Sermon for August 7, 2016: Ready, willing, and able

Listen here:

My mother raised me on proverbs.  If I fell, she’d say, “You have to get up and get right back on the bike” (even if I hadn’t been riding a bike).  If I was afraid of doing something new, she’d advise that, “It’s easier if you just jump right in.”  If I said something was too hard, she’d tell me, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

I guess she ought to know.  Raised during the Great Depression, she watched her high school boyfriends march off to World War II and her baby brother to the Korean War.  Twice widowed, a single mother at the age of 47, she managed, on a nurse’s salary, to raise two daughters and remains, at the age of 89, an active part of her community, and a truly terrifying “altar guild lady.”

I’m not so tough.  Despite being, as a white, upper-middle class, educated American, one of the most privileged people in the world, I still sometimes struggle with depression.  It makes me feel frightened, guilty, and frustrated – frightened when getting a nasty email causes me to take to my bed.  Guilty when I watch people struggle with problems far greater than mine and manage to stay on their feet.  Frustrated because part of me believes that I should be able to overcome it.

It’s easy to believe that the difference between my mother and me is simply a matter of personality.  She is practical to her soul.  I think that no matter how her life had turned out, my mom would have approached it with pragmatism and moral clarity.  That is who she is.  But I also think it’s generational.  My mother doesn’t over-analyze situations- she doesn’t “fuss” about things.  That is characteristic of her generation – an understanding of the world that focuses on action – on knowing what is right and doing it – and believing that if you continue to act on your beliefs everything will, as my mother would say, “come out in the wash.”  Hers is a life of faith – the kind of faith we heard about in today’s reading from Hebrews.  It is faith based on the pure conviction that you don’t need to see something to believe it; that if you do what is right, good will come of it; and that if you believe in God, God will take care of you.

Many people of my generation and, even more extensively, people younger than me, do not have such faith.  I grew up in an era of turmoil and experimentation in which it was not only considered acceptable but healthy to question authority.  For the millennial generation, the world has proven to be a divisive place where some live in prosperity and comfort while others starve.  We both seek opportunities to do good and to experience spiritual transcendence, but studies show that millennials do not believe they can find those things at church.  For them, the parallel between Christian belief and ethical certitude has been replaced by the view that Christianity is simplistic and even ignorant.  The spirit of, “build it and they will come” has been replaced with that of “show me the money.”

No wonder it’s so hard to convince people to believe in something they cannot discern with their senses– and not only to believe in it, but to live by it.  It was certainly true for the author of the letter to the Hebrews, who was writing to people whose entire religion was new.  His mission was to reassure them that their faith was justified, even while they were surrounded not only by doubters, but by persecutors.  For them, remaining faithful and engaged with their religious community was at the very least uncomfortable and at the most life-threatening.  It’s hard for us to identify with them – because we live in a country in which Christianity has been the unofficial state religion for more than two centuries, but that is changing.  It is likely that Christians in this country may have the opportunity to learn that it easy to have faith when everyone and everything around you tells you that you are right, but it’s not so easy when practicing your faith might get you killed.

Persecution can result simply from a perception about someone else’s religion.  Another of my mother’s most-frequently employed proverbs is, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” – but it happens all the time.  The truth is that our nation has a long history of judging others by their “covers” – by gender, skin color, accent, clothing and hair style, among other things- and although I hope and pray that we have gotten better, the current political climate suggests that the tendency of some to identify others based not on efforts to truly know them but rather on a single characteristic is alive and well.

For 21st century Christians being identified solely by our faith can have significant negative implications.  Many people believe that all Christians don’t believe in evolution, think homosexuality is wrong, and allow their priests to abuse children.  And as much as we may protest that those things aren’t true –that we are not those kinds of Christians – it can be hard to articulate exactly what kind of Christians we are.

We would probably prefer not to be like the Israelites to whom Isaiah spoke in today’s Hebrew scripture.  According to Isaiah, God hated the way they worshipped – the way they believed that if they just offered the right sacrifice at the right time for the right sin – if they simply did the ancient equivalent of showing up every Sunday, confessing their sins, and taking communion, God would be content.  But God was not content.  God was angry.  “Your…appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me.”  What a shock – to find out that God is just as bored and uninspired by rote worship as we are.  Religion exists to bring us into community with one another – to allow us to experience the joy of God’s presence through worship, and to help each other enact our shared beliefs.  It should be a celebration of our relationship with God – not a substitute for it.

God asks us to practice our faith – to make our religious beliefs an integral part of our lives -not a weekly club meeting.  “Cease to do evil.  Learn to do good.  Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  Do not worship one homeless man on Sunday and walk past another on Monday.  And, we are told, be grateful for what you have – because we were not there at the beginning of the world and it is unlikely that we will be there at the end of it, so we would do well to contemplate the power and the mercy of the One who is.

But God asks us to do something even harder; God asks us to stop being so afraid.  Because more than anything else it is fear that leads us to believe that hating others is okay.  It is fear that allows us live in ignorance of the faith of others.  It is fear that allows us to believe that we can worship God in church and not advocate for peace and justice in the world.   And it is fear that robs us of one of the most important precepts of our faith – that God is with us – and that the salvation of humanity has already happened.

That’s what God wants us to be ready for – to experience that salvation.  Today’s gospel is not about being judged.  Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to be dressed for action and sell their possessions and give alms because if they don’t they’ll go to hell.  Jesus tells them not to be afraid; to do things for others because their hearts – their true treasures – are already safe.  Jesus does not tell us to be ready or else we’ll be punished.  He tells us to be ready or else we’ll miss the opportunity to be blessed – to be blessed with the truth about others – to be blessed with the spirit of inspired worship – to be blessed by a life lived in faith.  “Do not be afraid, little flock.”  Get back on your bike, jump in with both feet; believe that any and all things can make us better and stronger – and you will be ready to receive the peace of God.  AMEN.

Sermon for July 24, 2016: Why are you weeping? (Preached on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco)

Wednesday was “intake day” at the Federal Correctional Institute.  That was the day that the seven of us – three full-time psychologists and four part-time Psychology interns – would each take an office and interview a steady stream of women to determine whether they needed mental health treatment.  These women usually came to us directly from being “processed in” to the prison –  after being searched, issued uniforms, introduced to the cells that would be their homes for the next “X” number of years, and apprised of the rules.  The questions we asked were pretty rudimentary – “Do you have any history of mental health treatment”?  “Have you ever tried to hurt yourself,”? and, “Can I do anything for you”?  The majority of women turned down the offer of psychiatric help.  Whether they were really okay or simply couldn’t stand the idea of participating in any more official “treatment,” I still don’t know.  Sometimes I think they simply wanted to make it back to their respective cell blocks before t.v. time was over.

Maria was different.  An attractive woman of around 40 with long ebony-colored hair liberally sprinkled with grey wearing a standard-issue  khaki-colored prison uniform, Maria sat quietly, nodding when I asked if she spoke English and shaking her head resolutely “no” when I questioned as to whether or not she needed mental health treatment.  But when I asked the most standard of my questions – if I could do anything for her – Maria began to cry.  And she didn’t stop.   She didn’t stop when I offered her a tissue.  Or when I asked if she wanted water.  She didn’t stop when I tried to comfort her with my best gentle reassurance and professional smile.  Maria kept right on crying even as I began to panic and look around for my supervisor while leafing through my diagnostic manual.  “Why are you crying,” I asked her over and over.  “What is wrong? How can I help”? And all the time I was fighting the urge to start crying myself, thinking “What did I do to bring this on”?

Because that’s the way my mind worked.  She was crying her heart out and I was trying to figure out what it had to do with me.  Not because I was a horrible narcissistic person, but because mine was the only lens I had through which to view her pain – a lens which was, in this case, hopelessly inadequate.

Just as Mary Magdalene’s viewpoint was limited by her simple, human understanding[1] when she saw the empty tomb.  Making the decision to take on the task of anointing the body of her beloved mentor was hard enough, but to get there and find him gone – and two strangers sitting in his place – must have been unbearable.  She could not stop weeping.  She had lost not only the most important person in her life but her own sense of identity as well – because without Jesus she didn’t know who she was and what she was supposed to do without him.

It turned out that Maria had lost her identity too – her identity as “mother” – because she had lost her children- and she didn’t know what to do either.  She had married quite young to an older and powerful man in her home country.  Her marriage brought fortune and prestige to her family and she was expected to be grateful – even when he yelled at her; even when he hit her; even when he cheated on her.  No one took care of her – not her parents, her sisters or friends.  No one loved her.  No one even really knew her– except her children.  They were her only joy- her salvation- and the only thing that truly belonged to her.  She would have done anything to keep them safe.

So when her husband told her that they were going on a trip and that she was to carry a certain suitcase, she did not question him.  And when, after they arrived in the United States, that bag was found to contain drugs and money, she did as she was told and said it was hers.  And when she was arrested and her husband told her to do as his lawyer said, she did so without question.  And so it was that she found herself alone in a prison in a strange country, sitting in a tiny, windowless room with a strange woman – unable to answer a seemingly simple question: why are you crying.  Because she didn’t know where to find the ones she loved.  She didn’t know why they were gone or who had taken them.  She didn’t even know who she was – or what she had to live for.

Judith, the heroine of today’s Hebrew scripture, had no such problem.  She knew who she was – because her very name told her.  She was “a Jewish woman,” a pious widow who was appalled by the oppression of her people at the hands of heretical and unfeeling outsiders.  And she felt the need to do something about it.  So she prayed.  She prayed for the ability to take vengeance.  She prayed for the power to deceive.  She prayed for the capacity to hurt others as much as she believed her people had been hurt.  And – spoiler alert – she got them.  Because her vision of God was limited to a deity who felt and acted like a human being – a god whose actions were driven by human desires like revenge, hatred, and fear – a god whose full scope could not be comprehended except through the gift of the compassionate and forgiving Christ that God had not yet shared with humanity.

It was that gift – the gift of the redeeming and sanctifying Christ – that made all the difference to Mary Magdalene.  It allowed her to see beyond her heartbreak and to understand that her beloved had been taken by no one but God – and no further than her own heart.  As Paul told the Corinthians, Jesus’s death created a new way for God’s people are to see one another.  By cleansing humanity from the sinful – meaning separating – ways of human beliefs with his own blood, Jesus taught us “we [no longer have to] regard [one another] from a human point of view.”  We are, instead, a new creation with a new understanding of the world.

It can be very hard to see things through the eyes of Jesus.  Mary Magdalene, “spiritually blinded by grief,” “overcome with hopeless sorrow,” and “fixated on the loss of the body of Jesus,”[2] had to be called by name before she was able to turn and see what was right in front of her – to turn and see that Jesus was there – to turn and see that from that point forward, Jesus would always be there – because he would be in her.

He is also in us – in the community of Christ.  So, why are we weeping?  I believe it is because we sometimes forget that the real reason we regularly gather as a community is to renew our commitment to Christ and to one another –because we revert to praying like Judith – against others instead of for them.  It is because we believe that the ministry of love and reconciliation that has been given to us is too hard.  That is why we weep.  We forget that we, like Mary Magdalene, are apostles of the God of Jesus Christ – a merciful god of a compassionate way.  A god that does not require us to thirst for him.  A god that does not ask us to eat tears for food.  A god that calls each of us by name.

But if we must weep, let us weep together – and together we will dry our tears.  Together let us eat the body and blood of Christ- and together we will be refreshed and reconciled.  Together let us move through through our individual and collective darkness so that together we can walk toward the light of forgiveness into the hope of the future that is the light of Christ.  AMEN.

[1]Sandra M. Schneiders (2003). “Written that you may believe: encountering Jesus in the fourth gospel,” [New York: Herder and Herder], 213.

[2]Sandra M. Schneiders (2003). Written that you may believe: encountering Jesus in the fourth gospel,” [New York: Herder and Herder], 217.

 

Sermon for July 3, 2016: The Way of Rocky Horror (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

I recently read an article entitled, “Six ways that ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a religion.”[1]  For those of y““ou who don’t know, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a very strange 40 year-old film about a young couple who stumble upon a spooky castle filled with odd residents after their car breaks down on a rainy night.  The plot involves their gradual integration into the household of Frank N. Furter, an alien transvestite from the transsexual planet of Transylvania.  The film flopped when it came out in the 1970s, but subsequently developed a rabid fan base who began hosting midnight shows where audience members dressed up as the movie’s characters and acted out the film in front of the screen as it played.  Generations of college students have been introduced to the fun of bringing props, singing along with the actors, and shouting out now-traditional responses to film dialogue.  “[The audience participates] in the story.  They become part of the experience itself”[2] – and they are emotionally transported.

In order for this to happen though “you have to be introduced to the [ritual] of the film… [just] like neophytes who must learn a religion’s sacred lore… [Rocky Horror]…tells a story…That story has a body of commentary that has grown over the years…There is no ‘pure’ viewing of [Rocky Horror]; it now only exists with…commentary…People act the story out… [and] the film creates community.”[3]  If you think about it, that sounds an awful lot like church.  We tell familiar stories and try to comment on them in a unique way.  We enact traditions around the stories we tell.  And we do all of this in community.

Unfortunately, in many places church is not as popular as Rocky Horror – a fact which illustrates the continuing decrease in mainline church attendance that started at about the same time Rocky Horror did.  Sure, Rocky Horror is fun – so are sports, Sunday brunches and sleeping in – but what do those things have that church doesn’t?   It’s not a lack of good writing – our holy scriptures contain some of the best stories ever written.  It’s not the characters – Christian history is filled with people far more interesting than Brad and Janet Weiss.  And it’s not the production values – after all, it’s hard to beat the “sets” and “costumes” we have here.  So maybe it’s not that Rocky Horror has something church doesn’t; maybe it’s just that church doesn’t have anything Rocky Horror doesn’t.

Data from the 2014 Survey of Episcopal Churches suggests that many people may think that’s true – that the widely reported decline in church attendance in the Episcopal Church is less about entertainment than it is about meaning – and mission.[4]  According to that report, many 21st century Episcopal churches lack a clear sense of purpose, becoming “inward-looking clubs or clans where fellowship among friends is the primary reason for being.”  Many churches have “lost [a] common vision of mission, and evangelism has been ignored.  Our rapid decline has…shown us that if we do not share the saving news of Jesus Christ…our churches become anemic at best and often dead.”[5]

We have put ourselves in danger of forgetting who we are – forgetting that the repetitive and ritualistic parts of our “religion,” do not exist for their own sake but are designed to invite and enhance our spiritual being – to touch our souls.  Perhaps that’s why people outside of the church don’t want to join us.  According to a Lifeway Research survey of 2000 “unchurched” people – 57 percent of whom identified as Christian – two out of three reported that they weren’t interested in worship, and three out of four said they had no desire to seek God.[6]  These people see no connection between “religion” and spirituality.  We know this because they told surveyors that, while they aren’t interested in church, they are interested in is doing things that feel spiritually fulfilling – experiencing in an immediate way the connection between themselves, other people, and that deep and healing presence that we call the Holy Spirit.[7]

That’s what Naaman wanted too.  According to today’s Hebrew Scripture reading, Naaman was a powerful and favored soldier of the king of the Arameans, but his greatness was limited by illness; a “skin disease [stood] between Naaman and full honor.”[8]  All of the money and power of his king could not cure him – but, according to a lowly Israelite serving girl, a prophet of her land could.  So a desperate Naaman went to Israel to find the prophet Elisha, but when he got there, he wasn’t given the special treatment he thought he deserved; there were no musical flourishes, no ritualistic gestures, and no fancy wardrobe changes.  Instead, Elisha sent him a simple direction to bathe in Israel’s insignificant little Jordan River.  For Naaman, there was not enough “religion” in the cure he was offered.  But, fortunately for Naaman, his servants demonstrated both compassion and common sense.  “Try it,” they told him.  “What have you got to lose?  And Naaman was transformed.  His wailing was turned into dancing; he was clothed with joy and his heart sang without ceasing.

That’s the kind of spiritual experience people want to have – but aren’t finding in Christian churches – are not even seeking in Christian churches.  That’s because many people don’t know what it means to have faith.  For these people “belief” is the same as “opinion” – and they don’t like the ideas they think Christians have.[9]    They don’t understand what belief is – that belief is not about what we think – it’s about what we feel, what we trust.

That’s what Paul was trying to tell his group of fledgling Christians in Galatia.  It is what we do – how we embody our Christian identity – that matters.  We will reap, he warns us, what we sow.  If Christians sow anger, hatred, fear and rejection, those are the things that will grow – and those are the things we will have to deal with when they come to fruition – just as we are dealing with them now.  Because the truth is that many Christians have not sown the seeds of love and peace that Jesus intended.  We have instead evangelized on behalf of our non-violent and accepting Saviour by drawing lines of exclusion and encouraging belief at the point of a sword.   And as a result our harvest is one of doubt rather than devotion, fear instead of faith.  We have been asked to reap in a society in which some people have suggested that the world would be a far better place without belief in God.

But this is our mission field.  We are God’s laborers and despite what we might think, the harvest is plentiful.  We live in a divided nation – a frightened nation – a nation that is struggling to find itself.  It is a nation that desperately needs the unifying, fortifying, and reinvigorating power of true Christian love.  It is a society filled with people who, despite their apparent skepticism, continue to want to believe in the holy – who want to believe in each other – who want to believe in God.

These people are the fruits of the spirit that, like the seventy disciples in today’s gospel reading, we are asked to harvest.  Like the disciples we may be lambs in the midst of wolves.  Like them we will not be welcomed in many places.  Like them we must be prepared to sacrifice our own comfort in order to spread the good news of the life-giving gospel to others.  But that’s what evangelism is – and evangelism is the call of all Christians.

Like it or not, we have been called to evangelize – to share our faith.  That doesn’t mean we have “to corner a stranger, thrust a Bible at [them] and ask” if they have been saved.  We don’t have to ask people if they have been born again.  We don’t have to threaten people with hell.  We simply have to do three things: proclaim the gospel; enact our faith, and invite others to join us.  Tell people who you are – introduce them to the church as you experience it.  Just as the Israelite slave girl told Naaman how he might be healed, we must tell others how to find nourishment for their souls.  Show people what you believe.  Don’t just tell them the Christian story; enact it.  Just as Paul told the Galatians, do not tire of doing what is right.  Focus on what is important rather than what is convenient.  Work for the welfare and freedom of all people. And invite other people to join you, to participate in the experience of the spirit, to be part of our community.  And then rejoice -and give thanks –because when we do these things, rest assured – the kingdom of God will come near.  AMEN.

[1]Martini Judaism, (October 29, 2015) “Six ways that ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a religion,” Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2015/10/29/rocky-horror-religion/.

[2]Ibid.

3 Martini Judaism, (October 29, 2015) “Six ways that ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a religion,” Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2015/10/29/rocky-horror-religion/.

[4]C. Kirk Hadaway 2015), “New Facts on Episcopal Church Growth and Decline,” Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Cathy Lunn Grossman, “God? Meaning of Life?  Many Americans don’t seek them in Church,” Religion News, http://religionnews.com/2016/6/28/god-meaning-of-life-many-americans-dont-seek-them-in-church/.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Stephen Reid, “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14

[9]Diana Butler Bass, (October 18, 2016), “Oprah’s new ‘Belief’ series shows how dramatically the nature of faith is shifting,” The Washington Post.

Sermon for June 26, 2016: It’s just that simple (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco)

Listen here:

Some of you may recall former Presidential Candidate Ross Perot.  I’ve been hearing his name in the news recently, probably because in 1992 Perot, a Texas billionaire, stepped into an ideological gap in the Republican Party and launched a self-financed run for the presidency.  One of Perot’s most quoted remarks was, “It’s just that simple.”  He used it to refer to the federal deficit, the prevalence of drug abuse in the United States, and tax reform, among other things.  And in today’s reading from the letter to the Galatians, St. Paul seems to be channeling him.  “The whole law,” he says, “is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  It’s just that simple.  Or not.

I think that one of the primary problems with grasping the seemingly straightforward concept of loving your neighbor as yourself is knowing what “love” is – and defining “love” is more complicated than we might think.  The Greeks defined four types of love – “eros”- romantic love; “phileo” – friendship-based love; “Storge” – kinship love, and “agape” – love of humankind.  It’s that last type of love, agape, that seems closest to what the author of Paul’s letter is trying to describe to the Galatians.  This is love “in the Holy Spirit,” – love that brings “joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  It is not the love Taylor Swift sings about.

Agape – godly love – is set apart by its unselfishness.  It is the kind of love that must be offered without any expectation of it being returned.  This is not the irrational love of passion, nor the reciprocal love of friendship, or the possessive love of family.  It is love that is meant to be given away without reservation or qualification.  Just as God gave it to us – freely and without measuring our worthiness to receive it –we are now free to give it to others.

It is a potent gift – and a tremendous responsibility.  Possessing the love of One who creates life and permeates all being literally gives us the ability to control the world – but only if we give it away.  My family and I were watching “Dr. Who” the other night.  In this particular episode, a character who has died is given a one-person, one-way “ticket” back from the afterlife.  Several weeks after his death he appears as a bright light to his beloved and she reaches out to him, telling him she loves him and encouraging him to return.  His form solidifies so she can see him for one moment –and he says he loves her – and that he’s sorry – because he is not returning to her.  He is instead sending someone back in his place – an innocent, young boy he accidentally killed when he was serving as a soldier in war.  This character decides to give away the greatest power he has ever – or will ever – have to give the boy a chance to live.  Afterward, I wondered if the character actually could have come back himself – if he had not made the self-sacrificial decision he did – whether the “return ticket” would still have worked.

For Paul, the answer is “yes.”  God, he says, has given us the freedom to use the power of Godly love as we will; but, he warns, do not become confused and start using it in the wrong way.  We put our very souls at risk when we choose to focus on our own passions and desires.   God’s love is a gift to be used with discipline, self-control, and selflessness.

Jesus provides his disciples with the same lesson in today’s gospel.  They are passing through the Samaritan village and Jesus sends messengers ahead to the Samaritans to say he’s coming.  When the villagers do not offer Jesus their attention and hospitality, the disciples are angry and ask Jesus’s permission to “command fire” from heaven to consume the Samaritans – but Jesus rebukes them, He lets them know that they cannot retaliate against those who refuse to learn his way.  Because Jesus is preparing them for what lies ahead.  He is teaching them that although they may be tempted, they may not respond to rejection and persecution with anger or violence – that they cannot use their power – the power of God’s love – out of anger.

This, according to Gene Robinson, is the hardest thing that Christians are asked to do.  “Love,” he says, “is the central theme of the Bible, and yet we find it so hard to live lives of love… Responding to hate with love is one of the most daunting tasks of those who claim to follow Jesus.”  Robinson knows what he is talking about.  As the first openly gay bishop consecrated in the Episcopal Church, Robinson has received cartons of hate mail, including multiple death threats.  His advocacy in the church and beyond for the dignity and acceptance of all people – and all kinds of love –nearly ruined his life.  But he remained faithful, and today the Episcopal Church recognizes the value and importance of all loving relationships.  We are proud of and grateful for his work – and for his example. Gene Robinson never stopped trying to love the people that threatened, mocked, and tried to destroy his life.  Like Mother Theresa before him, who was shunned by her own family for choosing to live among those of a lower social caste, Bishop Gene knew that, “People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered,” but, as Christians, we are called to “love them anyway.”  Because God’s love is a sacrificial love, and it is even more powerful when it costs something to give it.

That doesn’t mean that all love has to be sacrificial.  Paul doesn’t tell us to love our neighbor and not love ourselves.  I think it gives God immense pleasure for us to be happy – and loving our friends and families and romantic partners can give us great joy.  Loving – in all its forms – is not wrong; what is wrong is believing we have the right to keep that love from others.  What is wrong is thinking that what we love is more important than what others do.  What is wrong is using love as an excuse to hurt others.

The truth is that we are often at our worst when we do things “for love.” People hurt and kill one another “for love” all the time.  And the hardest part to acknowledge is that those who do such things are not necessarily bad people.  These people believe their cause is just.  These people are trying to do what is right.  “These people” are us.

So, how do we know when we are truly following the way of God?  Our scripture readings for today suggest that the answer is in recognizing not only what it means to love, but what it means to be a Christian.  When Elisha wants to kiss his father and mother before assuming his place as God’s prophet, Elijah tells him, “If you think you can go back to your old life, then you don’t understand what it means to be God’s prophet.”  Paul tells the Galatians that as Christians they must not fight with one another but “be guided by the Spirit.”  To his disciples, Jesus says, “Following me means putting aside your personal desires and learning to love – and live – in community.”  What these scriptures tell us is that we cannot merely believe in the way of Jesus; we must live it.  We may not be called to give up our families and homes as his disciples did, but we have been challenged to live our own lives by imitating the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ as best as we can.  Jesus reminds us that our identity as Christians is not about loving those things that benefit us – loving those who love us – giving to those who give to us.  Instead, our role as Christians is to love what seems unlovable; to love when it seems impossible; and to love those who cannot or will not love in return.  It’s just that simple.  AMEN.

Sermon for June 19, 2016: Who am I? (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

Listen here:

What does it mean to hear voices?  In our society, when someone says they hear voices, we usually assume it is a symptom of mental illness and offer therapy and medication to help make the voices stop.  This is helpful for the many people who recognize the unreality of their situation and are frightened by it.  But for others, the costs of taking medications, vicious side effects, and the sense of being “doped” and “not themselves” are not worth the “cure.”

I sometimes wonder, then, if our real motivation for “rescuing” people from mental health symptoms like hearing voices is more about society’s discomfort and fear than the individual’s.  We worry that someone who hears things will disrupt the communities we live in or act out violently.  The idea that mentally ill people are prone to violence is common – but wrong.  Studies tell us that the vast majority of individuals who suffer from severe mental illnesses are not dangerous.[1]

What mentally ill individuals are is isolated and stigmatized.  Mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.[2]  It is estimated that more than 124 thousand homeless people across the US suffer from a severe mental illness.[3]  We see such people all the time and, for many of us, walking near them can seem scary – causing us to try to get away from them as quickly as possible.  This, of course, is the exact opposite of what people with severe mental illnesses need.  Their symptoms have separated them from others; what they need more than anything is to be restored to full membership in their communities.

Our first century brethren would recognize this dilemma because they demonstrated similar fears of the people who heard voices in their time.  In today’s gospel we heard that when Jesus and his disciples arrived in the Gentile territory of the Gerasenes, he was immediately confronted by the cries of a man described only as having “demons.”  The man has no name, no profession, and no apparent family – in essence, his ravings have become his identity; he is simply “the man with the demons.”  But he was not always this way; he was once a man of the city, who now lives among the tombs outside of his community allegedly in order to keep both the afflicted and the unafflicted safe.

According to Luke, when Jesus arrives, the man – or the “demons” in him – immediately recognize him and asks Jesus his intentions.  “What have you to do with me”? he cries, and then begs, “Do not torment me – do not taunt me.  Do not pretend that you cannot help me when I know you can.”  And the first thing Jesus does is to name ask the man to name his “demons” – to identify the source of the man’s pain for what it is –something that is well-known to a people occupied by the Roman Empire.  The man has been overcome by a “Legion” –a multitude of oppressive feelings so great that he has been left powerlessness over his own mind.

This story is important enough to appear in all three “synoptic” (similar) gospels.  It is thought to be the first narrative in which Jesus heals someone who is not Jewish and does not live on Jewish soil.  It is also considered authoritative for those who practice demonology, faith-healing and exorcism; not to mention the writers of horror films.  So it’s particularly interesting to look at what the story does not say.  It does not say that Jesus acknowledged the man’s torment as being the result of external demons.  It does not say that the man himself is sinful.  For that matter, it doesn’t even say that the “demons” inside him are evil.  It just says that the man’s condition drives him away from others.  The possession that Luke describes has not taken away the man’s morality.  It has taken his identity.

That’s a crucial difference – because it tells us that even if we take this story literally, so-called “demon possession” is not about the battle of good versus evil.  It’s about the struggle for identity.  For most of us, there is nothing more frightening than not knowing who we are or where we belong and being unable to control our own thoughts and actions.  This loss of self is at the core of mental illness.  It is also, I believe, at the center of our unraveling American social fabric.  It is the loss of our collective identity – our knowledge of who we are and what we stand for – that has led to so much separation, isolation and pain in this country.  And it is our failure to respond when we see someone “possessed” with such pain that is evil.

But Jesus did not fail to respond.  Jesus heard the man’s cry for help and healed him by restoring his identity and his place in the community.  He also gave him a new purpose.  Having experienced the power and mercy of God, the man of Garasene was given the opportunity to spread that good news to the members of his community.   In this way, the very deep woundedness of the Gerasene demoniac became, for his friends and neighbors, a catalyst for their own redemption.  In using his power to heal the man, Jesus provided him with the power to restore others to God.

But some people weren’t happy about it – because it scared them.  It scared them for someone to enter their community and insult their Roman occupiers by symbolically disarming one of their oppressive legions.  It frightened them that Jesus demonstrated that he and his followers cared more about the mental health of one person than the group of swineherds who lost their business as a result of the healing.  Or perhaps it was simply too much of a miracle.  They might have been used to the not uncommon wondrous actions of itinerant healers who came through their territory, but they had never seen someone so changed as the Garasene man had been by Jesus.

But that’s what true faith does.  It changes us.  It frees us.  It allows us to escape from the roles and masks we put on in order to function in our world and releases us to live in another – in the world of true life in Jesus Christ.  “Before faith came,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “you were imprisoned and guarded by the law” because you could not be trusted not to hurt yourself or other people.  Like the Gerasene demoniac, you were not in your right mind.  But now that Jesus has come, now that you have faith, you no longer need to be afraid of yourself or others- because all of you are one in faith.  All of the things that divided you – race, culture, gender, politics, social status – none of those things matter anymore, because by trust alone you are free to participate in the life of Christ together.  You have been restored not just as individuals, but as a community of Christ.

This is what Paul believed would happen when people accepted Christ as their savior – when their faith became their only truth – when it guided their lives and drowned out the noise and distractions of the world.  But we all know that that didn’t happen– and hasn’t happened yet.  We know it because we still separate ourselves from one another.  We are not one.  We are still Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.  We call ourselves Evangelicals or Catholics, Muslims or Mormons, Anglicans or Episcopalians.  The noise of humanity’s distractions – its petty squabbles, angry retorts, and jealous fears – continues to prevent us from doing the one thing that Paul says is necessary for his idyllic vision to come to fruition; we seem to be unable to participate in the life of Christ together.  We yell at each other so loudly that we cannot hear the voice of God.

That’s what happens when you are afraid.  It is what happened to Elijah.  Having done all that God asked of him – triumphing in a contest of power with the prophets of Ba’al, demanding the resignation of the king himself, consistently declaring God’s most controversial word – Elijah inexplicably lost his nerve and ran for his life into the wilderness, where he sat in a cave and asked God to let him die.  But ours is a God who answers cries for death with life – and with restoration.  Jesus restored the man of Gerasene to himself.  God restored Elijah to Godself, reminding him that he had not been alone in his struggles; that God had been and remained with him.  That it was Elijah who had forgotten the sound of God’s voice.

Perhaps we have too.  Perhaps we need to be reminded of the difference between the voice of God and the earthly voices that possess our thoughts with anger, fear, and despair.  God’s voice – whether it thunders or burns or whispers –never separates.  God’s voice always restores.  It restores us to ourselves and to one another.  Trust in that voice – and you too will be healed.  You too will be restored.  AMEN.

[1] Liza Gold, “Gun Violence: Psychiatry, Risk Assessment, and Social Policy,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychology and the Law, 41:3:337-343 (September 2013).

[2]Jonathan Metzl and Kevin MacLeish, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms,” American Journal of Public Health. 2015 February; 105(2): 240–249.

[3]Rick Jervis (August 27, 2014), “Mental disorders keep thousands of homeless on streets,” USA Today,  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/27/mental-health-homeless-series/14255283/.

What I did for love (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin)

Listen here: 

 

Today is my mother’s 89th birthday and, like all else in her life, she is approaching it with good cheer but without sentimentality.  My mother is a product of her generation – the Greatest Generation.  She is infinitely pragmatic – her most frequent admonition to me is not to “fuss” about things.  It’s not that she doesn’t care; it’s just that she sees excess emotion as having no purpose – and her life has always been about purpose.  Like so many others of her generation, my mother’s most distinguishing trait is faithfulness – a belief about what is right and the will to do it regardless of the personal cost – and to do it without “fuss” and bother.  Such faithfulness requires strength, generosity, wisdom and love.

Those are the traits exhibited by the poor man in the story the prophet Nathan tells King David in this morning’s Hebrew scripture reading.  The poor man is a stand-in for Uriah the Hittite, who was a strong, dutiful, and faithful soldier of his generation who served his king and his country with honor.

The rich man of the story is, of course, that very king.  Nathan’s tale is a retelling of the well-known saga of David and Bathsheba, often described as a famous romance.  We all know King David – how he rose from humble beginnings as the youngest of a family of modest herdsmen to defeat the greatest (and biggest) general of the most terrible enemy of the Israelites.  How, after his defeat of Goliath with (maybe) nothing more than a slingshot, David became the favorite of the King and married the king’s daughter.  How King David loved God so much that he wrote psalms and sang and danced to God’s glory in the sight of all of the people.  And of course how ruddy and handsome he was.  David was everything a hero needs to be – I can’t imagine why Marvel hasn’t bought the rights yet.

When David sees Bathsheba from afar, he is so smitten that he sends men to bring her to him so that he can be with her.  When she becomes pregnant, he has her husband killed in battle to cover up his actions.  Once Uriah is dead and buried, David marries her.  So, let’s be clear: this is not a love story – and David is not a hero.  This is a story about power and how easy it is to abuse it – how easy it is to become faithless.  David has forgotten his modest roots and become accustomed to getting whatever he wants and no one holds him accountable.  No one tells him that it’s not okay to treat a person as if she is simply a lamb to be used to satisfy the appetite of a powerful and selfish man.  No one except Nathan, who, led by God, helps him understand that he, David, the king – the hero –is the rich man in the story – that the person who seems to be an example of a faithful servant of God – one to whom God gave so very much – is, by his own judgment, actually a sinner who is worthy of death.

But God did not kill David.  God “put away” his sin and allowed him to live – and yet we know that David was never the same.  His true repentance spared him, but there were still repercussions for his actions.  That’s because, as David himself tells us in the words of the psalm that he is credited with writing, the Lord is merciful, but also instructive.  For the rest of his long, hard life, David was repeatedly reminded of what he’d forgotten – that we need God – even when we think we don’t –even when we think we’re fine on our own.  In order for us to live faithfully, we must be in relationship with God.

Otherwise, by definition, we live in sin, because that is what sin is – separation – separation from God and from one another.  It is when we rely on our own strength that we make mistakes – that we hurt one another – and ourselves.  And the only way to heal our brokenness is to acknowledge it and bind ourselves together again.  Nothing – no perceived slight, no misunderstanding, no disagreement, is worth committing the sin of separation – because the essence of Christianity is not canon; it is community.

That’s what Paul was telling the Galatians when he admonished them not to live for the law.  Live by the law – yes – but live for and in God.  That’s something that Uriah the Hittite knew – that members of the Greatest Generation know – that King David learned – that in the end no one dies for a law – what people are willing to die for is love – and to allow ourselves to become separated from God and from one another is to forget that love.  It is to become faithless.

The pain of separation and the power of restoring love is something the woman with the alabaster jar knew well.  It is what allowed her to ignore the possible repercussions of angering and embarrassing herself in front of rich, powerful, people in order to do what her faith told her to do.

It is also what my mother did.  The child of second-generation European immigrants, my mother understood what it was to be on the outside – to have a father who left school at 14 to care for his mother and sister after his father died.  To make her own prom dress.  And to be rejected by her in-laws, who, upon meeting her, told my father he was marrying beneath him.  When I was born, my aunt told my jealous older sister that she needn’t mind the new baby – “it’ could belong to my mom’s family – but my sister would learn to do things right, because she was part of the White family.  But when my father, uncle, and aunt all died during the course of one year, it was my mother who made sure we remained close to that surviving aunt.  And when my aunt developed Alzheimer’s disease, it was my mother who absorbed her confusion, anger, and fear – even when she accused my mother of stealing from her.  Even when my aunt insisted, in front of her, that I stop calling “that woman” my mother.  It was my mother who continued to care for her, up to and beyond her death.  Like the woman with the alabaster jar, my mother focused not on what would be said of her or to her, but on what was right – on what was needed.

I think the Pharisees who were dining with Jesus that night, like David, forgot that.  The woman of the city knew what it was to need – and so gave all that she had – and loved with all of her heart.  But indebted to no one and not recognizing the need of their own hearts, the dinner guest gave Jesus little.

I think something similar has happened in this country – and perhaps it is one reason for the steady decline in religious belief over recent years.  So many of us have so much that we have started to believe that we don’t really need God.  We have forgotten what it means to have nothing but our ideals and one another to cling to.  To have, like the woman of the city, only our faith.  Maybe we are, like my aunt, too self-sufficient, too competent, and too correct to admit how much we need each other.  Perhaps we have become too dignified and too proud to kneel at the feet of God and brokenly beg for mercy.  Maybe we are just afraid of what we might lose if we throw ourselves into the powerful, exhausting, and sometimes ugly struggle that is true relationship.

But some of the greatest of us – those like my mother – do it all the time.  And we can too.  It is, as she would point out, simple.  We merely need to let go of our pre-conceptions and our fears – to renew our relationships with God and one another by remembering who we are and what we have been called to do.  Love God.  Love one another.  And then go in peace – knowing that our faith has saved us.  AMEN.

Sermon for May 29, 2016: Preaching Politics

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Religion and politics have an uneasy relationship.  In the United States, of course, we have a formal separation of church and state – and many people have taken that to mean that religious leaders should simply stay out of politics.  This is the consensus of most Episcopalians, many of whom frown on the preaching of politics from the pulpit.  But other Americans believe just as firmly that the same law that gives us the right to worship as we please also gives us the right (and the obligation) to vote based on our religious beliefs.  Those who argue against “politics in the pulpit,” suggest that the church is about reconciliation -and that the introduction of politics into church discourse can only lead to disharmony and separation rather than the peace and unity that people hope to find in church.  On the other hand, I would suggest that “every area of life needs a moral purpose and clear ethical boundaries, and no area of life needs it more desperately” than politics.[1]

The word “politics,” derives from Aristotle, who described a system by which affairs of a community or state can be determined.  The etymological root of the word “politics” -“pol”- means “smooth.”  It’s the same as the root of “polite.”  Thus, both politics and politeness have to do with smoothing relationships between people.  The goal of political discourse, then, is to work things out so people can live together in harmony -which suggests that politics do have a place in the church.

And it’s pretty hard to argue that Jesus wasn’t a political figure.  As some of you have heard me say before, Jesus did not die as a religious martyr – after all, the leaders of his own religion actually supported his death.  Rather, he died as a political prisoner, for suggesting, among other things, that it is okay to break a law if it benefits your fellow human beings to do so; that human leaders are subject to the laws of God, that prejudice and slavery are wrong, and that religious leaders should be held to the same standards of behavior as everyone else.

But politics and religion have a much deeper and long-term relationship than even Jesus’s struggles with the powers of his time.  We only heard part of today’s assigned reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, which is too bad, because we missed the most entertaining part of the story of the epic deity smackdown in which Elijah and the prophets of Baal go toe to toe to prove to the people whose god is the best god.  The showdown takes place in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the period after the freeing of the Jews from Egyptian slavery.  The Israelite King Ahab has married Jezebel, a Baal worshipper, and God sends Elijah to straighten out the Israelites about who is the real God of Israel.  In an episode worthy of any reality t.v. show, Elijah kicks off the contest by taunting Baal’s prophets to call their god to see if he will come and show himself.  In the part we didn’t read, as time goes by and Baal doesn’t show our hero Elijah starts trash-talking Baal’s prophets, suggesting that their god must be deaf, lost, out-of-town, or has fallen asleep.  When Baal’s time is up, Elijah calls on his God – our God, who not only shows up, but promptly sets his own burnt offering on fire and then consumes it in front of everyone.  Now that’s style!

It’s also power, and if you read a bit further in Kings, you will find the God of Israel exercising that power.  Having established his superiority to Baal, God demands that Elijah repudiate Ahab and crown a new king who will worship the God of Israel – and him alone.  Elijah’s action eventually leads to the banishment and endangerment of the prophet and eventually to war.  In today’s world the endorsement of political candidates by religious leaders is commonplace and don’t lead to banishment, but it’s likely that he would probably be fined and potentially lose his preaching license for breaking the Internal Revenue Tax Code for religious institutions by endorsing a specific candidate from the pulpit.

I can’t imagine an Episcopal priest going that far in today’s political world.  But the truth is that we preach politics all the time – because our job is to interpret the holy scriptures in a way that helps us determine how to live our lives not only here in church, but also in the real world – the one in which we are in relationship with both those who believe as we do and those who don’t.  So if we think of “politics” as being about organizing our lives together in a way that best respects and assists all of our citizens, then everything that we hear in church – and certainly everything that Jesus said – has political implications.

A recent Pew Foundation report suggests that there is actually a hunger for politics from the pulpit, with 49 percent of Americans indicating that they want pastors to talk about politics.[2]  These people are seeking spiritual guidance – and many preachers are willing to give it to them.  We don’t have to look very far to see the dangers of preaching politics.  The political trajectory of the so-called religious right has created a climate of divisiveness and fear that I believe has shattered rather than increased the faith of many people.  Using scripture to frighten and control God’s people rather than to enlighten and sustain them – as a bully’s club rather than a shepherd’s staff – is not just wrongheaded but sinful.

The same is true of those who oppose all religion.  Groups like the Openly Secular movement are using this contentious election season to argue that “the world would be more sane if all religions, all primitive superstitions, were abandoned.”[3]  Many members of these organizations do not differentiate between Christians, seeing those who “believe that the Bible is a book of facts and not myths,”[4] and others who thoughtfully and prayerfully consider the relationship between science and faith as one credulous collective.

The problem with both groups is their unwillingness to attempt to actually know others – to figure out how to live with them instead of forcing them to live the way we think they should.  But that is what happens when we make judgments based on what we believe we are entitled to instead of what we deserve.  It is what happens when the love of power seeks to overcome the power of love – when hubris trumps humility.

The actions of the centurion from today’s gospel, though, show us a different way.  Despite the fact that he exercises more human political power than Jesus could ever have, the centurion recognizes Jesus’s spiritual authority over him, and by acting on that belief he saves the one he loves.  The centurion’s action is a political one – and not his first.  Based on the text, it seems likely that this particular Roman officer was of Israelite heritage – a not unheard of situation, but a dicey one in which he could have lost his prime position if he was seen as pushing a pro-Israelite agenda too far.  And he had already built a synagogue, making him beloved to the Jewish elders.  But the centurion takes the risk, because he recognizes that his earthly authority means nothing in the face of Jesus’s power – because human power is always limited.

But God’s power is unlimited and she does not use her power to give us what we deserve; God uses his power to give us what we need.  And the power God is not only unlimited, it is, by its very nature, merciful and just.  When humans judge one another, we are often thoughtless, cruel, and selfish.  But, according to the psalmist, when God judges us, we should rejoice, because God will judge the world with righteousness and truth.

That’s because God is rightWe only think we are.  This human tendency toward “rightness” – toward a rigid and unshakeable belief in our own irrefutable spiritual correctness both permeates current American culture and is as ancient as fear and doubt themselves.  This is the corruption of the gospel that Paul is talking about when he rails against the Galatians for “perverting” the gospel of Christ.  He is not angry at them for turning to a “different” gospel; he believes that there is no such thing.  Rather, he is furious at those he sees as confusing these fledgling Christians about the meaning of the gospel that they have already received -at those who seek the approval of human beings by preaching human politics – the politics of coercion, judgment, and fear.  Paul’s message is simple and straightforward: using the gospel of Christ to garner human power is not serving Christ.  That kind of politics has no place in any pulpit.

But the foundational ideas of the true gospel – justice, mercy, and peace – are political, and they have everything to do with how we organize and live our lives together –everything to do with our politics.  And by not preaching these values we allow others who are willing to preach politics to pervert the gospel of Christ – and that, according to Paul, is sin indeed.  Human politics are not God’s politics. Human politics divide; God unifies.  Scripture tells us again and again that God’s will is that we live together in love -and God has provided us with the tools to do so.  Our job is to be wise, courageous and faithful by applying the wisdom of God to the politics of human beings.  If we can do this we will have nothing less than the power to bring about the kingdom of God – and in that place we will indeed live together in a relationship governed by love and grace.  Amen.

[1]Greg Forster (2014), “Politics in the Pulpit? Yes and No,” Patheos, www.patheos.com/blogs/missionwork/author/forster/.

[2]Pew Foundation, (2014), www.pewforum.org/2014/09/22/public-sees-religiouns-influence-waning.

[3]John Davidson, (May 15, 2016), “An entertainer comes out at 74 – as openly secular,” SF Chronicle, E5.

[4]Ibid.

Sermon for May 1, 2016: We are enough (Preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley)

Listen to sermon here:

The church is having an identity crisis – and like any teenager whose hormones are running their lives, we have been doing some pretty wild things in the service of trying to figure out who we are.  This became clear to me after I recently read a satirical article entitled, “Fifty proven ways to revive mainline churches” and realized that many Episcopal parishes I know have actually attempted quite a few of these tongue-in-cheek suggestions, including holding Bible study in the local pub, working the phrase “social justice” into every other announcement, and trying to tone down all that “Jesus-talk.”[1]  Although, in all fairness, I would like to point out that I only colored my hair to match the liturgical calendar once – and it was Pentecost, after all.  But it cannot be denied that the church as a whole is exhibiting behavior that looks a lot like teenage rebellion.

That’s because teenagers aren’t the only ones who struggle with the task of figuring out who they are and what they should be doing with their lives.  “An identity crisis may occur at any time in your adult years when you’re faced with a challenge to your sense of self.”[2]  I think it’s fair to argue that that’s what’s happening in the Episcopal Church right now.  On the one hand, we’re no longer the denomination of the status-quo supporting, white, middle-class, but we’re also (by and large) not the tattooed, profanity-using, skinny-jean wearing iconoclasts some people think we need to become.  Personality theory says that successfully riding out the rough waves of identity development requires a balance of two things: a strong sense of “commitment” to a belief system and the active questioning of those beliefs by experimenting with other ideas and behaviors.  So if the church is having an identity crisis, it stands to reason that we’re not doing enough of one of those things – either we’re not committed enough to “traditional” biblical Christian teaching – or are we not trying hard enough to introduce new ideas and worship trends to our services.  Are we low on commitment or experimentation?

Maybe we’re just not getting the balance right.  Personality theorists would tell us that we actually need to be “high” on both.  Faith, after all, is synonymous with the firm sense of belief that identifies people as “high” on commitment – but the church also needs the spirit of exploration and interrogation that gives true religion its redemptive power.  It is what we do with our faith that matters, because it is in sharing with those who are different than we are that we learn and grow.

There is, says Krista Tippett, “a lot of beauty and wisdom and inquiry and virtue about critical life-giving aspects [of the church] that other institutions [can’t] bring into conversation” with spiritual seekers.[3]   At the same time, those of us who have that strength of commitment founded on a lifetime of church teaching need to be confronted with the moral imagination and integrity of those who are not religious – the so-called “nones” – because they question the very idea of religions that say they speak in the name of God but whose voices are “strident, hateful, [and] polarizing.” [4]  The truth is that for both individuals and institutions, only those that both maintain a deep and clear sense of who they are so that they can examine and evolve that truth can fully live into the promise of their identity.

This means talking about our faith.  It means inviting people in.  It means proclaiming the good news – just as Luke tells us Paul did in ancient Macedonia.  It may feel intrusive.  It may be embarrassing.  It may even be frightening – but knowing what it means to be Christian means opening our hearts to others so they can open their hearts to God.  C.S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest plain-speaker about Christianity in the 20th century, said, “The world does not consist of 100 percent Christians and 100 percent non-Christians.  There are people…who are slowly ceasing to be Christians, but who still call themselves by that name…[and] there are other people who are slowly becoming Christian, though they do not yet call themselves so.  There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are [already] his in a much deeper sense than they…understand.”[5]

It is up to us to help them to understand this attraction and to know it for what it is: a longing for God.  Like the psalmist, we must pray that God will let his ways be known upon the earth so that all people may stand in awe of him.  But we can’t just pray.  We have to actually provide some glimpses of what it is to live in a world fully inhabited by God – what it’s like to live in the kingdom of God.

And the kingdom of God is not built of churches – or at least not church buildings.  God has never asked people to build churches.  God asks us to be churches.  We get so obsessed with things like average Sunday attendance and color-coordinated linens, and whether the grass is growing that I sometimes wonder if Frederick Buechner wasn’t right when he said, “the best thing that could happen to the church would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash it all away – the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the air like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too.  Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first place” – because, really, that’s all we should need.

John’s revelation of the New Jerusalem – the holy city – the kingdom of God – has no temple in it, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty.”  It is a place of light and life and healing – a place where all is holy and all is good – including the people.  It is a place where nothing is accursed – not because the bad people will be sent to another place – but because all people will be redeemed.  Everyone will be good.  They won’t be able to help it – because “everyone there is filled full…with goodness as a mirror is filled with light.”[6]

Many people have interpreted today’s gospel reading to mean that Jesus (and, by default, God) will only love you if you obey a certain set of rules.  And lots and lots of people believe they can tell you what those rules are – and what will happen to you if you don’t obey them.  But Jesus doesn’t say, “Those who love me have to keep my laws.” Jesus tells his disciples that those who love him will keep his word.  In other words, if you love Jesus, you cannot help but keep his word.  You won’t be able to break his word.  And his word is “love.”

The kingdom of God is not about who is right and who is wrong; it is about learning that in God there is no wrong.  Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples with some unpassable test or impossible standard.  He leaves them with the Holy Spirit – with a counselor – not to haunt them, but to advocate for them – not only to remind them of Jesus’s way, but also to help them to continually grow in grace – to recognize the good and reject the bad – to bring the kingdom of God to these people in this place.  He leaves them both the wisdom and the room to grow – to change – and to change the world.

That is the identity of the church – to provide both a foundation of wisdom and the opportunity for growth.  The identity of the church is as a community where we can share both our confidence and our fears – a gathering of spiritual seekers who together invite the sacred presence of the Holy Spirit to be among them – a congregation of individuals blessed with the deep peace of Jesus.  It is – we are -the bedrock of the kingdom of God.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let those you love be afraid.  It will be enough.  It is enough.  It is, in fact, everything.  AMEN.

[1]Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, April 28, 2016, “Fifty proven ways to revive mainline churches (satire),” Religious Church News.

[2]Susan Krauss Whitbourne, “Are you having an Identity Crisis: 4 key ways to identify your identity,” Psychology Today, March 3, 2012.

[3] Krista Tippett in Boorstein, Michelle, (April 6, 2016), “Acts of Faith: Some are writing obituaries for American religion, Krista Tippet is documenting its revolution,” The Washington Post.

[4]Ibid.

[5]C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity.”

[6]Ibid.

It will be my Kingdom (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco in commemoration of Earth Day)

Listen to audio here:

“I am earth and air and fire and water…I come from the Dark where all things have their beginning…I come from the sea and its tides…I come from the sky and its stars.  I come from the sun and its brightness…and I come from the forests of earth…Slowly I moved at first…always sleeping and dreaming.  I remembered all I had been and I thought of all I shall be.  And when I had dreamed my dream I awoke and came swiftly…I heard the stars singing…I came and I felt warm wings about me.  I passed the beasts of the jungle and came through the dark, deep waters.  It was a long journey.”

“A long journey, indeed! said the Starling softly….  “And, ah, so soon forgotten!” …“No!” [Annabel says] confidently.  “I’ll never forget.”

That is a passage from “Mary Poppins Comes Back”[1] spoken by the youngest Banks baby on the day of her birth.  To the adults and other children around her, little Annabel seems to babbling and cooing, but to the Starling that perches on the nursery window sill and, of course, to Mary Poppins, she clearly relays her tale of creation and birth.  But the Starling is right.  Annabel quickly forgets her story -and her relationship to the rest of God’s creation, just as all humans do.  And, like the Starling, we are bitterly disappointed.  “What a pity,” he says, “what a pity.”

It is a pity – because, although P.L. Travers’ account is a fantastic one, it is still poignant because it has the power to remind us that we once held more innocent – and perhaps more accurate – notions about the place of humanity in the world.  As children, we readily accept stories about talking animals and walking trees not only because we have not yet been trained to “believe it only if we see it,” but because we have had our own experiences with the living things around us.  Brooks babble, waves crash, stars twinkle, and the moon wishes us goodnight.

But somehow that changes – even for those of us who are open to the idea that all of creation is animate, our relationship to our non-human companions changes, and not for the better.  P.L. Travers suggests that the shift occurs in relationship to the development of our ability to speak.  In her telling, when Annabel’s babbling becomes words, her ability to communicate with the non-human world diminishes and finally disappears.  This idea actually makes sense from a scientific perspective because it is the way in which we communicate with one another that sets us apart from other living beings, and, historically, it is what human beings have assumed also makes us “better” or “higher” than plants and other animals.

Humans have used Holy Scriptures to support this view for millennia.  Did not God, after all, set “man” above – to rule and to dominate the rest of creation at the beginning of the world?  According to Genesis – yes. The Hebrew word we now translate as “have dominion over” does indeed mean, “to rule.”  It does not, however, mean “to exploit.”  And it’s hard to argue that we humans do not and have not exploited other living creatures.  For thousands of years, human beings have understood God’s command to “rule” other parts of creation as meaning, “to use as we see fit.”  And the language of “it” has encouraged us to do so.

“It,” is one of the most frequently used words in the English language.  We use it to designate “objects” – as opposed to “subjects” which we identify by gendered pronouns.  Which is why it’s a dangerous word – because our use of the word “it” allows us to delineate what is truly “alive” and what is not.  And that has consequences – because the language of “it” allows us to exploit other beings.  The language of “it” provides us with labels that separate some creatures from others.  In this place, we may believe all human beings to be “subjects,” but in other cultures and other eras, many people were and still are considered “objects” – “its.”  Birds, trees, streams, meadows are “its.”  One of the fundamental characteristics of psychopaths is the way they objectify other people, seeing them as things, as “its.”  And, of course, we are currently seeing the kind of dehumanization that can occur when a human being does not readily fit into the parameters of gendered language.

It is interesting to note that the Hebrew and Aramaic languages do not have a neutral gender.  All Hebrew and Aramaic words are gendered; there is no “it.”  So, when today’s psalmist speaks to the sun and moon – the stars and heavens – the waters and sea-monsters – to hail, snow, fog, wind, mountains, hills, trees, beasts and humans, he is speaking to them as equally alive.  He is calling out to them in the language which animates all living beings.

That is the language Jesus spoke.  It was the language his disciples had to learn before they could carry his message into the world.  For Peter, this meant letting go of what he believed to be his superior status as an observant Jew.  What is important about the passage we heard from Acts today is not whether Peter’s vision justified his eating of animals forbidden by Jewish cleanliness laws.  What is important is where it led him.  Go, with the Gentiles who are seeking you, the Spirit tells him, and do not “make a distinction between them” and you, because, “God has given even to the Gentiles” – to the “its” of your society – “the repentance that leads to life.”

What Peter hears in his vision is what Jesus spoke of in life – that the way of Christ is a way of relationship.  To truly follow the path of Jesus, we must be in relationship with all of God’s creation.  That means that nothing God has created is ours to exploit.  It means, rather, that it is ours to protect.  It is ours to nurture.  It is ours to grow – not just physically, but spiritually.  Because John’s revelation of a new heaven and a new earth is not about a different world, but a renewed world.  The Jewish apocalyptic eschatological tradition that the book of Revelation comes out of us does not feature the end of the world; it speaks of the redemption of this world.  The new heaven and the new earth are not objects that God will create, but existing life that God will redeem and purify.  “The home of God is among mortals.”  It is not a far-away place; God’s home is the heart and soul of God’s creation – all of it, living in harmony.  It is something we as stewards of the earth and followers of Christ are tasked with bringing about.

And Jesus tells us how to do it.  To bring about a new world, we need a new commandment – “love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  And not just the “others” that we see as equals.  To bring about God’s kingdom among mortals, to make a home where God can dwell with us – to bring about the end of pain – the end of tears – the end of death – we already have all we need.  Love God’s creation as Jesus did and God’s kingdom will come.  And God’s kingdom is a place where there are no “its.”  AMEN.

[1]P.L. Travers. “Mary Poppins Comes Back.” (1935).  New York: Harcourt Brace.  Kindle location 46-48.

“Tell me a Story”: February 21, 2016 (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco)

May the words of my mouth be food for the hearts of your people, O Lord.

I love a good story.   I like listening to them and, as anyone who knows me will agree, I like telling them.  Maybe that’s because storytelling is an inherently social activity.  Think about it.  Even when you are reading a book in solitude you are sharing an experience with the author. She is providing you with the basic elements of the story, but your imagination is doing the rest.  You really can’t tell a story without an audience.  Well – you can try to do it in a mirror – but pretending to be surprised by the punch line gets pretty boring after a while.

Telling stories is probably as old as humanity itself.  And we tell stories for dozens of reasons – to inform, to enlighten – and often simply to entertain.  According to one neuroscientist, stories even produce brain chemicals that tell us who to hang out with.[1]  Paul Zak says that “As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness.”  In order for us to be able to tell whether another person is likely to act in concert with us, our brains send out a neurochemical called oxytocin.  “Oxytocin…motivates cooperation with others.  It does this by enhancing [our] sense of empathy, – [that is] – our ability to experience others’ emotions.”   So basically stories help us find our “people.”  Stories help us to survive.

The Bible is one of the primary bases of our faith – not because, as many people mistakenly believe – it is a book of rules that tells us how to act, but because it is a book of stories that shapes us by showing us who we are.  It allows us to recognize our capacity for wisdom, kindness and courage – as well as for ignorance, cruelty and fear.  And it shows us who and what we might become.  Scripture, like oxytocin, helps us find our people – and ourselves.

But some biblical stories are harder to understand than others.  Look at today’s Hebrew Scripture.  We find Abram – who will become our patriarch Abraham – having a vision in which he is talking to God.  God wants to reward Abram so he promises him wealth.  But Abram doesn’t want wealth; he wants children.  Because Abram doesn’t have any “people” – he’s a nomadic herder who lives among strangers at a time when kinship bonds are the primary source of community.  So God says he’ll cut him a deal – and when I say “cut,” I mean cut him a deal.  Because the phrase “to make a covenant” in Hebrew is actually better translated as “to cut a covenant” – and that’s exactly what Abram is doing when he cuts those animals in half.  It is the shedding of blood that seals Abram’s covenant with God.  Abram will get what he asks for – he will have heirs – he will have descendants – he will have people – but not before a lot of blood has been shed – and not before he experiences “a deep and terrifying darkness.”  God tells Abram that he will be his shield – but that doesn’t mean that God will prevent Abram from experiencing danger or pain.  It means that God will keep him from being overwhelmed by them.  It means that God will be with him.

As God is still with his people.  God continues to be with her people even when they slaughter one another in God’s name, even when they kill God’s prophets and stone God’s messengers – even when they crucified God’s son.  Scripture tells us that people hurt one another, yes, but it also tells us that God weeps with us when it happens.  We see that in today’s gospel when Jesus cries out for his people: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”  All we have to do is take away the word “Jerusalem,” and substitute any number of other names that mean something to each of  us – that signify our people  – church, friend, spouse, teacher, priest – and we hear Jesus’s desire to remove pain from our lives.  Because God is with us.

That is the core of our story – of the Christian story – of the St. Mary the Virgin story.  God is with us.  And there is more – because we are not like Abram.  We are not alone.  We are a community that is greater than that ancient nomad could ever have imagined.  And as his descendants it is our responsibility, our sacred duty – and our gift to continue to tell our stories.  If storytelling is the way we connect to other people – the way in which we learn to trust one another – the way in which our very brain chemicals identify us a family – then our survival as a church, as a denomination – as a people, depends on it.

This afternoon some of us will gather to listen to a story about this community- and parts of that story will be painful to tell and to hear.  But that story is still a gift.  It is a gift because that story will be told in community.  It is a gift because it will help us learn as a community.  It is a gift because it will help us grow as a community.  It is a gift because through it we will know that God is in this community.  And however hard that story may be to tell or to hear we must remember what scripture tells us – that God is our shield and our strength, and that in days of trouble God will shelter us and keep us safe.  We must remember what Paul told his people – that Jesus Christ can transform the body of our humiliation into the body of his glory.  We must remember that God is our light and our salvation and we have nothing to fear.  And we must remember that when we weep for those in pain and for those who have caused pain, God weeps with us, longing to gather us under her wings.

We have the strength and trust to share all of our stories because our collective story, the story of this community, is the story of the greatest gift God has given us – the gift that is at the heart of the Christian story – and at the heart of the St. Mary the Virgin story-  the gift of love.  Accept that gift.  Love one another.  Live in community.  There you will find hope.  There you will find strength.  There you will find peace.  AMEN.

[1]Paul J. Zak, (October 28, 2014), “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” Harvard Business Review online, https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling/.