Sermon for September 3, 2017: The power of emotion, the power of God (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, California)

You may listen here:

This has been a very emotional week for me.  It started last Sunday when, as you may remember, my daughter came up during the announcements to be blessed before leaving for her gap year on the east coast and I became a bit tearful.  It is, of course, part of the job of a priest to be able to carry on through strong emotions – to put aside our own feelings in order to help our parishioners work through theirs, but, honestly, it is sometimes hard to hold it together, especially when there are a lot of potent emotions swirling around.  That has definitely been the case this week – a week in which thousands of people lost their homes, possessions, and even their lives in the devastating hurricane and subsequent flooding in Texas; a week in which many families sent beloved young people off to colleges and “adult” adventures; a week in which we mourned the loss and celebrated the life of our sister Joyce Apostalo, and a week in which today we celebrate the blessing of our sister Jo-Ann and brother John’s fifty years of Holy Matrimony.  That’s a lot of powerful emotions to manage.

If you think about it, even the most joyful emotional events – like John and Jo’s renewal – can be exhausting. Although we tend to think of “feelings” as somewhat abstract, non-scientific sensations, there is ample evidence that emotions are both rooted in our physical bodies and fairly predictable.  Neuroscience tells us that when we “feel,” certain parts of our brain “light up,” producing specific chemical responses.  “Each emotion sparks a distinctive physiological reaction, the body’s program for dealing with the different situations that arise in our emotional lives. Happiness cues the brain to suppress worrisome or negative feelings and increases the body’s energy level. Sadness does the opposite, slowing down its metabolism, and manifests itself most visibly in tears. Research has substantiated the age-old theory that crying releases harmful toxins by showing that tears of sadness have a different chemical composition than tears of joy or those caused by irritants. Cardiologists have also found that crying can reduce stress and the harmful physiological reactions associated with it. Anger floods the brain with catecholamine hormones that prime the body for action and stimulates the nervous system, putting it on a general state of alert.”[1] In other words, when we feel dizzy with love, overheated by anger, or weak with sadness, we really are. Powerful emotions – negative and positive – can be overwhelming for all human beings – even prophets.

We know this because in today’s Hebrew Scripture we find Jeremiah struggling with feelings of anger toward God.  He has tried to be a faithful prophet – reporting the concerns and will of God to his people as it has been shown to him – and yet he has been teased, tormented and even physically hurt by those around him.  He’s had enough. He wants God to get back at the people who have upset him – and the amazing thing is that he’s not afraid to let God know about it, even going so far as to call God names.  That’s because, despite his anger toward God, he never doubts their relationship.  He knows that no matter what he says to God, God will not abandon him. Their bond is deeply loving, one “in which God’s overwhelming claim on Jeremiah’s life is delightful and devastating at the same time.”[2] God did not create humanity without knowing the nature of it. God understands Jeremiah’s strong feelings – even the negative ones.  God recognizes Jeremiah’s anger for what it is: a sign of love – because, really, “only those who love experience hurt, anger, and doubt.  The indifferent are just fine.”[3]

True love, what St. Paul calls, “genuine” love – or “un-hypocritical” love, as it is more accurately translated – is both complicated and very, very difficult.  Because of the way the Greek language works, Paul’s long list of love’s attributes are translated as “Let love be,” but they can also be heard as, “love is.”[4]Thus, love is un-hypocritical, love is ardent; love is patient – love is hospitable, humble, noble, and harmonious.  “The type of love Paul describes here is energetic and profoundly optimistic.”[5]

But it’s also practical.  Paul understands that human beings are what they are.  We may be created in God’s image, but we are not like God.  In fact, it’s when we make the mistake of thinking that we know what God wants from us that we are most likely to get into trouble. We “are often confusingly confident with our claims upon God – and more so in our claims on God’s behalf.”[6]  That’s what happens to Peter in today’s gospel.  In the portion of Matthew’s gospel we read last week we heard Peter correctly identify Jesus as the Messiah, one anointed by God. Jesus recognized Peter’s testimony as “the rock” upon which the church would be founded, and promised that the actions of his earthly followers would have repercussions for the kingdom of God.  And yet in today’s gospel passage, just two verses later, Jesus rebukes Peter.  Why?  Because Peter contradicts Jesus when Jesus tells the disciples that he must suffer and be killed.  Jesus’s response to Peter seems pretty harsh, given that Peter’s is, I think, a pretty normal response to have.  None of us want bad things to happen to those we love.  “We hear Peter [saying] ‘God forbid it, Lord!’ This kind of suffering must never happen to you…You cannot go through the tears and the sweat, the blood and the muck of humanity, because you are God.”[7]

But, of course, Jesus does.  That is the core of the gospel, the defining principle of our savior – his willingness to suffer and die for those he loves.  And he offers us the same opportunity – the chance to throw ourselves into the messy, scary, deeply difficult process that is living in relationship.  In some cases that has meant and will mean dying for our beliefs – but for most of us it is enough to simply engage in the struggle that is loving our neighbors as ourselves.  “Eternal living does not happen in a place of seclusion.”[8] God’s mansion may have many rooms, but that doesn’t mean we will necessarily get a single – or be able to choose our roommates.  Christianity is about community, about living in relationship with one another – and sometimes that is hard.  St. Paul knew this. He did not simply say, “Live peaceably with all.”  He said, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  He is telling his people not that they have to live in perfect harmony with one another – only that they have to try.  Because no matter how difficult it may be to try to live up to Paul’s ideals for Christian community, it is far harder to be cut off from it.  Scripture tells us that God lives within each one of us and, more importantly, among us.  If we want to be where God is, then we need to be among God’s people.  “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.”  May we do all that we can to make this community that place.  AMEN.

[1]Alive Editorial@alive.com (April 24, 2015), Emotions and Physiology, http://www.alive.com/health/emotions-and-physiology/.

[2]Angela Dienhart Hancock, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 7.

[3]Ibid.

[4] Christopher R. Hutson, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 17.

[5]Rochelle A. Stackhouse, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 16.

[6]Dale P. Andrews, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 23.

[7]Jin S. Kim, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 22.

[8]Eleazar S. Fernandez, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 18.

Sermon for August 27, 2017: God to the people: “Listen to Me” (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen here:

The other day I approached someone to ask a question. She nodded and smiled at me, but didn’t answer.  So I asked again and this time she made some kind of hand gesture that I didn’t understand. So I asked again louder – and got the same response. I started thinking that maybe we had a language barrier (or maybe that this person was operating in some alternate reality). Then I noticed the ear buds.  She hadn’t heard a word I said.  I didn’t want to seem pushy by asking her to take them out, so I raised my voice and asked my question again – and again.  Finally, she removed one ear bud in time to hear me yell, at top volume, “I think it’s supposed to get hot out tomorrow.”  She reared back, saying, “You don’t have to YELL at me – and I’m not having anything to do with that political stuff this weekend.”

It took me a while to get that she thought by saying “hot,” I was talking about the planned protests in the Bay Area, when I was actually just talking about the weather.  I thought about explaining, but I couldn’t think of a way that I could do it without offending her – and really the conversation wouldn’t have gone well anyway, because what I really wanted to tell her was that she was rude to be wearing those stupid ear buds!  In other words, I wanted to tell her that I was right and she was wrong.

I think this country is having a metaphorical epidemic of this type of non-conversation right now.  Many of us have our spiritual earbuds so firmly in place that we can’t hear what other people are saying – and we don’t want to take them out – we don’t want to hear what’s going on outside of our own safe belief system- so when someone makes us take them out –either through persistence or brute force – we get angry at them for yelling at us – for being rude. Trying to communicate this way is very frustrating.  Ask God.

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord,” God says to the Israelites through Isaiah. “Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me.” God tells us that he has the answers we seek and yet we still don’t listen.  Maybe that’s because we are distracted by what’s going on in our own heads. “How often in life does a situation become so all-consuming that its pervasiveness literally drowns out all other sounds and voices around us … [how often are the] circumstances in life…so traumatic that they can numb and render us deaf to all but the sound of our own pain.”[1] How often do we figure that we’ve got enough going on without taking our ear buds out and listening to the chaos around us?

It’s understandable, but not acceptable – because our entire faith is based on the concept of relationship – relationship with God and with one another.  We hear this in today’s psalm, which is an example of the doctrine of God’s providence – the idea that God is active and interested in the world. Ours is a God who cares – and who cares specifically for the lowly. “God values those who seem to have nothing, and chastens those who have much.”[2] And God asks us to do the same- to care for the world and its people – all its people.

According to St. Paul, this requires sacrifice – not symbolic, but real sacrifice. Paul understood sacrifice. I believe that Paul’s letters are often misinterpreted because we take them out of context, seeing them from the perspective of people who live in a safe, comfortable world.  But Paul didn’t live like us. Paul was an itinerant preacher, witnessing in foreign and often dangerous places and trying to draw together people with significant differences.  His letters were written to “communities seeking understanding in relation to their lives,” people who were hunted and tortured for being different. And here’s what he told them: “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  In other words, you are not to be part of the status quo.  You are not to continue to live with the wrongs around you.  You are not to contribute to the unequal distribution of wealth.  You are not to allow people to be marginalized for who they are.  You are not allowed to keep your protective ear buds in.

You are to sacrifice for what is right.  Paul’s question to his people – and to us – is not, “How will you benefit from being a Christian,” but rather, “What are you willing to give up to be a Christian”?  I occasionally joke that I am willing to put myself in dangerous situations because my only hope for Christian renown is to be a martyr – since I have no chance of being a saint.  But as much as I think I would give up my life for my faith, I recognize that in reality, I haven’t really given up anything– not my comfortable income, not my home, not my family, not my job, and certainly not my freedom or well-being. And, in many ways, neither has God’s church – which, perhaps, explains why people aren’t coming so much anymore.

The passage we heard today from Matthew’s gospel is famous because it serves as the basis for the primacy of the Pope in Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.  According to Catholic doctrine, when Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” he was putting Peter and his descendants in charge for perpetuity.  But other scholars have argued that Jesus wasn’t referring to the person of Peter, but the testimony of Peter.  This means the basis of our faith is built not a person, but on belief – belief in Jesus, belief in the faithful actions of God in the lives of his people throughout history, and belief in his continuing inspirational presence through the Holy Spirit.

We sure need this inspiration- especially now – because “if churches are not inspired by the Spirit, they will eventually expire.”[3] The church will not grow – it cannot grow – if we don’t start living as if the kingdom of God is already here.  It’s a huge and potentially overwhelming responsibility, but it’s what we have to do.  Luckily, no one of us has to do it alone.  “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function” but between all of us, we have absolutely everything we need.  We just need to work togetherSt. Paul calls us to “move beyond our particular political and denominational factions… and our respective ethnic loyalties by speaking truthfully to one another in and through our differences about the impact of Jesus Christ in our own lives.”[4] Because when we don’t, we not only miss the opportunity to share God’s grace and glory with others, but we miss the chance to become closer to God in our own lives.

Because God is always present with us.  Do you really think that Jesus left the church in the hands of a bunch of ignorant, frequently-wrong, often-hot-headed, disciples without guidance? Think about what we know about Peter.  Does it make sense for Jesus to leave him in charge without help? Of course not.  Jesus did not leave us alone.  We always have the Holy Spirit among us – to help us whenever we don’t know what to do – to share in our sorrows and struggles – to hear our prayers, and to answer them.  But we have to accept that help. We have to avoid the tendency to focus on the noise of the world and the fear inside of us and listen instead for the voice of God – for the voice of reason – for the voice of community – for the voice of peace.  We know what to do. “Listen to me, you that seek the Lord.”  Take out your earbuds; God is waiting.  AMEN.

[1]Ronald E. Peters, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 362.

[2]Elizabeth P. Randall, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 371.

[3]Eleazar S. Fernandez, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 378.

[4]Jin S. Kim, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 384.

 

Sermon for August 20, 2017: God is bigger than hate (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

It is tempting when you are on vacation to ignore the news, but it can be equally hard to stay out of touch when watching people near and far struggle with issues that are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Such was the balancing act of my vacation last week, which happened to take place during a period of significant national upheaval as well as the final illness of a beloved parishioner.

My ambivalence about “relaxing” when so much was going on clearly bled into my “recreational” entertainment when I found myself watching the recent television production of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a “dystopian” story about an alternative or future reality in which things have gone horribly wrong.  When I was in school in the 80s and 90s, “The Handmaid’s Tale” was the least well-known of only a trio of books that represented the dystopian genre – and school was one of the only places you would find these books.  No one read them for “pleasure” – they were too depressing and frightening – and they had nothing to say to people whose lives were filled with the pleasures that come with a booming economy, boundless faith in a sunny future and, above all, a belief that our country represented the moral high ground.  Americans in the decades after World War II saw ourselves as a nation of scrappy go-getters who, like a collective beacon, shone light into the darkness of the world. We could not imagine ourselves ending up in a dystopian future that was so wrong when we were clearly so right.

One need only look at the best seller list to see how much things have changed.  Not only has there been a recent proliferation of new dystopian books and films, but “classics” like “The Handmaid’s Tale” have been experiencing a major resurgence in popularity.  Scenarios that once seemed ridiculously pessimistic and unnecessarily depressing now seem disturbingly possible – even familiar. And, perhaps more upsetting, it has become harder and harder to place ourselves in the role of the come-from-behind heroes of these novels –little people fighting against the seemingly unbeatable, monolithic powers-that-be with nothing but a suitcase full of optimism and a willingness to do what is right no matter what the cost.

Not that people aren’t trying.  We are living in a time in which it is difficult to know what to believe – when even basic history is constantly being rewritten to fit a narrative that justifies the opinion that specific races and cultures represent the will and nature of God – that being born into a certain group allows people to abscond from the responsibility to behave with civility, honesty, and justice – that “membership has its privileges.”

It’s a lie.  There is nothing in our scriptures that justifies depriving others of the love of God.  And there is nothing in our scriptures that tells us that any particular nation or culture has an exclusive right to the love of God. In fact, scripture shows us that God has long told his people exactly the opposite.

Today’s Hebrew Scripture was written during the time when the Israelites had returned from exile, filled with notions of getting revenge on the people who stayed behind.  But God tells them that instead they must focus on their own salvation – not by separating themselves from the community they find themselves in, but by inviting the strangers among them to share in God’s deliverance. They are not to identify themselves based on their status as Israelites, as God’s chosen.  Instead, they are to prove themselves to be God’s people through their actions. 

This is not something people who think they are already in the “in group” want to hear. We want God to belong to us – and to us alone. We don’t want to have to work to demonstrate the favor of God – especially if it means laboring with people who are different than we are. And we especially don’t want to humble ourselves in the sight of God and other human beings. Even thinking about it terrifies us. So we do what all animals do when they’re afraid: we hide. We hunker down in psychological caves of our own making – in dark, limited places where everyone thinks like we do and nothing different or challenging can get in. We seek the comfort of the familiar and put our trust only in what we know and can control. And in doing so, we make the world infinitely smaller. We make God smaller. And that is nothing less than heresy.

But it is a common heresy – one that Jesus himself briefly succumbs to in today’s gospel. “[This story] raises deep questions about prejudice, divine election, and the limits of God’s mercy.”[1] Exhausted by sparring with the Jewish leadership, disheartened by repeated rejections from his own people, Jesus is suddenly confronted by someone who is so completely foreign, so utterly incomprehensible, and so absolutely wrong, that he doesn’t even acknowledge her. She is not only a member of a national/cultural group that is despised by the Jews; she is also a member of a different, blasphemous religion. And she’s a woman – a woman who violates cultural norms by even speaking to Jesus- and whose daughter is possessed by demons. Why should Jesus even bother with her?  He owes her nothing and she can be nothing but trouble to him. His own calling is hard enough.  And he basically tells her so – in language so harsh that it’s hard to believe that it comes out of Jesus’s mouth. But she is undeterred. She refuses to allow him to ignore her.  She demands to be let in – not because she wants to hurt him – not because she is to be feared – but because she wants to belong – and in doing so she reminds Jesus himself that when it comes to God, there is no such thing as “limited resources.” She reminds him that God is more than big enough for everyone.

Of course Jesus knows this, but perhaps in this moment even getting the Israelites in line seems like too much. Perhaps he doesn’t want to think about dealing with people that are different. Perhaps he really needs a reminder. Or maybe he’s just exaggerating to make a point.  We don’t know. What we do know is that the Canaanite woman is not alone in her sin. We know, as Paul did, that all human beings are disobedient, all human beings are in need of salvation, and all human beings require God’s mercy.  And God willingly and generously gives it – but only if we ask – only if we recognize with humility that every one of us is in desperate need of God’s mercy – and one another.

This gospel reminds us that our survival depends not on our ability to keep out the “wrong people,” but rather that “No one [can be] left out… [that] everyone [must be] included”[2] –that it is through inclusion that the nations will be saved – that the nations are already saved. Paul reminds us that it was the outsiders and heretics who gave Christianity its initial life. Giving in to the evils of racism, privilege, and hatred of those who are different in our own time can only cause its death.

I believe the reason that dystopian books and films are so popular right now is because the darkness they represent – the fear they portray – is familiar to us.  These stories suggest what might happen if human beings act on their worst impulses – and they resonate with us because we see that happening in our lives right now. “Sadly, evil and wrong have… [often]…wrapped themselves in the clothing of faith. The perversity of white supremacists appropriating the cross, a symbol of a very real instrument of torture and death used against a member of a subjugated people, a person of color, is beyond ironic — it is deeply distorted.”[3]  We, as Christians, have the responsibility to correct that distortion by acting on the true principles demonstrated by Jesus the Christ – by welcoming the foreigner, by sharing God’s infinite glory, and by celebrating the wideness of God’s mercy and the immensity of his grace. Christianity is not a shield.  It is not a bunker to hide behind.  It is not a fortress of right.  It is an opportunity – an opportunity to experience and share the vastness of God’s love and mercy – an opportunity to heal the world with our faith.  AMEN.

[1]Iwan Russell-Jones, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 360.

 

[2]Leanne Van Dyk, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 348.

[3]The Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, (August 15, 2017), “California: Bishop denounces Charlottesville violence, calls for non-violent resistance to hate groups,” Episcopal News Service, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2017/08/15/california-bishop-denounces-charlottesville-violence-calls-for-non-violent-resistance-to-hate-groups/

 

Sermon for July 30, 2017: Teach us to pray (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

One day my husband came home really irritated.  He rides his bike to work and on his way home a teenager threw a full cup of soda out a car window at him.  “I was,” he said, “tempted to ride up to them at the next red light, take a picture of their license plate and turn them in to the cops – but then I thought I should be able to ignore it.  And then I thought if I didn’t report them that then they’d get away with it and do it again.  And then I thought I should be able to forgive them.  But then they turned the corner so I couldn’t catch them anyway.  Otherwise, I don’t know what I would have done.”

I don’t know what I would have done either – because while I can tell you that theoretically ignoring the slights of others, praying for your enemies – doing what Christians call “turning the other cheek” – is the right thing– the truth is, it’s really hard sometimes.  Maybe ours are small annoyances, but these little frustrations add up and, if you’re like me, you have days when it seems like it would be easier to remove the calories from chocolate than to let go of your irritation.

So, how do we do it?  First of all, we have to ask for help.  In today’s first lesson, God appears to Solomon in a dream and asks him what he’d like as a gift when he becomes king. Somewhat famously, Solomon asks for wisdom instead of riches or beauty, but that’s not the whole story. First of all, if you look carefully at the narrative, you will notice that Solomon does not ask for intelligence; he asks for discernment – or, in Hebrew, a “listening heart.”  I talk a lot about my belief that many spiritual seekers won’t go to church because of preconceptions about “religion,” even while what they are looking for is right here.  Solomon’s story gives us an example of how a popular modern construct can show up in an ancient religious text.  When Solomon responds to God in his vision, his answer is very similar to what we think of as the Serenity Prayer: “God,” says Solomon, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” – with the emphasis on wisdom to know the difference.

Solomon knew what he needed. Despite calling himself one, Solomon was not a child when he became king; he was an adult – a very sinful adult who had, among other things, murdered his brother in order to ascend to the throne. By admitting to his ignorance and immorality, Solomon demonstrated humility and, because he asked for the right thing, God gave it to him.

So, how do we know what we should ask for when we pray?  Because as far as I’m concerned, knowing the difference between what we want and what we need – knowing what to pray for -seems pretty hard.  Luckily, we have help.  We have been given a lens – a rule of thumb, if you will, to help us make these choices.  Jesus tells us that sin is “separation,” separation from God and one another – so we know that things that cause separation – that cause sin– are probably not things we should be praying for.  So, in Gary’s case, it meant not praying that the kid who threw soda at him would slip on his own ice and crash into a tree.

Praying for things that unify rather than separate is exactly what St. Paul told the Romans to do almost two thousand years ago.  According to Paul, like us they did not know how to pray as they ought. The way they ought to pray, he said, was with the understanding that all right prayers are already answered.  Then, after detailing some of the earthly powers that cause separation- hardship, distress, persecution, reckless leadership, famine, nakedness, peril, war, death, everyday life, dwelling on the past, and worrying about the future,– he told them that none of these things could separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Unless we let them. Unless we willingly separate ourselves from God and our neighbors by ignoring or subverting the ethics of God. For the psalmist, those rules were determined by Torah – “instruction”- from their ancestors. For Christians, our template is the wisdom, teachings and behavioral example of Jesus the Christ.  We believe that it is through Jesus that we are saved from sin – from separation. Given that understanding, all we have to do is to look to Jesus to figure out what– and what not – to pray for.

In order to do this, it’s helpful to remember that Jesus’s instruction always comes through two lenses – tradition and context.  As a devout Jew, Jesus bound himself to the laws of his tradition – to Torah- but he also tied these ancient ethics to the realities of life.  He talked to people with examples and images they could understand –farming, cooking, buying and selling –things his disciples did every day.  The question for them – and for us – is what these things have to say about the nature of Christian discipleship and the kingdom of God.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses mustard seeds, yeast, and hidden treasure to describe what the kingdom of God is like, so let’s look at these things.  Mustard is a weed that most farmers of Jesus’s day would have pulled out of the ground so it wouldn’t create chaos and take over their fields of more orderly crops.  Yeast was an unpleasant compound considered to be impure and potentially toxic.  As to the buried treasure dug up by the searching merchant, lest we forget: It wasn’t his field!  So the kingdom of heaven, then, is like a pushy only minimally useful weed; a polluted, potentially lethal bit of rotten food, and stolen merchandise.  The kingdom of heaven, in other words, is not what you might expect.

For Jesus’s followers, that was good news – that God’s kingdom was not like the one they lived in – the Roman Empire. The question that we need to ask ourselves is whether our church, our denomination, and even our country are consistent with Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of God. “What,” we might wonder, “if a society resembles the empire of Rome more closely than it does the empire of heaven, expressing in policies and budget the values of social inequality and redemptive violence”?[1]

If that’s true, then we need to change it- and one of the most significant things we can do to bring our world closer to that of Jesus is to pray. We need, like Solomon, to pray for the power to discern – to listen with an open heart.  We need, like Paul, to pray to understand how we are called to work together for good.  We need, like Jesus, to pray for a world in which “the marginalized, the unclean, and the left out” are as important as the accepted, the beautiful, and the wealthy.  We need to pray for the understanding and moral conviction that is true wisdom.  And we need to pray fervently for the arrival of the kingdom of heaven here and now.  Because when we are one with him and with one another the kingdom of heaven is in us -and it is the place where we do not need to worry about how we pray, because our prayers are already answered.  It is the place where our desires and those of God become one.  It is the place where our prayers and those of all people demonstrate humility in the face of God’s goodness.  The kingdom of heaven is the place where we are able not only to forgive – not only to live with –but to actually love those with whom we struggle- and in God’s kingdom, that will not be hard at all.  AMEN.

[1]Ibid.

Sermon for July 23, 2017: We are not God (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

Sermon for July 23, 2017:  We are not God

Last week I gave blood and during the course of my donation I chatted with my phlebotomist, who asked me what I do for a living.  When I told her that I am a priest, she said, “Oh, how nice for you.”  She said it politely, but it was clear that she was not a fan of religious folk.  I was not put off.  I love the opportunity to evangelize.

But she was a tough customer.  Raised in a strict black Christian family, she described herself as “barely believing” in God.  When I asked her what drove her away from the church, she said, “Hypocrisy” and mentioned, among other things, mega-churches with extremely rich pastors and priests who have committed sexual abuse.  “What,” she demanded, “does your church do?  Do you have a lot of fundraisers”?  I told her that we support people both in and outside of our congregation in a variety of ways. “You know who does a lot to help people,” she asked, “the Mormons.”  “Indeed they do,” I agreed, “but they also believe that it is important to convert everyone to their religion.”

This was interesting to her, as her biggest gripe with organized religion is that churches don’t practice what they preach. She wanted to know specifically what our church does to help others.  I told her that we work to feed and house homeless people, and advocate for those in need. She seemed suspicious, so I also told her about a study I had just read that found that while, ”At least half of Americans realize that churches feed and clothe the poor… far fewer are aware of other social services that congregations provide.”[1]  According to the author, “Though the Bible speaks of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, a significant number of Americans haven’t heard of churches providing [these things].”[2]

I said I thought this was sad because many people seek opportunities to help others but the church seems to be the last place they go to find them. She said that might be because religious people seem to believe that they have the right and/or the ability to decide who is good and who is evil – who belongs and who doesn’t. I agreed with her and suggested that most religions, including Christianity, including this denomination, have been guilty of this very sin of exclusionism.

The “My God is better than your God,” game is an ancient one.  We heard echoes of it in today’s Isaiah passage.  In it, God seems to be on the defensive from non-believers. “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.  You are my witnesses!”  Wait – it’s up to us to stick up for God?  But how can we, when we sometimes doubt God ourselves, when we like so many others have had prayers go seemingly unanswered?  We can, if we remember what God has done for us- not the material trappings of success, all of which mean nothing in the eyes of God – but the times we have tested God and been saved, the periods we have walked in darkness and been forgiven, and the moments we have been alone and found community.  “The true witness of one’s faith comes alive in the dark moments when it is difficult to see the blessings of God,”[3] but when we truly remember, we can see that “Even in the midst of suffering and pain”[4] God is present.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to complain. Today’s psalm is an excellent example of what scholars formally call “lament.”  The psalmist is afraid and anxious – perhaps even angry at having to deal with his enemies – but these feelings do not drive him away from God, but rather toward God. The psalmist is not ashamed to ask for help, as we so often are.  He complains directly to God because he believes that God is present and God will help him. He has faith.

He also knows what to ask for. The psalmist doesn’t ask God to destroy his violent enemies – instead he requests strength to deal with his enemies, that “those who hate me may…be ashamed.”  In other words, he doesn’t want his rivals to be terminated but rather transformed. And he understands that he needs to do his part for that to happen.

Paul also understood this. While Paul’s letters have often been interpreted to argue that if you are saved by Jesus Christ you don’t need to worry about anything anymore, what you believe is more important than what you do – I think that is exactly the opposite of what Paul repeatedly says.  He does not tell his people they can wait passively for salvation, but rather that they must wait actively – patiently enduring suffering with hope.  For Paul, all of our struggles, all of our pain, all of our worries are not a hardship but a gift – because they remind us of our intimate link to Jesus Christ.

This is not the most user-friendly message: “Join our group and you can suffer patiently for an unknown period of time for a reward we can’t prove you will get.”  (Let’s put THAT on our Facebook page)!  But explaining Christianity that way misses the point; the point is not that we suffer, but that our God understands our suffering and is willing to share in it –that our God is fully present to us – all the time.  Our God is patient.

Which is a good thing, because human beings generally aren’t.  Nonetheless, that is what the Parable of the Weeds tells us we are supposed to be whenever we are tempted to judge someone else. Written in the context of a growing and changing church in which members were dealing with issues of new cultural and racial diversity within their ranks, this parable acknowledges that there is evil in the world – and in the church, but we are not equipped to accurately identify it.  This story isn’t about categorizing evil – it’s about dealing with it – the same way God deals with us, patiently.  Despite the fact that the servants in the story, like us, push the master to help them separate the wheat from the weeds because they want to “settle forever the problem of who is in and who is out,”[5] Jesus tells them to wait -wait until both the wheat and the weeds are fully grown, because then the reapersnot us – will separate the evil from the good.  In other words, be patient – and trust in God.  “The God who is glimpsed in this parable models for us an infinite patience that frees us to get on with the crucial business of loving, or at least living with, each other…a God who does not merely tolerate endlessly a world that is a mixture of good and evil…but who finally, in God’s own good time, acts both to judge and to redeem the world.”[6]  This is a God with an endless capacity to love – a God to whom everyone has the opportunity to belong.  It is not our job to decide who is a sinner – who should be separated from God.  That is not our calling. We have been called to wait with patience for God’s judgement, and, while we wait, to contribute to God’s good harvest by seeking to bring about God’s kingdom in this world, welcoming and loving our sisters and brothers, attempting to alleviate their suffering even as we endure our own, and inviting into community all those who are seeking the path that leads to God’s eternal and unfailing light. Let anyone with ears listen.  AMEN.

[1]Adelle M. Banks, (July 20, 2017), “Good works of churches often go unnoticed,” Religion News Service,  http://religionnews.com/2017/07/20/good-works-of-churches-often-go-unnoticed/

[2]Ibid.

[3]John L. Thomas, Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 246.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Theodore J. Wardlaw, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 265.

[6]Theodore J. Wardlaw, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 265.

Sermon for July 16, 2017: Hope, the long game (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

One of the great privileges I have as a clergy person is to spend time with people during significant moments in their lives.  Sometimes these occasions are full of joy – such as seeing and blessing newborn babies – and others are quite sad, like when I visit with people who are seriously injured or ill.  These opportunities are one of the reasons that it is a blessing to be a priest.  But it can be difficult – and one of the hardest things to witness is the moment when people begin to lose hope.

I have been confronted with this loss of hope several times recently.  Many of you know that this past week the Canon to the Ordinary of the diocese, Stefani Schatz passed away after a long battle with ovarian cancer.  Stefani was first diagnosed while on pilgrimage in Iona, Scotland in May of 2016 where she collapsed and was subsequently and shockingly diagnosed with cancer.  Early this year, after having significant surgery, Stefani was doing well enough to return to work full-time and appeared on the road to recovery.  Unfortunately, in April Stefani was found to have a new tumor which was growing aggressively.  After a visit to Texas to meet with specialists she was told that “cure” was no longer an option. They were told there was no hope.

Many other people face hopelessness. There’s James, “a single, 60-year-old man…diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer” who lives in fear that Congress will enact a new health care bill which will dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and without its benefits he will “be bankrupt.”[1]  Janice is a homeless woman who was recently “cleared out” of a Martinez s encampment by police just two days before her appointment with an agency that places individuals in housing, and now believes she will never find a permanent place to live.  And there’s Donna,[2] whose spouse has been fighting chronic illness for years, and whose eyes I looked into this week and realized that she has begun to lose hope.

In such situations as these, it has always been hard for me to know what to say or do to help someone, and this feeling has intensified since I became a priest.  Perhaps it’s just my perception, but it always seems like I should have the ultimate answer to that omnipresent question, “Where is your God now”? Where is your God when people go hungry?  Where is your God when people are homeless?  Where is your God when people become sick and die?

For me, the answer to that question lies not in deep and complex theology, but in the realm of human experience – the place where fear, anger, and despair originate -and in our holy scriptures, which frequently and fearlessly address the struggles of humanity.  And, sure enough, today’s psalm responds to that desperate question, “Where is your God”?  The answer is “right here.”  Because the God described in Psalm 65 is not a clockmaker God who created the world, wound it up and stepped back to see what would happen.  The God of Psalm 65 is an active God – a god who visits, prepares, provides for and blesses the world he created.  This is not a god who takes away; this is a god who gives. And one of the things that God gives is hope.  And hope, I think, is what today’s lessons are all about – which is good, because we can all use more of it about now.

When I was a child and I would say my prayers, I would always ask God to bless things, “God bless Mommy.  God bless Daddy. Etcetera.”  And then I would ask for things.  “God please give me a new bike for Christmas.”  “God make my grandma better.” And when I got a little older, “God, help me to meet my one true love Jimmy Osmond.”  It didn’t occur to me until later that I almost always said the exact same things when I wished on a star.  “I wish so-and-so was better,” “I wish I could have thus-and-such,” “I wish Mr. Perfect loved me the way I love him.”  My wishes were prayers without God in them, and my prayers were often merely wishes.  “So what,” I began to wonder, “is the difference”?  The difference is faith.  Faith is the thing that says you believe that whatever you wish – whatever you pray for – is possible – and it’s possible for a reason.  It is possible because there is someone out there who loves you enough to listen to your desires – even the stupid ones like meeting Jimmy Osmond – and to give you what you need.

Notice I said, “what you need,” and not what you want.  Because, as we well know, believing in God does not mean you will get everything you want.  Believing in God does not mean we will not suffer.  Believing in God does not mean we will not die. Believing in God means that all things are possible.  Believing in God means that we have hope.  If we have faith – if we believe that God can and will give us what we need, then we will always have hope.  This is what Isaiah means by saying that the word of God does not come back empty.  Hope says that even in the midst of struggle, we expect that good will be the ultimate outcome.[3]

But hope can sometimes be hard to find- and hard to give.  As it was when I recently looked into the haunted eyes of someone whose beloved is emaciated, weak and laboring to breathe.  “We live on this side of the veil of heaven and can often see only pain and loss.  We do not see all that there is in creation.”[4]  We do not know the reason for what is happening to us.  We do not know God’s purpose.  That makes it challenging to see the possibilities for our lives – to envision an outcome without pain or fear or grief. That’s because we are always thinking in human terms.  And the greatest power that human beings ever experience is death.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about sin and I said that sin is separation – separation from God and one another.  In today’s reading from Romans we hear Paul tell the early Christians that we are condemned when we try to earn salvation through our own power –when we decide that we don’t need God to help us – when we separate ourselves from God.  But our power is limited. We are bound to this world and its restrictions, and ultimately there is nothing we can do to overcome death. But God has already overpowered death.  And if we believe that then we will have faith that anything is possible.  We can hope.

It’s a difficult concept to understand – that the things we think of as most valuable – money, power, fame, beauty – are ultimately unimportant and that giving up power could lead to life and peace.  It seems impossible to think that suffering could ever be a good thing.  We simply cannot accept that a god who is both loving and all-powerful would allow good people to suffer.  But God does not make sense.

The parable of the sower is familiar to most of us as a story about what makes a good Christian.  We have all heard the story of the seeds and the fates that befall them, and we have all been told that we need to careful not to be “bad seeds.”  Don’t be the seed on the path; deeply engage with God’s word, lest you be swayed by those who don’t believe in God (the birds).  Be faithful to your belief in God, or else when times get tough you will give up on her (like the seeds on the rocky ground).  And watch out for the hot sun, otherwise known as the worldly dangers of money, fame, sex, and pride.  Focus instead on the right things, and you will grow and thrive.  In other words, being a Christian, like anything worthwhile, requires effort.  It requires us to do our part – to be good seeds.

But I think that when we focus on the seeds we miss something important about the sower. What this sower does does not make sense.  This sower does not act like a rational farmer.  Think about it: instead of sowing seeds only on good ground, this sower sows seeds all over the place.  This sower throws seeds in bad and broken places.  This sower throws seeds out as if he believes that all of the seeds – no matter where they are planted – have the same potential to grow and thrive – that even in rocky, dry, thorny ground surrounded by predators, something wonderful can grow.  This sower believes that even when we are surrounded by illness, fear, poverty, and immanent death, something amazing can happen.  In other words, this sower, our sower, our God, has hope.  And so should we.  AMEN.

[1]The Editorial Board of the New York Times, (June 24, 2017) “If we lose our health care…” The New York Times Online, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/24/opinion/sunday/obamacare-repeal-health-care-bill.html?mcubz=0.

[2]Pseudonym

[3]John L. Thomas, Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 218.

[4]Thomas W. Blair, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 222.

 

Sermon for July 2, 2017: How do I know? (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

This week I was challenged to welcome several surprising visitors to Grace, including a prophet of doom (the tree guy who told me that two trees behind the Parish Hall are dying), an angel in disguise (someone who dropped off a donation that will probably cover the cost of the tree removal), a bicycling evangelist, and a lunching “Charismatic Christian,” among others. It was a week in which I struggled with my own fears and biases to find grace in anxiety, trust amidst paranoia, and hope in a sea of desperation.  It was a week in which it was hard to know who to trust and what to do.

It’s an old problem, and one the people of Judah struggled with too.  About six centuries before the birth of Christ, the Judeans were living in subjugation under the Babylonians and deciding if they should rebel – so they asked their religious leaders what to do.  But, just as it so often happens in our time, they found that their religious leaders didn’t agree with each other.  And, like us, they didn’t know who to believe.

This led to that precursor of pro-wrestling: the prophet stand-off.  Two prophets with completely opposing views, both of whom claimed to be speaking with authority from God.  In one corner: Hananiah, popular, powerful and with a message that these oppressed people wanted to hear.  “We should rebel. We are God’s people.  God is on our side.” In the other corner: Jeremiah – wild, grubby, wearing a yoke tied around his neck, and delivering a really unpopular message.  “Don’t fight for your freedom.  God wants you to submit to Babylonian rule.”  Who are they going to believe?

It seems to me, that if it were us, we’d put our money on Hananiah.  After all, isn’t faith about believing that God is on your side?  Don’t Christians think that we have been saved by our belief in Jesus Christ and that our faith will protect us – no matter what?  Actually, no – that’s not what we believe. What we believe is that we have a covenant with God – that we are in relationship with God, and that God will be faithful to that relationship no matter what. But “that covenantal faithfulness is not an insurance policy that kicks in automatically when [we] think [we] need deliverance from hardship…[It is a] relationship that requires asking, what is God’s will today?… God’s will may very well be that our tribe is not ascendant in all times and places.

What is certain is that God does not abandon us.  Today’s psalm tells us that God pledges “hesed,” – a word that means steadfast love, loving-kindness, devotion, and faithfulness.  But God never promised to give us everything we want.  Contrary to what proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel” argue, scripture tells us that being religious is “no guarantee of material or spiritual abundance.”[1]  What it is a guarantee of is the opportunity to become our best selves – the opportunity not only to be loved for who we truly are, but the chance to love everyone else that way too.

One of my unexpected visitors this week really made me think about how to figure out what is right.  This person reported that she was baptized Roman Catholic, but then her mother was “seriously saved,” and she has been a charismatic Christian since that time.  We had a lovely chat, agreeing on many things, including the need for all Christians to find common ground, that Christianity is not about seeking and using power, and that “the bottom line” of Christian teaching is Jesus’s command to love God and love one another. She asked if she could pray for my ministry and I gratefully accepted.  It was a wonderful, hopeful encounter – until I said that it was important for people who do not have the same exact doctrine to support one another in their basic Christian beliefs. At which point she stopped me and said, tapping her Bible meaningfully, “As long as their doctrine is consistent with what’s in here.  The problem with religion these days,” she continued,” is that no one talks about sin.  People need to be told when they are sinning – and then she began to list groups of people whom she identified as sinners. When I suggested that perhaps it was not ours to judge, she agreed and said that she would never judge.  She said she believes that it is up to us to simply inform people they are sinful – inform them with love.

Our conversation left me with a significant amount of emotional turmoil.  On the one hand, our talk had ended pleasantly.  On the other hand, I had failed to tell her that I believed that what she was saying was, in fact, opposed to scripture -that it’s impossible to “inform” someone that what and who they are is “sinful” with “love.” That excluding anyone from the opportunity to live in relationship with God and with other human beings is simply wrong.  In fact, just as she had suggested, I, a church leader, had, in the interest of maintaining harmony between us, failed to talk about sin.  So I’m going to do it now.

Sin is not about breaking rules.  Sin is about breaking faith. I’m going to say it again: Sin is not about breaking rules, it’s about breaking faith – with one another and/or with God.  Sin is separation.  Yes, it is a sin to steal, to kill, to commit adultery, to lie, to cheat and to take God for granted – but not because those are rules, but because the result of breaking them is to separate us from one another and from God.  But sometimes keeping rules for their own sake is just as separating – just as sinful.  I believe that it is a fundamental contradiction to say you are a Christian and then argue that anyone should be condemned for who they are.  I think it is unchristian to say that there are some sins that are unforgivable.  And it is my opinion that it is completely inconsistent with scripture to suggest that hate is ever a good or godly thing.  What our scriptures actually tell us is that human beings are imperfect and prone to sin.  I don’t think that’s news for anyone here.  The real news – the good news – is that “holiness is [actually] what we were made for.”[2]  We are meant to be and can be without sin, but not by our own will.

That is what St. Paul was talking about in his letter to the Romans when he admonished them to be “enslaved to God.”  He was not suggesting that in order to be saved we need to give up our intelligence or our sense of justice or our compassion for other people.  To believe that is to misunderstand the context in which Paul was writing. When we speak of slavery, we are talking about the depravity of taking away the will and freedom of other people – of treating human beings as possessions – of the evil that people have perpetrated in order to serve themselves.

But that’s not what Paul is talking about.  When Paul talks about slavery, he is saying that everyone serves someone or something – be it your country, family, or some other passion.  For Paul, it is when you choose to focus on an earthly concern more than your relationship with God– when you become a true slave to fashion, or television or money – or religion – that you sin. That is why he calls it slavery – and it is a sin because it takes away our freedom to choose to submit to the holy relationship that God offers us.  It is a sin because it separates us from God and from one another.

And separation is the last thing God wants for us.  God sent Jesus Christ into the world so that we would never be separated from God’s love again.  That’s why Jesus’s last command to us was to share his love – to offer it to everyone and anyone who asks – to welcome others with the “hesed” – the loving kindness and compassion – that he gives to us.  This is not always easy -because we are not only called to welcome those who are like us.  We are not called to change those who are not like us.  We are called to welcome all people with love and compassion.  It doesn’t matter that ”love is not always met with love…Sometimes…we are called to love in the midst of hate…Jesus calls us to put our love in jeopardy so that that its blessings are made manifest in our lives and in the lives of others.” Because that is the right thing to do.  AMEN.

[1]Robert A. Cathey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 178.

[2]Ted A. Smith, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 186.

Sermon for June 18, 2017: Belonging (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

My daughter recently graduated from high school. The other night when I came home from work I found her in her bedroom crying.  I asked her what was wrong.  “Mom,” she wailed, “I was just laying here thinking that this is what the rest of my life is going to be like.  Every morning I will have to get up and there will be a really long list of chores to do and it will take all day and I will go to bed all tired and the next day it will be exactly the same!”  “Actually honey,” I told her, “you could get a job.  Then you wouldn’t have to do chores all day.  You’d have to do them after you got home from work.”  She was not comforted.

It’s easy to laugh at the dramatic intensity of her shocking realization that her high school years were not, in fact, the hardest thing she’d ever have to manage.  It is uncomfortable to think that she truly believes that she has a hard life, that she has become entitled, that she has forgotten how fortunate she is to have food, shelter, and the freedom to speak and do as she likes, as well as the ability to see things and learn things that are out of the grasp of two-thirds of the world’s population.  But I don’t really think that’s the case.  She understands that her father and I both work to provide her and her brother with these things.  She grasps that they have many things that her father and I did not have when we were her age.  She is not lazy or stupid.  She is not immoral or unethical.  She cares for others and shares what she has.  But I think that she is still genuinely anxious when she thinks about the fact that she is now, according to the rules of our society, responsible for herself. She is not sure what being an adult really means.  She doesn’t know if she can actually do what she is being asked to do – so she has decided that maybe it’s better if she doesn’t try.

She is not alone. We live in an era in which Americans are becoming more educated but less competent,[1] in which we are far from being “United States,” but instead are deeply divided on issues of race, politics and creed.  It is an era in which our standing in the international community has dropped considerably.[2] Nonetheless, Americans continue to think of ourselves more positively than most other countries in the world.[3]  And we are polarized among ourselves.  We are seeing a surge in hate crimes against numerous groups”[4] and divisive rhetoric has become normative, even in the highest councils in the land.

There are many opinions as to the reason for these declines, but I suspect that Zig Ziglar was right about one thing: It’s not our aptitude; it’s our attitude.  We have the ability to do much good in the world, but we have lost track of who we are. Rather than seeing ourselves as responsible for sharing our prosperity with other nations, many Americans now see our primary role as protecting what is ours.  These citizens believe that others are not worthy of what we have – that others are ungodly, unrighteous – that they do not belong.  This attitude reflects an exclusionist theological view – the notion that only Jews, by virtue of being God’s chosen people, and Christians, because we believe in the divinity of Christ, can achieve salvation – that is very popular within a certain segment of the Christian community.

That’s why today’s readings are so troubling – because they seem to support this notion.  In today’s passage from Exodus, the Lord makes clear his preference for the children of Jacob.  They are his chosen people, his sheep, a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation, predestined for salvation – while the rest are to be left out in the cold (or heat, depending on your perspective).  According to this exclusionist view, because the Jews did not, as they had promised, obey God, and keep God’s covenants, God sent Jesus to give them a second chance, to win by faith that which they had lost through their behavior.  Because of this, Christians are also “saved” – but that still leaves much of the world’s population in a state of spiritual doom.

This idea is accepted – and touted – by several groups of Christians and forms the basis for bias against people of other races and creeds; but for those of us who believe in the basic goodness of God’s creation, the idea that God would not offer salvation to all of us just doesn’t make sense.  That’s because we do not live in the context and time of the first apostles.  According to Guy Nave, “The Jesus movement began as an exclusively Jewish movement [but] by the time of…Matthew… [they] had abandoned Jewish exclusivity…While the historical Jesus was apparently concerned with an exclusively Jewish mission, the resurrected Jesus… [commanded] his followers to make disciples of all nations.”[5]  So, the Jesus who transcended his humanity tells us something different than the Jesus who was a man of his time.  That divine Jesus says very clearly that anyone can be saved.  Anyone can belong to God.  Anyone is good enough to be part of God’s community.  We need only admit our own powerlessness and accept the free gift of salvation.

Of course, that’s a pretty big catch for a species that has struggled with pride since Cain killed Abel.  In order for God to save us, we have to admit that we need to be saved. We have to recognize that for all our wealth and power, there are things we cannot control.  We have to acknowledge our fears.  “[Doing] this requires trust. It requires a trust that runs deeper than just expecting things to turn out the way we want them to. Sometimes they will, and sometimes they won’t. We develop equanimity and grace as we learn to trust that, with the guiding hand of [God], life will unfold exactly the way it should.”[6]

This doesn’t mean that we can sit back and bask in our “chosen-ness.”  “Self-satisfaction can lead one to thank God that one is not like other, flawed human beings.”[7] But there is nothing in the Bible that supports the idea that any one nation is better than another. The Hebrew Bible tells the story of one group of God’s chosen people, but it doesn’t say that there aren’t others.  The bottom line is this: the Israelites chose God and that’s why God chose them.  What God wants from us is to actively choose her – and then to follow the way of Jesus. Claiming to belong to God and then acting as if this makes you better than others is the opposite of what God asks us to do.  It is not only that you profess your faith, but how you enact it that matters.

This was made clear to the ancient Israelites throughout their relationship with the God they call Yahweh.  Although the election of the Israelites as God’s people seems to happen in one shining moment, it is, as Barbara Wheeler emphasizes, the result of a long process.  “God’s choosing and subsequent self-revealing has been going on for a long time…God’s choosing goes [on] constantly…threaded through the length of our lives… [and] requires difficult disciplines: obeying the Lord and keeping the covenant.”[8]  Being chosen by God is not an award or a reward, it is a challenge.  It invites us to assume a completely new identity and relationship status. We belong to God not because God loves us more than any other person or people.  We belong to God because we choose to be in relationship with God. And, like any successful relationship, it requires work.

That means that exclusionism is completely contrary to scripture.  What scripture actually says is that God is present to us when we act on God’s behalf.  This section of Matthew is not called the “entitled” discourse; it’s called the “missionary discourse.” Belonging to God means taking “little more than faith out into this world and [getting] Christ’s work done.”[9] And doing it despite the fact that we do not have Jesus’s compassion – despite the fact that we do not see those who commit crimes, and use government resources selfishly, and are moved to buy and use guns, as “harassed and helpless” sheep – despite the fact that we can’t seem to help viewing them as wolves who want to take what is ours – despite the fact that we are afraid of what it might cost us to invite them in.  But this is what God asks us to do – and Jesus believes we can do it. “Despite the challenges, despite the questionable likelihood of success, despite our inevitable difficulty in accomplishing what he could do far more easily than we, Christ confidently sends us out.”[10]  And God is with us – in danger and times of trial, in moments of persecution and when our courage fails.  God bears us on eagles’ wings and brings us to herself.  God saves us.  God has equipped us for our ministry, and everything the Lord has spoken, we can do.  AMEN.

[1]Drew DeSilver, (February 15, 2017), “U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries,” FactTank: News in the Numbers, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/15/u-s-students-internationally-math-science/

[1]Mikhail Zinshteyn (February 17, 2015), “The Skills Gap: America’s Young Workers Are Lagging Behind,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/the-skills-gap-americas-young-workers-are-lagging-behind/385560/

[2]Waseem Abbasi (March, 2017), “U.S. slips to seventh best country in the world after Trump election, Switzerland tops the list,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/03/07/us-slips-seventh-best-country-world-after-trump-election-switzerland-tops-list/98816470/

[3]Frank Newport, (February, 2017), “North Korea Remains Lease-Popular Country Among Americans, Gallup, www.gallup.com/poll/204074/north-korea-remains-least-popular-country-among-americans. Aspx?g_source=position3&g_medium=related&g_campaign=tiles

[4]Richard Wolf, (March 13, 2017), “Rise in Hate Crimes spurs launch of database and hotline,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/03/13/hate-crimes-incidents-database-hotline-lawyers-services-trump/99095440/

[5]Guy D. Nave, Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 145.

[6]Madisyn Taylor, (June 16, 2017), “Things we can’t control,” Daily OM, https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/?tab=cm#inbox/15cb0e7cfe85c512.

[7]Walter J. Harrelson, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 131.

[8]Barbara G. Wheeler, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 124.

[9]Alexander Wimberly, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 142.

[10]Ibid, 140.

Children’s sermon for June 18, 2017: Talking about God (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

Today we are going to talk about sharing.  How many of you guys like sharing? (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s good, but tell me truthfully – aren’t there some times that it’s hard to share?  Like if your mom or dad or friend is paying more attention to your sister or brother than they are to you?  I’ll tell you a secret: I have a big sister and sometimes I don’t like it when I have to share with her.  When she was visiting last week, I didn’t like having to share all of you with her.  I think that’s because it’s the hardest to share what we like the best.  So, it’s really hard to share your favorite book or toy or food than it is to share something you don’t like as much.  Like I was happy to share the fried pickles that someone bought me the other night – because they were yucky!  What do you think of that? (Give them a chance to answer).  So, one hard thing is sharing stuff you really, really like.  But the secret (shhh) is that it’s when you share the things you really don’t want to share that you are the happiest.  It’s true – weird but true.

Okay.  Now let’s talk about church a little bit.  How many of you guys like church? (Give them a chance to answer).  What do you like about it?  (Give them a chance to answer).  I like those things too.  I especially like to be with people who believe the same things that I do.  It feels good when you say something and everyone says, “Yes, yes, I agree!”  (And by the way, who remembers the word we say at the end of our prayers when we want to say that we agree?  (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right.  It’s “Amen”).

But here’s the thing.  It’s much harder to talk to people when they tell you you are wrong or what you like is stupid.  Has that ever happened to one of you? (Give them a chance to answer).  It feels bad doesn’t it?

Now, how many of you talk to other people about church? (Give them a chance to answer).  How do they act? (Give them a chance to answer).  How does that make you feel?  (Give them a chance to answer).  So, sharing your feelings about church – and especially about God and Jesus – can feel really good if someone listens to you and tells you they’re glad you told them, but it can feel really bad if they think your church is stupid.  Well, I’ll tell you a secret: that’s the same way that grown-ups feel about talking about church.  The more God is really important to them, the more scared they are to share God with other people – because they might make fun of them, or they might tell them they’re wrong, and then they’d feel bad.  And sometimes we don’t want to share God because we think we each need him the most.  But God has asked all of us who go to church to go out and tell other people about her.  God wants us to tell other people how great Jesus is and how he makes us feel better when we’re sad.  God wants us to do that even if we are scared to.  What do you think of that? (Give them a chance to answer).   Do you think you could try that? (Give them a chance to answer).  Do you think you could help other members of your family to do that? (Give them a chance to answer).  Good.  I agree, so you know what I’m going to say? (Give them a chance to answer).  Amen.  And if you agree, you say it too (Amen).

Sermon for June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday: The Three in One  (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

In the beginning there was darkness and nothingness. There was no time, no space, no energy. And suddenly – as quickly as the blink of an eye – there was music. It was music so clear that you could see eternity through its notes. It was music so sweet that you if you could taste it for a moment you would be satisfied forever. It was music more true than the purest soul on earth. And although this music was complex and resonant beyond imagining – although it was fuller than an orchestra and more dramatic than an opera – although it was nowhere and everywhere at once – this music was created by one musician.

This musician sang in many parts, through three great and powerful voices. And each voice sang with itself and to itself, in unity and harmony, and each voice was in the music and the music was a symphony of life. And within the nothingness the music rose to a crescendo and one voice exploded out of it with a melody that was cold and bright and sharp – and that melody sliced through the darkness and suddenly things were. There was time and matter and light and dark, and as the musician sang to itself each of its voices responded with delight to the results of the song. And the music receded for an unknowable interval, which was as a day to the singer.

When the music began again, one voice was louder than the others, the voice of “Love,” and that voice was light, and bright, and breezy, and her song blew through the light and the darkness so that they expanded and took shape. And the music became a lullaby, a gentle, simmering liquid pillow of sound that remained for another age.

Then the song grew into a richer tune that was deep and lush and full. And as the music swelled, the universe developed and separated itself into stars and planets until the island that is this earth appeared. And the musician loved this planet, and amplified the song, each voice singing its own part with power and authority, yet with attention to and synchronization with the others. And as they sang, the world grew as vivid and plentiful as the song itself. And the musician was pleased – and the voices rested.

And another epoch went by and the singer realized that the world could prosper only if the light was divided from the darkness and the darkness and light could share the planet. And so one voice pitched itself low and another high and together they made the world to circle one great star and to live by and in its light. And the musician was tired and rested for an age.

When the musician awoke, it felt empty and began to sing a new song and this was a song of life – so the world had breath and movement as well as beauty. And the tune was a frothy, lilting jig that caused ripples in the water and swelling in the dirt of the world, and out of those ripples and bulges rose living creatures – at first infinitesimally small, but like the universe that had been created before them they grew and they changed and were part of the world and lived in harmony with the world and with one another. And this gave the musician great joy for the time that it counted as a day.

But the song was incomplete, the symphony unfinished, for the musician had more to give and the desire for another to love. And in moving toward completion the music intensified and its beauty was beyond description. Each voice rang with power and with force and reckless abandonment, giving of itself with each note, pouring wisdom and purity and love from itself into the being that it made. And what evolved from the music was part of the music and the music was in the creation and creation was humanity. And the singer spoke to the human creation, blessing them for their uniqueness and dearness and the joy they added to the music. And the music was given to them to sing to one another and to dance with joy in the rhythm of it. And they were trusted and put in charge of all else that the music had created before them. And the words of their song were “love one another.” The words of the song were, “care for each other.” The words of the song were, “be at peace with one another.” And they were given this music for all seasons and all time.

And the music continued, and grew, and changed – and it was sung by a thousand, million, billion voices together in one voice, praising and exalting the creator.  It was a song of endless mutual self-giving and joyful love.[1]  It was about living together in peace and unity, just as the music was at unity with itself and sang with one spirit. And the universe flourished and the musician rested.

But the human creation did not. Because the music that brought with it joy and abundance and light also generated splendor and authority and power – and some of the beings that had been formed in the music began to think of what they might do if they alone possessed its power. So they divided themselves into factions and called each other “good” or “bad” and “right” or “wrong,” and they refused to sing with one another. They kept their portions of the music for themselves, and the words of the song were no longer “love,” and “peace,” and “unity,” but “hate,” and “fear,” and “division.” And the music became discordant and chaotic – and the musician awoke and viewed with dismay what had become of creation.

The creator saw that their beloved human beings were using the song to craft devices that made them forget the joy of good works, and machines that made thought unnecessary, and, worst of all, technologies that made it easy to destroy one another.  The embraced division and hatred and rejected the “cosmic unity” of spiritual oneness.[2] And all the while the plentiful world and the other living things that they had been tasked with protecting had begun to die around them. But the song of the human – the song that reverberated with the sound of “Me, me, me,” had become so loud that they could not – would not -hear the death cries of the rest of creation.

And the music became a lament. And one voice, whose song was “sacrifice,” separated itself from the music of creation and joined the clanging cacophony that was the human song. And this voice called, “Grace,” began to sing in the human world with a human voice – but the music it sang was the same music that cleaved the darkness at the beginning of creation. Its song was “love,” and “peace,” and “unity.” And people began to sing with him and to become part of the music – and there was hope in the world.

But many people did not listen. And because they were afraid of the power of the voice, because they were afraid to open their hearts to that voice, because they were afraid that if they did open their hearts they would be disappointed, the lone voice that had been willing to sing the creation music with a human voice died. But his was only one part of the music that had stirred the void in the beginning of creation- and when his human voice ceased, the others released their music into the darkness of death. And the music became a song of “resurrection” and “redemption.”

And the third voice, named “Fellowship,” spoke to the others and said, “I will go into the creation and remain there. And I will carry our music with me and sing it for those who will listen – and I will sing my song with the voice of the creator, which is the song of love and peace and unity, teaching them about power that is giving, that does not coerce but serves and persuades.”[3]And I will sing my song with the voice of the sufferer, which is the song of resurrection and redemption, teaching them that sacrifice for the greater good is a blessing. And I will sing with my own voice of “everlasting;” and my song will be a new song, and it will be a song of understanding and comfort and hope.” I will embrace them with our ceaseless love, our uniqueness, and our oneness, that they may love one another in difference as in solidarity.  And so the music remained in the world for those who would listen and for those who would sing. And the music is for all time and for all people. And those who will allow themselves to hear the music, those who will allow themselves to be swept into the music, those who will add their voices to the song, will be useful and good and as one, just as the music is one. AMEN.

[1]David P. Gushee, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 42.

[2]David P. Gushee, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 42.

[3]Stephen B. Boyd, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 48.