Monthly Archives: April 2017

Sermon for April 23, 2017: The Courage to Witness (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

Picture this:

The year is 2025.  Despite the fact that the majority of Americans do not believe in climate change, several areas of the country have become uninhabitable due to toxic environmental factors, and fertility rates have plummeted to a startling low.  Advances in technology have resulted in all financial transactions becoming virtual.  Several years ago, the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. government were gunned down, reportedly by Muslim extremists.  Martial law was declared and the constitution was suspended.  Political power was seized by a coalition of men who espoused an extreme fundamentalist Christian perspective that resulted in all non-Christians being given the choice of converting or leaving the country.  Women were removed from the workforce, their financial accounts shut off, and their access to reading materials eliminated.  New social norms were mandated: men had jobs; “legitimate” wives, (those who had been married only once within the state church), cared for the homes of the men; women of color were designated as household servants; older women, men of color, and those considered “heretical” were shipped to “the colonies” to perform manual labor, often consisting of toxic clean-up.  Those who would not convert or accede to the new social order were killed.  All marriages not blessed by the state religion were declared invalid and children from these marriages were “redistributed” among more worthy couples. Women of childbearing age who had shown the ability to bear children were given the choice of going to the colonies or becoming “handmaids” to powerful men. These new policies, according to the leadership, were appropriated from an impeccable source of goodness and right – the Bible.

Now, consider what your place might be in this new society.  For many of us, by virtue of our age, race, culture, and/or gender, we would be mandated to a certain path, without choices; but for others of us there might be options -for Christians with different beliefs, there would be a choice – to comply or dissent – to choose life or death.

This is the scenario advanced by Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” one of several dystopian books that have recently made a comeback on best seller lists.  Atwood’s book is powerful and frightening for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because it demonstrates the way in which the words of our scriptures can be shaped to justify and legitimize all sorts of evil.  And, although it might seem counterintuitive to connect a pessimistic futuristic story to the post-Easter joy we are experiencing, I think it raises some particularly relevant questions for us, like what it means to be a member of “the Jesus Movement” in a certain time and place.

It was certainly the question for Jesus’s disciples following his death.  In a short time they had gone from members of a growing cult to being the defeated followers of a disgraced religious blasphemer and state-condemned criminal.  They weren’t even sure whether he had been resurrected.  They were certainly not out dancing in the streets, singing loud Hosannas, and shouting, “He is risen.”  Instead, they were doing what many of us would do if we were terrified and grief-stricken: they were huddling together for solace and security, hiding among friends who felt the same way they did – people who understood them and made them feel safe.  They, like so many of us, were in Christian community seeking comfort.  They were probably not thinking about evangelism.

It’s not something Episcopalians like to think about either.  In the time and place where I learned to be a Christian, it was considered rude to talk about religion and downright déclassé to proselytize.  And when you were asked about, it was considered preferable to promote your faith through elegant argument and intellectual rigor rather than personal witness. Being “pushy” about your religious beliefs was a good way to lose your social status.  Of course, for the disciples, it meant they might actually lose their lives, so they understandably wanted to be ready before going public with it.  They wanted to be sure. So, who could blame Thomas for asking for a little proof?  The author of the Gospel of John, that’s who.

The story of “Doubting Thomas” is found only in the Gospel of John, which is primarily focused on Jesus’s divinity.  For the author of the Gospel of John, believing that Jesus is both God and Savior is the only path to salvation so Thomas, and by extension, all Christians, must experience Jesus as divine in order to be saved.  But other early apostles had different ideas about the meaning of Jesus’s reappearance to the disciples, and one of those was the author of the Gospel of Thomas.  According to scholar Elaine Pagels, that gospel, which didn’t make it into the New Testament, taught “that God’s light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially at least, in everyone.  Thomas’s gospel encourages the hearer to seek to know God through one’s own divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God.”[1]  In other words, the two gospel writers believed in the same God and the same savior, but they disagreed about how to find him.  By portraying Thomas as unbelieving, John’s author managed to convey that his view of salvation is the correct one, undermining both Thomas’ character and his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.  So John’s became one of four gospels in the formal Christian canon, and the Gospel of Thomas was lost for 1500 years.

For many of us, who believe that faith is a personal choice, the doctrinal wrangling of ancient theologians may seem unimportant, but I think it’s actually critically significant.  First of all, it teaches us that Christianity has always been political.  It also tells us that from the beginning there have been efforts to promote the idea that there is only one way to follow Jesus – and if you don’t take that path, you are not faithful.  And it shows us what happens when we fail to speak out about our own understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  Things get lost. Scripture is misunderstood.  Evil is done in the name of God.

That’s why being a member of the Jesus Movement is not a “personal” decision; it is a social, political, life-changing and life-threatening choice.  You need to believe deeply and irrevocably, to understand what you believe, to be willing to witness to what you believe – and potentially to die for what you believe – otherwise false prophets will rise – and the Jesus movement will die.

It is the last and greatest mandate that Jesus, both human and divine, gave to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  He charged his disciples to let go of their fears, to receive the strength and courage of the Holy Spirit and to become his representatives in the world – to be transformed from disciples to apostles – and evangelists.

We are asked to make the same choice.  Like the community of John, like Thomas – like David and Peter – we are asked to witness to what we have seen, what we have felt – what we know.  To tell our stories – to share the vastness and variety of God’s mercy and the fullness of joy found in God’s presence. That is what it means to be a member of the Jesus Movement in this time and this place.  It is the opportunity to share our Easter rejoicing, to love those who have not yet seen our Savior and to attest to his wonders, that through us they might also come to believe and through believing have life in his name.  AMEN.

[1]Elaine Pagels, (2004), Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, [New York: Random House].

Sermon for April 15, 2017, Easter Vigil, From Night to Light (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Happy Easter!  How’s everybody feeling?  Filled with joy?  Energized?  Relieved?  Refreshed, Renewed?  Or maybe just a teeny bit tired – or potentially a little confused.  After all, you might be forgiven if you are experiencing a little bit of the sensory shock that sometimes causes Puxatawnee Phil to run back into his hole on Groundhog Day.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Easter -but it can be a bit of a culture shock after six weeks of Lent.  And for good reason.

Easter, according to the Book of Common Prayer, is about renewal- renewal of body and mind, renewal that should stir up our souls and our collective wills, renewal that should encourage us to more authentic worship and more powerful advocacy in our lives.  Renewal that makes us feel as if we are “dead to sin and alive to God.”

The Easter Vigil liturgy is one of the oldest liturgies in the Christian church, and attempts to capture that transition – from darkness to light, from death into life.  It was initially part of what was once called “The Great Week” of Easter, which celebrates both Christ’s death and resurrection dates back to at least the fourth century (and likely earlier).  Instead of having separate liturgies for the three holy days preceding Easter – what we call “the Triduum” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the ancient Christians instead celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ in one long drawn-out festival.  It was the peace, freedom, and togetherness of Woodstock without the electric guitars, illegal substances, and sideburns.

The liturgy that we are taking part in this evening is designed to imitate that spirit of joy and unity, to recreate the sense of “Easter” as not one day or one worship service, but as a progression – from darkness to light – from waiting to fulfillment.  When we are finally given permission to say or sing or shout, “Alleluia,” we are celebrating nothing less than our own spiritual rebirth.

It’s like one of those beauty infomercials that promises a “whole new you” if you just buy this, eat that, or use what they tell you.  The protocol is always much harder than anticipated and the end result may not what you expected.  Who knew what you were getting yourself into?  Faith is a lot like that, but with much more significant repercussions.  You never know what will happen when you are remade in the spirit of God.

Mary Magdalene and her companion discovered this when they went to Jesus’s tomb.  They were anticipating the body of their beloved friend, but instead found a supernatural being so blindingly bright that it resembled lightning and whose appearance was quickly followed by that of Jesus himself.  It was not what they imagined.  But that’s what happens with makeovers.  Sometimes, it doesn’t turn out quite the way you thought it would – maybe because you weren’t really ready for it.

Which is a surprise, given that we have been preparing for Easter for at least six weeks – and it sure seemed like long enough.  That’s what Lent is all about after all, getting ready for Easter – cleansing our hearts and preparing a place for Jesus to enter, performing dermabrasion of our souls.  We thought we were ready – but then again maybe we weren’t. Maybe we did too much planning, too much anticipating.  Maybe we didn’t leave room for ourselves to be surprised by joy.

Easter can be like that.  It is both everything we wanted and so much more than we expected.  It is too big, too bright, too intense.  That’s because we have failed to take into account what it means to have been saved by Jesus.  We have failed to understand that we have not just been saved by Jesus, but we have been saved as part of Jesus.  We have been fundamentally changed.  And we have been changed for a reason.  We have been changed so that we can change others, so that we can spread the Good News.  And for some of us, that’s not good news at all.  It’s just plain scary.  In fact, it’s a thing that, if we think about it, may make us want to turn around like little Phil and run right back into the darkness of Lent.

But it is the core of what Easter is, the reality of what it means to have faith: we have been raised with Christ so that we can do the work of Christ.  We cannot simply enjoy the bells and the music and the light of Easter’s dawn.  We have to carry that light to others.  Do not be afraid.  Go, tell our brothers and sisters what you have seen and heard: Jesus Christ is risen today, and we are reborn.  Alleluia.

Sermon for April 14, 2017, Good Friday, The Paradox of Christ (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Good Friday is where the rubber hits the road.  It’s where we separate the women from the girls – the boys from the men – the shallow-water sailors from the squids.  Because for those who believe that we have each been saved from ourselves by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, today is the hardest day of the year.

The question is why such a bad day is called “Good Friday.” The standard answer is that Good Friday is good because the death of Christ, as terrible as it was, led to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, which brought new life to those who believe.  But “Good” Friday is actually known by seemingly more appropriate names in other parts of the world, including Sorrowful or Suffering Friday, Long Friday, Holy Friday, Black Friday, Great Friday and Silent Friday. Actually, the word “Friday” never appears in the Bible. The only day called by a given name in scripture is the seventh day, which is called “the Sabbath.”  Thus, the term “Good Friday,” is a relatively late invention. Historians tell us that early Christians initially commemorated Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in one festival, called the “Pascha” (which is Greek for “Passover”). They do not suggest that Jesus’ passion took place within a specific time frame – with Jesus sharing a meal with his friends on Thursday, being arrested sometime Thursday night, tortured, tried, and crucified on Friday, and rising on Sunday morning. But we follow a specific sequence during one “holy” week so that we can experience the passion of our Lord as an escalating, emotional journey, and give ourselves a chance to symbolically walk with Jesus as he blazes the trail to our salvation.

It’s a very hard walk.  We would not be human if we were able to sit and listen to the story of Jesus’s arrest, torture, humiliation and crucifixion without feeling distressed, if not downright sick.  And, unlike other services, Good Friday is almost unrelenting.  It seems to be all about suffering.  Even our Hebrew scripture graphically describes one who suffers on God’s behalf as “despised…rejected, stricken, struck down, afflicted, oppressed” – as “cut off, crushed, and anguished.”  Imaging ourselves enduring – or participating in – such abuse is extremely difficult.  So, why do it?  Does our Christian faith require us to be masochists?

The reading we just heard from the letter to the Hebrews suggests otherwise.  Because in it we, like the earliest Christians, are given a reason for enduring the painful journey that is Good Friday.  “We do not,” the writer says, “have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are …[Like us] Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears…[Like us] he learned…through what he suffered.” By his suffering, Jesus developed a deep connection with our human nature and Good Friday is our opportunity to explore that connection and use it to develop a closer relationship him.  This is the least we can do for the one who chose to fully experience a human life simply so that he can walk with us in ours.

Good Friday provides us with a second opportunity as well – the opportunity to consider what it means to truly trust in God the way Jesus did.  On Palm Sunday we read the passion according to the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus wondered aloud if God had deserted him, but the Jesus of John’s gospel is different.  The Jesus in this gospel is a man who is assured and even at ease with his fate, a Jesus who verbally spars with Pontius Pilate without fear, who fully accepts the cup that he is to drink, and who fulfills the scriptures even as he dies.  It is a Jesus who fully trusts in the Lord – and paves the way for us to do the same.

We are asked to do this with joy.  That is perhaps the hardest lesson of Good Friday- not only to accept that it is through the blood of Jesus and the curtain of his flesh that we can approach God “with a true heart in full assurance of faith,” but also that we must do it with gratitude – that we must face the horror of his death and then thank God for it.  That is the great paradox of our faith, as well as the key to surviving this Sorrowful, Suffering, Long, Holy, Black, Great, and Silent day; without death there is no resurrection, and without death there is no eternal life.  Trust in God.  Easter is coming. AMEN.

Sermon for April 13, 2017, Maundy Thursday, Making an Example (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

Foot washing.  Embarrassing, unusual and, for most of the faithful, blessedly optional.”[1]  A fact for which my husband Gary is eternally grateful.  He is not fond of Maundy Thursday.  It’s different.  It’s kind of weird and, perhaps worst of all, it’s just so casual.  Maundy Thursday is in many ways an introvert’s nightmare.

There are, of course, different ways to approach it.  The Episcopal Church I attended as a child generally had the entire service in the sanctuary.  When it was your turn to go and get your feet washed, you had to take off your shoes and socks and put your feet on the icy marble of the floor in order to receive a cursory splash, pat, and rub from a cold-handed priest.  In recent years, however, Episcopal Churches have developed versions of the service that include sharing an authentic Jewish Seder Passover meal and/or having parishioners wash one another’s feet.  (I’m pretty sure the extroverts were involved in the planning of that one).  But no matter how you do it, there’s no way around the fact that Maundy Thursday is a much more intimate experience than your average Sunday morning worship service.  And that makes some people uncomfortable.

It certainly makes a lot of priests – who are mostly introverts themselves – pretty uncomfortable – and I don’t think it’s because most of them are unwilling to practice humility.  After all, our example is the son of God, who strips down, and kneels at the feet of the pack of homeless, rebellious social outcasts that he hangs around with to wash their dirty feet.  It’s perfectly reasonable to expect priests to set the example by washing the feet of all who ask, kneeling before any and all, humbling themselves in imitation of Christ. After all, if Jesus was willing to humble himself in this way, surely we must be too!

Except there are some problems with that interpretation.  First of all, most Christian churches have progressed in their understanding of “ministry” enough to know that priests are no better, no more dignified, and no more worthy of being held in high esteem than any other child of God.  I’m sure that for many people in the hierarchical church of my youth, it was probably a kick to have your bossy, snooty, and holier-than-thou rector down on his knees coping with your athlete’s foot, but if we learned anything about the Christian church in the 20th century, it’s that a once-yearly ritual of having your priest kneel on the floor does not demonstrate his or her humility.  A priest is not made humble by being forced to his or her knees as part of an annual liturgical “show.” A priest is made humble by recognizing the blessing that has been afforded her by being given the opportunity to lead a community of committed, faithful, Christians.  In other words, you teach me humility every day.

I am humbled by the people who prepared the dinner we are eating.  I am humbled by those who got out the dish pans and towels.  I am humbled by those who will stand in the dark trying not to bang into things as we strip the altar.  I am humbled by those who prepared tonight’s bulletin and who are helping with the music.  I am humbled by this church family – a family that imitates Christ to the best of their ability all the time, not just once a year.  What teaches us humility is appreciating one another’s gifts.  And I think that’s what Maundy Thursday is about – not humiliating ourselves before God – not even about sharing the Eucharist together.  You will notice that John’s gospel story about the Last Supper does not contain the mandate – the Maundy – to eat bread and drink wine in memory of Jesus.  Instead, it contains another even more important command: to love one another.  By this – not by whether you take communion, not by whether you attend church -but by loving one another everyone will know that you are Christian.

Jesus practiced what he preached.  Knowing that he would soon be suffering from betrayal, denial, unspeakable pain and eventual death, Jesus did what any one of us would do: he spent time with those he loved, eating, drinking, resting, and talking with his friends – his family.  The example he set for us may have been one of humility, but it was also one of love, of the willingness to do anything you can to comfort and care for those you love – and those you don’t.  Because, lest we forget, the gospel writer tells us that Judas, whom Jesus knew would betray him, was also present at that dinner. Judas was part of the family.

There is hatred in our world.  There is division.  It is our job to show and sow love.  It will probably involve humbling ourselves to do it.  But it will definitely involve making ourselves vulnerable – both by caring for others and allowing ourselves to be cared for, to have our feet washed.  Yes, it is kind of strange and pretty uncomfortable, but isn’t that what it means to be family?  Isn’t that what it means to love?

[1]William F. Brosend, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 272.

Sermon for April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday, Why not God? (preached at Grace Epsicopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

I have file folders filled with sermon ideas.  The largest of these is, by far, a folder labeled, “The Changing Church.”  Because the church has changed – not just the Episcopal Church, but the Christian faith itself.  Some people believe that we don’t actually have a lot of choice about it, because the church as we know it is shrinking.  In 2015 a Pew Research study on Religion in America suggested that worship attendance across all formalized religions was declining, with greater declines shown among our youngest adults.  For many religious leaders, then, the new mandate is “change or die.”

Of course, it’s not completely clear how we should do this.  There are definitely lots of suggestions though.  Among some of the ones you can find in my changing church folder are the “faith, hops, and love” trend, which includes the story of a new United Church of Christ plant in Chicago which recently launched its “Balm of Gilead” Session IPA, “a craft brew made especially for the church and created right in the neighborhood.”[1] Instead of opening with a big worship service, Gilead Church started with social events, including a garlic-planting party.  According to their cool, young pastor, “We want to be church for and with people who’ve been turned out, turned off, or just left cold by church.”[2]  Other U.S. churches, including Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, have added physical fitness to their roster of programs.  This is not an isolated trend.  “The American Council on Exercise named faith-based fitness one of the top trends of 2016.”[3]

Other innovators think it’s as simple as a shift in church music, suggesting that what we sing “in here” is not what is inspiring people “out there.”  Christian music, they tell us, is now part of the mainstream.  You can find it on You Tube – Kanye West’s 2016 appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” Chance the Rapper’s performance at the Grammys – not to mention Beyoncé’s costume parade of feminine images of divinity, including a golden, halo like crown that looked suspiciously like icons of the Virgin Mary.

But for many regular church-goers, these ideas are simply horrifying.  There is a reason for the old joke about how many Episcopalians it takes to change a lightbulb (None – Episcopalians don’t change)!  For those of us who were raised in the church and for whom the church has been a major support throughout our lives, the regularity of our liturgy is a consistent balm for our souls.  As a military spouse who spent 25 years moving around the country for my husband’s career, one of the first things I always did upon arriving in a new town was to look for the red, white, and blue sign saying, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”

But the Episcopal Church did not always welcome everyone.  Far from being focused on the needs of the poor and oppressed as mandated by Jesus, we repeatedly concentrated on protecting the secular power that is part of belonging to a large and influential denomination. Rather than standing against slavery or for civil rights, the Episcopal Church in the United States has almost always sided with the status quo.  We were so confident in our “righteousness,” – our “rightness” -that we thought that when the psalmist exulted that “The right hand of the Lord has triumphed,” he meant us.

We know better now.  We, like Peter, “truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  In other words, it’s not about what you say you believe, it’s how you act on your beliefs that matters.

Maybe that’s why some people don’t come to church anymore – because they don’t think Christians are practicing what they preach.  Perhaps they sense that we are sometimes more concerned with things in our earthly lives than “things that are above.”  This passage from Colossians has been much abused, often being interpreted to mean that we are to concentrate on the spiritual instead of the physical – leading some denominations to discount “earthly” matters like poverty and global warning.  But that is not what the letter writer is saying – and it is not what the Episcopal Church believes.  “Seek[ing] the things that are above…does not mean world-denying asceticism,”[4] but rather working toward a better world- seeking to bring God’s peaceful dominion to the here and now.

The evidence in my “changing church” folder suggests that this is a goal that many people are seeking, even if they don’t know it.  Recent surveys of individuals who identify themselves as having no religious identity – the so-called “nones,” indicate that they actually believe in many of the things that the Christian church teaches, including helping those in need and advocating for those on the margins of society.  I subscribe to a blog called, “The Daily OM,” which sends out emails focused on well-being.  It is decidedly not religious, but in recent months, I have read posts about “finding your calling,” dealing with pain, acknowledging your brokenness, seeking out loving community, and creating ceremonies and rituals that enhance your sense of identity.  How very strange, that this wisdom aimed at non-religious spiritual seekers is based on practices that religions have been doing for thousands of years –things we do right here at Grace, all the time.

So what happened?  How did the popular understanding of Christianity get so far off track?  I would suggest that the actions of some Christians have led people to perceive Christianity as being more about “preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity [than] tackling human needs.”[5]  But that is not who we are.  That is not what this community of faith is about.  This is an Easter church, a resurrection church. We believe in a God that cared enough about a flawed, selfish humanity to die for it.  We believe in a God of sacrifice and thoughtfulness and love.  We believe in a faith that strives for “a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion”[6]and in working to repent and correct the errors of the past church in the name of our inclusive God.  That is who we worship.  That is why we worship.  The reasons we worship haven’t changed; they are the same reasons the women at the tomb had for loving Jesus even in death.

Christianity, then, hasn’t changed.  Christianity is simply the way of Jesus, demonstrated by his life, death, and resurrection.  And it is still a good way.  It is still our way.  That’s not what needs to change.  What needs to change is the willingness of those of us who are already part of this church community to make that way known – to spread the message of the risen Christ, just as the disciples did.  Our task is to drown out the voices of those who have hijacked the word “Christian” for their own purposes and to witness to the true belief of those who follow Jesus.  And for those who don’t often attend church, give it a try – or another try, as the case may be.  Love, community, service; these are Christian values.  These are the Lord.  Go then, and do as Mary Magdalene did: Tell your brothers and sisters, “I have seen the Lord”- and the Lord is good.

Jesus lives – and so shall his church.  Alleluia. AMEN.

[1]Connie Larkman, (April 7, 2017), “Chicago new church start attracts national attention before first worship service,” http://www.ucc.org/news_chicago_new_church_start_attracts_national_attention_before_first_worship_service_04072017.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Kelsey Dallas, (October 24, 2016), “Faith and fitness: Why a workout has become a reason to go to church,” http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865665352/Faith-and-fitness-Why-a-workout-has-become-a-reason-to-go-to-church.html.

[4]Martha Moore-Keish, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Easter Day), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 368.

 

[5]Nicholas Kristof, (Sept. 3, 2016), “What religion would Jesus belong to”? https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/04/opinion/sunday/what-religion-would-jesus-belong-to.html.

[6]Ibid.

Sermon for April 9, 2017, Palm Sunday: Choosing death, choosing life (Preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Jesus knew what he was doing.  That’s what the gospel writer wants us to understand.  It’s why we hear two gospel passages on Palm Sunday.  Our first gospel tells us the story of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we are reminded of how successful his movement actually was – how his amazing words and miraculous actions were known all across Roman-occupied Judea and how people gathered to see the man they thought of as a great prophet.  When Jesus arrived in the big city, the crowd that followed him was so large that when they spread their cloaks on the road in front of him, the feet of his mount did not touch the dirty street.  He literally received the “red carpet” (or palm carpet) treatment.

  But he didn’t stay popular for long.  According to our second gospel reading, it took less than one week for Jesus to become so unpopular that he died the ignominious death of a political prisoner.  His was a quick and precipitous fall.  Which makes you wonder if someone made a mistake somewhere along the line – if Jesus got some bad publicity – or if there was some sort of a scandal that made the public turn on him.  You have to wonder how Jesus’s story took such an abrupt turn for the worse.

The short answer is that Jesus allowed it to.  In fact, Jesus planned it – planned to be put through the betrayal, abasement and misery that we now call “Holy Week.”  He chose to suffer and die.  That’s what the writer of this gospel wants us to comprehend – that everything that happened to Jesus on his journey from regard to ruin was not just passively accepted by him, but that he actively sought it.  All of it was part of the divine plan.  All of it was necessary.

The narrative we enacted today from the Gospel of Matthew is based on the report of Jesus’s crucifixion in the Gospel of Mark – but Matthew’s is much longer and far more structured.  Among other differences, Matthew’s gospel contains references to Hebrew Scriptures and character motives that never appear in Mark.  That’s because Matthew’s gospel is not a “historical” document; it is a passion play.  All of the gospel writers – and the authors of Paul’s letters before them – were no different than our own popular “nonfiction” writers of today.  They had agendas.  They were motivated by the desire both to emotionally touch people and to convince them of the truth of what they were writing. And to do it, they embellished.

That doesn’t mean that they weren’t telling the truth.  They were exaggerating to make a point – and for Matthew the point is that Jesus needed to die – and Jesus knew that.  One of the ways Matthew makes this argument is by referencing the Song of the Suffering Servant, part of which is found in the passage from Isaiah we heard today.  Scholars don’t know who the suffering servant really was, but by emphasizing Jesus’s treatment at the hands of his persecutors – the way they used stealth, bribery, trumped up charges, false witnesses, mockery, and shaming to destroy him – the author of Matthew draws a direct parallel between Jesus and the suffering servant described by the Hebrew prophets.  He also takes great pains to describe Jesus’s innocence and stoicism in the face of his impertinent questioners, as well as his willingness to stand down in the face of betrayal and denial by his closest friends.  Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was ready to die.

One of the most controversial books of the twentieth century (and films of the 1980s) is “The Last Temptation of Christ.”  Criticized and condemned by some Christians as “heretical,” the book is a meditation on that very question.  What would have happened if Jesus had opted not to die – if Jesus simply used his divine powers to step down from the cross and live his life as a “normal” man?  “The novel advances the argument that, had Jesus succumbed to…temptation, especially the opportunity to save himself from the cross, his life would have held no more significance than that of any other philosopher.”[1] Jesus would not be “the Christ” – the salvation of humanity.  That is what the letter writer means when he tells the Philippians that Jesus, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,” choosing to be starved, whipped, and beaten – to be degraded and diminished as a human being – so that he could become a worthy God.

It is not a choice that we are asked to make.  It is not a choice that we are able to make.  Beating and starving yourself is not what it means to imitate Christ.  While it is true that some people experience self-denial as a way of engaging the deep, sacrificial love of Jesus, it is not the only way – and for many of us it is simply not a realistic way.  And it is not what I expect you to do for Holy Week, because it is unnecessary.  Every one of us has already experienced humiliation, agony, and fear.  We know what is like to feel pain that we desperately want to avoid.  We already recognize the enormity of Jesus’s willingness to suffer voluntarily on our behalf.  But we can make our own choice.  We can choose to recognize God’s presence in our suffering – to listen when God speaks to us directly in response to our pain.  That is how we learn to trust God.  That is how we experience grace.

At the beginning of Lent I suggested that, rather than “giving up” something that you want to give up for your own benefit, you might think about adopting a Lenten discipline that would bring you closer to God.  During this Holy Week I invite you to consider what it is that helps you to understand Christ’s sacrifice.  To appreciate that the example that Jesus set for us by his willingness to accept his fall from superstar to scoundrel is not one of self-hatred but one of humility and trust.  Jesus humbled himself because he believed in God and put himself in God’s hands.  We can imitate him by choosing to believe that God will deliver us from our distress, our humiliations, and our fears.  Jesus chose death so that we can choose life.  Make that choice.  AMEN.

[1]Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Temptation_of_Christ.

Sermon for March 19, 2017: Leading one another (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

I have been thinking a lot about Leadership lately – particularly Christian leadership.  I can’t imagine why that’s been on my mind!  There are, of course, many books about leadership – about different styles of leadership, the differences between how men and women lead, and what people want from their leaders.  This last question is particularly important in this day and time as people in this country struggle to understand and cope with deep moral and philosophical divisions that span political, religious, and social issues.  Many people see this as a crucial period in Christian history – as an opportunity to determine who we are as a people.

So you would think that this is a time where Christian leadership is crucial – but a quick search of the internet suggests that it’s not that simple.  First of all, many Christians don’t trust their leaders.  A recent survey indicates that “just over half of Americans trust religious leaders — more so than businessmen, politicians and the media but less than scientists… and the military… [And] only 13% [of respondents] said they have “great trust” in religious leaders – [while] 14% said they had no confidence at all.”[1]

For those who do look to religious leaders for guidance, they are apt to receive mixed messages.  Among evangelical Christians, for example, a group of people which is accustomed to receiving very clear, unified directives from the pulpit, recent well-publicized divisions about political issues have sown seeds of confusion and doubt.  For Episcopalians, who belong to a tradition that, according to Robin Williams’ famous “Top Ten Reasons for Being an Episcopalian,” encourages free thinking to the extent that “No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you,” opinions among church leaders are about as individual as hairstyles.

Given this vacuum of clear counsel, it’s hard for Christian people to know where to turn and who to follow through the maze of facts, fiction, and opinion that swirl around us.  Luckily, we have a really good resource, which, it turns out, has a lot to say about many of the concerns that plague us.  Not only that, but when we go to this source for advice and counsel, we find out that we are not the first people to find ourselves in moral quick sand.  People have been fighting with God and one another since the beginning of the world- and God has been with us through it all – we know this because our holy scriptures tell us so.

The Israelites who escaped from slavery in Egypt didn’t have such clear, written directions to sustain them.  All they knew was they had asked the Lord for their freedom and he had directed them to follow Moses– only to end up starving in the wilderness.  What kind of useless leader was Moses if he couldn’t take care of them? Poor Moses – pushed into a job only to get threatened with being fired.  “Lord,” he cried, “what am I going to do with these whiny, inflexible people”?  God’s answer was simple; “I will give them water.”  Once again, as he did with Abram and David, God provided for his people when they showed no signs of deserving it – and he did it for one reason and one reason only – because God wanted them to know that he was in relationship with them.

Relationship is how God leads us – then and now.  That’s what Paul says in his letter to the Romans.  The faith that binds us to Jesus Christ is based not on what we do, but on what we believe – which is a good thing, because no one in our scriptures, – and no one in our lives –can ever behave perfectly enough to earn salvation.  “Law is unable to bring us into…relationship with God.  No matter how sincerely we try, we always fall short of fulfilling the requirements of [our laws]…the very effort to seek perfection leaves us isolated, focused on self, and often torn with feelings of guilt.  Therefore we need another way, a way that does not depend on our efforts.”[2]  That way is relationship – relationship to God and to one another.

This requires us to give up a great deal of control – a task that is nearly impossible for those of us raised in a time and place in which taking ownership of your own destiny is a primary tenet of our secular code.  It also requires us to do something that is antithetical to what many Christian denominations preach; we have to be flexible.  We cannot, as the psalmist says, “harden our hearts.”  We must stop putting God to the test.  We learn nothing and cease to grow when are “stiff-necked” and rigid.   In today’s psalm we are asked to give thanks and praise God – things we are good at and don’t mind doing.  But then we are asked something much harder.  We are asked to give up control of our lives to God.  But “for many [of us], this is next-to-impossible.  [We] have been duped so many times and by so many people that trusting and submitting are next to impossible acts.”[3]  That’s because we forget one crucial thing – we forget that all of the unreliable and unfair treatment we have received – all of the poor leadership we have experienced – all of the neglect we have suffered – was done by human beings, not God.  But it is God who is asking for our trust.  It is God who answered “yes” to the Israelites and the Romans – and answers us again and again when we ask, “Are you there God”?

It’s a perpetual human question – the same question the Samaritan woman at the well asked Jesus – whether this strange and inappropriate Jewish man might possibly be a sign of the presence of her God in her world.  Like Nicodemus before her, the Samaritan woman was questioning her faith and culture, but unlike him, she was open to Jesus’s message.  Despite being separated from Jesus by class, social status, race, nationality, religion and gender, the Samaritan woman was able to intuitively understand Jesus’s message in a way that Nicodemis, a faithful Jew of the ruling class, was not.  And, as a result, the Samaritan woman – a person of no status in Jesus’s world, was the first character in the Fourth Gospel to whom Jesus revealed himself as the great “I am” – the Saviour of the world

The gospel writer goes to great pains to tell us that this woman’s faith was not based on her behavior, but on her willingness to believe.  Simply by opening herself up to an encounter with Jesus, she was able to let go of the hardness of the laws which pushed her to the margins of society and accept the hope that Jesus offered her.  Just as Jesus accepted her, despite all of the worldly reasons that he should not have.  Their relationship was one of pure grace.

Just as ours can be.  Because “all interpersonal relationships are created and sustained through grace.  Just as we are unable to earn God’s love, so we cannot earn” each other’s.[4]  We have to be willing to accept one another as God has accepted us – and that’s hard.  Fortunately, we have examples who can lead us in our efforts to do this – and they are close by.  Look next to you in your pew – look ahead and behind – look in your kitchen when you get home and in the emails you receive and the books you read.  There are people of God all around you – and they will lead you toward a life of grace -just as you are leading them.  Christians lead not by any power or understanding of our own, but by and through God.  When we are confused and afraid, we must turn not to human wisdom, but to God’s.  And to do this we must remain open to God’s grace in all things -and in all people.  We must, like the Samaritans, be willing to “Come and see,” and, like the woman at the well, to lead others by asking them to “come and see” – to come and see the joy that can be found in Christian community – to come and see that God abides with us always – to come and see the amazing grace that is being in relationship with one another and with Jesus Christ our Lord.  AMEN.

[1]Los Angeles Times, (November 1, 2016),In Theory: Survey raises question of trust in religious leaders,” http://www.latimes.com/socal/burbank-leader/opinion/tn-blr-me-intheory-20161101-story.html.

[2]Ward B. Ewing, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 86.

 

[3]David M. Burns, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 83.

 

[4]Ward B. Ewing, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 88.

 

Sermon for April 2, 2017: The nature of the flesh (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

You’ve got to give it to the church. The liturgical calendar is a work of art.

Because the church year is very complex. If you don’t believe me, try to explain it to a

newcomer (or a teen in a confirmation class). We have our own seasons (which are

different than the seasons of the year that everyone else knows about), feast days (on

which we often actually fast), and days to honor saints that most people have never heard

of (Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, anyone?) Not to mention the fact that said

calendar is color-coded, so that we can spend lots of money on serious liturgical concerns

like making sure that the altar hangings match the presider’s chasuble. Still, you’ve got

to love a calendar that asks you to observe a 40-day period of meditation and preparation

in which we refrain from most of the things that make church (and life) fun, but then puts

in little breaks to help you get through it. For example, last week we enjoyed “Laudate,”

or “refreshment” Sunday, which basically just confused the Altar Guild, who tried

desperately to figure out why the church calendar was pink.

Which brings us to today, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, known in my house as

“Zombie Sunday.” Our first lesson tracks Ezekiel as he carefully following the directions

of the Lord to prophesy to a collection of bones in order to make them come alive, after

which we hear St. Paul admonishing the Romans that setting our minds on “flesh is

death,” and, for the finale, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, complete with Lazarus

wandering out of the tomb, smelling like rotten garbage and trailing dirty bandages

behind him. The mummy lives!

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The question is, what does all of this great night of the living dead action have to

do with becoming closer to God? The answer is, “resurrection.” Because the true art of

the Christian liturgical calendar is that it moves us through the cycles of our own lives

onto a path toward inclusion in the resurrection of Christ and oneness with God. It also

reminds us that resurrection is a process –a process that requires faith and patience.

Ezekiel demonstrated such faith. According to today’s Hebrew scripture, he was

bodily lifted by the hand of God and put down in the middle of a boneyard. That’s

frightening enough – but then immediately the Lord asked him to “Prophesy” to the

bones around him in order to make them live- a feat he could only accomplish by

allowing himself to become the vessel of the mighty power of God. By obeying the

commands of God, Ezekiel was able to resurrect his dead ancestors and to bring them up

from the depths of the grave to their proper place in the sight of God. This scripture is

incredibly important from a theological point of view, because it is the first indication in

the Hebrew Bible of the possibility of life after death and, for Jews and Christians alike,

an extraordinary sign of the power of God.

It is also a sign of the way God considers the body – our flesh. Most early

Christians believed that resurrection required a body. “Without flesh,” [they believed],

there is no person to overcome death, because a human being, in this life and the next is

an intermingled soul and body… [so] for the miracle of resurrection to occur, there must

be a corpse.” 1 But here we are told that even in a valley filled with bones that have no

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flesh – that have been separated and broken- that have dried up – God can bring life. God

can bring life to arid bones and to parched spirits, to spirits that are mired in concerns of

the flesh, that long to drink from the waters of forgiveness, that thirst for the fountain of

new life. That desperate thirst – that deep well of despair – is what happens when we

become too focused on the flesh. That is what the author of the letter to the Romans

means when he says, “to set the mind on the flesh is death.” The evangelist did not, as

has often been argued, say that all material things are evil, that our bodies are innately

bad. He knew all too well that we are human beings, made of flesh and subject to it; he

knew that we have fleshly desires. He knew what it was to crave chocolate, Diet Cokes

and pancakes – to experience hunger and fear and cold – and he never said that we should

be able to resist all these physical desires or ignore our material needs. He said that

things of the flesh are natural, but worshipping them is not. When we choose to put our

material needs before God, we are misusing our flesh. We are “putting [ourselves] rather

than God in the center of the universe.” 2 “Christian life is a material life…. [What we

need to worry about is not ignoring our bodies so we can practice our faith, but how we

use our bodies]…how we use our physical energies and our material resources, how we

care for our neighbors and for our planet.” 3 It is about how we conduct ourselves when

1 Kelton Cobb, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fifth Sunday in Lent),

David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 124.

2 Kenneth L. Clark, Sr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fifth Sunday in

Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 138.

3 Amy Plantinga Pau, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fifth Sunday in

Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 134.

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we are in the depths of our lives. It is not about whether or not we can, but how we wait

for resurrection – how we wait for the Lord.

Because we do wait. God does not always answer our prayers immediately – or in

the way we think God should. Jesus made the disciples wait to go to their friend Lazarus,

even though he knew that during that delay, Lazarus would die. Jesus did not answer the

prayers of Martha and Mary as they would have liked, by saving their brother. Instead he

waited. He allowed them to suffer – to mourn and to weep – and to fear. He allowed

them to consider and question and worry and wonder until they knew, deeply in their

hearts, that any life they had -and any rebirth their brother could have – would come

through Jesus Christ their Lord. And their faith was rewarded.

It is hard to wait for the Lord, much less with such faith and patience. In 1994,

after six years of marriage, my husband and I decided to start a family. The fact that our

first attempts did not work did not initially bother us. After all, we had married young.

We had time. But two years later our attitude had changed. We had begun to be afraid

that we could not conceive a child. Over the course of the next three years, we attempted

all of the homeopathic, medical and even superstitious treatments that we could try – all

without result. And during that time I tried to do things to bolster my chances that God

would answer my prayers; I read the Bible stories of Sarah, Elizabeth, and Miriam. I

proclaimed my belief in God’s faithfulness. And I prayed. I prayed loud and I prayed

long. And I wept, just as my sisters Martha and Mary wept for their brother Lazarus.

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Just as so many others have wept in pain, in fear, and in desperation. Just as we have all

wept while waiting for the Lord.

God knows our pain. We know this. We know this because in what is perhaps the

shortest and most significant verse in the Bible we hear the words that can, if we allow

them, provide us with all the comfort we need to wait patiently and with faith. We hear

that Jesus also wept. He wept because, like us, he was disturbed and distraught by the

sorrow of his friends and by the finality of death. But unlike us, Jesus had the power to

overturn it. Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus from the power of the greatest and

deepest darkness of all – the power of death. Jesus never doubted the power of God.

Jesus knew that Lazarus could and would be raised. We know this because he thanked

God for his miracle in advance. Jesus believed that God would provide for him and God

did.

That is what we must do. We must believe. As the calendar of our church and our

lives marches on toward the day when we can again celebrate the resurrection of our Lord

Jesus Christ we must wait – but not quietly, not stoically, and not passively. We must

wait as Mary and Martha did – as Jesus did – actively, hopefully, and gratefully. God has

heard our cry – and God has already given us what we need – but we must be ready to

receive it. That is what Lent is about – making ourselves ready to receive the miracles

that God is so very eager to provide for us. As God did for me. “Wait for the Lord, for

with the Lord there is mercy. With him there is plenteous redemption.” With him there

is resurrection. AMEN.