we are worried that they won’t agree with us. Because sometimes people yell at each other.  Have any of you ever been yelled at? (Give them a chance to answer).  It’s no fun, is it? Well, grown-ups don’t want to get yelled at either. Now, tell me this. When does being yelled at feel the worst? (Give them a chance to answer). I think it’s when someone gets mad at you because of something you really care about. Like, I don’t really care if someone yells at me that my shoes are ugly, but I get really upset if someone tells me that my God is ugly.

Now, how many of you guys talk about God? (Give them a chance to answer). Who do you talk to God about? (Give them a chance to answer). Do you ever talk about God to people you don’t know? (Give them a chance to answer). What happens? (Give them a chance to answer). Yes, I think that’s often the case. People are less likely to yell at us than we think they are – but I think grown-ups forget that. So, I need you to help teach the grown-ups today. Can you help me with that? Excellent. Here’s what I want you to do. Think of one thing that you know about God that makes you happy. (Give them a chance to talk for a minute). Excellent. Now, at the Peace, when we all greet one another, I want you to tell one grown-up the thing about God that makes you happy that you thought of. Can you do that? And then, I want you to let them tell you one thing about God that makes them happy. And, if they can’t think of anything, you help them. Can you do that?  I knew you could. Then, after the Peace and the announcements, I want you to help with the offerings and then come up and help me bless the bread and wine. Okay? So, I will tell you when it’s time to tell you grown-ups what makes you happy about God and they will remind you by asking you to tell them.  Okay? Do we agree that this is a good plan? (Give them a chance to answer). Good. Who remembers what we say when we agree in church?  (Give them a chance to answer). Amen.  So let’s say it altogether (Amen).

Sermon for January 14, 2018: Come and see (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

You may listen here:

Today on this Second Sunday after the Epiphany, we get a brief interruption by the Gospel of
John in the series of Epiphany gospel lessons that are otherwise taken from Mark. We get a hint
of the glory of Jesus, later to be revealed in the resurrection, when Nathanael is told he will see
heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. We also
hear a transition from heady Christology or theology of Christ to the nitty-gritty of discipleship.

Have you ever attended or participated in a spiritually moving and uplifting event? A beautiful
evensong with wonderful choir, a quiet day of prayer and meditation, and I’m sure every service
here at Grace. After you leave the event and return to “the real world,” returning to work and
sometimes-mundane tasks, your spiritual high fades away. The first chapter of John, to me, in
some way is very similar to this scenario.

In the prologue beginning the chapter we hear Jesus described in cosmological terms, being with
God and being God and existing before all things. He is the Logos, the word of God that created
all things. We hear John the Baptist, after he baptized Jesus, describe the heavens splitting open
and God’s Spirit descending like a dove and God’s voice proclaiming Jesus as his son. John
testifies that Jesus is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And finally, John describes
Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. We hear all these wonderful,
beautiful descriptions of Jesus that lift our spirit and then, Jesus goes for a walk about. This gives
me some insight on how Peter James and John must’ve felt coming down from the Mount of
Transfiguration after they were there with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah when Jesus shone with bright
rays of light.

A few verses before the beginning of our Gospel reading, Jesus picked up two followers that
were John the Baptist’s disciples. This after John declares Jesus as the Lamb of God. One of
them was Andrew the brother of Simon Peter. The two followers addressed Jesus as teacher and
ask him where he is staying. Jesus’s reply to them was “come and see.” After the two spend the
day with Jesus, Andrew brings his brother Simon to meet Jesus after proclaiming him to be the
Messiah, then Jesus names Simon as Peter, the rock.

We pick up the next day when Jesus decides to go to Galilee and took Philip along with him.
Philip finds Nathaniel and tells him that they have found the one who Moses and the prophets
foretold. Nathaniel seems skeptical because of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Philip tells
him “come and see.” Jesus on seeing Nathanael describes him as an Israelite without guile.
In this exchange between Nathaniel and Jesus we see Jesus not only recognizing Nathaniel’s
inner being, but what Nathaniel was doing before he met Jesus.

You may detect a pattern in the story, that people come to know Jesus with an invitation of come
and see, and that Jesus immediately knows them and their quality. God knows all things. He
knows everything about me and He knows everything about you. In fact, there is nothing that we
can conceal from God. As the Psalmist said:
LORD, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.

What prompted these new disciples of Jesus to make these lofty claims about him at their first
meeting? Messiah, Son of God, King of Israel? This was the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry
after all, and He had not performed any miracles or signs that pointed to his divinity yet at their
first meeting they discerned it.
The following of Jesus is not the fruit of any individual’s deliberation and choice. Here
confessing Jesus seems to follow with a certain necessity from merely seeing or hearing him.
They were called by God as Samuel was called. To be called by God is an act of spiritual
intimacy and divine urgency. To be called by God also indicates a need for immediate response
because the Almighty has indeed summoned one to a specific vocation or course of action. (1)
The manifestation of the divine to Philip and Nathanael was not a self-contained, isolated
episode in John’s Gospel. Rather, it is the initiation of the disciples into an extended process that
would become, as they were promised, in the full beholding of God’s glory. Belief, it was
promised, would blossom into an unmediated vision of glory.
Like the first disciples we are also called to be disciples of Christ. Part of our vocation is to go
into the world and invite all to come and see. To make disciples of all the world, to be an
invitational church. How do we accomplish this? Remember that the church learns to speak
about Jesus in the process of giving thanks, singing praise, Communing with Christ and one
another in the Eucharist, sharing the good news, and speaking truth to power.
Philip said simply, “Come and see.” “Come and see.” Come and learn who God is, come and
hear God’s word, come and change the direction in which your life is going, come and be forgiven, come and be part of the community called to be God’s people in the world. (2) This
makes the best possible invitation for evangelism both then and now: “Come and see.”

(1)Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the
Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 8790-8792). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.
Kindle Edition.
(2)Black, Vicki K.. Welcome to the Bible (Welcome to the Episcopal Church) (Kindle Locations
231-236). Church Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Sermon for January 7, 2018: Light and Life in Jesus Christ (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You may listen here:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Imagine that. Imagine being in darkness and knowing there is no hope of getting out of it – no light at the end of the tunnel, no breaking dawn. Worse, imagine not knowing what is in that darkness. It’s one thing to be in a place where the lights may be out but you still know where everything is, and it’s quite another to experience true nothingness, without sound, without scent, without air. For anyone -whether you believe in the biblical creation story or are an adherent of the big bang theory- one thing is the same. Everything we know – everything we are – came out of darkness and emptiness.

“Helen Keller’s world fell dark and silent when she was just 19 months old, when an unknown disease left her deaf and blind. She became an unruly child who often lashed out in anger at her inability to communicate and her failure to comprehend the world around her. When Helen tipped over her sister’s crib one day, her parents knew they needed to find help. With the assistance of Alexander Graham Bell, the Kellers were able to engage Anne Sullivan, a teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, to tutor their daughter at their Alabama plantation.”[1]

In her autobiography, Keller describes sitting outside and feeling warmth on her face but not having a name for it. She wrote, “Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour was. ‘Light! give me light!’ was the wordless cry of my soul.”[2]

“Sullivan helped Helen gain self-control and then began teaching her using a technique first employed by Perkins tutor Samuel Gridley Howe to teach deaf-blind girl Laura Bridgman to read. Sullivan spelled words into Helen’s hand and tried to help the girl connect letters and words with objects’ names. At first, Helen thought her teacher was just playing a game. Helen memorized words but failed to understand that they did, in fact, have meaning. It wasn’t until April 5, 1887, when Anne took Helen to an old pump house, that Helen finally understood that everything has a name. Sullivan put Helen’s hand under the stream and began spelling “w-a-t-e-r” into her palm, first slowly, then more quickly. Keller later wrote in her autobiography, ‘As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!’”[3]

For Keller, it was the difference between being alive and having life. She had lived in darkness – not because she was blind, but because she was oblivious, unaware of the wisdom and joy and comfort and peace that surrounded her, unknowing how to grasp what was right there in front of her because she was trapped in the darkness of her own mind.

As are so many of us. Keller’s darkness was the result of physical disability, but human beings are just as frequently imprisoned by the darkness of mental illness, want, false desire, and hate. This is human darkness that can only be dispelled by the light of Christ. “Light is the basis of life and order, and light itself is judged by God as being good.”[4]  For Christians, that light is accessed through Holy Baptism.

This morning we will baptize two of God’s children, already beloved by God but now embracing full membership in God’s community and the opportunity to completely know and embrace the light of heaven. Baptism is a choice, in this case a choice that Amelia and Dennis have made for Ti and Freddie out of love and a desire to raise their boys in a community of faith and love. The role of community is crucial in Holy Baptism. It is why when I ask the congregation if they/you will do everything you can to support these persons in their life in Christ, I expect the roof to shake when they/you say, “We will.”

It is also the reason that Jesus himself chose to be baptized with others. This is part of what the author of the book of Acts is getting at when he argues that there was a difference between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. “The passage clearly insists that a chief difference between John’s baptism of repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus is that the latter entails the gift of the Spirt. John’s baptism of repentance points almost entirely to a personal turning away from evil and toward good.  Baptism in the name of Jesus…empowers and disposes people to witness to God’s deeds of power”[5] as a community – and to imitate them.

Baptism brings with it the power of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that appeared in the colossal storm described by the psalmist – the Spirit that represents the mighty power of God. “On the Sunday of the Lord’s baptism, this psalm forces the Christian community to acknowledge and integrate God’s power and God’s goodness as well as human experience and Christian revelation…In Christ’s baptism Christians do not find the one who can save them from the threatening power that stands behind the universe.”[6] Instead they find their part in using that power – and with great power, a wise man said, comes great responsibility.

“Through Jesus’s first followers, the Spirit was a powerful wind that blew through the ancient world and transformed it.”[7] It has the power to do the same in our world today –and it is our job to demonstrate it, and share it with others. We need only to reach out and grasp it. Today, as we welcome two new members to the family of Christ and renew our own covenant with God, I encourage you to immerse yourselves in the powerful water of baptism, to experience both the majesty and goodness of God, and to step into the light – the light of Christ. Amen.

[1]Finding Dulcinea Staff (February, 2012), “On this day: Helen Keller comprehends the word ‘water,’” findingDulcinea: the Librarian of the Internet, http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/on-this-day/March-April-08/On-this-Day–Helen-Keller-Comprehends-the-Word–Water-.html.

[2]Helen Keller, (1903), The Story of My Life (Chapter IV),” PDF at http://www.fullbooks.com/Story-of-My-Life1.html.

[3]Finding Dulcinea Staff (February, 2012), “On this day: Helen Keller comprehends the word ‘water,’” findingDulcinea: the Librarian of the Internet, http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/on-this-day/March-April-08/On-this-Day–Helen-Keller-Comprehends-the-Word–Water-.html

[4]Joseph L. Price, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 220.

[5]Douglas F. Ottati, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 234.

[6]Timothy A. Beach-Verhey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 226.

[7]Ruthanna B. Hooke, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 232.

Sermon for December 31, 2017: At the name of Jesus (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You may listen here:

So, this is going to be one of those educational sermons. I will try to keep
you awake! As many of you know (and if you don’t, Elaine will tell you!), we
have a strange liturgical calendar this year. For the first time in ten years, the
Fourth Sunday of Advent fell on December 24 th (commonly thought of as
“Christmas Eve”). Although this meant nothing to most people, it caused a lot of
bustling around for those of us who live our lives according to what Robin
Williams called, the “color-coded church calendar.” According to that calendar, as
I recently explained to my son’s girlfriend when she asked why we were playing
“Christmas music” on December 26, that Christmas does not begin until Christmas
Day. (Actually, the church allows us to cheat it back to Christmas Eve – but no
sooner!). That’s why today’s 10 a.m. service will be Christmas Lessons and
Carols. (When you have them before Christmas Day, they are Advent Lessons and
Carols. If they’re after January 6, it’s called Epiphany Lessons and Carols). And
it’s why this time last week our altar hangings and my outfit were purple and by 4
p.m. they were white.
It’s also why this morning we are celebrating both the First Sunday after
Christmas, a feast day in its own right, and The Holy Name, which in the
Episcopal Church is commemorated on January 1. We are getting away with this

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by using the “proper” liturgical settings for the First Sunday of Christmas at 10 and
the prayers and lessons for Holy Name at this service. Sneaky!
These days, not many churches actually concern themselves with the Feast
of the Holy Name. In the Roman Catholic Church, Holy Name was removed from
the liturgical calendar as part of the Vatican II reforms, but in 2002 was restored as
an “optional” day of devotion. According to the Episcopal Church, the Feast of the
Holy Name is celebrated “on January 1, the eighth day after the birth of Jesus,
when he was named and circumcised. He was ‘called Jesus, the name given by the
angel before he was conceived in the womb’…Under the Law of Moses, all male
infants were to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth… It was also customary
at this time for family and friends to witness the naming of the child… The
designation of the feast in honor of Jesus' Holy Name is new to the 1979 Book of
Common Prayer. It was traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision.
Celebration of the Holy Name reflects the significance of the Holy Name of Jesus,
and the emphasis of the Gospel of Luke on the naming of Jesus rather than his
circumcision. 1
This is an important point, given how controversial the issue of whether or
not you had to be circumcised to be Christian was for the earliest Christians. It was
this dispute that Paul was addressing in today’s letter to the Galatians. By the time

1 Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum (Eds). (2000). An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: a User-
friendly reference for Episcopalians, [New York: Church Publishing], 250.

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of this writing, Paul had already proclaimed that “Gentiles could become heirs of
God’s promises and equal members of the people of God…without observing the
law.” 2 This included the law that said that all Jews must be circumcised. It may
seem strange to us that there was so much concern over this question, but don’t
forget that circumcision was a mark of membership among Jews – and the original
Christians were made up of two groups of people: converted Jews like Paul
himself, and Gentiles, most of whom previously worshipped the Roman gods.
Paul’s teaching was controversial among Jewish Christians and, as time went on,
some Christian groups demanded that Gentiles needed to become Jewish in order
to become Christian. In the passage we heard today, Paul was reiterating his belief
that redemption comes not through the law but by the Spirit of God through Jesus
Christ – and that redemption is available to all people equally. According to Paul,
Christians – and all of humanity – are tied together by God’s grace, represented by
the name of Jesus.
The name “Jesus” is derived from two Hebrew root words. The first of these
comes from the Tetragrammaton – the four letter name of God: Y H V H. Hebrew
has no vowels, but in translation, these letters have been expressed as “Yahweh.”
(This is where the word “Jehovah” comes from. It is a mistranslation of the
Tetragrammaton). The word “Yahweh,” then, expresses the name of God (and has
2 Luis R. Rivera, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David
L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 158.

 

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generally been translated as the word “Lord” in most bibles). It also forms the first
part of the compound word, “Ye-shua.” The second part of that word – “shua,”
means “saves.” So, the word “Yeshua,” or, as it has been translated, “Jesus,”
means “God saves.” In other words, Jesus’s name tells us exactly who he is – and
what he does.
It also helps us to understand where he comes from. You may have heard
some Christians suggest that “Christians (the people of ‘the new covenant’) have
replaced Jews (the people of ‘the old covenant’) as the people of God.” 3 This idea
is called “supersessionism” or “replacement theology.” The idea is that Jesus, as
the Messiah, fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures and that belief in him supersedes the
following of Judaic law as a means to salvation. Scholars trace the root of
supersessionist beliefs to the writings of Paul, who repeatedly spoke of Jesus as the
fulfillment of the law and the path to salvation. Sadly, supersessionist belief has led
to the persecution of Jewish people by Christians and others, leading the Episcopal
Church (among other denominations) to renounce it. Thus, rather than viewing
“the New Testament” as a correction for Hebrew scripture, the Episcopal Church
and others that share the Revised Common Lectionary from which we get our
weekly readings, focus on the relationship between them.

3 Jesper Svartvik, “Supersessionism” in Bible Odyssey, https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-
articles/supersessionism.

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This is clear in the Hebrew scripture assigned by the RCL for the Feast of
the Holy Name, which describes the introduction of the Aaronic or “priestly”
blessing. In it, God gives permission for human beings to bless one another in his
name, using this ancient Judaic blessing, known as “the raising of the hands.” If it
seems familiar to you, that’s because it can be found in our own Book of Common
Prayer – and we also raise our hands when we convey this blessing – making the
sign of the cross.
A Hebraic interpretation of this prayer conveys the ancient Hebrews’
understanding of who their God was and what God would do for them: “YHWH
will kneel before you presenting gifts and will guard you with a hedge of
protection. YHWH will illuminate the wholeness of his being toward you bringing
order and he will give you comfort and sustenance. YHWH will lift up his
wholeness of being and look upon you and he will set in place all you need to be
whole and complete.” 4 This blessing is a covenant, a promise to all God’s people,
an understanding as ancient as a psalm, a message conveyed to Joseph when the
son of God was still in the womb, a reminder that God’s name, in whatever
language it is spoken is to be exalted. Ye-shua – Je-sus -God saves. AMEN.

Sermon for December 25, 2017, Christmas: Belief (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

You may listen here:

Christmas is finally here. Presents have been gifted, carols are being sung (appropriately!) and, for many of us, there is good food in the oven. Oh – and incidentally, the savior of the world has once again arrived. Apparently, that last little bit has been lost on some folks. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, while 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas in some form, only 55 percent observe it as a religious holiday.”[1] The question is why.

The answer depends on who you ask. Much has been made of the “War on Christmas,” described by some groups as being a coordinated attack on religious values. According to this view, refusal to say, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” has led to its decline as a “religious” observance. Not according to the Pew survey, which suggests the decrease in individuals celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday has been negligible and gradual”[2] and has nothing to do with the “War on Christmas.”  According to its results, most Americans don’t actually care what kind of greeting is used during the season before December 25.[3] And, from an Anglican/Episcopal perspective, we shouldn’t have been saying, “Merry Christmas” until today ourselves!

What people do care about is how we treat one other- and that’s something Christians should be worrying about. A google search on “sexual assault scandals” results in 1.5 million hits, with articles ranging from the number of accusations against Hollywood and political figures, to reporting statistics among different generations. In terms of religion, what people are most interested in is how professed “Christians” are reacting to the scandals.  Just as with the sex abuse disgraces within the Roman Catholic Church, citizens of all persuasions are looking to “religious” folks for moral leadership[4] – although not as much as in the past – because younger people no longer see the church as the bastion of ethical authority and source of good acts that their parents did. But in the case of the recent sexual abuse scandals, we have a chance to demonstrate the kind of direction that angry and disconnected people are looking for. “Moral outrage [is] the appropriate response,” says Michael Gerson – and as it so often happens in history, moral outrage can either be divisive or unifying.

Contrary to what we may want to believe, religious divides have been common since theology began. It is probable that more wars have been fought over religion than any other single issue. Certainly, Christianity has had its share of violent conflict. From the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem 70 years after Jesus’s birth to the Spanish Inquisition, Christians have been persecuted and persecuted others repeatedly in the name of a God who said that “love your neighbor” was the second-greatest commandment. In this country, Christians have been divided over the American Revolution, abolition, and the Civil Rights movement. Debate among Christians about the way to celebrate Christmas arose far before Starbucks’ cups were even thought of, with the “most organized attack on Christmas [coming] from the Puritans, who banned celebrations of the holiday in the 17th century because it did not accord with their interpretation of the Bible.”[5] The fact is, Christians argue with each other. Various denominations interpret the Bible differently. There are frequent disagreements about church polity both within and between religious groups. Christians are not all the same.

But we do worship the same God, a God who cared enough about a lost and bleeding humanity to live – and die – among them. The ancient beleaguered people of Judah, looking for their own savior, were willing to believe that the birth of a child could save the world. They heard in Isaiah’s words, “a vision of the righteous reign of the coming king who is already at work in the world. They looked out at a world that was no less corrupt, corrosive, cruel, or confusing than our world, and they saw God at work in it. [They saw] the power of God moving in and through it, shaping it according to God’s will.”[6] So did the shepherds. Dirty, cold, and terrified, they were nonetheless prepared to believe. “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.” Such willingness to open our hearts and minds to the power and love of God – to believe –is what all Christians share – and what we need right now.

We also share the desire to act according to God’s will, despite the fact that we may interpret it differently. Whether we are among the 32 percent of citizens who prefer to be greeted with “Merry Christmas,” or the 52 percent who don’t care, we can agree that Jesus’s birth is to be celebrated with grace and wonder as befits the gift of a loving and caring God – and we can agree that Jesus’s was a humble birth presaging a humble life and a ministry focused on helping the most humble among us. Most importantly, we must agree that it is what we do with our belief that is important, demonstrating how religion can influence us to act and react constructively to the world around us – how it can teach us to productively manage our outrage by making a path of change that is both proactive and peaceful. Christmas is not about presents, or food, or coffee cups.  It is about awe and gratitude and grace. It is about glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.  It is about believing in the power of love. AMEN.

[1]Liam Stack, (December 13, 2017), “Is Christmas a Religious Holiday? A Growing Number of Americans say no,” New York Times on line, https://nyti.ms/2ACcPm0.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Pew Research Center (December 12, 2017), “Americans say religious aspects of Christmas are declining in Public Life,” http://www.pewforum.org/2017/12/12/americans-say-religious-aspects-of-christmas-are-declining-in-public-life/.

[4]Jonathan Merritt, (December 7, 2017), “Amid a sex abuse crisis, a new conservative Christian vision for womanhood”? Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2017/12/07/sex-abuse-crisis-conservative-christian-vision-womanhood/.

[5]Liam Stack, (December 19, 2016), “How the ‘War on Christmas’ controversy was created,” New York Times on line, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/19/us/war-on-christmas-controversy.html.

[6]Mark Douglas, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 102.

Sermon for December 24, 2017, Christmas Eve:  The Light that comes into the world (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Merry Christmas! Feels good to say it, doesn’t it? It might feel even better though if – dare I say it? – I felt more prepared for it. Time is a strange thing. My memories of Christmas as a child is that “the holiday season” seemed to go on forever. There was time for the annual Christmas tree selection pilgrimage, and the visits to my grandparents’ and aunt’s houses. There were rehearsals for the Christmas pageant and shopping for a Christmas dress. There was decorating and wrapping and singing carols. It was a period of enchantment outside of time itself.

As an adult and a parent (and now a priest), however, the season I once thought of as Christmas and now know as Advent appears to be remarkably short.  There is simply not enough time to do all of the baking, shopping, decorating and buying that once seemed like fun and now feels an awful lot like work. While the payoff is great, there is little fulfillment in the experience – and forget about the spiritual preparation that I have been talking about throughout Advent. If anything, I have had less time to pray, not more.

Which leads me back to the question I asked in my sermon a couple of weeks ago: are you ready? Are you ready to receive the priceless gift of the Savior of the world?  I’m not sure that I am, but then again neither was Mary – or Joseph or the shepherds – because, as anyone who has had a major life transition knows – you’re never really ready for the big changes, often because they come in unexpected ways. Like the first Christmas.

The Christmas story we heard again tonight is so familiar to us now, that we forget how strange it is. It’s an interesting story – one about a poor woman, pregnant out of wedlock, engaged to a working man, both of whom are part of a subjugated race who has long been waiting for the arrival of a Messiah to rescue them from slavery and oppression. These folk have prophecies that assure them that they will see a great light, signaling the arrival of the savior who is promised. Except that maybe they haven’t read the fine print – because Isaiah’s prophecy about this great Messiah suggests that he may not arrive with “boots on the ground.” What Isaiah’s prophecy says is that the one who is coming, the wonderful Counselor, mighty God and everlasting father is going to be – a child.

Even in the time of Isaiah, this would have seemed strange. “The context of the Isaiah passage is one of fear. It is a dark and frightening time in the history of Judah and Israel. Assyria has become strong and is systematically taking over the whole region.”[1] “In the face of two warring threats, the birth of babies and their growth seems like no sign at all. Great fear calls for a great and powerful sign. A sign of babies seems less than what one needs for reassurance in dark and fearful times.”[2]

It is apparently equally unencouraging to modern seekers. This is evidenced by a recent Pew Research Center survey that indicates that while “ninety percent of Americans celebrate Christmas in some form,” only 57 percent believe in the primary aspects of the biblical Christmas story.”[3] This is actually not very surprising if you think about it. It is a pretty unbelievable story. While I have heard many preachers attempt to retell the Christmas story in a modern context to make it more relatable to modern listeners, the idea of it is still mystifying. The truth is that, “finding the Messiah in such impoverished circumstances was as amazing then as it would be now.  Would we believe it if we were led to a newborn Savior in a homeless shelter or a truck stop? But here it is, in Luke’s story: the Savior of the world, the Word incarnate, takes on human flesh in the most ordinary way.”[4]

The question is, “Why”? Why would God send the savior of the world to earth in such a bizarre and humble way? Why not send him in the form of a great warrior or king with all of the power and the support of the world behind him? Perhaps it’s because God knew whom he was sending our savior to. Perhaps it’s because God knew that then – as now – the last thing human beings need is more ammunition for the idea that power and prosperity and piety are good things. The letter to Titus is very clear on this. Salvation comes from God – not from within us – and salvation is not and cannot be earned. Notice that the writer does not suggest that if we live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly we will be saved. He says that when we accept God’s grace, we can learn to be those things. “Christianity becomes distorted whenever it is seen as a code of conduct apart from grace. The focus then shifts from God’s gracious gift to human striving.”[5] In other words, it’s not all about us. Whenever human beings decide that one group has a monopoly on God’s love and forgiveness, whenever we think that we can speak on God’s behalf, whenever we become so immersed in earthly power and authority, God reminds us we are not the center of the story. We are merely partners – partners with all creation -and all of creation is dependent not on our goodness and “rightness,” but on God’s.

This is what the psalmist means by a “new song.” God’s is an inclusive and universal vision, one where “everyone and everything is included…where all the earth is summoned to sing.”[6] This is the core of evangelism. Episcopalians traditionally are somewhat allergic to the term “evangelist,” partly because it requires talking about your faith, something many of us have been trained not to do, but also because to many of us the word connotes the use of force – of bullying others into believing what we do. Our psalmist tells us this is not the case.  Evangelism, he writes, is sharing. Evangelism is song. It is the way by which we communicate the awe we experience in feeling the presence of God, in living in Christian community, and knowing God’s grace. It is not coercing anyone into anything. It is about the joyful contagion of grace – and it is about gratitude. It is about living lives that are focused not on power and influence, or about making things happen the way we think is right. It is about living lives that are in every way thankful for the gift of the grace of God.

That gift is free. All we have to do – all anyone has to do- is to accept it. St. Augustine said, “I do not say to thee, seek the way. The way itself is come to thee; arise and walk.”[7] God comes to us. All we have to do is look aroundlook and see God’s great and empowering light. The choice is ours; walk in darkness or reach for the light. But know this; God’s light is not contained in a great glass cathedral, or seated on the throne of power, or demonstrated by a fat bank account.  The light of Christ shines from the darkness of a humble cave, where an innocent child stands ready to increase our joy, demonstrate true justice, and prepare the way for the Christmas that never ends. Amen.

[1]Beth Laneel Tanner, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 99.

[2]Ibid, 101.

[3]Liam Stack, (December 13, 2017), “Is Christmas a Religious Holiday? A Growing Number of Americans say no,” New York Times on line, https://nyti.ms/2ACcPm0

[4]Kimberly Bracken Young, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 121.

[5]Cathy F. Young, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 112.

[6][6]Andrew Purves, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 106.

[7]Donald W. Musser, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 112.

 

Sermon for December 24, 2017:  Fourth Sunday of Advent (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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The other day the children and I were talking about shopping for Christmas presents – and how our shopping habits tend to reflect our personalities. “Katie,” Nick said, “always gives you things that she thinks you might like but they never make sense to anyone but her.” “Dad,” said, Katie, “gives you what he wants to get himself.” “And Aunt Sidnie,” I said, “buys you what she thinks you should have – like “Introduction to the Apocrypha.”

Finding gifts for other people is a difficult proposition – one which, I suspect, has been keeping many of us up nights lately. It’s hard to find the perfect gift – and it hurts when someone rejects a present that we have spent a lot of time picking out. That’s the situation David finds himself in in today’s Hebrew scripture. As God’s chosen king, David is “settled in his house” and decides that he should build a nice temple to repay God for all of her help and support. It seems like a great idea. After all, why should God live in a tent when the king is living in a mansion? But God rejects David’s proposed gift. In fact, God actually takes offense at David’s offer.  It’s like that moment on Christmas morning when your child takes the finger baby puppet you waited in line for ten hours for and throws it into the fireplace – except times ten thousand.  What went wrong?

Well, “according to the text, both king and prophet have misjudged the mind of the Lord…David and Nathan misconceive the character and purpose of the One they worship. In our own day there are examples aplenty, from both political and religious realms, of those who have no doubt as to God’s purposes and plans. This text serves as a warning against such a confident reading of the will of God.”[1] Over and over our scriptures tell us that God doesn’t think like us – and there is nothing in the bible to suggest that any one person – or religion – has the ability or right to tell others what God wants. David – perhaps with the best intentions – decided that he knew what God wanted – and he was wrong.  That’s what happens when you do not give God a choice.

Our scriptures are filled with stories of God – and human beings – making choices that we can’t anticipate -and often don’t comprehend – choices like the one God makes in Samuel’s story to live as a homeless person in a tent rather than a tabernacle; choices like the ones Jesus often makes to eat with prostitutes, foreigners, and contagiously ill peasants; and the choice made by a teenaged girl in the last year before the Common Era in a small province in an occupied land in the Middle East – the choice made by Mary when she encountered an angel.

People are fascinated with angels, and there has been a fair amount of argument about what angels actually look like. Biblical scholarship suggests that there are several different types – or “ranks” – of angels and that they differ from one another in both power and appearance.  Of course, we don’t really know, but what we’re pretty sure of is that angels are not chubby little children with little wings and halos. What we do know is that angels are God’s foot soldiers – so they may or may not be beautiful, but they are definitely terrifying.

Angels appear four times in the Christmas story – once to John the Baptist’s father Zechariah; once to Joseph, once to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, and once to Mary. In most cases, the people the angels approach are described as being completely terrified – but not Mary.  Today’s gospel tells us that Mary’s first reaction to seeing Gabriel is not fear but confusion.  She is “perplexed.”  She wonders at his greeting.  And when he gives her the bizarre and unthinkable news that she will become pregnant with a Saviour who will be great and called the son of the Most High – a son who will be a king as great as David and who will reign for ever -she doesn’t cry or scream or argue – she simply asks how this can possibly be true.  And when she is told that “nothing is impossible with God,” she accepts her fate as God’s will – because she has faith in him.

In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, Mary’s acquiescence is interpreted as simple and admirable obedience.  In these traditions, the figure of Mary is viewed as the ultimate example of Christian – and more specifically female – piety.  She is revered for her seemingly timid submission.  All you have to do is look at artistic images of Mary (as we did at our recent Faithful Forum) to intuit the lesson you’re supposed to learn from her.  She is gentle and passive – peaceful and empty.  She is a mere vessel for the will of God.

But if you look more closely at what Luke’s gospel says, this view doesn’t hold up. First of all, Mary has the chutzpah to actually question the angel – which is more than we can say for Joseph and the shepherds, who are too busy cowering on the ground frozen with fear to say anything.  And not only does she question Gabriel, but Gabriel demonstrates respect for her by giving her an actual answer.  Notice that the gospel passage does not end with the angel’s pronouncement of Mary’s impending pregnancy. The angel departs only after Mary accepts God’s call.  It is Mary who gets the last word.

The point is that Mary had a choice.  Not, perhaps, of whether she would be the vessel of God’s earthly incarnation – but certainly a choice in how she would live out that role – and Mary chose to accept her role not with docile subjugation, but with courage and joy – with so much joy that she sang about it. The visit of an angel is the very definition of “awesome,” meaning that it invokes both dread and wonder. Every single person in the nativity story who received a visit from Gabriel had the choice of focusing on the fear or reverence that make up “awe.”  Each had the option of cowering and attempting to defend themselves against it- or embracing it as a gift from God.  Mary chose to see her perilous situation as a gift – as grace.

Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us that the revelation of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ was a mystery that was disclosed in order to bring about the obedience of faith – not obedience by law or by threats or by fear.  Mary didn’t accept God’s grace because she was afraid of Gabriel.  She did not agree to God’s life-changing “favor” because she was too passive and meek to refuse. Mary accepted God’s favor because she trusted in Godand that is why she is a saint.

“Christians can find authentic meaning and goodness in our lives only to the degree we trust in God’s promises.”[2] Believing is our choice. The Bible tells us that every stranger we encounter may be an angel in disguise – and maybe that’s why we are so often afraid of those who seem different than us. After all, angels are scary. But what if we, like Mary, approached our lives – all of the unknown people and unopened packages– with wonder instead of fear? What if we chose to believe that God knows what is best for us even when we don’t understand it? What if wake up on Christmas morning and – no matter how terrifying it might seem – choose to accept the gift of grace that God has picked out just for us? I can’t help but wonder if that’s the gift that God would choose for us – and for himself. AMEN.

[1]Eugene C. Bay, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 76.

[2]Cathy F. Young, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 90.

Sermon for December 17, 2017: The Spirit of the Lord God is upon us (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

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Here we are the Third Sunday of Advent that now marks one week before Christmas, because the fourth Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve. One might say were coming down to the wire and we have just a few days to finish our Christmas preparations. We Christians, that keep Advent, live a dichotomy of quiet waiting for the Nativity and frenetic activities preparing for our celebrations. We also must endure being bombarded by premature Christmas music.

In the season of Advent, a season of waiting, we focus on the coming of Jesus in three ways: His Nativity, His present and His Final Advent.

The readings for this Sunday mesh together well and deal with rejoicing in the Lord — Christian joy — as well as the mission of St. John the Baptist and his connection with Advent preparation. This Sunday is also called Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday. In Latin Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, Gaudete – Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice. This is, for us, a very familiar line of Scripture.

Today the Third Sunday in Advent is marked by the rose candle. Rose or pink is derived by lightening purple, signifying joy the theme of today.

Theologian Henri Nouwen described the difference between joy and happiness this way. “While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.” Thus joy can be present even in the midst of sadness, as the Psalmist said:

May those who sow in tears

reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping,

bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy,

carrying their sheaves.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann reminds us:

“Advent is anticipation of the new community in the world, wrought by the power of Jesus, mandated by the way of Jesus, and living toward the hope of Jesus. … The person of Jesus presses us to think about the people of Jesus.”

 

In our first lesson for today, we hear the prophet Isaiah proclaim:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,

because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God;

to comfort all who mourn;

This passage from Isaiah is familiar to us, because it is the one Jesus read in his hometown Synagogue in Nazareth.

These verses are about salvation as well as mission. Salvation that the Prophet speaks of is freedom from captivity, slavery, and a return to and restoration of Zion; about justice and quality of life and that reflects God’s desires for the human community. The Good News that is a reference to the Jubilee Year, the year of the Lord’s favor, when debts are forgiven, indentured servants allowed to return home, property returned to its original owners. The restored Israel living as a Jubilee community is God’s sign to the nations of the world of God’s blessing. This good news of salvation is not some future reward like going to heaven, as wonderful as this may be, but living in the kingdom of heaven under the Reign of God here and now.

At the beginning of his Ministry on earth Jesus used this passage from Isaiah as his mission statement at his Advent as the Messiah. Indeed, this is our mission statement through him.

What does our mission look like and what is it that we are called to do?

Mission happens when we turn our attention to those who are named as the recipients of the good news: the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, the mournful, the faint of spirit. It is evident in these lines from Isaiah that God’s special concern is for the lowest and weakest and Jesus continually championed the same in His ministry.

Mission is not primarily something that goes out from God’s people—by sending money or sending missionaries as good and righteous as these are —but something that defines God’s people, as existing for the sake of the oppressed, brokenhearted, imprisoned, and mournful. Mission happens when the nations of the world notice that the people of God live differently, and are drawn to the ways of God by it. As Isaiah said, “they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.” This is kind of a sacramental enacting of the salvation toward which it points. (1)  Isaiah imagines “all the nations” streaming to a glorified Jerusalem.

To be missional is to live as a people of good news, liberation, justice, and comfort in such a way that the world may take notice. Unfortunately, if Christians live as divided people, known to the world as those who judge, fight, and exclude, the church will fail to be missional, no matter how much money it gives and how many missionaries it sends.

The Very Rev. Michael Curry, our presiding Bishop reminds us that we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. Similarly, we are the Diocese of California branch of the Episcopal Church and we here at Grace are a branch of the Diocese of California, and even though the Jesus Movement may have family arguments and disagreements if we are of one mind and spirit of Christ we live a Jubilee life.

Jesus declared himself to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy to be God’s light in the world and John the Baptist testified to that light. That he would bring salvation to all who believe in him. And we who make up his body in the world carry on his mission to bring good news, healing, and release. As we quietly wait through the last days of Advent, let us remember not just that Jesus came but why Jesus came—to usher in a jubilee celebration that would have no end. Gaudete – Rejoice!

Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 1978-1980). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition

Sermon for December 10, 2017: Preparing in God’s Time (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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There was a rector who was having a tough year at his parish. His parishioners thought his sermons were lame, he took too much time to get things done, and, worst of all, because of a really bad stewardship campaign they were hurting for money. So the rector prayed to God for some help. “God,” he said, “they think I’m too slow!” “My son,” God said, “to me ten million years is like a single second.”  “But God, we don’t have enough money to do your work.” “My child,” God said, “to me ten million dollars is like a penny.” Frustrated, the rector thought about this for a bit and then said, “God can I have a penny”? And God said, “Sure, just give me a sec.”

Waiting can be very hard.  Anyone who has ever sat in an emergency room lobby, or anticipated an important phone call, or listened for the sound of an ambulance coming along the road knows this. And no one knew it better than the post-exilic Jews who were the audience for Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of the Lord. Of course, today’s Hebrew scripture says it’s from Isaiah, but it’s really from second Isaiah. The biblical book we call Isaiah is really more appropriately divided into two parts (maybe even three), with the second half having been written about two hundred years after the first part.  The first section of the prophecy attributed to the figure of Isaiah is the story of how the people of Israel sinned against God and were sent into exile. It’s filled with bad news.  The second part, however, is the story of their return to their homeland, and it has a lot of good news, but they don’t always recognize it as such.

That’s because these people had witnessed- and done- terrible things, and, as we know and the people of southern California are currently discovering, “disasters make people numb, afraid, and hopeless.”[1] When awful things happen, we don’t want to hear long explanations about why the occurred, we just want them to stop. Jean Kerr used to talk about hearing noises from the upstairs of her house and knowing that her kids were up to no good. “Other mothers,” she said, “might yell, ‘What’s going on up there’? but not me – I just shout, ‘Cut that out’ – because I don’t really care what’s going on up there, I just want it to stop.” No wonder people get frustrated with religion, which often has a great deal to say about why bad things happen, but not how to stop them.

So I’m happy to tell you that we have almost gotten to that part of our theology in our weekly readings, but before we get to talk about the coming of our savior, we have to look at why his arrival didn’t – and still hasn’t- fixed everything. That’s because expecting God to repair our broken world without recognizing who broke it and how it got broken is be like jumping to the last page of a book to find out how it ends. It doesn’t make sense without the stuff in the middle. “Theologically, we must not separate God’s grace and forgiveness from God’s judgment on human sin. To do so renders God’s grace and forgiveness cheap.”[2] In other words, jumping straight to our redemption is cheating.

A few weeks ago I talked about “proof texting,” the practice of justifying one’s beliefs by finding specific Bible verses seem to confirm them. At that time I said that the Bible is filled with contradictory and confusing ideas and that pulling any one of them out of context can misrepresent its meaning. This practice is more common in among some believers than others, but no Christian community is immune to it. We can see an example of it today in our own Revised Common Lectionary. The “RCL” is a schedule of scripture readings which is currently followed by many Christian denominations. The RCL is designed to provide a broad, linear progression of scripture readings, but, like any other religious endeavor, the RCL sometimes cherry picks or modifies its readings in order to make them fit with a certain theme. Thus, we find not one but five verses missing in our reading from Psalms today. What’s in those five verses, you ask? It is the part of the story where the people are mad at God, where they lament their lives and beg God to send them some good news. It’s the sad part.

The good news is the part we got to hear today – the part about how Jesus is coming with mercy and truth, righteousness and peace. It is also the section where we find out how we will know when this is happening, – but it might not be the way we think. “The psalmist’s signs of salvation – peace, justice, faithfulness, and steadfast love – stand in stark contrast to the violent vision of Armageddon so popular in our time.  The psalmist’s proclamation means that we will know God’s salvation is near, not when there are war and conflict in the Middle East (or anywhere else), but when God’s peace – [God’s] love, faithfulness and right relationships – prevail….For Christians, [we find] salvation [not just by] believing in Jesus Christ, but [by] embodying what he embodied in this world. When steadfast love and faithfulness meet in our lives, when righteousness and peace embrace in our business practices, our family relations, or our nations’ policies, God’s salvation is near at hand. When we work for justice we make way for God in our world.”[3]

This is something the people addressed in the second letter of Peter had to learn. Scholars tell us that this text was written not by the disciple Peter, but in his name at least a century after Jesus’s death. By that time, many people had lost faith that Jesus was going to return from the dead to save God’s people- and the early Christians were being taunted because their predictions of salvation had failed to come true. Just as in our time, people couldn’t understand why Jesus’s followers continued to believe in something that clearly couldn’t be proven – unless it was proven wrong. The author of this letter addresses those concerns, tackling the tough subjects of, “what are we waiting for,” “how long do we have to wait,” and “what should we do in the meantime.” What we are waiting for, says the writer, is nothing less than for the Lord to bring about his promise of a new world, a saving world. He also notes, however, that God will not bring it until we are ready to receive it.

Peter’s author, like the gospel writer, is very clear; what we see as a time of waiting is really a chance to get ready. What looks to us like delay looks to God like patience. And God has all the time in the world.”[4] That’s why the church has decreed Advent to be a season of preparation – one which includes both penitence and hope. That’s why the church has, in recent years, suggested that the color of Advent should not be purple, which is the color of repentance, but blue, to symbolize a different sort of preparation. (That’s why we are allowed to keep our “Alleluias” during the season of Advent but not in Lent). During Lent, we prepare ourselves to participate in the death and resurrection of Christ, to be present with our savior in the sacrifice he makes for us. Like preparing for a human death, in Lent we spend as much time as possible with our loved one, making amends as needed, and contemplating what our life will be like without our beloved. In Advent, however, we are readying ourselves for our savior’s birth -and as with any expected birth, we clean our houses and make room for a new beloved. We think about what our life will be like with someone different in it. “We wait in penitence,” yes, but more so “in hope.”[5] We are asked to look at the state of our lives –and to measure not our material prosperity or human power, but our “relationship with God, as well as the way that relationship influences…our association with fellow human beings.”[6] We are asked to attempt to “live in this unrighteous realm as if we were already citizens of that righteous one.”[7] We are asked to prepare the way of the Lord, understanding that God is waiting – and God will give us all the time we need. AMEN.

 

[1]Kathleen M. O’Conner, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 27.

[2]George W. Stroop, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 28.

 

[3]Talitha Arnold, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 36.

[4]William Brosend, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 40.

 

[5]David L. Bartlett, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 43.

[6]Lee W. Bowman, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 40.

[7]David L. Bartlett, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 43.

  Sermon for December 3, 2017: Impatiently waiting (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Over the years, my family has developed a variety of Christmas traditions that range from strict (the Christmas tree does not come down until Epiphany) to practical (no buying anything for yourself after Thanksgiving) to ridiculous. (Our annual Christmas tree buying pilgrimage involves first going to a thousand “cut your own tree” lots, where I don’t find any I like, and usually ends up in a dark tree lot a mile from our house.  Last year it ended in the clearance section at Walmart). But we have one custom that is both practical and theological – you don’t get new things unless you get rid of some of your old stuff. I think of it as “Advent cleaning.”

The prophet Isaiah had a similar idea, long before “Christmas” even existed.  His was more about emotional cleansing though. Our Hebrew scripture from today finds Isaiah speaking on behalf of the post-exilic Israelites, who are once again suffering from adjustment difficulties. Of course they blame God for the mess they’re in, albeit in a pretty passive-aggressive way: “We know that it is our own fault that we are in this fix, but we also know that you can do anything, so can you just come down and fix things”?  They sound a lot like us. We know that the horrors of the world are not God’s doing, but we still don’t understand why God does not simply show up and fix them.  “Who has not at one time or another wondered [why]….if in biblical times God intervened in history with ‘awesome deeds’ why does God not do so today…Why would God deliver Israel from Egypt but not deliver six million Jews from Hitler’s death camps? We read stories about God’s spectacular interventions, yet we look in vain for such visible signs of God’s involvement in the world today.”[1]

We lament – just as the ancient Israelites did. This is an incredibly human thing to do. In fact, it is so natural to express pain that research has shown that not doing it can make you sick.[2] A good, cleansing cry doesn’t just make you feel better- it may actually help to heal what ails you. God – and God’s people – understood this long before functional MRI studies. Our scriptures offer proof of this long history of lament, this need to express our anger and fear, to bemoan our darkest doubts and deepest hopes. They tell us, in fact, that God and Christian community have long been willing not only to acknowledge human suffering, but to share it. This communal recognition and desire to stop human misery is at the heart of how we pray. It is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the psalms “the prayer book of the Bible.” The long history of lament reminds us that we are not the first people to question God – to wonder how an all-powerful, all-loving deity can allow such horrible suffering to occur and continue in this world. Today’s psalm tells us that “the psalmist recognizes that [often] what [we] believe and what is happening around [us] do not cohere.”[3]  In other words, “If you are so good and you love us, make it stop, God,” we cry. “We know you can.”

When God doesn’t seem to hear us, it is easy to fall into despair, and it is even easier when we are feeling pressured not to. That’s one reason that many people do not look forward to “the Christmas season.” For many people, pre-holiday preparations are a source of anxiety instead of anticipation. For them, Christmas is filled with painful memories instead of happy recollections, and depression is more likely to characterize this time of year than delight. No wonder we cry out in anguish for comfort from our God. Advent becomes not a season of expectation, but of longing.

What it should be is a season of hope – because hope is what being part of a community of Christ should give you. “Hope,” Patricia De Jong says, “is what is left when your worst fears have been realized and you are no longer optimistic about the future.  Hope is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended.”[4] Christians understand hope, because, with Jesus, we have gone through the despair of Good Friday to the new life of Easter. Hope is what separates those who celebrate “Christmas” – the orgy of consumption and self-congratulation it has become in popular culture – from those who rejoice in the hope that comes with the advent of the birth of Jesus. That is what we are preparing for – not Christmas dinner, not the presents under the tree, not the trips to the airport. “While the world’s busyness may seem to be pointed toward ‘Christmas,’ it is seldom pointed toward the coming [of the] Christ child,”[5]– but it should be, because the gift that the Christ child brings cannot be found at a table, in a store, or under our tree.  The gift that the Christ child brings can be found only in our hearts.  It is the gift of hope – a gift we – like the followers of Mark’s gospel writer – desperately need.

You may have noticed that with the new liturgical year we have switched our gospel readings from Matthew to Mark. Mark’s is thought to be the first canonical gospel written, around 70 CE. Today’s reading addresses some kind of future apocalypse, speaking of “days” in which the world as we know it will be radically changed (or destroyed) and God will send angels to save the “elect.” This passage is often cited in apocalyptic literature to support the idea of a “rapture” in which the saved will disappear from the earth, but the original listeners of this gospel probably heard it as “a commentary on the Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem.”[6] That was their “apocalypse,” but Jesus’s lesson references the even older text apocalyptic text of Daniel, suggesting that over and over again people have thought they were living in the “end times,” that theirs was the final witness to human failure. Yet, here we still are. Given this, instead of preparing ourselves for the rapture, perhaps we should instead use the gospel writer’s warning to “understand how our context today may be similar to ancient contexts, so we may discern how to be faithful people of God in our time.”[7] We are not alone. We are not the first people to despair of the sorrow in our world and to predict the imminent end of humanity.  We are not the first to search for love in the midst of depraved and indifferent human behavior.  We are not the first to cry out for the end of hatred, intolerance, and violence. We are not the first to seek God.

The question is, “amid the smoke of battle, the fog of politics, the confusion of economic distress, the babble of would-be leaders wearing God masks and claiming divine authority, how shall we know which way to turn”?[8] It is the psalmist who gives us the answer; “show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” We are to look for the light – but not passively, but actively, with “wailing and waiting and watching… [with] active anticipation and renewed hope.”[9] We are to look for the light together, sharing both our joys and our sorrows.  We are to wait attentively, ignoring the bad news and the fake news and striving to see the Good News, the presence of God that is already among us. We are to look forward, ridding ourselves of our old fears, our old prejudices -our old stuff –and to be awake to the possibilities of “God in the world. [That is an Advent tradition] …that might actually be restful, [that might even] give us peace.” Amen.

[1]Scott Bader-Saye, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 4.

[2]Psychologies, (Nov. 2011), “The link between emotions and health,” https://www.psychologies.co.uk/self/the-link-between-emotions-and-health.html.

[3]Charles M. Wood, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 9.

[4]Patricia E. De Jong, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 4.

[5]Lillian Daniel, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 20.

[6]Christopher Hutson, Charles M. Wood, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 20.

[7]Christopher Hutson, Charles M. Wood, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 20.

[8]Ibid, 24.

[9]Patricia E. De Jong, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 6.

Sermon for November 26, 2017: Christ the King and the Sheep and the Goats (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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You may have noticed that Jesus’ preaching has gotten tough lately.  In recent parables, he has said that anyone can enter the kingdom of God – but they can also be kicked out for wearing the wrong clothes.  He has taught that people can be shut out of the eternal banquet simply for forgetting to pack enough lamp oil.  And he has suggested that a person can be thrown into the outer darkness for having poor investment strategies. Today, he is making the final selections for eternity.  Forget about Cal versus Stanford.  It’s the sheep versus the goats – and the outcome is final:  winners inherit the kingdom of God and losers are thrown into eternal fire.  So, are you ready?  Are you ready for the judgment day?

That’s not a question Episcopalians like to talk about.  First of all, we believe that we are saved by our faith in God, who alone can redeem us from our sins.  Secondly, the whole idea of an actual, literary “judgment day” seems pretty questionable.  We know that some Christians believe that the last judgment will come in the context of the end of the physical world with floods, plagues, war, famine, and fire, and that ultimately Jesus will appear, riding at the head of a column of angelic soldiers to destroy the evil of the world and bring about God’s kingdom on the earth.  It will be victory for the righteous and death for the sinner.

But that scenario is hard for some of us to swallow.  We’d rather think about judgment day as something figurative.  Because a Jesus who punishes – a Jesus who judges without mercy – a Jesus who slaughters non-believers, is not the Jesus we know.  The Jesus we know was born in a cave.  The Jesus we know knelt on the ground and washed the feet of peasants.  The Jesus we know was a teacher, a preacher, and a friend – certainly not the King presented in today’s gospel.  This Jesus is a judgmental ruler who sits at God’s right hand in a heavenly place – far above all earthly rule and authority -and puts everything under his feet.  This Jesus judges us in a very non-hypothetical way.  This Jesus is the focus of a feast day celebrating his status as our king and judge – and on that day – on this day – we are asked if we are ready for that judgment day.  No wonder modern Christians are ambivalent about the Feast of Christ the King.  No wonder today is called “The Sunday of Doom” in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden.

There are more significant reasons that today’s Christians might have issues with this feast day.  The idea of Jesus as a king is pretty confounding.  After all, Jesus spent a great deal of his earthly ministry condemning authority figures.  He spoke often about mercy and he commanded his followers to treat everyone with love.  Yet according to the gospel writer, when the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will sit on a throne and judge as a king.  And when does, he will not forgive the sins of those who failed to follow his commandments.  He will not act with mercy.  He will not unify us as one people. This is incredibly inconsistent with what we believe about Jesus.  That is why some biblical scholars have suggested that Jesus was actually being ironic in this passage.  That he was, in essence, mocking the very idea of power and authority by suggesting that he could – or would – sit in judgment over his disciples.

Perhaps he was.  But, if so, his sarcasm seems to have been lost on many people.  Because the desire for justice against your enemies is consistent with what many people want.  Look at the early Christians.  They were oppressed people who were waiting for a Messiah to save them from their trials.  There was no precedent for a savior who was poor and humble and gentle.  The idea of a messiah who allowed himself to be killed by the Romans made no sense.  What good is a savior who can’t save?  What good is a leader who can’t mete out justice?  What good is a king without a crown?

So the writer of Matthew gave his community what they wanted: a king who has the power and might to hand out justice to evil doers.  There’s just one catch:  non-believers aren’t the only ones who will be judged.  Christians will be too.  This passage is one of the principle arguments for the importance of works over faith.  Adherents to this theology argue that we are to be judged not by what we believe, but by what we do.  That is the opposite of what we profess when we say that we believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins – and that his sacrifice was sufficient to save us once and for all.  So which is it? Grace or works?  Faith or service?  Which of these makes us Christian?

I would suggest that the answer is “both.”  Whether or not we believe that Jesus will appear on a heavenly throne to judge us, it is crucial that we look at ourselves and ask ourselves not only what we believe, but also whether we act according to our beliefs.  Matthew tells his community exactly what many of us tell our own children, “You don’t have to be the best child in the world -just be the best you you can be.”  The gospel writer declares that yes, Jesus can save them and yes, Jesus can indeed put their enemies under his feet, but he also instructs them to act based on what they believe.  In other words, we must be the best Christians we can be.  And that means that Christianity cannot end with coffee hour.

What Matthew’s gospel is saying is that it is not how we act when we eat and drink together that matters, it is whether the people outside of our community have anything to eat and drink at all.  It turns out that Christ the King – this judgmental Jesus that seems so alien to many of us – is the same Jesus who loved the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden.  “Come to me you that are blessed,” he says, “for I was hungry and you fed me.  I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”   Feed the hungry.  Clothe the poor.  Love the stranger.  That’s the Jesus we know.  The Christ who Matthew’s gospel identifies as our judge is the same good shepherd who seeks us out when we stray, binds up our wounds when we are injured, and strengthens us when we are weak.  But he is far less accessible when we are too strong, too full, too powerful.  When we put our own interests above those of others.  When we fail to feed the hungry.  When we forget to welcome the stranger.  When our Christianity stops at the church door.

It is those values – Jesus’ values – that we must make real in the world.  Belief is not enough to call ourselves Christian.  Belief brings us into the good shepherd’s fold, but within the fold we are held accountable for what we have done in the name of our beliefs.  This accounting is not figurative or relative.   We can’t say, “Well, I did better than those people,” or “But those people don’t believe in God at all.”

Luckily, our God has given us the standard by which we, as Christians, have agreed to live.  That standard is love.  Love not only for those we love, but for those who hate us.  Love not only for other Christians, but for strangers.  Love not only for those in our household, but even more for those beyond it.

Christ the King Sunday gives us the opportunity to celebrate Jesus’ victory over death with the vision of a glorious, majestic Christ.  But it is the prophetic Jesus – the poor, humble, broken Jesus – that is our guide.  Today is the last Sunday of the church year.  Next week we enter the season of Advent, when the church calendar starts again, giving us a fresh opportunity to live out our faith.  It is time to make our Christian New Year’s resolutions- resolutions that will prepare us for our judgment day.  So let us resolve – let us resolve to remember our baptismal vows to love one another.  Let us resolve to live our lives – all of our lives – according to what we profess we believe.  And let us resolve that when we see anyone hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked we will remember that each of those people is one and the same as our savior Jesus Christ.  And if we can do that, then perhaps when we are asked if we are ready for the judgment day, we can say, “Yes, teacher.  Yes, Saviour. Yes, yes, yes, my Lord.”  AMEN.

Sermon for November 19, 2017: The opposite of fear  (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Several years ago my husband and I were driving Oakland and came upon someone pulled up by the side of the road because of what appeared to be a flat tire. I immediately told him to pull over so that we could help.  He was more cautious, worrying that the scenario could be some kind of a trap designed to lure us out of our car so we could be robbed or hurt.  This was not an unreasonable idea on his part as there had been news stories at the time about that kind of thing happening.  Nonetheless, I insisted we stop, prompting Gary to remark, “Someday you are going to get yourself killed.”

It was not the first time he had offered this opinion.  From continuing to work inside a state prison facility during both my pregnancies to stepping in between yelling parents and their cowering children, I am known in my household for being what some people might call “fearless” – and what others might call, “fool hardy.” In a society in which action is generally valued over meditation and physical courage is considered part of our national identity, behavior such as mine is often applauded – even when it shouldn’t be.  A little fear is often a healthy thing: it causes us to think before speaking or acting based on impulse rather than intelligence – to “look” as my mother would say, “before you leap.” The question is how we know when we exhibiting sensible caution and when we are just plain chicken.

Sometimes, as we now know from brain studies, we don’t have a choice about being afraid.  Much has been made about “the fight or flight response,” wherein our bodies react by shutting down thinking and beefing up physical reaction time in response to a perceived threat. While this biological process was helpful and perhaps necessary during humanity’s early years, however, scientists are now wondering whether it is actually detrimental in a day and age in which we are deluged by rapid and constant communications, many of which occur in short and sometimes incomprehensible sound bites. Scientists are suggesting that there is so much coming at us so quickly that we are in a state of heightened emotion too often to manage. A 2017 American Psychological Association survey found, for example, that more than half of Americans surveyed reported that just following the news causes them stress.[1]

Perhaps that’s why it’s not hard to sympathize with the Israelites living in post-exile Judah who got some bad news of their own from the prophet Zephaniah.  “The great day of the Lord is near…that day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom,” he tells them. Zephaniah’s is actually just one of several prophetic calls for human annihilation found among the Hebrew prophets. This is not surprising, given that scripture is full of examples of human beings repudiating God, doing evil, and practically begging for destruction. God’s chosen are often violent and warlike, spending much of their time in prayer asking God to rain destruction on their enemies rather than forgiveness for their sins. In that sense, Zephaniah’s prophecy merely gives them a taste of their own medicine. Through it, God tells them that they themselves are just as worthy of the punishments they so diligently pray for others to receive. We are not so different. I don’t know about you, but I often catch myself praying for God to influence the opinions and actions of other people – instead of asking for forgiveness and assistance in improving my own thoughts and behaviors. Zephaniah’s terrifying litany of potential destruction is a powerful reminder to the Israelites – and to us – that all human beings are unworthy of God’s mercy and grace, that we are in as much moral and spiritual danger as those we think of as our enemies. There is, the prophet reminds us, reason to be afraid.

But there is much more reason to hope – not in ourselves and our own abilities and power, but on God’s mercy and love.  “You, beloved, are not in darkness,” Paul tells the Thessalonians. You have everything you need to be ready on the day of the Lord.  But we mustn’t become complacent.  According to Jennifer McBride, “We Christians who live today within various manifestations of Western privilege may do well to heed Paul’s admonition directed toward those who are captivated by the propaganda of the Roman Empire – toward those of us who settle into comfort or power and from that stagnant position live as if all is peaceful and secure.”[2] A little fear is a healthy thing.

But too much fear is not.  Too much fear is heresy.  That is the lesson that the third servant in today’s gospel learns, much to his despair. Contrary to what you may have heard in numerous stewardship sermons, Matthew’s parable is not about money. Bad investment strategy is not what dooms the third servant. It is fear. All three of the servants in the parable are given much – one talent was worth more than 15 years of an average person’s salary. They have no instructions about what they should do with the immense wealth with which they have been entrusted. They are instead provided with the opportunity to show what they can do with it –and what the third servant does with it is nothing, because the third servant is afraid.

That’s because he is focused on what he has, rather than what might be done with it. And he makes assumptions about the one who has given it to him.  He assumes that his master will not be generous, that the lord’s primary desire is to possess, to have. It turns out he is wrong.  It turns out that what matters is not what we have that is important, but whether we are willing to risk what we have in the name of the God who gives us everything we possess. “The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything.”[3] Matthew’s parable is not about money at all. It’s about faith, because it is through faith that we find the courage to step beyond our worldly ideas of what is valuable and step into the beautiful and terrifying uncertainty that is God.  Just like the Jews of Zephaniah’s time returned from exile to a Jerusalem they did not recognize, just like the Thessalonians who feared that Jesus’s promises had been false, we are reminded that God is our only true refuge, our only eternal dwelling place – and that every risk we take is simply a new opportunity to depend on God.

It is that knowledge that “sustains and upbuilds [us] …in whatever circumstance [we] find [ourselves]”[4]– because the opposite of fear is not courage.  The opposite of fear is faith. We need not depend on our own impulses – characterological, biological or otherwise- to help us decide what to do when we feel anxious, afraid, or threatened. We need not “bury [our] goodness, time, love, treasure, and talent” in the dark ground of fear.[5] We need only remember that God is with us – no matter what we have, no matter where we are, no matter what we do – and that means that no risk is too great if it is in the service of God.  “For all those who have the spirit of God, who have faith, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, no faith, only fear, even what they have will be taken away. Do not fear then my sisters and brothers, much has been given you; believe and live in the spirit of God’s abundance. AMEN.

 

[1]American Psychological Association (November 1, 2017), “Stress in America,” http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/11/lowest-point.aspx.

[2]Jennifer M. McBride, (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], 306.

[3]John M. Buchanan, (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], 312.

[4]John E. Cole, (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], 306.

[5]Lindsay P. Armstrong, (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], 311.

Sermon for November 12, 2017: Wisdom and Hope (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Perhaps you have seen this sign above someone’s desk recently: “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.” There are several ways to interpret this saying.  For many of us, especially those of us who are organized, it is simply a boundary statement, a way of telling people that they have to do their part if they want to work as part of our team.  For a disorganized person who is panicking, however, it may bring on feelings of hopelessness.  For military personnel, however, a lack of planning on the part of the higher-ups can be a matter of life or death.  And for the five bridesmaids in today’s gospel that didn’t think far enough ahead, it was the difference between darkness and eternal life.

This idea of a full and joyful afterlife was new to Jesus’s disciples. Jewish theology is not consistent on what happens to people after they die.  There are mentions of life after death in the Hebrew Bible, specifically the realm of “Sheol” which refers to a nether region in which people are mere shadows of themselves. But Jesus’s promise that he would return and take his followers to dwell with him in “the kingdom of God” was something completely new. His promise to return, to “come again,” was both a source of hope and of confusion to them.  The “newness” of the Christian message, “[was a problem for many of Paul’s followers too because]…there was a tension between their new lives and their old.” Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the people of Thessalonica seems to be addressing one source of that tension: what happened to people who died before Jesus returned.  The Thessalonians expected Jesus to return imminently and when Jesus did not return immediately, they began to worry – and one of the things they worried about was the status of their loved ones.  If Jesus was going to return to earth to take his living followers to the source of being with him, what happened to those who had already died?  Would they be left out?

Paul’s answer is “no.” Actually, he says, those who have died will be the first to ascend with Jesus, followed by the faithful among the living.  This gave them hope, and gave them permission to love one another. “The vision shared by this passage is… a gift to the community for the mutual care and comfort of one another, in order that we might stand firm in the midst of fear and anxiety, with hope in the power and promise of God through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” It is important, says Paul, to have faith, for it is through our faith that we will find eternity in Christ, but we cannot live in this world without hope.

Grace Episcopal Church knows a lot about hope, because there have been times in our collective history when hope was all the people of Grace had.  Grace began as a “house church,” much like those of the early Christians – and like the early Christians Grace’s first parishioners were not always able to worship as they liked. They lived for many years without the symbols and accoutrements of their more established neighbors.  They had a church with no rector, then a rector with no office, a building without windows, and a bell without a tower. And while their physical situation did not influence their faith, it certainly might have made them pessimistic about their own future. It might have reduced their hope.

But it didn’t. because they believed, as we do, in the way of Christ, the way of miracles, a way that allows the blind to see, the injured to walk, and the dead to rise.  We are Christians, and, “Christians are fundamentally people of ‘hope,’ people who eagerly await the new thing the resurrected Christ brings.” But it is not a blind hope. It is not a lazy hope. It is not a stupid hope.  “Hope,” said C.S. Lewis, “is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”

Hope is based on an understanding of the nature of God – the God who created us and loved us as no one else could, the God who sent his only son to live and die as one of us so that we could be saved from ourselves, and the God whose Spirit is constantly present in our lives –a spirit of wisdom. Wisdom – or “Sophia” in Greek – is how we understand God and God’s will for us.  Wisdom is God’s gift to those who believe in her. Wisdom is the perpetually available and deeply satisfying understanding that God’s nature is one of love and concern, and instruction. Wisdom is the way we can prepare ourselves for the Parousia, the Second Coming, the final judgment.

That is what Jesus is explaining to his disciples in the parable of the bridesmaids.  The story, which is found only in the gospel of Matthew, is the second of four allegorical tales in which Jesus teaches his followers how they must live if they are to survive the end of the age, when “there will be wars and persecutions, sacrilege and false messiahs, the heavens and earth shaken, and the Son of Man coming glory… [a day which] will come soon, nobody knows when.”“The kingdom of heaven,” he says, “will be like” a wedding.  There will be tears and anger, frustration and hope; there will be bridezillas and forgetful grooms; there will be excitement and fear. Lives will be disturbed and disrupted. There will be unbearable expectation. We will need to be prepared. We will need to be wise.  We will need to hope.

Christianity makes much of faith – and while it is true that it is through belief in the resurrected Christ that we become members in his church, it is by hope that we are able to overcome the “forces of oppression, injustice, violence, and torture” that would keep us from the realm of God. But we have to be smart about it. We need to guard against thinking that we are asked to live for the future, to care only whether our present actions will get us in to the realm of God. Rather, we are asked to live as if we are already there. Today’s gospel “reminds us that entrance into the banquet does not turn on what we…presume to know [now]. Instead, it asks us to prepare to wait…to avoid assuming that we have enough (knowledge, faith, love…) in our lamps …now.” It reminds us that we are not alone, that we wait together, discern together, prepare together – that in community we keep one another awake.  “The Messiah comes ‘at the right time’ [not at a]…convenient time or on our time– and we would do well to anticipate that time by doing God’s will, by working together to bring the oil of good works to our hurting world, and by anticipating the day when we can, like C.S. Lewis finally say, “the term is ended, the holidays have begun. The dream has ended: this is the morning.” AMEN.

Sermon for November 5, 2017: All Saints (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Today we are celebrating All Saint’s Day, which officially occurs on November 1st.  On All Saint’s Day we remember those who have gone before us.  In ancient Christianity, each saint had his or her own day of remembrance.  All Soul’s Day, which is on November 2nd, was set apart to honor those who were not officially recognized as saints or martyrs of the church.  In time, however, there came to be so many saints that our church fathers decided to honor all of them on one “all” saint’s day.  These days, since we see all saints as being equal, many churches don’t hold All Soul’s Day services.

All Saint’s is also one of the preferred days to perform baptisms.  This seems counterintuitive. Why is All Saint’s Day, which is about those who have died, associated with Holy Baptism, which is about new life?  The Prayer Book tells us that baptism is the way we understand our relationship to God and to one another.  This includes everyone we come into contact with, but most especially the community of Christ – those who live now and those who no longer live on this earth.  We are all members of the same community – the community of saints- and we enter that community through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

When someone dies, we tell each other that that person will live on in our hearts and through our memories of them.  My own father died when I was nine years-old.  Over the years since then my older sister has often referred to one or another memory of something that happened to us in childhood.  “Do you remember when we went to Santa’s workshop”?  “Do you remember when we went to Cape Cod and bought lobsters and Daddy chased Mom around the house with one”?  “Do you remember how Daddy and Grandma used to tease each other”?  “Do you remember – do you remember – do you remember”?  And the answer was always “no.”  Because I didn’t remember.  I had almost no memories of my father.  As I grew older, and went to psychology school, I recognized that I should be able to remember.  I knew that I had been old enough when he died to recall important things – things like Christmas trees, and burning leaves, and the feel of your father’s arms around you, and his scruffy cheek when he kissed you good night.  But I didn’t.

As part of my doctoral program in psychology I had to go to therapy so I could learn what it was like to be “the client.”  My goal for my mandated treatment was to try to figure out why I didn’t have memories of my father and to (hopefully) recover some of them.  But that didn’t happen.

Feeling a call to ordained ministry is a powerful but somewhat awkward thing.  It’s hard to predict how people will react when you tell them.  This is particularly true of your family members because they are the ones that really know you.  They know that you are not a holy or exemplary person.  They’re the ones that you pushed off the swing.  When I called my mother to tell her I was in discernment for ordained ministry, she said, “Oh, that’s nice.”  I said, “That’s nice?  Is that all you’re going to say”?  And she said, “Well, what do you want me to say”?  I said, “Well, you could say – ‘Are you kidding?  You can’t be a priest! ’ or you could say, ‘That’s great.  I always knew you would be a priest, ‘or you could say, ‘How ‘bout those Red Sox’?”  And my mother said, “Well, that was a good game yesterday.”  So I said, “Okay, clearly we’ve gone for option three.”  My mother said, “Well, maybe your father has something to do with it.  You know he always wanted to be a priest.” Of course, I hadn’t known – or I didn’t remember.

As part of my discernment process, I was asked to write a “spiritual autobiography” – to tell my life story through the lens of my relationship with God and the church.  When I sat down in front of the computer, I had no idea what I was going to write.  But then an amazing thing happened.  I started writing about my father.  I wrote about going to visit our church’s mission chapel, where he officiated at Morning Prayer.  I wrote about how he taught me that you had to drink the leftover wine and eat the leftover bread from communion.  I wrote about how he was my fourth grade Sunday school teacher who allowed me to be the celebrant at the children’s Eucharist where I first stood behind an altar and held up my hands and knew I was called to the priesthood.  I wrote about my father, who set me on this path.

And that was just the beginning.   As I have progressed on my journey to ordination, more and more memories of my father have come back – memories of picnics on the beach, and “tickle fights” and boat rides and Sunday dinners and eating grilled cheese sandwiches while watching Walt Disney World.  My father has been with me.  And his presence is so strong, so clear, that it has been evident to other people as well.

As part of becoming a postulant for Holy Orders, you have to be interviewed by a member of the diocesan Commission on Ministry.  My interview was with Clinton Williams at St. James in Oakland.  St. James is a beautiful church, with a vast nave, carved pews and tall pillars that rise to the ceiling.  We sat in the empty sanctuary on a quiet weekday and talked about my life and my spiritual development.  Clinton was a good and attentive listener, but when I started talking about my father, he interrupted me.  He said, “Do you see someone”?  I hadn’t heard anyone come into the church, but I looked where he pointed and saw only a shadow behind a pillar.  Clinton said, “There was a man standing there, but he’s gone.”  I asked him what the man looked like – and he described my father.  And when I told him, Clinton said, “I thought so.  It was your father.  He’s watching over you.”

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

All we need do is to accept the gift we have already been given -membership in the fellowship of God – walking beside those who are here now and those who have gone before us.  “Proclaim the glory of the Lord,” our psalmist exults, “Those who seek the Lord lack nothing that is good. The Lord ransoms the life of his servants, and none will be punished who trust in him.” We are God’s people and we have been made new in the image of God through Jesus Christ.  The glory of God is us.  It is my father and my father-in-law and my stepfather and my grandparents, and my brother John, and our brother Joe and our sister Joyce and all the saints who have gone before us.  The glory of God is God’s people.

Victor Hugo said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  Do you see the glory of God in other people?  Can you look at those you hate as well as those you love and see the face of God?  Can you look at an election ballot or a newscast and imagine the face of God?  Can you remember that ours is a community of all saints, of all souls-good and bad, rich and poor, dead and alive?

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

Sermon for October 29, 2017: Back to Basics (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

When I looked at the Revised Common Lectionary for this week, I thought about not preaching at all.  That’s because today’s lectionary message is simple enough for children to understand, challenging enough to keep us busy for the rest of our lives, and clear enough to settle most religious debates. It can answer almost every theological question you can think of – from the reasoning behind having women priests to the question of the place of social justice issues in the church. It is, in my mind, the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It is so basic that it doesn’t seem to require interpretation at all – but perhaps some commentary on it is merited, if only because it is so important.

Today’s Hebrew scripture is from Leviticus – and it is the only passage from Leviticus that appears in the Revised Common Lectionary. That is interesting, because Leviticus is one of the books of the Bible that is frequently used in “proof texting.” “Proof texting is “the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing.”[1] That’s because Leviticus contains lots of rules, so if you’re looking for a bible passage that says we should behave in a certain way, Leviticus is a good place to look. Leviticus is one of the five books of Moses – the Torah- and contains the Jewish holiness code, from which today’s reading is taken.[2]  There are six hundred and thirteen commands in the Torah – and over three hundred of them are prohibitions – and this passage is no exception. In just six verses, there are six “you shall nots.”

The focus of the reading, however, is on two “shalls” in the reading: “You shall be holy” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two statements bracket the reading and form the core around which the rest of it depends. They would not have been unfamiliar to Leviticus’s readers.  “Old Testament law shares many concerns with other ancient Near Eastern law codes, of which the most famous is the much earlier Code of Hammurabi.”[3] These codes concerned themselves with how people should live together, and this passage “[explicitly links] holy living with justice making…[This] call to holiness, here defined primarily not in relation to cult or temple but rather to life in community, is an invitation to inclusive wholeness.”[4]

Paul was all about community wholeness.  The reading we heard today is from Thessalonians, which is thought to be Paul’s first letter, and thus the oldest existing book of the New Testament.  In it, Paul speaks of his failed evangelism at Philippi, “distinguishing between apostles, who preach the gospel out of love for others, and traveling philosophers of his day who preached to manipulate for personal gain.”[5] It is clear which kind of evangelist he believes he is and which type he wants his followers to be. Paul tells us that if we choose to love others even when they are cruel to us, we will find our own happiness.

It is the same choice conveyed by the psalmist in the very first psalm in the biblical canon. We can choose to walk in the counsel of the wicked or to delight in the law of the Lord. “The psalmist does not assume that his listeners are inclined toward making the right choice. In fact, the structure of the psalm suggests a keen awareness of the human proclivity to make the wrong one.”[6] He knows what we’re up against when we try to do the right thing. He knows that it is hard to put aside our own self-interest and fears. “It sounds good, but there are [just] so many traps and opportunities to forget or to totally fail at being a loving or good person.”[7] How do we do it?

We do it by relying on God – and on our Christian community. “We forget that we cannot live this life by ourselves.  We cannot be the people God desires us to be and that we desire to be without complete surrender and dependence on God. It is not right behavior and action that win us God’s favor. Rather, the realization of our need for God in our lives softens the places that wickedness comes from and empowers us to be a loving people.”[8]

Jesus recognized that need – the need to put God at the center of our lives. When the Pharisees asked him which of the six hundred odd commands of their Torah is the most important, he didn’t even blink. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy and the “Shema,” the prayer that observant Jews say every day. He followed this with a second quote, this one from the Leviticus passage we read, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This was the first time that these two ancient scripture passages had been cited together. “In quoting the Shema, Jesus points out that the aim of the law is to orient one’s entire life toward God.  However, one cannot love God without loving what God loves! One cannot love God and oppress or exclude any of God’s creatures – even one’s enemies. While the scribes and Pharisees used the law to place severe limits on those whom they were obliged to recognize as their neighbors, Jesus joins these texts in order to smash all the limits and boundaries of neighborliness…To love God is to love in the [same] way that God loves – indiscriminately. To love God is to love what God loves- everything.”[9]

This is Jesus’s answer to the Pharisee’s pop quiz: that all of the laws they have so dutifully memorized and so firmly enforced are only relevant insofar as that through them we can demonstrate our love for God and one another. “Love is [the] test of one’s true understanding of the law…Jesus’s pithy summary of the law is strikingly similar to the answer that Rabbi Hillel gave to the same question. When a man challenged Hillel to teach him the whole of Torah while standing on one foot… [he responded], ‘That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.’”[10]

One could say the same about the Bible. It is, more than anything, a treatise on how to be in relationship – with God and with one another, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is proof that we can live as God wills, by measuring our own words and actions against the standard of whether they are in the service of loving God and our neighbor. It is the core of our identity as people of God.

Which is why Jesus is sure to identify himself as the true prophet of God, the one who alone fulfills the law and the prophets. It is through Jesus that we come to know God. “God’s purposes are larger than any single people. The Messiah’s mission transcends the salvation of any particular group.  Those who love God must love all God’s creatures, even at great cost to themselves and their own privileges. Those who follow the Messiah must subordinate all particular interests, identities, and purposes to the Savior’s universal mission. Jesus refuses to identify love of God with rigid religious requirements or to identify faithfulness to himself with loyalty to a particular community of people.”[11] God is for all people and for all time. Times change. Contexts change – but God does not- and God’s message is simple: Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world. AMEN.

 

[1]Theopedia, https://www.theopedia.com/proof-texting.

[2]Marvin M. Ellison, (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], 198.

[3]Christopher B. Hays, (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], 199.

[4]Marvin M. Ellison, (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], 198.

[5]Susan Marie 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], 207

[6]Leah McKell Horton, (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], 202.

[7]Carolyn R. Waters,  (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], 204.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Tim Beach-Verhey, (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], 214.

[10]Patrick Gray, (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], 2158.

[11]Tim Beach-Verhey, (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], 216.

Sermon for October 21, 2017, A Celebration of New Ministry (The Rt. Rev. Marc H. Andrus, Bishop of the Diocese of California)

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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)

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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