Monthly Archives: August 2017

Sermon for August 27, 2017: God to the people: “Listen to Me” (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen here:

The other day I approached someone to ask a question. She nodded and smiled at me, but didn’t answer.  So I asked again and this time she made some kind of hand gesture that I didn’t understand. So I asked again louder – and got the same response. I started thinking that maybe we had a language barrier (or maybe that this person was operating in some alternate reality). Then I noticed the ear buds.  She hadn’t heard a word I said.  I didn’t want to seem pushy by asking her to take them out, so I raised my voice and asked my question again – and again.  Finally, she removed one ear bud in time to hear me yell, at top volume, “I think it’s supposed to get hot out tomorrow.”  She reared back, saying, “You don’t have to YELL at me – and I’m not having anything to do with that political stuff this weekend.”

It took me a while to get that she thought by saying “hot,” I was talking about the planned protests in the Bay Area, when I was actually just talking about the weather.  I thought about explaining, but I couldn’t think of a way that I could do it without offending her – and really the conversation wouldn’t have gone well anyway, because what I really wanted to tell her was that she was rude to be wearing those stupid ear buds!  In other words, I wanted to tell her that I was right and she was wrong.

I think this country is having a metaphorical epidemic of this type of non-conversation right now.  Many of us have our spiritual earbuds so firmly in place that we can’t hear what other people are saying – and we don’t want to take them out – we don’t want to hear what’s going on outside of our own safe belief system- so when someone makes us take them out –either through persistence or brute force – we get angry at them for yelling at us – for being rude. Trying to communicate this way is very frustrating.  Ask God.

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord,” God says to the Israelites through Isaiah. “Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me.” God tells us that he has the answers we seek and yet we still don’t listen.  Maybe that’s because we are distracted by what’s going on in our own heads. “How often in life does a situation become so all-consuming that its pervasiveness literally drowns out all other sounds and voices around us … [how often are the] circumstances in life…so traumatic that they can numb and render us deaf to all but the sound of our own pain.”[1] How often do we figure that we’ve got enough going on without taking our ear buds out and listening to the chaos around us?

It’s understandable, but not acceptable – because our entire faith is based on the concept of relationship – relationship with God and with one another.  We hear this in today’s psalm, which is an example of the doctrine of God’s providence – the idea that God is active and interested in the world. Ours is a God who cares – and who cares specifically for the lowly. “God values those who seem to have nothing, and chastens those who have much.”[2] And God asks us to do the same- to care for the world and its people – all its people.

According to St. Paul, this requires sacrifice – not symbolic, but real sacrifice. Paul understood sacrifice. I believe that Paul’s letters are often misinterpreted because we take them out of context, seeing them from the perspective of people who live in a safe, comfortable world.  But Paul didn’t live like us. Paul was an itinerant preacher, witnessing in foreign and often dangerous places and trying to draw together people with significant differences.  His letters were written to “communities seeking understanding in relation to their lives,” people who were hunted and tortured for being different. And here’s what he told them: “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  In other words, you are not to be part of the status quo.  You are not to continue to live with the wrongs around you.  You are not to contribute to the unequal distribution of wealth.  You are not to allow people to be marginalized for who they are.  You are not allowed to keep your protective ear buds in.

You are to sacrifice for what is right.  Paul’s question to his people – and to us – is not, “How will you benefit from being a Christian,” but rather, “What are you willing to give up to be a Christian”?  I occasionally joke that I am willing to put myself in dangerous situations because my only hope for Christian renown is to be a martyr – since I have no chance of being a saint.  But as much as I think I would give up my life for my faith, I recognize that in reality, I haven’t really given up anything– not my comfortable income, not my home, not my family, not my job, and certainly not my freedom or well-being. And, in many ways, neither has God’s church – which, perhaps, explains why people aren’t coming so much anymore.

The passage we heard today from Matthew’s gospel is famous because it serves as the basis for the primacy of the Pope in Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.  According to Catholic doctrine, when Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” he was putting Peter and his descendants in charge for perpetuity.  But other scholars have argued that Jesus wasn’t referring to the person of Peter, but the testimony of Peter.  This means the basis of our faith is built not a person, but on belief – belief in Jesus, belief in the faithful actions of God in the lives of his people throughout history, and belief in his continuing inspirational presence through the Holy Spirit.

We sure need this inspiration- especially now – because “if churches are not inspired by the Spirit, they will eventually expire.”[3] The church will not grow – it cannot grow – if we don’t start living as if the kingdom of God is already here.  It’s a huge and potentially overwhelming responsibility, but it’s what we have to do.  Luckily, no one of us has to do it alone.  “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function” but between all of us, we have absolutely everything we need.  We just need to work togetherSt. Paul calls us to “move beyond our particular political and denominational factions… and our respective ethnic loyalties by speaking truthfully to one another in and through our differences about the impact of Jesus Christ in our own lives.”[4] Because when we don’t, we not only miss the opportunity to share God’s grace and glory with others, but we miss the chance to become closer to God in our own lives.

Because God is always present with us.  Do you really think that Jesus left the church in the hands of a bunch of ignorant, frequently-wrong, often-hot-headed, disciples without guidance? Think about what we know about Peter.  Does it make sense for Jesus to leave him in charge without help? Of course not.  Jesus did not leave us alone.  We always have the Holy Spirit among us – to help us whenever we don’t know what to do – to share in our sorrows and struggles – to hear our prayers, and to answer them.  But we have to accept that help. We have to avoid the tendency to focus on the noise of the world and the fear inside of us and listen instead for the voice of God – for the voice of reason – for the voice of community – for the voice of peace.  We know what to do. “Listen to me, you that seek the Lord.”  Take out your earbuds; God is waiting.  AMEN.

[1]Ronald E. Peters, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 362.

[2]Elizabeth P. Randall, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 371.

[3]Eleazar S. Fernandez, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 378.

[4]Jin S. Kim, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 384.

 

Sermon for August 20, 2017: God is bigger than hate (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

It is tempting when you are on vacation to ignore the news, but it can be equally hard to stay out of touch when watching people near and far struggle with issues that are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Such was the balancing act of my vacation last week, which happened to take place during a period of significant national upheaval as well as the final illness of a beloved parishioner.

My ambivalence about “relaxing” when so much was going on clearly bled into my “recreational” entertainment when I found myself watching the recent television production of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a “dystopian” story about an alternative or future reality in which things have gone horribly wrong.  When I was in school in the 80s and 90s, “The Handmaid’s Tale” was the least well-known of only a trio of books that represented the dystopian genre – and school was one of the only places you would find these books.  No one read them for “pleasure” – they were too depressing and frightening – and they had nothing to say to people whose lives were filled with the pleasures that come with a booming economy, boundless faith in a sunny future and, above all, a belief that our country represented the moral high ground.  Americans in the decades after World War II saw ourselves as a nation of scrappy go-getters who, like a collective beacon, shone light into the darkness of the world. We could not imagine ourselves ending up in a dystopian future that was so wrong when we were clearly so right.

One need only look at the best seller list to see how much things have changed.  Not only has there been a recent proliferation of new dystopian books and films, but “classics” like “The Handmaid’s Tale” have been experiencing a major resurgence in popularity.  Scenarios that once seemed ridiculously pessimistic and unnecessarily depressing now seem disturbingly possible – even familiar. And, perhaps more upsetting, it has become harder and harder to place ourselves in the role of the come-from-behind heroes of these novels –little people fighting against the seemingly unbeatable, monolithic powers-that-be with nothing but a suitcase full of optimism and a willingness to do what is right no matter what the cost.

Not that people aren’t trying.  We are living in a time in which it is difficult to know what to believe – when even basic history is constantly being rewritten to fit a narrative that justifies the opinion that specific races and cultures represent the will and nature of God – that being born into a certain group allows people to abscond from the responsibility to behave with civility, honesty, and justice – that “membership has its privileges.”

It’s a lie.  There is nothing in our scriptures that justifies depriving others of the love of God.  And there is nothing in our scriptures that tells us that any particular nation or culture has an exclusive right to the love of God. In fact, scripture shows us that God has long told his people exactly the opposite.

Today’s Hebrew Scripture was written during the time when the Israelites had returned from exile, filled with notions of getting revenge on the people who stayed behind.  But God tells them that instead they must focus on their own salvation – not by separating themselves from the community they find themselves in, but by inviting the strangers among them to share in God’s deliverance. They are not to identify themselves based on their status as Israelites, as God’s chosen.  Instead, they are to prove themselves to be God’s people through their actions. 

This is not something people who think they are already in the “in group” want to hear. We want God to belong to us – and to us alone. We don’t want to have to work to demonstrate the favor of God – especially if it means laboring with people who are different than we are. And we especially don’t want to humble ourselves in the sight of God and other human beings. Even thinking about it terrifies us. So we do what all animals do when they’re afraid: we hide. We hunker down in psychological caves of our own making – in dark, limited places where everyone thinks like we do and nothing different or challenging can get in. We seek the comfort of the familiar and put our trust only in what we know and can control. And in doing so, we make the world infinitely smaller. We make God smaller. And that is nothing less than heresy.

But it is a common heresy – one that Jesus himself briefly succumbs to in today’s gospel. “[This story] raises deep questions about prejudice, divine election, and the limits of God’s mercy.”[1] Exhausted by sparring with the Jewish leadership, disheartened by repeated rejections from his own people, Jesus is suddenly confronted by someone who is so completely foreign, so utterly incomprehensible, and so absolutely wrong, that he doesn’t even acknowledge her. She is not only a member of a national/cultural group that is despised by the Jews; she is also a member of a different, blasphemous religion. And she’s a woman – a woman who violates cultural norms by even speaking to Jesus- and whose daughter is possessed by demons. Why should Jesus even bother with her?  He owes her nothing and she can be nothing but trouble to him. His own calling is hard enough.  And he basically tells her so – in language so harsh that it’s hard to believe that it comes out of Jesus’s mouth. But she is undeterred. She refuses to allow him to ignore her.  She demands to be let in – not because she wants to hurt him – not because she is to be feared – but because she wants to belong – and in doing so she reminds Jesus himself that when it comes to God, there is no such thing as “limited resources.” She reminds him that God is more than big enough for everyone.

Of course Jesus knows this, but perhaps in this moment even getting the Israelites in line seems like too much. Perhaps he doesn’t want to think about dealing with people that are different. Perhaps he really needs a reminder. Or maybe he’s just exaggerating to make a point.  We don’t know. What we do know is that the Canaanite woman is not alone in her sin. We know, as Paul did, that all human beings are disobedient, all human beings are in need of salvation, and all human beings require God’s mercy.  And God willingly and generously gives it – but only if we ask – only if we recognize with humility that every one of us is in desperate need of God’s mercy – and one another.

This gospel reminds us that our survival depends not on our ability to keep out the “wrong people,” but rather that “No one [can be] left out… [that] everyone [must be] included”[2] –that it is through inclusion that the nations will be saved – that the nations are already saved. Paul reminds us that it was the outsiders and heretics who gave Christianity its initial life. Giving in to the evils of racism, privilege, and hatred of those who are different in our own time can only cause its death.

I believe the reason that dystopian books and films are so popular right now is because the darkness they represent – the fear they portray – is familiar to us.  These stories suggest what might happen if human beings act on their worst impulses – and they resonate with us because we see that happening in our lives right now. “Sadly, evil and wrong have… [often]…wrapped themselves in the clothing of faith. The perversity of white supremacists appropriating the cross, a symbol of a very real instrument of torture and death used against a member of a subjugated people, a person of color, is beyond ironic — it is deeply distorted.”[3]  We, as Christians, have the responsibility to correct that distortion by acting on the true principles demonstrated by Jesus the Christ – by welcoming the foreigner, by sharing God’s infinite glory, and by celebrating the wideness of God’s mercy and the immensity of his grace. Christianity is not a shield.  It is not a bunker to hide behind.  It is not a fortress of right.  It is an opportunity – an opportunity to experience and share the vastness of God’s love and mercy – an opportunity to heal the world with our faith.  AMEN.

[1]Iwan Russell-Jones, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 360.

 

[2]Leanne Van Dyk, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 348.

[3]The Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, (August 15, 2017), “California: Bishop denounces Charlottesville violence, calls for non-violent resistance to hate groups,” Episcopal News Service, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2017/08/15/california-bishop-denounces-charlottesville-violence-calls-for-non-violent-resistance-to-hate-groups/