Daily Archives: April 7, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Good Friday, March 25, 2016: The Better Half (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley)

Those of us who attended this year’s St. Clement’s Parish Retreat had some deep and meaningful conversations about several “light” theological questions like the nature of God, the definition of Christianity and what it means when a parish allows anyone who wants to to take communion.  It was very relaxing.

The common thread holding these varied and significantly important issues together was the question of identity; what does it mean to be a Christian in this age and in this place.  Is being a Christian simply a question of what we believe or is there more to it than that?  This debate – faith versus works – is one of the oldest in Christianity.  And don’t expect that reading the bible will give you a definitive answer – because that’s where the argument began.

The earliest Christian writings, the letters of Paul, clearly state that it is faith – and faith alone – that leads to salvation, while the author of the letters of James argues that faith without works is useless.  For Paul – and the author of the Gospel of John – the answer to the question, “What must I do to have eternal life,” is simple – believe – believe in Jesus Christ.  And that simple understanding remains the basis of their Christian identity for many 21st century Protestants.  Believe and you are saved.  Choose not to believe and – well – you get the idea.

But for others – including me – this idea is difficult to – well – believe.  Especially when we can readily hear that inherent condemnation with which “true believers” assert their saving grace.  To me the contradiction is obvious – and insurmountable.  How could the same Jesus who repeatedly impressed on his disciples the importance of loving one another be the same man who allegedly said “believe in me” and you can do whatever you want?

For those who believe in justification by faith alone, the answer lies in Jesus’s full response to the question of what are the most important commandments.  He said, love your neighbor – yes – but he also said love your God with all your heart, with all your soul – and with all your mind.  This means, they argue, that loving God comes first and, if necessary – only.  In this view, loving God means following all of God’s commandments as found in the Bible and, if you have to choose between “obeying” God and loving your neighbor – God wins.   People who believe this way back up their view with the argument that Jesus himself condemned certain groups and that certain groups can be blamed for Jesus’s death.  According to this argument, if believing is the true path to salvation, then unbelieving must be the path to damnation.  This logic makes it okay to hate nonbelievers.  You are, in fact, justified in your hate by your belief.

I recently read an article entitled, “The problem of the half-churched Christian.”  In it, the author suggests that because very few people regularly attend church weekly anymore, it is “hard for church leaders to teach anybody anything in a sustained manner.”   So, while many Americans still think of this country as being “Christian,” few of these people attend church often enough to develop the depth of understanding necessary to apply Christian ideals to their 21st century world.  They are prone to miss narrative nuances that can completely change the meaning of a story.

Which brings us to Good Friday.  Because it is on Good Friday that we hear John’s gospel – the one where “the Jews kill Jesus.”  I think this gospel is potentially the most harmful piece of literature ever written.  It has been used by a variety of different ethnic, religious, and national groups to justify the dehumanization, debasement, and wholesale murder of Jewish people for centuries.  John’s gospel, like the verses from Isaiah we read before it, is designed to help us to feel closer to Jesus by providing us with a visceral sense of his suffering.  Instead, it has been used d to incite Christians to hatred of those who do not believe as we do.   This is perhaps the ultimate irony – because it was this specific kind of evil that Jesus most often condemned – and it is this kind of evil that John’s gospel is meant to counteract.   But that half of the story seems to have been lost – just like many other crucial Christian truths.

That’s why many churches changed the language of the passion narrative we usually hear on Palm Sunday.  Late in the twentieth century, after somewhat belatedly realizing that by doing so the church was complicit in providing reasons for unspeakable acts of religious hatred, many churches exchanged the term “the Jews,” for “the people.”  But many people argued against this, and we have retained the older language in the reading of John’s gospel, which occurs on Good Friday.  We do this to help us better understand the circumstances of Jesus’s crucifixion and thus to feel its horror and pathos in a deeper and more meaningful way.

But that understanding is not that some other ethnic group killed Jesus.  That understanding is that we killed Jesus.  Jesus was a Jew, so by naming the Jews as his persecutors, the author of John’s gospel is reminding us that Jesus was betrayed by his own people.  And who are his people now– in the 21st century?   Christians, that’s who.  So, ironically, by lashing out at others in a misguided attempt to – I don’t know – get revenge for Jesus- Christians are actually repeating that betrayal.  Every time Christians condemn others in Jesus’s name, Jesus’s people are denying his ideals and tarnishing the horrifying beauty of his death – again and again and again.

Because ultimately, Jesus’s life and death were about love.  And his crucifixion was a demonstration of that love.  For Jesus, there was no separation between faith and works.  When Paul argued that faith was the only basis for Christian identity, he was talking to people who believed that salvation was attainable by following human laws.  And he told them that rules were not the answer.  And rules – even those some Christians believe are found in the bible – are still not the answer.  The answer was and is love – the love that is embodied in belief in Jesus Christ.  And to truly love Jesus is to want to do well.  To truly know Jesus is to be unable to believe and fail act according to that belief.

Just as, for Jesus, there is no separation between loving God and your neighbor.  You cannot love God and hate your neighbor.  Anyone who believes that – who uses their expressed love of Jesus Christ as an excuse to persecute their neighbors – does not truly know him.

The question is not, “What would Jesus do”?  The question is, “What did Jesus do”?  And the answer is love.  John’s gospel is not about who killed Jesus.  John’s gospel is about whether Jesus will continue to be killed – by the betrayal of all that he was and all that he gave to us.  Good Friday is not about hate.  It’s about love.  It’s about Jesus’s love for us and what we are expected to do for love of him.          To be in relationship with Christ is to understand that there is no separation between faith and works, between God and neighbor, between self and others.  There is only the perfect gift of love that is Jesus the Christ and the opportunity to live by and in that love.  If we only learn half of what it means to be a Christian, then let us know love.  Let us know the better half.  AMEN.

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, 2016: What makes us church (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in San Francisco)

This homily is for the kitchen workers – despite the fact that most of them probably won’t hear it, because they are too busy cleaning up right now.  Still – I think it’s important to take the time to thank them – to thank you – for all the work you do behind the scenes to make our communal worship possible.  Thank you to those who brought the food and to those who prepared it.  Thanks to those who set the tables and those who planned and will participate in the worship service.  Thank you all for offering your gifts to this community – because without those gifts, this community doesn’t work.  Without the gifts of all members of our community, we cease to be one.

Because it is those who perform the hidden tasks in our community that are crucial to holding us together.  It is easy to assume that the clergy has all the power in the parish, but that is not the nature of the Episcopal Church.  The Episcopal Church is a uniquely American institution and it is a democracy.  And the most important people in that democracy are the “kitchen workers.”  It is our everyday workers – the altar guild, the Sunday school teachers, the choirs, the ushers, the office volunteers, the flower guild, the liturgy commission, the anniversary planners and all of the many other “kitchen workers” who are the beating heart of our community.

More importantly, it’s not just what they – what we – do that’s so crucial to our identity as a church community.  It’s the reason we do things – the why of our actions – that truly make us “church.”

It’s common for us to think of “church” in terms of our religious rituals – and for many of us getting those rituals just “right” makes a huge difference in the beauty and authenticity of our spiritual experiences.  We can be so drawn to the words of the service, or the music, or the actions of the players that when we don’t get those things “right” it ruins “church” for us.

Tonight’s readings suggest that the Lord of the Israelites felt that way too.  The Lord tells Moses and Aaron precisely how they should remember and celebrate the Passover of the Lord – the subtext being that if it’s not done just that way, it’s not a valid ritual.  Getting their worship right was pretty important to our religious forbearers too.

Which leads us to wonder why, if the Last Supper of Jesus was, as the Gospel of John suggests, his celebration of the Passover – Jesus himself decided to do his church wrong.  Because if we’re paying attention we have to notice that Paul’s account of Jesus’s gathering with his friends for the Passover meal bears only a passing resemblance to the description of Passover in Exodus – and John’s gospel has Jesus going completely off script.  When he tells his disciples he needs to wash their feet, they have no idea what to do because Jesus is not following protocol.  He is messing up the service.   Why, we might wonder, is Jesus not doing “church” the “right way”?

Luckily for us, Jesus answers this unasked question.  He tells his disciples that the reason –the why – they have gathered is much more important than what they do or how they do it when they get there.  “I am with you only a little longer,” he says, and I love you.  What is important, according to Jesus, is that they – that we -spend time together – and that that time is filled with love.  Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples with a transcript, a shopping list and musical selections for their time together.  He leaves them instead with a very simple command: Love one another.  That, he says, is how to do church – with humility and kindness and love – not worrying about things being perfect, but making sure everyone is happy to be there.  What Jesus’s example shows us is that “church” is simply an opportunity to be together – and to love each other in the best way we can.  Like Jesus.  Like the disciples.  Like the kitchen crew.

And in that spirt of love and the importance of being together on this significant day, we now invite you to proceed into the church sanctuary to share in the traditional rituals of foot washing and the stripping of the altar.