Sermon for 20th Pentecost, October 10, 2021: Jesus the Youth Pastor Caren Miles):
Sermon for 19th Pentecost, October 3, 2021,: The Feast of St. Francis (The Rev. Steve Sturgeon)
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) AMEN
It has long been a custom in the Episcopal Church to hold Blessing of the Animals services in early October each year, in close proximity with the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, which occurs on October 4. But what is the connection between these two events?
First a bit of background: Francis was born in Assisi, Italy in 1182 to a wealthy family. His early goal in life was to seek military glory, which he failed at quite miserably. Instead, Francis’s repeated encounters with the poor and the sick began to make him question the extravagant life he was living. It was during this time, in his early 20s, that Francis stopped to pray before the crucifix in a county chapel, which was falling into ruin. As he prayed alone he heard a voice say, “Repair my house,” which Francis took as a command not only to rebuild the chapel, but also to rebuild the entire Church throughout the world.
When Francis tried to renounce his past life and lifestyle, in order to take a vow of poverty, he suffered the wrath of his father, who at one point imprisoned Francis in a closet in their home. After Francis was freed, he went before the local bishop to take the vow of poverty. His father appeared and strenuously objected, at which point Francis took off all his clothes and handed them to his father, thus symbolically severing all ties to his family and past life. Perhaps not surprisingly, Francis was considered both radical and crazy by most people of that time, and he was viewed with suspicion by the Church. He spent a great deal of time living alone in the country, before he started to gather a group of followers.
Among many things that Francis became known for, one was his love of nature. He wrote the “Canticle of the Sun,” which praises God for the gift of creation in all its forms. In one famous incident, Francis reportedly preached a sermon to a gathering of birds, an except of which reads:
My brother and sister birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love God always. God gave you feathers to wear, and wings to fly, and whatever you need. God made you noble among the creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air so that, though you do not sow or reap, God nevertheless protects and governs you without your least care.
Francis died at the age of 44 on October 4, 1226. While he suffered scorn for much of his life, Francis was proclaimed a saint by the Church just two years after his death. Over the centuries and throughout the world he has become perhaps the most beloved saint of all time. Thus in his memory each year we celebrate the animals who are part of our lives.
The interesting thing about the phrase “the Blessing of the Animals” is that it actually has multiple meanings, four of them when you think about it. Two involve humans: one, the action of blessing the animals; and two, the blessing of our presence, as we provide food and shelter to these animals. But another two meanings involve the animals: one, the blessing of their presence in our lives, as they provide us with comfort and companionship; and two the blessing they give to us, through the wagging of a tail or a loud purr. Let us bear all these blessings in mind this morning. Amen.
Sermon for 18th Pentecost, September 26, 2021: It’s Scandalous! (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Things were not going well in Moses’s congregation. The people of God had a strong craving and they wept and said, “We remember the food we used to eat.” We remember how things used to be! And Moses, fearless leader that he was – turned right around and started whining to God about the people. “Lord,” he said, “Why did you give me this job? These people are whiny. I need help!” So the Lord sent him seventy duly elected elders and they spoke the word of the Lord to the people – and that helped – but it only worked once. Then Moses received word that these two guys, Eldad and Medad, – who were not among the elders, who are not in the who’s who of biblical saints, and who hadn’t even bothered to leave the tent to go outside and see the Lord when he came by – had just started preaching and prophesying away all on their own – and everyone wanted to know, who are these guys?
It’s a good question – and one that’s still – and perhaps even more – relevant today. A 2021 New York Times article suggests that “as denominational Christianity declines almost across the board, magnetic independent leaders have stepped into the void. ‘There’s this idea that you can’t trust anybody except these [charismatic] individuals… It’s a symptom of our time. People don’t trust institutions, and people think that all mainstream institutions are corrupt: universities, science, government, the media [and churches].’”
We’ve all heard this, but I wonder if we’ve really taken a good look at the big picture. Waning motivation within traditional “denominational” churches like ours, the lack of trust among young people in any and all institutions, the rise of spiritual or predictive practices like astrology and tarot, and the rapid and frightening decline in church membership across religions around the globe are not separate phenomena. They are intricately and undeniably related – and they suggest that Jesus knew exactly what he was warning his disciples about in today’s gospel.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” And then he goes on, speaking the famous and harsh words that we, as fans of the gentle good shepherd, can hardly believe came out of our Savior’s mouth: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off… and if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” And then, adding insult to injury, our merciful Lord threatens us with hell.
There are several scholarly notions of what Jesus means when he speaks of “hell,” but I see it in terms of separation. If heaven is ultimate union with God, then hell is the opposite – being completely cut off from the love of other human beings and the much greater love of God. For those who follow Jesus and believe that his way saves us from the fear, violence, and hatred in this world, there is no greater threat – and yet Jesus still makes it. Why?
First of all, it helps to remember what Jesus and the disciples had been talking about when John came to tell Jesus that he saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’s name. In last week’s gospel Jesus took a small child and put it in the midst of the disciples, famously telling them that whoever wants to be first should humbly choose to go last. So we know that Jesus’s reference to “little ones” in today’s passage means young or vulnerable people – those who are most in need of our attention and most susceptible to corruption – and Jesus is always most protective of the vulnerable.
Secondly, you might want to know that the Greek word that in the version of the Bible we use is translated as “stumble” may be better interpreted as “scandalize.” So, what Jesus is really saying is, “If any of you scandalize people who don’t know my way, it would be better for you to separate from the evil within you than to be permanently separated from me.” So now let’s look at what people who call themselves Christians have been doing lately. Oh wait, it’s exactly that. From stories of sexual abuse by clergy people to the recent tale of a pastor who sent out a fundraising call so he could purchase a private jet because he says he can no longer fly commercial because he won’t get a COVID vaccination – the words “Christian” and “scandal” appear together more often than “peanut butter” and “jelly.” And we can protest all we want that “Those are not our leaders and that is not our church,” but the truth is that the very word “Christian” has been poisoned. Our children have indeed been scandalized – and they have chosen to cut themselves off. If we are surprised, then we have not been paying attention- and if we blame them then we are in denial.
Many people believe that prophesy involves the ability to predict the future, but that isn’t what it means. A prophet is someone who speaks to the people on behalf of God. The Bible names many prophets, but we also recognize that there are others among us today. The problem, of course, is sorting between true and false prophets – just as our larger problem is to determine when it is right and good to cut off a poisoned, diseased limb and when we are merely choosing to ignore the voices of those whose words we simply do not wish to hear. There is a difference between pruning and excluding.
The sin of exclusion has been present in Christ’s church from its inception. Over the years, the church has espoused segregation, misogyny, murder, and war – all based on the words of so-called prophets who claimed to speak with authority from God. Yet, it is clear from the prophet Moses’ words to his own people that exclusion is not the will of God – but also that the Holy Spirit can rest on any of God’s people.
So how do we know? How do we remove the stumbling block that is the scandal of The Church without losing the welcoming, open, inclusiveness that is constantly commended to us by Jesus himself? Oddly enough, the writer of the letter of James and members of Generation Z have the same answer: relationship. According to a recent survey, “over half of young people … have little trust in the very religious institutions with which they identify… Where trust in religious institutions is low, however, trust in relationships with people in those institutions is extremely high. Faith leaders who want to appeal to Gen Z need to focus on gaining trust through relationship.” Or, as James suggests, the power of prayer, the strength of faith, and the healing of forgiveness can be found in godly community, not in individual prophets -no matter how charismatic they are.
Human beings are communal animals, meant to live and love together. It is in community that we listen and discern together- and it is as a community that we act on our beliefs. It is not enough to tell each other that we are glad we are not those Christians. We must also turn to those Christians and talk to them – to remind them what our Lord has said. Being in relationship with one another means telling the truth – even when it’s hard. The Church has sinned, but Jesus Christ has not. Prophecy on behalf of the God who created us. Speak words that bring togetherness, healing, and love. You are the people of God. Be in relationship – and be at peace with one another. AMEN.
Ruth Graham (February 1, 2021), “Christian Prophets are on the Rise: What happens when they’re wrong”? The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/11/us/christian-prophets-predictions.html
Josh Packard & Caspar ter Kuile, (September 23, 2021), “Gen Z is keeping the faith: Just don’t expect to see them at worship,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2021/09/23/gen-z-is-keeping-the-faith-just-dont-expect-to-see-them-at-worship/
Children’s Homily for 17th Pentecost, September 19, 2021: Go Last! (Columba Salamony and The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Good morning to all of these young folks! And you not-so-young people, too!
So, a show of hands: who has a sibling? Or maybe a cousin you are close to? Or a friend who feels like a member of your family? (Give them a chance to respond). And if you do, do you argue with this person? (Give them a chance to respond). What do you normally argue about? (Give them a chance to respond).
In my family, I have an older sister. I’m the youngest! When we were younger, we always got into fights. We argued about different things, but most of the time we argued about some version of the same thing. Do you want to guess what that was? (Give them a chance to respond). That’s right. We argued who was better. Do you argue about that? (Give them a chance to respond).
Sometimes when we argued, we sounded a little bit like Jesus’ disciples trying to figure out who’s the favorite! Do you do that? (Give them a chance to respond). Of course I always thought that I was the favorite, and my sister always thought that she was the favorite. Who’s the favorite in your family? (Give them a chance to respond).Well, in today’s gospel stories, that’s what Jesus’s friends were arguing about. Who’s the best disciple? Who’s the smartest? Who’s the strongest? Who’s the most creative?
We always think we have to compete with others to try to be better than they are, don’t we? (Give them a chance to respond). We want to be the fastest or the smartest or the funniest. It’s natural to always want to be the favorite! It makes us feel good about ourselves. It makes us feel special.
But in today’s story, Jesus tells us something very different. He says, “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” What do you think that means? (Give them a chance to respond). That’s right! The person picked last for basketball will be first to get to have the ball! The person who might not always have something clever to say will be the one asked to speak! The quiet kid that sits alone at lunch will be the one everyone else wants to talk to! These are the people Jesus wants to be around! Jesus isn’t eager to hang out with the people who other people think are the best. He wants to spend time with the people that get ignored by others. What do you think of that? (Give them a chance to respond).
There are a lot of people that our society does not think have important gifts and so we make them go last. Can you think of any of these people? (Give them a chance to respond). Jesus is telling us that those people are very important and that they have gifts to contribute – that their gifts are just as important as ours. Sometimes they might be more important! Whether it’s at school or at church or playing soccer, we should talk to everyone and we should never, ever, assume that we have a right to go first or that we are the best. Do you know why? (Give them a chance to respond). That’s right- because Jesus loves us all the same and it makes him unhappy when we think we are better than other people.
And it’s a really good thing that Jesus feels that way. Because sometimes we feel like we’re the one who always goes last. Do you ever feel lonely? Or scared of something? Are people mean to you in school because they think you’re not very smart? Or you don’t wear the right clothes? (Give them a chance to respond). That’s hard to think about, huh?
But the good news is that those are the times when we know Jesus is right next to us. Those are the moments when Jesus invites you to climb into his lap and sit with him. Those are exactly when you feel most powerfully that God loves you exactly how you are. It is Jesus’s way of saying that God has created you to be the person you are because the world needs someone just like you – and nobody else – and you are always first with Jesus whenever you give up your chance to be first for someone who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance. Do you understand? (Give them a chance to respond). Good. And what do we say at Grace when we agree? (Give them a chance to respond).That’s right: AMEN. (Give them a chance to respond). Let’s say it again: AMEN.
Sermon for 16th Pentecost, September 12, 2021: Follow Me (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
I want to tell you a small story about a successful young woman walking home to her upscale apartment from work. As she approached a street corner, she noticed a little girl standing there begging. She was reminded of a scene from a Charles Dickens or Hans Christian Anderson story as she came near. 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 slight 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 clear 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 people called to be disciples. Still, they all begin in one Way, by denying oneself taking up your cross and following Jesus.
In today’s Gospel, Mark pictures a scene on Jesus’ and his followers’ journey
north to Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks his disciples what they have heard people say about him. People have been talking about him because the disciples have something to report. Some say Jesus is the reincarnated John the Baptist, Elijah, or at least one of the prophets. 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, he affirms, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus seems to accept this title 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, primarily political, but the later 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—restoring the Dominion of God on earth. Jesus explains to them the Son of Man must suffer many things, be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, 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 yourselves, pick up your cross, and follow me. Yes: if you’re going 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. 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 that 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 communion with Jesus and living in God’s kingdom. Jesus calls his followers away from self-centeredness and loyalty to the world’s status, power, and achievement norms. 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 crucial elements of a person’s following Jesus.
Taking up a cross recognizes that our society’s dominant ways stand instead of a life of self-denial and sacrifice. It displays to the world what it is to live in God’s Sovereignty. 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. C.S. Lewis said, “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 certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” (1)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. But first, we need to examine our answers to the question: Who do we say Jesus is? Would we like to think of him as simply a great human teacher? Would we prefer him as a Superhero figure, able to ‘zap’ all the world’s problems into shape? Are we prepared to have the easy answers of our culture challenged by the actual Jesus, by his redefined notion of messiahship, and by the call to follow him in his risky vocation? (2)
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 understand spiritual things, things about God that we can’t know by reason alone. Notice that I said we receive the gift of Christ’s or Messiah’s faith, not our faith. The human Jesus’s faith in God’s will allowed him to empty himself, deny his 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 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, but mainly as a community at 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 through a liberating, life-giving relationship with God
(evangelism), to cultivate relationships with each other (reconciliation), and to
develop those relationships with all of creation (creation care).” Like the woman in the story, when we cry out to God, why don’t you do something
about racism, poverty, injustice, and destruction of our world? God answers, pick up your cross. You ARE my solution. Amen.
(1) Quote by C. S. Lewis: “I didn’t go to religion to make me ….
(2) NT Wright on Mark 8:27-38 — Church of the Holy Trinity.
Sermon for 15th Pentecost, September 5, 2021 : Do not Fear (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Last year Emma Senn brought home this school assignment: interview your pastor. Among the several questions I was asked to answer was: “Who is your favorite character in the Bible and why”? My answer: “The Syrophoenician woman – because she is the only person in the Bible to win an argument with Jesus.”
The Syrophoenician woman from today’s gospel is a nameless foreigner, different from Jesus and his disciples in culture and religious practices, and an enemy of the community of which they were members. And yet Jesus chooses to enter her territory because, as we so often forget, he was an itinerant preacher. He did not remain within his community of origin, traveling throughout his life, meeting, and telling stories about strangers along the road, showing us that the only way to understand someone completely different than ourselves is to meet them, and the only way to meet them is to venture into the unknown.
Right now, it is more dangerous than usual to travel. Despite added safety precautions, exposing ourselves to the very air that other people breathe can be life-threatening. On the other hand, many Americans have never chosen to travel outside of this country. This may be because the United States is extremely large and diverse and has so many beautiful and interesting places to explore that it’s possible to travel constantly and never see all of it. But I have also heard multiple people express a narrower idea of why it’s not necessary to leave this country, suggesting that there’s no need to travel when you live in the best and most enlightened place in the world.
I have trouble believing that Jesus would agree with such a perspective, given that he belonged to a race long considered to be God’s chosen people – yet he deliberately chose to carry his message beyond its geographic and theological boundaries. Still, based on today’s gospel, it appears that even Jesus needed a reminder that it’s easy to forget the privilege we carry with us – because in today’s reading, we see Jesus exhibiting behavior that looks suspiciously like racism.
We know from the context of the story that Jesus has been going around the country, preaching, healing, and interacting with all kinds of people. 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 the Syrophoenician 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 members of the fledgling Jesus movement 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?
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, his people have problems of their own. Let her people take care of her. It seems likely that if Jesus made this choice his disciples would have accepted his rejection of her; certainly, many of Jesus’s followers today would not only accept it but cheer for it.
But that is not who Jesus was – and, by reacting to his initial rejection with humility and courage, the Syrophoenician woman reminded him of that. 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 his challenge by reminding him that she was nothing more or less than a human being. And it was her humanity that reminded Jesus that the salvation he brought from God was for everyone – even pushy, non-believing outsiders.
This story has always been a comfort to me. Primarily, because the story of the Syrophoenician woman tells us that while religious orders created by men may decree that women should be punished for speaking their minds, Jesus said no such thing. It also demonstrates that even Jesus could become weary and quarrelsome, sometimes needing a reminder that liking your neighbor and loving them is not always the same thing. But this past week during my own travels, I met my own stranger who taught me the deeper importance of this tale for those of us trying to navigate the rough waters of living together in love during the fearsome times are experiencing.
Gary and I spent our time away in New England and discovered that they have a different attitude toward COVID, one that sometimes made it hard to tell if the people we encountered were for or against vaccines, masks, or just didn’t understand or think about COVID or the D variant at all. One day we went to one shop that had a pretty strict mask policy. As we were wrapping up our purchase, I made a remark to the salesperson, Hannah, that rested on the assumption that she was pro-vaccine and pro-mask – an assumption that turned out to be wrong because she turned to me and said clearly, “I am not vaccinated, but I am going to get it tomorrow even though I don’t want to because everyone keeps telling me I’m a stupid idiot and I’m tired of hearing it.”
I immediately felt stupid (for assuming) and irritated (because I have trouble understanding the antivax view) and prepared to launch into a lecture about why she should get vaccinated. Instead, I paused, and found myself instead asking her why she didn’t want to get vaccinated – and I listened. Although she talked a lot about not trusting the government and believing that certain people in power are invested in having people get vaccines for their own reasons, and other ideas that I don’t agree with, what I heard was fear. She was simply afraid to get the vaccine- and it became clear to me why I was there. My job in that moment was simply to help her work through her fear – and once I knew that, I had no desire to argue or get angry or to care if she liked me. I could just love her for what she was: a human being.
I reminded her that even though it was true that people on both sides of the argument probably had agendas, that it was regular people – doctors and researchers – who had worked so hard to develop the vaccine so that others could get better. I helped her remember that most people don’t have agendas; we’re just all trying to do our best, like her. I told her that I thought it was not stupid, but perfectly normal to be afraid. I admitted that I don’t know much about medicine or the vaccine but the one thing that I do know is that God is present – and that God would be with her no matter what.
This is the other lesson of the Syrophoenician woman – the lesson I so often forget. If we get an opportunity to help someone, we try – even if we expect to be dismissed or disparaged in our attempt. That is what faith is. That is what faith does. It is not our knowledge or ability or the power of any ruler or child of the earth that heals. It is God alone who can set free the prisoners, heal the afflicted, lift up those who are bowed down, and frustrate the way of the wicked – and God will do this. Our path is to follow the example of the Syrophoenician woman – to be strong and not fear. Here is our God, with us – just as God was with Hannah – who received her vaccine without fear the day after we met. AMEN.
Bonus Sermon for 14th Pentecost, August 29, 2021: Sticks and Stones (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White, preached at St. John’ the Evangelist Church, Yalesville, Connecticut)
Sermon for 14th Pentecost, August 29, 2021: Living out our Faith (The Rev. Steve Sturgeon)
Our readings this morning all share a common theme: how do we live out our faith? A straightforward question that does not necessarily have a straightforward answer, and in fact raises additional questions. How do we take what we hear in church and apply it to the messy reality of our lives the other six days of the week? How do we take ideas and beliefs that were first expressed in a very different time and place, halfway around the world two thousand years ago, and apply them to our 21st century lives here in the Bay Area? What do we do when one set of ideas or beliefs clashes with another set of ideas and beliefs, and yet they both come from the Bible? Today’s readings wrestle with these questions, even if they do not always fully answer them.
Our first reading comes from the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. Today’s passage is part of Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites, which he gave shortly before his death and before the Israelites entered into the Promised Land after wandering in the wilderness for forty years. In his speech, Moses reminds the people of where they have come from, what God has done for them, and what God has promised to do for them if they remain a faithful people and follow the commandments that God has given them. Hence the repeated emphasis on remembering these commandments and handing them down to your children and your children’s children. Every time we read the scriptures out loud in church we are participating in this unbroken chain stretching back through the centuries to when Moses gave this command. Thus, one way we live out our faith is by remembering what our forbearers taught us about God and the commandments that God has given to us.
Our second reading today comes from the beginning of the letter of James in the New Testament. This letter, along with letters written by the Apostle Paul and other early Christian leaders, deals with the topic of how to put our Christian beliefs into practice. The letter of James has been traditionally associated with James of Jerusalem, a.k.a. James the brother of Jesus. This particular James is not the one we hear frequently mentioned in Gospels, and in fact this particular James did not even become a follower of Christ until after Jesus’ resurrection, when (according to Paul) he received a personal visit from the risen Lord. After that James quickly rose to prominence in the Christian community, eventually become bishop of the church in Jerusalem.
James was often called “James the Just,” due to his great piety and the constant help he provided to the poor. His efforts in Jerusalem helped to grow the church to the point that the Jewish High Priest ordered that he publicly recant his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, which James refused to do. In response, James was hurled to his death from the wall of the Temple and his body beaten by the crowd below. James’ reputation was so strong that even devout Jews in Jerusalem denounced his death and the Romans sought to punish the High Priest for his actions. (Reza Aslan, Zealot, Ch. 15.)
In the reading we heard today, James talks about several topics that he will discuss in more detail in the rest of the letter. First is the gift of the Father: everything good comes from God. We hear this echoed in our opening prayer today, which describes God as “the author and giver of all good things.” Second, James cautions us to be quick to listen/slow to speak/slow to anger. We heard an echo of this in today’s gospel reading as well, when Jesus proclaimed it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. Third, James calls for us to put away what leads one astray in order to make room for the Word of God. Fourth, James tells us that hearers of the Word must become doers of the Word. And finally, James warns that a religion that embraces the values of the world is worthless, but that a religion that embraces the values of God and puts them into practice is the true faith.
The letter of James is challenging because it holds our feet to the fire. We cannot just read it in a detached manner thinking it only talks about things that happened a long time ago. James challenges us on whether we are living our faith here and now. There is a rhetorical question that you often run into in discussions about living the Christian faith: If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? In the case of James the Just there clearly was, and he lived his Christian faith in such a way that even those who did not share that faith still admired him for it. It is worth pondering what the answer would be if the question were applied to each of us?
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees and scribes about people washing their hands is also related to the topic of how do we live our faith. As is often the case in life, their argument does not really concern the topic about which they are arguing. The Pharisees and scribes are criticizing the actions of the disciples as a way of criticizing Jesus. If the disciples are not doing things correctly it must be because Jesus is not teaching them correctly, and if Jesus is not teaching them correctly it must be because Jesus is a fraud. Understanding what the real argument is about is helpful for modern believers, like ourselves, because otherwise we are left in a position of denouncing the practices of the Pharisees (such as washing hands, foods and dishes), which from the perspective of modern hygiene standards are actually good things to do!
Jesus gets to the heart of the matter when he charges that the Pharisees and scribes “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” The actions the Pharisees and scribes were complaining about were not required under Jewish law; they were a tradition observed by some, but not all, Jews. Thus they were not technically binding on everyone. However the Jewish law (the commandments) was binding on all Jews, and Jesus argues that this is what the Pharisees and scribes are failing to observe. He accuses them of focusing on exterior rituals and not on interior conversion. He then turns this argument into a teachable moment, by telling the crowds that the things that defile us, that prevent us from truly loving God and our neighbors, are not the things we put in our stomachs, but the things that come from our heart.
This issue is central to the message that Jesus was seeking to proclaim. Jesus did not worry about ritually unclean hands or food—just as he did not avoid contact with ritually unclean people. Nor was this issue unique to just Jesus’ time. His actions and statements towards the Pharisees and scribes mirror the same sort of tensions that later developed within the Christian community between believers from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. Here Jesus makes it clear that differing customs and practices should not be the basis for persecution and exclusion. (Pheme Perkins, “Commentary and Reflections on the Gospel of Mark,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, p. 608.)
This gospel passage points to the dangerous trap true believers can fall into when faith in God is sacrificed in the name of human tradition. It is a trap that the Church as a whole, along with individual believers, has fallen into many times. The question we need to ask ourselves is what rituals, purity codes, expectations, and biases do we have that prevent us from recognizing God in one another? In what ways do we render people invisible when they fail to live up to our, rather than God’s, standards? (Amy C. Howe, “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, p. 22.)
Sermon for 13th Pentecost, August 22, 2021: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Imagine for a moment that you live in a society of the near future, one in which everything is geared toward efficiency. The taller the building, the faster the transportation, the cheaper the labor, and the more uniform the ideas the better. The country you live in is one of the more prosperous nations of the many that were formed when the United States was divided at the end of a great civil war. Despite its prosperity, social inequities have not been addressed. Those without jobs or homes, referred to as “lowcontribs,” share the streets with “stim” addicts and others thought to need “neuropro” – extreme and involuntary mental health treatment. The moral voice for treating these individuals more kindly has been silenced – because world society has thrown off the illogic and harmful fantasy of what it calls “metafiz.” In this realm, the last 11 Christians worship in a dilapidated historical building on the top of a hill dwarfed by high rises and preserved only as a historical monument to humanity’s primitive past. This is the world of J.F. Alexander’s “I am Sophia” and the name of that place is Grace Cathedral.
Bishop Marc recommended this book to me, and I have found it both fascinating and difficult to read. The story is told from the perspective of the last bishop, Peter, and involves the appearance on the steps of the cathedral of a lowcontrib who calls herself Sophia. The question, of course, is whether she is the second coming of Christ or – something else. The first half of the book describes Peter’s struggle to understand who Sophia is and what her appearance means for the dying church and the world. Like the biblical Peter, Alexander’s Peter is a stand-in for us. He is always well-meaning, but he struggles with his own ignorance, arrogance, and inability to let go of what he has been taught in favor of the truth that is in front of his eyes. Sophia is gentle, kind, loving, and generous, but her words are often hard and troubling, especially for the existing Christians. When Jesus-like words come out of Sophia’s mouth, it is perfectly clear that the people who have the hardest time understanding them are the ones who have heard them before. In contrast, the people who have no knowledge of Jesus’s teachings understand and accept Sophia’s words instinctually and joyfully. Peter’s confusion and resistance to Sophia’s wisdom makes it clear that the so-called “faithful” Christ-worshippers have not benefitted from generations of interpretation of scripture. Instead, the opposite is true; church teachings, they find, are not necessarily Jesus teachings. So, I guess you know why I’ve been having a hard time reading it.
Think about how different it would be to hear some of the things Jesus said as if for the first time – not the way we usually listen to them, barely paying attention because we have heard them over and over again. Try, for example, to really focus on Jesus’s language in today’s passage from the Gospel from John. Use your imagination to hear it as if you have never been to Sunday school, never received Holy Communion, or never even heard of Christianity: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” So, first of all, “What”?! and secondly, “Yuck!”
The reaction of the Jews who had been following Jesus would not have been much different. “Cannibalism was no less offensive in that day than in our own. Furthermore, to Jews it was unthinkable to drink animal blood, a capital crime according to [Jewish] law. How much more scandalous to drink human blood!” And, if you can’t quite grasp the full grossness of what Jesus is saying, you might want to know that the Greek word that Jesus uses for “eat” in this paragraph is actually closer in meaning to our word for “chew,” – so it is clear that when he asks his audience if he has offended them that he has meant to. The question then is not really why some of his followers stopped following him, but why the core group of disciples didn’t – and what Jesus’s challenging offensiveness means for us today.
I recently saw an article on the internet entitled, “Do these words describe Jesus: offensive, scandalous, arrogant”? The author’s response to her own question is a resounding “No!” Jesus, she says, cannot be offensive because, even though he offended people, that was their fault for not understanding what he meant to say! Really? Because for a Jewish rabbi who knows Levitical law to tell his followers that compared to chewing on his flesh Moses’s miracle of the manna in the wilderness is nothing, it seems to me like he would know what he said was pretty scandalous. So I think it’s fair to suggest that his graphic description of the nature of Holy Eucharist is in there for a reason.
Let’s start with what it wasn’t there for. It wasn’t there to establish the ritual of Holy Communion. Remember, the Gospel of John is the newest of the four gospels by about one hundred years, and there is no story of the Last Supper in this gospel. The audience who heard this gospel were like us. They had already heard of and practiced the ritual of Holy Eucharist – but unlike us, they were persecuted for doing so. They didn’t need to be told what to do to remember Jesus. They needed to be reminded of what happens when we do it. When we share Holy Communion, we don’t just remember Jesus; we take his essence inside us, becoming intimate partners in sharing his way of living his willingness to die for a perfected humanity. Actually believing that you are ingesting part of God is an unprecedented, lifechanging, revolutionary and, yes, offensive idea that is contrary to socially acceptable notions then and now. Or at least it should be.
That was not something many of Jesus’s disciples wanted to hear – and I don’t think a lot of his disciples want to hear it now. This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? Certainly not the author of that internet article. We want our Jesus to be clean and white-robed and gentle. We want him to comfort us when we are sad and provide spiritual justifications for pursuing our earthly desires, the way people have repeatedly and very recently used today’s passage from Ephesians to justify aggression in the name of God. But that is not what the letter says. It actually argues the exact opposite. “Our struggle,” Paul writes from a prison cell, “is not against blood and flesh” but against enemies of the spirit – enemies like hatred, prejudice, and exclusion – and our weapons are not guns, knives, and arrows, but faith, love, and prayer.
It is easy to find individual phrases in scripture to support what we already believe or what we want to do. It is much harder to face the challenging, frightening, and sometimes downright distasteful content that forms its overarching theme of God’s deep and abiding love for a flawed creation. And it is perhaps hardest of all to allow ourselves to know our Savior in all his maddening, confusing, and awesome complexity. Imagine, Peter tells his congregation, that God has come near to you- and you know God’s call to be true. You will have to let go of all your earthly needs and desires. You will have to let go of your comfortable thoughts and lives. You will have to let go of your “rightness.” It will be very hard. But imagine what it would be like to really feel Jesus in your body – in your very soul. Imagine the chance to be that close to the living God – for eternity. Would you choose to turn back, thinking it was simply too much? Or would you say Peter’s words: Lord, to whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We will serve you, for you are our God. Imagine that. AMEN.
Douglas R.A. Hare, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3 Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16)), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 383.
Shari Abbot (January 8, 2017) in Reasons for Hope*Jesus, https://reasonsforhopejesus.com/do-these-words-describe-jesus-offensive/.
Children’s Homily for 12th Pentecost, August 15, 2021: The Magic Cup of the Holy Spirit (The Rev. Steve Sturgeon):
Based on idea from Dollar Store Children Sermons (dskidsermon.com)
Invite young and young at heart
Talk about Apostle Paul’s letter to some Christians in Ephesus. Giving advice about living a Christian life.
Uses the phrase, “Be filled with the Spirit,” to talk about how our lives can change for the better when we believe in Jesus and do the things Jesus asks us to do.
What are somethings Jesus asks his followers to do? Be nice, love one another, play fair, take care of people, feed people.
The idea of being filled with the Spirit can sometimes be hard for us to imagine or visualize, so I want to show you something to help you remember this idea.
One way we are filled with the Spirit is when we are baptized and water is poured on us. So I want to pour some water into a cup to remind us of our baptism.
I have here a coffee cup with a picture of Bob Ross on it. He’s someone your parents might know about, he has a program on TV where he paints pictures. And the cup features one of his favorite sayings, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.”
So I’m going to pour some water in this cup, and look what happens!
Just like adding water to this cup transforms it, so too the waters of baptism can transform us, and fill us with the Spirit.
Thank you for joining me this morning.
Sermon for 11th Pentecost, August 8, 2021: I have had enough (Columba Salamony)
In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity: one God.
Throughout most of my life, I have had a difficult and complicated relationship with sleep. I have spent years in the throes of nightly insomnia—going to sleep late and waking up early. There were periods where I would only get two or three hours of sleep multiple times a week. Gradually, I have developed better habits around sleeping—what we might call “sleep hygiene”—and, with the help of modern medicine, I have averaged at least eight hours of sleep each night for close to four years now…
Despite this, I have a little bit of a reputation for being a napper. This is a newer thing in my life—it certainly wasn’t the case when in those rough patches of insomnia. I still get a reasonable eight hours of sleep each night, but around three or four days a week, I also treat myself to an afternoon nap. Sometimes I even turn it into a little bit of a game—I’ll say to myself, “If God wills it, I’ll fall asleep…” Most of the time, God agrees with me! But to my point: Each and every nap I take is restorative. Whether I’ve had a tiring morning or I’m stressed about some deadline, the chance to rest is always like hitting a big ‘reset’ button—my mood is improved, my energy restored, and my desire to be useful to others is reinvigorated.
Because of my affection for naps, this Sunday’s reading from 1st Kings really speaks to me. There’s a little background to this story that we need first, though. Preceding these few verses from chapter nineteen, we find Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal. He summons all the people, to Mount Carmel to sacrifice an ox, a supposed cure for a crippling famine. They build two altars—one for the God of Elijah, one for Baal—and slaughter two oxen, one placed as an offering upon each altar. Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to call upon their god for fire to burn the sacrifice. They pray all morning and evening, and no fire comes! Elijah orders that the sacrifice upon his altar be drenched with water. He prays to God, and fire immediately falls from the sky and consumes the entire scene. The Israelites are impressed with the fire and as rain falls upon the land, they realize Elijah’s God to be the true God. Elijah orders Baal’s priests to be killed. Subsequently, the killing of the priests enrages Jezebel, wife of the king of Israel, Ahab. She threatens Elijah with death as retribution.
Elijah knows her threat to be genuine, and he high-tails it out of there! He wanders south toward Beersheba but he is overcome with all of the drama of the days before. He says to the Lord, “I have had enough! Take my life!” I think we can hear in his words how completely overwhelmed he must have felt! I sense that he would have been filled with fear, overcome with despair, and just vibrating with an inescapable sense that he had failed. He must have thought about how worthless he was; not only had he failed himself, but he failed Israel and failed the Lord. These feelings tormented him, and yet he fell asleep under the only tree he had seen for hours.
Elijah is woken up by an Angel, tapping him on the shoulder, saying, “Get up and eat.” Elijah comes to and finds bread baking next to him on the hot coals under the broom tree as well as a large jar of water. Elijah eats some of the bread, takes a big long drink of water, and goes back to sleep.
Do you remember those Snickers commercials from a few years ago, with the slogan “You’re not you when you’re hungry”? There was one where a group of guys was driving down a highway, and Aretha Franklin is in the back complaining about the air conditioning. The guy next to Aretha says, “Jeff, eat a Snickers. Every time you get hungry, you turn into a diva. Just eat it so we can all coexist.” Aretha bites into the Snickers bar and the real Jeff magically appears.
I think we all have a friend who gets hangry sometimes. We just want to say to them, “Calm down and eat something. You’re being a diva. Drink some water and you’ll feel better.” Maybe we can put ourselves in the angel’s shoes, then. The angel lets him rest a while and then pokes him again, saying, “You have a long journey ahead of you; you must eat more.” Elijah gets up from his nap, eats again, and returns to his journey, feeling newly restored and capable.
For me, this story teaches two important things. First, that both naps and snacks are very important. I suspect we’ve all been in Elijah’s place. We get so run down, so burnt out, we just want to crawl under a tree and escape it all. Sometimes, when we are just so overwhelmed by everything around us, all we can possibly say is “I have had enough!”—maybe we just need to get some rest. We work and work and work and never take time to rest, to switch our phones off, to enjoy some quiet time. I think that every single day, there’s an angel somewhere, poking me, telling me that I need to find some carbohydrates, chocolate, and a bottle of water and go lie down in the shade. And some days, I even listen! But the point is that we’re too busy checking our email to spend time resting, especially resting in God’s embrace. I want us to remember that it is always our right to rest, a responsibility to relax a little. This passage teaches us that often, we need to take two steps backward, reevaluate what’s going on around us and within us, and restore our energy so we can keep doing the work that God needs us to do in the world. And it is entirely permissible—even demanded by God—that we sometimes say ‘no’ to something that distracts us and take the rest we need!
Second, the story teaches us that even when the road ahead looks rocky and impassable, there will always be an angel of some kind there to look out for us. Someone to hand us that Snickers bar and send us to bed. Someone who will nurture us, giving us the bread of heaven that we so crave, quenching our thirst with the living water that we are promised. The angel’s words remind us of something so critical to our vocations as baptized Christians: Even though the road ahead is difficult, even though there will be so many moments that we’re overwhelmed and exhausted, there will always be more than enough to sustain us—to nurture, support, and feed everyone. In God’s Beloved Community, all of this hard work will pay off, as long as we take time to rest and relax, to prepare for the next leg of our journey, and then the cakes at that great heavenly banquet will taste so sweet.
Sermon for 10th Pentecost, August 1, 2021: (The Rev. Walter Ramsey):
To say this past year and a half has been tumultuous would be a colossal
understatement. The Global Covid Pandemic has left pretty much all societies and most organizations full of uncertainties. These include our Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement through the Diocese of California to Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez
For many years now, American Church attendance and membership have been
shrinking. Leadership has spent much time, thought, and prayer looking for
strategies to reverse the trend or reimagine a new Church. Then the Covid-19
pandemic spread through the world, causing most churches to enact reimagined ways of worship.
We went to virtual worship via live streaming with Spiritual Communion. As the
Covid vaccines reduced the infection rate and hospitalizations, we have begun
regathering with hybrid in-person and live streaming worship. The only problem is it appears only a small number of people are returning for in-person worship. There have been discussions as to why and what the church can do to help remade the problem. Most of them have been very insightful, but many suggestions were to attract people back by offering more food, picnics, barbeques, and fun things to do. These are all righteous things, but we risk becoming like the crowd that followed Jesus in today’s Gospel.
The Christian missionaries to Asia in the 19 th century coined a name for persons who came to church because they were hungry for material food. They converted, were baptized, joined the church, and remained active members as long as the congregation’s generosity met their physical needs. But once their prospects improved and they and their families no longer needed rice, they drifted away from the church. Hence missionaries called them “rice Christians.” In the 1970s and 80s, before the liberation of eastern Europe, people flocked to the churches in East Germany and Romania. The church was displaying courage, and pastors were speaking out against Communist regimes. The people came to cheer the church on and join the congregation in its opposition to the oppressive state. But after liberation from the heel of the Soviet boot and local dictators, the crowds dispersed, and the churches began to look as abandoned as they had before the stirrings of political liberty took hold. The crowds that followed Jesus to Capernaum to find him after he fed the five thousand in the wilderness are like those who see faith and church membership transactionally, as something they can choose for themselves to use for their own needs or to pursue their interests. Christians like the rice Christians of the nineteenth century and expedient Christians of eastern Europe are not a new problem but are as old as the Gospel itself.
The crowds of people saw the feeding miracle as an end in itself rather than as a sign pointing them to faith in the living God and in the Son whom God had sent. They followed Jesus to Capernaum, wanting to make him king. That’s why he went away from them. Jesus told them they were not to work for the food that perishes but were to perform the works of God that lead to eternal life. In John’s account, those who hear this teaching are still obsessed with physical manifestations, upon that which satisfies their personal experience.
So, they ask the Messiah for another sign. They have had a sign, and still, they
don’t believe in him. Jesus reminds them, Moses did not give the bread that came from heaven. It was God who gave the bread that satisfied their hunger for one day only. The same God now gives them bread from heaven that will benefit them forever. In response to his teaching, they ask him for this bread. Jesus says he is the bread of life who will satisfy hunger and quench thirst forever. The bread and the fish that Jesus had distributed to the crowds were there to lead the eye, the mind, and the heart to the true gift of God to his people. The signs were there to open their understanding that the new Passover. The new Exodus was taking place right in front of them and that Jesus was leading it. The previous day, Jesus fed their physical hunger with bread and fish, and the crowd sought him out once more. Jesus points them to their spiritual hunger, which is what he wanted to fill. God created people to love God and love others as they loved themselves, and in chasing after other needs, they risked getting further from the true nourishment they needed.
We often forget how to pursue what is most important. We are accustomed to
inviting people into the community of faith for all kinds of wrong reasons, and I
confess that I am guilty of some of these: for the “right” type of worship;
for political engagement on behalf of the poor and oppressed; for the sake of a
Christian America; for a robust youth and family ministry; for the opportunity to practice mission in a downtown location, or to go on mission trips to Hati or
Central America. These all are or can be righteous motives in themselves, but what the church must offer is Christ and by Christ and because of Christ—first and foremost is “spiritual food,” that nourishes our souls and does not change with the changing circumstances of the church or the world. It is the spiritual food that we desire and spiritual food in which we will rejoice long after our bellies are full, and our lives know justice in a free society. The spiritual food that we receive is in its simplest form, LOVE. Love that comes from and leads to a Jesus-centered life. Everything Jesus did – who Jesus was and how he acted – is part of God’s revelation to us. We cannot separate one part of his life from the rest. Nor should we have a Christian part of our lives separate from the rest of our lives. We are to take Jesus’ whole story and make it part of our entire story. This is much more than hearing the word. It is word and deed. The real aim of all the miracle stories – if they are not to be seen as mere wonderworking is to strengthen and illuminate faith: that is, a relationship
between Christ and the hearer.
The Our presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, has laid out seven steps that lead to a Jesus-centered life. These are:
(1) Turn – Pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus.
(2) Learn – reflect on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’s life and
(3) Pray – dwell intentionally with God each day.
(4) Worship – gather in community weekly to thank, praise, and dwell with
(5) Bless – Share faith and unselfishly give and serve.
(6) Go – Cross boundaries, listen deeply, and live like Jesus.
(7) Rest – Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.
By following these steps and offering them to the world, we, as the author of the letter to the Ephesians says, continue building up the body of Christ until all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God. Amen.
Sermon for July 25, 2021, 9th Pentecost, It’s a Miracle (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):
A devout old shepherd lost his favorite Bible while he was out looking for a wayward lamb. Three weeks later, a sheep walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The shepherd couldn’t believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the sheep’s mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, “Thank God! It’s a miracle!” “Not really,” said the sheep. “Your name is written inside the cover.”
Miracles are in the eye of the beholder and, you may be surprised to hear, they always have been. Contrary to the popular opinion that ancient peoples were a silly, superstitious lot who ran around like Bud Abbott after meeting Frankenstein, those who witnessed the miracles of the gospels did not see them as unexplainable manipulations of natural law. While they were perhaps not as prepared to argue that Jesus did not really walk on the Dead Sea but instead only appeared to because of its high salinity, they were certainly aware that people could appear to be dead when they were not. And Jesus was not the only person out there performing miracles; he had quite a few contemporaries who also demonstrated magical powers. So, for the people who first witnessed Jesus’s miracles, the fact that he could do things that seemed out of the ordinary wasn’t any more impressive to them than it is to us to go see Penn and Teller. What mattered to them was why these things happened. Michael White argues, “The miracle story is not interested in whether it ever happened or not. People believed that this sort of miracle happened all the time. In fact, we know these are commonplace miracles… The point is that the story is more than just the expectation that it could happen, or that it did happen. It’s a statement about their belief in the person who they say made it happen. In other words, the stories are more about the presentation of theology and belief than they are about worrying about reality or non-reality of miracles.”
In today’s gospel we heard one of the most famous of the Jesus miracle stories. In fact, it is the only one that appears in all four gospels. In the version from the Gospel of John, Jesus sees a large crowd following him and asks his followers how they are going to feed all these people. Predictably, the disciples do exactly what our leadership does when we have a scarcity at Grace. They go to Philip, who is apparently the Treasurer, and he does the math, ultimately telling them what they already know; that they don’t have enough money to feed themselves, much less the crowd. Then Andrew, who has apparently conducted a very short stewardship drive, turns in the day’s offering, which is disappointing, to say the least. Jesus is unfazed. He simply gives thanks for what they do have and distributes it to the people – and there is more than enough. It is a miracle.
Most scholars (and denominations) place miracles in one of several categories. Jesus’s ability to make something out of (almost) nothing is generally classified as a manipulation of the natural order, just like his ability to walk on water later in the same story. For most of my life and in most conversations I have had about these sorts of “power over nature” miracles, the debate has always been about whether they really happened because biblical miracles are proof of Jesus’s divinity. We have assumed that if Jesus was able to genuinely exert his will over Mother Nature herself, then he must be divine. Of course, non-believers have argued that the opposite must also be accepted; if Jesus’s miracles weren’t indisputably unexplained phenomena, then that proves that his actions were not wrought by the power of God. But what if we don’t care if they actually happened? What if the mist over the Sea of Galilee made it look like Jesus was walking on the water instead of near it? What if one small boy’s willingness to turn over all the food he had as a gesture of faith in Jesus simply shamed everyone else into digging back into their pockets and pulling out the food they’d been saving for themselves? Or what if it all happened exactly as the gospels say, but Jesus was not the first or only miracle worker to pull it off? Or, as Arthur said to me this week, what is the meaning of the miracle anyway?
As is often the case, the four gospel accounts of this incident vary, but they have several things in common. First, people were already following Jesus at the time the story takes place. Second, Jesus insists that his disciples feed the people – he doesn’t send them to get their own food. Third, he blesses the food before it is distributed. Finally, when they follow Jesus’s instructions, they find that there is enough food with plenty left over. So, if Michael White is right and Jesus’s “miraculous” actions are not about proving that he is divine but rather showing us what God looks like, here’s what we learn: Our God takes responsibility for his followers. He models gratitude for what we have, and he always provides not only enough, but far more than we need. In other words, what the miracle of the loaves and fishes tells us is that Jesus is the one who gives himself so that we can have life and have it abundantly.
I realized recently that I spend a lot of my time thinking about what we don’t have. We don’t have a rectory. We don’t have enough money to pay health insurance for a full-time rector. We don’t have enough volunteers to run Godly Play, Youth Group, train acolytes, and for Altar Guild. I am obsessed with how there is not enough – not enough energy, enthusiasm, faith, or time. The people who followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee also worried about what they didn’t have – and their worries were much bigger than mine. They didn’t have enough food. They didn’t have enough money. They didn’t have enough power over their own lives. But they sensed something about this man that made them hope that he might provide them with what they needed – and it was not bread and fish for one meal. What he gave them was hope. What he gave them was the knowledge that they were cared for. What he showed them was that in the hands of our loving God, whatever they had would be enough. That was a miracle.
I need that miracle in my life right now – and I suspect you do too. I need to remember that God does not need to multiply our bank account, provide a developer for the upper lot, double the size of our congregation, or flood my inbox with people seeking volunteer opportunities to show me that she is God. In fact, I know that winning the lottery or seeing Jesus’s image in my French toast would not increase my faith in God one iota. The world is filled with scientifically inexplicable phenomena. Didn’t Picasso say, “Everything is a miracle; it’s a miracle that one does not dissolve in one’s bath like a lump of sugar”?
We have things backwards. Instead of looking for miracles, we need to remember what miracles mean. We need to remember who our God is and what he taught us – that when we are rooted and grounded in love rather than fear, when we are gathered in his name, sharing whatever we have, leaving no one out, thanking God for what is rather than mourning what is not, we need not fear because there is always enough – and that is a miracle. AMEN.
L. Michael White, (2018), “Magic, Miracles, and the Gospel,” lecture, Harvard University, found in Frontline: from Jesus to Christ, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/symposium/magic.html.
Homily for the Memorial of The Rev. George Ross, July 23, 2021 (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted… to comfort all who mourn— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
The passage we heard today from Isaiah is chosen for memorial services because it reminds us that God not only comforts us when we mourn but is actually able to turn our mourning into something good – something that takes what is destroyed and creates new life from it; something that turns our tears into waters of refreshment; and something that takes our faded, jaded, cynical hearts and makes them believe again. To mourn together is to remember what it is to be community together; to be family together – to love together – and love was what Father George Ross was all about.
Perhaps that is why when I read this text. I thought about it as George must have heard it – not as a comfort, but as a call – for there is little doubt that George felt called to do exactly those things that Isaiah identified thousands of years before George Ross was born. Like Isaiah, George felt called to bring God’s liberating word to those who were oppressed. He too spent his time counseling those with broken hearts, comforting those who mourned, and encouraging others to care and advocate for those who were ignored or exploited. It is the path that George followed most of his life.
I know this because I have heard hundreds of George Ross stories. During our conversations preparing for today’s memorial, Darlene asked me if I would like to talk more about George’s life or to hear more stories about George. I quickly said, “no,” reminding her that the memorial homily is not another eulogy, but an opportunity to talk about the chosen scriptures and to comment on their relationship to the life and belief of the person being remembered. This is true, but it is also true that I didn’t actually want to hear another George Ross story. The truth is that it is a little hard on a newer clergy person to hear stories about a seasoned and much-beloved cleric who could seemingly walk on water – even when they have met that clergy person and discovered that they liked him very much, which was true of George and me. Truthfully, all of the George Ross stories I have heard have only made me like him better – for his straightforwardness, his lively faith, and his sense of humor.
Actually, it may surprise you to know that I have developed some of my own George Ross stories. These are things about George that no one ever told me; I just figured them out for myself. I think the reason I never heard these stories from parishioners was that they were about things that most people don’t think about – but other clergy people notice right away. For example, I was shocked when I discovered that Grace Martinez adopted the 1979 Prayer Book in 1979. Now, if you’re not an Episcopalian this seems perfectly rational. But if you have any knowledge of Episcopal polity at all, you know that this is a bona fide miracle. It took most congregations years – and lots of wrangling – to adopt what was considered a radically theologically different new (and red!) prayer book. But here at Grace they simply removed the 1928 book and moved the 1979 in –because they believed that George would lead them in the right direction.
There was one George Ross legend I have never really understood though, despite the fact that everyone else always finds it endearing. This is the well-known fact that George ended every sermon by telling his audience that Jesus loved them. While I certainly don’t object to a reminder of the good Lord’s everlasting love, this seemed like a quaint practice for such an educated, erudite, preacher as George. Why did he feel this was necessary? Why make such an obvious theological point over and over again? It was charming, but I couldn’t understand the spiritual perspective driving it – at least not until Darlene sent me the lessons chosen for today’s service and I once again read the words we heard today from John’s gospel. In this passage, Jesus reminds his disciples that everything he does is for God and that his only desire is that he will lose nothing – and no one – that God has given into his care.
For those of us who took an ordination vow “to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come,” the desire to follow the example of our Lord and lose none of those placed in our care is one of the deepest desires of our hearts. For George, who did his utmost to care for those whom God entrusted to him, there could never be enough reminders that all that we are and all that we do is found in the love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. By constantly reminding his people that Jesus loves us, George continually strengthened himself and them to glorify God in the life he lived here and in eternal life that he lives now, where he can finally rest from his labors in the arms of the Lord he has always loved. AMEN.
Children’s Homily for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 18, 2021: It’s a Baptism Day! (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, July 11, 2021: Proper 10, Year B, Track 2, Amos 7:7-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29 (The Rev Steve Sturgeon)
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) AMEN
Our gospel reading today is certainly one of the less uplifting ones we hear as part of our Sunday lectionary. Jesus barely makes a cameo appearance in the text, and instead we hear the story of the unjust execution of John the Baptist. The backstory to this execution is a mixture of palace intrigue worthy of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and the carnal soap opera of the TV show Love Island. The King Herod in today’s reading is one of the sons of the King Herod we read about every year in the Christmas nativity story, the one that
ordered the massacre of the infants in a failed effort to kill Jesus in the cradle. Being a despotic ruler was the family business, and Herod Junior also was quite willing to slaughter innocent people to maintain power. In the context of today’s reading, Herod had just recently divorced his wife in order to marry the newly divorced wife of his own brother—a divorce that Herod had apparently encouraged. John the Baptist had publicly denounced this marriage, which led to his arrest and Herod’s new wife having a grudge against him.
Now, given the fact that we are members of a church denomination that was founded when King Henry VIII of England decided that he needed to divorce his first wife and the Pope got in the way, it might be tempting simply to skip over this gospel reading entirely. (And I will confess that in all the years I have been giving sermons, this is the first time I have actually ever preached about this particular passage.) But I think there is a compelling reason why we hear this story on a reoccurring basis. This gospel reading provides a powerful example of the ways of the world—of how corruption and decadence seem, so often, to have all the power and the final word. We might try and create false
comfort for ourselves and pretend that what happened to John the Baptist was just an isolated incident a long time ago in a place far, far away—but let’s get real—it still happens all the time right now. We need think no further than the actions of people like Robert Durst, Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, or Bill Cosby, to know that this type of story is still very much a current event. It may not involve the literal death of a person, but the exploitation and destruction of the poor and the marginalized by the rich and the
powerful can be a form of death in its own way.
We know that this type of behavior pre-dated John the Baptist’s era. That is what the Old Testament prophet Amos was warning about in our first reading this morning. The book of Amos holds a distinctive place in the scriptures, and has had far more influence that its short length might suggest, because it represents a pivot point in the Old Testament writings. Amos is the first to introduce a new theme that runs throughout the writings of the later prophets. Whereas much of the first half of the Old Testament focuses on the idea of increasing success and glory for Israel, with God fighting on their behalf and vanquishing their foes, Amos instead announces that they have betrayed
God’s laws, that God is no longer on their side, and that they will soon lose everything, including their very own nation. No one prior to Amos had proclaimed that God would bring about the destruction, rather than the success, of Israel. What was especially surprising about Amos’s message is that he gave it during a time, around 750 BC, when Israel was nearly at the peak of its territorial and economic power. His message would have struck his listeners as completely crazy. Yet, less than three decades later, the kingdom of Israel was destroyed, and its people carried off into exile.
The great sin that Amos accused Israel of committing had nothing to do with offering the right sacrifices, or worshipping in the right place, or being ritually pure. Instead Amos accused them of being hypocrites. The wealth and prosperity of Israel was built in large part upon exploiting the poor. There was, at that time, a growing economic disparity between the elite and the poor. As one commentator writes, “Through manipulation of debt and credit, wealthy landowners amassed capital and estates at the expense of small [landowners]. The smallest debt served as the thin end of a wedge that lenders could use
to [foreclose on property and drive people into the equivalent of bankruptcy].”
Does any of this sound familiar? Amos argued that because the people of Israel were the people of God, they would be punished for their exploitation of the poor, since in doing so, they had strayed from God’s commandments. Being God’s chosen would not protect Israel from punishment; instead being God’s chosen would cause Israel to be held to a higher standard—a standard which they were failing to uphold. (Oxford NRSV Bible, 2001, p. 1302.)
So we have our gospel reading from Mark and our Old Testament reading from Amos showcasing how the ways of the world are corrupt and immoral, a pretty depressing way to start off our Sunday. Where then are we to look for hope? According to today’s passage from the letter to the Ephesians, our hope rests in God—who from the beginning of time has been seeking to secure our salvation. As is often the case with New Testament letters attributed to the Apostle Paul, the writing can be tricky to unpack due to run-on sentences and ambiguous pronouns. Today’s passage, however, can be summed up in two proclamations and two responses. The two proclamations are: 1) Christ is our
salvation, and 2) This has always been God’s plan. Our responses to this good news are 1) to recognize that this gift of salvation applies to all of humanity, not just a special few, and 2) to offer our praise to God in return—and not just a shallow, forced, self-interested praise, like was offered by the followers of Herod, but a genuine expression of joy. (Paul J. Achtemeier, “Exegetical Perspective on Ephesians 1:3-14,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 233.) As always, we have to remember that the gift of salvation is exactly that: a gift. It is not something we have earned through our actions; something that God owes us. Instead what we hear in this passage is about God’s extravagant love, God’s willingness to go any distance for us. This love for us is not dependent upon our having those things that the world deems important and valuable (power, wealth, or appearance); it is a love with no prerequisites and no strings attached. It is a type of love that in all honesty we rarely, if ever, experience in our own lives, and in fact may not even believe actually exists.
When we hear the words ‘blessed,’ ‘chosen,’ ‘adoption,’ and ‘grace’ in this passage, we may be silently replacing them in our heads with the words ‘rejected,’ ‘failure,’ ‘shameful,’ and ‘guilty.’ The rejection and victimization that John the Baptist experiences in our gospel reading may well echo in our own lives, when we have experienced betrayal or even violence at the hand of/at the whim of someone else—either by another person or an institution. (Karen Chakoian, “Pastoral Perspective on Ephesians 1:3-14,” p. 234; Edwin Searcy, “Homilectical Perspective on Ephesians 1:3-14,” p. 233; both in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3.)
How then are we to place our trust in this offer of love from God, to believe that it is genuine, to believe that it is not conditional, to believe that it is not a one-dimensional, naïve love incapable of bearing up under the weight of the world? We are able to do so because it is a love grounded in Christ. Over and over again in this passage we see that everything originates ‘in Christ,’ and we know that Christ himself experienced everything this world has to offer, both the highs and the lows. And because of that, we know that the love of God, expressed in Christ, is completely rooted in the shared, lived, messy
experience of our daily human lives. God meets us right where we are.
As we seek to reconcile this gift of love with the trials and tribulations we face in our own lives, a key thing for us always to remember is that we are not condemned to struggle through life on our own. Just as God is with us, so too we are called to be there for one another. The language we hear in today’s passage from Ephesians is not individualistic but communal; we are called to be a community in Christ. The prayer of blessing that is offered in this reading expands in three concentric circles. The first is the blessing of God upon the congregation, the community of believers. The next is the blessing of God upon the whole world and universe. The third blessing reverses direction,
for now it is those who have recognized the blessing of God that in turn are offering their praise and blessing to God, and in so doing are bearing witness to the rest of the world.
Not a smug “we’re saved and you’re not” sort of witness, but by offering praise to a God who gives the gift of radical love to everyone and everything, we are bearing a testimony against the Herods of the world and all the false values and idols that they represent. (This is what we were doing earlier in the service with the litany of healing and thanksgiving.) (Chakoian, p. 234; Searcy, p. 233, 235.)
This is not to say that the Herods of this world have been vanquished; you need only watch the news to know that this is not yet the case. We continue to dwell in the ‘in between time’ of knowing God’s love for us in Christ and awaiting the gathering up of all things into God, both “things in heaven and things on earth.” But just as we draw strength from one another in our times of adversity, so too we draw strength from the Holy Spirit, which Paul tells us “is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people,” and our assurance that God will prevail. (Achtemeier, p. 235.) Amen.
Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 4, 2021: Something Different Crosses the Threshold (Columba Salamony, Seminarian)
[After he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead,] Jesus left Capernaum and returned with his disciples to Nazareth, his hometown. (Mk 6:1, TPT)
In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity: our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend. Amen.
I want to invite you to ponder with me for a moment…
What does it feel like for Jesus’ childhood neighbors to sit at his feet? Imagine you are one of them. This man whom you’ve known his entire life… Sitting in your synagogue… Teaching and preaching to you…
I wonder if you would feel amazed… or scared… or confused…?
Do you and your neighbors, friends, and kin sense the power that he has?
Maybe you have already heard the stories about your old friend teaching beside the sea or in the hill country? Or perhaps you heard about when he cast the unclean spirit into the herd of swine? Or stopped the bleeding woman’s hemorrhage? Or raised the little girl from the dead—Talitha koum!…
How does it make you feel that Jesus, whom you’ve known since his childhood, is now a teacher? What do you think, seeing this man you helped raise seated in your synagogue? Reading from your family’s ancient Torah?
Are you confused? Surprised? Are you afraid? Sit here with that feeling…
There’s a beautiful poem by Mary Oliver called, “Maybe.” In it, she writes how Jesus, “talking his melancholy madness, stood up in the boat and the sea lay down, silky and sorry, and everybody was saved that night.”
She continues, “But you know how it is when something different crosses the threshold—the uncles mutter together, the women walk away, the young brother begins to sharpen his knife.”
She goes on to include other moments of Jesus’ ministry, and how it was likely that, over time, the disciples “forget how the wind tore at the sails before he rose and talked to it, tender and luminous and demanding as he always was—a thousand times more frightening than the killer storm.”
‘You know how it is when something different crosses the threshold’… when something different crosses the threshold… This is what I see on the faces of Mary’s friends and neighbors as they whisper to one another, “Isn’t that Yeshua?” and “That’s Joseph and Mary’s boy… the carpenter who made my table…” Their confusion turns to surprise… and then maybe disgust? Terror?
The parallel story in Luke, chapter four, tells us that Jesus reads and teaches from the first Servant Song in the book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Lk 4:18; Is. 61:1) He tells them, “This scripture has been fulfilled, just as you heard it.”
And everyone is dumbstruck… if only for a moment… at what he has said to them.
Jesus did not enter Nazareth as a stranger—not as an itinerant preacher with the latest trending news on his mind. The synagogue that night was full of people that had probably known Jesus for over twenty years. They were his boyhood friends, his neighbors. Jesus stood in front of them and taught them, and they all saw him through very different eyes. He was no longer the scrappy boy sitting in the field, launching pebbles at birds with his slingshot… Something different had crossed the threshold, and they were very unsure about this new personality that Jesus has found.
And see, the thing is… They’re probably justified. People who leave a place they’ve always known, and then return to it, frequently have a really difficult time adjusting to the reality of their new perspectives. And the family and friends, who they return to, can often notice the difference right away. All of these people—the whole synagogue—sensed immediately that something about Jesus had changed. I mean, here he is, claiming to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah. A bold move, don’t you think?
Those who have always known him understood the subtext of what Jesus said to them—what it might mean for him—and they recognized something different in him. And that scared them. They were scared of him. And they were scared for him.
These Nazarenes who sat before Jesus knew that he had changed. But more than this—they also knew that he would change them, too. I don’t have to tell you that change can be scary. Even now, we are afraid of change, and of the uncertainty of change, especially when someone who we love is going to be the catalyst for change. We are afraid of the cost of such change. We seldom want to give up the comfort that we have earned for ourselves in order to change… Why should we?
It’s no huge coincidence that Jesus returns to Nazareth for this story. This is his hometown. These are the people who knew him best. Our hometown is often a place of comfort. It is where we go to relive cherished memories from our childhood, to reconnect with old friends, to drive around the streets where we rode our bikes… A hometown is where we can go to look back on how much the town, the society, the world has changed… but also, how much we have changed. Going back to your hometown can be hard, sometimes… For you, but also for those who knew you way back when… Especially if you really have changed, as Jesus had.
Just as his kindred rejected Jesus and his teaching that night, sometimes we have to be rejected by our own people to become what and who God wants us, needs us, calls us to be…. We have to embrace that we are built for and called to change. I think Jesus’ message about this is clear: We have to put aside what we know and love, what comforts us and brings us joy… We have to leave behind our bread, our cloak, and our bag… Only then, can we step into the unknown—into the killer storm—which can only make us wiser, stronger, braver people…
If we are holding onto yesterday, we are preventing the Spirit, that wild goose, from doing her work within us, from lighting a fire under our asses and pushing us out of our comfort zones and into the new person God needs us to be!
Becoming that person means changing… however much we don’t want to… or we don’t think we need to… not even how scared we are when we see the changes that we need to make to grow into something different.
Because it is always scary when something different crosses the threshold.
Sermon for 5th Sunday after Pentecost, June 27, 2021: To us you matter (The Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center)
Children’s Homily for June 20, 2021: Rock the Boat! (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Today we are going on a boat ride! Here are your crew hats. (Give them their hats). And here is our boat. Climb on the boat with me. All aboard! Isn’t it a great day for a boat ride with your friends? (Give them a chance to answer). Let’s see. Who is here today? (Give them a chance to answer). Do you know who else is in the boat with us? (Give them a chance to answer). God is in the boat with us – because God is always with us no matter what! Who believes that? (Give them a chance to answer). I’m glad that so many of you believe that – because sometimes grown-ups have a hard time believing that – especially when things around you are especially scary. Because it’s hard to remember things when you are scared, isn’t it? (Give them a chance to answer). You forget what you’re supposed to do and how to act (Give them a chance to answer). Do you know the disciples forgot too? (Give them a chance to answer).
I want to show you how it happened to them. Let’s pretend that instead of being on our nice, quiet boat ride on this sunny Sunday we ae out fishing, and we were working very hard. Our friend Jesus is with us (cue Jesus). Jesus is so tired that he falls asleep in the boat. Suddenly it starts to rain (cue sound effects) and then there is thunder (make thunder), and the sea gets very rough, and we get very afraid. And THEN we notice that Jesus is sleeping! Jesus is sleeping when we are very scared! Why isn’t he scared? (Give them a chance to answer). Let’s wake him up and find out. Wake up Jesus! Wake up! We are scared! (Give them a chance to join in). (Suddenly Jesus wakes up and yells): “WHY ARE YOU SO AFRAID? I’M RIGHT HERE!” Oh. You guys. Wow. Did you hear that? Jesus told the disciples that even though he was asleep and even though it seemed like he wasn’t paying attention he was still right there with them! But they forgot! Why do you think they forgot? (Give them a chance to answer). They forgot because they were scared!
We STILL do that all the time! Okay. Tell me some of the things that scare you. (Give them a chance to answer). What else? (Give them a chance to answer). Those are very scary things! And what do you do when you get scared? (Give them a chance to answer). Do you always do the same things? (Give them a chance to answer). Have you ever gotten really scared and just felt like you couldn’t do ANYTHING? (Give them a chance to answer). Sometimes that happens. Sometimes we get so afraid that we don’t know what to do and we do nothing. We forget that we are not alone.
Well, we can fix this. We may not be able to get in a boat with Jesus, but we can remember that whatever boat we are in, God is in the boat with us. Who remembers what we call the part of God that is with us always in our hearts? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – the Holy Spirit! And how can we talk to God through the Holy Spirit? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. We can PRAY. It doesn’t have to be a fancy prayer. Who knows a prayer you can pray when you are scared? (Give them a chance to answer). Good! How about just, “Help me God! I am afraid! Help me to be brave!” And it will work!
There is something else to remember too. When we say that we are “Christian,” that means we are saying that we have agreed to ride in a boat with Jesus. Except it is less like a fishing boat than like a Coast Guard ship. Who knows what the Coast Guard does? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. They SAVE people! So, instead of trying to catch fish, we are supposed to try to find people who need to be saved – people who are sick or who don’t have enough to eat or somewhere to sleep or who don’t have enough happy thoughts to get up in the morning. We are all in this boat together and sometimes the water around our boat is rough – and sometimes we have to rock the boat to make sure we’re paying attention – that we are still doing our job. It can be scary when the boat gets rocking – but we know what to do when we are scared, don’t we? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right! We remember that God is always in the boat with us – and is always paying attention, even when it doesn’t seem like it – and if we need to make sure, what can we do? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. We can pray! So, can we all agree to do that? (Give them a chance to answer). And what do we say in church when we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right: AMEN. Let’s say it together. (AMEN).
Sermon for June 13, 2021: The Kin-dom of God (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Today’s psalm reminds us that it is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord! So – many of us are here together in person at Grace Episcopal Church Martinez. Thank you, God! God has preserved the lives of the members of this community during 15 months of social upheaval and global pandemic. Thank you, God! We have had consistent opportunities to worship together despite the many roadblocks placed in front of us. Thank you, God! We are, like the psalmist, grateful, glad, and even a little giddy. We have remained faithful, and our faith has been rewarded. We have come through the time of darkness into the light; through mourning into joy; and through the valley of the shadow of death into the promised land! Alleluia!
And yet, like so many things in our lives as Christians, it is not so simple – because contained within the happiness of seeing one another again and of being in this familiar and comforting place, there is the knowledge that some people are missing -and that some things are not the same. We have been fortunate that the number of individuals at Grace who were afflicted by the COVID-19 virus was small – and for that I thank God every day. Nonetheless, the isolation and confusion, anger and estrangement that this past year brought with it have not left us unscarred. We have all dealt with this troubled time in our own ways -and for more than a few of us that has meant separation. Here at Grace, some of us have attended worship more often and taken greater roles in it, while others have chosen not to participate in online worship. Some have felt that the church has been present to them in need, while others have felt abandoned. We have tried, but there is no denying that it has been hard.
Now we are back – except that we are not sure what “back” means. We are changed. We are like our ancient Israelite descendants who returned from exile a different people – broken but still buoyant; anxious but energetic; fearful but filled with hope. We should not be surprised. Our God is a God of revelations, reversals, and the overturning of expectations. Our God is the industrial laundry machine of creation – taking our filthy, worn, and outdated protective personality layers and drenching, washing, wringing, spinning, and tumbling them dry until we are spiritually exhausted, emotionally naked, and ready to be newly clothed – to become Christ’s new creation.
That beautiful phrase comes from the passage that we just heard from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul is convinced and seeks to assure his friends, that when they put their faith in Jesus, all will be well. When he tells them that “we walk by faith and not by sight,” it’s like a good locker room talk: “Sure, it might be a tough life. Okay, yeah, we have to appear before the judgment seat and receive recompense, but Christ has died, and human judgment is out! Now get going and convince the world! Go Team!” This same confident spirit seems to be present in media clips of many mega churches where we can watch auditoriums filled with well-coiffed preachers complemented by thousand-dollar light shows, polished rock musicians, and supporters praising God’s power and glory and brooking no doubt that they are on the right side: Team Jesus, winners of the Kingdom of God championship!
The question is, what does it mean to be on “Team Jesus” and to seek the kingdom of God? Today’s gospel story, often referred to as, “The parable of the mustard seed,” is Jesus’s response to at least half of that question: “What is the kingdom of God like”? The Greek phrase, “basileia tou theou,” is usually translated as “the kingdom of God” in order to demonstrate the greatness and sovereignty of the place where God lives. It is found 14 times in the gospel of Mark. That’s because the people who first heard Mark’s stories wanted to know what kind of world Jesus was promising them. For them, the very word “kingdom” was associated with one thing and one thing only: the empire of Rome. For Jesus’s disciples to use that specific phrase in referring to God’s domain meant that they were saying that following Jesus made you part of something bigger than the greatest power of the world.
Most of us have heard the parable of the mustard seed before. It is often presented as a reminder of God’s power, similar to the words we heard from Ezekiel. In it, the Lord God tells us that he can take a tiny sprig and grow it into a noble cedar large enough to support the life of the world – that she can bring the high tree low and the low tree high; he can make the green tree dry and the dry tree flourish. This is the same God, Jesus says, who can take the smallest of all seeds and without any help from us cause it to grow into the greatest of all shrubs.
Certainly, this was good news for those who heard the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark. They were descendants of enslaved, exiled, and overthrown people who lived under foreign rule. They were not seeking a dominion that looked like the one they lived in. They would have been suspicious of a savior who associated himself with an empire which had mocked their culture, enslaved their people, belittled their intelligence, and impaired their relationship with the Lord their God. They were not like us, who have many reasons to embrace the status quo. They loved that Jesus recognized and reflected their brokenness and need, and they opened their hearts to a new way of living, although they knew it would be hard. They were the smallest of seeds – but for them, having the world turn upside down was a welcome change.
That is what it means to be on Team Jesus. Jesus did not come for those who already lived in the green and fruitful garden, with the most succulent foods, the softest beds, and the most powerful weapons. Jesus did not come to preserve the most powerful empire in the world. He did not come for the cedar tree. Jesus came to plant the mustard seed. He came to destroy the ways of empire – the screaming, flashing, waving, crashing, chanting of “take, rule, have” – and replace them with the faithful prayers and helping hands of love given without expectation of return, and of a community that lives not in a building but in the hearts of its people. It turns out that “The kingdom of God” is not a good translation of the Greek. Scholars now say a much better translation is “Kin– dom.” Family.
I have mentioned that I recently attended an evangelism conference, and I was very taken by something one of the speakers said. She talked about when you are in the early stages of a relationship, and you just can’t seem to stop yourself from mentioning the name of your beloved. You just keep dropping it into conversation in seemingly random ways. “Oh. You have a high electricity bill? So sorry! Did I mention that my husband Gary works for Alameda Power”? She calls it “mentionitis.” What would it be like, she said, if we all had “mentionitis” for Jesus? Or for being part of Christian community? What if we were so in love with this church and its people that we all got a case of “mentionitis” about it?
When some people talk about the kingdom of God, they act like it’s some reward we can get in the future if we vote for the right candidates or hang out with the right people – but Jesus never talked about the kin-dom of God in the future tense. Jesus always said, “The kin-dom of God IS.” And I say “The kin-dom of God is us. It is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord. Thank you, Lord.
Sermon for June 6, 2021: Psalm 130 (The Rev. Steve Sturgeon)
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) AMEN
For my sermon this morning I want talk about the psalm we heard today, Psalm 130. Typically we do not focus much attention on the Sunday psalm, but I think this one has a special resonance for all of us as we start to emerge from the pandemic world that we have been living in for the past year. Psalm 130 is part of a collection of fifteen psalms known as the ‘Songs of Ascents,’ which begins with Psalm 120 and runs through Psalm 134. The title ‘Songs of Ascents’ comes from a descriptive line in the original Hebrew text that prefaces each of these psalms. While this phrase is not defined anywhere in the Bible, the scholarly consensus is that these psalms were recited by ancient Jewish pilgrims on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The city of Jerusalem sits on a rocky plateau that is surrounded on three sides by deep ravines, so pilgrims would have ascended as they approached and entered Jerusalem. The Temple, in turn, was located on a large hill within the city, so pilgrims would have continued ascending to reach it, and then within the temple complex they would have walked up several flights of stairs connecting one courtyard to the next. The fact that these psalms make frequent mention of Jerusalem and Zion (the hill on which the Temple sat), further suggests a pilgrimage theme. (J. Clinton McCann Jr., “Commentary and Reflections on the Book of Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV, p. 1176.)
Psalm 130 is notable, as well, for its inclusion in another collection, the Penitential Psalms, which consists of seven psalms (Pss. 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) that all share a common theme: the expression of sorrow for sin. This collection emerged in the sixth century AD as a devotional focus in the Christian church as part of the sacrament of penance, both for individuals and for the community as a whole. These seven psalms are also psalms of pilgrimage and ascent in their own way. Just as the ‘Songs of Ascents’ led ancient pilgrims on an upward physical journey into the presence of God in the Temple at Jerusalem, so too the Penitential Psalms lead us, as one commentator writes, “from the deep awareness of sin to a sense of pardon and release as we are raised up through our encounter with God. The Penitential Psalms offer us a pathway toward grace.” (Quote paraphrased from Mary Douglas Turner, “Pastoral Perspective on Psalm 130,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 104.)
Psalm 130 begins with one of the most memorable lines in the Bible, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord….” This image evokes the watery chaos that the spirit of God hovered over at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:1), and echoes the cries of the Israelites both when they were trapped as slaves in Egypt (Exodus 3:7), and later during their time of exile in Babylon (Isaiah 30:19). We are not given a specific location for the depths that the psalmist calls out from, but we all know instinctively what those depths are because we have experienced them firsthand ourselves. We are in those depths when we struggle with betrayal at the hands of someone we trust. We are in those depths when we witness the physical or mental illness of someone we love. We are in those depths when we lose our sense of personal, physical, emotional or financial safety. We are in those depths when we can no longer see a future in front of us. We are in those depths when disease ravages our world, and when division ravages our nation. But perhaps the deepest depths we experience in our lives are those we dig for ourselves due to our own failures against God, our loved ones, and our neighbors; depths made all the darker by our regrets. (V. Steven Parrish, “Exegetical Perspective on Psalm 130,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 107; Thomas Edward McGrath, “Pastoral Perspective on Psalm 130,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 130.)
The psalmist, however, does not cry out in vain from the abyss; the psalmist calls out to a god who will listen. The speaker expresses a faith that God is present, God will hear, and God will respond. The psalmist does not even ask for a specific action, but rather simply to be heard. To be truly heard is perhaps one of the greatest gifts a person can ever receive. For those trapped in the depths of despair, it can be a lifeline. Not merely to receive pat answers and false assurances, nor to be told what to do or how to solve a problem, nor to have someone change the topic to something less uncomfortable, nor to have to endure somebody ‘mansplaining’ things to you, but simply to be truly and genuinely heard. That is what the psalmist is seeking from God. (Stephen Farris, “Homiletical Perspective on Psalm 130,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 131.)
The speaker then indirectly acknowledges their own sinfulness, not as an explanation or justification for the suffering that they are experiencing, but as the basis for believing that God will listen, that God does care. If God sought to punish us for every single sin that we ever committed, then there would be no hope for us; we would remain trapped forever in the depths of despair, a hell of our own making. But God does not seek to inflict further pain on our suffering, to punish us or our loved ones in order to get our attention, to treat the brokenness of the world as some sort of divine ‘teachable moment.’ Instead God is a source of infinite mercy, the vastness of which is simply incomprehensible to human minds, and the proper response to which is overwhelming awe. It is this mercy that gives the psalmist confidence that God will listen. (Ibid.; Parrish; Turner, p. 106.)
Having called out to God, the speaker now waits. Waiting is something that we modern Americans are terrible at doing. We are a just-get-out-of-the-way, I’ll-do-it-myself, I-wanted-this-done-yesterday, yes-I-know-what-I’m-doing, no-we-don’t-have-to-pay-someone-for-that, kind of people. We expect instant communication and responses from one another, we use our GPS to avoid waiting in traffic, an app to avoid waiting for coffee, and we pay extra to board the plane first. We do not measure our time in days, weeks, or years, but in nanoseconds. Everything about our society says, “Hurry up!” That is why it is all the more difficult and devastating when a personal crisis forces us to wait. Waiting by the phone hoping to hear from a loved one. Waiting by the phone afraid of what we will hear about a loved one. Hospital waiting rooms have been described as “one of the loneliest places on earth—even when…full of people.” We scan the faces of the doctors and nurses looking for any sign of hope, just as the watchman scans the horizon for any sign of dawn. (Ibid.; McGrath, p. 132.)
If you have even been outside at dawn it is a miraculous transformation that occurs in very small increments. I am not speaking about when the sun rises, but what occurs in the time before the first beams of light cross the horizon. There is a moment (called nautical dawn) when suddenly in the darkness you can distinguish between the land and the sky, and you can see the outline of the objects that are around you. Everything is still shades of gray, and you do not have a full sense of depth yet, but you can begin to move about with a slow sense of confidence. As one writer remarks, “When you are in the dark depths of despair, and you begin to see, however dimly, the dawning light of hope, then you may discover a handhold here, and another one there, that allows you to begin to climb.” This is where I think we are right now as we come out of the pandemic. (Quote paraphrased from Ibid., p. 130.)
In the dawning light of hope, our psalmist shifts from speaking only about their concerns, and now invites the people of Israel (then, now, and forever) to join in waiting for the Lord; waiting in the expectation of the mercy that is to come. It is worth noting, that there is nothing in the psalm to indicate that the speaker has already been rescued from their despair. This is not a psalm of thanksgiving, but one of anticipation. The speaker is confident that God has heard the cry for help. As one commentator notes:
All parts of [this] psalm—the cry, the hope, and the counsel to Israel—should be understood as emanating from the depths. The help has not come as the psalm ends, only the promise of help. That, surely, is where many of us stand. Help may not yet have come, but we have cried out and have heard and even said that with God there is steadfast love. There is a word for that place where we cry out to God and where we speak and hear the promises of redemption. It is called “church.” (Farris, p. 133.)
Sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 30, 2021 (Columba Salamony, Seminarian)
In the name of the triune God: our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend.
Today, we observe the first Sunday after Pentecost, commonly called Trinity Sunday… Or, as we call it in priest school, “Stick it to the seminarian Sunday”! Because, without a doubt, every congregation that has a seminarian (or a freshly-graduated curate) gets to hear them preach on the Trinity today, while the rector sits comfortably in their seat with a snide grin on their face… I take great solace in knowing I am not alone with this hopeless, disconsolate task.
Trinity Sunday is a little bit of a loner on our lectionary calendar. It’s the one Sunday that commemorates a doctrine of the Church. This morning, our readings don’t necessarily focus on those typical stories of Jesus’s ministry: performing miracles, healing the sick, or teaching in the temple. Instead, we celebrate (?!) the doctrine of the Trinity. And this is a difficult thing to do. Perhaps you noticed that, in today’s readings, none of them explicitly mention the Trinity… They separately mention the Creator, the Son, and the Spirit—but none of them together… No trinitarian language can be found!
There are a few places across Christian scripture that point to that trinitarian formula, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” but none of them explicitly explain how we ought to understand the Trinity, or why it matters… As Christian doctrine took its shape in the early church, the idea of the Trinity was argued for (or against) by theologians and scholars for several centuries. Council after council met to authorize what this doctrine should be and to determine just what it means for the Church. I suppose it is probably safe to assume that nearly every theologian, at some point, has tried to fashion a metaphor for the Trinity, and yet we still can’t quite pin it down. Of course, the Trinity remains a central belief in Christianity today. We affirm the doctrine every time we recite the Creed, in every baptism, and at so many other points in our common Christian life. Though I’m sure very few of us could write a theological treatise on the Trinity, we still uphold this ancient doctrine without really understanding it …
So, what’s the point of Trinity Sunday? The beauty of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it is a reminder of how incomprehensible God is to our human understanding… how we can’t really capture God within our limited imagination and reason. In part, I suppose that Trinity Sunday is a chance for us to take three giant steps backward to accept, if only for a moment, that we don’t actually know as much about God as we might like to think we do. Personally, I think that there is so much more that we don’t know about God than what we can say we do.
Everything that we can claim to understand about God comes directly from God revealing Godself to us. Think about Moses and the burning bush, or Elijah and the still small voice. Or throughout the psalms, where the psalmist describes the powerful Creator who shaped the world we live in, who created the birds and beasts of the sea, who ordered the universe and the stars in their orbit. We see evidence of God the Mother in everything around us—in the complexity of molecular physics and in the beautiful diversity of humanity, all which shows us different glimpses of God’s face, of the image of God that is stamped upon each of us.
And we also encounter God in the person of Jesus—God who became human; Emmanuel, God-with-us. The Creator gave up a part of Godself to be human and understand us better—to live and die as one of us—and also to give to us eternal life. Today’s Gospel passage gives us what’s probably one of the most-memorized verses in Christian scripture: “For God so loved the world…” but it’s followed by another verse which, to me, feels more important: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The Son did not become incarnate to punish humankind, but instead to save—to bring redemption to the sinner, to liberate the captive, to proclaim his love for all that the Creator has made… so that the triune God might love us better.
And, of course, we encounter God through the Holy Spirit. Throughout our life, the Spirit walks alongside us to remind us of the love that God has shown us through the Incarnation. If we know God through Jesus as Emmanuel, as God-with-us, perhaps we know God through the Spirit as God-near-us or God-within-us. The Spirit helps provide God’s continuous revelation of Godself to us. Like the wind, the Spirit is elusive—coming and going where and when she pleases, somewhat just far enough beyond our perception to not be able to comprehend her, yet we believe she’s there—that still small voice of calm.
The Spirit that swept over the waters at the creation of the heavens and the earth is the same Spirit that is present in the waters of baptism. At the same time, she is both the tranquil sea and the raging hurricane… the quiet wind and the tornado. The Spirit is ever-present—within us and around us, both internal and external. The Spirit is that gentle nudge that turns us to God and strengthens us to say, “Here I am, send me!” like the prophet Isaiah, but she is also the abrupt slap across the face that we sometimes need.
The metaphor that we often encounter for the Spirit is the dove—the dove that came down from heaven at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. The dove is a symbol for gentleness, beauty, peace, and hope. Some cultures view the dove as good luck or as a reminder of a loved one who has died. These are all really lovely ways to view the Spirit!
However, there’s a metaphor for the Spirit that I like a heck-of-a-lot-better than the dove… Celtic Christians viewed the Spirit not as a dove, but as a wild goose. While still elegant, the goose isn’t some demure and vulnerable little white bird that’s gonna get plucked up by a hawk at any moment… This idea of the Spirit makes me think of a mother goose, her wings set broad and her neck curled into an ‘S’ as she hisses and screams at you, telling you to get away from her precious, fuzzy goslings! She’s fierce and protective. She’s loud and straightforward—surprising and sometimes aggressive. The goose is unexpected and unpredictable. Disruptive.
If God is truly incomprehensible to our tiny human brains, perhaps the Spirit can be both dove and goose, as Jesus Christ can be both fully divine and fully human. The simple idea of a Holy Trinity, a three-in-one and one-in-three God, itself is a paradox. It is, in my estimation, too obscure, too convoluted, too unfathomable for us to be able to pin down… And that’s okay.
Because God continues to reveal Godself to us in so many ways, we can never fully know God. Trying to do so sounds a little bit like a wild goose chase… except… this time, we’re not chasing the goose… the Goose is chasing us.
Sermon for Pentecost, May 23, 2021: Courage, Creativity and Compassion The Rt. Rev. Dr. Marc H. Andrus) (Given at Grace Cathedral):
Children’s Homily for 7th Easter, May 16, 2021: (The Rev. Walter Ramsey):
Sermon for 6th Easter, May 9, 2021: What do you share? (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):
There is a commercial for a certain chocolate bar that you can break into pieces. (I won’t name the brand because even though we have a budget deficit we are not so desperate as to stoop to sermon commercials yet!) Two little girls play a game with an unseen adult telling them to take a piece of chocolate every time he makes a statement that applies to them. “Take a piece of chocolate if you’re the tallest,” he says – and each grabs a piece. “Take a piece of you’re better at eating your vegetables,” he tries next – and they each snatch up a section. Finally, they are asked who is best at sharing. Both girls pause for what seems like a very long second until one of them picks up a piece of chocolate – and promptly hands it over to her sister.
When I looked up this ad on the internet to share with you, I was amazed at the number of people who offered hostile comments about it, describing it as “shaming.” Since I had experienced the little film as adorable and uplifting, I was puzzled, so I went on to read more of these criticisms. Apparently, some folks felt that the commercial was a poor example to children because it showed that people don’t want to share. Well, today is Mother’s Day, but you certainly do not have to be a mother to know that no toddler wants to share. In fact, if you have ever spent any time at all in a grocery store you are probably aware that while “mama” may be most infants’ first “M” word, their second is almost inevitably “MINE.” While I truly and emphatically believe that we were all created in the image of God, I also think that early in the history of humanity – whether you call it original sin or not, we very quickly went wildly off the rails and the result is that we may start life innocent, but we do not really start it “sweet.”
That doesn’t mean that our hesitance to share makes us bad people. I suspect that those who felt that the little girl who didn’t immediately self-identify as the “best sharer” was somehow being shamed were applying their own labels to her behavior – words like “greedy” – because they assumed that she didn’t share because she wanted all that luscious chocolate for herself. But what if she had other reasons for not sharing? What if she was afraid that if she gave her piece to her sister, it would be rejected? What if she was worried that she would find out that her sister didn’t like the same things she did, and they would get into a fight and it would create a lasting rift between them? What if she was afraid that if she opened her heart to her sister that her sister, in a voice dripping with sarcasm would say, “Gee, thanks for sharing” and walk away?
Okay, so maybe I’m projecting – and maybe we’re not talking about chocolate anymore. Maybe we’re actually talking about sharing bigger things – things like love, and God. Over the past several weeks I have been attending the Episcopal Evangelism Matters Conference. One of the sessions was entitled simply, “I love Jesus.” In it, several leaders of the Episcopal Church, including our Presiding Bishop, talked about when they first discovered their love of Jesus. Their stories were both simple and profound. It wasn’t fancy theology or hard sell marketing. It was just folks sharing what mattered to them and other people responding from the depths of the own hearts. It was vulnerable, truthful, and wonderful.
We often think about sharing as giving, but sharing is reciprocal. Sharing may come at a cost, but it is never without reward. I would wager that all of us have experienced the sense of pleasure that comes from contributing to a cause, or (in pre-COVID days) splitting an ice-cream soda, but as Christians we also share our troubles, our prayers, and, most importantly, the body and blood of our savior Jesus Christ.
It still might surprise some of us to know, however, that it makes people equally happy to share their everyday experiences with others. Several studies have determined that we feel better when we talk things over with other people. Not only that, but even watching the same movie – in different rooms and at different times – and experiencing the same emotions – helps us form emotional bonds with each other. When people tell me they think that our Holy Scriptures have no value for people today because their contexts are so far removed from our current issues, I tell them to think again, because people are people – and if the Bible is about anything, it’s about people. Think about today’s psalm, which encourages us to shout with joy, to rejoice and sing. This desire to share our experience of the beauty of nature and the marvelous creation that God has made is no different than the photo of the sunrise over Mt. Diablo you may have posted on Instagram this morning. We see beauty and we feel joy and we want to share it because sharing is a simple act of love.
It seems so easy, just as easy as cooing over an infant or feeling the thump-thump of our heartbeat when we experience our first romance – and yet, as we well know, sometimes loving is not so easy. That’s why this is the third week in a row that our lectionary has presented us with texts reminding us that Jesus’s primary commandment to his followers is to love one another – not like in insta posts or music videos, but as God does. God’s love that is not based on expecting to be thanked or fulfilled, or to be loved back. It is not transactional. It is loving not just those who are part of our social circle or our religious denomination or our culture or race. Most importantly, it is not just loving those who are deserving of love. It is loving everyone. It is loving for the sake of love itself.
This is, of course, easier said than done. I am certainly not able to do it – but I have learned to try, gritting my teeth and following the Holy Spirit whether it appears as a gentle zephyr of wisdom or as a hurricane wind of change, despite my terror of being spiritually tossed around like the cow in “Twister.” That is what Peter was doing when he preached to the uncircumcised believers on a day sometimes called “The Gentile’s Pentecost.” Remember, in his time there was still debate as to whether non-Jews should even be part of the Jesus movement without first being converted to Judaism and circumcised, so it was a shock to Peter that even these outsiders seemed to be touched by the Holy Spirit – and he took a big risk by following his heart and baptizing them, knowing that he would probably take a lot of flak from his fellow apostles for doing so.
I always ask people why they are willing to share the latest diet or hair product or cat photo with their friends and social media followers but are afraid to talk about their faith. I have come to realize that the answer is that the more you care about something the harder it is when someone rejects it – and there is nothing more painful than the rejection of love. Yet this is what God has subjected himself to over and over and over again on our behalf since the beginning of creation. God repeatedly offers to share love, fulfillment, and perfection with us, and we reject them in favor of what we think are better things, earthly things. Still, God refuses to give up, loving us anyway, saying “yes” to our “no,” choosing us even when we do not choose her.
People confuse what it means to share God’s power, to be God’s friends. When we become one with God, we are not given the ability to share in God’s power to create and to destroy. We are instead blessed with God’s capacity to love the unlovable – among which we are the very first. Which of you can bear the exquisite pain and experience the excruciating joy of that? Which of you is the best at sharing? AMEN.
Summer Allen, (November 24, 2014), “The Sharing Effect: A new study explores why sharing emotional experiences—even negative ones—makes us feel better,” Greater Good Magazine, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_sharing_effect
Eshin Jolly, Bethany Burum, Jason Mitchell, (April 18, 2019), “Wanting without enjoying: The social value of sharing experiences,” Published online 2019 Apr 18. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0215318
Sermon for 5th Easter, May 2, 2021: What’s to prevent me from being baptized? (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
I want to tell you about my first and only altar call. It happened at about the last place you’d expect – The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in San Francisco. I was performing a wedding for a couple with whom I’d done some extensive pre-marital counseling. I liked them very much and we had some great talks about what it meant to be married in a church as opposed to somewhere else. This was especially important for the groom to understand, as he was not a Christian and was only getting married in her childhood church to humor his bride. Fortunately, he was a smart and curious guy and by the day of the wedding he was totally sold on the idea of God, Jesus, and Christian community. He loved the idea that everyone shared their vows with them and would be invested in the success of their marriage – that the whole community was in this together – for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health.
Ironically then, it was the bride who got cold feet on the big day, and I had to spend a bit of time talking to her through the bathroom door prior to the service until, as is usually the case, she remembered why she wanted to get married. While she put herself together again, I went back downstairs to where the groom was beginning to wonder what was going on to offer some calming reassurance – only to be immediately hit with this unexpected question: “Can you baptize me today”?
Now, as most of you know, The Episcopal Church has rules about baptism – well, more like recommendations – but still, strong recommendations. Among them is the suggestion that the person being baptized, or the parent or godparent if it’s a child, are to receive formal instruction in the meaning of Baptism… and in their responsibilities as members of the Church.” We also have other “suggestions” – like it is best to have baptisms on certain feast days (there’s a list) and, if that’s not possible, to at least schedule it for a Holy Day. Non-negotiables include the fact that at least one parent must be a Christian and we have to be pretty sure they haven’t been baptized before (although there’s a contingency for if we’re not sure). And, of course, we now have pandemic baptism, which is a whole new ball of wax.
So, you can imagine my reaction to this sudden and unexpected request for baptism showing up in the middle of an extremely well-planned wedding at one of the more formal parishes in the diocese. His question was, of course, the same one that the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s hard to tell if that situation was more or less astounding than mine. In the Acts reading, we are led to assume that that the Eunuch is a Jew, as he is returning from worship in Jerusalem and reading the prophet Isaiah -so he has that in common with the followers of Jesus – but there’s not much else. First of all, he’s rich and powerful. Secondly, he’s a eunuch. Eunuchs were people born with male genitalia who were castrated before puberty so that they would be considered “safe” to serve as servants in the royal household. Oddly enough though, despite their castration, eunuchs “were stereotyped as sexually immoral.” Oh – and he was an Ethiopian – a foreigner. So, when he asks what prevents him from being baptized there were quite a few things that might have given Philip pause – at least if Philip was focused on the ways rules can keep us apart rather than how the Holy Spirit brings us together.
It wouldn’t have been strange if he had. Christians do it all the time and have for centuries. Instead of looking at our holy scriptures and pulling out the passages that emphasize God’s desire for us to love and forgive one another – which, by the way, vastly outnumber the ones in which God appears to take sides in human disputes – we like to find places where it looks like our job as Christians is to narrow down the fold until only a chosen few are left. (I guess because it makes the odds better for those of us who think we’re getting it right). Today’s gospel is frequently treated in just this way. I have heard preacher after preacher use this gospel threaten their flocks that they had better bear fruit or else. “Jesus” they say, “warns us that those who do not bear fruit are thrown away and burned – so you better watch out or you will be feeling mighty warm come judgment day.” We recently watched the film “Minari.” In it, the main characters, a Korean family, attend a Christian church service in which they are warmly welcomed by the congregation. Immediately following, the pastor begins his sermon by warning his flock to be sure to ask their dear friends, neighbors, and co-workers to come to church because “when they look around in heaven it will be sad to wonder, ‘where is that nice Adelaide from work? Where is that lovely Mr. Drewer from the store? Where is my dear friend Hannah’ and to know that they are burning in the fires of hell.”
The sad thing is that John’s gospel is absolutely not about exclusion. First of all, that would be completely inconsistent with everything we know about Jesus, who ate, lived, and healed numerous people that the rest of his society rejected. Secondly, if you are a gardener, or have ever gone wine tasting, you know that pruning is necessary in a vineyard to bring more fruit, and it is the grapes closest the main vine that grow best. Thus, it is the branches that wander or, in human terms, the branches that grow away from the vine, that are pruned. The passage does not say that God cuts them off because they do not bear fruit. They choose not to abide in the vine, trusting in their ability to grow on their own, and they wither and die as a result.
God wants us to live together. In fact, God created us to live together. I don’t know how anyone could make this any clearer than in the section of the letter of John we heard today. “Beloved let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Or, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry puts it: “If it’s not about love then it’s not about God.” Bearing fruit then, is not about performing individual acts of “blessing” so that you can outperform your fellow Christians and be one of the few left standing on judgment day. Bearing fruit means contributing to the growth of the vineyard, bringing people closer to Jesus, the vine, and helping others grow.
Anyone who can condemn nice Adelaide from work to hell with a quick, sad shake of the head because she won’t go to church, then, I’m sorry, but that is not love and it’s not about God. And if there’s someone sitting in front of Togo’s who looks like he weighs about 90 pounds but is ranting about how he killed Bill Gates and you are afraid to offer him some food, don’t worry. Just remember, there is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear. So, go ahead, feed him. And if you get the idea that any person that is different than you in any way is not worthy of the love of God, keep in mind that it is those who most need Jesus’s unconditional love that understand it best, are first to adopt it, stubbornly hold onto it, and are most passionate in sharing it.
It was to one of these truly spiritually ready individuals that the Holy Spirit directed Philip and continues to direct us – if only we can sort between the human rules and rituals that draw us closer to God, and those that can distract us from hearing the sometimes-wild call of the Spirit. So, when that groom asked me if there was any reason he might be not baptized that day, I saw none. Nor did I see any when his Best Man joined him, kneeling at the fountain in the courtyard where an underground stream of living water flowed, and the wind of the Holy Spirit blew around and through all of us – together. AMEN.
Karen Baker-Fletcher, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 456.
Sermon for 4th Easter, April 25, 2021, Love in Action (Columba Salamony)
In the name of the triune God: our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend.
Several years ago, someone sent me a postcard. On the front is a narrow, one-lane road covered by a flock of sheep clogging the thoroughfare. A car sits on the far side of the blockage; the driver is impatient. The caption across the bottom reads, “Rush hour in Scotland.”
The imagery in today’s gospel passage from John adds another visual to this pastoral scene: alongside the flock stands a shepherd, his crook leading sheep through an open gate, two at a time. Jesus, the shepherd, says to his sheep, “You are my flock. I keep watch over you… I would lay down my life for you. Because I love you.”
The lesson from the First Epistle of John gives us a similar message. The author tells us that we know love because Jesus loved us… and, in that love, he laid down his life for us. And so, we should understand that loving others in a Christ-like way requires us to do so with some kind of action. The Epistle reads, “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Let us love in action.
In the Episcopal Church, we talk a lot about love: “Love is the way.” “Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.” “God loves you. No exceptions.” At Grace, we talk about “Love in action.” And sometimes, I think we talk about love so often that we forget what loving and being loved means.
Love is something that we have to practice—like a good habit—and find within ourselves over and over again. Love is something we constantly improve and deepen. It’s central to who we are, as humans, as children of God, as Christians. Love isn’t just something that we feel or say, but it is an action. Love brings communities together, and it sustains our relationships through difficult times. Love continuously extends outward, like arms, reaching to embrace others at every opportunity—and we do it because we are made for love!
And you know what? Love is hard sometimes. Love doesn’t always come easily, and it is rarely immediate. Love takes time, work, and patience. Love has to sink in and become part of us. And yet, love is who we already are. God created us to give and receive love…to build love up among one another—to love our neighbor as ourselves! Even when it’s hard. Even when we don’t know how. Even when our neighbor is difficult to love. Even when they manipulate us or ridicule us, or when she doesn’t believe in climate change or vaccinations… or even when he kneels on the neck of an unarmed Black man for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, despite his cries, “I can’t breathe.” Tell me that doesn’t make it hard to love our neighbor.
I saw a video on Facebook this week of someone helping a sheep out of a crevasse in the ground. The person pulls the sheep upward by her back leg until she can eventually free herself. The sheep bounds away in four giant leaps, and lands, again, right into the same crack. It’s a short video, so we don’t see what happens next, but it’s probably safe to assume the person walks the fifteen feet to the sheep’s new trap and liberates her again from her self-inflicted captivity.
For how intelligent sheep are, they sure are dumb sometimes. We can always look at all of those Other sheep and think: Wow, what a dumb sheep. What a misled sheep. What an annoying sheep. Why can’t that sheep just use its brain?! We so often look at the other sheep, at our neighbors, with judgment, not love. Maybe we forget that they are part of Jesus’ flock, too, and that we really aren’t so different from those sheep. Just imagine how frequently Jesus is pulling us from a ditch and directing us back to the flock. We repeatedly fall into the same traps, into the same ditch, over and over again, and Jesus always appears with his shepherd’s crook to set us free and send us on our way again… That’s hard to love! But that takes an immense amount of love. And we’re called to share that same love with our neighbors, no matter what.
Loving our neighbor is a reminder of Jesus’ promise to love us. That love which is an invitation to lay down our lives for one another… By taking up our crosses and following Christ, by demonstrating God’s love to those Other sheep whom we encounter every day… By forging community with those we disagree with, Those who look or think or speak differently, those we just downright don’t like.
Again, love is hard sometimes.
When we look at love as an action—one which emulates Jesus’ ministry in the world—love sinks into us. We practice it and it becomes part of us and everything we do. We better understand Jesus’ love for his flock. We also become more sensitive to the lack of love that permeates our world… To the feelings of anger, judgment, and hatred which close us off from our neighbors. Those loveless feelings are the wolf that scatters the flock, that pit neighbor against neighbor.
Jesus, the good shepherd, lays down his life for the sheep—for all the sheep—and he protects them from the wolf. Jesus does this constantly. With that love that reaches outward, he extends his arms to the other sheep, from different folds, to pull them closer to him. He welcomes those other sheep into our flock and expects us to welcome them and love them because they are just like us! And they will know that we are Christians by the love we show.
This week, I wrestled with questions about love: How do I love my neighbor in a way that stands in line with our Gospel values; in a way that preaches peace, justice, and mercy; in a way that is grounded in accountability? What would happen if all of us acted more like shepherds of love? What if we cared for, fed, and protected all of God’s sheep with the same intensity and love that Jesus does?
This is, after all, what we must seek to do every day. This is love in action. This is how we make our world resemble God’s desires for humankind: We welcome the stranger and learn from them. We get vaccinated and wear our masks to keep the vulnerable safe. We advocate for stronger legislation around gun violence, healthcare, and education. We work to dismantle racism and white supremacy in our families, communities, and institutions. We protect our neighbors from those who seek to do them harm because their lives matter. And, so much more than anything, we share Christ’s love with one another—in truth and in action—even when it’s hard to do. AMEN.
Children’s Homily for 3rd Easter, April 18, 2021, Witness! (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Order in the court! How many of you guys know what a court is? (Give them a chance to answer). Yes, a court can be a place where people play basketball or tennis. What else can it be? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – it is a place where people go when someone is having an argument and people have to decide who is right and who is wrong. (Give them a chance to answer). Who knows some of the people who work in a court? (Give them a chance to answer – judge, jury, lawyers, defendant, etcetera and acknowledge their answers). What about witnesses? What do witnesses do? (Give them a chance to answer). Witnesses are people who testify in court. Who knows what it means to testify? (Give them a chance to answer). Good answers! Testify is basically a fancy way of saying you say what you know. It is important to say what you know and to always tell the truth – even when it is hard.
Being a witness in court can be scary. Can you think of a time it might be scary to be a witness? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. Because being a witness can make a BIG difference in people’s lives. Sometimes it’s scary to be a witness because people get angry about what you have to say. They may think you are lying, or they may not like something you say about someone they care about. They may think you are wrong about something. So, it can be scary to be a witness.
Now, in today’s gospel story, Jesus comes to visit his disciples. This happens a lot in our stories about Jesus – but this very unusual in this part of our gospel stories about Jesus – do you know why? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. Because this story happens after Jesus died – and then came back! Do you remember we talked about this on Easter – about how strange that was? (Give them a chance to answer). Well, in today’s story Jesus visited some of his disciples who weren’t with Mary and the others when they saw Jesus the first time he came back after he died – and they weren’t sure it was true that Jesus had come back from being dead. They hadn’t been witnesses yet. So, he came and showed them for themselves.
He reminded them what we figured out on Easter – that coming back after dying was something that ONLY Jesus could do, because Jesus is part of God AND because Jesus loves us more than anyone else ever can. Jesus visited his friends to let them know that he still loved them, and his spirit would never really leave them. Then he told them that they had to be the witnesses to this! They had to be the ones to tell other people what they had seen and what they knew.
Now, none of us were there. We weren’t eyewitnesses – but we are witnesses to what we do know. What do we know about Jesus? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. We know that Jesus loves us. What else? (Give them a chance to answer). We know that Jesus heals. (Give them a chance to answer). What else? (Give them a chance to answer and acknowledge answers). So, we can be witnesses to the things we know about Jesus – and that’s what today’s story tells us to do.
Now being witnesses about Jesus – telling what we know to other people – might be scary, because sometimes people will think we are lying – or they will think we are wrong, and because it will make a big difference in people’s lives and in the WORLD. And, let me tell you a secret (whisper) – grown-ups are very afraid of witnessing for Jesus, and they are not very good at it! – but we have to do it – because Jesus asked us to AND because the world is full of angry people who hurt one another and who say wrong things about Jesus. One of the only ways to fix that is for us to witness to the truth about Jesus – that Jesus was human, so he understands us, but he stopped being human and started being God not so he could be powerful and give us things, but so he could give his love to all people in all times in all places. Jesus is about LOVE, so we need to be witnesses that everyone should try to love everyone else like Jesus does. Do we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). And what do we say in church when we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right: AMEN. Let’s say it together. (AMEN).
Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021, Quasimodo (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
CHRIST IS RISEN! –
Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see. This line from the book and movie The Polar Express, a story about believing, speaks so well, I think, about the essence of today’s Gospel.
Seeing is believing – I quote from Wikipedia: “Seeing is believing is an idiom first recorded in this form in 1639 that means “only physical or concrete evidence is convincing.” It is the essence of St. Thomas’s claim to Jesus Christ, to which Jesus responded that there were those who had not seen but believed.
Seeing is believing leads to sophistry that “seen evidence” can be easily and correctly interpreted, when in fact, interpretation may be difficult.” (1)
The Gospel for this second Sunday of Easter tells us, among other things, of seeing and interpretation. Blessed Thomas makes a declaration to the ten disciples, who have already seen the Risen Lord in his absence, that he must see and touch the wounds of Jesus’s crucifixion before he believes the witness of the disciples.
Because of this, Saint Thomas now has the unfortunate moniker of Doubting Thomas.
I don’t believe this is fair to Thomas; after all, he didn’t ask for more proof than the other disciples had already seen. However, I don’t see Thomas as the patron saint of empiricism either. He had as much faith in the other disciple’s witness as they had in the women’s witness of the Resurrection. In this part of the gospel account, I think the ten disciples and Thomas have difficulty interpreting and understanding the Resurrection. As the evangelist tells us, “they did not yet know the Scripture that he must rise from the dead.”
John’s Gospel is full of seeing and believing. Mary Magdalene sees the risen Lord and hears him speak her name and believes.
The beloved disciple sees the grave clothes in the empty tomb and believes; however, even after their first resurrection experience in the upper room, they don’t seem very much changed. One really can’t blame them with Jesus popping in and out of their presence, leaving them alone once more – because interpretation may be difficult. The Disciples are still hiding out in a locked room, and even the ‘Beloved’ Disciple was in a sorry state of fear. Then The Lord appears to them again at the end of the octave of that first Easter.
The Second Sunday of Easter has several names. Low Sunday, I don’t know why, Thomas Sunday, for obvious reasons, but early on, the second Sunday of Easter became known as Quasimodo Sunday because of the introit Psalm antiphon:
Quasi modo géniti infántes, alleluia: rationabiles, sine dolo lac concupíscite, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. As newborn babes, alleluia desire the rational milk without guile, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. The antiphon is from 1 Peter 2:2.
On the second Sunday of Easter, the newly baptized put off their white robes from their Baptism at the Vigil and joined the congregation; the Church called them infantes, infants; this name connects them to the Introit Psalm.
“The rational milk without guile” describes, in part, the Church’s teaching on Baptism, also called illumination in the early Church.
By Baptism, we receive the gift of faith by the Holy Spirit, rational milk that elevates our reason to understand spiritual things, things about God that we can’t know by reason alone.
So, what happened to the disciples? Were they not baptized? Well, yes and no.
They all had probably received Baptism by water, but as John the Baptist testified as to God’s instruction to him, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one (Jesus) who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”
When he appears to the disciples, he first assures them with a greeting of peace on both occasions.
Peace be with you, Shalom Aleichem, an ancient Hebraic greeting, a divine greeting, a greeting from God to his children. A salutation of angles used to mark something new. Shalom, peace, do not be afraid. The risen Lord then sends the disciples out to continue the work that His Father sent Him to do, to bring shalom to the world and forgive sins.
Jesus next breathed the Holy Spirit into those gathered in the room, completing their Baptism, elevating their reason. Thomas gets the proof he asked for in Jesus’s second visitation.
Jesus invites him to touch the wounds in his hands and place his hand in his side. Jesus tells Thomas not to be unbelieving but believing.
Indeed, this elicits Thomas’s belief because he made the greatest confession of faith, I believe, in all the Holy Scriptures. “My Lord and my God!” Jesus then says blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” Hallelujah! That’s us!
Baptism in the Spirit affected a profound change in the disciples. They all went out into the world boldly proclaiming the Lord’s Gospel of forgiveness and shalom, even in the face of torture and martyrdom.
Here we are, some 2000 plus years from these events, and all of us who exclaim Christ is risen are blessed because we have not physically seen Him, yet we believe.
We believe through faith that was given to us by God’s grace at our Baptism of Water and Spirit. The Pure spiritual milk that nourishes our growth into salvation and sustains our faith.
Without seeing, we may believe because of the witness of Saints written in Holy Scripture, the Word taught and preached in the Church, the traditions of our Catholic faith, our sustenance from the very body and blood of Christ, and one another as members of the body of Christ.
If doubt creeps in, as it sometimes does, our faith will hold firm if we have each other on our journey of faith.
Look around at the other people assembled here. They are part of your blessing––the blessing that Jesus promised to those who believe.
The author John M. Sweeny wrote, “Doubt invigorates faith, demands more of it, and causes us to ask more of each other. “Doubt connects us. Doubt binds my faith to yours. It makes me reach out. Discover. Explore, Question, Challenge, and Learn. A person who doubts is one still on a journey.”
Our journey leads us to continue the work the Creator sent our Savior to do, to spread His Gospel of shalom, forgiveness, and love to the world.
The Church is not only a place of belief but work! Christ’s shalom is not to be contained in this place’s four walls or any church.
We begin by sharing shalom at the peace. We not only share peace, but we also share our faith and forgiveness. We share our humanness and our love for one another.
God means for us to carry it into the world, in our daily lives. Because as an unknown author stated, “the creed you believe is spoken not by your lips, but by your life.”
We share Christ’s shalom when we are kind to and tolerant of our neighbors, the people we work with, and most of all, those we dislike and who dislike us.
Shalom, when we hold a dying person’s hand and listen to them.
Shalom, when we visit and pray with a shut-in.
Shalom, when we demanded and worked for justice for immigrants and refugees. Justice for people who suffer because of racism and injustices in our society. Justice for those forced into poverty and starvation.
Shalom, when we work for justice and care for the Earth, God’s gift to us.
Shalom, when we act out of kindness, compassion, and love.
In this way, we live a resurrected life experiencing the Resurrection’s joy not just for ourselves but for the world.
Shalom Aleichem! Amen
- Seeing is believing – The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia. http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Seeing_is_believing
Children’s Homily for Easter, April 4, 2021: Rise Up (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
It’s Easter! Easter is my FAVORITE holiday! Who knows what we are
celebrating on Easter? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – Jesus! What about Jesus? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right – Jesus coming back from the dead! Wait! What does that MEAN?! Do people usually come back from the dead? (Give them a chance to answer). No, not usually. Some of you guys know people who have died, and you know that they are in heaven now and aren’t coming back to earth. But Jesus DID come back and he even talked to his friends. In fact, in today’s gospel story, he came back and talked to his friend Mary. What was that about? (Give them a chance to answer). Well. lots of people have different ideas about it. So, let’s sort it out together.
First, I want you to tell me some things you know about Jesus. (Give them a chance to answer). Good! That’s right. Jesus was good What else? (Give them a chance to answer) Jesus healed people. That’s also right! Anything else? What’s the most important thing about Jesus? (Give them a chance to answer). Jesus loves us. That is right. Jesus loves us. That’s why Jesus lived. Jesus came to the world because he loved all the people so much he wanted to teach us to be nicer and better and not fight with each other and do good things. And that is the same reason Jesus died. He died to show people that sometimes you have to give up what is most important to you to make things better for other people. What is most important to you? (Give them a chance to answer) Well, for most people, the most important thing to them is their life. But sometimes people decide that some things are more important than their lives. Things like freedom, and goodness, and, most of all, love. And that’s what Jesus thought. He gave up his life because he thought showing that he loved us was more important than going on living on earth.
His friends were sad, so after he died, they did what we do. They wanted to have a service and remember him. Some of you know about that, right? (Give them a chance to answer). So, Mary went to where she thought she could find Jesus, but he wasn’t there! It was like a mystery! And she was very upset! But then she saw two angels at the tomb and someone she thought was a gardener. But it wasn’t the gardener, – who was it really? (Give them a chance to answer) That’s right, it was Jesus tricking her! She didn’t know who he was because he had been changed by dying and coming back. But, here’s the thing, his love was still the same – his powerful, powerful love – and when he said her name, she knew exactly who he was! Because Jesus’s love NEVER changes!
But Jesus did. After he visited his friends to let them know that he still loved them and would never really leave them, then he did leave his human body behind to go and be with – who? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. He went to be with God. He told his friend Mary he was going to do this. She knew that when he was alive he liked to call God his father because it made him feel happy and safe. Some people still do that. We also call God other things that make us feel happy and safe. Things like Mother and Creator and Friend. But Jesus used to say “Father.” He told Mary he was going to rise up to see his Father – to rise up to the place he felt most safe and loved and where he could give the most love. So, what did Jesus do? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. He rose up! He ascended. Who knows what it means to rise up? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. It means to get up. It means to wake up. For Jesus, it meant to stop being human and start being God. It meant he could do what he always wanted to do – he could give his love to all people in all times in all places.
And Jesus wants us to rise up too. Not to try to be God, but still to get up, to rise up, to love everybody we can as much as we can. Can you do that? (Give them a chance to answer). Can you show me? (Give them a chance to answer) Let’s see! (Take turns calling on the children to rise up, then play the last part of the Jackson 5’s “ABC.”). See, everyone, we can rise up in love like Jesus showed us. Alleluia. Jesus is risen. Rise Up. It’s easy to love. Do we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). And what do we say in church when we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right: AMEN. Let’s say it together. (AMEN).
Sermon for Easter, April 4, 2021: We are the Church (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Alleluia! The Lord is risen! (Wait for response). Okay. I know there aren’t many of us in here and you guys at home probably feel weird yelling in your family room, but it is Easter. So, I said, “Alleluia! The Lord is risen! (Wait for response). Much better. Now, I did sense a small bit of grumbling over the fact that our call and response was, once again, not done in person this year. The truth is that I know it is disappointing to get this close to worshipping indoors, in-person for Easter, but I have to say that I am incredibly grateful that we have not lost one parishioner to COVID-19 during the pandemic, so whatever frustration I feel about the missing hugs, lemon bars, and echoing Alleluias is more than equaled by my joy that you are still here –and we are still church.
We are still church. I know this because I actually had to answer that specific question recently on a diocesan form: “What has the pandemic has taught you about what it means to ‘be church.’” I was initially irritated by the question, mostly because I still have to answer essay questions at this stage in my life, but also because I believe this question has a very straightforward answer – one so simple that we can teach it to our children in a song: I am the church. You are the church. We are the church. The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is its people.
I know that over the last year many of us have felt and continue to feel isolated and alone, and I am not immune to this. I have been fortunate because I have had my family at home with me this year, but I am certainly lonely in my office at Grace. Nonetheless, Grace is still a family. I take great joy in reading the comments on the Facebook page, participating in Zoom worship and meetings with you, and enjoying texts and phone calls. I also worry about those of you I don’t hear from- folks that say they have given up on technology or have drifted away – those who have found other things to do with their Sundays. Because those folks are not alone. A Gallup poll published this week reported that, while most Americans continue to believe in God, for the first time since the late 1930s, less than half of Americans report being members of a religion.
I am not surprised by this, but I find it deeply ironic. One glance at the internet will tell you that we are living in a time in which people are urgently seeking spiritual guidance. Americans are troubled by what appears to be inexplicable behavior by our fellow human beings. It seems that we add the names of victims of new hate and rage-fueled shootings to our prayer list too often- as we did again this week. Young people are trying desperately to find safe places to figure out who they are and how to live in an immensely changing world. Folks of good conscious are looking for spaces where we can learn to respect the dignity of all human beings without experiencing name-calling and judgment. Sadly, it seems that church is the last place that most people look for these things. According to Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, “Christians have… suffered [from] self-inflicted damage: Surveys show that the identification of many white evangelicals with former President Donald Trump drove many millennials away, as did the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church over the previous decades.” In other words, instead of thinking of churches as places of unconditional love where they can safely explore their identities and develop a sense of connection with other human beings, young people have learned to fear and dismiss places of worship, identifying them with words like “political,” “hypocritical,” and “judgmental.”
That is not my church. I grew up in a congregation where I knew I was loved. When my father died, parishioners were zealous in showing interest in both my triumphs and difficult periods. This was true even when my nine-year-old self kicked Mr. Vezina’s shin with my shiny patent-leather shoe and when arrogant 15-year-old me almost decapitated the crucifer when I tried to swing the censor the way our rector did. I knew that no matter what I did, St. John’s was my forever home, and I could always go home again. Grace Episcopal Church Martinez has been that place for many others in much the same way.
The truth is that we have what so many people are seeking. We believe in unconditional love, thoughtful, civilized conversation in an unsafe world and, above all, being a place where you are known, loved, and forgiven. The problem is that people do not know this. Even worse, we do not always know this. We have forgotten the resources of our own community – going to therapists, google searching and soul cycling instead of using the ancient and proven tools of pastoral counseling, prayer, and reading scripture. No wonder the world thinks we’re irrelevant. We think we’re irrelevant. We’re not. Not even close.
For two thousand years the people of God have been sharing their lives and their stories so that we will know exactly what to do in difficult times like these. What is happening in our world is exhausting and disheartening, but it is not unprecedented. I would suggest the Bible is actually the most complete text on human emotion ever written. If you need help processing recent news stories about mothers torn from their children at our southern border, read the story of King Solomon forced to judge between two mothers claiming the same child. True parents have always sacrificed their own well-being for the good of their children. Unsure of how to think of the case of Breonna Taylor, woken in the night by armed law enforcement who admittedly had no cause against her? Think of our Lord woken deep in the night in the Garden of Gethsemane. The stories and practices of our faith are timeless, but only if we continue them – and only if we are open to applying them to the changing circumstances of our lives.
That is what Mary had to do. When she arrived at the tomb of her beloved rabbi, she saw that he was missing and felt only loss, just as when we see our churches change from the way we know them, we see only failure. He was supposed to be the Messiah, the one who would overthrow the unjust and return the Judeans to power. Instead, he has suffered the death of a criminal. It is only when he calls her by her name that she knows him and remembers. Jesus’s ministry was never about obtaining or maintaining power or privilege. It was about relationship. It was about knowing and being known. It was about community and love. Yet even then she wants to hang on to him. After all, she has gone from being a central part of a growing movement to an uncertain future – and her grief is coupled with tremendous fear. But when Jesus shows himself to her, he will not allow her to continue to grieve. “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus tells her, knowing that the teacher she knows is only a fraction of what he really is – that the human Jesus demonstrated only a small portion of the love and mercy that his sacrificial death made possible for him to give to all humanity for all time. By dying to earthly life, he was able to rise to a greater, more meaningful, and more loving divine life – one that would change the entire human race. “Do not hold on to me.” We can allow ourselves to experience the brokenness of the last year, the brokenness of a society that has changed beyond our reckoning, the brokenness of a church that will never be the same – and then we can look for the light that shines through the cracks.
Let go of what is temporal. Let go of what is earthly. Grab hold instead of what is heavenly and ascend with Jesus. Let him take you with him as he rises above this world and into a realm of pure and unceasing love. We are God’s hands and feet in the world. We carry the risen Christ in our hearts. We are the church. Alleluia! AMEN.
Bob Smietna, (March 29, 2021), “Gallup: Fewer than half of Americans belong to a church or other house of worship: while American still believe in God a growing number have dropped out of organized religion,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2021/03/29/gallup-fewer-than-half-of-americans-belong-to-a-church-or-other-house-of-worship/.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, (March 31, 2021), “Behind Gallup’s Portrait of Church Decline: America’s religious life will be shaped not by secularization alone,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2021/03/31/behind-gallups-portrait-of-church-decline/.
Sermon for the Easter Vigil, April 3, 2021, Passing the Torch (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Well. We almost made it inside the church! And we are a little closer to what we once considered “normal” worship. We are here together, looking at half of one another’s faces, and, only moments ago, we shared the incomparable joy of welcoming new members into our parish family. If you think about it, that is so much more that we had last year – and it is much, much more than many of our ancient predecessors ever experienced in some of their attempts to faithfully worship the Lord our God and remain a family of believers.
We heard some of those stories tonight. We listened to the tale of how God created the world and all that is in it and blessed that creation, voicing the intention to care for it and to be in relationship with it forever. We retold the story of how God led the Israelites out slavery, saved them from the pursuing Egyptians and led them into the promised land. We took note that we are not the first to have fallen into the trap of thinking that wealth and power were more valuable than wisdom and fidelity. And we were fiercely reminded that it is God and God alone who can take what is dead and restore it to life.
We tell our stories each week as part of our Sunday worship, but once a year on this day we share history from the beginning of time all the way through the death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ. We do this to remind us of one simple fact: God is with us. God held humanity in his heart and in her mind before we existed, through our evolution, despite our rejection, and alongside every biological and historical transition that has befallen us – and God remains beside us now. Every story we tell imparts the same moral again and again and again – no matter we do, God will send help, relief, comfort, and new life – even in the face of death. We, of course, have our own stories, some just as compelling as those found in our Holy Scriptures – and tonight I want to share just one more story with you. It is a Grace story, and it is near to my heart tonight of all nights.
Amelia, Nate and Sondre Brooks arrived at Grace already a complete and beautiful family, but still, they hoped their family would grow and, in the fall of 2018 the received news that they would be adding to it. The church family eagerly awaited the birth of Frederick Brooks, expected in early 2019. Unfortunately, Frederick had severe challenges and was born early. Despite the best efforts of all involved, he passed from my arms into the arms of God in December. The pain of his loss was tremendous, and he was mourned by the entire congregation and all who know the Brooks family – and yet, throughout, God was present. God was present on the day he was born and on the day he died. God was present to his parents, his grandparents, and his brother. God is present in Frederick’s spirit, whom I feel visiting Grace often.
It was no surprise then when God made her presence known in a new way almost two years to the week when I received a text from Amelia telling me that a birth mother had chosen the Brooks family to adopt her child – and then a week or so later when we discovered that that child was, in fact, twin girls. Nor was it a surprise that those girls did not wish to wait for Epiphany to arrive. Two years after Frederick’s death, Amelia, Nate, Sondre and I were once again frantically texting one another – this time preparing for birth rather than death – and just as before, God was present.
The Easter Vigil begins in darkness, just as God’s creation did, just as we, made of the ground we now so arrogantly walk on, did as well. We move into the light not through our own ingeniousness, but through the saving illumination of God’s attention and forgiveness. The last story we tell tonight is the greatest miracle of all, the one in which God sends the light of Godself into the darkness in which human beings constantly find ourselves in order that we may live. When Jesus’s friends go to the tomb, expecting death, they instead find life, and the wonder of it frightens them.
When we are baptized, we accept both the awe of Jesus’s sacrifice for us and the terror that goes with it. We recognize that we are letting go of our human desires for power, privilege, and self-interest in order to be part of something bigger – to be part of a community of believers. Baptism unites us not to Christ, but to one another in Christ. Through baptism we die to our individual selves so that we can live as a community of one people, with one history, sharing our stories, our lives, and our love. AMEN.
Sermon for Good Friday, April 2, 2021 (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
Years ago, in the early 1970s the church of which I was a member went on a
Lenten retreat. The retreat was organized by a seminarian doing an internship
among us, and with the intention of giving us a greater ecumenical perspective
hired a Unitarian leader. This person had an association with the Buddhist spiritual teacher Ram Dass, so our perspective was very ecumenical.
The leader began his talk by asking the group if we knew what we were doing last Good Friday. The flow of his talk came to an abrupt halt when everyone in the group raised our hands. After the unexpected response from the group, he
recovered and said most Christians don’t experience Good Friday and so can’t
fully experience Easter.
Now, despite what I considered to be the leader’s condescending attitude, I agreed with him. Indeed, the whole group agreed with him, because we had no problem remembering what we were doing the prior Good Friday.
This afternoon we were led us through the Stations of the Cross, commemorating fourteen events on the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow, starting with Jesus condemnation by Pilot through his death and entombment. Of the 14 stations only 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9 have direct Biblical references.
The Stations of the Cross originated with pilgrimages to Jerusalem and a desire to reproduce the Via Dolorosa, the path that led Jesus to his Crucifixion. As pilgrimages to the holy land became more and more difficult, for example the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 1187, the Franciscans began to set up Via Dolorosas outside the Holy Land that eventually moved into cathedrals and churches.
The object of the Stations is to help the faithful make in spirit, a pilgrimage to the chief scenes of Christ’s sufferings and death, and it has become one of the most popular of Good Friday devotions. It is carried out by passing from Station to Station, with certain prayers at each and devout meditation on the various incidents
in turn. It is very usual, when the devotion is performed publicly, to sing
a stanza of the Stabat Mater while passing from one Station to the next.
It is too easy to romanticize Christ’s passion and suffering because the familiar
liturgical language has been worn smooth like a river pebble as it were. It is also easy to identify Jesus as a hapless victim at the mercies of the power and
principalities, or in some way he serves as a victim in our stead. By entering into the Stations as victims, we blind ourselves to our complicity in violence, and others that may suffer from our blindness as a result. It is good to remember that Jesus was in control throughout his entire Passion. At his trial, he was both accused and judge, and at his death it was he who gave up his spirit.
In his Passion, Jesus laid bare the way that God’s children have used the death of the innocent to distance ourselves from our own dependence on violence. By removing the scales from our eyes, Jesus has broken forever the power of violence in our lives. We will never again be able to convince ourselves that we can save ourselves by violence without some concern for those who die. Without our blindness to the cost to the victim, violence doesn’t offer the salvation it once did. Instead, we have no choice but to rely on the one thing that does save us, God’s mercy.
God’s mercy… You may ask, why did Christ have to die, and how does his death
effect my life? Is our God a vengeful one who requires a human sacrifice to pay for our sins? That Jesus bore God’s wrath in our place so we could go to heaven when we die? St. Paul wrote in his First letter to the Corinthians: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,” and in Second Corinthians “For our sake he made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus’ sacrifice for us is that he became sin, the only human being that knew no sin and sin died on the cross. The power of sin over us was broken that Good Friday and freed us to turn from the idols we worship, money, power etc. to God, and our vocation that God created us to have. As N.T. Wright said, the main task of this vocation is “image-bearing,” reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker. Because of Good Friday humanity can again stand at the point where the kingdom of heaven and earth come together. We are given the courage to see ourselves as we are truly depicted in the Passion because we view it from the perspective of God’s ultimate victory over our sin, from the perspective of the Resurrection.
Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 1, 2021, Mandate (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Does anyone remember why we call today Maundy Thursday (other than our deacon Walter)? It is one of those Latin terms that is left over from when all of our liturgy was recited in Latin and only the clergy knew what any of it meant. Some churches have substituted the word “Holy” for “Maundy,” but for many of us, the term “Maundy Thursday” has managed to stick around even though its meaning has been forgotten. The word “maundy” is from the Latin word “mandate” or mandate. A mandate is a decree or a rule. We hardly ever use even this term nowadays, except in government, but it is the term we apply to the command that Jesus gave his disciples on the night before he died – the command to love one another.
Although much is made of the fact that tonight replicates the last supper Jesus shared with his friends and sets the pattern for our weekly (lately yearly) remembrance of him through the sharing of Holy Eucharist, you will notice that John’s gospel story about the Last Supper does not contain the mandate – the Maundy – to eat bread and drink wine in memory of Jesus. Instead, it is focused on the more important command: to love one another. By this – not by whether you take communion, not by whether you attend church -but by loving one another everyone will know that you are Christian.
Jesus practiced what he preached. Knowing that he would soon be suffering from betrayal, denial, unspeakable pain and eventual death, Jesus did what any one of us would do: he spent time with those he loved, eating, drinking, resting, and talking with his friends – his family. His choice not to hold a political rally or preach one last sermon is completely consistent with his character. Instead of pushing to further his own cause, he spent his last hours demonstrating his willingness to do anything he could to comfort and care for those he loved – even those who would cause his death. Because, lest we forget, the gospel writer tells us that Judas, whom Jesus knew would betray him, was also present at that dinner. Judas was part of the family.
There is hatred in our world. There is division – just as there was in Jesus’s world and at his very table. Nonetheless, it is our job to show and sow love. The various components of this evening’s service – humbling ourselves by washing and having our feet washed, making ourselves vulnerable by caring for others and allowing ourselves to be cared for – demonstrate that this can be a difficult and uncomfortable task. Yet, this is how Jesus taught his disciples what it means to be one community, one family. This is how Jesus taught us what it means to love.
Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021: Humus (Columba Salamony)
In the name of the triune God: our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend.
As Jesus approached Jerusalem, the people adorned the road with palm branches and with their cloaks, and then followed behind Jesus and his disciples, shouting, “Hosanna! Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” At first glance, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem might not seem to be a story of tremendous humility.
If we read the passage through our cultural context, we might envision some elaborate papal procession with massive, fluttering palm branches, dense clouds of incense, a dramatic choir, and hundreds of acolytes and torch-bearers… joyfully moving along a road with throngs of people—thousands and thousands of them on either side. And look at our procession this morning! Rev Deb walked in with all of these bishops, a gaggle of priests, and a herd of deacons… We didn’t even borrow (or steal) someone’s donkey! Where were the bagpipes?! Maybe next year. In any case, we haven’t taken the humble approach, either.
Humility is a strange thing. It isn’t something we talk about very often. Preachers don’t like to preach on it. People don’t like to practice it. It forces us far beyond our comfort zones and can lead us to harsh realizations that can be painful for the blissfully-unaware. In our modern, capitalistic context, being humble doesn’t have much staying power. Humility doesn’t buy us anything; it doesn’t give us power. It isn’t sexy. It’s a weird, countercultural thing that many people don’t seem to understand.
And yet, humility is one of the great Carmelite virtues, along with charity and detachment. That alone speaks to the strangeness of living into a contemplative vocation. In Carmelite spirituality, those three virtues (humility, charity, and detachment) are often so interconnected that it is difficult to tell where one ends and another begins. Teresa of Avila viewed humility to be the foundational virtue from which all other virtues could grow. It is the humus, after all. Santa Teresa wrote, “If you want to lay good foundations, you must try to be the least of all. If you do that, your castle will not fall.” That is the simplest definition of humility: being least of all. Humility empties us of pride, arrogance, or an inflated sense of self. Humility creates a space within us that God can fill. It allows an openness to God, which can entirely reshape and restructure our individual lives. Being humble is us accepting that God knows better than we do, knowing that God has a plan for our lives, and sensing God’s work within us.
Within the two sets of lectionary readings appointed for today’s worship—both of the Gospel texts for Palm Sunday and for Passion Sunday—I find that there’s a little something-or-other hidden in the subtext of the passages. The best way I can think to describe it is with the Latin word humus. Humus has always been a theme for Lent, though we seldom talk about it explicitly. The word humus means ground, earth, soil, or dust—the organic material that makes up nearly everything around us. In agriculture, humus is what your compost becomes. Of course, we begin Lent with Ash Wednesday—remember that you are dust, that you are humus, the dirt from which God created all of humanity. And now, at the very end of Lent and diving into Holy Week, we find humus again, but this time in two derived forms of the word: humility, from humilis, to make oneself lowly, to bring oneself to the ground; and humiliation, from humiliatus, to be made low by another.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was an exercise of humility: Jesus rides into the Holy City on a donkey. Not a horse with a braided mane, nor a gilded chariot. A humble, lowly, smelly donkey. It’s much more like Jesus is riding into Martinez in a dump truck than in a Bentley… or even a Subaru! In Jesus’ context, the donkey was a symbol of industry and peace. It would have been mostly typical for the poorest people in Galilee and Judea to own a donkey—because it enabled them to carry their goods over longer distances to sell in the nearby towns.
In the time between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his trial before Pilate, his humility is replaced by humiliation. Jesus is mocked from all sides—the Temple chiefs endlessly question him and his authority. Judas betrays him, and he’s arrested in the middle of the night. His disciples were scared and scattered. The Temple council turned him over to the civil powers, who mock him. The crowd that was once excited to welcome him to Jerusalem now taunts him and calls him a criminal, demanding his crucifixion. He stands before the crowd, and the Roman guards strip him and beat him, brutalizing his body with chains and barbs.
His humble demeanor never seems to crack under the intense pain and rejection that he faces in Jerusalem. Once viewed as a miracle-worker and a prophet—the King who would come to topple Rome —Jesus is now an object of ridicule, violence, and scorn. And despite the torture and humiliation, Jesus picks up his cross and continues onto the death that he has been promised. It was Jesus’ humble fortitude that led him to Jerusalem, knowing it was the path to his death. In his great humility—his self-emptying—“he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death upon a cross” (Phil. 2:8).
In the Epistle to the Philippians, Paul continues, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ,” [who] “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but instead emptied himself […].” Jesus’ humility, in his self-emptying, enabled him to face his eventual crucifixion, knowing that his life and ministry was part of something greater than himself.
Frequently, we equate humility with weakness. If humility is made by choice—as an active, reflexive decision, rather than a passive humiliatus, being humiliated—we assume that person to be lazy or infirm—there’s something ‘wrong’ with them; they’re just not trying hard enough! They live in rundown houses, wear old clothes, and drive beat-up, hand-me-down cars. Being humble in this era is not attractive or marketable. We live in a society that privileges wealth, property, and power over simple, humble living… especially if that life is centered on God, on being Christ-like.
In The Way of Perfection, Teresa of Avila writes, “Humility, however deep it may be, neither disquiets, nor troubles, nor disturbs the soul; it is accompanied by peace, joy, and tranquility. […] Far from disturbing or depressing the soul, true humility enlarges it and makes it fit to serve God better” (39.2). Humility creates a space within us that God can fill. It requires us to be honest with ourselves about our journeys, our relationships, and our need for God’s embracing Spirit when things feel hard. That same humility allows us to live in the comfort of God’s love even when everyone and everything around us torment us. Humility allows us the internal space to truly experience the love and tremendous mercy that Jesus shows us each and every day, even though we so-so-so-so often do not deserve it.
In the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, we are challenged to examine the ways that we interact with the world around us. Remember that you are humus, and to humus you shall return. What has Lent taught you about humility? What progress have you made? As you enter into Holy Week, are you ready to let go of the fullness of the procession and empty yourselves in order to experience the humility and completeness of Jesus’ love and Passion?
Children’s Homily for 5th Lent, March 21, 2021 (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
Sermon for 4th Lent, March 14, 2021: The Episcopal Visit of the Rt. Rev. Dr. Marc H. Andrus, Bishop of the Diocese of California (The Rt. Rev. Dr. Marc H. Andrus)
Sermon for 3rd Lent, March 7, 2021: May the Meditations of our Hearts Always be Acceptable in Your Sight (The Grace Vestry, read by Sally Hanson)
Yesterday, the Grace Church Vestry got together for our Annual Retreat. We spent half a day praying, talking, and getting to know one another better. (Did you know that the mother of Grace’s newest set of twins once danced on stage with the Dropkick Murphys? Or that your Deacon worked on the Apollo program? Or that Stephanie Zichichi met the Six Million Dollar Man?)
The theme of our retreat was “Being attentive to our mission and our people.” Reverend Deb chose this topic because she was concerned that, despite our best efforts, the pandemic has made it difficult to communicate as clearly with one another as we would like. She wanted us to think about how we understand our ministry at Grace – and how we can talk about it with our fellow parishioners. She also decided that we should share what we figured out with you by having one of us give the sermon today. I drew the short straw.
One of the things the vestry does at all of our retreats is to look at where we’ve been before talking about where we are going. We always start with the data from the Search Committee, moving forward in time to look at our most recent mutual ministry review, and the mission and vision statements of the congregation. We talked about how the decisions we make now should reflect the mission statement created by the vestry in 2017 and the vision statement crafted by 2018’s vestry. Then we considered the vestry’s last retreat in 2019 and what our plans had been then and how much those plans have changed because of the pandemic.
We talked about how the pandemic has made all of us anxious and worried, especially the things we love most. Grace parishioners have always loved being together. We love our coffee hours, our 8 o’clock breakfasts, and our St. Patrick’s Day Dinners. We like taking care of each other by showing up with casseroles and cards. We like turning up at church to weed the flower beds and drop off papers towels when we buy extra at Costco. So, we don’t like not being able to see each other in person. We don’t like people taking out the rose bushes when we’re not at church. We don’t like it when it feels like people are making important decisions behind our backs. Basically, we don’t like change. Change makes us anxious. How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Change! We don’t want change! My grandmother donated that light bulb!
We understand. We also understand that we have a responsibility to you: to discern and carry out the will of God for Grace Church Martinez. We represent you and we want to hear from you – to know your concerns and listen to your ideas and answer your questions. But our primary task is trying to figure out the mind of Christ for the life of this parish. As one vestry member put it, “We need to let people know that as a vestry we don’t all agree when we talk about stuff; we all have different viewpoints, and we bring those to the meetings and our decision making. Sometimes hearing someone else’s point of view helps clarify our own point of view. We’re open to listening to each other to come to decisions as a group. We don’t agree every time on every decision, but we work together to figure it out.” Or as someone else put it, “We work on agreement. No one has an agenda; we have ideas that inform the discussion, and we build on those and chart our way forward with them.” Another vestry member said, “I look at myself as a servant to our community but also look at all of us on the vestry as God’s servants. Sometimes God’s concerns have to come before human concerns. We have to discern what is true, but it’s never going to be the easy road.”
It’s pretty clear that God knows that human beings have trouble agreeing a lot of the time. That’s why he’s always sending us laws to help us get along. Today we heard about what are probably the most famous of those laws, the ten commandments. Laws are good because they give us guidelines that help us to love God and our neighbors. That’s why in our work making important decisions about the future of Grace, like whether to try to develop the Upper Lot, we have carefully followed the rules and designations within the Church. But our scripture also says that the foolishness of God is greater than any wisdom of human beings. For example, someone may think that trying to develop the Upper Lot is foolish, but if you discern that God is calling us to do it, then God’s wisdom is greater than any of our wisdom. God asks us to use our dreams, wishes, and desires to make the world a better place and to enlarge our faith.
We depend on faith. It is what Jesus asks of all of us. Of course it is easier when having faith means walking a familiar path and knowing what’s at the other end of it, but that’s not enough. That’s what happened with the people in the temple in Jerusalem. Those people were not bad. They were just caught up in earthly things. There’s value in tradition and ritual to provide a framework to get something out of what we do, but that’s not the church. Church is the tools we use to do what we need to do for ourselves and our community. Just because something’s changed about how we use those tools doesn’t mean it’s broken, but that we need to pave a new path. Paving a new path can be scary. It requires faith. It requires us to lean on one another. It requires us to remember that with Jesus all things are possible.
We believe that the community of Grace has the courage, the strength, and the love to continue to walk the road that Jesus has laid before us, even if it is not the same path we started on. We believe that when we follow the law of the Lord it will not just guide us, it will set us free and enable us to take off without anxiety into the future that is meant for us as people of Grace.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. AMEN.
Sermon for 2nd Lent, February 28, 2021: Take Up Your Cross (Columba Salamony)
In the name of the triune God: our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend.
What does it mean to be a Christian?
This question is especially appropriate for our current liturgical season. After all, Lent is a time to consider our approaches to living a spiritually-engaged life. It is a time to reconnect with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves—forty days to examine, repent, and remember.
So, again: what does it mean to be a Christian?
Consider for a moment the most prolific symbol of Christian identity that we have: the cross. The cross is the focal point of the Christian calendar and of the Gospels. The cross is everywhere! Almost every church and denomination uses the image of the cross to signify their relationship with and belief in Jesus Christ. Most churches have a variety of crosses within their worship spaces—such as the brass cross behind me and the wooden cross above me. Our own shield of the Episcopal Church has a total of 11 crosses on it—the red Saint George’s Cross in the center, the nine small crosses that make up the diagonal white cross in the upper left, which itself is the saltire, the Saint Andrew’s Cross. The cross hangs in our homes and hangs from our necks. It symbolizes the power of Christ who overcame death for our redemption…
The vocation of Christian life that Jesus’ words present to us in this Gospel passage points us directly to the cross. We must “deny ourselves” and “take up our cross”. And only then, can we follow Christ! The crowd that gathered around Jesus that day knew very well what taking up one’s cross would entail.
The cross was an instrument of death. It would’ve been visible throughout Jesus’ life, along roadsides leading in and out of every city and town. In Jesus’ childhood, he likely would have seen over two thousand crosses erected throughout his homeland following the Galilean insurrection of 6CE. What an impression this would have made on him. Those crosses and the corpses that hung from them were constant reminders of who was in charge: The Roman Empire. The crucifixion event itself was centered around humiliation and torture. The person would be stripped and scourged. After that, they were often then forced to carry their cross to the place of execution. This is no easy task—the cross would easily weigh at least 300 pounds…
As my dear friend and mentor, the Episcopal priest and theologian Kelly Brown Douglas explains, “The cross reflects power’s refusal to give up its grip on the lives of others. It is the refusal of power to retreat. […]” She says, “The cross represents the height of humanity’s inhumanity.” The cross is an instrument of death, but also an instrument of control. It was the Roman Empire’s way of maintaining order, of maintaining their power. Think about who gets crucified: thieves and criminals, rabblerousers and insurrectionists, the poor, pirates and slaves. Crucifixion is to discourage troublemakers from making their trouble.
“Take up your cross” is not advice that the crowd could have wanted to hear. How is this the good news they expected?! Jesus directly asked them to become criminals: “For those who want to save their life will lose it.” Jesus does not offer them peace or freedom—he offers them death… death upon a cross. His response to them is startlingly honest: It’s not going to be easy. He tries to make them understand that they will be constantly facing challenges, but that they must do so with braveness and conviction.
Imagine the disciples’ confusion when Jesus told them, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” rejection, and death. But how can this be?, they must have thought… How is this good news? Would the disciples also have to undergo that same suffering and death? That is surely not what they signed up for! They sought glory and power, liberation from Rome… but before the crown comes the cross. Suffering has to be part of their journey alongside Jesus.
It is easy to love comfort. It is easy to love complacency. It is easy to love privilege. But being a Christian means giving up some of those things to suffer alongside those who walk the stony road to the cross. Being a Christian means removing my-self from the center of my own concerns. It isn’t always about a “feel good” theology. It asks us to do hard work. Being a Christian means waking up every day and choosing to walk with Jesus, no matter how much it challenges us—because being challenged to become better people, to become more Christ-like, is not meant to be easy, pleasant, or clean.
Discipleship means giving up parts of our own lives through sacrificial love, that which Jesus modelled for us on the cross. We sacrifice the cheap things of our life for eternal things. We give up candy or being uncharitable to strangers so that we might have a taste of that heavenly banquet that Jesus has promised us. Those who put themselves first will indeed be last. Those who are ashamed to be Christians do not honor the glory of the Lord Jesus who died for them, as Jesus so clearly explains.
God gave us life to spend, not keep. Living “abundantly” is to take up that cross and walk alongside Jesus and those who suffer, those who are humiliated, and those who are crucified by injustice. Walking with Jesus requires us to recognize our self-centeredness and help someone else first. I sense that what it means to be a Christian is to be Simon of Cyrene, to meet Jesus along the road to his crucifixion, to carry his cross, and to ease his burden for a while.
This is the journey of Lent. Taking up your cross does not feel like good news… And it shouldn’t. But we’re in it together. We do it together. We do this work as a community of believers—as friends and siblings and the people of God. And we all know what comes next: the cross that comes before the crown. And, so, while we carry our crosses, we must look toward the resurrection with the hope that Christ is always beside us.
Let the words of our sequence hymn be your Lenten instruction manual this week:
Take up your cross, then, in his strength,
and calmly ev’ry danger brave.
It guides you to abundant life
and leads to vict’ry o’er the grave.
 Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015), 180.
Children’s Homily for 1st Lent, February 21, 2021: The Story of the Rainbow (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White and Nicholas White-Spenik)
Today we heard a story about Jesus being baptized. Lots of the children of Grace have been baptized. Being baptized means that you are formally welcomed into God’s family and that we will all love you always. Right after Jesus is baptized (Show slide of Jesus being baptized), God tells Jesus that he loves him. But THEN, instead of going to coffee hour (like we do at Grace) Jesus goes out into the wilderness all by himself – and stays there for a long time (Show slide of Jesus in the wilderness). While he is there by himself, Jesus is tempted. Do you know what “tempted” is? (Give them a chance to answer) Being “tempted” is when someone or something gives you the idea to do something bad and you think you might really to do it even though you know it’s wrong. So when Jesus was alone, The TEMPTER came and gave him some very bad ideas (Show slide of Jesus and the Tempter in the wilderness). Today’s gospel story doesn’t tell us exactly what those bad ideas were, but other storytellers said that the TEMPTER told Jesus that since he was very important and God’s son, he could be mean to other people, and test God, and he should just keep everything for himself because he didn’t need other people anyway.
But Jesus didn’t listen to the TEMPTER (Show slide of Jesus sending the Tempter away). Maybe that’s because he remembered the story about Noah and the Ark – the other story we heard today. That story is about how things got to be very, very bad on the earth and almost all of it was destroyed, but God saved just enough for people to start over again. And as a sign of hope that things could be better, God sent a special sign. That sign was a rainbow. The rainbow reminds us that God will never send another flood to destroy the world- AND it can also help us to remember why we need to do as Jesus did when we are tempted to think that we don’t need other people. Let me tell you a story that explains how:
Once upon a time all the colors in the world started to quarrel; each claimed that they were the best, the most important, the most useful, or the most favorite.
(Show slide of GREEN) GREEN said, “Clearly I am the most important. I am the sign of life and hope. I was chosen for the grass, the trees, and the leaves. Without me all the animals would die. Look out into the countryside and you will see that I am in the majority.”
(Show slide of BLUE) BLUE interrupted. “You only think about the earth, but consider the sky and the sea. It is the water that is the basis of life and this is drawn up by the clouds from the blue sea. The sky gives space, and peace and serenity. Without my peace you would all be nothing but busybodies.”
(Show slide of YELLOW) YELLOW chuckled: “You are all so serious. I bring laughter, gaiety, and warmth into the world. The sun is yellow, the moon is yellow, the stars are yellow. Every time you look at a sunflower the whole world starts to smile. Without me there would be no fun.”
(Show slide of ORANGE) ORANGE next started to blow its own trumpet. “I am the color of health and strength. I may be scarce, but I am precious because I serve the inner needs of human life. I carry all the important vitamins. Think of the carrots, the pumpkins, and the oranges. I don’t hang around all the time, but when I fill the sky at sunrise, or give you a majestic sunset to admire, my beauty is so striking that no one ever gives another thought to any of you!”
(Show slide of RED) RED could stand it no longer. Red shouted out, “I’m the ruler of you all. Blood, life’s blood. I am the color of danger and bravery. I am willing to fight for a cause. I bring fire in the blood. Without me the earth would be as empty as the moon. I am the color of passion and of love, the red rose, the poinsettia and the poppy.”
(Show slide of PURPLE) PURPLE rose up to its full height. He was very tall and spoke with great pomp: “I am the color of royalty and power. Kings, chiefs, and bishops have chosen me, for I am the sign of authority and of wisdom. People do not question me. They listen and obey.”
(Show slide of INDIGO) INDIGO spoke more quietly than the others, but just as determinedly. “Think of me, I am the color of silence. You hardly notice me but without me you all become superficial. I represent thought and reflection, twilight, and deep waters. You need me for balance and contrast, for prayer and inner peace.”
And so all the colors went on boasting (Show slide of colors fighting), each convinced that they were the best. Their quarrelling grew louder and louder. Suddenly there was a startling flash of brilliant white lightning; thunder rolled and boomed out. The suddenly RAIN (Show slide of RAIN raining) started to pour down relentlessly. The colors all crouched down in fear, drawing close to one another for comfort.
Then RAIN (Show slide of RAIN speaking) spoke: “You foolish colors, fighting amongst yourselves, each trying to dominate the other. Did you not know that God made you all, each for a special purpose, each unique and different. God loves you all, he wants you all. Join hands with one another and come with me. (Show slide of all colors holding hands) God will stretch you across the sky in a great bow of color as a reminder that He loves you all, that you can live together in peace, a promise that he is with you, a sign of hope for all for tomorrow.”
Maybe THAT’S what Jesus remembered in the wilderness when he was tempted to show off and think he didn’t need other people. He remembered that every one of us has a gift to share and every one of us is loved by God – and that God will always love us. That’s the good news. Do we agree? (Give them a chance to answer). Good. Who remembers what we say when we agree in church? (Give them a chance to answer). Amen. So let’s say it altogether (Amen).
Attributed to Anne Hope (1978) https://cyc-net.org/today2000/today000330.html.
Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021, Cold, Dark, and Gritty (Columba Salamony)
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
Ash Wednesday is pretty high on the list of Holy Days that I get excited about. Between the readings that seem to surprise me year after year and the stark reminder that we are dust, I find great solace in the yearly reminder of my mortality and the call to be humble in the sight of God. Because of this appreciation for Ash Wednesday, I also carry many memories of this day from years before.
I remember Ash Wednesday in 2018: I was visiting someone in Milwaukee, one week after twenty inches of snow blanketed southeastern Wisconsin. That morning, we woke up to another four inches. We slipped into our snow boots and walked six blocks to the nearest Episcopal Church and received our ashes along with seven other parka-clad snowshoers. The large, beautiful church was empty; the congregation was somber; the weather was biting and cold.
I remember Ash Wednesday in 2016: I was studying at Goucher College in Baltimore. I read and served at the evening chapel service. Someone who I sang with in the college choir sat in the front row. As we read the psalm together, she was visibly upset. She ended up in my line for ashes. I spoke the words, “Remember you are dust,” and as my thumb left an ashen cross on her forehead, I demolished a dam of tears, grief, and sorrow. After the service, we sat in the dark chapel and talked for over an hour.
I remember Ash Wednesday in 2014: Early in the morning, I stood outside the sacristy with an old coffee can and last year’s palm fronds. The hiss of the butane torch is in my ears today—swirling around the rim of the can, again and again, waiting for the dry palms to incinerate and burn. When the service began, the ashes still felt warm and gritty in their bowl.
The world around us is full of reminders of God: the stars fixed in their orbit, the snow that rests as manna in the grass, the palm trees outside my window that dance in the wind. Even the smallest caterpillar helps us recall God’s care of creation, of us. And yet… Sometimes, these reminders aren’t enough. We turn our focus away from God. We overlook that we are made by God—that we are made in the image of God. We might retreat into our burrows, grappled by fear, doubt, and worry.
With this in mind, Ash Wednesday is about remembering. It is not only about our remembrance of things gone before, but also of God remembering us: as the psalmist writes, “For he himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust” (Ps. 103:14). It was God’s hands who scooped up the clay and formed Adamah—Adam—the creature of the earth. It was God’s breath that entered Adam’s nostrils and lungs and brought forth life. God remembers—for God has created us, shaped us, and given us life. Because we are God’s own creation, we trust that God will protect us. We look forward to God’s embrace at the end of our mortal life.
In preparation for the Lenten season ahead, we look to God and ask, “Create in me a new heart. Renew a right spirit within me.” Lent is the season where many Christians feel called to give things up, or take something on. It is an opportunity to make things right with our neighbors. It is a call for us to spend the next forty days in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But more than these, Lent is a time to wrestle with our own demons in the wilderness, as Jesus did. This inner wrestling of Lent is an invitation to renewal: an early start to spring cleaning… a chance to turn away from hypocrisy… a time to exorcise those evil thoughts and habits that pull us away from God. This is why Ash Wednesday is important to me and why I cherish it every year. It is a reminder of our mortality, a chance to reset, a time to humble ourselves before God and our neighbor.
Jesus’ lesson in the Gospel reading for today amplifies that Lenten call to humility. He preaches to the crowd a sermon on how to give alms, how to pray, and how to fast. For Jesus and his audience, these aren’t hypothetical or conditional suggestions. He doesn’t say, “If you give alms,” he says, “when you give alms.” These are instructions. They are reminders to work on our relationships.
This relational work is done in an exercise of remembrance. God always remembers us, but our prayer helps us remember God and improve our relationship with our Creator. Almsgiving enables us to see God in the face of another and to repair our relationships with those around us. Fasting helps us remember that we are part of God’s creation, and that we are made in the image of God, to repair our relationship with ourselves.
As the prayer of Confession from Enriching Our Worship reads, “We repent of the evil that enslaves us; the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.” I think this is a truly Lenten endeavor; it is to remember how our actions have affected others, to repent for the hurt that we have caused, and to repair our relationships with those whom we have hurt, either directly or indirectly.
Jesus asks that crowd—and us—to stay focused on God and God’s will for creation; to remember who’s in charge; to burn to ash all of the things that compel our anxiety; and to seek out that renewal and restore compassion, justice, and goodness with others and to the world around us.
There are forty days ahead of us to do this work before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Forty days to process our grief and bear a new awareness—one focused on God and God’s love. Forty days to let our bad habits die and be reborn as a passionate fire to stamp out the cold. Forty days to wrestle with the demons in the darkness as we wait for the light of Easter. Forty days to find God and God’s will at work in the gritty places of our lives.
So, this Lent, I ask you to remember. Remember others. Remember God. Remember that you are dust—that you are stardust, that billion-year-old carbon—and at the end of your time, to dust you shall return.
Sermon for February 14, 2021: Epiphany Last (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
You have probably heard it said that 2020 was a “dumpster fire,” in which so many things just went wrong. Worst of all was the dreadful COVID-19 pandemic that spread among us. The disease that has taken so many loved ones caused us to separate from one another out of necessity.
2021 has come, and we have elected a new President but have seen great turmoil around the installation of the new Presidential Administration. We see new hope in the development of vaccines against the COVID virus, but in the meantime, it still deals out death.
I recently lost a dear friend of almost 60 years to this dreadful disease. Káawan Sangáa or Woody Morrison his English name. He was an Elder in the Haida nation and, more importantly, their Story Teller in the oral tradition of history keeping. He was one of the most selfless persons that I have ever known, and although not a Christian, he was very much Christ-like.
Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany in which the Protestant Churches use the readings for the Transfiguration of Christ in keeping with the theme of Light in Epiphany. The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ describes a theophany, an experience of God’s ever-near eternal presence. Mark tells the story with straightforward simplicity. Jesus goes to a mountain to pray, accompanied by his dear friends, Peter, James, and John. And there they see him transfigured, dazzling white, shining with the glory of God, and talking with the great prophets Moses and Elijah.(1) The scene reminds us of Moses’ Transfiguration in Exodus, when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the covenant, his face shining so brightly from his encounter with God that his people were afraid, and he had to cover it with a veil. In each story, a mountain act as a thin place, a bridge between heaven and earth.
The Transfiguration describes a mystical event on the mountain, a visible expression of the union of human and divine in Jesus. Like Moses’ people, Jesus’ disciples are astonished by what they have seen. Astonished and in awe of that glimpse of God’s eternal glory and Jesus’ unity with that glory. and indeed
the unity of all humankind in God and Jesus.
Contained within these stories of Transfiguration, these revelations of God’s glory, are human grief stories. Elisha accompanies his beloved mentor, Elijah, as far as possible until he can no longer see him, then tears his clothes in lamentation. Peter, James, and John too are reluctant to let go of the marvelous, concrete, human manifestation of God’s eternal light. Peter suggest that they might make dwellings for the prophets, keep them here with them. They do not want their beloved to leave them behind.
The two stories we’ve heard today are of thresholds, moments of crossing over, journeying toward the point of life and death, the temporal and eternal, with a loved teacher. I think it is very much like a scene from hospice care or my experience with my dear friend Woody’s passing. Family and friends were gathered vicariously via Caring Bridge to a vigil at the threshold of life and death. Using Caring Bridge, Woody’s daughter allowed us To accompany our loved one as far along the journey as we could. We may have had a glimpse of the shining light toward which Woody has already turned his face. “Please stay, I’ll build you a house,” you might plead your heart. Or, since you must go, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”
Like Elisha, we look for that light and that power in the Spirit. And we look to be that power in the Spirit. From the second epistle to the church in Corinth, Paul’s words give us some further guidance. “Let light shine out of darkness,” Paul affirms that we are the bearers of the divine light. Jesus shines in our hearts, giving light and reflecting the glory of God from within us. That uncreated light that shone from the face of Jesus and terrified the disciples is now inside us. We are bearers of the divine light.(2)
The psalm for today begins with a glorious manifestation of God who shines forth does not keep silent but is seen in fire and storm to judge the people, renewing the covenant in worship and declaring the righteousness of God. With the Transfiguration story in mind, today’s psalm clarifies that a glorious experience of divine presence is not an end in itself but is for both judgment and renewal.
Through that judgment, Jesus will reveal to everyone, including ourselves, who we are. No one will be able to hide from the truth. What we have made of ourselves, who we have become, will be clear. We will not dispute it.(3) We can deny nothing because it will be true, and we will know it is true. We will know ourselves, and what we do out of love connects us with the God who is love, and so is done for God.(4)
On the other hand, rejection of love distances us from God. What is done against love is done against God. Thus, as we grow in love, as we act out of love and help others around us, we will find, we did it for God, even as when we abandon love, and act with malice towards others and hurt them, we will find we have also done such to God.(5)
God gathers His covenant people who give praise and worship on the mountain top. Worship is so compelling because it is the one place we can come and be completely open and honest before God. Here we do not need to pretend. Here, at worship, before God, we can be who we most truly are. As we pray at the start of every Eucharist, ‘To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you, no secrets are hidden.’ At worship, there’s no need to pretend, no need to keep up appearances.(6)
Mountain top experiences do not last forever, and we, like Jesus, Peter, James, and John, as well as Moses, must come down to the valley. In our everyday life, we are to be the bearers of the divine light of God’s love in our hearts to the world. Grief and suffering are transformed by the mystical knowledge that we shall be together in God’s love again, as we always have been and ever shall be.
It is easy to compartmentalize our feelings, and hide our light under a bushel, so better to fit in the world, but we are called to share God’s light of love and to work to establish God’s reign in the world. AMEN.
Transfigurations Great and Small – February 11, 2018 – St …. http://www.stpaulsnorwalk.org/transfigurations-great-and-small-february-11-2018/
- Strange and Wonderful, Last Sunday in Epiphany (B …. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/strange-and-wonderful-last-sunday-in-epiphany-b-february-14-2021/
- A Little Bit of Nothing. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/henrykarlson/
- The Last Judgment, The Judgment of Love | Henry Karlson. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/henrykarlson/2021/02/the-last-judgment-the-judgment-of-love/
- The Last Judgment, The Judgment of Love | Henry Karlson. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/henrykarlson/2021/02/the-last-judgment-the-judgment-of-love/
- Sermon – SSJE. https://www.ssje.org/category/sermon/
Sermon for February 7, 2021: We shall not be weary (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):
Watch at this link:
Is anyone else tired? I don’t mean a little beat from one late night or early morning – I mean really tired- constantly tired, always having to dig deep for just enough energy to do what you need to do without ever feeling completely refreshed. If so, then today’s scripture readings are for you. This morning’s gospel is a continuation of the story we heard last Sunday; the actions of both readings take place over the course of one day. To recap: Jesus started the day with some fabulous preaching in the local synagogue where he exorcised a particularly rude and nasty demon, then walked across town to a friend’s house where he healed his friends’ sick mother-in-law. After a brief break, his “friends,” started to bring him every sick or demon-possessed person they could find so that he could heal them too – which he apparently did all night. In the morning, when his friends were sleeping, he tried to sneak off to pray – which was how he recouped his energy – but they hunted down and berated him for taking time for himself, reminding him that more people needed healing. “Get a move on Jesus; your public awaits.”
Jesus didn’t bite – because Jesus knew how to stay focused. In his excellent sermon last week, our Seminarian Columba commented that one of the most prominent words in Mark’s gospel is “immediately,” as in “Jesus went immediately.” Mark’s is the oldest and shortest of the gospels and, as Entertainment Weekly might put it, “the plot really moves.” Faced with a double-talking, fear-mongering demon, Jesus has only seven words to spare: “Be silent and come out of him.” Later in the day, confronted with Simon’s suffering mother-in-law, he doesn’t even bother to use words at all – he simply takes her by the hand and heals her by his touch. Jesus never refuses when asked to heal, but he does it quickly and without fanfare, because he never forgets that such small miracles are simply by-products of his primary reason for existing: to spread the Good News – to be the Good News – the news that God is with us and will redeem her people.
How different this focus is from that of his disciples, who are so diverted by his divine abilities that they often don’t understand a word he’s saying. They are thrilled with the powerful reactions to Jesus’s teaching, excited by his spreading fame, and overwhelmed by how people respond to his healing abilities. No one wants to help him and support him more than they do. They have given up everything to travel with him. They work hard to find food and lodging for him. They love him. And yet they are also the ones that welcome “the crowds” – crowds that will later turn on Jesus and demand his crucifixion. The disciples are the ones who deny Jesus the anonymity he repeatedly asks for. They are the ones who are so distracted by the trappings of Jesus’s ministry that they are prone to forget the message that God has come near.
It is easy to get distracted, especially when we are anxious. When I was pregnant with Nicholas, my second child, we were given the choice of moving right before he was due or right after. We chose after (two weeks, it turned out) so we spent the latter third of my pregnancy packing and Gary wanted to have a tag sale before the baby was born. On the morning my water broke, I told Gary that I thought I might be in labor. He said, “You can’t be. You just went to the doctor and he said two more weeks.” I said, “Well, now he says to go to the hospital and get checked.” So, I went and finished packing my bag, which was 90 percent ready as prescribed, and then packed Gary’s empty bag, and went ahead called someone to sit with Katie in case I had to stay at the hospital and then called my parents to tell them they might want to move up their flight, and finally I went to tell Gary I was ready. I couldn’t find him. I looked all over the house. No Gary. I looked in the driveway. The car was still there, so I knew he hadn’t tried to escape. Finally, I went out to our detached garage, which we used mainly for storage. I had no idea why he would be there, but I was out of options (and experiencing contractions) at that point – and there he was, busily shifting boxes from one spot to another. “What,” I asked, “are you doing”? “I’m getting ready for the tag sale,” he said.
Gary is not the only person in the world to completely lose focus under pressure. We work so very hard, putting in hours of overtime and cursing the length of our “to-do” lists only to realize that we are in a “lather-rinse-repeat” cycle of questionably meaningful work. Even our leisure activities seem unfulfilling when we arise from our couches no healthier, wealthier, or wiser than when we sat down. This seems wrong – and unfair. Surely, we should feel more accomplished if we are working so hard.
Maybe the problem is not how hard we’re working. Maybe it’s that we’re working so very hard on the wrong things. Maybe we, like the disciples, are focused on the wrong things. This is the message that Paul was trying to get through to the Christians in Corinth when he reminds them that proclaiming the gospel is not grounds for boasting. It appears that his community has, like many Christians since, decided that simply proclaiming themselves believers means that they can sit back and “be blessed.” Not so, says Paul. Of course those who choose to follow the way of Jesus the Christ are blessed – but our blessing has nothing to do with bragging rights. Our blessing is our ability and our obligation to spread the good news, to do the work of God. We do not experience the fullness of Christ’s love when we smugly or anxiously hoard it for ourselves. We only truly enjoy it when we freely and joyfully share it with others, especially with those who are different or weaker than we are. “True Christian [blessing] expresses itself [not in receiving but in performing] service.”
Simon Peter’s mother-in-law understood this. Over the years, many people have expressed dismay at the part of this gospel story where this woman, having been healed by Jesus, immediately starts serving the disciples; but if you read the text carefully, you will notice that at no point do Jesus or any of his disciples ask her to serve them. She makes that choice. She chooses to serve – and she is empowered by her choice. She is the first deacon of the Church.
We too receive power when we choose to serve – when we focus on the right work. Think about it. We know the difference between pushing papers and doing good work. Teachers place different value on helping students pass a standardized test and seeing a child’s eyes light up with understanding and eagerness to learn. Nurses can feel the moment when a patient truly begins to believe that she will be okay. Musicians intuit the vibe in the room when diverse souls join together with the love of song. And this congregation knows the difference between an annual meeting where we argue over tax codes and when we jointly envision the possibilities of what might happen if we take a leap of faith to try to truly welcome, support, and serve all God’s people.
There’s even better news – because God’s gift to us is that when we are focused on the right work, we find that because God has no limits our resources are also unlimited when we are doing God’s work. Last week Columba asked us how we would know Jesus if he showed up at Grace. The answer was that Jesus is easy to recognize because he is the one who is quickly and unpretentiously doing the work. This week our scriptures tell us how Jesus will know us when he walks into Grace. The answer? He will know us because we are focused on doing the work of God. And how will we know that we are doing the work of God? We will know, Isaiah says, because our exhaustion will disappear – because those who work for the Lord shall fly with the wings of eagles, walk and not faint, run and not be weary. Have you not heard? AMEN.
V. Bruce Rigdon, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 330.
Sermon for January 31, 2021: Mark 1: 21-28 (Columba Salamony, Seminarian)
Watch at this link:
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
One of Mark’s favorite words in his gospel is “immediately.” There is a constant urgency associated with Jesus’ actions—he immediately goes somewhere; he immediately does something. Jesus’ ministry seems a little… hectic. In many English translations of today’s passage, the word is omitted. But in Greek, the opening verse reads: “Immediately on the Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.” (Mk 1:21b, trans. from SBLGNT). Jesus seems to have only just arrived in Capernaum. The very first thing he chooses to do after sundown is to go to the synagogue, almost as if he knew this was the place he needed to be.
At this point in Mark’s gospel, we don’t know very much about Jesus yet. If you read the first chapter up to this point just as you see it: John baptizes Jesus, Jesus retreats into the desert, then travels through Galilee where he calls Simon and Andrew, and James and John to follow him. In these 20 verses, Mark presents Jesus as a rather compelling and mysterious presence in Galilee. And so, this stranger to the Galileans teaches in the synagogue, and his audience is captivated by his words. He is so unlike anyone they’ve ever seen. He is no ordinary preacher. The crowded synagogue is silent as his voice echoes through the chamber—his words full of passion and authority. Their eyes are glued to him as he speaks… Captive to his voice.
Jesus’ words swell their hearts and expand their imaginations. And then out of that sacred, reverent silence…
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
Heads turn in every direction as they seek to find the voice that dares to interrupt this rabbi.
“Have you come to destroy us?”
This new voice is troubling. It is rough and deep and dark. It echoes through the canyons between bodies as it grips the congregation in fear.
“I know who you are…”
Jesus turns toward someone in the crowd—sitting off by himself in the dark corner, with his hood drawn low over his eyes.
“The Holy One of God.”
Still, the crowd’s eyes are fixed on Jesus as he rises from his place and extends his hand toward the man who spoke. The entire congregation heard Jesus’ next words—crystalline, direct, and forceful:
”Be silent. Come out of him.”
The man’s body seized as he wailed and gnashed his teeth. The darkness emerged from him and it disappeared. The peoples’ amazement amplified. When they left, they spread the story to everyone they knew, and, immediately, the entire region was captivated by the reports from Capernaum.
The words of the unclean spirit lingered with me as I prepared this sermon. “What have you to do with us?” “Have you come to destroy us?” I expect these questions inspired both fear and skepticism. Those sitting in the synagogue must have been troubled by these words. This other man is now provoking the rabbi. I sense there’s a definite tension as people’s eyes oscillate between the two men. The crowd continued to watch the two strangers, and perhaps a division begins to erupt. Who speaks the truth? Which of these can they trust? Both have the potential to destroy the synagogue—whose side will they choose?
By a simple definition, what Jesus performed in the synagogue was an exorcism. Since the 1970s, our cultural imagination has created a pretty intense idea of how an exorcism happens. I don’t necessarily think that Jesus’ exorcisms involved any split-pea soup, like in The Exorcist. But I do want to suggest that it was very alarming and traumatizing for his audience to be face-to-face with evil and to see it as it leaves this man’s body…
Let’s remember that the ideas of demons and evil are throughout Hebrew scripture. They were real to the Jews in Jesus’ time. In the Gospels, we encounter them as the “unclean spirits” who possess the vulnerable. These spirits are present enough in Jesus’ timeline for us to know that his followers and the gospel-writers’ audiences would have regarded evil and spirits and demons as the ‘real deal.’ Shortly before Jesus appears in Capernaum, he wrestled with Satan in the wilderness. Jesus has seen evil. He has felt its temptation. When the unclean spirit spoke to him, saying, “I know who you are,” Jesus’s response might have been, “I know who you are, too—and I’m not impressed.”
I believe for certain that God intends each of us to grow into a fuller, more complete version of ourselves—to become a little more like Jesus each and every day. Yet, we struggle… with temptation, and doubt, and fear. We are much like that synagogue congregation in Capernaum. We have to pick a side. We are pulled between two, competing mindsets. We get stuck between awe and fear. We sit between good and evil.
The words that we heard today from Deuteronomy help steer us in the right path—in the Christ-like or Godly way. God says to Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet […] I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet […] But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name […] that prophet shall die.”
The people sitting in that synagogue were tempted by a false prophet, even by objectifiable evil. Their amazement at Jesus and his teaching infuriated the unclean spirit. When the spirit spoke to Jesus, I wonder how many of them doubted Jesus, or even feared him. But Jesus reminded them which of these strangers represented the good: “Be still and come out of him.” The spirit fled—perhaps out of fear of Jesus, or because it knew it wouldn’t win this fight. Exorcism doesn’t have to include screeching and spinning heads. At a very basic level, exorcism is us asking Jesus to cast out our fear and skepticism. To dispossess us from the allure of false prophets. Exorcism is turning to belief. Surrendering. Being amazed, instead of fearful.
As Christians, we are called to be evangelists of the Gospel, to be Christ-like. To resist evil. To proclaim the Good News. And sometimes we fall short. We get skeptical and turn away. We doubt. We fear. We hesitate. But at our core, we always want to turn again to hear Jesus’ reassuring voice which repels the demons that tempt us and compel us toward the darkness.
This story of Jesus in Capernaum pairs well with the lesson from Deuteronomy. They both teach us that we must be more diligent about recognizing the good prophets, the good in the world. To think critically about what guides our actions, our beliefs, and our values. To put our faith and trust in Jesus and in God. Yet, so often, we are easily captivated by false prophets, by the evil of the world, instead of focusing on Jesus. False prophets capitalize on our fear and our ability to be so easily distracted. We’re attracted to evil through fanfare and parades—ostentatious showings of power and prestige—while humble Jesus sits in a synagogue and teaches. That’s how we recognize him.
Jesus purges the evil from the world without fireworks or abusing his power. He helps the poor and heals the sick. He consoles the sorrowful and liberates the captive. And his goodness always wins. Maybe that’s what we still need to hear and remember today. If Jesus walked into Grace Church in Martinez, would we recognize him? Would we choose him over the false prophet? What demons would he command to come out from us? What kind of a church could we be?
Who might I become if I turn to Jesus and say through the darkness…
“I know who you are, O Holy One of God”?
Sermon/Rector’s Report for Grace Annual Meeting Service, January 24, 2021: Following God’s Call (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Watch at this link:
Jonah stood at a crossroads: Nineveh or – what? He had tried running from God once already- and everyone in the world knows how that turned out. Chased by storms; thrown off the boat by his fellow travelers; and swallowed alive, Jonah had experienced three long and nauseating days inside a big fish until he agreed to do as God had asked: risk his life by going to tell a large number of angry, violent, and unhappy people that they needed to change their ways. Some choices.
Our theology tells us that God gave human beings free will – that we always have the power to choose. This is an astonishing thing when you think of it. If you created an entire species, wouldn’t you make sure it always did what you wanted it to? But our God invested us with the ability to make our own choices, for good or for ill- and so it is that in today’s Hebrew scripture reading we find Jonah at a crossroads facing what are arguably two unappetizing choices: to do as God has asks and face down a nation of people who have lost their moral compass or continue to try to run from the will of an omniscient and angry God. It is choices like these that help us to understand why some people allow others to do their thinking for them.
The Episcopal Church is not a denomination where that comfort will be provided. As Robin Williams so succinctly put it, in The Episcopal Church you are not encouraged to leave your brain at the door. It is possible to be an Episcopalian and sleep through the sermons and dodge the Bible study classes, but if you expect your church leadership to provide you with easy to parrot “party lines” of belief – you have come to the wrong place. We are not here to take your money and tell you what to believe. We are here to do the hard work of discernment together – to figure out how to follow Jesus and to do what God asks of each of us as individuals – and as a community. This requires time, mutual support, and effort – and so we do this in the same way that the ancient prophets did: we listen for God’s voice. We do it in the same way that the early Christians did; we listen for God’s Holy Word. In addition, we follow the traditions of our own denomination to walk together in common life; worshipping, reading scripture, using common sense to apply it to our own lives, and then choosing how to live according to our discoveries. We make these choices as a community, as a people of God.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem like there are any good choices. Sometimes it feels like simply running away may be the best option. Certainly, many Christians are taking this option. Surveys suggest that numbers of people in the United States who call themselves “Christian” are down 12 percent over the last decade. Meanwhile, people identifying as “nothing in particular” or “none” has gone up about six percent in the same time frame. The Episcopal Church is in precipitous decline. In particular, young folks are leaving. “The Episcopal Church had the highest average age among the 20 faiths charted in the 2017 to 2019 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.” In 2019, the entire diocese of Northern Michigan reported an average Sunday attendance of 385. The Episcopal Church has seen a membership drop of almost 25 percent in ten years. Do the math: if this exodus rate continues, there will be no Episcopal Church in the year 2050. That means for many of us there is no running away; we will have to watch it die.
Perhaps some or many of you were not raised in The Episcopal Church as I was, so your heart is not breaking, as mine is. It should be though -because if you are here today then this is your community of Christ. This is your people, your tribe, your village. These are those upon whom your salvation depends – and so you are part of the decisions that we as a church must make – decisions about how we are to survive and how we are to thrive. We must do as Christians have always done. We must choose together – and then we must stand together.
Perhaps some of you got up this morning thinking that you were going to attend Grace’s Annual Meeting so that you could help make choices about things like whether there should be a labyrinth between our buildings, or if we should continue to allow people to decide which Lord’s Prayer to recite. You might be interested in whether there will be a new prayer book soon or if acolytes should be allowed to wear sneakers. These are certainly part of the business of the church, but I believe that the time is coming and perhaps now is when will no longer have the luxury to spend time talking about such things. I am saying brothers and sisters, that the appointed time has grown short… that the present world is passing away. We are returning to a time when, like the original Christians, we must be more concerned with existence than embellishment.
This may sound depressing or alarmist, and you may be starting to regret tuning in today. You may want your feel-good church vibe and be wondering where the Good News is to be found in all this. Fortunately for all of us, the answer to that question never changes: The Good News is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, given to us by the Grace of God. God alone is our rock and salvation, our safety and honor, and we may put our trust in God always – and in all things. By this and this alone we know that we can do anything – and we will – if only we choose to put our trust in God.
It is easy to trust God when things are going well- and it’s just as easy to lament being children of God when we are embroiled in cascading catastrophes. Yet it is during such difficulties that God most frequently and obviously shows herself, providing us with endless reminders of his power and grace. This past year has been a hard one for many people and it has been a painful one for the people of Grace – individually and collectively. Last year at the Annual Meeting I touted our growth. This year I can’t even tell you how we are supposed to measure it. Last year I reveled in our strength of community. This year I stand chiefly alone, surrounded only by a few stalwart helpers. 2020 was Grace’s year to be swallowed by a “big fish,” and during our “three days” of God’s time we learned that our choices have narrowed- and one has been eliminated. If we do not change, then Grace will die. Still, our time in the belly of the beast has taught us that we are not self but God-directed, and that we cannot fail when we seek to do God’s will. We have not only survived this pandemic, but in many ways we have thrived, worshipping more often and more creatively and welcoming new and diverse people to our midst. God has reminded us that we can go to Nineveh and Nineveh will, as it did for Jonah, bow before our God.
We opened today’s service with Cecil Alexander’s old southern hymn, “Restoration.” In this new year, I am asking that we seek not to restore Grace to what it was, but instead pursue its proper place in the restoration of God’s beloved community on earth. It is time for us to leave behind old habits of worship and make our lives a constant act of worship. This is no longer a question of how to get back to who we were; our survival is now inextricably linked to our willingness to devote ourselves to who we are meant to become. We must do as Jonah, Simon, Andrew, James, and John did. We must believe, turn, and follow God’s call into the unknown. We must go as a people to fish for the people who need us. Do not fear, sisters and brothers. We have all we need: Jesus has called us through the tumult – let us choose to follow the road he lays out before us. AMEN.
Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, (October 2019), “In U.S., decline of Christianity continues at rapid pace,” https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.
Terry Mattingly, (December 12, 2020), “Episcopal Church wary of aging congregations,” Arkansas Democrat Gazette (Online), https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2020/dec/12/episcopal-church-wary-of-aging-congregations/
Sermon for January 17, 2021: God calls each of us by name (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
So today since the children of Grace are watching us from home my own children Katie and Nick are going to help me talk to you about today’s Bible stories. Let me call them. Yoo hoo- children! (The children don’t come). Hey, you guys! I thought you were going to help me with the sermon today. (They still don’t come). Where could they be? Yo! Boy! Girl! (That’s what I call them sometimes). (Still no offspring). Hmmm. Let me try one more time. KATIE!! NICK!! (Katie and Nick come right away). Here they are. Where were you guys? (Katie and Nick answer that I didn’t call them by their names so they didn’t come). Ah ha ha. Very funny – as if there are other children here right now!
Sometimes it feels important for someone to call you by your name before you want to answer. Now, sometimes that’s because we think that the someone who is calling us wants us to do something and if we pretend that if we think she is calling someone else we can get out of doing it. Now admit it- who has tried that trick when they heard their mom or dad calling them just about the time the table needs to be set for dinner? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). I KNOW that these two have tried it.
I’ll tell you a secret: adults try it all the time. Adults even try to do it with GOD! When I used to hear God’s voice calling me and telling me that I needed to become a priest, I’d pretend not to hear him. Then, when God got so loud that I couldn’t pretend not to hear, I said to myself, “God must be talking to my SISTER. My SISTER would like to be a priest.” (It turned out that that was true, but it also turned out that God was talking to me). We have all kinds of tricks to try and get out of things God wants us to do – even when those things might be good for us. Have you ever maybe thought your teacher was calling on you to tell you did something wrong, but it turned out that it was really your chance to take home the class pet? Or maybe your grandmother called and you thought you were going to have to help her clean her car, but she really wanted to take you for ice cream? God is like that. You never know what God might want when God calls on you, but you can bet that whatever it is will be good, because God always wants what is best for us.
Today we heard a story about a little boy named Samuel who heard God call his name. Samuel lived a long time ago when children used to go and live in churches with their priests. Isn’t that a weird idea? Can you imagine living at Grace with Reverend Deb? Well, these guys can! (Gesture at Katie and Nick). And they probably wouldn’t recommend it. Anyway, Samuel was asleep, and God called his name. Samuel thought it was the priest, Eli, calling him, but Eli said it wasn’t him. After this happened a couple of times, Eli realized that God must be calling Samuel, so he told Samuel to answer God and tell God he was ready to talk. Now, that was some very smart advice – because let me tell you: if you try to avoid talking to God, God will just find you one way or another!
Later on, we heard ANOTHER story about when some people got called by God in a different way. In that story Jesus was out walking, and he saw Phillip and he told Phillip to follow him – and Phillip did because Philip just knew that Jesus was VERY special. He was so excited that he ran right off to tell his friend Nathaniel so he would come too. But Nathaniel wasn’t buying it. He figured Jesus was just a poor carpenter from a small town, so he couldn’t be very important – and he told Phillip so. But Philip just invited Nathaniel to “Come and See.” What a great idea! Phillip didn’t argue with Nathaniel or get mad. He didn’t go without him. He just suggested he come and see! So Nathaniel came and when Jesus saw him he not only knew his name, but he also knew what he was like and how he had thought Jesus wasn’t very important –and even where Nathaniel had been sitting when he said it! THEN Nathaniel KNEW Jesus was special – and he was very glad that he had come with Phillip.
So, what do you think Samuel and Philip and Nathaniel learned? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Yes, that you should answer when you hear your names called – even when you aren’t sure if it’s good news! What else did they learn? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). That’s right! God knows each and every one of us by our names. I think they might have learned one more thing too. What might that be? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Good! They figured out that it’s a really great thing to share the good news about Jesus with your friends because knowing Jesus will make your friends happy too! Do you think you would like to try to listen for God’s voice? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Will you try to answer when God calls you? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Will you share what you know about Jesus with your friends? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Great – and we will too! All right then, what do we say in church when we agree (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. We say “amen.” AMEN.
Sermon for January 10, 2021, 1 Epiphany, Year B, Out of the Deepest Darkness (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
There is a story in the Hebrew scriptures about a king who ruled Jerusalem in the seventh century before the common era who got word of an impending attack on the city and set out to make sure his people had supplies by connecting a pool of water within the city gates to the city’s major source of water outside the walls by way of a tunnel. Setting people to work from each end and having them miraculously meet in the middle, Hezekiah was able to quickly complete what was ultimately an “S” shaped 11,750-foot tunnel that joined the Pool of Siloam to the Gihon Spring. Astonishingly, this 3000-year-old marvel of engineering is still intact and about 30 years ago Gary and I walked through it with my sister Sidnie. My understanding is that nowadays the tunnel is paved and there are recessed lights in the ceiling, but when we went through it it was very much as the first archeologists found it – filled with sudden turns, erratic changes in height, and darkness – lots of deep, deep darkness.
My sister is a biblical scholar and an excellent tour guide, so we came equipped with extra lights and solid footwear. Even so, our inability to anticipate the next turn and sudden plunges from ankle to thigh-deep water produced quite a few nervous giggles and gave us the sense that we had been in there a lot longer than expected. We were (according to Sidnie) about a quarter of the way through when we saw two tiny flickering lights ahead of us. As we drew closer, we saw that they were matches – or rather a series of matches being lit in rapid succession by two young men whose increasingly visible faces were absolutely terrified. They did not speak English (or Hebrew), but we were able to discern from their gestures that they had been traveling from the other end of the tunnel without any light other than matches- and they were about to run out of them. Wet and dirty, they grasped our arms, pointing back the way they had come, clearly asking if they could remain with us. We offered them one of our flashlights and tried to explain that they were actually much closer to the end than we were and that if they just kept going, they would be out soon. I don’t know if they understood us or not, but either way they opted to stay with us and go back the way they had come, taking the longer but seemingly safer way out of the darkness into the light.
Many human beings express fear of darkness – not just physical darkness, but the metaphorical darkness of the unknown, in the hearts of others, and the dark desires and despair of our own souls. Perhaps this is because some deep primordial part of us remembers the darkness out of which the world was created – a deep, formless void without sound, without scent, without air. Maybe we sense that we might return to that ancient, chaotic darkness – to that dense and tangible nothingness. I think this why when we see primitive behavior our reactions are just as involuntary and combative as the actions that triggered them. Fight or flight is not just a trendy way to understand our emotional responses; it’s a biological imperative. When we feel darkness around us our instinct is to protect ourselves and those we love – either by physical or emotional withdrawal or by righteous aggressive engagement. Onward Christian soldiers.
We are in a time of deep darkness in our nation right now – and like the tourists in Hezekiah’s tunnel we must make decisions about how we are going to move forward in this unfamiliar and distressing gloom. This week we witnessed unprecedented conduct in our nation’s capital. Our moorings have been pulled from beneath us: civility, tradition, unity, shared values, and, for Christians, brotherly and sisterly love, can no longer be assumed parts of our communal lives. We wonder how we got to this place – and how we can move forward from here. We seek out light – any light – that we can follow to get us out of this darkness. It is tempting to select a path from among those offered by the human voices among us – especially those who tell us that we need not fear suffering or pain because we are chosen by God. “Have a blessed day” we tell one another -as if when we have a bad day we are not blessed. We mistake faith for favoritism.
The truth is that there is nothing in our theology that promises that we will not undergo trials and tribulations. Anyone who has read our Holy Scriptures knows that they are filled with stories of chaos, war, famine, disease, and death. It takes humanity just one biblical chapter to commit an act of theft and betrayal and begin our long separation from God and one another. Over and over again human beings act out of self-interest and fear despite God’s repeated efforts to teach us how to overcome our baser instincts.
The good news is that we can learn from our mistakes. There is much in our Holy Scriptures that suggests that periods of crisis, disunity, and chaos can be clarifying and unifying for God’s people. God’s chosen are repeatedly separated from God only to be reconciled each time with new knowledge about what God wants from the people. Each tragedy, each separation cleanses us from our sins and prepares us to move forward with a better understanding of what it means to be part of a beloved community. Our forebears valued such cleansing so much that they codified it into our worship rituals. Paul asked the people of Ephesus if they had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They answered that they had not, but they had been baptized in John’s baptism – a baptism of repentance. Similarly, we in The Episcopal Church weekly confess our sins against God and one another and are absolved of them. This ritual is called a “sacramental rite,” and is an important acknowledgement of our heritage- an acknowledgment that we are powerless without God. It is not, however, a sacrament; it is not an outward and visible sign of God’s blessing upon us.
The primary indication of our membership in Christ’s community is our willingness to share in his life and death through baptism. When we are baptized, we recognize and accept that Jesus died for us, and we enter that death with him. Today we remember Jesus’s own baptism by his cousin John. Because we perform infant and child baptisms, the light sprinkling of water received in baptisms in The Episcopal Church does not adequately replicate the serious dunking that Jesus would have received in the Jordan River. Baptism is a symbol of death and rebirth. It should feel like drowning. When we agree to be baptized, to become Christian, we agree to drown – to die with Christ. With Jesus we go down into the darkness of the deep water – where there is no sound or light, but only a great void of nothingness – so that we may, with Jesus, rise out of it again.
That is what it means to be a Christian in a time of darkness. It does not mean that we are the ones who will escape tribulation. It does not mean that we are the ones who will be proven correct. It means that we are the ones who are willing to move forward through the deep water, through the darkness, through death if need be – because we know that Jesus is with us in the chaos and gloom. Dive deeply then into the current night without fear. The cleansing may be painful. The losses may be hard, but we must not turn around now. Darkness is always only temporary, for our God is the creator of light. Have faith and hold fast -and at the appointed time we will like our savior rise up out of the darkness to see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove and the voice of God speaking and saying, “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” AMEN.
Sermon for January 3, 2021, 2 Christmas, Year B, Three Kings walk into a Barn (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
There is a sign in the Grace Church kitchen that reads, “Three Wise Women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and there would be peace on Earth.” I had, of course, seen it before but had forgotten it was there until wandering into the kitchen the week before Christmas to restock the Deacon’s Pantry and wash some dishes. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
I have never been sure whether I actually like that sign or not. As a woman I enjoy the suggestion that some folks of the female persuasion might have reacted to the Revelation of Jesus’s birth in a helpful and sensible manner. I do not, however, like the implication that they would have been so consumed by doing that they missed their chance to recognize and cherish the theological significance of the event. This balance – between doing “church” and being a worship community- is a tricky one to which we must give careful attention, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus himself gave Martha quite a talking to for getting lost in serving casseroles instead of listening to the words of the living God.
It is always interesting to look at a famous story from a different perspective, but the truth is that we don’t need to rewrite the tale of the “wise men from the East” who appear in today’s gospel – because – as the Grace Church youth group members found out at our most recent Christmas Trivia night- it’s already been rewritten. Most of us who grew up attending a Christian church are acquainted with “Three Kings,” named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, who arrive from “the Orient” at the end of the Christmas pageant wearing crowns and bearing gifts. As you just heard, however, other than the gifts, none of these things are found in today’s gospel, which is the only place in scripture that these wise people are mentioned. That is not an accident.
Those of you who have been in Bible Study at Grace know that while three of the gospels are very similar (synoptic) in content, they have some significant differences too. That’s because each of the gospel writers frames the good news about Jesus with a specific lens. Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience and focuses on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. That means that it’s likely that the story of the visit of the wise people is about the relationship between Jesus’s birth and the fulfillment of the prophecies found in the Hebrew scripture.
Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman suggests that, “Ancient readers would have recognized the Magi as astrologers from the East (perhaps Assyria) who could read the course of human events from the movements of the stars. These wise men are pagans, [non-Jews] … whose astral observations have led them to recognize that a spectacular event has transpired on earth, the birth of a child who will be king. The text never explains why Assyrian scholars would be interested in the birth of a foreign king. Perhaps their worship of him indicates that they understand him to be far greater than a mere mortal, king or otherwise.”
Matthew’s inclusion of the story tells us that the first people who took it upon themselves to answer the call of the Christ child were not the priests of the Jewish king or the scholars of Jewish prophecy, but outsiders. They recognize that Jesus’s coming has been orchestrated by nature itself and that he is worthy of worship, despite his humble circumstances. These foreigners – speaking another language, bringing gifts from another tradition, and believing in a different theology- were the first of the procession of non-Jews who would worship the Jewish Messiah – and they were the first people who put their lives in danger to do so.
They accepted him as he was. Every detail of the story of Jesus’s birth is consistent with our understanding of the man who was both God and human being. He was born as he lived – into the most unassuming of circumstances surrounded by people that his society accounted as practically worthless. Yet, despite the poverty and dangerous circumstances of his nativity, the joy and gratitude of everyone who hears the news demonstrates that God is present in this child. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was born among the very people he would continue to bring joy to for his entire life – the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. He also wants us to know that, as the prophets predicted, Jesus is, from birth, rejected by those who might have known him best.
Anthropologists tell us that human beings began to sort themselves into groups incredibly early in our history – and almost as quickly developed rules for keeping people out of them. Exclusionary criteria have and continue to include age, gender, physical ability, language, and belief. This was certainly true in the sixth century before the common era, when Jeremiah told the exiled Jews that they would eventually return home from their long sojourn with a broader community than they had previously accepted. The procession home described by Jeremiah is “a remarkable scene of healing and inclusion. The blind and lame excluded [previously] are here welcomed back. This fits with a broader theme of inclusion in postexilic prophetic texts; elsewhere, foreigners are also said to be welcomed to serve God.” God’s desire, it is clear, is for everyone to be part of the homecoming.
The early Christians struggled with issues of inclusion too. Remember that the first Christ-followers were Jews – and they weren’t so sure that they should welcome non-Jews into their midst. Today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Christ community in Ephesus is “a manifesto that proclaims full membership, equal status, and honorable place for Gentile Christians in the people of God.” Ehrman suggests that “It is the Gentiles, the non-Jews, who originally do not have the Scriptures but who learn the truth from those who do. [They, like the Magi, make the spiritual and physical journey to…] worship the King of the Jews.”
In the almost two thousand years since this communication was heard, church members and leaders have repeatedly participated in discriminatory practices that benefit certain people at the expense of others. We have often refused to share Jesus’s humility and universal acceptance, taking him from among the barn animals, removing his crown of thorns, and placing him in the heavens wearing the countenance of the prosperous and powerful.
This is not what is shown to us in the narrative of Jesus’s birth – and it is not what God wants. As today’s psalm makes clear, our God has the power to do anything, but what God does is to continue to try to bring all creation to Godself. The offer is clear. The signs are there– but we miss them when we forget that our earthly work and our love of God are inextricably linked. It is no accident that I was reminded of the Magi in a room where much labor has been performed for others on God’s behalf. As the Magi followed the star, so too we must follow the Magi – patient, diligent, and open-minded- growing in grace and gratitude until we too will be overwhelmed with joy. Ask for directions, arrive on time, help where you can, show your faith in practical ways, give thanks at all times and in all places – and there will be peace on Earth. AMEN.
Bart D. Ehrman (2002), The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings: A Reader (2nd edition), [Oxford, England: Oxford University Press].
Christopher B. Hays, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 172.
Luis R. Rivera, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 184.