Monthly Archives: March 2017

Sermon for March 26, 2017: The light of Christ (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

There is a movie called, “Defending your life.”  The film is about Daniel Miller, who, on his 40th birthday, buys a new BMW and promptly kills himself by running it head on into a bus.  When he comes to, he finds himself in a place called, “Judgment City,” a sort-of Purgatory, where the recently dead are put on trial to decide their fates.  He learns that if you are judged worthy, you move on to a “better world,” but if not you go back to Earth.  (Daniel is informed that there is no “hell,” “although,” his defender tells him, “I hear Los Angeles has gotten pretty bad”).

What is most interesting about this film to me are the criteria for judgment, which are not whether you were “good” or “bad,” but how you faced your worst fears.  As part of the process, Daniel watches scenes from his life.  When he meets a woman named Julia and views a few scenes from her life, he realizes how fear-driven his own life has been. Julia’s film clips are a shock to Daniel – she’s Joan of Arc and he’s the Cowardly Lion.

While the theology of this film does not quite match my own, I like it, because it provides a really concrete vision of what it means when we talk about the omniscience of God.  Whatever we do in darkness, scripture says, God can and will bring to light.  In other words, imagine your entire life playing on a movie screen for everyone to see.  Then imagine finding out that the standards you thought you were being judged by were wrong – that instead of correctness and adherence to the rules of society, you were being judged by how you dealt with your greatest fears, your meanest instincts and the darkness in your soul.  I don’t know about you, but that scares the living daylights out of me.  Because while I am generally an excellent rule-follower and I frequently (although certainly not always) do what society would call, “the right thing,” I am certainly not confident enough to have my every thought and impulse presented to the Youth Group at tonight’s movie night.

But that’s what it means to walk as a child of the light.  It means revealing yourself not just to God, but to one another.  It means being compassionate to one another.  This was a new idea to the Ephesians, who believed that the path to salvation was through individual adherence to the law. But Paul and his followers were not interested in personal righteousness; Paul was interested in forming communities of Christians who lived cooperatively – and his letters reflect that single-minded agenda.  That’s why some of his advice is so problematic for modern Christians.  For example, today’s reading (which may not have been written by the person we think of as “Paul”) does not include any specific rules, but among those that occur in the passage that follows this one are: “Wives, be subject to your husbands,” and “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.”

Ouch.  Such allegedly “right” behaviors – offered by the author to a specific people in a specific context to meet a very narrow agenda, have been used to justify the maltreatment of people of specific genders, races, and ethnicity by Christians for millennia.  How, you might ask, can people who profess to believe in what is represented in the words and behavior of Jesus – and in his clear statement that the second greatest commandment is to love one another -reconcile these seemingly opposite directions for how to live.

It’s an important question – perhaps the most important question that 21st century Christians have to consider – because the way we interpret the words of scripture have a tremendous impact on how we behave.  Like the Ephesians before us, “we live in an age in which theologians and prophets, including many of the self-appointed variety, rarely hesitate to make pronouncements about the will of God,[1] and we are susceptible to them because we crave a litmus test for what is truly “Christian” and what is not.

I recently read an article about the battles between different Christian leaders over the proposed federal budget.  While the leaders of many denominations have expressed distress over proposed cuts in funding to services to individuals in need, others have argued that such cuts are actually completely consistent with the words of Jesus.  For example, one conservative blog editor opined that “When Jesus talks about caring for ‘the least of these,’ he isn’t talking about the poor in general, but fellow Christians…about how you treat only his disciples, not the poor… [And according to another writer], “It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor…It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ .  [It’s about helping Christians, not unbelievers…And, of course] other theologians and Bible scholars can and have easily argued that the wider context of Jesus’ preaching and the rest of the New Testament — as well as the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus and his followers drew on — clearly show that Christians are called on to care for all those in need.”[2]

Such arguments can be confusing, because even teachers and seers called by God can make mistakes.  Samuel discovered this when God unceremoniously ousted the man divinely chosen as the first king of Israel.  Today’s Hebrew scripture tells us that Samuel was angry and hurt and grieved over God’s decision, but God was unmoved, telling Samuel to get over it and go to anoint God’s new choice – a choice that Samuel did not understand.  Why would God pick the youngest and weakest son of a poor shepherd of the tribe of Judah to replace a handsome warrior king?  Surely not because he had pretty eyes!  But Samuel nonetheless did what God asked because Samuel knew something that we would do well to remember.  Samuel knew that we are not God – that God does not think like us.  We see through the darkness of our human nature, but God sees in the light.

That light is the light of Christ.  Jesus is the one true prophet who does not misunderstand God – because he is part of God.  But seeing clearly by this light requires us to comprehend that Jesus is not defined by our beliefs.  We are defined by our belief in him.  The Pharisees, who were asked to judge the “rightness” of Jesus’s miraculous restoration of sight to the blind man failed to see this.  Rather than rejoicing at the blessing before them they instead focused on the ways in which it did not fit into their idea of things, ways in which Jesus’s behavior branded him as a sinner rather than a savior.  Like Paul, they had their own agenda to advance.  This kind of thinking – the desire to make new ideas or events fit with what we already believe- is called “confirmation bias” and it is rampant in today’s society.  Such willful spiritual blindness is the very definition of sin – because “sin lies not in being born blind, but in refusing to see when one is confronted with the light.”[3]

It is a blindness born out of fear.  Because sometimes it feels safer to live in the ignorance – the darkness– of our fear – to hide behind our habits and rationalizations, our need to remain safe in our own cozy, limited perspectives.  But we are not children of darkness.  We are children of the light- and we must find a way to overcome our fears and face the truths of our world.

This is where we do it.  It is in Christian community that we can “surrender our lives and wills to God… thrive through serving others…[and]…no longer feel threatened and alone…From within [a] community that honors the dignity of every human being we are free to listen…to express our understanding, and…to find [the]…truth.”[4]

That truth is simple.  God is with us – and our deliverance from our own darkness is already assured.  If we truly believe in the redemptive power of Jesus’s love for us, we need never have to defend our lives.  Because the Lord is our shepherd and we need fear no evilTrust him.  Walk into the light.  Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.  You’ll never walk alone.  AMEN.

[1]Frederick Niedner, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fourth Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 102.

[2]David Gibson, (March 20, 2017), “Trump’s budget slashes aid to the poor. Would Jesus have a problem with that?” http://religionnews.com/2017/03/20/trumps-budget-slashes-aid-to-the-poor-would-jesus-have-a-problem-with-that/.




[3]R. Alan Culpepper, (1998), The Gospel and Letters of John, [Nashville: Abingdon Press], 178.

[4]Ward B. Ewing, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fourth Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 114.   

Sermon for March 12, 2017: Who’s you daddy? (preached at Grace Episcopal Church,  Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the audio version here:

     

          As many of you know, my husband Gary was in the military for 27 years.  When we first started seeing each other I was in college and he was on a ship, so we dated long distance.  After a year of this, we agreed that it was important for us to live near each other before committing to marriage.  Gary said he’d try to get a position where I wanted to live, so I said I’d go wherever he was stationed.  It turned out to be California.  Now, as a Connecticut Yankee, my idea of California was based on old episodes of “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun”- and I had only been as far west as West Virginia, so this was more than a bit out of my comfort zone.  But I was determined to try and Gary was extremely patient, encouraging me to “think of it as a vacation.  Just stay two weeks and if you hate it you can go back home.”  He was also patient about putting up with the things that I insisted I needed to do to make it through the trip: driving only six hours instead of the 12 per day that he’d imagined; calling home daily; and, most importantly, wrapping myself up in the comforter from my childhood bed and playing the Bing Crosby Christmas tape – over and over and over – in July.

It’s a funny story now, but at the time it almost ended our relationship, which would have been a tragedy for both of us – not to mention our two children.   But that’s what we do with stories that make us sad or anxious – we turn them into something funny.  After all, humor is a very high level defense mechanism and one of the best ways to deal with the things that upset us most.   And, while we all have our own triggers for emotional upheaval, some things seem to be almost universally anxiety- provoking – things like road trips.  Which is probably why one popular website lists over 100 Road Trip movies – because, really- don’t we all have a horror story in which we set out in a car full of dreams (or family members) for an exciting new destination only to experience disastrous consequences?

Migration – especially when it is forced and, even more importantly, when it requires you to leave behind things and people you love, is a hard thing.  For Abram, who lived almost two thousand years before the birth of Christ in a culture in which your family was not just your support system but your assurance of survival, leaving his father’s house was not just brave, but arguably suicidal.  And yet it is the very first thing God asked Abram to do; God didn’t tell Abram why he wanted him to do it or how it would work out, God just said that if Abram went, he would be blessed.  So Abram took his nephew Lot and answered God’s call – for the simple and almost unfathomable reason that Abram believed God’s promise.  He left almost everything he had and risked everything he had left because God told him it would be okay.  Now that’s a leap of faith – perhaps the most famous leap of faith in religious history.

Today’s reading doesn’t say anything about how Abram felt – if he was confused or scared or even, potentially, enthusiastic.  The same is true of the Israelites who spoke to God through the words of Psalm 121, known as “A Psalm of Ascents” – ascent as in “going uphill.”  Commentators suggest that Psalm 121might not have been a spoken poem, but a song – done in the call and response style familiar to us from gospel music – sung by either soldiers before battle or by a community embarking on a long journey – a trip from which they might not return.  Similar to the rituals used by athletes and performers to pump themselves up prior to a big game or show, this psalm may have been used as a way to calm their jitters and strengthen their resolve – a way to remind the people that no matter what happened, they would be okay, because the Lord God would keep them safe.

The question is why God continued to do so.  Scholars aren’t sure about the circumstances of this psalm, but there’s no suggestion in it that these people earned God’s protection.  And neither had Abram.  This story represents the first time Abram appears in the Bible, so we don’t really know anything about him or, more importantly, why God chose him to be the patriarch of what would become three major religious faiths.  We only know that God’s actions in this narrative are consistent with how God behaves throughout human history: God gives things to his people and the people destroy or misuse them.  After getting angry and reprimanding the wayward people, God gives them another chance – and we mess it up again – and again and again.  But this particular opportunity is special, because this time, instead of cursing them for their disobedience, God promises to bless them – if only they will choose to remain in relationship with him.  God tells Abram that if Abram chooses God, God will bless him and through him all of humanity.  This, according to Frederick Niedner, is how God stays in relationship with us.[1]  God simply provides us with the chance to choose God.

That’s what it means to be born again- not, as Nicodemus understandably wonders aloud, to come out of your mother’s womb for a second time – and not, as many Christians believe, by being baptized.  Baptism is a human ritual which uses water to invoke the Holy Spirit, but it doesn’t necessarily change who you are.  It is, according to the Episcopal Church, initiation into what we think of as Christ’s body on earth, the church.  It is a sign of membership, not of transformation.  The Greek word that follows the word “born” in this passage from the Gospel of John “anothen” – can be translated three ways – as “again,” “anew,” or “from above.”   But no matter how you read it, there is nothing in what Jesus says that suggests that any physical action will fulfill the requirement that Jesus sets for eternal life.  In fact, Jesus very clearly tells Nicodemus that what he’s saying has nothing to do with our flesh at all.

What Jesus is talking about is the rebirth of our spirits – the renewal of our souls.  He is talking about something that no human idea or action can achieve. In his interaction with Jesus, Nicodemus was looking for a prescription for salvation, a path that he could walk to reach the kingdom of heaven.  But Jesus told him that it’s not that simple, that changing our behavior means nothing if we do not change our hearts – and changing our hearts is not a procedure, but a process.  Having faith is not just one leap, but an ongoing journey – a long and difficult passage of trying to believe in something that on its face is completely unreasonable and irrational – the idea that there is something – someone – who cares more about us than we care about ourselves.  Faith is a road trip.

And it requires us to embrace an even stranger notion – that God’s completely unselfish, constant, and saving love is free and unearned.  It simply requires us to accept it.  In fact, according to today’s reading from Roman’s, it is actually offensive to God to try to earn it.  It is not up to us to give birth to a new and better world.  We have shown time and again that we are incapable of doing it alone. “It is God who will give birth in water and Spirit.  Rebirth is God’s gift to give, God’s work to accomplish, and it is God who labors to bring us new life.”[2]

It is up to us to accept that new life – to attempt to live as Jesus has shown us – to risk -as Abram did -everything we have for everything we might become.  It is up to us to trust, as the Israelites did, that when we lift up our eyes to God, help will come.  It is up to us to believe – to believe that God so loved the world – so loved us –that he gave his only Son, so that we may not die to sin, but live to complete our journey to eternal life.  AMEN.

[1]Frederick Niedner, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Second Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 50.

[2]Deborah J. Kapp, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Second Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 72.

Sermon for March 5, 2017: We’re all in this together (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

Listen here: 

 

Temptation comes in many forms – and as someone who has recently gone back on Weight Watchers, right now temptations smell exactly like Grace Church’s Sunday Lenten pancake breakfast! And the truth is that I lost the battle to resist those pancakes the minute I heard about that breakfast, because for me breaking bread with the members of my new parish family is more important than getting back to a size – well, let’s just say it’s more important than dieting.  Of course, the Weight Watchers police might not agree with that analysis.  They might, in fact, call it an excuse.

Which is one of the hardest things about being tempted.  It’s usually pretty easy to find a rationale for giving in, but it’s hard to know if it’s a real reason or a justification.  For example, many of us may have grown up with the tradition of fasting during.  My family did not eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent and, as an adult, my husband and I also began the practice of foregoing all solid food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  It was a choice that I thought was pretty pious.  Recently, however, a priest I know and respect gave a sermon in which she said that she no longer tries to fast because it’s not a spiritual experience for her.  Rather than imagining Jesus’s suffering on the cross, she visualizes what she will be having for breakfast the next morning.  My reaction to her thoughtful and honest confession was to think, “What a wimp!  She doesn’t even have the willpower to fight temptation for one day!”  I felt pretty superior – until I realized that by reacting with pride, I had just given into temptation myself.  Devil: 1; Deb: 0.

But that’s the way temptation is.  It’s sneaky.  It’s subtle.  It is inevitable.  But not, perhaps, for the reasons we think.  Today’s scripture readings all deal with the issue of temptation, drawing a parallel between what happened to the people that God put in the garden of Eden and Jesus’s experience with “the devil” in the wilderness.  All three people were tempted but only Jesus did not sin.  Why is that?  Well, what I learned in Sunday school went something like this: The snake tricked the woman into eating the fruit (which was not, according to the Bible, an apple), the woman talked the man into eating the fruit, and they got in big trouble with God.  That’s why, according to the theological doctrine of original sin, all people are born “sinful.”  Even though God created people without sin, Adam and Eve spoiled everything by biting that apple.

Personally, I don’t subscribe to that doctrine – because it suggests that humanity is basically bad – and, despite the fact that I worked in the prison system for almost twenty years and have probably seen the worst of human nature, I still believe that human beings are inherently good – that we are made in God’s image.

This view is consistent with today’s reading from Genesis, which is actually not about “sin” and “punishment.”  In fact, the words “sin,” “fall,” and “punishment” never appear in this passage.  Here is what the story does tell us: God created people and, like any good parent, gave them boundaries.  “Please,” God said, “take care of this nice world that I have given you and don’t eat from that tree because it’s not good for you.”  And, just like any teenagers, the man and the woman got distracted by the popular media of their day and did exactly what they had been asked not to do.  And God, like any good parent, did not kill them (even though he may have wanted to), but instead sent them out to experience the “real world.”  And, as we know, it did not go well.

So, what does this story about the “original sin” tell us?  It tells us, first and foremost, that sin is not natural.  God did not create people who were naturally bad and set out to do something wrong.  He created people who were basically good who made a mistake.  And their mistake had a terrible cost – for them and for God. The consequence of their disobedience was to be sent away from God, to be separated from their creator.  That is what sin is: separation from God.  And it is painful, and it makes us sick.

Jesus is our physician.  God sent him to make us well and to show us how to deal with temptation – not as a god, but as a human being.  Jesus was tempted just as we so often are – when he was tired, hungry, and stressed- and probably very afraid.  But unlike the first man and woman – unlike us, Jesus triumphed over temptation, because Jesus did not allow the “devil” or, as it is more properly translated from Greek, “the one who misleads,” to cause him to sin – to separate him from God.

That is what true temptations are – the things that separate us from the love of God.  And that is how we can tell whether we are “giving in” to temptation or not- by whether what we choose to do separates us or draws us closer to God.  After all, what are the seven “deadly sins” but the ways in which we are most often separated from the way of Jesus?  Envy is the temptation that comes “when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough.”  Pride is the “temptation [that] comes in judgments we make about strangers or friends who make choices we do not understand,” wrath is, “when we allow our tempers to define our lives”[1] – and so on.  Just as the serpent distracted the first humans from the purpose God had given them, so the distractions – the temptations – of our lives keep us from the purpose that God has given us: to love one another as God loves us.

But Jesus has shown us how to deal with temptation -and it is not through our own willpower.  We must deal with temptation in the same way Jesus did, by remembering that we do not face it alone.  Scripture tells us that people have made mistakes from the beginning of time, but it also tells us that God has never abandoned us when we make them.  God has always and will always be with us in our temptations.  And we, like Jesus, know that.  We know what the first man and woman did not when they hid from God.  We know what the psalmist knew.  We know what Paul told the Romans.  We know that when we acknowledge our sin to God, when we do not conceal our guilt, when we confess our transgressions to the Lord, God forgives us.  That’s why in Lent we are asked not beat our breasts and wallow in our unworthiness, but instead to examine ourselves and see our weaknesses and acknowledge them –  to look into our dark places so that God can bring light to them.

And we do not do it by ourselves.  Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” but I say, One does not live alone, for we are best able to hear the word of God when we hear it from the lips of our fellow human beings.  We are not alone.  God did not make us to be alone and God has never left us alone. We are in this together – and we are in this together with Jesus.  We have been blessed with the joy of belonging to a Christian community –this Christian community – this community of amazing grace.  My prayer on this my first day as your spiritual leader is that we will continually and joyfully walk in Christ’s love and share our lives with one another – the good and the bad – the joy and the sorrow – the temptations and the triumphs – and that we will do it together.  AMEN.

[1]Maryetta Anschutz, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (First Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 48.

 

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2017: Fast, Pray, Love (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, California)

 

At a recent vestry retreat as an icebreaker we went around the room and identified our favorite holiday.  No one said “Ash Wednesday.”  I wasn’t surprised.  While many of our biggest holy days are about adding things to our usual worship, Lent is all about subtraction.  We take away the fancy vestments, the parties and, most painfully for many of us, the “Alleluias.”  Quite honestly, one of the first things that came to my mind when we decided that Ash Wednesday would be my first day as the Rector of Grace was that no matter how excited we were to embark on this journey together, we would have to wait a full forty days before expressing that joy by saying the “A word.”  No wonder people find Lent depressing.

But the truth is that it’s not supposed to be.  Lent is not some kind of   endurance test to pass in order to be allowed to celebrate Easter.  Lent is not about making church boring.  And Lent is absolutely not about keeping people away from church – away from God.  Lent is about becoming closer to God – not by making ourselves sick or angry or depressed, but by making us think about our relationship to God – and to one another.

That was the original idea behind the ancient customs of self-sacrifice instituted by the first Christians, who created Lent as a season of “penitence and fasting” for all Christians, but especially for those who had committed “notorious” sins and were separated from the church.  It was a way to get people back to church.  Of course, those people had to wear hair shirts for the entire 40 days to do it, so it required quite a bit of dedication.

The modern church doesn’t generally ask for that level of repentance and self-denial, but we do ask for some dedication – dedication not to suffering, but to learning and growing.  Because the idea of adopting some special discipline for Lent is not about the action itself, but what it means to each of us.  If it helps us feel closer to God and one another, then it’s accomplishing its purpose.  If we simply lose five pounds and make a one-time donation to charity, we might be missing the point.  God wants us to pray and fast and give things away not because we deserve to suffer (although we may), but because God wants us to experience his compassion and mercy when we do repent from our sins.

Physical deprivation has become, for many of us, what Lent is about.  “What,” we ask each other, “are you giving up for Lent”?  For the 25 percent of Americans who observe Lent, half say they do it by giving up a favorite food or beverage.[1]  The idea is that for many of us, giving something physical up causes us physical suffering – and we think that’s good because God we believe that God wants us to suffer.  But that’s not necessarily the case.  What our scripture tells us that if we feel closer to God when we suffer – if physical discomfort helps us understand how much Jesus suffered for us – if emotional catharsis opens us up to the Holy Spirit, then we will experience God’s compassion and grace.  But not if our Lenten discipline is a leftover New Year’s resolution that we have decided to give another try.

The key, I think, is to start thinking of Lent as an opportunity instead of a punishment – to experience our faith in a different way, to grow as Christians and as human beings; to rend our hearts and not our garments.

A few years ago I decided to try “taking on” something instead of or in addition to giving something up.  I don’t know if it is ultimately any more helpful in bringing me closer to God than giving up chocolate, but it definitely gives me something to think about, requires me to lean on God to do it, and provides me with a sense of love and hope that giving up chocolate never could.

This year, I encourage you to do something different for Lent; take something on instead of giving something up – or give up something different.  Give up the internet instead of chocolate!  You can participate in the diocesan carbon fast or join national church efforts for social justice.  Repent, grow, and seek the presence of God in whatever way works best for you.  But whatever you do, do it with joy and compassion – do it faith and love – do it with – dare I say it? – the spirit of Alleluia.  AMEN

[1]Bob Smietana, (February 15, 2017), “Eat, Pray, Lent: Here’s what Americans actually abstain from,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2017/february/eat-pray-lent-what-americans-actually-abstain-from.html.