Sermon for February 19, 2017: How do I love thee (Preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California)

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Sermon for February 19 How do I love thee

One of my favorite theologians, Linda Gavenda, told me that today is all about love.  She is, of course, right.  Not only because today is my last Sunday at St. Clement’s and we are expressing gratitude for the love that we have shared these last four years, but also because Hallmark has nothing on Christianity when it comes to celebrating love.  After all, the willingness of Christian clergy to advocate for the idea that love is love is love did not start in the twentieth century but back in the third century when St. Valentine defied the Roman Empire by performing weddings for Roman soldiers who were prohibited from getting married.  After being arrested, tortured, and imprisoned for his “crimes,” Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s blind daughter, who promptly regained her eyesight before he was executed. So, Christians have been falling in love for a long time.  But is that really what Jesus meant when he said, “love your neighbor as yourself”?

The desire to love and be loved is so integral to our human nature that over the years our bestseller lists have been populated by hundreds of books on understanding, attracting, possessing, and even surviving love.  And, of course, that bestseller the Bible is full of love stories: Abraham and his soulmate Sarah, who he told people was his sister; Jacob and his two wives Rachel and Leah; and that old Nazarene carpenter Joseph and his child bride Mary – come to think of it, maybe these aren’t the best examples of romance, which makes sense, because the truth is that what we call “romantic” love – “eros,” is rarely referred to in the Bible, other than as a metaphor for another, more important love – the love of God.

And yet how we love each other is, for Christians, the primary way in which we demonstrate our love for God.  Because the bottom line is this: You cannot hate your neighbor and love God.  Of all the radical ideas that Jesus preached, the most countercultural of them all was the notion of loving others as yourself. And not for the reasons we might think.  The individualism that is so much a part of American culture is a relatively modern thing, growing concurrently with our developing nation during the seventeenth through twenty-first centuries – but we still can’t help but view everything around us through its lens.  When we read Jesus’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” we instantly connect his words to our individual selves.  We think that God is telling each of us how to be better people.

But for the Jews of first century Palestine, like their Israelite ancestors, loving themselves meant loving and protecting their people – their tribes and families. The rules presented to Moses in Leviticus that we heard today are part of a much longer treatise – the Holiness code- that was established by God not for the purpose of turning the Israelites into better individuals, but into a better –and safer –community.     

They are practical: don’t strip your land bare – leave some for the poor folk or else they will rebel against you.  Don’t steal and lie because it makes people mad.  Don’t cheat and swindle others because you’ll end up dead.  And definitely do not hate your families and friends, because if you do your community will fall apart, and you will die.

It was the same law that Paul had to remind the Corinthians about.  “Here is what you do,” Paul says, “if you want to survive.”  Except Paul’s people were facing a different kind of extinction – a spiritual death.- because they were so busy fighting among themselves over which of their leaders had the right “rules” for being Christian that they were losing sight of the teachings of Jesus.  We are not, you see, the first people of God to fight amongst ourselves, to experience ourselves as knowing the “correct” interpretation of God’s word, to believe our brand of Christianity to be “right.”  The Corinthian church was splintered into factions and Paul knew that the “wisdom” of the world – the cares and confusions of their age – would destroy it if they did not understand that whatever their differences were, whatever “additions” each of these builders had added to their doctrine, the foundation of their belief was the same.  The foundation of their belief was love – love among and with all people.

This is still a radical idea – now in a time and a culture in which we are told that it is alright to mock someone if we have good reason, that hatred is a family value, and that truth is a relative concept. That is the “wisdom” of our age.  But God’s way is different. Because God is not a private God.  God does not belong to one person, one culture, one community, one religion. The holiness cods, the words of Paul, and most especially the words of Jesus, exist so that we know how to survive together.  Our likeness to God – our holiness – is something different.  That comes not from our ability as individuals to follow any set of rules or dogma, but by direct transmission from God, who is completely unique. Our holiness is “a likeness to the otherness of God, a way of being distinguished from the rest of humanity…a way of life that is pointedly different from the ways of the world.”[1]  It is this “otherness” that makes us a community.  It is this otherness that makes us part of the divine.

And it is this otherness that demands that we care for one another in a different way – not in a way that protects what is ours or improves who we are, but in a way that redefines what it means to love.  By all means, Jesus says, follow the ancient rules that you have been told again and again – they will help you survive.  But that is not enough.  It is not enough to try to be a “good person.”  It is not enough to “do your part.”  It is not enough to do what you can, given the limitations you have.

Because God has no limits.  That is the difference between secular humanism – the belief that human beings can behave ethically and responsibly using the strength of our own natures – and Christianity.  Our scriptures teach us that whatever innate goodness we have is not enough – that it is impossible to live together merely by “being the best you you can be” – that it is, in fact, fatally arrogant to believe that our own “goodness” is enough to combat the ignorance and evil that prey upon and hold sway over those who rely on themselves.  Scripture tells us that the only way to transcend our humanity and share in the holy perfection that is God is to live the completely countercultural, “alien” way that Jesus has identified for those who truly love him.

That means considering all people – of all colors, races, genders, and beliefs – to be our neighbors.  And that means sometimes loving those neighbors not for who they are, but in spite of what they believe – loving our neighbors- no matter how hard it may seem – loving our neighbors until they see God in themselves and one another.  Loving them zealously, fiercely, and without fearThere is an astounding freedom in knowing we are dependent on God.  We can accept that we will never be perfect individuals, by understanding that we are already a perfect community in Christ, through one another.  It is what it means to be a Christian.  It is why I love you.  It is how I love you.    It is all about love.  AMEN.

[1]Sheldon W. Sorge, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 364.

Sermon for January 29, 2017: If you love something, set if free (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco)

          Commitment can make you do strange things.  As someone who performs premarital counseling, I have had the opportunity to hear several unique and very strange promises couples have made to each other prior to getting married, including not to root against each other’s sports teams, not to buy one another body fat scales, and, in my own case, making my husband promise to allow me to die first.  There was some logic to this demand -having watched my mother widowed twice, I had a clear sense of the kind of fortitude it takes to move forward when you have lost someone who is as much a part of you as your own heart, and I doubted I was capable of it and had no desire to find out.  Still, he might have been put off by this request.  It is, after all, just a tiny bit morbid.  But Gary, not missing a beat said, “Sure.  No problem – because I plan to stuff you and put you in a rocking chair when you die anyway.”

Which may explain why our relationship works.   Our relationship fears are compatible.  This may seem like a strange measure for the potential success of a marriage – and not one you often hear in pre-nuptial counseling – but as a psychologist, I can tell you with complete confidence that there is no such thing as a completely healthy relationship, and sometimes the best you can do is to be aware of your own neuroses, and work through them together.  We are all afraid of something – and we are all flawed.   No one on this earth leads a blameless life and does what is right –does no evil to his friend –gives money without the hope of gain, and swears to do no wrong and is able to keep his word.  No one.

Which makes me wonder why there are so many scripture readings that seem to suggest that that kind of perfection is exactly what God wants from us.  The answer is that God doesn’t.  Notice that the laundry list of goodness we heard in today’s psalm does not end with a promise that if we do these things we shall not be overthrown.  It ends with the statement, “Whoever does these things shall never be overthrown,” the “whoever” in this case, being God alone.

It does feel like a bit of a tease though – because it certainly seems like God is presenting us with some pretty clear directives for how we should live our lives – so it only makes sense that we would adopt these as goals and assume they are achievable.  Except there’s nothing in the Bible that supports that assumption. The truth is that we are the ones who have decided that if we try hard enough we can actually rise to this standard.  We are the ones who seek perfection – who deny our fallibility – who chain ourselves to a perpetually-turning wheel of desire, expectation, and inevitable disappointment when we find we cannot achieve what we set out to do.  We are the ones who set ourselves up for the frustration that comes when we think things are unfair.

The other day my son couldn’t find his bicycle.  It turned out he had left it in a bike locker at BART.  When I berated him for not keeping track of his bike, he told me it was his father’s fault because Gary had unexpectedly offered to give Nick a ride home from school, thus making Nick forget he took his bike in the morning.  Back in approximately 700 BCE, the people of Judah demonstrated a similar logic, asking God how he could possibly be angry with them when they had been sacrificing their best livestock to him for years without him even asking them too.  “They thought that religion consisted of worshiping ‘correctly’ and staying away from those who didn’t.[1]  Seven hundred years later the Corinthians demonstrated that didn’t know any better by assuming that deciding which Christian leader they should follow was the best way to get worship “right.”

The crowds following Jesus had a simpler motive.  They wanted to know what he could do for them – and what he wanted in return.  But the series of statements that Jesus made to them – what we have come to know as “the beatitudes” – turned out not to be the prescription for how to live that they were looking for.  Instead, they were a description of the realities of human life.  What Jesus told the crowds was not how to be blessed, but instead that blessing was not something they could acquire –that it is a gift.  “Blessed,” Jesus told them, is not something you strive to be.  “Blessed” is something you already are.

That makes blessing is not a challenge but a promise – a promise that whatever state we are in, whatever our circumstances, God remains the source of our life and the one thing on which we can depend.  It is a deeply comforting idea – and one that I still struggle intensely against.  That’s because accepting it – truly believing that there is nothing I can do to attain piety – to achieve sanctity – to prove my worthiness –means I am not in control of my life and, even more frightening, it means that all that I have gained through my own efforts – whatever knowledge, power, or strength I possess – have no part in my salvation.

There is a saying, “If you love someone, set them freeIf they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were.” I’ve always hated that saying – because I don’t want to let go of the things I love.  I don’t want to risk losing them.  I want to hang on to them with both hands.  And yet I know from tragic experience that love which suffocates kills as surely as that which neglects.

True love – godly love – is not safe.  It is not tame.  Real love challenges us. It helps us to grow, to learn, to evolve.  And while it is true that much that is worth having cannot be achieved, it is also true that many things can be accomplished – and that we attain much more when we work together.  That requires allowing those around us the opportunity to seek wisdom on their terms, to take risks, to make mistakes – and to live without fear- and that includes the fears we project unto them.

It is hard to fight the fears we have for those with whom we are in relationship – harder perhaps than confronting that which we fear for ourselves.  I admit that I fear many things. I fear that when my daughter leaves home to live on her own, she will not be ready.  I fear that when my son attends a protest in downtown Oakland he will not be safe.  I fear that when my mother drives herself from Connecticut to Pennsylvania her weakened heart will not be strong.  And I fear for the people of St. Mary’s.  I fear that instead of the self-awareness, spiritual connections, and compassion you have gained through the challenges of this last year, it is the sorrow you have endured, the divisions you have suffered and the desire to forge ahead and forget that you will take from this interim time – and from your relationship with me.  I fear to leave you until I am sure you are ready, that you are safe, that you are strong.

But that fear, like the belief that anything we have achieved together is a result of our own strengths, is an illusion, based on pride.  The truth is that I we can set one another free without fear.  In relationship with one another and out, we are in God’s hands– and, whatever we become, we are already all we need to be.  Blessed are you, children of God.  May you continue to hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you are already filled.  AMEN.

[1]Brett Younger (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Advent IV), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 295.

 

Sermon for January 15, 2017: Feast of Martin Luther King, Jr. – Let no one pull you so low (Preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin)

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Pray…for me that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel…Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.” Amen.

Like all other citizens, I am occasionally called for jury duty.  But unlike many people, I have very little hope of actually serving on a jury.  That’s because I used to work as an expert witness – and part of my job was to make jurors understand things and, if you asked the lawyers who worked with me, convince them of the “rightness” of the “side” I was testifying for.

That’s a bad way to think of it, because the minute you become invested in “winning” a case, you lose your ethical lens.  A psychological expert’s job is to help a judge or jury understand what is happening in the mind of a person who has committed a crime and apply that information to the law.  My job was to evaluate people and offer opinions – not to convince people to make judgments based on what I told them.  But, truthfully, it’s hard not to desire a certain outcome in a trial – not to care how it turns out. Because, quite simply, for the majority of human beings, caring is what we do.

And that’s a good thing.  Because there are people who don’t care.  In forensic psychology, we call these people “psychopaths” – individuals whose behavior is characterized by a consistent inability to care about anything but themselves.  These people behave in tremendously destructive ways – simply by failing to see other people as human beings.  They simply don’t care.

          Lately, I have been answering a lot of questions about whether or not I think Dylan Roof is one of those people.  On Tuesday, Roof was sentenced to death after being convicted of 33 counts in connection with the shooting deaths of nine people in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina in 2015.  Roof has demonstrated no remorse for the killings, freely admitting that his victims were innocent and that his only motive for his actions was hatred based on racial prejudice.  Roof was evaluated by a psychologist in order to be found competent to represent himself, but doesn’t appear to have cooperated in a full psychological evaluation.  Acting as his own attorney, Roof chose not to introduce any evidence about his mental state– so there’s no way to know whether he suffers from a serious mental disorder that impairs his thinking.  But as someone who has a lot of experience in these matters, I can tell you one thing: it’s quite possible that Dylan Roof is not mentally ill.  It may be that there is nothing wrong with Dylan Roof’s thinking; it may just be that it’s his heart that is sick.

Because hate is a sickness – and it is extremely contagious.  And, like the common cold, I would wager that every person in this room has suffered from it at one time or another – and that many of us are trying to fight it off right now. All we have to do is to glance at a newspaper headline to know this.   The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrate that he knew this.  And scripture tell us that God knows this – that’s why he sent Jesus Christ into this hateful world to help us fight against it.

If there was ever a clear acknowledgment that God knows that we struggle with hatred in our hearts, it is today’s gospel.  “Listen,” Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.  Bless those who curse you.  Pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  This passage, known to many of us as the “Golden Rule,” actually predates Christianity by millennia.  In fact, some version of the Golden Rule appears in almost every significant social, ethical and religious philosophy we know of, including Judaism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.

This saying is the crux – the cross – of what makes it hard to be a Christian.  Our religion is based on a very simple idea – which also happens to be the very hardest behavior to enact – to love one another as we would be loved.  This is the most potentially impossible thing a human being can be asked to do.  Living together in love – not in civility – not in restraint – but in honest, painful, intense, exultant, despairing, daring, hopeful, complicated love – is – if you do it right – a constant struggle.  It is the emotional equivalent of pushing an enormous boulder uphill for your entire life, of running on a treadmill that never stops – of watching “Old Yeller” a thousand times in a row.  It is, for most of us, simply a dream.

It is a dream that Martin Luther King famously shared.  Tomorrow, on the national holiday that celebrates that dream there will be much talk about its components – about racial equality that has still not been achieved – about justice that remains out of reach – about the kind of understanding among people that would have prevented the violence demonstrated by Dylan Roof.

That is tomorrow.  Today, as Christians, we need to remember something different.  We need to remember that Martin Luther King’s dream was not just about civil liberties or political equality; it was about spiritual love.  It was a dream not just that all people will be truly created equal, but that “the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”  Martin Luther King’s dream was a Christian dream.

It was a dream that Jesus taught us to dream – and a dream for which Jesus – like King – was killed.  It is the dream that it is at the root of all Christian belief.  It is the dream for which dreamers from the dawn of time have been murdered.  It is a dream for which we should all, as Christians, be willing to die.

It seems impossible – that we could be strong enough to die for that belief.  God knows, we are often not strong enough to even live for it.  It is so hard not to hate, especially when we believe that others have given us the right to do so.  But we must not allow ourselves to be, as King put it, “pull[ed]…so low as to hate.”  We must, at the very least, fight the hate that is inside of us.  And we may not be strong enough to fight that pull on our own, but I believe we are strong enough to take the hand of Jesus – and the hand of our neighbor – and to try.  I believe we are strong enough to listen to the word of Jesus – strong enough to put on the armor of God –strong enough to stand firm against the evil that is in the world –strong enough to struggle against the powers of darkness –strong enough to “press on, to move along the highway of freedom toward the city of equality,” strong enough to take up not the sword of hate, but the shield of faith – and to proclaim the gospel of peace.

We are, like Dylan Roof, only human beings, predisposed to judge, compete, fear, and hate.  But we are also children of God, redeemed and imbued with the power of God’s love – the power of God’s grace – the power of God’s amazing grace.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that save a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now I’m found – was blind but now I see.

AMEN.

Sermon for December 18, 2016: Send us a sign (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

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Many of you have probably already heard the news story about the very religious man who was caught in a flood.  He climbed onto the roof of his house and waited for God to rescue him. A neighbour came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”  “No thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”  A short time later a police boat came by. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”  “No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”  Finally, a Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead and let down a rescue swimmer who said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”  “No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”  All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he got to heaven he angrily confronted God, saying, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I trusted you to save me from that flood and you let me die.” “Listen” replied the Lord. “I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter.  What else did you want”?

It’s an old joke, but, like all good jokes, it says a lot about human nature.  I don’t know if this joke was around in the eighth century before the Common Era, but it seems like King Ahaz could have benefited from hearing it.  Unlike other rulers throughout history who have asked God to send them a sign of God’s favor, Ahaz refused to ask for a sign because he didn’t want “to put the Lord to the test.”  On the surface, this seems like a good decision on Ahaz’s part.  But, when you look at the context in which this exchange between Isaiah and Ahaz happened, you begin to see Ahaz’s response in a different light.  He was not demonstrating his faith, but his fear.

Ahaz was the king of the southern country of Judah, which was one half of what had been the great Israelite kingdom under Solomon.  Israel had joined together with another northern kingdom to attack Judah, and Ahaz was worried about the coming conflict.  When he called his resident prophet, Isaiah, for help, Isaiah told him not to worry about it – that God would take care of it.  But Ahaz had already made an agreement with the Assyrian king – and he decided it was wiser to bet on that concrete political pact than some vague commitment from a far-away God.

It’s a decision many of us might have made.  What are you going to trust – a rational, human alliance that will keep your people from being slaughtered, or the vague word of a crazy religious leader? But God does not like being refused, so God told Ahaz he’d get a sign anyway – a very ambiguous one. “On the one hand, Immanuel’s birth [would] mean the end of Ahaz’s enemies,” but it would also end with the Assyrian king taking advantage of the alliance and conquering…Judah.”[1]  Isaiah’s prophecy – both for Ahaz and as a sign portending Christ’s birth, was a double-edged sword.  It shows us “a God who is both comforting and disturbing, threatening and assuaging.  [In other words], the God of Isaiah 7 is the God we know in Jesus Christ.”[2]

It is a God who does not always speak to us in the way we would hope.  In an age in which we communicate in a maximum of 918 characters (if you text) and often as little as 140 (if you tweet), God’s way of talking to us through someone else seems annoyingly unclear.  “We live in an age of promiscuous communication”[3] – one in which we are in such a hurry to get answers and leap into action that we feel comfortable leaving out a simple “Hi, how you doing”? and moving straight to the heart of the matter.  We are efficient, if not polite.  That’s why today’s reading from Romans, which consists entirely of Paul’s greeting to the community, sounds to our ears like the voices of the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon – “mwah, mwah.”

That’s why it’s so easy to miss the part where Paul talks about what it feels like to be called by God- to “belong to Jesus Christ.”  That’s a shame, because, in a season in which we are bombarded with messages about what we want, what we need, and, most importantly, what we must hurry up and buy, it would probably be a relief to know that we have already been given the greatest gift we will ever receive – the grace and peace of God.  That message is a quiet one.  Because although we will pull out all the stops at St. Clement’s to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the true message of Christmas comes to us – just as it did to Mary – only when we ponder it in our hearts.

That’s what Joseph had to do when he was presented with what was potentially the most significant decision of his life.  A devout man who faithfully followed the laws of his religion, Joseph was confronted with the embarrassing choice of what to do with a pregnant fiancé with whom he had had no “relations.”  Should he simply divorce her and let her go her way, saving her disgrace but potentially making him look weak and insincere in his religious beliefs, or allow her to be stoned to death for her sin?  But just when he decides to “quietly” dismiss her, he has a dream in which an angel tells him to go with “Option C” –to marry her and adopt her child who – by the way- will save the people from their sins.

We don’t have any information about Joseph’s initial reaction to this stunning event, but nowhere in this reading does it say that Joseph asked God for a sign.  We only know that, based on his dream, he decided to go ahead and marry his seemingly unfaithful betrothed and raise the child as his own.  I suspect that not many of us would have done the same.  From our modern perspective it seems completely irrational to make a significant life decision based on a dream.

But that is what faith is about – committing our lives to the principles that are tangible only in our hearts.  Let me be clear: I am not saying we should believe without evidence; what I am saying is that the evidence that is within us – our dreams, feelings and interactions with others – is just as valid as the scientific proofs we have come to rely on.  Joseph knew that.  Paul knew that.  And Ahaz forgot it – much to his later dismay.  God does not communicate with us the way we communicate with each other, but God does communicate with us.  God sends us the signs we would ask for before we can ask for them – and we ignore them.  John Glenn, astronaut and scientist, when viewing the earth from space said, “To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible.” For him, the beauty he saw and the technology that allowed him to see it were both signs from God.

I can’t tell you how God will communicate with you – I just know God will.  And I know that if you ignore it, you, like Ahaz, will regret it.  Because all God asks of us is this: to answer his call – to say “yes” to what she offers us – to choose to believe.  We are separated from the perfect comfort of God’s presence not by God’s unwillingness to hear or help us, but by our own refusal to take God’s help.  “Sin is the choice to minister to ourselves, rather than to allow the savior to minister to us.”[4]  That’s why sin hurts. As we draw near once again to our remembrance of the birth of that savior, let us open our hearts and listen to what God is offering to us-  and let us without fear and with great joy answer him, witness the light of her countenance, and be saved.  AMEN.

[1]Michael J. Chan (2016), “Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-16,” in Preach this Week, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3124.

[2]Ibid.

[3]David Wood (2010),  in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Advent IV), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 3277.

[4]Daniel Harris (2010),  in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Advent IV), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 3561.

 

Sermon for January 1, 2017, The Feast of the Holy Name, “What’s in a name”? (Preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin)

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I am the second of two children.  I grew up living in a two-family house.  My aunt and uncle – my father’s sister and brother- lived upstairs and I lived downstairs with my parents and older sister. When I was nine years-old, my uncle died. Five months later, my father died. A week later my aunt died.

I had never known my paternal grandparents, as they had both died before I was born.  So from being surrounded by my father’s family, I went to having one remaining paternal aunt who lived across town.  At the age of nine, I was one of three remaining heirs to my father’s name, but I had a limited idea as to what that legacy meant.

And I didn’t have a very reliable way of finding out, because as I grew older, I started to realize that I had very few- far too few – memories of my father.  My sister would bring up things she remembered from our childhood- trips to Santa’s Village, visits to our extended family, simple, everyday occurrences in our household – and I wouldn’t remember any of them.

Eventually, after becoming a psychologist, I recognized that my memory deficit was traumatic- an effect of suffering from so much loss at a young age- but that realization did nothing as far as getting my memories back.  No amount of therapy allowed me to break through the protective block I had put around my missing memories of my father, so I continued to have very little identification with what it meant to be “a White.”

But I knew it was important.  I knew because my sister and my aunt told me so.  The Whites, I was informed, were a very proper, sophisticated, old New England family and I should wear my name with pride.  Of course, the flipside of that message was that my mother’s family -the Schleinkofers – were not as good.  My mother was only a “third generation” American, saddled with a German name and German heritage during a period of American history in which both conditions were treated with great suspicion.

And, according to my family system, I was a “Schleinkofer.” Why? My sister told me the story this way:

“When you were first born and Mama was paying so much attention to you that I felt ignored, I went upstairs to Aunt Cath and Uncle John to get some attention from them.  Aunt Cath sat me down at their kitchen table and said, ‘It’s alright.  You don’t need her attention.  You are a White.  You belong to our family. That baby can belong to your mom’s family.”

 

And that was how we thought of ourselves for many years. My sister carried all of the privilege – and responsibility – of the “White” name, while I was the favorite of my maternal grandfather, who taught me his values – hard work, a desire to get along with everyone he met, and a strong aversion to “standing on ceremony.”  Those who know me know that those ideals are still very much a part of who I am. Thus, while on paper I am “the Reverend Dr. Deborah White,” in person I am just “Deb.”

That may be a good thing- but the division produced by my aunt’s statement also had lasting negative effects for my relationship with my sister – and hers with my mother- for many years. It was not until we were well into our 30s – not until we learned that part of the White family legacy was the depression that my father had – and that both of us suffer from – not until she was a priest and I was a psychologist – not until we actually talked to each other about it -that we could understand and address how our individual identifications with different sides of our family had hurt our relationship with one another – and limited our spiritual development.

People do this kind of damage to each other every day – by how we interpret the news, in the ways we act in our encounters during post-Christmas shopping and gift returns, and when we dine out or in with visiting family members.  We do it when we make casual judgments of others – by wondering what kind of person would name their child “North West,” by denigrating others’ “strange” holiday traditions – and in our impulsive perceptions about who or what is really “American.”  The way we name ourselves and others is a very powerful thing.

That’s why we celebrate the feast of the Holy Name today.  Because just as how many of us define ourselves stems from our understanding of our names, so too did the people who surrounded the infant born to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth develop their first opinions about him based on his name.

As a first-century Palestinian Jew, Jesus received his name just like any other baby boy; on the eighth day of his life as part of his circumcision ceremony.  His name, according to Luke’s account, was pre-ordained because the angel that had appeared to Joseph and told him to go ahead and marry his pregnant, seemingly unfaithful fiancé, also told him that they were to name the child, “Jesus.”

It was not a particularly unusual name, but it was a famous one.  “Jesus” (or “Yeshua”) is a version of the ancient prophet’s name “Joshua,” which means, “The Lord is salvation.”  (Clearly there was no pressure on Jesus to live up to any significant parental expectations)!  But Jesus’s name wasn’t about expectations or even evangelism.  It was about reconciliation.

Some of you may know that in Jewish tradition, the full name of God is neither written nor spoken. This is a sign of respect based on the idea that simply by saying the name of God aloud we can profane it.  Our understanding of the name that God takes for Godself originates in the book of Exodus when Moses asks God his name.  In many English translations of the Bible, God says, “I am the Lord,” but in Hebrew the word God uses is “Yahweh,” and is better translated as a phrase, “I am.”  Thus, when asked her name, God says merely, “I am,” meaning that God was not created.  God is – and has always been.  God is constant.  God answers to no one.  God is, according to the psalmist, exalted, majestic, our Governor – one who is so great that human beings do not even deserve her notice – one who is master over all creation.  God is awesome.

And God is very far away.  For who but the most pathological narcissist really thinks that they are worthy of God’s individual attention, God’s time, or God’s love?  Certainly not the ancient Israelites, who saw God as a distant, demanding master, to whom they were as slaves, whose very name was so sacred that they could profane it just by speaking it.  They were not, to put it plainly, on a first-name basis with God.

But we as Christians are – not based on our own merit, but through the revelation of God in earthly form that is Jesus. Through Jesus’s sacrificial love, we have been invited into a closer and more intimate relationship with God.  By taking a human name – an ancient and respected Jewish name – God signaled to humanity that we not only could, but should believe that God does indeed want to be near to us – to be part of us.  Through the holy name of Jesus we have become, in the words of St. Paul, “no longer [slaves but children and heirs] of our God.”

And, for us, this inheritance is free – because the cost has already been paid by Jesus, our brother and savior.  It has been paid in blood – in the blood he shed when he was beaten by soldiers – in the blood he shed when he was nailed to a cross – in the blood which flowed out of his side when he was wounded for our transgressions.  By accepting his human name, Jesus showed humanity that he was willing to bleed so that we could be reconciled to a God who had become remote from his human children. And the first of that blood was shed at his circumcision when he accepted the Holy Name that is our salvation.

That is what it means to accept the name of Jesus as our own, to be a “Christian” – a follower of Jesus the Christ. It means that each time we do something “in the name of Jesus” we have the opportunity to remember and honor God’s tremendous love for us.  It means knowing that all of us – whatever our earthly name may be – share an inheritance of grace and peace- not because of anything we have done, but because God has shared with us the glory and majesty of his name – and for that reason – and for that reason alone – we are blessed. AMEN.

Sermon for December 4, 2016: Prepare ye the way of peace (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco)

Listen here: 

I have recently noticed that I spend a lot of my time preparing for things.  Every week, I prepare for our worship services by meeting with clergy and staff members, proof-reading announcements, and studying sacred – and not-so-sacred – texts.  I prepare for meetings by writing emails, summarizing information, and answering questions.  I believe in preparation.  As Max Brooks, author of the important practical text, “The Zombie Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead,” says, ““If you believe you can accomplish everything by “cramming” at the eleventh hour, by all means, don’t lift a finger now. But you may think twice about beginning to build your ark once it has already started raining.”  So, fear not, I am certainly ready for any zombies that wander into St. Mary’s.

But I am not ready for Christmas.  I know this, because I am worried about it.  I’m worried that my mother will get sick because she’s coming from Connecticut to visit me.  I’m worried that the printer will break again and we won’t have bulletins on Christmas.  I’m worried that our pledge drive will fail and we will have to lay off people.  I’m worried about getting Christmas wrong.

As if we could.  Any five year-old who has viewed “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” knows that no one individual can ruin Christmas – that Christmas comes “without ribbons! It [comes] without tags!  It [comes] without packages, boxes or bags!”[1] It comes without pageants and music and greens.  It might even come without Altar Guild teams.  Christmas, you see, “doesn’t come from a store.”[2]  Christmas, we know, means Jesus- that’s all].            And that is more than enough.  But it’s easy to forget that.  Because “the church’s traditional Advent practice stands in tension with contemporary culture. [For many people]…preparations for Christmas have been reduced to hanging twinkling Christmas lights, listening to cheery holiday music, and gazing at an abundance of material goods for the buying, all of which we hope will evoke in us a sense of magical, childlike wonder and goodwill…Our own ideals and longings, [rather than] the promises of God, have become the focus”[3] of our “preparations” for Christmas.

And those longings are often about the wrong things; about worrying over when I will put up my Christmas decorations rather than praying for the 25 people missing in the fire in Oakland.  Because we want the “Christmas season” to make us feel good.  To make us feel the way we did when our lives were simpler.  I was accosted by this truth in my own life recently when I stared at the December calendar and realized it was probably going to be impossible to do all of my family’s annual Christmas traditions –cutting our own tree, going to festivals, decorating the house.  But my distress rapidly turned into embarrassment when I stopped to consider what was getting in the way of these “important” Christmas preparations – things like a funeral for a beloved parishioner, a thank-you reception for individuals who take part in food delivery ministry and church services.   I discovered to my dismay that I was actually resenting “having to” do exactly what is most important in preparing for Christmas – spending time with my community of Christ.

But that’s the power of anxiety – and nostalgia.  Our desire to have everything in our lives be perfect is potent.  It’s one of the reasons Christmas is such a delicate and terrifying time for many of us.  There is an incredible amount of pressure to get things right and potentially terrifying consequences to consider if we don’t.  “What,” we think, “if everyone is disappointed?  What if I ruin Christmas”?  It is a trap, set by our own irrational and self-absorbed minds and aided by a society that has become focused on what we have – or should have- rather than who we are.

That’s why we have Advent – to remind us of what we believe and what we are waiting for.  Advent means “coming,” and everything we do in this season is about our expectation that God –Emmanuel -will again come to be “with us.” In fact, according to eleventh century Christian Bernard of Clairvaux, Advent is a season of not one but three comings.  [It] prepares us not just for the first coming of Christ to Israel in the humble and vulnerable form of a baby, or even [his] second [coming to judge the world] at the end of time.”[4]  It also prepares us for the third coming of Christ – one that happens both in between Jesus’s first and second coming.  It is the coming we have to work for, to prepare for.  It is the coming of Jesus into our hearts.  It is when Jesus fills us with God’s peace.

But that can’t happen if we are not ready to accept it – and to understand that the peace we seek so desperately in the world and in our lives cannot happen until we find God’s peace – in ourselves and in one another.  And that peace is not cheap.  It is not peace that can be found through yogic breathing or listening to ethereal music.  It is not peace that can be found in a bottle or under a blanket.  It is peace that is won through action – righteous action.  That’s why God’s appointed ruler, the psalmist tells us, shall be judged not on his ability to strike the earth and kill the wicked, but by how he treats the most vulnerable of his people.  This “prince of peace,” as Isaiah calls him, will rule a kingdom in which there is no hurt or destruction, but understanding, security, and love.

We have been given the opportunity to live on that holy mountain. God wants us to take what he has to give. Why else, St. Paul writes, would God send her son into the hurting and hurtful human world to live among us if not to show us how to accept that love – and how to share it with others?  But God knows this will not be easy- because we are human beings, people obsessed with our own troubled hearts and unwilling to forgive our own sins, let alone those of others.  But learning to accept God’s love first requires that we accept ourselves – that we acknowledge all of the hurt – all of the anger – all of the fear we carry in our hearts – and love ourselves anyway – just as God does.  That is what John the Baptist means when he calls us to repent – not to bemoan our moral failings, but to accept them – and change. 

To repent means “to turn” – to turn around and look at those around us – to turn around and see what kind of footprints we are leaving behind us – to turn ourselves inside out and empty ourselves of the brooding, fearful, thoughtless separateness that is our sin.  We are asked to do this not because God wants to punish us, but because God loves us – and because God loves us, God wants us to become our best selves.  After all, “if God loves [us] enough to welcome [us] into Christ’s family, then God loves [us] enough to expect something of [us].” We cannot be made whole –as individuals or as a communityby saying it is so.  We may not be called to judge one another, but we are called to help one another.  That means calling out sin when we see it and seeking to right it.  As Christians, we [can give up on judgment, but we cannot give up on responsibility].”[5]  We have to try to turn our lives – and our world – around. What our gospel reminds us is that repentance is not…about our… moral worthiness, but rather about God’s desire to [have us live in] accord with Christ’s life [and teachings].[6]

Advent provides us with the time and space to try to do that.  It is a time during which we are asked to put away life’s sorrows and look forward to a promised season of grace – to let go of our righteous indignation and “prepare the way of the Lord.”  It is an opportunity to cleanse not our consciences, but our souls.  Our culture may tell us that acquiring and planning are the milestones on a path to a Happy Christmas, but Matthew’s gospel says something different.  It says that in order to receive Christ, we must give of ourselves and to ourselves.  Truly preparing to celebrate the birth of our Savior can only occur after we have examined what is inside us and made peace with what we find there.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you offer rest for our hearts and peace for our souls.  Prepare us for the birth of our savior by giving us grace to seek – and accept – your peace in our lives, in this community, and in the world.  Amen.

[1]Dr. Seuss, (1957), “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

[2]Ibid.

[3]John P. Burgess, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Proper 29 Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 1692.

[4]Crossroads International, “Three Comings of the Lord: Bernard of Clairvaux,” https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/three-comings-of-the-lord-st-bernard/.

David L. Bartlett, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Proper 29 Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 1756, 1769.

[6]John P. Burgess, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Proper 29 Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 1709.

 

Sermon for November 13, 2016: Rumors of our death have been greatly exaggerated (Preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin)

Listen to sermon here:

 

My husband is not a man who is prone to overreaction.  Having spent 27 years in the U.S. military (and 30 years with me!), he is generally calm and easy-going, taking many of the things that bother me in stride.  And he’s funny – one of the reasons our marriage has lasted so long is because we are often able to find the comedy in even the most difficult situations. Which is why I was surprised when he woke me up at 12:04 a.m. on Wednesday and, looking at me with absolutely no humor in his eyes, asked me if I thought we are now living in the end times.

Four hours later when I heard a noise and found my 17 year-old daughter sitting on the couch in the dark, morosely eating cereal from the box, she asked me a similar question, “What are we supposed to do now Mom?  All of things we believe- I thought most other people believed them too.  What are we supposed to do now?

The people of Thessalonica wondered the same thing.  In fact, they obsessed about it.  In last week’s reading from the evangelist’s letter to the Thessalonians, which we didn’t hear because we read the scriptures appointed for All Saint’s Day instead, the people wanted to know when Jesus was coming back.  They believed that they had waited -and suffered- long enough.  The author’s response was not the good news they were hoping for.  “Let no one deceive you,” he wrote, “for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.  He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.”  In other words, their suffering was not over – and, based on how people have characterized each other as a result of this election – neither is ours.

This is not the answer we want to hear either, not in this week when so many people are in pain and despair – when we are struggling to find hope in the face of an uncertain and frightening future – when we are confused by the feelings of people we thought we knew – people we love.  And, like my husband and my daughter, we all have questions – not only about what will happen to our country, but also about what did happen – about how we have understood so little about so many of our friends and neighbors.  If nothing else, what the election results tell us is that the choice to ignore the divisions and deep anguish in our society is no longer acceptable.  We have become not one Christianity but many – with one – the one to which I feel I cannot belong – claiming sole ownership of the phrase, “under God.”  Evangelical leader Franklin Graham went so far as to say that, “at this election, God showed up.”[1]

Such a statement seems completely inconsistent with the words of today’s Hebrew scripture, “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes will burn them up.”  For many of us, it seems that the opposite has happened – that we have been surrounded by arrogance -and it is difficult to imagine that so many could be so confused about how this divisive electoral battle was about upholding Christian values like loving our neighbor, judging not lest we be judged, and giving to those in need.  And yet, the truth is that half of the people in this country different opinions – or they may have had the same opinion, but didn’t vote based on it.  The thing is: we don’t know – not really.  We can stare in dumbfounded desperation at editorials and exit polls, and still end up with only one sure conclusion: those of us who profess to follow the way of Jesus Christ have become so divided that we do not recognize each other.  We cannot imagine being able to live together, much less work together to bring the Kingdom of God to this suffering nation and the world.

It is the same situation the Thessalonians worried about in the first century of Christianity.  In their case, they were having trouble living out the Christian ideal of sharing everything in common.  “Why,” they complained, “should people who aren’t working for the community benefit from our labor”?  They are “moochers.  [They work] the system [instead of] the [working] a job.”[2]  Concerns about the fair distribution of goods can be found throughout Christian history – and in the campaign rhetoric of the 2016 election.  This passage has been cited as the basis for what has been called, “The Protestant work ethic,” a deeply held American belief that being industrious is biblically mandated – that there is no free ride – and that people who need help drain the community of resources.  It is one explanation for why some Christians vote to limit programs to assist those who – for a variety of reasons – have fewer concrete assets than others.

But this passage does not say that people who cannot work should not share in the fruits of the community; it says that the contributions of all members of a community are required for its survival – and that those contributions are not about meeting the needs of any individual, but rather what benefits the group as a whole.  The evangelist’s condemnation is not for those who have limited resources to contribute; it is for those who have plentiful resources and fail to share them – and for those who are too busy sharing their opinions of others’ work to do their own.

Such “busybodies,” as the writer calls them, may “speak with great authority about things about which they have information that is limited or just plain wrong… [but they] are good at keeping things stirred up.”[3]  Commentator Neta Pringle sees their behavior – their unwillingness to work within a system they don’t like coupled with a willingness to take advantage of it – as a different kind of drain on community – one that capitalizes on natural human worries like fear of the unknown and perceived injustice to sow division instead of unity.

We cannot allow this.  Because it is only by standing firm in our faith together that we can resist the powers that would destroy the sacrificial love demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus the Christ that is at the core of our community.  It is not enough to have individual faith; it is only by living out our faith in community – by working together- that we can withstand the onslaught of fear and hatred in our world.

That requires knowing who we are – knowing which Christianity we belong to – and talking about it.  Much has been made of the decline of religious belief in our country.  But if this election shows us anything, it is that people want to believe.  They want to believe so much that they are willing to listen to whoever speaks the loudest, no matter how little sense they make – which is a problem if you belong to a denomination where we have never really learned to speak about our faith at all. 

Today’s gospel makes it clear that we have to learn – and these election results present us with an opportunity to do it.  In fact, these election results demand we do it.  “Nation will rise up against nation…and there will be dreadful portents…they will arrest you and persecute you,” but you do not need to be afraid – because “this will give you an opportunity to testify” – the opportunity to figure out who we are and what we believe and to explain that to others – and God “will give [us] words and wisdom” to do it.

We have to look beyond our immediate pain and despair and see the possibilities that lie beneath the suffering in our community.  We can no longer hide from the truth of the divisions among us.  We can no longer pretend that we can do nothing in the face of them.  And we cannot remain silent.  We have been given the gift of salvation – of resurrection – and we have the chance to share it with others.  That is a gift.

The truth is that there are always reasons to be afraid.  There are always reasons to despair.  There is always death.  But Scripture tells us that we need not give in to that despair.  We need not fear.  Because there is also always life – and for those who are patient, for those who endure, for those who are brave, and for all those who will believe, that life is eternal.  AMEN.

[1]Lindsay Bever, (November 10, 2016), “Acts of Faith: Franklin Graham: ‘The Media didn’t understand the God-Factor in Trump’s Win,’” Washington Post online, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/10/franklin-graham-the-media-didnt-understand-the-god-factor/

[2]Neta Pringle, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Proper 28 (Sunday between November 13 and November 19 Inclusive), (Kindle Location 11384). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.

[3]Neta Pringle, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Proper 28 (Sunday between November 13 and November 19 Inclusive), (Kindle Location 11391). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.

 

Sermon for October 30, 2016: Lamenting Together (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

Listen to sermon here:

Let’s see.  In today’s lessons, we have strife and contention, pride and indignation, injustice and impatience, and a vertically-challenged rich guy with small hands.  Okay – I made up the small hands part – but for a group of writings designed to address the needs of people who lived two to three thousand years ago, today’s scriptures are remarkably relevant to what many of us are feeling right now, ten days prior to our national elections.

Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is from Habakkuk, a minor prophet who lived in Judah in about the seventh century before the birth of Christ.  In it, Habakkuk is having a conversation with God called a “lament.”  Laments can be songs or poems and are usually voiced when a community is facing some kind of significant threat or disaster.  They serve to fortify and unify people when they are afraid or despairing.  Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, people could be seen singing together as they dug through the rubble.[1]  In our own history, we can trace the origin of the music we call “the blues” to the singing of slaves in the fields of the American South.  In the case of Habakkuk’s people – the Judeans – they were bemoaning an imminent invasion from the Babylonians.

Lamenting is a public activity.  It serves as an acceptable outlet for the extreme feelings that people experience in times of communal stress.  “In biblical times the social settings for lament singing would have been in informal gatherings of the community and also in formal temple …Laments are largely anonymous. Members of the community…likely created and innovated upon lament psalms as offerings to worship. Priests and prophets may also have contributed their voices to the laments because of their responsibility to address the people’s concerns.”[2]

It seems to me that the complaints of Habakkuk’s people are pretty similar to ours.  “Why are you not saving us from the violence in our world”? “What are you going to do about all of those people getting away with such terrible stuff”?  And, most often, “When will you answer our prayers”?  God’s response to Habakkuk is unsurprising, but still frustrating.  “Tell the people to be patient,” God tells the prophet, “The good guys will win in the end.”  What an unsatisfying answer – for Habakkuk and for us.  Given what we perceive of as the desperation of our situation, the least God could do is to answer our prayers in a timely way.

Ours is a society that has little tolerance for waiting.  In a world filled with a vast variety of instant communication methods, most of us see little reason to wait for anything.  We have “fast food” to quickly satisfy our appetites, “Fast pass” to get us to and from work more expediently, and even “speed dating,” to expedite our desire for lasting, meaningful relationships.  We can’t take time for long, meditative prayers which may or may not provide results.  We need someone to give us peace of mind, spiritual fulfillment and patience – right now!

Our inability to wait has eroded our capacity to believe in what is not right in front of us.  When we feel angry and helpless in the face of the persecutions and afflictions of this life, we look around for instant solutions to our problems, instant relief for our painful emotions, and instant proof to soothe our doubts.  And by refusing to consider the possibility that the answers we are seeking require us to be both patient and participatory, we start to believe that we are helpless against both the real and imagined terrors in our hearts.  “Fear is in the air, and fear is surging. Americans are more afraid today than they have been in a long time: Polls show majorities of Americans worried about being victims of terrorism and crime, numbers that have surged over the past year to highs not seen for more than a decade. Overall crime rates may be down, but a sense of disorder is constant.  Fear pervades Americans’ lives.”[3]  Like the psalmist, we are consumed by righteous indignation at the repulsive behavior of those around us, but see ourselves as small and of little account.  We can do nothing alone and we wonder if God is doing anything at all.

In his memoir, “Night,” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel tells about seeing the hanging of a young man in a Nazi concentration camp.  During the long thirty minutes it took the boy to die, someone in the watching crowd cried out “Where is God now”?

This seems to be a question many Christians are asking today.  Although our political rhetoric is focused on fear of outsiders, those of us who have committed ourselves to a way of living based on the principle of loving our neighbors as ourselves, are also beleaguered – overwhelmed by the violence, prejudice and hatred we see demonstrated by those who live among us.  Where, we ask, is God now?

Jesus might have asked the same question from the cross.  Having done all that God asked of him, even unto death, Jesus cried out to God, “Why have you forsaken me”?  Why, at his most crucial hour, could he not feel the presence of God?  I wonder if it was because Jesus was facing the moment of his deepest terror and darkest desolation alone.  Deserted by his followers, betrayed by his friends and plagued with self-doubt, even his ability to hear the comfort and solace of the voice of God was lost in the noise of the crowd.  And if Jesus succumbed to that despair, why shouldn’t we?

Because he didn’t.  Jesus’s cry on the cross was his lament – his expression of fear and anger – and by expressing it, he conquered it.  That is the true value of lament; it reminds us of who we are and what we believe – because there is no lament without faith.  Think about it – if we did not believe that God could help us, why would we be so angry when God doesn’t?  Surveys suggest that most Americans believe in some version of God – but few belong to communities that profess that faith – which is a shame, because faith in community is what Christianity is all about.

That is what the author of the letter to the Thessalonians was trying to explain to his people.  The way of Jesus cannot be practiced alone.  It is about growing in love and faith in community – because, despite what American mythology may tell us, standing alone does not strengthen us.  Standing alone weakens us.  Standing alone defeats us. When we insist on standing alone, we are demanding to stay broken.  We may be at the top of our professions, but we are on the bottom rung of the climb to salvation.  Just like Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus was a member of one of the most reviled groups of his time.  He was a tax collector, roundly considered to be both greedy and dishonest.  In today’s parable we heard that Zacchaeus was curious about Jesus, who was passing through his town.  We don’t know whether Zacchaeus wanted Jesus to notice him or not, but Luke makes it clear that Jesus wanted to see Zacchaeus, because, you see, Jesus already knew him.  He saw him for who he really was.

The people were dismayed by Jesus’s choice to dine with Zacchaeus.  They didn’t have anything to do with this sinner and they didn’t see why Jesus would want to either.  But Jesus knew that Zacchaeus was not the person his neighbors thought he was.  In the translation of the gospel we read today, when Zacchaeus was greeted by Jesus, he vowed to give up half of his possessions to the poor and to pay back anyone he had cheated.  But according to some scholars, when Zacchaeus spoke to Jesus he was not using the future tense, but the present.  In other words, he was not saying that he would give to the poor; he was saying he already did – and far more generously than his neighbors. Jesus knew that it is not Zacchaeus that needed to be healed but the people of his community.

Jesus knows us too.  Jesus knows that, like the Judeans and the people of Jericho, far more than needing whatever is wrong with each of us to be fixed, what we really require is for our relationships to be healed.  Jesus knows that our society is broken – and it cannot be fixed by individual righteousness.  That’s why God often seems to fail to answer our individual prayers – because God answers our prayers in the way she wants us to live – in community.  When we become frustrated with God for not answering our prayers as quickly as we’d like – when we are tired of patiently waiting for the Lord – when we fail to feel God’s presence – we need to think about what we are praying for.  We need to ask where our prayers fit into our calling as a community of faith – because we may not, as individuals, be able to wait for God to answer our prayers, but if we share our suffering –and our hope – with others, the answers come easily.  The proof of the existence of the benevolent, all-powerful, all-knowing God – and the answer to all of our prayers- is actually quite readily available.  It happens each time we look at one another and see the face of God.  AMEN.

[1]Nancy C. Lee, “Lament in the Bible and in Music and Poetry across Cultures Today,” in Teaching the Bible: an e-newsletter for public school teachers by the Society for Biblical Literature, https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/TB7_LamentMusic_NL.pdf.

[2]Nancy C. Lee, “Lament in the Bible and in Music and Poetry across Cultures Today,” in Teaching the Bible: an e-newsletter for public school teachers by the Society for Biblical Literature, https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/TB7_LamentMusic_NL.pdf.

[3]Molly Ball, (September 2, 2016), “Donald Trump and the Politics of Fear,” The Atlantic Online, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/donald-trump-and-the-politics-of-fear/498116/.

Sermon for October 9, 2016: Now thank we all our God (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco, CA)

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sermon-for-october-9-2016-now-thank-we-all-our-god

I have a sign in my kitchen.  It says: “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention.  Anything else that you get is a privilege.”  I got it in the gift store at Alcatraz after a particularly long day during which my two children seemed to be complaining incessantly – about their food choices, the amount of walking we had to do and, most frequently, about each other.  “Why,” my son wanted to know, “do we have to stop in all the stores she likes”?  “Mo-om,” moaned my daughter, “tell him he can’t do that!”  Cries of injustice rose again and again as each suggested that the other was getting some kind of advantage.  I was not, they told me, being fair.

They are, of course, not the only ones who decry the unfairness of the world.  Although some psychologists think that “fairness” is an advanced human construct, I think that the desire for justice is an extremely basic one.  You tell your two year-old that he needs to give up the bigger cookie to his cousin because she’s a guest and I guarantee you will get a loud chorus of, “But that’s not FAIR!”  And the desire for fairness is not limited to children.  I’m sure that every person in this room has at least one story of being passed over for a promotion that we felt we deserved, or being blamed for something we didn’t do, or seeing something we love end up in the hands of someone we think is unworthy of it.  Our desperate longing for fairness shows up regularly in our conversations about schools, sports, public policy, and yes, religion.

But what do we really mean when we say we want things to be fair?  For some of us, “fairness” is about making sure that everyone is equal – leveling the playing field.  For others, it’s about treating all people the same, without regard to their innate human differences.  But for many people, especially in this country, fairness is about making sure everyone gets what they deserve.  Or, as Sally Brown puts it in “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special,” “All I want is what I have coming to me.  All I want is my fair share.”   For better or worse, we live in a political system in which earning what you have is highly valued – where even a billionaire who has lived a life of incomparable privilege feels it necessary to describe himself as a self-made person.

The Apostle Paul was certainly a hard-working Christian.  Most of his letters contain at least some references to the hardships he endured in his efforts to spread the gospel.  Today’s reading from Timothy – which was probably not written by Paul – places the apostle in chains, having once again been imprisoned for his faith.  According to the writer, Paul is able to endure his suffering because he knows it will lead others to salvation through Jesus Christ.  He is “approved by God, a worker who has no need to be ashamed” – an example of one who is willing to die for Christ in order to live with him, who, by enduring, will reign with him.  It seems like Paul has definitely earned his salvation.

This idea, that the Bible tells us that salvation can be earned, is very dangerous.  It can be blamed at least in part for both the sense of entitlement that leads to religious intolerance and the unhealthy glorification of suffering.  Throughout history, the Christian precepts of hard work and sacrifice have been taken to dangerous extremes by those hoping to earn salvation through acts of self-abasement.  The notion that suffering is beautiful and holy has also created the myth of the “blessed” poor, whose anguish in this world will be offset by glory in the next – a view that some Christians have used to excuse themselves from helping those in need.

None of this is justified by this passage, which does not suggest that Christians should seek out suffering, nor does it tell us to die so we can be like Christ.  What it says is that suffering and dying are part of being human.  What is important is how we understand our human condition.  What is important is that we have faith – because it is by faith that we know that we will never suffer or die alone.  It is by faith that we recognize that all that we are and all that we have are part of something vastly greater than we can achieve on our own – and that the truest, best essence of who we are will live on in that holy communion.  That is what it means when Jesus tells the lepers that their faith has made them well.

Lepers, in Jesus’s society, were at the bottom of the social ladder.  They were not even allowed to come near healthy people.  They had to rip their clothing and announce their arrival in any populated location by calling out the word, “Unclean!”  Their illness was not just physical, but emotional, social, and spiritual.  They were so unwell that they did not even ask Jesus to heal them, only to have mercy on them.  This story is not, then, about their prayers being answered.  It is not about their faith being rewarded.  It is about the simple fact that Jesus had mercy on them, just as Jesus has mercy on us.  This story tells us that faith is not about believing our prayers will be answered.  Faith is believing that our prayers have already been answered. 

The lepers demonstrated only the most basic faith – the belief that Jesus would show them mercy.  But that simple understanding was more powerful than all of our sophisticated efforts to earn salvation by saying the right prayers, performing the most beautiful ritual, and offering the right interpretations of scripture.  Notice that the story does not distinguish among the lepers.  There is no good leper or sinful leper, because it is not what they do that matters – it is who they ask.  Because salvation is not something we can earn.  Salvation is a gift – and whenever we decide that we can earn it – that we have to earn it – we are rejecting that gift – and denying the power of Christ -the power to make us well – the power to make us whole.

That is what God wants from us – simply to accept the gift of salvation that we have already been given – and to accept it with gratitude and joy.  That is what made the Samaritan leper different than the others.  They were made clean through Jesus’s gift of mercy.  He was made well – in body, mind and spirit – by demonstrating the joy that comes through true faith – faith expressed not just in gratitude, but in praise.

We can do the same.   Instead of asking God for what we want, we can thank God for what we have.  We can live our entire lives with gratitude – by practicing our faith – by freely sharing our lives and our livelihood with one another with no strings attached.  We can stop and recognize the Amazing Grace that is already part of our communal lives – and we can remind one another that when we ask for God’s mercy we do not – praise Jesus! – get what we deserve; we get much, much more.   When we begin to live into the gratitude that comes from knowing what we already have, we stop worrying about what is fair – and we no longer need signs that tell us what we are and are not entitled to.  Instead we can focus on a much different message – the message that I posted right beside my sign from Alcatraz.  That sign reads, “But you always have love.  Love is neither an entitlement nor a privilege.  Love is always free.”   AMEN.

 

 

Sermon for September 18, 2016: Let us pray (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

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The Olympics have always been a good source of sermon material.  Inspirational tales about parents who sacrifice for their children’s Olympic dreams, romantic stories about athletes finding love amidst the stress of competition, come-from-behind sagas about competitors defying physical and emotional handicaps to become champions – all of these are regular parts of the quadrennial international spectacle that serve to illustrate Christian values like grace, hope, and love.  Which is why I was surprised to read the following article in a Religion News blog:

“They prayed and prayed and prayed even more. Then they arrived at the Olympics and promptly lost every match. Did God have it in for them?

If the divine does play favorites in sports, the Argentine women’s handball team and the Mexican men’s volleyball team certainly aren’t the chosen.  Now the entire rosters of both teams are throwing in the towel on their Christian faith. ‘Six hail marys and six stinking losses,’ said Argentine coach Eduardo Peruchena. He estimated his handballers spent a combined sixty-six hours in meditation and prayer in the week directly leading up to their first match. ‘Since the prayers obviously didn’t make any difference, maybe less time on our knees and more practicing would’ve helped.’

 

…Mexican coach Jorge Azair agreed, but wanted to look to the future.  ‘When we compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, we’ll be competing as atheists.’”[1]

 

I could not believe it.  An entire team announcing to the world that they had lost their faith because of a losing streak?  Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t true.  I had failed to notice one crucial part of the article’s title – the part where it said, “Satire.”

But it says something that I believed it.  Because I know that it’s easy to lose faith when you pray and you pray and you pray and nothing changes.  It’s easy to get angry at God when you hear the news that the 28 year-old brother of a friend has suddenly died of pancreatitis. It’s easy to wonder if you are wasting your time when an entire congregation prays for the recovery of a beloved member only to have to attend her funeral a week later.  It’s troubling and, for Christians, hard to explain.  We not only feel like we have to deal bravely with what happened, but we have to somehow explain why God didn’t answer our prayers.  We’d much rather focus on examples of how prayer works.

That’s not necessarily the way it was for our ancient predecessors.  Far from making poetic “pretty please” prayers for non-specific things like, “those in need” and “those in positions of power,” the ancient Israelites poured their hearts out to God, expressing not only their deeply felt gratitude for all that God had done for them, but also their anger and fear when God failed to live up to their expectations.  “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt.  I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.  Is  there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why has the health of my poor people not been restored”?

Jeremiah’s cry to God on behalf of his people is just as resonant today as it was in the sixth century before the Common Era.  Perhaps the Babylonians are not at our borders, but our fear of terrorism is just as real.  Maybe the symbols of our religion have not been destroyed, but they have been perverted.  The cross that once stood only for love and forgiveness is now used as a club to promote exclusion and inauthentic moral rightness.  We, like Jeremiah, are sick at heart.

But unlike Jeremiah, we do not tell God how we feel.  We do not rage at the injustice in the world – at least not in church.  We have come to believe that lamenting is rude.  That’s too bad, because lamenting is a long and deeply-held tenant of our faith.  It’s too bad because lamenting together allows us to acknowledge that our prayers are not always answered in the way we hope.  It’s too bad because without mourning together we can never fully experience what it means to be a community of God.

Our ancestors knew the value of a good group cry.  About one-third of our psalms are classified as “lament psalms,” but we hardly ever hear those on regular church Sundays, toting them out only for funerals and global tragedies.  Today’s inclusion of Psalm 79, known as a “national lament,” is an exception.  Psalm 79 reminds us that we are allowed to question God.  We are allowed to be angry when things seem unfair.  We are allowed to tell God how we feel.

I think we often forget that.  We are so busy asking God to do things for us that we fail to tell God how we feel – and we fail to remember that our relationship with God has a context – the context of our lives.  All you have to do is look at how we pray to recognize the way we have taken prayer out of the day-to-day reality of our lives.  How many of us kneel and bow our heads on a regular basis?  When we pray this way, it tells us that prayer is a time to “withdraw into some otherworldly “religious” realm where all is sweetness and light.”[2]  But that is not what prayer is supposed to be.  Prayer is supposed to be an integral, expected, part of our lives.  Think about the person you are closest to in the world.  What would happen if you didn’t talk to that person for even one day?  But some of us only talk to God only once a week.

That’s what the author of Timothy was telling his people – that God wants to talk to us – that God sent Jesus into the world as a way for us to get to know him and as a way for us to be in dialogue with God.  Timothy’s letter tells us that when we pray, we have to open ourselves up to the possibility that anything can happen if you are in a relationship with a power beyond imagining.

Because you get what you pay for.  That’s the lesson of Jesus’s parable about the dishonest – or “shrewd” – manager, a man who’s already being fired for being dishonest who decides to ensure his own future by reducing the amounts people owe his boss so that they might take him in when he is tossed out.  Based on its completely unsatisfying ending, in which this scoundrel triumphs instead of being defeated[3], it would seem that Jesus is recommending that we “imitate the unrighteous behavior of the main character.”[4]  In fact, it sounds suspiciously like some of the rhetoric we’ve been hearing from the campaign trail – that it’s okay to use laws to your advantage, that it’s okay to be greedy, as long as it works.  And in a way it is – because what Jesus is saying is that your success is measured according to your beliefs.  If you believe that the world is a vicious, competitive and unjust place, then you will act accordingly – and you will succeed based on those standards.  The “shrewd manager” put his faith in the greed of men and his faith paid off.  He was successful because he was dishonest in a dishonest system, and we can be too – if that’s what we want – if that’s what we choose.  But remember, when we put our faith in a community of greed, fear, and lies, that is where we must live.  If we want to live in Jesus’s kingdom – a world of love, acceptance and peace – we have to live by the rules of that system.

And the first rule of Jesus’s kingdom is to love God – and that means talking to God – talking to God honestly, emotionally, and often.  It means praying – praying in a way that acknowledges our desire to be part of God’s will for creation – praying in a way that is not about what we want God to do for us, but about how we can be in closer relationship to God.  That kind of prayer is hardThat kind of prayer is exhausting.  That kind of prayer works. 

And that kind of prayer starts not with asking for God’s help, but by asking for God’s forgiveness –because we cannot even know what to ask for without knowing who we really are.  And we cannot know who we are – we cannot love God or ourselves -without facing the enormous breadth and depth of our thoughts, words and deeds, of recognizing what we have done and what we have left done, of examining our efforts and failures to love with our whole hearts, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Real prayer is not about winning things or getting things or changing things.  Real prayer is about living our entire lives in the presence of God.  It will transform us.  It will transport us.  It will take us out of this dishonest, grieving, sinful world and into a realm of true wisdom, true power, and true peace.  So, let us pray.  AMEN.

[1]Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons (2016). “Olympic squads lose every match – and their faith,” Satire/The Literalist, Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2016/08/16/olympic-squads-lose-every-match-and-their-faith/.

[2]Donald K. McKim, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), (Kindle Locations 3236-3242). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.

[3]Helen Montgomery Debevoise, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), (Kindle Locations 3236-3242). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.

[4]Scott Bader-Saye, (2010),  Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), (Kindle Locations 3236-3242). [Louisville, KY:Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.