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

Listen to sermon here:


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)

Listen to sermon here:


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,

[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.

The Neuropsychology of Spirituality (presented at the Summer in the City Forum at The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco on June 26, 2016 

Sermon for September 4, 2016: Mold me and shape me, Lord (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

Listen to the sermon here: 

I do not enjoy crafts.  When my children were small and they needed parent volunteers to help with school projects, I would offer to do anything but “prep work.”  “Prep work,” for those of you who have never volunteered at Sunday school, generally means cutting about 50 circles or triangles out of construction paper to be used for young fingers to draw and glue on.  If you are me, not only do your circles come out looking like triangles, but there is also some kind of mathematical formulation that guarantees that my irritation level rises to that of my cutting incompetence.  Also, I have found that teachers of young children frown on tears and blood-drops on their project paper.

So when I attended a retreat and was given a ball of clay and the instructions to shape something that represented my ministry, I rolled my eyes, sighed deeply, and tried to get out of it.  Unfortunately, it was a small retreat and there was no escaping the dreaded spiritual craft project.  Since I was in discernment at the time, I decided to make a chalice to symbolize my desire to become a deacon.  However, I could not for the life of me construct a functional glass stem.  Every one of my attempts looked approximately like a hippopotamus sitting on a giraffe leg – and, without fail, the glass bowl part would completely flatten the delicate stem.  Needless to say, as the stem leg got flatter and wider I became more frustrated, which culminated in the creation of something that looked like a very round wine glass sitting on a flat plate.

When we got back together in the large group, people spoke movingly about their artwork and the process that led them to create it.  They drew lovely and thoughtful connections between what they had made and where they were on their spiritual journeys.  By the time they got to me, I was mortified.  What was I supposed to say? -that my primary spiritual reaction to the project was frustration – or that I couldn’t make my hands do what I saw in my head?  I felt both artistically and spiritually stupid.

Then, before I could even begin to make up something about how my stumpy glass with the separated stem represented my spiritual life, one of the participants who knew me -and of my struggles in discernment – said, “Oh Deb – Look!  You made a paten and lavabo bowl.  You really are a priest!”  I was dumbfounded – because when I looked down and saw what was in front of me, I knew that she was right.  I had, without any planning or desire, constructed what was clearly a lavabo bowl – a liturgical implement used to wash the hands of priests – and a paten – which is used to hold the bread that is blessed and distributed by priests.  God had taken my resistant fingers – and my resistant heart – and made me see that my true identity – an identity I had yet to embrace – was not that of a deacon, but of a priest.  And God did it despite my best efforts to resist it.  And God forced me to understand what I had done by speaking through the spirit of someone I loved.

That’s what happens when we allow ourselves to be God’s clay – to be molded and shaped as God wills – which is not necessarily what we want.  And God’s will is that we should be good – not just as individuals, but as nations, kingdoms – and worlds.  That’s what God sent Jeremiah to tell the house of Israel –that they were denying his will so she was going to take their miserable human lives into her creating hands and squash them like badly-made play-do people.  Because despite God’s best efforts, the house of Israel had become spoiled vessels – and God had decided to unmake the very shape of them and to rework them into something better.

That’s a scary idea – to think that there’s some kind of power out there that can simply undo you.  It’s the kind of idea that keeps people away from churches, that threatens our very American sense of autonomy and power.  It’s also kind of demeaning –to think of ourselves as simply being the raw materials of someone else’s art work.  We consider ourselves to be creative, generative, and talented.  We are the builders and shapers of the world – not the ones being molded and shaped.  We know what’s best for us – and for other people too.

Or so we think.  But maybe the truth is that the statues we have erected of ourselves and the things we love are not honors, but idols.  After all, it is easier to worship gods that represent what we already value than to question whether those values are worth honoring.

Philemon, the recipient of the letter from Paul that we heard today, valued his membership in the Christian movement – but he also valued his house and his slaves.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that he was angry and unhappy when his slave Onesimus ran off.  What is surprising is that Onesimus ended up becoming a Christian too -and that he was so beloved by Paul that Paul asked Philemon to choose not only to forgive Onesimus, but to welcome him back as an equal – not because slavery is wrong, but because Onesimus – once a useless and dishonest slave – could now be a useful and honest brother to PhilemonRejecting his claim of ownership of Onesimus and accepting him as his brother molded Philemon into a wiser and more forgiving Christian, just as Onesimus had been molded through Paul into a useful and beloved Christian – but both men had to allow themselves to be completely re-shaped by their growing Christian belief for it to happen.

I bet it hurt.  Because allowing yourself to be re-made in ways that you never imagined can be pretty painful – and messy.  Clay is, after all, nothing but fancy mud.  But if God is willing to get his hands dirty trying to make us better, shouldn’t we be willing to labor in the dust with him?  Isn’t that what Jesus has been asking us to do in gospel story after gospel story all summer long? – to acknowledge our spiritual poverty and relinquish our unwarranted pride.  Even so, in today’s gospel story Jesus goes even further.  He tells his followers that they have to give up everything – friends, family, home, safety – whatever it is they love most if they want to follow him.  There is no in-between – because not only do they have to give up what they love, they have to actually hate it.  That is the cost of discipleship.  That is what it means to be Christian – for all of us.

Or maybe you’re thinking that God doesn’t need you to give up anything for your faith.  Maybe you don’t have to change.  If so, you need to look again at the world around you – because whatever evil the house of Israel was doing has nothing on the people in this country who punish others for the color of their skin –who ostracize people for exercising their faith –who kill simply to make people believe what they think is right.  And while I am perfectly willing to believe that no one in this room is doing any of those things, I know that none of us is doing enough to stop it.  Because if every Christian in the world actually gave up everything that is opposed to the way of Jesus Christ, evil like that would disappear.

That’s what Jesus is asking us to do; not to renounce everything we have, but to hate anything that keeps us from God. And that includes, “our need to acquire, our yearning for success, our petty jealousies, our denigrating stereotypes of others, our prejudices and hatreds, and more.  [We have to put away the possessions and obsessions] that keep us…from the Christ-like walk to which Jesus invites us…. [We must] place ourselves on an ever-treading potter’s wheel to examine our thoughts, words, and actions.”[1]  If we can do that – if we can divest ourselves of those things that separate us from God, then we will be good clay.  That’s all we have to do, because the good news is that it is not up to us to torturously mold and shape ourselves into what we think we should be.  It is only up to us to be what we were created to be – a marvelously made, lovingly fashioned, and intimately-known child of God.  God is the potter.  We are the clay.  Mold us and shape us Lord, that we may become the good work of your hand.  AMEN.

[1]Emily Townes (2010), “Theological Perspective on Luke 14:25-33,” in Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press], p. 46.

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)

Listen to the sermon here: 

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,


3 Martini Judaism, (October 29, 2015) “Six ways that ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a religion,” Religion News Service,

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


[6]Cathy Lunn Grossman, “God? Meaning of Life?  Many Americans don’t seek them in Church,” Religion News,


[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,