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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, http://religionnews.com/2015/10/29/rocky-horror-religion/.

[2]Ibid.

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

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

[5]Ibid.

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

[7]Ibid.

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

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