Daily Archives: April 6, 2017

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.