All posts by drdebowhite@gmail.com

Sermon for October 29, 2017 (Back to basics) (Preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

When I looked at the Revised Common Lectionary for this week, I thought about not preaching at all.  That’s because today’s lectionary message is simple enough for children to understand, challenging enough to keep us busy for the rest of our lives, and clear enough to settle most religious debates. It can answer almost every theological question you can think of – from the reasoning behind having women priests to the question of the place of social justice issues in the church. It is, in my mind, the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It is so basic that it doesn’t seem to require interpretation at all – but perhaps some commentary on it is merited, if only because it is so important.

Today’s Hebrew scripture is from Leviticus – and it is the only passage from Leviticus that appears in the Revised Common Lectionary. That is interesting, because Leviticus is one of the books of the Bible that is frequently used in “proof texting.” “Proof texting is “the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing.”[1] That’s because Leviticus contains lots of rules, so if you’re looking for a bible passage that says we should behave in a certain way, Leviticus is a good place to look. Leviticus is one of the five books of Moses – the Torah- and contains the Jewish holiness code, from which today’s reading is taken.[2]  There are six hundred and thirteen commands in the Torah – and over three hundred of them are prohibitions – and this passage is no exception. In just six verses, there are six “you shall nots.”

The focus of the reading, however, is on two “shalls” in the reading: “You shall be holy” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two statements bracket the reading and form the core around which the rest of it depends. They would not have been unfamiliar to Leviticus’s readers.  “Old Testament law shares many concerns with other ancient Near Eastern law codes, of which the most famous is the much earlier Code of Hammurabi.”[3] These codes concerned themselves with how people should live together, and this passage “[explicitly links] holy living with justice making…[This] call to holiness, here defined primarily not in relation to cult or temple but rather to life in community, is an invitation to inclusive wholeness.”[4]

Paul was all about community wholeness.  The reading we heard today is from Thessalonians, which is thought to be Paul’s first letter, and thus the oldest existing book of the New Testament.  In it, Paul speaks of his failed evangelism at Philippi, “distinguishing between apostles, who preach the gospel out of love for others, and traveling philosophers of his day who preached to manipulate for personal gain.”[5] It is clear which kind of evangelist he believes he is and which type he wants his followers to be. Paul tells us that if we choose to love others even when they are cruel to us, we will find our own happiness.

It is the same choice conveyed by the psalmist in the very first psalm in the biblical canon. We can choose to walk in the counsel of the wicked or to delight in the law of the Lord. “The psalmist does not assume that his listeners are inclined toward making the right choice. In fact, the structure of the psalm suggests a keen awareness of the human proclivity to make the wrong one.”[6] He knows what we’re up against when we try to do the right thing. He knows that it is hard to put aside our own self-interest and fears. “It sounds good, but there are [just] so many traps and opportunities to forget or to totally fail at being a loving or good person.”[7] How do we do it?

We do it by relying on God – and on our Christian community. “We forget that we cannot live this life by ourselves.  We cannot be the people God desires us to be and that we desire to be without complete surrender and dependence on God. It is not right behavior and action that win us God’s favor. Rather, the realization of our need for God in our lives softens the places that wickedness comes from and empowers us to be a loving people.”[8]

Jesus recognized that need – the need to put God at the center of our lives. When the Pharisees asked him which of the six hundred odd commands of their Torah is the most important, he didn’t even blink. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy and the “Shema,” the prayer that observant Jews say every day. He followed this with a second quote, this one from the Leviticus passage we read, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This was the first time that these two ancient scripture passages had been cited together. “In quoting the Shema, Jesus points out that the aim of the law is to orient one’s entire life toward God.  However, one cannot love God without loving what God loves! One cannot love God and oppress or exclude any of God’s creatures – even one’s enemies. While the scribes and Pharisees used the law to place severe limits on those whom they were obliged to recognize as their neighbors, Jesus joins these texts in order to smash all the limits and boundaries of neighborliness…To love God is to love in the [same] way that God loves – indiscriminately. To love God is to love what God loves- everything.”[9]

This is Jesus’s answer to the Pharisee’s pop quiz: that all of the laws they have so dutifully memorized and so firmly enforced are only relevant insofar as that through them we can demonstrate our love for God and one another. “Love is [the] test of one’s true understanding of the law…Jesus’s pithy summary of the law is strikingly similar to the answer that Rabbi Hillel gave to the same question. When a man challenged Hillel to teach him the whole of Torah while standing on one foot… [he responded], ‘That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.’”[10]

One could say the same about the Bible. It is, more than anything, a treatise on how to be in relationship – with God and with one another, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is proof that we can live as God wills, by measuring our own words and actions against the standard of whether they are in the service of loving God and our neighbor. It is the core of our identity as people of God.

Which is why Jesus is sure to identify himself as the true prophet of God, the one who alone fulfills the law and the prophets. It is through Jesus that we come to know God. “God’s purposes are larger than any single people. The Messiah’s mission transcends the salvation of any particular group.  Those who love God must love all God’s creatures, even at great cost to themselves and their own privileges. Those who follow the Messiah must subordinate all particular interests, identities, and purposes to the Savior’s universal mission. Jesus refuses to identify love of God with rigid religious requirements or to identify faithfulness to himself with loyalty to a particular community of people.”[11] God is for all people and for all time. Times change. Contexts change – but God does not- and God’s message is simple: Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world. AMEN.

 

[1]Theopedia, https://www.theopedia.com/proof-texting.

[2]Marvin M. Ellison, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 198.

[3]Christopher B. Hays, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 199.

[4]Marvin M. Ellison, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 198.

[5]Susan Marie Smith, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 207

[6]Leah McKell Horton, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 202.

[7]Carolyn R. Waters,  (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 204.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Tim Beach-Verhey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 214.

[10]Patrick Gray, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 2158.

[11]Tim Beach-Verhey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 216.

Sermon for October 15, 2017: God’s presence and ours (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen here:

It has been a hard week for many people in our area. Lately, while editing our on-line newsletter “Grace Notes,” I have repeatedly found myself having to send out information about new natural disasters and ways that we can help their victims.  Floods, earthquakes and now fires have caused astounding damage in recent weeks, adding to the existing conditions of war, famine, and disease that have long been part of our daily news.  It’s enough to make a person lose hope.

Thank God for today’s readings, which remind us that “no matter how desperate the circumstance one starts from, a powerful vision for a better tomorrow can take hold.”[1] The key, we learn, is to remember who we are and, more importantly, who we worship. Today’s Hebrew scripture is a hymn of glorious promise, following a summary of terrifying destruction. It is a description of God’s power. It is an account of God’s faithfulness. It is the story of God’s relationship to his creation. In the writings of the prophet Isaiah God is capricious, often changing her attitude toward human beings in the blink of an eye. According to scholars,[2] Isaiah, which was written by at least two authors in different time periods, was pulled together by one editor, who lived long after the events described in it.  This particular passage is written with the voice of the Israelite refugees, who were soon to return from their exile. Isaiah’s editor describes their God as one who punished them harshly for their disobedience, but also the God whom they believe will restore them.  Theirs is a God of reversals, and in order to follow him, hope is essential.

Luckily, there is good reason to hope- because their God – and ours- is also a God who repeatedly offers her creation the opportunity for salvation.  In recent weeks I have heard more and more people discussing the idea that we are currently living in “the end times.” Such apocalyptic notions are based on biblical passages that predict a series of natural disasters that will occur prior to the end of the world – disasters like the ones we have been experiencing. The theological term for the study of the end of time is called “eschatology,” from the Greek for “the study of the last.” As Christians, we profess to believe in the salvation of the world through Jesus the Christ, suggesting that belief in Christ is all that is necessary to be what some Christians call “raptured” during the “apocalypse.”

Today’s readings, however, tell us that there is more to it. We know from scripture that God certainly wants to save his creation – all of his creation -and that God has tried many times to do so.  But we also know that humans have repeatedly rejected God’s efforts to warn us, to help us, and to save us. That is what Jesus reminds his followers in today’s gospel reading. In the story he tells, a king gives a wedding banquet, but when he sends for the people he invited, they refuse to come.  So the king invites different people to the wedding feast instead.  This story initially seems very similar to the one we heard last week. In that story the tenants of a vineyard refused to acknowledge its owner, killing his slaves and then his son, leading the owner to declare that the vineyard will be given -like the banquet – to others.  In today’s parable, however, Jesus adds something new. He says that when the “others” who were invited arrived, some were not dressed properly, so they were thrown out “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This has always seemed really unfair to me.  After all, those people were invited at the last minute.  They were unprepared.  Why should they be punished for a small thing like wearing the wrong thing? But it wasn’t a small thing; they were punished not because they didn’t obey a small etiquette rule.  They were punished for not appreciating the invitation they had received, and not committing themselves to it with their whole hearts. They were punished for being unable to answer for their unwillingness to fully accept the invitation that they have been given – for failing to, as Paul puts it, “be clothed with Christ.” You see, God’s invitation to the feast is open to everyone, but not everyone accepts it, and not everyone is willing to promise to follow all of its obligations. Once again, Jesus tells his people that simply saying we believe in his teachings and that he is the path to salvation is not enough. We have to demonstrate our belief by our actions, by “putting on” the way of Christ.

And that way is one of welcome and hospitality and hope. It is one in which we are both fed by and feed others on behalf of the God who loves us.  It is no accident that several of today’s readings focus on food; Isaiah’s eschatological vision describes the great feast “of rich food…of well-aged wines” that will be served to all of God’s people; in our gospel, God’s grace is described as a great wedding banquet, and in one of the most-beloved psalms in our tradition, we are told that God spreads a table before us, even in the presence of those who trouble us. Scripture is clear. God feeds his people – and not in a minimal way, but abundantly. “God’s hospitality does not passively wait for a guest to arrive.”[3]  God pursues us with the food of grace. Not only that, but God provides us with perfect food. “God the host is not only the one who provides the food and drink, but Christ himself is the food and drink. Because Christ comes from the Father and becomes the provision, he not only sustains life; he also initiates a unique form of life: eternal life.”[4]

Yesterday, Grace hosted a funeral reception. Although the family chose to have the individual’s service at a funeral home, I believe that having his wake in our Parish Hall was a reminder of the connection of all human beings to our creator. “A funeral wake celebrates the life of the deceased, their hope-filled salvation, and a continued legacy carried forth by friends and family.…[Such] meals remind us of the past, bring to light a reason to celebrate the moment, and give us a transforming hope for the future.”[5] These occasions are a gift, because they are reminders of God’s constant presence among us.

We need such reminders, because we are prone to too easily forget that God is always with us- until the end of time and in all circumstances. Paul knew this. He knew that it was too easy for his friends in Philippi to forget all they had learned during his time with them.  The same is true for us.  In our church calendar we are currently in a long stretch of what we call “Ordinary Time,” or “green time.” The shiny joys of Easter and Pentecost are behind us and the peace of Advent and Christmas are still to come. During such “down times,” it is easy to lose track of who we are, but Paul has some counsel for us. “Keep on with your everyday works of generosity and prayerful living,” he tells us, “Bake a loaf of bread for the woman down the street whose husband just died…Take a bag of groceries to the food closet. Visit a church member in the nursing home…Scripture and gospel acts of caring teach [us] about the persistent, every day, powerful, promises of God’s grace in Christ,”[6] even during times of difficulty and pain. It is during those times that it is most important to continue to follow the path of Jesus, because doing so reminds us not to fear the terrors of nature or human beings. It reminds us that God is always present in our lives whenever we choose to be present to God. It reminds us to hope.  AMEN.

[1]James Burns, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 151.

[2]Jay Emerson Johnson, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 146.

[3]Stephanie Mar Smith, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 154.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Jeffry W. Carter, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 150.

[6]Jill Y. Crainshaw, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 162.

Sermon for October 8, 2017: You will know them by their fruits (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez)

You may listen here:

I like to refer to today as “Vineyard Sunday,” because our readings all seem to be focused on grapes.  This is no surprise, as grapes were both common and extremely important for thousands of years in Middle Eastern culture. “No plant is mentioned more times in the Bible than the grape and its products…The grape vine is grown solely for its fruit; there is no other use for the vine in the Scriptures. Even the wood of the vine is worthless…Pruning is essential if the vine is to produce grapes. This is referred to in several Scriptures including Isaiah…and John…The Greek word for prune and cleanse is the same… [It is crucial to protect the plants] when the vines are flowering…If left unprotected, they are subject to being ravaged by animals.”

Most people in the times of both Isaiah (about the eighth century BCE) and Jesus would have been familiar with these facts about grape growing and been able to understand their use as metaphors for God’s relationship to humanity.

In our Hebrew scripture, God, speaking through Isaiah, compares Creation to a vineyard, and human beings to the fruit it yields. This reading is actually a song – a love song, in which God expresses both his love of and disappointment in humanity.  “My beloved had a vineyard,” a fertile place filled with choice vines and all that was needed to yield healthy grapes that could be made into excellent wine – perhaps something like what we call “The Garden of Eden.” God did everything right to make this vineyard thrive, but somehow his children did not turn out the way he expected.  “A famous wordplay in [Hebrew, the language Isaiah was written in] drives the point home: God expected justice [in Hebrew, ‘mishpat] but saw bloodshed (mispakh); God sought for righteousness (tsedaqah) but instead heard a cry (tse’aqah), the cry [of the oppressed].” We can imagine God feeling much as we do when we suffer loss.  She has put so much time and work and resources into this project that means so much to her, only to have it turn out wrong.  “God’s love, care, and protection [came with the expectation that they would bring] justice and righteousness,” but instead God’s people have engaged in hatred and violence.  They have become more focused on being right than on being kind.  They have forgotten God’s desire for them to love one another.

According to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he, living seven hundred years later, has done the same.   This portion of Paul’s letter is both a confession and an invitation. In it, he shares with his people his own transformation from being an oppressor of the Jesus Movement to its chief evangelist. Paul makes it clear that he has not just re-evaluated his priorities or changed the way he looks at things; his entire identity as a person has shifted – and he is happier and healthier because of it. “Because of Christ, Paul’s perspective changed entirely. The very things that were once central to Paul- his God-given religious identity…plus a healthy dose of pride in his own achievement…-he could now discard…Paul renounces the past as the defining marker of who he is.” He has come to value relationship over rules and being known instead of knowing things.  Paul has experienced Jesus the Christ, and his relationship with Christ is now the heart and soul of his faith.

He is only able to say this because of God’s persistence. Way back in the time of Isaiah, God recognized his creation for what it had become, and what it would continue to be: prone to disobedience, selfishness, and willfulness. In other words, wild grapes. Despite this, God continued to answer the cries of his people for help with their unruly nature- over and over. “Again and again,” we say in our Eucharistic prayer, “you called us to return. Through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous Law. And in the fullness of time you sent your only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace.”  We are saved because God kept trying to be in relationship with us.  We are saved because God sent Jesus to live among us and heal us.

Of course, Jesus did not find the world in a much better state than had Isaiah before him. The passage from Matthew’s gospel that we heard today is the second of three parables that Jesus told against the ruling religious leaders, whom he flatly condemned. Today’s story occurs near the end of his ministry. He has traveled the lands of the Jews, listening to their problems, healing the sick, and even raising from the dead.  He has returned to Jerusalem in triumph to cries of “Hosanna” – “Save us” – Lord.  And what he finds in the great city of his ancestors appalls him: people paying for prayer; violent behavior at all levels of society; pride and hypocrisy even among religious leaders. He sees wild grapes – and it makes him angry – so angry that he vandalizes the temple of his ancestors, berates the moneychangers who serve there, and curses a fig tree simply for its “refusal” to offer fruit. Then, he stands in the temple itself and preaches this parable, thereby launching a direct attack on the rich and powerful, which begins the process that ultimately leads to his death.

In Jesus’s story, the landowner, like God, has planted a vineyard with all of the right ingredients, but when he gives its inhabitants free will, they abuse it – and when God returns to see what his work has produced, he finds the vineyard ruled by greedy, cruel, and callous stewards. Fortunately, this is the same God who sings love songs to his creation, a God who does not give up, so she tries again to turn her people to the right. But when God again offers a share of his kingdom, his beloved respond with more anger and more aggression.  Finally, when the great Creator sends love itself in human form to face this tragedy, they kill him. “What,” Jesus asks, “should God do to these people”?  And the disciples answer just like the human beings they are: “Kill them.”

But here is the amazing thing. God does not say that he will punish the wicked. He does not offer the justice that the disciples think is deserved. Instead, God says she will give humanity the justice they have asked for, the justice that answers their plea to, “Restore us, O God!” Instead of punitive justice, God decrees restorative justice. The difference is profound. “Punitive justice asks only what rule or law was broken, who did it, and how they should be punished. It responds to the original harm with more harm. Restorative justice asks…what are the needs and obligations of all affected.” Punitive justice repeats the cycle of violence and hate; restorative justice brings things back in sync with God’s desire for us to practice justice and righteousness, to love one another, and to be fruitful.

We know how to do these things because Jesus has shown us. It is not always the easiest path, as Paul knew, but it is the true way. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call in Christ Jesus.” Unlike grapes, our potential for goodness and fruitfulness cannot always be perceived with human eyes, but God sees it.  God knows our desire to do what is right, to practice obedience, and to be good. But how do we know when we are on the right track? In the midst of the confusion in our own lives, how do we become the good fruits of righteousness and justice?

Peter Scholtes had a simple answer and he put it to music:

“We are one in the spirit we are one in the Lord.
We are one in the spirit we are one in the Lord
and we pray that all unity will one day be restored.

And they’ll Know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

We will walk with each other we will walk hand in hand
We will walk with each other we will walk hand in hand
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.

And they’ll Know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

We will work with each other. We will work side by side.
We will work with each other. We will work side by side
and we’ll guard each other’s dignity and save each other’s pride.

And they’ll Know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  AMEN.

Sermon for October 1, 2017: Choices (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen here:

Oh how I love this gospel! – because I have two children – two teenaged children – and I am one of two children. My family will tell you that I trot out this gospel a lot – pretty much every time one of my children says, “I will Mom!” and then fails to do what they were asked. “Remember the parable of the two sons?, I will ask. Which one of those was the good child?” “The one who did what the father said,” either one or the other inevitably replies, complete with an accompanying eye roll.

But after reading the parable again myself, I started thinking that maybe doing this to them is not only unfair, but overly simplistic. Because what I have noticed is that almost every time I read this story – or quote it to my children – I am thinking of a different person.  The same is true when I apply it to my sister and myself. When we were teenagers, it was often my sister, who is quiet and hates conflict, who would say, “Yes, I’ll do it,” and then manage to be somewhere else when the job needed doing.  Nowadays, it is me who sometimes agrees to things and then immediately tries to get out of them. The truth is that we’re all sometimes the “good” child and sometimes the not-so-obedient child.

That is actually great news – because it means we are not slaves to our innate dispositions.  The age-old “nature versus nurture” debate has still not been settled despite recent innovations in genetic testing and brain science, but our scriptures for today certainly seem to have something to say on the matter.  In our Hebrew bible reading, the prophet Ezekiel confronts his people about doing what Dr. Phil might call “playing the blame game.”  Scholars tell us that Ezekiel’s congregation lived in exile following the ouster of the Israelites by the Babylonians.  They believed that these reduced circumstances were the result of God’s judgment – and they complained to Ezekiel that it was unfair of God to exile them for what their parents had done – for the sins of their fathers.  But God, speaking through Ezekiel, told them that they were not being judged for inherited sins. God told them that they were judged for their own choices.

That’s a big deal, because such choices determine the difference not only between physical life and death, but the state of our eternal spiritual life, something Paul frequently advised his congregations about.  Writing to the Philippians from prison, his letter is hopeful, expressing confidence in the community that he loves, which has always listened to him.  He knows that “God is at work” in them, especially when they properly imitate the way of Jesus and sacrifice for one another.  The Greek word, “kenosis” means “to empty” and the adjective “kenotic,” used to describe Jesus, denotes one who empties himself for another.  Paul suggests that in order to find the full joy of spiritual fellowship (“koinonia” in Greek), the Philippians also need to be willing to empty themselves for one another, to “look not to [their] own interests, but to the interests of others.”

That is a tall order for ordinary human beings – because we may not be liable for our familial predispositions, but there is such a thing as human nature.  And even though scripture tells us that we need not be defined by it, the bible does not say that we will not make mistakes because of it. The questions we need to ask are what we can do to avoid the most serious of these errors – and what to do when they happen anyway.

Today’s psalm is the story of an individual who is struggling with his own worries and impulses. Although this psalm has been attributed to David, scholars believe it is more likely that it was written in the post-exhilic period – in other words, by the descendants of the very same Israelites who complained about being punished for the sins of their fathers. Life was confusing for these returnees, who had to adjust to living with people that they didn’t know or understand. In this chaotic situation the psalmist asked for God’s help – just as we ask God to be present to us in our confusion, our anxiety, and our fear.

He also asked God to forgive and – perhaps more importantly – to forget his previous mistakes. “The person offering this prayer is a fallible human being whose past is littered with unfortunate decisions that are displeasing to God. However, the steadfast love…of the Lord outweighs any punitive instincts, and the speaker appeals to the divine tendency to forgive transgressions.”[1] In other words, he knows that God wants to forgive him.  How? Because, through Ezekiel, God tells us just that. “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God.  Turn, then, and live.” God’s love for us and desire for our salvation is why God gives us so many chances – to try to choose the right thing -and if we fail, to choose to ask for forgiveness – and then choose to try again.

In the Episcopal Church, we view baptism as the mark of membership in the Christian community, and we view Jesus Christ as the pathway to our salvation.  We do not, however, agree with the view that once you have chosen the way of Jesus you no longer have to be responsible for your behavior.  In terms of the old debate between “faith” (only believe and you will be saved) and “works” (what matters is not what you believe but what you do) – we understand both to be necessary. We believe that God asks us to try to match our actions to our beliefs and, when we can’t, to admit [our] need for forgiveness.[2] That is the process of Christian living.[3]

It is also the message of today’s gospel. This text has often been interpreted as a template for determining who gets “in” and who is “out” of the kingdom of God.  But Jesus’s presentation suggests that any such divisions cannot be set in stone.  In the parable, Jesus refers to the two sons only as “the first” and “the second.” In the version we read today, the first is the one who initially defies his father but later changes his mind and does what he is asked.  But there are some versions in which the roles are reversed, in which the first – the “good” son, is the one who did not ultimately do the father’s will.  This suggests that the point of the story is not who gets to go to heaven, but rather that anyone can inherit the kingdom of God.  Like Ezekiel, Jesus says that we are not bound by our genetics, or even by our previous behavior.  We are constrained only by the choices we make in the present.  He is telling us that it is never too late to change our minds- that we can “turn” to him, again and again and again.

Just like my children – just like me and my sister – just like all human beings – sometimes we will be the one that does the right thing immediately, sometimes we will be the child that makes promises we can’t keep, and almost all the time we will make mistakes and need to ask for God’s forgiveness.  God’s most gracious blessing is that we can. “The truest thing about us,” says Brother Geoffrey Tristram, “is not our sins, not the mistakes we have made, not the pain we have caused others.  The truest thing about you and me is that we are God’s beloved children, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image- and created for Life and Love.”[4] AMEN.

[1]Samuel L. Adams, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 107.

[2]Timothy B. Cargal, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 103.

               [3] Gilberto Collazo, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 114.

[4]Brother Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE, (September 28, 2017), “Children of God,” in Brother, Give us a word,”

Sermon for September 24, 2017:  Testify (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA) 

You can listen here:

“Testifying” is not something that is particularly familiar to most Episcopalians. Although Jesus commanded all of his disciples to share the Good News of our salvation through him, individual “witness” is not a regular part of Anglican/Episcopal worship.  While some churches (and other institutions) regularly ask individuals to speak about their salvation through Jesus Christ, the Episcopal Church generally does not.  But I recently did.

You may or may not have recognized my call, which you can find in the last several editions of our online newsletter, “Grace Notes.” The title of the article was, “A Minute for Mission.”  In it, I asked parishioners to “step up and talk about their membership in the community of Grace.” You may or may not be shocked to find out that I have had very few volunteers. I don’t think it’s because our folks have nothing to say.  I know that the people of Grace love this parish. I know that our members and visitors recognize a sense of welcome and joy in our community of Christ.  And I know that God is present and active in the hearts of the parishioners of Grace.  I just think that we are uncomfortable talking about God’s grace and mercy.  So I’m going to give you a couple of examples of how it’s done.

First example: God.  In today’s Hebrew scripture we find one of our most well-known prophets, Jonah of “Jonah and the whale” fame in a temper.  He is upset with God because God, after saying that the people of Nineveh would be punished for their evil ways, has relented and decided not to bring calamity on them.  This makes Jonah mad. After all, God dragged him out of his home, scared him into running away, got him swallowed by a big fish, and sent him to talk to those mean Ninevites and after all that decided to show them mercy.  “Just kill me now,” Jonah says. Instead, God causes a bush to grow over Jonah to make him more comfortable and, perhaps, less cranky.  But the minute Jonah gets comfortable, God sends a worm to kill the bush and leave Jonah in the hot sun.  And Jonah gets mad all over again.  Because God is not being fair. And it’s true.  God was not being fair.  God was being merciful- and God gave Jonah a very simple reason why: because God cared for the people of Nineveh. God explains his own actions. God testifies to her own mercy.

Example two.  Today’s psalm is attributed to David.  In it, we hear that God is to be praised, because God is good.  God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. David is writing from experience – because he knew a thing or two about God’s mercy, having broken at least three of the Ten Commandments himself. This psalm is David’s witness not only to God’s power and glory, but also to God’s endless forgiveness and mercy.

Example number three: St. Paul.  After being blinded and converted to the Jesus movement, the former Saul spent the remainder of his life testifying to the salvation offered through belief in Jesus the Christ.  In the reading we heard today, Paul was writing from prison, where he was facing the very real possibility of his death and ruminating on whether it would be better for him to live or die.  Ironically, Paul considers death the more selfish option, because it is his greatest personal desire to be with Christ.  For him, it is a sacrifice to continue living, but he knows that it is his call to spread the gospel – so he chooses life not for himself, but in order to give others a chance to experience the wonder and mercy of the life he has come to know through belief in Jesus Christ.

Which is what the landowner in today’s gospel parable also offers: a chance. While he agrees to pay the first group of laborers he hires, “the usual daily wage,” he does not make the same promise to those he hires later in the day.  He merely tells them that he will pay them, “whatever is right.”  Notice he doesn’t say, “whatever you think is right.”  He doesn’t say, “what seems fair to you.”  He doesn’t say, “what you earn.”  He says, “whatever is right.”  And for Jesus, what is right is based not on the rules of humankind, but on the nature of God.  “Hard-working, ‘good’ people have always asked,” on hearing this story, “What kind of God would offer the same reward to those who have earned it and those who have not”?[1] The answer is “a merciful God,” – a God who gives everyone the same chance – the chance to know God.

God also gives them – and us – the chance to witness to God’s mercy -but somehow that is hard for us.  We find it easy to testify to the effectiveness of a diet we have tried, or the value of a product we use, or the competence of our physician or contractor, but we have enormous trouble telling others about the single most important thing in our lives: the gift of our salvation, forgiveness, and new life through our most merciful triune God. Perhaps it’s because it is so important – and so personal.  After all, it’s pretty difficult to talk about the presence of God in our lives without talking about ourselves – about the things that matter to us – about who we really are.  No wonder we don’t want to get up in front of everyone and “testify.”

But I have asked you to do it, and so I will give you one more example: my own.  This past week I attended the diocesan clergy retreat. The theme of the conference was “Clergy Health – Mind, Body, and Spirit” and Bishop Marc asked me to talk about clergy mental health.  What I found in the research I did for this presentation was staggering: members of the clergy – across denominations and even countries – are extremely prone to burnout and mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression.  My goal for my presentation was to provide an environment in which my fellow clerics felt comfortable talking about their own issues, and I felt that I could not do it without honestly talking about mine.  So I told them, as I am telling you, that I suffer from depression.  I was diagnosed with post-partum depression after my son was born and I spent several months of my life crying without being able to stop – and several years trying to rediscover the joy in my life.  I feared that I could not recover from my pain – but God was with me during that dark time, and the stories of people from our scripture and history gave me comfort on my journey through it, and the testimony of my fellow believers gave me strength and hope when I needed it most.  And now I am grateful and joyful to be able to witness to the mercy of God – and the power of Christian community.

I know that many of you are struggling through hard times right now, and I know how easy it would be for you to give in to the voice of despair, the voice that cries out “This is not fair.”  But you don’t.  You not only continue to work through your pain with faith and courage, but you also continue to give to others despite your own troubles.  You show up each week and do altar guild, and buildings and grounds, and office work.  You serve on committees and answer emails and wash dishes.  You testify with your good works to the saving power of God and of God’s people on earth. For this and for you, I am more grateful than you can know.

Today I have to ask you to testify in one more way.  This week we are beginning our fall stewardship campaign.  Stewardship in the church has become associated with money, and certainly that’s part of it, but what stewardship actually means is “what we do with what we have.”  It is how we demonstrate what is important to us and what we are grateful for.  I would request that if this Christian community is important to you, you testify to that with your time, talent and, if possible, your treasure.  Decide in your heart how you can best make your witness to God’s great mercy.  And I thank you.  AMEN.

[1]Kathryn D. Blanchard, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 94.

Sermon for September 17, 2017:  Forgiveness is necessary (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

I once read a really interesting article in “Psychology Today” with the title, “Why you don’t always have to forgive.”  In it psychologist Deborah Schurman-Kauflin argues that forgiveness is an optional part of the grieving process.  She writes:

“You’ve been hurt…Now you are left in tatters, at your lowest point in life…Eventually you must go through a healing process. As hard as it was to hit bottom, you will come to find that crawling your way out of the pit is equally as hard…Grieving and healing is a slow, slow process that cannot be hurried or skipped…With time, you come to realize that you are moving forward, and it is usually at this point that someone will ask about forgiveness…[But] though society pressures you to forgive the person who wronged you, the truth is that forgiving may be the worst thing you can do. Many religions and therapies focus on forgiving a perpetrator so that the victim can ‘move on’ …However, forgiveness is not something that just happens…Though many find a way to move forward in life, forgiveness truly eludes them. This does not make them bad people. This just means that it is not healing for them at this time…Under… pressure, victims will give in and comply. They say they have forgiven when in their hearts they have not… Forgiveness comes from within. It is not something that can be forced. Either you can do it or you can’t. If you cannot, then don’t think that you are a bad person or that you failed in some way. In some cases, forgiveness is just not possibleDon’t give in to peer pressure. Don’t say you forgive someone when you don’t. It won’t make you feel better, and it won’t make your life easier.”[1]

That’s quite a statement.  God knows that many of us have suffered – and that there are sins that are seemingly impossible to forgive, but I have to admit that when I read Dr. Schurman-Kauflin’s article I was put off by a lot of what she said – and her tone seemed pointedly anti-religion.  She seems to primarily see Christians as unfair, demanding that believers forgive even if they are not ready, even if they are not sincere.

Today’s gospel has been used to promote that view.  In it, Jesus tells Peter that he must forgive, not just “seven times,” but “seventy times seven.”  And then he provides the example of the ungrateful slave, who ended up being sentenced to torture until he paid his debt.  This certainly seems to say that forgiving is mandatory – and that if we can’t forgive someone we will be punished. But, unlike Dr. Schurman-Kauflin, I don’t think being forced to forgive is what the story’s about. I think it’s about relationships. I think it’s about how we demonstrate God’s love through our interactions with one another.

Matthew’s gospel emphasizes the connection between our love for God and our love of neighbor over and over.  And this story is consistent with that theme. Although his gospel places this story during Jesus’ life span, it’s probably not a record of an actual conversation, but rather it’s an illustration of how Jesus’ teachings should be applied to Matthew’s community.  We know this because in the story Peter asks Jesus what he should do if another member of “the church” sins against him – but there was no “church” in Jesus’ lifetime.  But Matthew’s gospel writer did have a church – a church he was trying to build up – a church whose members were in constant danger from authorities – a church in which unity was crucial.

In last week’s gospel, we heard about how we should deal with someone who has offended us.  This “three step process” was not something Matthew thought up.  We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that it was also practiced by a community called the Essenes who lived in desert communities in Qumran.  Scholars believe that both groups used this process because it promoted unity. So Matthew’s goal in promoting this ancient practice was both theological and practical. But why didn’t Jesus (or Matthew) simply say, “We have to forgive one another.  We have to stick together if we want to survive”?  Why the threats?  The simple answer is that Matthew understood human nature.  He may not have had a Ph.D., but he was still way ahead of Dr. Schurman-Kauflin.  He understood that one of the hardest – potentially impossible -things you can ask anyone to do is to forgive.  And he understood that just telling people to be merciful isn’t very effective – but giving them an example of it is. Which brings us back to the story of the ungrateful slave.

I used to think this parable was about the slave – about one who owed much himself and was forgiven but then refused to forgive the much smaller obligation of his debtor.  But I have come to believe that the core of the story resides in the character of the king, because it is the king that demonstrates the crucial difference between “forgiveness” and “mercy.” In the story, the bad slave does not ask the king to dismiss his debt.  He asks his lord for patience – for a little more time to pay.  But what the king actually does is to release him from his obligation entirely.  The lord goes beyond what he is asked to do –beyond forgiveness.  He demonstrates mercy.  You see, the doctor is right about one thing.  Human beings give – and receive- empty apologies all the time that do nothing to promote healing.  But it is not hollow forgiveness that we are being asked to afford one another.  It is mercy.  And mercy by its very nature is undeserved – and beyond our human capacity to grant.

Viewed in this light, the slave’s mistake was not simply failing to forgive his own debtor; it was failing to consider how his actions would affect others -and in ignoring the example and support of his king – a king who had much greater power than the slave and used it to give something more than what he was asked.  The bad slave thought only of himself, of what forgiveness would mean for him. He did not see that the king was showing him a different and better way, just as God shows it to us.

That’s what Dr. Schurman-Kauflin is missing.  She is not wrong about the necessity of honest grieving and gradual healing, about forgiveness needing to come from the heart, about not saying we forgive someone when we don’t- but I think she’s dead wrong when she says that sometimes forgiveness is” just not possible”- and when she says that forgiveness comes from within you.  Forgiveness doesn’t come from within us.  It comes through us.  It comes from God – and for God, forgiveness is always possible.  True forgiveness is allowing God’s mercy to move through us, because only God has the power to know us completely and forgive us completely.  Giving in to the demands of those who encourage us to forgive may feel like capitulating to peer pressure -and perhaps the demand that we forgive each other over and over and over again does seem hard and unfair.  But giving God the burden of the anger, hatred, and fear that we carry inside us as a result of unforgiven sins – sins we have committed and sins that have been committed against us – is absolutely right – and it’s what God wants us to do, to lay our burdens on him.  That’s grace.  And that’s God.  And that is always good.  AMEN.

 

[1]Schurman-Kauflin, Deborah. “Why You Don’t Always Have to Forgive,”

Criminal profiling and the deviant mind, Psychology Today, August 21, 2012.

Sermon for September 10, 2017: God is watching (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen here:

So, a man walks into a bar and sees that it is empty, but that the full cash register drawer is open.  He is somewhat down on his luck and sorely tempted to pull out some cash.  He looks around carefully and, seeing no one, reaches his hand out toward the drawer.  Suddenly, he is interrupted by a voice, “God is watching!”  He jerks his hand back quickly, looking around again.  Seeing no one, he reaches out again, and again hears, “God is watching.”  This time he scans the room more carefully and sees a parrot sitting on top of the bar.  Very slowly, he reaches out his hand to the cash drawer again – keeping his eye on the parrot- only to have the parrot once again squawk, “God is watching!”  Finally, he glares at the parrot and says, “Is that you talking?  How can you talk?  Do you even have a name”? And the parrot says quite clearly, “My name is John the Baptist.”  “John the Baptist,” the man says, “Who names a parrot John the Baptist”?  “Well,” says the parrot, “Actually, it’s the same guy who named the Rottweiler ‘God.’”

The idea of God watching us is for me – and I think for most people – a little nerve-wracking.  It brings up images of a grumpy authority figure with a ruler in his hand just waiting to smack us for the slightest infraction of the rules.  And there seem to be so many rules – how can anyone keep them all straight, much less manage not to slip up every once in a while?  It’s scary to think of God knowing our every tiny indiscretion, every loss of temper, and every curse word out of our mouths.  And, if that’s not hard enough, our Hebrew Scripture for today adds a new wrinkle: we are asked not only to be responsible for our own sins, but for those of others. This seems like very slippery territory to me.  I, for one, have enough to worry about admitting to and repenting of my own sins without tracking those of others. And I don’t want to shock you, but I have found that most people – myself included – don’t like to be told that they are wrong, much less “sinful.” Julie Peeples suggests, in fact, that “the belief that churches are in the business of judging and condemning [may be one reason] for the decline in church membership in recent decades.”[1] Yet, there it is, right in our lesson from Ezekiel: “If I say to the wicked,” God tells the prophet, “‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.” So, does this mean that we are biblically mandated to judge one another?

I don’t think so.  First of all, that’s not what the passage says.  God does not tell Ezekiel to judge or punish his neighbors; God tells the prophet to warn them – because, says God, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” God is not about punishment; God is about redemption.  God does not make us responsible for one another so that we can make each other feel bad; God connects us in community so that we can help one another avoid sin – and find redemption from it. “A crucial point about faith in God is that the integrity or quality of the believer’s relationship to God is always contingent upon the integrity or quality of the believer’s relationship to others…It may appear that Ezekiel’s call…was…a matter of his receiving a divine command and obeying it, [but the truth is that he could not – and we cannot- fulfill this task] without concern for and attention to the welfare of others.”[2]  Ezekiel – like us – is called to be compassionate – not judgmental – to his neighbors. Just like God.

Because, really, that’s why God is watching – not to catch us in a mistake, but to help us to live good lives by following laws which are, at their core, about human beings living together in the kindest way possible.  In this view, God’s law is not a straightjacket designed to keep us separate from the world, but a pathway to guide us to living fruitfully and honorably in it. God’s law is a gift. And God’s law, like God’s word, is not some irrelevant ancient code; it is alive and relevant to our lives today. Think about it; the Ten Commandments certainly still apply as much to us as they did to the ancient Israelites: be loyal; don’t lie, don’t take things that aren’t yours – be respectful of others, and, above all, love one another, because, as the apostle Paul so clearly puts it, love is the basis for all Christian belief, “the fulfilling of the law” – all of it.

Which makes the reverse true as well – if, in seeking to fulfill the law we choose to wrong a neighbor, we are not fulfilling the law.  “Law,” says Eleazar Fernandez, must serve love of God and neighbor, not the other way around…This is the norm by which Christ-followers need to see themselves.”[3] It is, in other words, the bottom line.

And it is why we have Christian community.  I have often said that as a former prison psychologist and forensic mental health expert, I have seen much of the worst humanity has to offer – and I still believe that human beings are basically good. I know how easy it is for human beings to get lost in the fears and concerns of the world around us, but that doesn’t mean we are bad.  It simply means we need help.  I think most people try desperately to do the right thing, to make sense of their lives in a way that is kind and giving – and I see them looking for somewhere – some spiritual pathway and community of support and companionship –to help them do it. What our scriptures tell us is that this is that place. Christian communities have been wrestling with trying to be good and loving for two thousand years – and, as a result, we have learned much about how to do that.  “What makes us Christian is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but how we go about addressing and resolving these issues.” [4] Today’s scriptures tell us that we do it is through communication and reconciliation, by believing in the power of forgiving one another – even if we have to do it again and again and again – and by focusing on redemption rather than rightness. In other words, we do it through love.

My son Nick is a hugger.  When he is feeling down, he seeks physical comfort.  My husband, who is not as much of a hugger, once saw a television commercial for a “ThunderShirt®” for dogs – a “patented [dog coat that]… applies gentle, constant pressure to calm anxiety, fear, and over excitement,”[5] – and promptly suggested we get one for Nick.  The idea of the ThunderShirt® (which is allegedly “backed by science”), is that being held close (but not squeezed) makes the animal (or person) feel safer.  What would happen if we thought of God’s laws as our own spiritual ThunderShirt®– applying constant, gentle pressure designed not to hurt us, but to comfort us – to guide us – and to remind us of God’s constant presence in our lives.  Our scriptures tell us that our God is available to us right here and right now, that God that wants to help us and guide us, and that God wants us to do the same for one another. Because if you think about it that way, the fact that “God I s watching” becomes a very comforting thought indeed.  AMEN.

[1]Julie Peeples, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 32.

 

[2]Ronald E. Peters, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 30.

[3]Eleazar Fernandez, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 40-42.

[4]Jin S. Kim, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 46.

[5]Amazon.com product description, https://www.amazon.com/ThunderShirt-Anxiety-Jacket-Heather-Large/dp/B0028QK6EY

Sermon for September 3, 2017: The power of emotion, the power of God (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, California)

You may listen here:

This has been a very emotional week for me.  It started last Sunday when, as you may remember, my daughter came up during the announcements to be blessed before leaving for her gap year on the east coast and I became a bit tearful.  It is, of course, part of the job of a priest to be able to carry on through strong emotions – to put aside our own feelings in order to help our parishioners work through theirs, but, honestly, it is sometimes hard to hold it together, especially when there are a lot of potent emotions swirling around.  That has definitely been the case this week – a week in which thousands of people lost their homes, possessions, and even their lives in the devastating hurricane and subsequent flooding in Texas; a week in which many families sent beloved young people off to colleges and “adult” adventures; a week in which we mourned the loss and celebrated the life of our sister Joyce Apostalo, and a week in which today we celebrate the blessing of our sister Jo-Ann and brother John’s fifty years of Holy Matrimony.  That’s a lot of powerful emotions to manage.

If you think about it, even the most joyful emotional events – like John and Jo’s renewal – can be exhausting. Although we tend to think of “feelings” as somewhat abstract, non-scientific sensations, there is ample evidence that emotions are both rooted in our physical bodies and fairly predictable.  Neuroscience tells us that when we “feel,” certain parts of our brain “light up,” producing specific chemical responses.  “Each emotion sparks a distinctive physiological reaction, the body’s program for dealing with the different situations that arise in our emotional lives. Happiness cues the brain to suppress worrisome or negative feelings and increases the body’s energy level. Sadness does the opposite, slowing down its metabolism, and manifests itself most visibly in tears. Research has substantiated the age-old theory that crying releases harmful toxins by showing that tears of sadness have a different chemical composition than tears of joy or those caused by irritants. Cardiologists have also found that crying can reduce stress and the harmful physiological reactions associated with it. Anger floods the brain with catecholamine hormones that prime the body for action and stimulates the nervous system, putting it on a general state of alert.”[1] In other words, when we feel dizzy with love, overheated by anger, or weak with sadness, we really are. Powerful emotions – negative and positive – can be overwhelming for all human beings – even prophets.

We know this because in today’s Hebrew Scripture we find Jeremiah struggling with feelings of anger toward God.  He has tried to be a faithful prophet – reporting the concerns and will of God to his people as it has been shown to him – and yet he has been teased, tormented and even physically hurt by those around him.  He’s had enough. He wants God to get back at the people who have upset him – and the amazing thing is that he’s not afraid to let God know about it, even going so far as to call God names.  That’s because, despite his anger toward God, he never doubts their relationship.  He knows that no matter what he says to God, God will not abandon him. Their bond is deeply loving, one “in which God’s overwhelming claim on Jeremiah’s life is delightful and devastating at the same time.”[2] God did not create humanity without knowing the nature of it. God understands Jeremiah’s strong feelings – even the negative ones.  God recognizes Jeremiah’s anger for what it is: a sign of love – because, really, “only those who love experience hurt, anger, and doubt.  The indifferent are just fine.”[3]

True love, what St. Paul calls, “genuine” love – or “un-hypocritical” love, as it is more accurately translated – is both complicated and very, very difficult.  Because of the way the Greek language works, Paul’s long list of love’s attributes are translated as “Let love be,” but they can also be heard as, “love is.”[4]Thus, love is un-hypocritical, love is ardent; love is patient – love is hospitable, humble, noble, and harmonious.  “The type of love Paul describes here is energetic and profoundly optimistic.”[5]

But it’s also practical.  Paul understands that human beings are what they are.  We may be created in God’s image, but we are not like God.  In fact, it’s when we make the mistake of thinking that we know what God wants from us that we are most likely to get into trouble. We “are often confusingly confident with our claims upon God – and more so in our claims on God’s behalf.”[6]  That’s what happens to Peter in today’s gospel.  In the portion of Matthew’s gospel we read last week we heard Peter correctly identify Jesus as the Messiah, one anointed by God. Jesus recognized Peter’s testimony as “the rock” upon which the church would be founded, and promised that the actions of his earthly followers would have repercussions for the kingdom of God.  And yet in today’s gospel passage, just two verses later, Jesus rebukes Peter.  Why?  Because Peter contradicts Jesus when Jesus tells the disciples that he must suffer and be killed.  Jesus’s response to Peter seems pretty harsh, given that Peter’s is, I think, a pretty normal response to have.  None of us want bad things to happen to those we love.  “We hear Peter [saying] ‘God forbid it, Lord!’ This kind of suffering must never happen to you…You cannot go through the tears and the sweat, the blood and the muck of humanity, because you are God.”[7]

But, of course, Jesus does.  That is the core of the gospel, the defining principle of our savior – his willingness to suffer and die for those he loves.  And he offers us the same opportunity – the chance to throw ourselves into the messy, scary, deeply difficult process that is living in relationship.  In some cases that has meant and will mean dying for our beliefs – but for most of us it is enough to simply engage in the struggle that is loving our neighbors as ourselves.  “Eternal living does not happen in a place of seclusion.”[8] God’s mansion may have many rooms, but that doesn’t mean we will necessarily get a single – or be able to choose our roommates.  Christianity is about community, about living in relationship with one another – and sometimes that is hard.  St. Paul knew this. He did not simply say, “Live peaceably with all.”  He said, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  He is telling his people not that they have to live in perfect harmony with one another – only that they have to try.  Because no matter how difficult it may be to try to live up to Paul’s ideals for Christian community, it is far harder to be cut off from it.  Scripture tells us that God lives within each one of us and, more importantly, among us.  If we want to be where God is, then we need to be among God’s people.  “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.”  May we do all that we can to make this community that place.  AMEN.

[1]Alive Editorial@alive.com (April 24, 2015), Emotions and Physiology, http://www.alive.com/health/emotions-and-physiology/.

[2]Angela Dienhart Hancock, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 7.

[3]Ibid.

[4] Christopher R. Hutson, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 17.

[5]Rochelle A. Stackhouse, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 16.

[6]Dale P. Andrews, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 23.

[7]Jin S. Kim, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 22.

[8]Eleazar S. Fernandez, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 18.

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/