Sermons 2018

Sermon for December 30, 2018: Down to Earth (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

The first job that I had after returning to civilian life from the Navy was to work on project Apollo at the manned spacecraft Center in Houston Texas. This was the early stages of the Moon landing mission prior to any landings. Space flight had been limited to low Earth orbit flights by American and Russian astronauts and we were preparing to send men to the moon, an incredible 240,000 miles from Earth. Considering these distances space was still a pretty small place for us.

Of course, the vaster distances of our solar system had been quite accurately measured but it wasn’t until advances in technology and cosmology that the mind-blowing size of the universe began to be understood.

It has been calculated that the universe is approximately 15 billion years old and its size is about 90 billion light years across, meaning we will never see the end or beginning of it. As Douglas Adams puts it in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

When I was young, I was often accused of having my head in the clouds. In fact, my parents would tell me to get my head out of the clouds especially when there was school homework to be done.

When I would hear the Prologue of John proclaimed every Christmas, I would imagine God as an amorphous being of Love and Joy binding the Trinity together. The Word speaking the universe into existence, space and time, sub atomic particles to galaxies. The Word giving life the light of everyone. Then I would be brought down to earth when the story changed to John the Baptist. To me it almost seemed like a hard landing. Now it became even more down to earth when the Word was made flesh and lived among us.

“And the Word became Flesh and lived among us.” This is the mystery which lies at the heart of Christian faith and life, mission and ministry. God poured God’s own self into human form. This eternal Word was God’s agent in the creation of all things—even life itself—in a paradoxical descent from godhood took form as a baby of the humblest origins. This astonishing proclamation overwhelms the limits of human imagination and understanding. God that fills 90 billion light years of creation, far greater than a trip to Rite Aid or a 10 day walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem, becomes a helpless, vulnerable infant human being. How do you get more down to earth than that?

Jesus, truly God, came to share in human experience, human suffering, human agony of every kind—even the most gruesome of human deaths. For us that means God is not far away from us. God is as close as our next breath, as close as the person sitting next to you. God bears the pain we bear as well as celebrates the joy in which we exult. (1)

If we are bearing an unbearable loss, God is present in our suffering. If our nation is embroiled in internal and international conflict, God is embedded with us in the human predicament. There is no darkness, even unto death, in which God is not intimately acquainted and engaged, present and powerful, loving and true. Jesus is our gracious companion, friend, savior, life, light, lover. This paradoxical mystery of power and self-emptying, exaltation and humiliation, captured in the first verses of John lies at the heart of the essential Christian proclamation. This proclamation directly addresses the situation of all those who have ears to hear the message. (2)

God’s intention, why God became human in the flesh of Jesus Christ is to make one God’s creation of heaven and earth once again. One before humanity opted out of living in the love and joy of the holy Trinity. To bring grace and truth back together in humanity. As NT Wright puts it truth growing up from the earth and grace coming down from heaven.

This portrait of God and Jesus in the prologue to John does offers a grand cosmic vision of history unfolding. But it also states that God’s intention is to become like the stuff of this world and live in specific moments in our world, in our communities, in our lives. This is the challenge to us contemporary Christians in this vision of the incarnation. It is to talk a little less and let our words take on flesh and live in the world, to bring it down to earth.

God’s incarnational intention is that God’s story gets lived out in recognizable ways in the world. Not only over some grand cosmic saga, but also in the way we engage the specific broken places in our communities and even in the interactions we have with our neighbors.

God’s incarnational intention is that God’s presence becomes unmistakable in our midst because we the faithful have put our bodies, and not just our language, into effect for what we believe to be true.

God’s incarnational intention is that we the faithful enact our hope in liturgy and protest. That we embody God’s justice and love in the world, not just by speaking it, but by living it out. Not through testing metaphysical decrees against the long arc of history, but by showing up in the world we have, as the people we are, to make God into flesh once again.

The intangible light, glory, grace, and truth of God are embodied in Jesus. God puts flash on those divine qualities so that we followers who want to know how they sound, and act have someone to show us.  John says, “to all who received him who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” We followers are also in the incarnation business through our actions.

Rev. Deb in a sermon a few weeks ago made known to us the teachings of Howard Thurman, a great civil rights leader in the early 20th century. He was also a mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. I can think of no better words than a poem he wrote “when the song of the angels is stilled” that how we may fully participate in God’s incarnation business. He wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone, 
When the kings and princes are home, 
When the shepherds are back with their flock, 
The work of Christmas begins: 
To find the lost, 
To heal the broken, 
To feed the hungry, 
To release the prisoner, 
To rebuild the nations, 
To bring peace among people, 
To make music in the heart.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, that is most assuredly down to earth! Happy Christmas.

Amen.

1 &2- David L. Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Sermon for Christmas Day 2018: The Work of Christmas (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Our scriptures tell us that approximately 2000 years ago in a small town in an obscure part of the Roman Empire, a baby was born to an adolescent mother in a small hillside cave where an innkeeper kept his animals. That child was the Son of God. In 1899 in Florida, in a wealthy country thousands of miles from that stable in the Middle East, an African-American boy was born to a poor and uneducated couple. That man was a servant of that child.

Howard Thurman, whose father died when he was seven, was primarily raised by his grandmother, a former slave. Nurtured in the Baptist Church, Thurman spent almost all of his life thinking about the birth of that baby, and what the life and death of Jesus Christ meant for human beings. Like Jesus, Thurman was part of a marginalized, minority tribe. Like Jesus, he saw cruelty and injustice in the world around him and spoke out against it. Like Jesus, Howard Thurman saw God not just as a father, but as a beloved “daddy,” who intimately knows and deeply cares for all of his children.

This view of God was, in some ways, unusual at the time – and is still uncommon among many followers of Jesus. According to Thomas Reese, “For too many Christians, God is simply a lawgiver and judge: ‘Follow my rules or you will be punished.’ The church, for them, is not ‘ a field hospital for the wounded’ [as Pope Francis has said]; it is a country club for the perfect…Jesus, on the other hand, taught us that God is a parent…[and a certain kind of parent]. Some parents raise their children using rewards and punishment [and]… a certain amount of reward and punishment is necessary in raising children, but not the extreme where the parents really don’t care about the child but only care that the house is quiet. God is not that kind of parent.” Unfortunately, many people think of God that way, focusing on laws rather than love and the words of men instead of the spirit of God. The actions of these misguided people reflect poorly on a God who has never asked us to kill or exclude in his name, and on a savior who always advocated for kindness and compassion.

Jeffrey Salkin suggests that, “when people say that they don’t believe in God, we would do well to unpack exactly what they mean by ‘God’…Quite often, when people say they don’t believe in God, I respond with: ‘Maybe you haven’t met the right God yet.’” The God I know does not punish us for our unbelief. The God I know does not put conditions on his love. And “when bad things happen, [the God I know] wants to wrap us in her arms and comfort us.” The God I know is a good parent, who, over and over again, tries to teach us the right thing to do, who picks us up when we fall, and who sent Jesus into the world to experience what we do, so that he can be present in all our times of need. God loves us.

We, on the other hand, don’t always love God. Like rebellious teenagers and narcissistic toddlers, we reject God – and God allows us to do it, because our God does not force himself on us. Our God patiently waits for us to accept his love, to want to be part of her saving grace. “We can choose to embrace God or flee him. To flee God is to flee love…It is our choice…God comes to us with open arms.” All that God asks in return is that we try to demonstrate to other people our understanding that they are also children of God – loved unconditionally just as we are.

Thurman struggled with this his whole life, questioning how we can speak out about the injustices that we see around us – the kind of circumstances that punish some people simply for being who they are – “and not be defeated by our own rage and hatred.” One way, he believed, was remembering that Jesus’s birth was not the end of something, but the beginning.

For many people, Christmas is the conclusion of something. In the secular world, it is the end of the holiday season, the culmination of all of the cooking, cleaning, and buying we have been doing for the last several months. Sadly, they believe that Christmas Day is the last day of Christmas. Even Christians may see Christmas as the finish line of a season of spiritual preparation rather than the start of spiritual fulfillment.  For his disciples, Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Messiah, who would lead his people out of bondage. But Jesus’s birth is called “the nativity” for a reason; it is called “the nativity” because it is the beginning of our Savior’s life; the beginning of his work; the beginning of his teaching, preaching, and leading us into the way of Christ. It is the foundation of our path to a better and eternal life.

Howard Thurman also believed that Christmas should be a beginning – not a singular celebration, but a springboard for doing what he called, “The Work of Christmas.” He wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.”

May we go and do likewise. AMEN.

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2018: Sought Out (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2018: Sought Out (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” For those of us who have been raised in the church, those words are very familiar. We recognize them as the beginning of the Nativity story and feel a sense of comfort and joy, because we know what’s coming: the birth of Jesus. But it’s a strange way to start a delivery story. Think about it. How many of you have been told anecdotes about your own births? – where and when and how you were born, who was there and how long it took. But how many of those tales begin with, “There was a big census that year”?

I never really thought very much about why the nativity narrative starts the way it does, but both Matthew and Luke’s gospels begin in the same way, so it is reasonable to think that it’s important. I suspect that if we have thought about it at all, most of us probably assume that telling us about this world-wide “registration” is a way to set the nativity in a certain time and place. The version from Luke that we just heard is, after all, very specific: someone name Quirinius was governor of Syria, Augustus was Emperor, and “the whole” of the civilized ancient world was to take part in the census. Of course, in reality, the math doesn’t add up. Quirinius was not governor until after Jesus was born. There’s no historical evidence that Augustus Caesar ever ordered a “worldwide” census – and the smaller census that did occur during his reign required people to register where they lived, not where they were born. So, basically, it actually couldn’t have happened in this specific way at all. So why is it in there?

First of all, it may not tell us the exact time and location of Jesus’s birth, but it gives us a really good sense of his birth circumstances. The fact that Joseph and Mary were forced by the government to go to a strange place despite her pregnancy reminds us that they were part of a minority population who lived under the control of an oppressive and hostile regime. They were limited in where they could go and, if they were told to go to a certain place and fill out specific paperwork, they had no choice but to go. Mary, especially, had almost no power over her own life. We know that as a young woman she had been betrothed – more accurately, “sold” – to a much older man. When she confessed that she was pregnant, despite insisting that she had not been with a man, she knew that her life was probably forfeit. Even when Joseph (after being visited by an angel) relented and married her, thus saving her life, she was still completely dependent on his good will – so it must have been pretty bad news when she found out that she would be spending her last trimester making an 80 mile journey by donkey to a place she’d never been and where she knew no one.

We all know “the rest of the story.” They arrived at their destination and were unable to get reasonable lodging, so they were housed instead with farm beasts- not in the cozy, wooden stable with clean straw that we find in Christmas pageants, but in a chilly, dark, hillside cave where first century Palestinians kept their animals. Following the birth, when their first guests arrived, they were not, contrary to some Christmas carols, shiny cherubs and wealthy wise people bearing expensive gifts. Instead, scripture tells us, they were shepherds. These undocumented migrant workers lived from hand to mouth and place to place. They had no formal education. They were none too clean. And yet, these were the people that the angels sent to be the first witnesses to the birth of the Messiah. These were the chosen ones of God.

There is meaning in the circumstances of our Savior’s birth. By telling the story of Jesus’s nativity in the way they do, the gospel writers give us our first inkling of the foundation of Jesus’s entire life; he is not the Messiah of the rich and privileged; he is the one who has been promised to the powerless and marginalized – and he will continue to live among them.  The fact that, throughout his life, Jesus talked to those who were considered outcasts, ate among those who were considered “dirty,” and advocated for people that his society shunned, should not surprise anyone who has heard the Christmas story. His birth circumstances heralded not the arrival of an emperor, but of an ordinary human being, a God who was willing to humble herself to reach a creation that needed – and still needs- him so desperately. The nativity story reminds us that we are, as the prophet Isaiah tells us, actively “Sought Out,” holy people, redeemed through no work of our own by the grace of God – and never, ever forsaken.

Jesus was born into the world in the most vulnerable way possible- not only as a fragile, perishable infant, but into a world that is unfair and dangerous and among people that can be self-absorbed and cruel. From the very beginning of his story, we know that he will experience harsh conditions and know what it is to be powerless. The gospel writers tell us this not to make us feel sorry for him, but so that we will know that whatever happens to us, he will understand it and be present in it. The nativity story tells us that Jesus does not have to suffer, but chooses to do so simply to be closer to us.

We have choices to make too. For just as God chose to reach out to this frail creation by sending us a Messiah who knows us not in a removed, distant way, but intimately and empathetically, so too we are asked to humble ourselves to show his way of justice and righteousness to others. Jesus came not because of our good works, but in spite of our lack of them – but when he came he brought the riches of the Holy Spirit and God’s grace with him. It is up to us to share them. May God grant us the strength and humility to be reborn with Jesus into the joy of the Holy Spirit of Christmas. AMEN.

Sermon for December 23, 2018: Blessing (The Rev. Molly Haws)

Listen here:

Blessed are you O Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has

called all things into being through your Word.

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to
me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my
womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would
be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
That’s quite a greeting.

Let’s just back this rig up a bit, because the story gets broken up in our
readings, and sometimes a few juicy bits get lost between the sofa
cushions.

Long before the angel appeared to Mary, God’s messenger visited a
priest of the temple named Zechariah:

Then there appeared to [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord,
When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear
overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid,
Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth
will bear you a son, and you will name him John.  You will have
joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,  for he will be
great in the sight of the Lord. … even before his birth he will be
filled with the Holy Spirit….Zechariah said to the angel, “How
will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is
getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in
the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to
bring you this good news.  But now, because you did not believe
my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” …

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she
remained in seclusion. …
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in
Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose
name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was
Mary.

Mary and Elizabeth.
This is extraordinary.
Neither of them, in the ordinary course of things, should be having a
baby. Elizabeth is “too old” and Mary is “too inexperienced.” We get the
whole age gamut of ridiculous here.
It’s almost as if God just doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
We know how babies get made.
Elizabeth cannot give birth to a child, and neither can Mary.
It’s just… silly.
Another interesting bit of this story that we sometimes rush past:
Joseph and Zechariah—two men who are able to hear and understand
the language of angels.
though Zechariah is a little slow on the uptake and loses his own voice
for nine months as a result.
Have you noticed who else never actually speaks throughout this whole
story of the birth of Jesus?
Joseph. I know, right? But you can go check: not in any of the canonical
Gospel accounts do we hear Joseph’s voice. Not once. We hear that he
has a dream, and we hear about what he does, and he’s clearly very
important in the story. But his words are not recorded.
This is not the way most Bible stories usually go.

So Zachariah gets this really startling message from God, and
immediately asks, How will I know that this is so?
and Gabriel’s answer is basically, because I told you so. You want
proof? ok, how’s this: you can’t speak.
How ya like them apples?
“Because you did not believe my words,” Gabriel says, “which will be
fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the
day these things occur.”
Notice that Gabriel does not say, because you did not believe, we’re
taking it all back, no son for you, you unbeliever?
Zachariah doesn’t have to believe, or prove that he believes, in order for
this to happen. And he will see it happen, he will get the proof he wants,
but first,
he has to learn to listen.
For nine long months he cannot say, “But…” He cannot argue or dispute
or mansplain. He just
listens
and waits.
That’s how belief is made sometimes. Just listening, and waiting.
There’s a classic Christmas movie that’s been around for decades,
featuring Santa Claus and a little girl named Susie who has never
believed in Santa. My very favorite line in the movie comes near the
end, with Susie sitting in the backseat of the car and saying,
I believe, I believe. I know it’s silly but I believe.
Sometime around the turn of the 14th century, a Dominican monk in
Germany wrote these words:
“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if
this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but
does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if
Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give
birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness
of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”1
The Son of Man and of God is begotten in us, beloved.
And I say to you, Hail.
You are full of grace.
The Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women and men
Blessed is the fruit of your bodies, your labor, your life in this world
Blessed are you who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what
is spoken to you by the Lord our God
–even if, especially if, like Susie, you know it’s silly but you believe
Blessed
O beloved
Blessed are you.

1Meister Eckhart, 1260-1328, German Dominican monk

Sermon for December 16, 2018: Thanks for the Joy (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

My Godmother was a stickler for thank you notes. When I got a gift from her, I knew that I wasn’t going to be allowed to go out to play until I had written her a thank you note. I hated it. I didn’t like handwriting things and, sadly, I was often less than grateful for what she gave me. When I was 16, for example, she gave me salad tongs. When my mother, who was as baffled by this gift as I was, gently inquired as to whether there might have been some mix-up, my Godmother said, “Well, she will need them someday.” So, in order to avoid punishment, I wrote my thank you notes – whether I was grateful or not.

Now, there are good reasons for thank you notes. Personally, when I send someone a gift, I am grateful for getting a thank you note because then I know that they got the gift –but I could care less about how I am thanked. The thank-yous I like most are impulsive and incoherent, because those are the most sincere. Maybe God feels the same way.

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday. As most of you know, the church calendar is a cycle of seasons, and each season has a color. Lent and Advent, in which we prepare ourselves for Easter and Christmas (respectively) have traditionally been represented by the color purple. These seasons are called “penitential,” because in order to get ready for occasions of great joy we need to understand and apologize for the wrongs we have done so we can celebrate with a clear conscience. Nowadays, people may choose to adopt some form of self-denial and fasting during Penitential seasons, but in the old days the church required self-sacrifice. People fasted for all of Advent – the whole month. So the church fathers, probably to make sure people actually lived through the season, built in a day off for rest and refreshment – a day to “lighten up.” To symbolize this, we lighten our liturgical color from purple to pink, and we hear scripture readings that preview the joy we will experience on Christmas Day, when our hopes will be fulfilled.

Unfortunately, we are not actually very good at hoping. That’s because hope is based on expectation. It’s not just about wanting something to happen; it’s about assuming that it will. Like many ideas in scripture, this is countercultural. In our society, we are taught to pursue what we want. We don’t wait expectantly for a Merry Christmas; we plan for it. But the kind of joy our scripture is talking about cannot be worked for; it is a gift, freely given by God – and in order to understand and appreciate it, we need to stop trying to force it. James Evans suggests that meaning of “joy” and “rejoicing” is different than simple happiness. We work toward happiness, but we long for joy. Happiness gives us energy, but it is fleeting – the caffeine high of emotions. Joy, on the other hand, is a quieter, more enduring emotion. Joy comes only when we put our trust in God.

Like many other prophetic words, this is hard to swallow. Our scripture readings for the season of Advent hum with the voices of prophets telling us what we don’t want to hear, attempting to wake us up in time to accept salvation – but today they take a break from their warnings to remind us that God understands and protects us. “Surely it is God who saves me” writes Isaiah, “I will trust in him and not be afraid.” Now that’s a rare quote – a prophet not crying doom and destruction, but instead telling us not to live in fear. This must have seemed bizarre to the people Isaiah prophesied to, as they had much to fear – just as we believe we do. “We who live in these early years of the twenty-first century know something of…a world in which whole cultures of fear have been built around the threats (real and perceived) of terror…We clutch national identities, sustaining a perceived need for enemies…Hospitality disappears, and strangers and foreigners are seen as a threat and not welcomed.”[1] “We fear insignificance…We fear political defeat and natural disaster. We fear shame and reproach….We are afraid that we won’t have enough, won’t be enough.”[2] [We dwell] in the shadow of death.”[3] And yet, Isaiah and the prophet Zephaniah both “join voices in a persistent, insistent biblical refrain. ‘Do not fear.’”[4] They remind us that we can hope for – we can expect- not a Merry Christmas, but a joyful nativity, a gift that brings with it patience, peace and prayer. Grateful prayer.

Today’s readings provide a model not only for how to pray, but how to feel when we pray, and it’s not angry, resentful, envious, or despairing. Listen to the words of Isaiah, “Cry aloud, ring out your joy,” and of Paul, speaking to his beloved in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…Do not worry about anything,” because God is with us – in all times and in all places, and in all things. That is, if we desire her presence – because one thing God does not do is to force us to accept his love.

It seems like choosing joy and peace would be easy, but for many of us it may feel impossible because of what we are asked to do in exchange. We are the crowd surrounding John the Baptist, demanding to know how we shall be saved, how we shall escape the sorrow of this world. John’s answer does not at first seem to be good news. We are directed to share everything. We are made aware that we must repent in word and action. We are threatened with being thrown into eternal fire. This seems harsh to those of us who have much to lose, but “throughout the Bible, promise does not come separated from judgment and suffering. Biblical writers have not offered comfort to the comfortable.”[5] John was speaking not to the privileged, but to the oppressed people that were drawn to him, and to them the Baptizer’s words were music: “For the dispossessed, gospel joy is liberation. [It is only] for the privileged [that it means] relinquishment.”[6] John the Baptizer answers the questioning of the crowd in the same way the coming Messiah will: In order to know God, you must love and care for one another. For the Baptizer, salvation is not about avoiding punishment. It’s about finding joy – and true joy is sacrificial joy. True joy is grateful joy. True joy is shared joy. AMEN.

[1]Randall R. Mixon, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 59.

[2]Deborah A. Block, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 54.

[3]Randall R. Mixon, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 59.

[4]Deborah A. Block, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 52.

[5]Angela Bauer-Levesque, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 55.

[6]Philip E. Campbell, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 66.

Sermon for December 9, 2018: Eat Your Vegetables  (The Rev. Molly Haws)

Last Sunday we celebrated the start of a New Year in the church.

Next Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is often referred to as Gaudate Sunday, also known as “Stirrup Sunday” with its Proper Collect, which begins “Stir up your power, O Lord”, reminding us to stir up the fruitcake batter one last time so it will be ready for Christmas. It’s all about Joy.

This day, The Second Sunday of Advent, this day might be called Eat Your Vegetables Sunday.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, [yada yada yada], the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…

Repentance and forgiveness of sins. How many of you hear that and are like, “woohoo! Sign me up!”? Can’t wait to get my repentance on!

The trouble with forgiveness is it carries within it the acknowledgement of… sin. Which we have about as much taste for as a six-year-old has for Brussels sprouts.

I had a friend growing up whose mom told her that Brussels sprouts were what Santa would leave in her stocking if she was naughty. Santa, magical bringer of gifts, and also, we are warned, bringer of less pleasant things if we don’t straighten up and fly right. Brussels sprouts. Coal. Ashes is what he brought us in Texas. Or switches, even better.

Santa Claus is on my mind this week because December 6 is the day we celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas, who was actually a bishop of the Church in the fourth century. How do we get from a middle-eastern bishop to Santa Claus, patron saint of child behavior management and seasonal merchandise? By way of the Netherlands: Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors

kind of a big deal in the Netherlands, for obvious reasons, and also of children, hence the tradition of celebrating his feast day by giving children treats.[1] St. Nicholas—or, as the Dutch renders, Sinter Klaas, is generous but just: good children get presents, while naughty children get—guess what? coal? ashes?

Nope. In the Dutch tradition, Sinter Klaas slaps naughty children, or kicks them, or maybe tosses them in his sack and takes them back to Turkey with him.

Who was this guy, anyway?

Nicholas was bishop of Myra, in what is now Turkey, in the first half of the 4th century. He was a man of great faith and great generosity. There are a lot of stories about him, but there’s one that I think is particularly relevant for today.

Nicholas was a “confessor”, meaning that he stood up and spoke his truth about his faith, even when the emperor Diocletian ordered that Christians be persecuted. Nicholas, as the leader of Christians in Myra, was arrested and tortured and imprisoned because he continued to speak his own truth: he continued to proclaim his faith in Jesus Christ as the Incarnation of God’s Word, who was with God and was God, from the beginning.

The next emperor, Constantine, reversed the policy of persecuting Christians; and Nicholas and all the other imprisoned Christians were set free. Nicholas was quite the hero.

There was another bishop named Arius, whose claim to fame is that he promoted one of the greatest heresies of the early Church: Arius claimed that the Word of God—aka, Son of God—was NOT with God from the beginning, but was created by the Father.

Well, so what? The idea of God as Trinity is hard to wrap your head around and I tell you truly, I do not lie when I say to you,

no one understands it completely. God is bigger than our brains.

Dealing with Jesus saying things like, I and the Father are one, is hard. And our salvation is accomplished by the grace of God in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit,

not by our own cleverness at having the right answers to tricky questions.

So what’s the harm in making it a little easier? What’s the big deal?

Here’s the catch: if you say well, God is the Father, and the Father created the Son, and the Holy Spirit, what we get is not God coming to us in the flesh, and dying on the cross for us and being raised from the dead, but God sending someone else—someone God loves very much, but still, someone else who God is sending to suffer and die and then be raised up, which is not the same thing.

It takes away the self-giving, pouring-out of God’s self in love that is the core of our faith.

Making things easier is sometimes a kindness; but sometimes it is not. And I imagine if one has suffered arrest and torture and imprisonment for the sake of speaking a difficult truth, as Nicholas had, “making things easier” might be more than one can bear.

The story is that at the Council of Nicea, which was called together specifically to deal with this controversy— between Scripture saying, the word was with God, and the word was God, and Arius’ claim that the Word was created by God— while all the various bishops and scholars were debating this, the legend goes that Nicholas finally lost his head and slapped Arius in the face right there on the council floor.

Didn’t even call him outside first. Just popped him right in the kisser in front of God and everyone.

The story makes me laugh. Whether it’s true or not, it’s a good story…

from a distance of sixteen centuries. If this were to happen today? say, on the floor of the House of Bishops? I would not be entertained. I would be horrified.

Prophets and saints are not perfect people. They are passionate. The point is not that we have to be perfect people. The point, beloved, is that we are called to experience passion, to allow ourselves to be affected at the deepest possible level, and to stand up for what we believe in the face of blasphemy.

Is this Good News? or bad news?

Depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?

To paraphrase Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey In The Rock, Jesus brings us Good News. He never promises good times. In fact, he pretty much promises us Hard Times—but Good News.

I don’t know about you, beloved,

but I could stand some Good News right about now.

Perhaps the most trying challenge to me right now in having my wife’s mother living with us is her dedication to watching the news. I know it’s important… but there are days when I hear those voices coming out the TV and I just want to….

but I do not have the street cred of Nicholas. I have not accrued enough righteousness to go around slapping people in the face in front of God and everyone.

The question for us this day, this Second Sunday of Advent, two thousand and some-odd years after the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

the question for us at this time and in this place is,

Whose voice is crying in the wilderness?

Whose voice is calling out, preaching repentance

and promising forgiveness, healing, wholeness

if we will only turn around and embrace it?

Here’s a hint: it is a voice that is irritating. It’s a voice that is crying out and what it says may even feel to us like a slap in the face. You can be sure that it’s a voice that is not concentrating on making things easier or telling us what we want to hear. It’s not a voice concerned with making itself popular or winning an election. And it is not singing a lullaby.

It is a voice crying, bellowing to make itself heard above the din in the wilderness of our world: repent. Turn. Change, and be changed.

O beloved: pay attention.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Good News. Good News. Hard times, yes—

but Good News.

Whose voice do you hear calling you to repent? to change?

Whose irritating, relentless voice do you hear calling you to act?

O beloved

pay attention.

[1] Nicholas is also the patron saint of prostitutes, which could perhaps account for the objectification and commodification of Christmas which has followed the association of St. Nick with the Feast of the Nativity.  But that is another story for another time.

Sermon for December 3, 2018: Advent Signs (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

I will repeat Rev. Deb’s greeting to you this morning, Happy New Year. As she explained to you this is the beginning of a new church year. Our church year is not numbered like the secular calendar, but it does relate to that calendar. The church year, as opposed to a linear measure of time, is a circular one. We go through the year beginning at Advent, through the seasons of the church arriving at Advent again to start another year. The purpose of this calendar is to trace the mystery of salvation and the course of salvation history. The church year is the church’s sanctification of time.

Here in this first Sunday of Advent we begin to trace the mystery of our salvation, not with holiday cheer, but with Jesus offering us a looming apocalypse full of frightening images, confusing metaphors, and shocking warnings. We do not encounter the sweet baby Jesus people wait for during Advent this first Sunday, but the stern, adult Jesus, picturing the whole universe being shaken and turned upside down. As difficult as it is to hear, as troubled as the text may make us feel, in it are treasures that help us focus us on the true meaning and purpose of Advent.

In it, Jesus challenges us, as he did his original listeners in the Jerusalem temple, to look up, pay attention, and be ready.

Advent means “coming” or “arrival,” and in Advent we await God coming to earth in the infant Jesus at Christmas, and Christ returning to earth at a time we do not know.

We don’t live with the constant threat of persecution, torture, and death as the community that the evangelist was writing for, but we certainly live in a world of great uncertainty.

Famine, war, and disease still plague our world, and closer to home people struggle with addiction mental illness and misplaced priorities. Christ’s call to his disciples and us to be alert and constantly praying for God’s kingdom to break through into our world is as relevant a call for us this Advent as it ever has been. Our broken and hurting selves and world need Christ to come, and we must take time this Advent to prepare to receive him.

When I was of high school age in Texas, three of my friends, a large Weimaraner and I piled into the cab of my 48 Ford pickup truck to go goose hunting. It was a Friday after school and since football season had ended, we had some free time. We drove to the edge of a newly harvested grain field and a pine wood. It was sunset by the time we got to our destination, so we changed our plans and decided to wait until the morning before doing any hunting. It turned out to be a moonless night and as you can imagine, after the orange glow of sunset faded it became darker and darker.

Now I had been camping many times, and there must’ve been some moonless nights, but I have to say that this was the darkest night I ever experienced. The night was still and almost silent with just a few sounds from animals in the woods and distant sporadic moos from cattle. We could’ve driven home at any time, but we decided to stick with our plans. I think we were all a bit scared that night, but I was particularly frightened. Frightened of some unknown person or thing lurking in the pitch dark. None of us, except for the Weimaraner, slept.

Being that it was mid-winter the night was very long, but finally, the eastern sky started to turn slightly pink. As the sky began to brighten, a feeling of comfort and safety came over me. The dawn had arrived, and the four of us decided to cancel hunting and go home to our warm beds.

Looking back on my experience those many years ago I see that that dawn was a thin place for me. A place where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It’s a place where we can sense God more readily.

I was made to see the dawn as a sign that God was keeping us safe even in the depth of night, that God is always with us, we are never alone.

Jesus said, “There will be signs,” and more than ever our world needs to see the signs. The signs that God’s love is always breaking into our world

Every Advent story is accompanied by signs. Jesus says if we look, we’ll see the signs everywhere; in the sun, the moon, the stars; in the distress among earth’s nations, in the pictures of refugees, and in the roaring of the sea and its waves.

I have no doubt you’ve seen the signs too, in your life and in the world. They’re everywhere and they are not hard to spot. They are, however, too easily and quickly misunderstood and unfortunately misused. Luke tells us in this mini apocalypse that the world’s a scary place, but not to let our hearts be troubled. Jesus says “I have overcome the world. So, wait in the midst of it all, just before the dawn, for in the midst of the night there are strange and redeeming events taking place.”

The signs that Jesus tells us of are words of hope and reassurance but far too often they are heard as words of warning and threat, like when the signs are used to predict a future of impending doom and loss, or indicators that the world will end. This misunderstanding of the signs can push us further into the darkness and deeper into our fear of being left behind. Our misunderstanding of the signs blinds us to the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory.

Jesus’ parable of the fig tree sprouting leaves teaches us how to read the signs of Advent. We see the leaves and we know something is happening. Summer is already near. It’s a new season, with new life, new growth, new fruit. That is the promise and good news of the Advent signs. Still that promise, that good news, is fulfilled not apart from but through the reality of our life’s circumstances and our world’s events. The signs are our hope and reassurance that God will never abandon us, that God loves and cares for us, comes to, and participates in our lives.

In the Advent season we place a wreath of four candles and one in its center in our Church’s Chancel. We light one candle each Sunday of Advent to represent Jesus’ light coming into the world. The lighted candles can also be thought of as sprouting fig leaves that tell us that the summer of our salvation is at hand, the kingdom of God has come near to us. We can look on the world with a new sense of compassion and hope. We will be strengthened to do the work God has given us to do.

Like the breaking of the dawn that gave assurance to a frightened boy that God is always near us, our looking up, paying attention, and being ready will make our Advent a proper preparation to celebrate the coming of The Word Made Flesh, Emanuel God with us. Amen.

David L. Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Kindle Locations 961-962). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Sermon for November 25, 2018: The truth is not out there (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

I am a voracious reader. I will read anything. If I am standing in line and have nothing to read, I will read all of the signs in the room and I am not above peaking over my neighbor’s shoulder to see what they are reading. I prefer to read books though – and I suspect many people are surprised when they hear about the types of books I read. I do read theology, but I also read children’s literature, histories, biographies, and books about crime. It is perhaps this latter category that most surprises people, until I remind them that prior to becoming a priest, I was a forensic neuropsychologist.

It seems like a strange conjunction – criminal behavior and theology. It was certainly not a transition that I understood when I first heard a call to ordained ministry. Although I had always experienced a deep sense of God’s presence in my life and an unflappable belief that God loved and cared for me, I could not comprehend how the knowledge I had and the things I had experienced would translate into gifts that would help me lead others to faith in God.

The fact is that both callings are profoundly rooted in the appreciation of human nature. The through line of my life has always been a powerful desire to understand why people do the things they do – or, as my husband puts it: I started out in journalism, where I influenced people’s opinions. Then I became a Social Worker, and got involved in their lives. Then I became a psychologist, so I could mess with people’s minds, and now I’m a priest – dealing directly with people’s souls. All this is to say that the books I read reflect the primary calling of my life – helping people to make sense of themselves and their relationships with God and one another.

I read a lot about evil partly because I don’t think you can truly grasp what it means to be human without understanding the nature of both good and evil. This belief not only explains my eclectic reading list, but also provides a pretty good explanation of the stories we find in our Holy Scriptures – stories about courage, love, compassion, and obedience, as well as tales of greed, selfishness, violence, and hatred.

The biblical readings we heard today are the ones chosen for the Feast of Christ the King, which was established in the Roman Catholic tradition at the beginning of the 20th century to recognize Jesus as the messianic king who would rule eternally. The feast is unofficially celebrated in some Episcopal parishes, but it is not mentioned in the Episcopal calendar of the church year. That’s because the whole idea of “kings” makes many Episcopalian theologians uncomfortable. Given that our denomination was founded on democratic principles, we naturally balk when the idea of “kingship” is glorified in any way, even when it has to do with Jesus. And yet today’s scripture readings make it clear that Jesus does indeed fit our idea of “kingship,” possessing all power and all authority and ruling equally with God and the Holy Spirit – now and forever.

But not as a human being. As our gospel passage shows us, Jesus never claimed his power in this kingdom, on this earth. And yet, despite this very clear statement, certain religions and political leaders have repeatedly claimed that the seat of God’s power is somewhere on this earth, residing in someone on this earth. Constantine claimed to be God’s earthly representative, establishing Christianity as the formal state religion of his empire in the fourth century and bringing Christians out of persecution and into the power we have enjoyed in many places since that time. He was not the first or the last. Over and over human beings have asserted themselves as arbiters of truth and justice in the world, declaring themselves to be God’s spokesmen on earth and touting wherever they are as God’s chosen nation.

The person who had the most scriptural support for such a claim was King David, favorite of God and ruler of the combined kingdom of Israel. Scripture tells us that, unlike other theocrats, God actually made a covenant with David, promising him an everlasting throne. David’s claim is considered so legitimate that one of our gospel writers went to great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus was David’s descendent. Still, we know that David’s kingship was an uneasy compromise between God and his faithless people – a temporary fix until they could find true faith.

David’s reign was also incredibly conflicted. He repeatedly sinned against God and others, almost constantly needing to repent and return to the Lord. The point though is that he did. Rather than digging his heels in and insisting in his own “rightness,” David frequently and humbly acknowledged that any power he had came from God and was dependent on God’s mercy. In today’s Hebrew Scripture, his farewell speech, David demonstrates that “he has come to the end of his rule remembering that when his kingship has been at its best, it has been because he has remembered he is with God…For Christians this vision of a good king is one of the threads that makes its way into Christological understandings of kingship.”[1]

David also recognized that not only did his power come from outside of himself; it came from outside of this world. Psalm 132 reminds us that as Jesus made clear to the disciples in last week’s gospel, the home of God is not in a specific location on earth. “Heaven is no nearer one part of the earth than another. Locality is never an issue for God. The temple (or a church) is a place of access to God, not a limit on God. If God were not actively present everywhere, God could not be present and active anywhere.”[2] God is in God’s people – and always has been – and the true example of kingship is in the person who came to live – and die- as one of those people: the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the king of all kings: Jesus the Christ.

To truly accept his rule, we must broaden, not narrow our horizons. We can read only things that seem to confirm what we already believe. We can refuse to listen to anyone that says something we don’t want to hear. We can cherry pick from scripture to find passages that confirm our own biases. It doesn’t matter. The truth is not relative. The truth does not change to suit human beings. The truth is imbedded in the very nature of God and God’s wayward creation. The truth is that human beings are capable of great evil – and even greater good. The truth is that we must choose whom we will follow – and as Christians we purport to follow Jesus the Christ, by whose example all earthly rulers are judged.  And this is the example Jesus gave: He lived and loved among the poor. He ate with strangers and sinners. He listened to and respected foreigners, women, people of ill repute, and those haunted by severe mental illness. He judged no one by reputation alone and defended the week and powerless. He encouraged people to question authority for authority’s sake. He did not use his power for his own goals, but to help others. He demanded that his followers seek peace, even when it came at a personal cost. And when asked (for he was asked) what was the most important law of all, Jesus said this: “Love God and love one another.” And Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” – and the truth is Jesus. End of story. AMEN.

[1]Marcia Mount Shoop, (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], 316.

[2]Thomas D. Parker, (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], 322.

Sermon for November 18, 2018: Divine Presence (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

Listen here:

We human beings constantly seek permanence. We build objects and edifices that give an illusion of permanence. We see buildings and great places of worship across Europe and Asia that appear to us as having been there forever. We see them as permanent as mountains. All these things are supposed to be forever. But then disasters happen that change all this. Things that are not supposed to happen. Towering buildings are not supposed to crumble to the ground. Oceans are not supposed to leap out of their seabeds and flood miles inland. The ground is not supposed to shake and undulate. The sky is not supposed to form a funnel cloud and destroy a town.

We all watched the World Trade Towers collapse, seen a tsunami flood Indonesia. Some of us have experienced the power of an earthquake that brought down a section of the Bay Bridge and the great spires of St. Peter and Paul, our National Cathedral. Those of us who have suffered through the power of a tornado or great hurricane know that such events happen.

Whole towns are not supposed to disappear as a firestorm sweeps across to our land, but we witness it currently through the media and feel it when we take a breath.

It is folly to believe that things are so permanent in our lives, when in fact, they are only temporary. It’s hard to imagine what life would be like without those things and those people that give us the sense of security and permanency. The things we own, our wealth, our accomplishments, all the things we think are important are very temporary. In a moment they can be taken away, and the rug pulled out from under us, so to speak.

We discover that the things that we thought were so solid and important are not the things that we can really rely on.

When we directly experience any of these tragedies or witness them through the media, we lose some of our innocence. We find it more and more difficult to trust those settings that we thought immutable. We may even cry out to God, “why do you allow these things to happen?”

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving the Temple a disciple exclaimed “Look teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” The disciple was marveling at the great size and beauty of Herod’s Temple, the second Temple of Jerusalem. You can imagine the utter shock and horror that the disciples felt when Jesus prophesied that the temple would be thrown down and not one stone remain upon the other.

It was traumatic enough for us when we saw the World Trade Center towers, the gleaming monument to our economic system, come crashing down by the hands of evil people. To the Jewish people the Temple was the very center of their belief, spirituality, and national identity. The temple symbolized the covenant with God that set them apart. Without the Temple Judaism as they knew it would cease to exist.

Jesus was not making a prophecy about the culmination of time, but the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that happened nearly 40 years later.

Throughout the Gospels, it is apparent that Jesus had a sort of a love / hate relationship with the Temple. His biggest problem was the way the priests were administering God’s house with little regard for God’s people. It may be that this was caused by the second Temple’s greatest deficiency.

After the destruction of Jerusalem and the formation of rabbinic Judaism, the rabbis looked back on the Temple period and produced a list, with a sense of gloomy acceptance, of all the ways in which the Second Temple was deficient in comparison with the First Temple. Significant on the list of what was missing in the Second Temple was the glorious Divine Presence often symbolized by light. In Jesus’s day, the hope was alive that the Glory would return at last. But nobody knew exactly what that would mean, how it would happen, or what it would look like.

The climax of the book of Exodus is not the giving of the law in chapter 20, but the construction of the tabernacle, the beautiful tent that symbolized the new creation, the place where heaven and earth would come together as God had always intended. The place of meeting where the Ark of the covenant was placed in the Holy of Holies, where God would sit on his mercy seat of forgiveness. This was the Devine Presence placed in the first Temple.

Jesus stood in the Temple and compared his body to it, he was the light of the Divine Presence that stood among them, but he was rejected. Jesus called them again and again to be the light of the world, to accept the new covenant between God and the whole world through him but he was ignored. This brought about the destruction of the world as they knew it.

In the letter or sermon to the Hebrews the author assures us that there we have the confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus and by the new living way that he has open to us through the curtain or his flesh.

He quotes Jeremiah saying “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord:

I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”

and: “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

The Holy Spirit is assuring us all believers of the covenant between God and God’s people, with the explanation that as a result of Christ’s work we will naturally be obedient because the Spirit will write God’s laws on our hearts. There will be no need to learn them; they will be part of our spiritual DNA and thus natural behaviors. God’s forgiveness of our sin is total and irrevocable, because the all-knowing God has completely forgotten all the sins we have committed.

The author of Hebrews assures us that we don’t need a special place to enter God’s new covenant. Rather, we need each other, to share God’s Devine presence that is in us.

If we came to this place tomorrow and found that our building had been knocked to the ground, as traumatic as that might be, we would still be the Church, the Body of Christ. He admonishes us to provoke one another or stir up in each other the desire to do good and live constantly in Christ’s covenant of love, the Law written on our hearts, to do good to all people and to our environment that God so lovingly gave us. We believers should support each other in “love and good deeds.” We people must gather for mutual encouragement and support. The gift of Christ is not one that we receive and keep to ourselves. It is meant for the building of the whole body. Amen.

Sermon for November 11, 2018: One copper coin (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

This is a true story:

There once was a house of worship. It was like many houses of worship. People came there to spend time together, to be reminded of the things they believed, to get encouragement to try to live well and maybe to learn a bit more about their faith. Some of them only came for Sabbath services, while others, spent lots of time there, enjoying fellowship, praying together and helping others in their community of faith and beyond. Some people came looking for a better understanding of themselves and the world around them. Others came because they needed help, while still others came because they felt called to help others. Some came simply because it’s what they had always done. Some believed in what the church taught with their whole hearts, while others secretly questioned God. Some people weren’t sure what they believed. Still, they came to the house of worship.

Some people who came to that house of worship sat in the front pews and recited the prayers with loud voices, while others sat in the back and were heard only by themselves. Some people believed in the power of their prayers and the prayers of others, while others said them without understanding what they meant. Some people listened eagerly for the words of the worship leader, hoping for some encouragement and inspiration, while others suffered impatiently through the leader’s message, wondering how on earth stories about people from far away times and places could possibly apply to them.

Sometimes there was singing in the worship – and some people sang loudly and with conviction, while others held their tongues. Sometimes there was silence and some people wished there was more of it, while others found it uncomfortable and boring. There were readings from Holy Scriptures, and sometimes they were interesting and seemed relevant and helpful but at other times seemed strange and confusing. It was a house of worship and some people got something out of it and some people didn’t.

There was always a collection. Some people gave the same amount of money every week and some people put in different amounts, depending on their mood or what they had in their pockets, or both. Some people were shy when they put their contributions into the collection, hiding the amount they were offering.  Others didn’t. Some people resented being asked to contribute, while others wished they could give more. Some people saw their offerings as payments for services rendered. They had certain expectations of what they should get in return for their donations and when they were disappointed in the house of worship and its leaders, they adjusted their offering accordingly. Some people did not give at all. It was a house of worship, just like many others, with worshippers like many others.

There was one member of the house of worship that most of the other worshippers never saw. That’s because he was embarrassed to go to regular services. You see, he didn’t have any nice clothes to wear. He did not have a home to put clothes in. This particular worshipper lived in one of the outbuildings of the house of worship. Some of the other worshippers knew this. Most people did not. Most people did not know that although this particular worshipper did not regularly go to services, he had read Holy Scripture. Most people did not know that although this worshipper did not sing in the house of worship, he listened to all of the music that came from the house of worship, and some of it made him feel close to God. Most people did not know that although he very rarely entered the house of worship, he was familiar with the sanctuary not made by human hands – the Holy Place opened to all people through the free sacrificial offering of Jesus Christ.

Most people did not know that at least once a week this worshipper visited the worship leader to talk about the beauty of creation, the nature of humankind, and the need for people to be kind to one another. Most people did not know that despite having had a difficult life, this worshipper continued to love and praise God. Most people did not know that despite having been mocked and scorned many times because he was different than others, this worshipper continued to recognize God as the one who keeps vigil over the people, who offers a heritage for each person, and who encourages love between mothers and daughters, sons and fathers, and children and the adults who love them. And although he sometimes had no food himself, this worshipper continued to believe in a God who provides to those who ask.

It would be reasonable to think that because this worshipper did not regularly attend worship, he did not contribute to the life of the church. This was not true. You see, this worshipper was at the house of worship more than anyone else, so he took it upon himself to watch over and protect it. When strangers came who looked like they might do harm to the house of worship, he spoke to them and told them they should treat the house of worship with respect or leave. He brought things to the house of worship that he thought it needed. He did what he could.

This would have been enough. It would have been more than enough, but it was not all. Because this worshipper did not think about donating to the house of worship as most other people did. He was never asked to contribute, so he felt neither resentful nor guilty about making an offering. He rarely attended worship, so he had no expectations of the structure of the worship service, the worship leader, or the other worshippers. He did not anticipate receiving anything, so he appreciated everything he received. He was simply very grateful to the people of this house of worship. All of them– even those he did not know, which were many. He did not care which ones were inspired and which were tired. He did distinguish which were fearful and which were faithful. He did not separate those who worshipped with their heads from those who worshipped with their hearts. He only knew that these people were part of this house of worship – that they were part of the place where he had found shelter, comfort, and support – part of the place where he experienced the presence of God.

So, each time he found himself with money – whenever he was able to work or received offerings from others – he gave a portion of that money to the house of worship. Without fail, each and every week, the worship leader received an envelope with a sum of money, and a note. Sometimes the notes were updates on his life. Sometimes they were thank-you cards. Sometimes they contained questions. Sometimes they included drawings. Sometimes there was a handful of change in the envelope, and sometimes there were several large bills. The amount varied, because he always gave in proportion to what he had; the more he had, the more he gave – but the message never changed. The message was always, “Thank you.” The message was always, “I am one of you.” The message was always, “You are a blessing to me.”

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, [he] has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but he out of his poverty has put in everything he had.” May we go and do likewise. AMEN.

Sermon for November 4, 2018: I mean to be one too (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Listen here:

All Saint’s Day is one of my favorite feast days – because it is the day on which I can tell my children that their mother is a saint – and the whole church has to back me up!  We are – as the hymn says – all members of the community of God and, according to scripture, we, like those we love who have gone before us, can be saints too.

The question is, though, gone before us where exactly? The most popular term for the place where we shall all meet again and dwell in the shadow of our most high God is “heaven.” Jesus often refers to it as “The Kingdom of God.” When asked by non-believers where God lives, some of us simply point upward (and downward to indicate the place we don’t want to go). What all of these descriptors have in common is the idea that the home of the saints – the home of God – is somewhere else. It is not here.

Some Christian denominations purport that the end of the world will begin with a period of time when some of us are simply snatched into heaven – raptured – and those left behind will struggle to be saved as the ultimate annihilation of the world approaches.  This understanding of the apocalypse, based on the biblical Book of Revelation that we read from today, is so popular that it is a foundational belief for many Christians.  It’s the reason the “Left Behind” series, a novelized account of the “end times” which closely follows the outline of the author’s Revelation, has sold over 60 million copies.  It’s the reason that many Christians believe that war in the middle east is a good thing and that we don’t have to worry about cleaning up the environment – or cleaning up our own acts for that matter- because during the end times the earth we know will simply cease to be. Why should we care about this creation, the thinking goes, if God’s going to take us to better one?

Our denomination does not endorse the idea of a premillennial rapture, but Christians who do believe that you will only be among the chosen to be the first taken “to” God and “from” the earth only if you are one of the elect – only if you have been tested like gold in a furnace and found to be worthy.  Those who believe that the end of the word will unfold quite literally as John’s revelatory vision suggests think that saying you believe is the key to salvation.  But today’s readings tell us that the Kingdom of God is for those who are pure and worthy of it– and we all know that calling oneself a Christian does not automatically make us either of those things.

What it does make us is a community – a community based not on like interests or experiences, but on a shared confidence in the love of God and in God’s love of us.  That means that when scripture says we will be judged, it means that it is as a community that we are tested.  It is as a community that we are judged.  And, God willing, it is as a community that we are saved.  Mercifully, we are not dependent on our own strength of character for salvation.  We are in this together.

That’s why we need to stop seeing sainthood as about the achievements and sacrifices of individual people.  The saints of God are not simply figures you see depicted in stained glass windows.  We honor those people because they represent the good that is possible in Christian community, of what can happen when individuals embolden the entire community of faith.  Because it is in community that Christians affect the world.  It is in community that we can dispel the darkness and chaos that threaten us.  It is in community that we can bring about the Kingdom of God.

Today’s scripture does not say that the Kingdom of God is where a righteous few go after they are raptured.  The writer of Revelation says that the home of God is among mortals – that the Kingdom of God will dwell among us.  Not each of us individually, but all of us together.  Our scriptures tell us that we have to bring the Kingdom of God to this reality – that the Kingdom of God is nothing more – and nothing less – than the fully realized community of God – the community of God as it should be- the community of God as it can be.  This interpretation assumes not an escape from the world, but a realization about the world – the realization that the seeds of the Kingdom of God are already among us.

Today’s reading from Revelation is often interpreted as being about heaven – about a place of hope and comfort where we go after we die.  But I don’t believe that the Kingdom of God is a far-off place.  I believe that the Kingdom of God is, as James Alison puts it, “the collective living out of the opening of heaven.”  This means that we cannot ignore the suffering of the world. It means we must embrace it in order to change it. The Kingdom of God is not about getting rid of mourning and crying and pain and death.  It is about recognizing them.  It is about sharing them.  It is about sanctifying them.

That’s what Jesus did when he raised Lazarus from the dead.  He didn’t go to the house of his beloved friend in time to save him.  He didn’t arrive during the solemn beauty of a funeral service.  Jesus showed up after Mary and Martha had given up hope.  He showed up after Lazarus had been entombed.  He showed up after Lazarus began to stink.  And the first thing he did, the very first thing was not to blow a trumpet or declare a feast.  The very first thing he did was to weep –to wail – over Lazarus’s death.  Jesus acknowledged the fear and anxiety and pain that consumed his community of friends, just as God understands the sin and sorrow that engulf us.  Jesus shared his friends’ grief -and only after he did that did he show them the power of God – how it was already there in their community – how it had been available to them all along.

It puts me in mind of the end of the “Wizard of Oz.”  The Wizard has promised to take Dorothy home in his balloon.  She has said her good-byes and is prepared to go when Toto jumps out of the basket.  As Dorothy chases after him, the balloon takes off without her.  “Wait!” she yells in panic.  “I can’t,” cries the Wizard.  “I don’t know how to stop this thing!”  Dorothy is left bereft, believing she has lost her last chance to go home.  But then the Good Witch appears and tells Dorothy that she has had the power to get home all along.  She simply has to ask for it: “There’s no place like home.  There’s no place like home.”  Dorothy’s true home, like our true home in the heaven that is the presence of God, was in her heart all along.  She just had to remember where her home was.  She had to remember what her home was.  She had to remember who her home was.

And that’s what we need to do – to find heaven in our hearts, and in our community.  We are in this together.  Our hope of heaven rests not in individual virtue but in how true we make the words of the words we put on our banners and in our bulletin: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.”  In the midst of the chaos of this world and the disappointments of our lives and the fear of the evils that lurk around us, the glory of God is here.  It is in the ability of this community to live and to welcome others into a life in Christ.  We are the home of God.  The kingdom of God is in us.  Indeed, we are all of us saints of God and I mean, God helping, to be one too.  AMEN.

Sermon for October 28, 2018: Spiritual Sight (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

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Two Mondays ago, October 15 in the early evening I was traveling on public transportation to the former parish I served. I was going there to serve as the Deacon at a special mass. As I came up out of the underground streetcar station at Van Ness Avenue and Market Street I saw a young African-American man standing there. He was shirtless and had an extremely filthy shipping blanket wrapped around his shoulders. I had seen this young man on many occasions in the past and as he was always standing or seated outside the doughnut shop there and I would from time to time buy him a doughnut and coffee. But this time was different. He was standing staring out into space and appeared to be catatonic. I spoke to him but there was no response. As I got a little closer to him I was hit with the horrible smell of urine and feces and maybe garbage. I stepped back, I could not get past the barrier of the horrible smell. I walked past him and continued to the church, you see I had to go over the liturgy with all involved.

On the train ride home, I thought about my interaction with this homeless person. About how my repulsion and fear of this helpless person spiritually blinded me from seeing our Savior in him.

In today’s Gospel reading from the Evangelist Mark, Jesus returns the sight to a blind beggar outside of the walls of Jericho, on the way to Jerusalem.

Jericho at the time of this story is a wealthy suburb of Jerusalem. Indeed, Herod had his winter palace there and many wealthy Judeans used it as their winter resort. This probably made the road down to Jerusalem a good place to beg.

The author of the Gospel of Mark was writing probably in Alexandria Egypt to a predominantly Greek or Gentile church of the first century. So, he used a very classical Greek type of structure in his writing. It’s very notable that the name he has given to the blind beggar, indeed he is the only one healed in Mark’s Gospel who is named. Bartimaeus is a Hebrew and Greek hybrid. Bar which in Hebrew means son of and Timaeus a Gentile name. Timaeus was a character in Plato’s Dialogue.

He is the man who delivered the philosopher’s important cosmological and theological treatise… one which involved sight as being the foundation of knowledge. So, this fits very well with what the Evangelist is teaching.

Jesus passes Bartimaeus is he seated on the roadside begging. Jesus is surrounded by the usual crowd of people and the twelve, so he probably couldn’t see Bartimaeus or hear his cries at first. Bartimaeus cries out “Son of David have on mercy me!” The crowd and the 12 tell him to be quiet because Jesus does not have time for him. Bartimaeus ignores the crowd’s protest of his pleas and shouts out again for Jesus to have mercy on him.

Jesus stands still, asks for Bartimaeus, the blind man is summoned, and the moment is here. Bartimaeus does not hesitate. He throws down the cloak that served him as a blanket. Like a homeless man of today, he had probably spent the night under this cloak, or maybe a shipping blanket, and now he throws it off and springs up like someone who is ready to run, someone with a purpose, attracted by the powerful presence towards whom the path now is open and not blocked, Bartimaeus goes to him.

And as in so many other instances, Jesus wants him to articulate his prayer. Bartimaeus had asked for mercy. But Jesus asks: “What is it that you want me to do for you?” You remember last week, we heard Jesus ask the same question of the two disciples who had come to him wanting to be first in the kingdom.

“What is it that you want me to do for you?” “Rabbouni, Teacher, let me see again.”

Bartimaeus’s sight is returned immediately and Jesus tells him that his faith has made him whole, has saved him. Jesus tells him to go on his way but Bartimaeus instead follows him on the way. – – The way that leads Jesus to the Cross.

The 12 disciples are often used in the Gospels as foils that contrasts Jesus’ teaching with their and our need for understanding and sometimes preoccupation with maintaining an exclusive “Jesus club.” Jesus’ miracles of restoring sight and hearing are meant to teach that through faith we can be restored to spiritual sight and hearing.

What causes our spiritual blindness that would lead us to cry out to be made whole or saved. The major cause, I believe, for this state of sin is fear.

This is not the natural fear that causes our flight or fight response that is necessary for survival, it is the fear that draws us into ourselves and not to God. The fear that causes our spiritual blindness.

  • The fear caused by racism, which tells us to believe that one group is superior to another simply because of skin color or cultural heritage and that the other is a danger to us and will take away our power.
  • The fear of an imaginary foe that believes that citizenship in a state can save us and should be limited to one ethnic, cultural, religious, or identity group. Thus creating, as John McCain said, “spurious nationalism.”
  • The fear of a loss of patriarchal power and privilege.
  • Fear of migrants, immigrants, and refugees destroying our culture.
  • The fear of touching or interacting with a person that may be on the surface repulsive to us.

There are many more fears that may cause our spiritual blindness. Those that prevents us from seeing Christ in all people, especially the poor, the hungry, the destitute and refugee.

For fear is the opposite of faith not doubt. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, calls us to “Be not afraid.” We need to take his words to heart in these tense and often violent times.

How are we healed of our spiritual blindness? – It is by Love born from faith in our Savior.

As St. Paul said, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” The fear and pain from which we run fastest can be the greatest instrument for our health and strength, if only we will place our trust in the Spirit of God to lead us to where God most needs us.

By recognizing God’s love poured into our hearts by prayer, confession and absolution, listening to God’s Word, and receiving Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist we will be strengthened to throw off our cloak, that is deny ourselves, be restored and saved so that we may follow with Bartimaeus Jesus’ way even to the cross. Remember Jesus told us:

“If any of you want to come the way I’m going,” he said, “you must say no to your selves, pick up your cross, and follow me.”

Jesus’ way is not a way of fear but of love and if there is one thing we should shout from the rooftops, it is this – THE CROSS IS NOT A PLACE OF FEAR!

It is a place of awe and wonder of the Amazing Love that is lavished on us all, undeserving sinners that we are. Amen!

Sermon for October 21, 2018: Humility and Comfort (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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When my daughter still lived at home, she would often go upstairs to her room, allegedly to do her homework, but while she was up there, I would sometimes receive email “forwards” from her. These were inevitably cute cat pictures, which sent me into fits, because a) she was clearly not doing homework, and b) I had decided that silly cat pictures represented everything that is wrong with young people. Why, I moaned, was she wasting her time with such foolishness? Now I am forced to admit that maybe adorable animal photos are not a waste of time – and I think today’s Hebrew scripture from Job backs me – and Katie – up on this.

We have been following the sad story of Job for several weeks now.  Job, as you will remember, was the object of a “bet” between God and the Satan. The Satan believed that all human beings are self-interested and believes that if he took everything away from Job, Job would curse God. God disagreed. In last week’s scripture, Job bemoaned his inability to sense God’s presence, and called out to God to come and listen to him. Today, God showed up – and, as so often happens, God did something Job did not expect: God answered Job’s questions with a few of his own. “You want to know why I allowed the Satan to cause you suffering? WelI, Job, let me ask you this: where were you when I created the universe?” Then God proceeds to detail everything that God has done, and how very, very small and unimportant human beings are in the scope of it.

This made Job feel pretty low. Poor Job- he did absolutely everything right. He was loyal to God against all odds, retaining his integrity in the face of tremendous loss, and instead of God thanking him for his faithfulness, God made him feel small and unimportant. It seems unfair – until you think about who Job was talking to; he was talking to God, the creator of all things.

As if this isn’t made clear enough in our reading from Job, today’s psalm drives it home powerfully. God made everything – not just human beings and, perhaps more importantly, not especially human beings. If you notice, of all the actions that are attributed to God by the psalmist, none of them have to do with humanity. God controls light, spreads out the heavens, makes the winds his messengers and fire her servants. The earth is full of her creatures – but human beings are not named as being particularly special among them.

This suggests that in the scope of God’s creation, human beings really are pretty unimportant. This may be a shock to some of us because, honestly, we human beings are pretty prone to thinking we are the center of the universe. We can’t seem to stop ourselves from worrying about our problems, about making things, “all about us.” It is comforting to know that Jesus’s disciples were no exceptions to this kind of behavior. In today’s gospel passage, we are told that James and John were so eager to be important that they came right out and asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and left hands in his glory. This made their friends very angry – but Jesus himself did not get angry with them. “You do not know what you are asking,” he patiently told them – although they really should have – because this is the third time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus explains to his disciples what it means to share in his “glory” – that his “glory” will happen on a cross, and that the people who will be on his left and right will be criminals. The cup that Jesus will drink from is filled with poison. It will lead not to power and prestige, but to suffering and death. It is a cup filled with humility.

It is also a cup filled with promise – the promise that the disciples and all humanity can be redeemed through the blood that Jesus will shed. It is the promise that God will always love us. This is actually the same promise that echoes in God’s words to Job. Think about it: we may be nothing in the scope of God’s power, but God still cares for us. The point of God’s speech to Job is not just what God is saying, but that he is saying it at all. As humiliated as Job may feel, what is important is that God is with him, just as Job has prayed God would be. God’s lesson in humility to Job and Jesus’s explanation to his disciples are not only about the smallness of humanity, but also about the fact that God loves us anyway. “In the larger context of [the gospel], Jesus’ words may … be read as an extraordinary promise: ‘You will not always be driven by your fears and your need for security. Rather, you will be empowered to take up your cross and follow me… Here is the great promise for [us too]. We need not always live in fear; we need not continually seek our own security. Rather, we have Jesus’ promise that we can and will live as faithful disciples as we seek to follow him.”[1]

That is what it means to be chosen by God – to know that although we are not individually or collectively the center of the universe, we can still do much to make it better – to bring about God’s kingdom. It is what it means to be a priest for God. The word “priest” is actually best translated as “bridge.” Priests, then, are people who seek to serve as a bridge between human beings and God – by preaching God’s word and participating in the sacraments that bring us closer to God. In the Protestant Episcopal tradition, we often speak of “the priesthood of all believers.” This is our belief that every single one of us – not just ordained people – is called through our baptism to do the work of God in the world. “As baptized ‘priests’ we are given all the power, vision, and grace to be who we are called to be – not because we are perfect, but because God’s grace is made perfect in us.”[2]

This is both exciting and terrifying. Who are we, to think of ourselves as “called” by God – as “priests,” as worthy servants of such an all-powerful being? The answer is that we are the creatures that God loves, that God answers, that God saves. “God chooses us, and will not let us go. The only appropriate response is obedience, a commitment we keep forgetting. This is why we end up with impetuous Peter, arrogant Paul, lusty David, stuttering Moses, frustrated Martha, weeping Mary, and bitter Naomi. This is why we end up with members who annoy us, leaders who forget meetings, and… clergy who disappoint us. Somehow God needs each one of…us…to be the priestly body of Christ in the world.”[3]

I find this comforting – the knowledge that I am both so small as to be virtually invisible in the scope of God’s creation and yet God still loves and needs me. As flawed as I am, as unlikely as I am to be able to do what is asked of me, and as anxious and fearful as I become when thinking about my own problems and those around me, I am still called by God. And, truthfully, God only asks one thing of me: to be obedient to God’s will and to do it as best as I can- and that is something even a human being can do. Like those adorable internet animal photos, today’s scriptures tell the story of something small and relatively unimportant, something that we might be tricked into thinking God is wasting his time with – but they also say something much greater. We, like those online animals, also serve to remind one another – and perhaps God – of what is hopeful, loving, and comforting – and that’s worth spending some time on. AMEN.

[1]Charles L. Campbell, (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], 193.

[2]Susan R. Andrews, (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], 184.

[3]Susan R. Andrews, (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], 184.

Children’s Homily for October 21, 2018: Baptism Day! (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Today we are having baptism!  Who knows what baptism is? (Give them a chance to answer).  How many of you have been baptized? (Give them a chance to answer).  Good.  Who knows what the most important day in church is? (Give them a chance to answer).  Christmas is important. Easter is even more important.  Anything else?  (Give them a chance to answer).  What about Baptism days?  (Give them a chance to answer).  Well, it is true that Baptism doesn’t just happen on one day a year like Christmas or Easter, but for each one of us, our Baptism Day is pretty much the most important day of our life – even more important than our birthday. Why do you think that is? (Give them a chance to answer).  Those are all good answers. But the real answer is that it is baptism that makes us members of the church, which is – who? (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right: Jesus!

So, who can tell me why it’s important to be part of Jesus? (Give them a chance to answer).  Those are all good answers. Jesus loves us. Jesus takes care of us. Jesus is with us when we are sick or scared or sad. Jesus helps us to be good. But what is the most important thing Jesus does? (Give them a chance to answer).  Jesus makes us new! That is pretty amazing.

Let’s figure out how that happens. (Potentially read part of the book here). We use water to wash, but the water we have at home to wash with just makes our bodies clean. The water we use for baptism is blessed water. It is water that reminds us of all that God and Jesus have done for people and all they do for us. That makes it holy – and when you are washed with holy water, you become holy. You become more like Jesus. Who would like to be more like Jesus?
(Give them a chance to answer).  What do you think it would mean to be more like Jesus (Give them a chance to answer).That would be great, wouldn’t it? So, how would you be new? (Give them a chance to answer).

And here’s the other really important thing baptism does. It makes you part of a family. Now, I know you already have families, but it makes you part of a much bigger family – a family that exists everywhere and every time! It’s the family of God.

So, do you think baptism is a most excellent and important thing? (Give them a chance to answer).  And are you ready to be part of Gigi and Anna’s baptism day? (Give them a chance to answer).  So, do you agree that we should baptize them right after this? (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 October 14, 2018: Suffering? Seek God (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Recently, someone asked me how much time I spend in hospitals. I responded that I can go a whole month without needing to make a hospital visit, and then I will have an entire week without a day that I don’t go to a hospital. Recent weeks at Grace have been more of the latter. Several of our parishioners have been injured, diagnosed with serious illness, or developed serious family concerns. Folks have been suffering, and I have attempted to be with them in their suffering as much as I can. I am not the only one. One of the great blessings of Grace Martinez is our desire and ability to assist and comfort those who are in need of it. From taking casseroles to people who are housebound to putting together a last-minute dinner for thirty residents at Contra Costa Interfaith Housing; our parishioners are ready and willing to be with those who suffer, as hard as that is.

One of the most frequent queries I get is, “If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and loves each of us individually and desperately, then why does God allow us to suffer”? We are not the first human beings to ask that question. It is what the book of Job is about. In last week’s scripture, we witnessed God and the Satan set up a trial of humanity. Job, being a righteous man of God, would have every, single blessing taken away from him. The Satan was betting that when he was at his lowest and emptiest, Job would curse God. God maintained that Job wouldn’t – that Job was a true believer, a man of integrity. Today we meet Job in the midst of his suffering. He has lost his family, his livelihood, his property, and his health. His friends have been questioning and mocking him. He has nothing left – nothing but his faith in God – and he can’t find God either. “Oh that I knew where I might find him…I would lay my case before him and…he would give heed to me.” Job wants to find God so he can argue with him. Some of us might consider this a bad idea. We have been taught that the path to salvation and the mark of a true believer is not to argue– to simply do what we are told without questioning it, and definitely without talking to God about it.

Job’s lament, and the lament of the writer of today’s psalm, suggests this might not be the case. Our Hebrew scripture indicates that Job’s “legitimate protest against God”[1] is not only okay but “is an act of deep faith – deeper, perhaps, than a passive acceptance of whatever happens as God’s will, or a carefully articulated theological rationalization for why things are. After all, does not God in the end vindicate Job’s speech, and castigate Job’s friends for not speaking rightly about God”?[2]  Remember: Job’s complaint is not that he is suffering, but that he doesn’t feel God’s presence. Perhaps, then, Job’s most consistent and powerful act of faith is not the belief that God will take away his suffering, but that God is with him in it.

God’s presence is also the one thing that the author of Psalm 22 asks for. His plaintive cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” is not a request to be saved, but to be heard. In the fifteen verses of the psalm that we recited, only one is an actual petition: “Be not far from me.” The psalmist knows his own faults and those of his enemies. He is afraid. He is in despair. He wants to be heard.

Yesterday we held a service for healing for victims of sexual assault and abuse. The purpose of the gathering was to create a safe space where individuals who had been deeply injured in horrendous ways could share their suffering – with God and with one another. Both ancient scripture and modern psychology tell us that sharing our pain can pave the road for its healing. “Shared suffering connects us to a larger world at the very time we are most at risk to feel isolated and alone. We are able to tap into the hope for healing and resurrection that resides in the life of that community.”[3]

It also helps us to live authentically with one another. Today’s epistle tells us that the word of God is not some dead document about unidentifiable ancient people. It is “living and active,” influencing everyone it touches throughout the long history of God’s relationship to humankind- from its beginning to today. Sometimes our interactions with scripture are not easy. That’s because scripture is designed not only to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable.[4] This is what today’s Gospel story is about. In this famous parable, Jesus is confronted by a man who asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. The gospel writer makes it clear that the questioner is a good man, one who has kept the Ten Commandments, one whom Jesus loves. “You lack one thing,” Jesus tells him, “go, sell everything you own and give the money to the poor.” Can you imagine if Jesus appeared today and asked each of us to do the same? Would we do it – or would we, like that man, go away shocked and grieving?

Note that Jesus does not say that wealthy people cannot enter the kingdom of God; he just says it will be very hard for them to do so. Why? – because money – its acquisition, maintenance, and the lack of it- is tremendously distracting. It is impossible to love our God with our whole heart and our neighbor as ourselves if we spend all of our time thinking about money. In our society, we are taught to equate money with safety, power, and intelligence. The myth of “the self-made man” – the individual who started with nothing and, through sheer willpower and craftiness, “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” is powerful in this country – powerful and almost always false. It also represents one of the issues that Jesus was getting to when he spoke to the rich man: “wealth is dangerous to our salvation because it prompts us to rely on ourselves rather than God.”[5] When his disciples protest that they have left everything for him, Jesus tells them that they will be rewarded, but that that doesn’t mean that they will be powerful or important in the age to come, for “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Like his criticism of the wealthy, “Jesus questions those who pride themselves on their virtue and faith. Even honestly sought virtue and faith are dangerous, because they also prompt us to rely on ourselves rather than God. We are saved only when we stop worrying about our salvation and turn our attention to God and neighbor.”[6]

Human wealth and human power are not demonstrations of God’s favor. The ancient (and, sadly, still existing) belief that “things go well for the good… and poorly for the bad”[7] is directly contradicted by Jesus’s response when he is asked who can be saved. Those who believe in God, he tells his disciples. It is God alone we must seek- God we must cry out for in need – God we must have faith in- God who will hear us and answer, as he does Job and the psalmist. We do not need to question that this is so; God has proven it in the person of Jesus Christ, who suffered as we do so that he could always, always be present to us in our suffering. It is not wrong to pray for healing, for peace, and for life, but it is wrong to forget where those come from. All healing, all grace, and all comfort come from God. Seek God first and everything you need will follow. AMEN.

[1]Paul E. Captez, (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], 150.

[2]J.S. Randolph Harris, (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], 151.

[3]Kathleen Bostrom, (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], 156.

[4]Attributed to Finley Peter Dunne, circa 1900.

[5]James J. Thompson, (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], 168.

[6]Ibid.

[7]James J. Thompson, (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], 164-166.

Sermon for October 7, 2018: Integrity  (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

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Many of you know that I used to work as a forensic psychological expert witness.  My last job prior to entering the ordination process was to evaluate patients who had been court-ordered to a state mental health facility. Sometimes I evaluated their readiness for trial; sometimes I offered an opinion as to whether they were ready to be released. As you might guess, this was a low stress job – compared to being a rector, anyway. The legal arena, as many of you know, can be a combative and unforgiving place. Making a mistake could have serious consequences for the person I was evaluating. For example, if I accidentally referred to Mr. Joe Smith as “John,” just once in my testimony, the opposing attorney gleefully pointed out that “You don’t seem to even know the name of the man you are evaluating, doctor” – thus potentially undermining my entire testimony.

This is not new. Legal nitpicking has been part of human history for a lot longer than most of us think. Take today’s Hebrew scripture about Job. Most of us are familiar with Job as the poster boy for suffering. For forty-two long chapters, Job suffers the loss of family, friends, health, and home – all because of a bet between God and Satan. Yes, you heard it right. In today’s reading, the Lord God and Satan make a bet.

This is a very strange story, primarily because you have to wonder, “Why is God betting with Satan”?  The answer comes with understanding of the original language of the text and what it tells us about the players in the story. In Hebrew, Satan, or Ha-Satan, means “adversary or, “accuser.” Although in our culture, the words, “devil,” and “Satan” are often used interchangeably to mean the guy with the horns and tail who is God’s opposite, in the Hebrew tradition, ha-Satan (the adversary) “is not yet the diabolical opponent of God’s righteous purposes as he later appears in Jewish apocalyptic writings, including the New Testament. In this story, Satan works for God! This provides us with a clue about the mystery of God’s relation to evil; Satan cannot act without God’s permission.”[1] So, think of it this way: God and Satan, two members of the same heavenly court, are talking about the nature of evil. Satan’s argument is that people are basically self-interested, greedy, and dishonest; they lack integrity. But wait, God says, Job is none of those things; Job has integrity. Job is proof of that human beings have the capacity for goodness. God is so confident in Job, that he allows Satan to try to prove him wrong. God’s “bet” with Satan is not some casual idea for solving an argument; it is a formal trial of the nature of humanity; Satan is the prosecuting attorney, Job the defense attorney, and God the judge.  God is the judge because only God understands humanity – and, as we now know, only God has allowed Jesus to be subjected to suffering on our behalf in order to give us the opportunity to truly live, as the psalmist claims to do have done, with integrity.

The word “integrity” appears multiple times in Hebrew scripture and is, perhaps, best defined by Titus: “God’s steward must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain (1:7).” Having integrity means being compassionate, humble, and honest. It’s a pretty high standard –one that is impossible to attain on our own. Acting with integrity is acting in order to please God, not other human beings. Acting with integrity is acting without desire or hope of reward, or “blessing.”  To live with integrity is to live for and by God’s grace.

This is what the book of Job is all about. The Satan believes that human beings only have faith in God because there is an inherent pay off in it for them, so he makes the case that if Job’s blessings are taken away, Job will curse God. It’s not a hard argument to make – then or now.  All we have to do is look around us to know that it is a trap that many people fall into, believing that we know the will of God and that God will reward us with earthly blessings for doing it. It is the basis for the “prosperity Gospel.” It is also the reason that people feel comfortable making judgements about others; about laughing at others’ pain.

But that is not what Jesus said or did. Jesus did not admire or spend his time with the “haves” of his own time. He had little use for the powerful, the rich, and those who were confident of their own integrity. Jesus did not hate the company of perceived evildoers. Jesus readily sat down with those his society deemed wicked. Jesus turned his society’s ideas about who was righteous and who was not upside down. This is evidenced by the exchange we heard in today’s gospel between Jesus and – another lawyer! Remember, Pharisees were Jewish experts on law, and they had some legitimate questions for Jesus, who frequently did things that contradicted it. In this case, the Pharisees wanted Jesus to tell them whether or not divorce should be legal. As was his way, Jesus answered their question with a question of his own, asking what Jewish law said about divorce, knowing, as they did, that Jewish law allowed men to divorce their wives, if they broke the rules.

Jesus’s response is one of the most abused passages from scripture: “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female…what God has joined together, let no one separate.” This is not a statement about who can be married; it is an assertion about what marriage is intended to be. It is Jesus reframing the question. “Divorce, [Jesus says], is something you can do, but it is not what God intended.”[2] He “seeks to move beyond a legalistic approach to questions of divorce ([which is] the approach of his adversaries) toward a theological affirmation about God’s purposes for marriage.”[3]  For the followers of the Law of Moses, marriage was intended to stabilize society – to enforce a hierarchy in which women were inferior, marriages were financial transactions, and children insured the survival of the species. Love had nothing to do with it. But Jesus said that’s not what God intends marriage to be. For God, the purpose of marriage represents God’s intention for all human beings – to live in love and respect for God and one another.  If marriage is not furthering that purpose, then it is not functioning as God intended.

And then Jesus goes one step further. He tells his legal adversaries that God’s intention applies to both spouses. Women have equal power in the relationship – for good or for ill. Either partner can be at fault for not living in loving covenant with one another as God intended. Thus, Jesus’s primary message is that couples should be subservient to one another – and not in order to maintain the societal hierarchy, as it was in Mosaic Law, but because marriage is intended for mutual joy; [and] for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity. Note that I say “intended.” The church recognizes that, simply because we are human, we are often unable to live as we intend. When that happens, we can acknowledge our loss, forgive one another, and move forward, confident in God’s grace and presence in all our circumstances.

This insight into one specific law helps us to understand the way Jesus approached all law – practically, sensibly, and compassionately, clearly acknowledging that human beings were not made for laws; laws were made for human beings. Laws that are enforced for their own sake – laws that are used to hurt and oppress – laws that promote human prosperity and power over love and grace – are not being used as God intended. Jesus drives this point home by reprimanding the disciples for attempting to keep what were considered the riff-raff of society – children – away from him. Children, Jesus told them, of all people, understand God’s intentions. Children innately grasp true integrity, because it makes sense. Be kind. Be honest. Be fair. Think before you act. Most of all, love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, the way God loves you – and treat other people the same way you would like to be treated. On these two commandments rest all good and true laws. AMEN.

[1]Paul E. Captez, (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], 126.

[2]David B. Howell, (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], 142.

[3]Charles L. Campbell, (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], 143.

Sermon for September 30, 2018: Community (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Most of you have heard me speak (often) about “community” and you will hear me refer to it when we talk about stewardship. There’s a reason for that. As Episcopalians, here at Grace we practice “community,” and “corporate,” worship, by singing, praying, and eating together. We particularly excel at “community choreography” – what Robin Williams famously called, “pew aerobics” – standing, kneeling and moving at the same time. Our focus on community – on doing things together, dates back to the very beginning of Christianity and is, in fact, one of the most important – and perhaps most neglected – tenets of our faith.

The word “community” simply means “a unified group of individuals.” Science tells us that people are drawn to living in communities and have been since the dawn of human time. There are practical reasons for residing in community, not the least of which is simple physical survival. But as society has evolved, the reasons we choose to live in community and the way we choose which community to live in have changed – and often involve what we believe in.

The Jewish people believe in God and in God’s constant and involved presence in their lives. This is something we share, along with a history that reminds us of both the joys and sometime terrors of being part of a community based on belief. Our scriptures, both those from the Hebrew canon and our own “new” testament, contain many stories that suggest that being part of a community of faith can be dangerous, risky, and potentially deadly. The story of Queen Esther, which is the basis for the Jewish festival of Purim, is one such tale. “Esther” is not a historical book; it is an inspirational, fictional story.  In it, a powerful king becomes angry with his wife for refusing to come when she is called (imagine that!) and has her banished (as one does). There is then a “beauty” pageant to find her replacement (as happens). Esther, both beautiful and “accomplished in the ways of women,” (wink, wink) becomes queen. Meanwhile, political intrigue is occurring. The king’s minister, Haman, is plotting to rid himself of the Jewish people and their leader, Mordecai. He tricks the king into decreeing that that the Jewish people should be eliminated. But in today’s Hebrew scripture, Esther steps in, revealing the plot and saving her people – not to mention assuring that the evil Haman gets his just desserts.

This story has all of the elements of great fiction – a beautiful protagonist, a heinous villain, an exciting plot twist, and escape from deadly danger. It is a unifying story, one centered around shared risk, escape and continued life in community – community based on belief in God and God’s love of and protection for us. It also serves as an important reminder about who and what we should value. Communities formed around worldly powers – “the ways of empire, of governments that benefit only a few and harm others”[1] – are not to be trusted. Our faith must be in God and God alone.

Another belief demonstrated by this story – that “God is present in the midst of…suffering and threat,”[2] is also a foundational tenet of Christianity. Jesus, a Jew, knew stories like Esther’s – stories of God’s deliverance in the midst of uncertainty, terror, and pain. He was familiar with scriptures like Psalm 124, which remind us that our help is not in worldly power, but in the name of the Lord.  Note that the pronoun the psalmist uses is “our” – because while it is true that God loves and talks to each of us individually, it is  also true that God often chooses to prophecy in community. That’s because God knows that we need each other if we are to do God’s will. Which is also what community is about.

The book of Esther is a legend about community among ancient Jewish people. I want to tell you two tales about community in our day and time. Sharon is an individual who suffers from substance abuse and multiple health problems.  She also experiences homelessness. Sharon is a wonderful human being; she is thoughtful, intelligent, and caring. But when she is using she can be belligerent and forgetful. Her pastor has been trying to help her find a home, but first Sharon must agree to treatment. This has been extremely difficult to coordinate. One day, Sharon appeared at the police station, having been badly beaten. She was suffering from multiple abrasions, potential broken bones, and a head injury. But God was with her – because the officer on-call happened to be a member of Sharon’s congregation, who called her pastor and, together with hospital personnel and community agencies, worked together to get Sharon the help she needed. Sharon’s Samaritans were of different genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and several were meeting for the first time – but they all believed that they were called to do what they could for her – to love their neighbor as themselves. Together, these very different people demonstrated what it means to live in Godly community.

On Friday, I posted a long and draining story on Facebook.  Having been moved by the testimony that was occurring in Washington, I told the story of how I was sexually assaulted when I was in college, and what it felt like to have no path to justice. I wrote about the pain of being treated as less than human, of being blamed for the worst thing that had ever happened to me, of being subject to the brutal judgment of powerful men without compassion; in short, about what it was like to be expelled from community. A miraculous thing happened: beginning almost immediately and continuing throughout the next several days, I received message after message of love and support – of promises for prayer on my behalf and for others like me. Through the use of a non-human mechanism, a computer, I was given true Christian understanding, kindness, and care – and a strong sense of the presence of God. That is also community.

These kinds of stories were what Jesus was referencing when he told his disciples not to condemn people who were not official followers of Jesus if they found them healing in Jesus’s name. “Preserving the power of his own group was not a priority for Jesus. If good were being done by others, their actions were to be affirmed.”[3] The disciples saw themselves as being a community based solely on belief in Jesus, but Jesus himself asserted that it was how they enacted their belief that made them part of the Jesus movement.

This is something that we are prone to forget. Like the early Christians that James addresses in his letter, we sometimes need to be reminded that we do not follow the way of the world, but the way of Jesus- and if the powers of the earth cause us to stumble, we must disavow them. The community to which we belong, this community, is not about any one person, any one policy, or any one activity. It is not about how we pray; it is about who we pray to– and it is about praying together. We can be a community without being of one mind, but we must remember that we are always a community of one body: the body of Christ. We can always pray together, even when we are divided, if we pray as Jesus taught us. “God you are everything holy and good, we want only what you desire for us so that the world will be changed for the better. Give us what we need to do your will, forgive us when we fail to do it, and help us to forgive other people that we are angry with. Aid us in being just and compassionate, and help us to avoid being deceived by evil. We know you are with us always, and that it is your love that unites us and makes us one community, in belief and in deed. May we honor you by honoring this community of Christ. Amen.

[1]Kathleen M. O’Connor, (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], 103.

[2]Susan B.W. 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], 108.

[3]Harry B. Adams, (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], 118.

Sermon for September 23, 2018: Things Heavenly (The Right Rev. Marc H. Andrus, Bishop of California[1] , read by the Rev. Dr. Deborah White):

[1]Some punctuation has been changed, words have been italicized, and some words have been inserted (indicated by [brackets]) by the Rev. Deborah White, Ph.D., primarily for ease of reading/proclaiming.

Listen here:

(Dear People of God in the Episcopal Church in the Bay Area, gathered in our 78 congregations on September 23, 2018: I am writing this sermon to you today, as your Priests and Deacons are gathered at the Bishop’s Ranch for our annual Clergy Retreat. Our late and deeply loved Canon to the Ordinary, Stefani Schatz suggested some years ago that I write a sermon during Clergy Retreat to be used on the next Sunday, to give our beloved clergy a true retreat, time to devote to prayer, reflection, and time with each other. I’m very happy to offer this sermon to you in that spirit and with gratitude for your own faithfulness.)

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Where and what are the “things heavenly” mentioned in the prayer for today? For that matter, what are the “earthly things” about which we are not to be anxious? As we have been walking with Jesus through the region of the Galilee in the Gospel of Mark for several weeks, we have heard Jesus call Peter a “Satan” because the disciple was focusing on “human things” (earthly things) rather than the “things of God” (heavenly things), so this idea of the heavenly versus the earthly seems to be an important theme.

It helps me to think that earthly things are not necessarily “things of the earth,” but are things, as the prayer says, that are “passing away.” So, “heavenly things” might be things that last – not things up in the sky. St. Paul, in his famous chapter on love in the First Letter to the Christian community in Corinth, says that there are many things that we might consider important that don’t last: knowing more than other people, strategic foresight – even signs of spiritual giftedness and admirable acts of charity [when they are] (done for bragging rights) – all of these wear out in the long run. [Only] three things last, according to St. Paul: faith, hope and love [-and] love stands above even faith and hope.

In the narrative we hear today in Mark’s Gospel, we get a clear picture of the contrast between earthly and heavenly things, things that pass away and things that last. After coming to a stopping place in their journey, Jesus asks his disciples what they were arguing about as they were walking. They are unwilling to tell him, because they were debating who among them was the greatest. Their shamefacedness is telling – they already know that worldly position is not worth their precious time. In response to his disciples, Jesus gives a little teaching, saying that serving is the marker of importance, not being served.

After Jesus gives a verbal teaching on heavenly and earthly things, he shows us what he means: he tenderly embraces a child. Our love and care for children – and really of all beings in our lives who can’t reward us with more power or resources – is the best example of love, of that which endures forever, of the prime heavenly thing.

The [collect] for today was written by St. Gregory the Great, the Pope (Bishop of Rome) who lived in the 6th Century. Gregory was born into an aristocratic Roman family. The Eternal City was sacked for the third time a few years after Gregory was born, after a one-year siege by the Goths. In his lifetime as much as a third of the Italian population died from plague. [An invading Germanic people], the Lombards, prosecuted brutal war campaigns through the north of Italy during the same time. The Emperor and the whole machinery of empire had decamped from a ruined and dangerous Rome to Constantinople. In this setting of “the worst of times,” Gregory did many things for which he is still remembered. Gregorian Chant, for instance, is named for him and he [himself] may have helped compose chants in this mode. Also, he sent Augustine as a missionary to England, a beginning for what would become the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, our world-wide spiritual community.

But the [most important and] ever-lasting work of Gregory as the Bishop of Rome was to work doggedly for the care of the starving and poor Romans. [He] mobilized the local Church to relieve the suffering of the population. [We know that] Gregory wrote the collect for today in the midst of troubled times, when the temptation was, as it is now, to cling to various things that might improve security and status. Gregory’s name means “Watchful” or “Vigilant.” [The words of his prayer tell us that throughout the anxious times through which he led his people, Gregory was vigilant against the lure of fear and self-absorption, choosing instead to watch for the opportunity to work for the things that are heavenly – the things that are everlasting]. May we share in Gregory’s clear-sightedness and hold on to love, which never ends. [Amen].

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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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

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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)

Listen here:

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)

Listen here:

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)

Listen here:

“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)

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“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)

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“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)

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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.