Monthly Archives: January 2017

Sermon for January 15, 2017: Feast of Martin Luther King, Jr. – Let no one pull you so low (Preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin)

Listen here:

Pray…for me that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel…Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.” Amen.

Like all other citizens, I am occasionally called for jury duty.  But unlike many people, I have very little hope of actually serving on a jury.  That’s because I used to work as an expert witness – and part of my job was to make jurors understand things and, if you asked the lawyers who worked with me, convince them of the “rightness” of the “side” I was testifying for.

That’s a bad way to think of it, because the minute you become invested in “winning” a case, you lose your ethical lens.  A psychological expert’s job is to help a judge or jury understand what is happening in the mind of a person who has committed a crime and apply that information to the law.  My job was to evaluate people and offer opinions – not to convince people to make judgments based on what I told them.  But, truthfully, it’s hard not to desire a certain outcome in a trial – not to care how it turns out. Because, quite simply, for the majority of human beings, caring is what we do.

And that’s a good thing.  Because there are people who don’t care.  In forensic psychology, we call these people “psychopaths” – individuals whose behavior is characterized by a consistent inability to care about anything but themselves.  These people behave in tremendously destructive ways – simply by failing to see other people as human beings.  They simply don’t care.

          Lately, I have been answering a lot of questions about whether or not I think Dylan Roof is one of those people.  On Tuesday, Roof was sentenced to death after being convicted of 33 counts in connection with the shooting deaths of nine people in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina in 2015.  Roof has demonstrated no remorse for the killings, freely admitting that his victims were innocent and that his only motive for his actions was hatred based on racial prejudice.  Roof was evaluated by a psychologist in order to be found competent to represent himself, but doesn’t appear to have cooperated in a full psychological evaluation.  Acting as his own attorney, Roof chose not to introduce any evidence about his mental state– so there’s no way to know whether he suffers from a serious mental disorder that impairs his thinking.  But as someone who has a lot of experience in these matters, I can tell you one thing: it’s quite possible that Dylan Roof is not mentally ill.  It may be that there is nothing wrong with Dylan Roof’s thinking; it may just be that it’s his heart that is sick.

Because hate is a sickness – and it is extremely contagious.  And, like the common cold, I would wager that every person in this room has suffered from it at one time or another – and that many of us are trying to fight it off right now. All we have to do is to glance at a newspaper headline to know this.   The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrate that he knew this.  And scripture tell us that God knows this – that’s why he sent Jesus Christ into this hateful world to help us fight against it.

If there was ever a clear acknowledgment that God knows that we struggle with hatred in our hearts, it is today’s gospel.  “Listen,” Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.  Bless those who curse you.  Pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  This passage, known to many of us as the “Golden Rule,” actually predates Christianity by millennia.  In fact, some version of the Golden Rule appears in almost every significant social, ethical and religious philosophy we know of, including Judaism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.

This saying is the crux – the cross – of what makes it hard to be a Christian.  Our religion is based on a very simple idea – which also happens to be the very hardest behavior to enact – to love one another as we would be loved.  This is the most potentially impossible thing a human being can be asked to do.  Living together in love – not in civility – not in restraint – but in honest, painful, intense, exultant, despairing, daring, hopeful, complicated love – is – if you do it right – a constant struggle.  It is the emotional equivalent of pushing an enormous boulder uphill for your entire life, of running on a treadmill that never stops – of watching “Old Yeller” a thousand times in a row.  It is, for most of us, simply a dream.

It is a dream that Martin Luther King famously shared.  Tomorrow, on the national holiday that celebrates that dream there will be much talk about its components – about racial equality that has still not been achieved – about justice that remains out of reach – about the kind of understanding among people that would have prevented the violence demonstrated by Dylan Roof.

That is tomorrow.  Today, as Christians, we need to remember something different.  We need to remember that Martin Luther King’s dream was not just about civil liberties or political equality; it was about spiritual love.  It was a dream not just that all people will be truly created equal, but that “the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”  Martin Luther King’s dream was a Christian dream.

It was a dream that Jesus taught us to dream – and a dream for which Jesus – like King – was killed.  It is the dream that it is at the root of all Christian belief.  It is the dream for which dreamers from the dawn of time have been murdered.  It is a dream for which we should all, as Christians, be willing to die.

It seems impossible – that we could be strong enough to die for that belief.  God knows, we are often not strong enough to even live for it.  It is so hard not to hate, especially when we believe that others have given us the right to do so.  But we must not allow ourselves to be, as King put it, “pull[ed]…so low as to hate.”  We must, at the very least, fight the hate that is inside of us.  And we may not be strong enough to fight that pull on our own, but I believe we are strong enough to take the hand of Jesus – and the hand of our neighbor – and to try.  I believe we are strong enough to listen to the word of Jesus – strong enough to put on the armor of God –strong enough to stand firm against the evil that is in the world –strong enough to struggle against the powers of darkness –strong enough to “press on, to move along the highway of freedom toward the city of equality,” strong enough to take up not the sword of hate, but the shield of faith – and to proclaim the gospel of peace.

We are, like Dylan Roof, only human beings, predisposed to judge, compete, fear, and hate.  But we are also children of God, redeemed and imbued with the power of God’s love – the power of God’s grace – the power of God’s amazing grace.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that save a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now I’m found – was blind but now I see.

AMEN.

Sermon for December 18, 2016: Send us a sign (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

Listen to sermon here:

Many of you have probably already heard the news story about the very religious man who was caught in a flood.  He climbed onto the roof of his house and waited for God to rescue him. A neighbour came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”  “No thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”  A short time later a police boat came by. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”  “No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”  Finally, a Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead and let down a rescue swimmer who said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”  “No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”  All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he got to heaven he angrily confronted God, saying, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I trusted you to save me from that flood and you let me die.” “Listen” replied the Lord. “I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter.  What else did you want”?

It’s an old joke, but, like all good jokes, it says a lot about human nature.  I don’t know if this joke was around in the eighth century before the Common Era, but it seems like King Ahaz could have benefited from hearing it.  Unlike other rulers throughout history who have asked God to send them a sign of God’s favor, Ahaz refused to ask for a sign because he didn’t want “to put the Lord to the test.”  On the surface, this seems like a good decision on Ahaz’s part.  But, when you look at the context in which this exchange between Isaiah and Ahaz happened, you begin to see Ahaz’s response in a different light.  He was not demonstrating his faith, but his fear.

Ahaz was the king of the southern country of Judah, which was one half of what had been the great Israelite kingdom under Solomon.  Israel had joined together with another northern kingdom to attack Judah, and Ahaz was worried about the coming conflict.  When he called his resident prophet, Isaiah, for help, Isaiah told him not to worry about it – that God would take care of it.  But Ahaz had already made an agreement with the Assyrian king – and he decided it was wiser to bet on that concrete political pact than some vague commitment from a far-away God.

It’s a decision many of us might have made.  What are you going to trust – a rational, human alliance that will keep your people from being slaughtered, or the vague word of a crazy religious leader? But God does not like being refused, so God told Ahaz he’d get a sign anyway – a very ambiguous one. “On the one hand, Immanuel’s birth [would] mean the end of Ahaz’s enemies,” but it would also end with the Assyrian king taking advantage of the alliance and conquering…Judah.”[1]  Isaiah’s prophecy – both for Ahaz and as a sign portending Christ’s birth, was a double-edged sword.  It shows us “a God who is both comforting and disturbing, threatening and assuaging.  [In other words], the God of Isaiah 7 is the God we know in Jesus Christ.”[2]

It is a God who does not always speak to us in the way we would hope.  In an age in which we communicate in a maximum of 918 characters (if you text) and often as little as 140 (if you tweet), God’s way of talking to us through someone else seems annoyingly unclear.  “We live in an age of promiscuous communication”[3] – one in which we are in such a hurry to get answers and leap into action that we feel comfortable leaving out a simple “Hi, how you doing”? and moving straight to the heart of the matter.  We are efficient, if not polite.  That’s why today’s reading from Romans, which consists entirely of Paul’s greeting to the community, sounds to our ears like the voices of the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon – “mwah, mwah.”

That’s why it’s so easy to miss the part where Paul talks about what it feels like to be called by God- to “belong to Jesus Christ.”  That’s a shame, because, in a season in which we are bombarded with messages about what we want, what we need, and, most importantly, what we must hurry up and buy, it would probably be a relief to know that we have already been given the greatest gift we will ever receive – the grace and peace of God.  That message is a quiet one.  Because although we will pull out all the stops at St. Clement’s to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the true message of Christmas comes to us – just as it did to Mary – only when we ponder it in our hearts.

That’s what Joseph had to do when he was presented with what was potentially the most significant decision of his life.  A devout man who faithfully followed the laws of his religion, Joseph was confronted with the embarrassing choice of what to do with a pregnant fiancé with whom he had had no “relations.”  Should he simply divorce her and let her go her way, saving her disgrace but potentially making him look weak and insincere in his religious beliefs, or allow her to be stoned to death for her sin?  But just when he decides to “quietly” dismiss her, he has a dream in which an angel tells him to go with “Option C” –to marry her and adopt her child who – by the way- will save the people from their sins.

We don’t have any information about Joseph’s initial reaction to this stunning event, but nowhere in this reading does it say that Joseph asked God for a sign.  We only know that, based on his dream, he decided to go ahead and marry his seemingly unfaithful betrothed and raise the child as his own.  I suspect that not many of us would have done the same.  From our modern perspective it seems completely irrational to make a significant life decision based on a dream.

But that is what faith is about – committing our lives to the principles that are tangible only in our hearts.  Let me be clear: I am not saying we should believe without evidence; what I am saying is that the evidence that is within us – our dreams, feelings and interactions with others – is just as valid as the scientific proofs we have come to rely on.  Joseph knew that.  Paul knew that.  And Ahaz forgot it – much to his later dismay.  God does not communicate with us the way we communicate with each other, but God does communicate with us.  God sends us the signs we would ask for before we can ask for them – and we ignore them.  John Glenn, astronaut and scientist, when viewing the earth from space said, “To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible.” For him, the beauty he saw and the technology that allowed him to see it were both signs from God.

I can’t tell you how God will communicate with you – I just know God will.  And I know that if you ignore it, you, like Ahaz, will regret it.  Because all God asks of us is this: to answer his call – to say “yes” to what she offers us – to choose to believe.  We are separated from the perfect comfort of God’s presence not by God’s unwillingness to hear or help us, but by our own refusal to take God’s help.  “Sin is the choice to minister to ourselves, rather than to allow the savior to minister to us.”[4]  That’s why sin hurts. As we draw near once again to our remembrance of the birth of that savior, let us open our hearts and listen to what God is offering to us-  and let us without fear and with great joy answer him, witness the light of her countenance, and be saved.  AMEN.

[1]Michael J. Chan (2016), “Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-16,” in Preach this Week, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3124.

[2]Ibid.

[3]David Wood (2010),  in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Advent IV), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 3277.

[4]Daniel Harris (2010),  in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Advent IV), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 3561.

 

Sermon for January 1, 2017, The Feast of the Holy Name, “What’s in a name”? (Preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin)

Listen to sermon here:

I am the second of two children.  I grew up living in a two-family house.  My aunt and uncle – my father’s sister and brother- lived upstairs and I lived downstairs with my parents and older sister. When I was nine years-old, my uncle died. Five months later, my father died. A week later my aunt died.

I had never known my paternal grandparents, as they had both died before I was born.  So from being surrounded by my father’s family, I went to having one remaining paternal aunt who lived across town.  At the age of nine, I was one of three remaining heirs to my father’s name, but I had a limited idea as to what that legacy meant.

And I didn’t have a very reliable way of finding out, because as I grew older, I started to realize that I had very few- far too few – memories of my father.  My sister would bring up things she remembered from our childhood- trips to Santa’s Village, visits to our extended family, simple, everyday occurrences in our household – and I wouldn’t remember any of them.

Eventually, after becoming a psychologist, I recognized that my memory deficit was traumatic- an effect of suffering from so much loss at a young age- but that realization did nothing as far as getting my memories back.  No amount of therapy allowed me to break through the protective block I had put around my missing memories of my father, so I continued to have very little identification with what it meant to be “a White.”

But I knew it was important.  I knew because my sister and my aunt told me so.  The Whites, I was informed, were a very proper, sophisticated, old New England family and I should wear my name with pride.  Of course, the flipside of that message was that my mother’s family -the Schleinkofers – were not as good.  My mother was only a “third generation” American, saddled with a German name and German heritage during a period of American history in which both conditions were treated with great suspicion.

And, according to my family system, I was a “Schleinkofer.” Why? My sister told me the story this way:

“When you were first born and Mama was paying so much attention to you that I felt ignored, I went upstairs to Aunt Cath and Uncle John to get some attention from them.  Aunt Cath sat me down at their kitchen table and said, ‘It’s alright.  You don’t need her attention.  You are a White.  You belong to our family. That baby can belong to your mom’s family.”

 

And that was how we thought of ourselves for many years. My sister carried all of the privilege – and responsibility – of the “White” name, while I was the favorite of my maternal grandfather, who taught me his values – hard work, a desire to get along with everyone he met, and a strong aversion to “standing on ceremony.”  Those who know me know that those ideals are still very much a part of who I am. Thus, while on paper I am “the Reverend Dr. Deborah White,” in person I am just “Deb.”

That may be a good thing- but the division produced by my aunt’s statement also had lasting negative effects for my relationship with my sister – and hers with my mother- for many years. It was not until we were well into our 30s – not until we learned that part of the White family legacy was the depression that my father had – and that both of us suffer from – not until she was a priest and I was a psychologist – not until we actually talked to each other about it -that we could understand and address how our individual identifications with different sides of our family had hurt our relationship with one another – and limited our spiritual development.

People do this kind of damage to each other every day – by how we interpret the news, in the ways we act in our encounters during post-Christmas shopping and gift returns, and when we dine out or in with visiting family members.  We do it when we make casual judgments of others – by wondering what kind of person would name their child “North West,” by denigrating others’ “strange” holiday traditions – and in our impulsive perceptions about who or what is really “American.”  The way we name ourselves and others is a very powerful thing.

That’s why we celebrate the feast of the Holy Name today.  Because just as how many of us define ourselves stems from our understanding of our names, so too did the people who surrounded the infant born to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth develop their first opinions about him based on his name.

As a first-century Palestinian Jew, Jesus received his name just like any other baby boy; on the eighth day of his life as part of his circumcision ceremony.  His name, according to Luke’s account, was pre-ordained because the angel that had appeared to Joseph and told him to go ahead and marry his pregnant, seemingly unfaithful fiancé, also told him that they were to name the child, “Jesus.”

It was not a particularly unusual name, but it was a famous one.  “Jesus” (or “Yeshua”) is a version of the ancient prophet’s name “Joshua,” which means, “The Lord is salvation.”  (Clearly there was no pressure on Jesus to live up to any significant parental expectations)!  But Jesus’s name wasn’t about expectations or even evangelism.  It was about reconciliation.

Some of you may know that in Jewish tradition, the full name of God is neither written nor spoken. This is a sign of respect based on the idea that simply by saying the name of God aloud we can profane it.  Our understanding of the name that God takes for Godself originates in the book of Exodus when Moses asks God his name.  In many English translations of the Bible, God says, “I am the Lord,” but in Hebrew the word God uses is “Yahweh,” and is better translated as a phrase, “I am.”  Thus, when asked her name, God says merely, “I am,” meaning that God was not created.  God is – and has always been.  God is constant.  God answers to no one.  God is, according to the psalmist, exalted, majestic, our Governor – one who is so great that human beings do not even deserve her notice – one who is master over all creation.  God is awesome.

And God is very far away.  For who but the most pathological narcissist really thinks that they are worthy of God’s individual attention, God’s time, or God’s love?  Certainly not the ancient Israelites, who saw God as a distant, demanding master, to whom they were as slaves, whose very name was so sacred that they could profane it just by speaking it.  They were not, to put it plainly, on a first-name basis with God.

But we as Christians are – not based on our own merit, but through the revelation of God in earthly form that is Jesus. Through Jesus’s sacrificial love, we have been invited into a closer and more intimate relationship with God.  By taking a human name – an ancient and respected Jewish name – God signaled to humanity that we not only could, but should believe that God does indeed want to be near to us – to be part of us.  Through the holy name of Jesus we have become, in the words of St. Paul, “no longer [slaves but children and heirs] of our God.”

And, for us, this inheritance is free – because the cost has already been paid by Jesus, our brother and savior.  It has been paid in blood – in the blood he shed when he was beaten by soldiers – in the blood he shed when he was nailed to a cross – in the blood which flowed out of his side when he was wounded for our transgressions.  By accepting his human name, Jesus showed humanity that he was willing to bleed so that we could be reconciled to a God who had become remote from his human children. And the first of that blood was shed at his circumcision when he accepted the Holy Name that is our salvation.

That is what it means to accept the name of Jesus as our own, to be a “Christian” – a follower of Jesus the Christ. It means that each time we do something “in the name of Jesus” we have the opportunity to remember and honor God’s tremendous love for us.  It means knowing that all of us – whatever our earthly name may be – share an inheritance of grace and peace- not because of anything we have done, but because God has shared with us the glory and majesty of his name – and for that reason – and for that reason alone – we are blessed. AMEN.