Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon for June 18, 2017: Belonging (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

My daughter recently graduated from high school. The other night when I came home from work I found her in her bedroom crying.  I asked her what was wrong.  “Mom,” she wailed, “I was just laying here thinking that this is what the rest of my life is going to be like.  Every morning I will have to get up and there will be a really long list of chores to do and it will take all day and I will go to bed all tired and the next day it will be exactly the same!”  “Actually honey,” I told her, “you could get a job.  Then you wouldn’t have to do chores all day.  You’d have to do them after you got home from work.”  She was not comforted.

It’s easy to laugh at the dramatic intensity of her shocking realization that her high school years were not, in fact, the hardest thing she’d ever have to manage.  It is uncomfortable to think that she truly believes that she has a hard life, that she has become entitled, that she has forgotten how fortunate she is to have food, shelter, and the freedom to speak and do as she likes, as well as the ability to see things and learn things that are out of the grasp of two-thirds of the world’s population.  But I don’t really think that’s the case.  She understands that her father and I both work to provide her and her brother with these things.  She grasps that they have many things that her father and I did not have when we were her age.  She is not lazy or stupid.  She is not immoral or unethical.  She cares for others and shares what she has.  But I think that she is still genuinely anxious when she thinks about the fact that she is now, according to the rules of our society, responsible for herself. She is not sure what being an adult really means.  She doesn’t know if she can actually do what she is being asked to do – so she has decided that maybe it’s better if she doesn’t try.

She is not alone. We live in an era in which Americans are becoming more educated but less competent,[1] in which we are far from being “United States,” but instead are deeply divided on issues of race, politics and creed.  It is an era in which our standing in the international community has dropped considerably.[2] Nonetheless, Americans continue to think of ourselves more positively than most other countries in the world.[3]  And we are polarized among ourselves.  We are seeing a surge in hate crimes against numerous groups”[4] and divisive rhetoric has become normative, even in the highest councils in the land.

There are many opinions as to the reason for these declines, but I suspect that Zig Ziglar was right about one thing: It’s not our aptitude; it’s our attitude.  We have the ability to do much good in the world, but we have lost track of who we are. Rather than seeing ourselves as responsible for sharing our prosperity with other nations, many Americans now see our primary role as protecting what is ours.  These citizens believe that others are not worthy of what we have – that others are ungodly, unrighteous – that they do not belong.  This attitude reflects an exclusionist theological view – the notion that only Jews, by virtue of being God’s chosen people, and Christians, because we believe in the divinity of Christ, can achieve salvation – that is very popular within a certain segment of the Christian community.

That’s why today’s readings are so troubling – because they seem to support this notion.  In today’s passage from Exodus, the Lord makes clear his preference for the children of Jacob.  They are his chosen people, his sheep, a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation, predestined for salvation – while the rest are to be left out in the cold (or heat, depending on your perspective).  According to this exclusionist view, because the Jews did not, as they had promised, obey God, and keep God’s covenants, God sent Jesus to give them a second chance, to win by faith that which they had lost through their behavior.  Because of this, Christians are also “saved” – but that still leaves much of the world’s population in a state of spiritual doom.

This idea is accepted – and touted – by several groups of Christians and forms the basis for bias against people of other races and creeds; but for those of us who believe in the basic goodness of God’s creation, the idea that God would not offer salvation to all of us just doesn’t make sense.  That’s because we do not live in the context and time of the first apostles.  According to Guy Nave, “The Jesus movement began as an exclusively Jewish movement [but] by the time of…Matthew… [they] had abandoned Jewish exclusivity…While the historical Jesus was apparently concerned with an exclusively Jewish mission, the resurrected Jesus… [commanded] his followers to make disciples of all nations.”[5]  So, the Jesus who transcended his humanity tells us something different than the Jesus who was a man of his time.  That divine Jesus says very clearly that anyone can be saved.  Anyone can belong to God.  Anyone is good enough to be part of God’s community.  We need only admit our own powerlessness and accept the free gift of salvation.

Of course, that’s a pretty big catch for a species that has struggled with pride since Cain killed Abel.  In order for God to save us, we have to admit that we need to be saved. We have to recognize that for all our wealth and power, there are things we cannot control.  We have to acknowledge our fears.  “[Doing] this requires trust. It requires a trust that runs deeper than just expecting things to turn out the way we want them to. Sometimes they will, and sometimes they won’t. We develop equanimity and grace as we learn to trust that, with the guiding hand of [God], life will unfold exactly the way it should.”[6]

This doesn’t mean that we can sit back and bask in our “chosen-ness.”  “Self-satisfaction can lead one to thank God that one is not like other, flawed human beings.”[7] But there is nothing in the Bible that supports the idea that any one nation is better than another. The Hebrew Bible tells the story of one group of God’s chosen people, but it doesn’t say that there aren’t others.  The bottom line is this: the Israelites chose God and that’s why God chose them.  What God wants from us is to actively choose her – and then to follow the way of Jesus. Claiming to belong to God and then acting as if this makes you better than others is the opposite of what God asks us to do.  It is not only that you profess your faith, but how you enact it that matters.

This was made clear to the ancient Israelites throughout their relationship with the God they call Yahweh.  Although the election of the Israelites as God’s people seems to happen in one shining moment, it is, as Barbara Wheeler emphasizes, the result of a long process.  “God’s choosing and subsequent self-revealing has been going on for a long time…God’s choosing goes [on] constantly…threaded through the length of our lives… [and] requires difficult disciplines: obeying the Lord and keeping the covenant.”[8]  Being chosen by God is not an award or a reward, it is a challenge.  It invites us to assume a completely new identity and relationship status. We belong to God not because God loves us more than any other person or people.  We belong to God because we choose to be in relationship with God. And, like any successful relationship, it requires work.

That means that exclusionism is completely contrary to scripture.  What scripture actually says is that God is present to us when we act on God’s behalf.  This section of Matthew is not called the “entitled” discourse; it’s called the “missionary discourse.” Belonging to God means taking “little more than faith out into this world and [getting] Christ’s work done.”[9] And doing it despite the fact that we do not have Jesus’s compassion – despite the fact that we do not see those who commit crimes, and use government resources selfishly, and are moved to buy and use guns, as “harassed and helpless” sheep – despite the fact that we can’t seem to help viewing them as wolves who want to take what is ours – despite the fact that we are afraid of what it might cost us to invite them in.  But this is what God asks us to do – and Jesus believes we can do it. “Despite the challenges, despite the questionable likelihood of success, despite our inevitable difficulty in accomplishing what he could do far more easily than we, Christ confidently sends us out.”[10]  And God is with us – in danger and times of trial, in moments of persecution and when our courage fails.  God bears us on eagles’ wings and brings us to herself.  God saves us.  God has equipped us for our ministry, and everything the Lord has spoken, we can do.  AMEN.

[1]Drew DeSilver, (February 15, 2017), “U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries,” FactTank: News in the Numbers, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/15/u-s-students-internationally-math-science/

[1]Mikhail Zinshteyn (February 17, 2015), “The Skills Gap: America’s Young Workers Are Lagging Behind,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/the-skills-gap-americas-young-workers-are-lagging-behind/385560/

[2]Waseem Abbasi (March, 2017), “U.S. slips to seventh best country in the world after Trump election, Switzerland tops the list,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/03/07/us-slips-seventh-best-country-world-after-trump-election-switzerland-tops-list/98816470/

[3]Frank Newport, (February, 2017), “North Korea Remains Lease-Popular Country Among Americans, Gallup, www.gallup.com/poll/204074/north-korea-remains-least-popular-country-among-americans. Aspx?g_source=position3&g_medium=related&g_campaign=tiles

[4]Richard Wolf, (March 13, 2017), “Rise in Hate Crimes spurs launch of database and hotline,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/03/13/hate-crimes-incidents-database-hotline-lawyers-services-trump/99095440/

[5]Guy D. Nave, Jr., (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], 145.

[6]Madisyn Taylor, (June 16, 2017), “Things we can’t control,” Daily OM, https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/?tab=cm#inbox/15cb0e7cfe85c512.

[7]Walter J. Harrelson, (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], 131.

[8]Barbara G. Wheeler, (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], 124.

[9]Alexander Wimberly, (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], 142.

[10]Ibid, 140.

Children’s sermon for June 18, 2017: Talking about God (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

Today we are going to talk about sharing.  How many of you guys like sharing? (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s good, but tell me truthfully – aren’t there some times that it’s hard to share?  Like if your mom or dad or friend is paying more attention to your sister or brother than they are to you?  I’ll tell you a secret: I have a big sister and sometimes I don’t like it when I have to share with her.  When she was visiting last week, I didn’t like having to share all of you with her.  I think that’s because it’s the hardest to share what we like the best.  So, it’s really hard to share your favorite book or toy or food than it is to share something you don’t like as much.  Like I was happy to share the fried pickles that someone bought me the other night – because they were yucky!  What do you think of that? (Give them a chance to answer).  So, one hard thing is sharing stuff you really, really like.  But the secret (shhh) is that it’s when you share the things you really don’t want to share that you are the happiest.  It’s true – weird but true.

Okay.  Now let’s talk about church a little bit.  How many of you guys like church? (Give them a chance to answer).  What do you like about it?  (Give them a chance to answer).  I like those things too.  I especially like to be with people who believe the same things that I do.  It feels good when you say something and everyone says, “Yes, yes, I agree!”  (And by the way, who remembers the word we say at the end of our prayers when we want to say that we agree?  (Give them a chance to answer).  That’s right.  It’s “Amen”).

But here’s the thing.  It’s much harder to talk to people when they tell you you are wrong or what you like is stupid.  Has that ever happened to one of you? (Give them a chance to answer).  It feels bad doesn’t it?

Now, how many of you talk to other people about church? (Give them a chance to answer).  How do they act? (Give them a chance to answer).  How does that make you feel?  (Give them a chance to answer).  So, sharing your feelings about church – and especially about God and Jesus – can feel really good if someone listens to you and tells you they’re glad you told them, but it can feel really bad if they think your church is stupid.  Well, I’ll tell you a secret: that’s the same way that grown-ups feel about talking about church.  The more God is really important to them, the more scared they are to share God with other people – because they might make fun of them, or they might tell them they’re wrong, and then they’d feel bad.  And sometimes we don’t want to share God because we think we each need him the most.  But God has asked all of us who go to church to go out and tell other people about her.  God wants us to tell other people how great Jesus is and how he makes us feel better when we’re sad.  God wants us to do that even if we are scared to.  What do you think of that? (Give them a chance to answer).   Do you think you could try that? (Give them a chance to answer).  Do you think you could help other members of your family to do that? (Give them a chance to answer).  Good.  I agree, so you know what I’m going to say? (Give them a chance to answer).  Amen.  And if you agree, you say it too (Amen).

Sermon for June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday: The Three in One  (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

In the beginning there was darkness and nothingness. There was no time, no space, no energy. And suddenly – as quickly as the blink of an eye – there was music. It was music so clear that you could see eternity through its notes. It was music so sweet that you if you could taste it for a moment you would be satisfied forever. It was music more true than the purest soul on earth. And although this music was complex and resonant beyond imagining – although it was fuller than an orchestra and more dramatic than an opera – although it was nowhere and everywhere at once – this music was created by one musician.

This musician sang in many parts, through three great and powerful voices. And each voice sang with itself and to itself, in unity and harmony, and each voice was in the music and the music was a symphony of life. And within the nothingness the music rose to a crescendo and one voice exploded out of it with a melody that was cold and bright and sharp – and that melody sliced through the darkness and suddenly things were. There was time and matter and light and dark, and as the musician sang to itself each of its voices responded with delight to the results of the song. And the music receded for an unknowable interval, which was as a day to the singer.

When the music began again, one voice was louder than the others, the voice of “Love,” and that voice was light, and bright, and breezy, and her song blew through the light and the darkness so that they expanded and took shape. And the music became a lullaby, a gentle, simmering liquid pillow of sound that remained for another age.

Then the song grew into a richer tune that was deep and lush and full. And as the music swelled, the universe developed and separated itself into stars and planets until the island that is this earth appeared. And the musician loved this planet, and amplified the song, each voice singing its own part with power and authority, yet with attention to and synchronization with the others. And as they sang, the world grew as vivid and plentiful as the song itself. And the musician was pleased – and the voices rested.

And another epoch went by and the singer realized that the world could prosper only if the light was divided from the darkness and the darkness and light could share the planet. And so one voice pitched itself low and another high and together they made the world to circle one great star and to live by and in its light. And the musician was tired and rested for an age.

When the musician awoke, it felt empty and began to sing a new song and this was a song of life – so the world had breath and movement as well as beauty. And the tune was a frothy, lilting jig that caused ripples in the water and swelling in the dirt of the world, and out of those ripples and bulges rose living creatures – at first infinitesimally small, but like the universe that had been created before them they grew and they changed and were part of the world and lived in harmony with the world and with one another. And this gave the musician great joy for the time that it counted as a day.

But the song was incomplete, the symphony unfinished, for the musician had more to give and the desire for another to love. And in moving toward completion the music intensified and its beauty was beyond description. Each voice rang with power and with force and reckless abandonment, giving of itself with each note, pouring wisdom and purity and love from itself into the being that it made. And what evolved from the music was part of the music and the music was in the creation and creation was humanity. And the singer spoke to the human creation, blessing them for their uniqueness and dearness and the joy they added to the music. And the music was given to them to sing to one another and to dance with joy in the rhythm of it. And they were trusted and put in charge of all else that the music had created before them. And the words of their song were “love one another.” The words of the song were, “care for each other.” The words of the song were, “be at peace with one another.” And they were given this music for all seasons and all time.

And the music continued, and grew, and changed – and it was sung by a thousand, million, billion voices together in one voice, praising and exalting the creator.  It was a song of endless mutual self-giving and joyful love.[1]  It was about living together in peace and unity, just as the music was at unity with itself and sang with one spirit. And the universe flourished and the musician rested.

But the human creation did not. Because the music that brought with it joy and abundance and light also generated splendor and authority and power – and some of the beings that had been formed in the music began to think of what they might do if they alone possessed its power. So they divided themselves into factions and called each other “good” or “bad” and “right” or “wrong,” and they refused to sing with one another. They kept their portions of the music for themselves, and the words of the song were no longer “love,” and “peace,” and “unity,” but “hate,” and “fear,” and “division.” And the music became discordant and chaotic – and the musician awoke and viewed with dismay what had become of creation.

The creator saw that their beloved human beings were using the song to craft devices that made them forget the joy of good works, and machines that made thought unnecessary, and, worst of all, technologies that made it easy to destroy one another.  The embraced division and hatred and rejected the “cosmic unity” of spiritual oneness.[2] And all the while the plentiful world and the other living things that they had been tasked with protecting had begun to die around them. But the song of the human – the song that reverberated with the sound of “Me, me, me,” had become so loud that they could not – would not -hear the death cries of the rest of creation.

And the music became a lament. And one voice, whose song was “sacrifice,” separated itself from the music of creation and joined the clanging cacophony that was the human song. And this voice called, “Grace,” began to sing in the human world with a human voice – but the music it sang was the same music that cleaved the darkness at the beginning of creation. Its song was “love,” and “peace,” and “unity.” And people began to sing with him and to become part of the music – and there was hope in the world.

But many people did not listen. And because they were afraid of the power of the voice, because they were afraid to open their hearts to that voice, because they were afraid that if they did open their hearts they would be disappointed, the lone voice that had been willing to sing the creation music with a human voice died. But his was only one part of the music that had stirred the void in the beginning of creation- and when his human voice ceased, the others released their music into the darkness of death. And the music became a song of “resurrection” and “redemption.”

And the third voice, named “Fellowship,” spoke to the others and said, “I will go into the creation and remain there. And I will carry our music with me and sing it for those who will listen – and I will sing my song with the voice of the creator, which is the song of love and peace and unity, teaching them about power that is giving, that does not coerce but serves and persuades.”[3]And I will sing my song with the voice of the sufferer, which is the song of resurrection and redemption, teaching them that sacrifice for the greater good is a blessing. And I will sing with my own voice of “everlasting;” and my song will be a new song, and it will be a song of understanding and comfort and hope.” I will embrace them with our ceaseless love, our uniqueness, and our oneness, that they may love one another in difference as in solidarity.  And so the music remained in the world for those who would listen and for those who would sing. And the music is for all time and for all people. And those who will allow themselves to hear the music, those who will allow themselves to be swept into the music, those who will add their voices to the song, will be useful and good and as one, just as the music is one. AMEN.

[1]David P. Gushee, (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], 42.

[2]David P. Gushee, (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], 42.

[3]Stephen B. Boyd, (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], 48.

Sermon for May 28, 2017: The Power and the Glory (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

“With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
[The nation] mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death, august and royal,
sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
and a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond [our coastal] foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight
to the innermost heart of their own land they are known
as the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.”[1]

And so we remember.  We remember those who have died in the service of their beliefs – in the service of others; those who have laid down their lives for us.  And we wait.  We wait to see them again as our faith tells us we will.  And as we wait, we pray.  We pray for a day when we will be comforted, when we will be fulfilled, when we will live in the light of God’s countenance and when we will have peace.

In this way we are no different than the apostles who met the resurrected Jesus and asked him if they would soon see the day in which the kingdom of God would be restored – the day when their nation, their people would be returned to power and achieve glory.  And we receive the same answer as they did, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that God has set.”  It is only for you to wait – and to pray.

The truth is, we are not good at waiting.  We hear that there is power to be had and we want it.  To be sure, we believe that we want it for the right reasons – that we are the ones who can best yield that power for the good of all humanity.  “Christian faith,” says Daniel Migliore,”is expectant faith.”[2]  But often we expect far more – and far less than we have been promised.  Like the original apostles, we see God’s promises to us only through our limited human vision.  “God,” we pray, “make us well, save our loved ones, give victory to our country.  Give us glory.”  And God can – but God doesn’t.  Why not?  That’s what the apostles wanted to know, “When will you give victory to us?  When will our people be given power over our adversaries”?  It is the same for many Christians in our country, for whom “’the restoration of the kingdom’ often remains bound to the return of the United States to the pristine ideal of a Christian nation.”[3]  These Christians see “power” and “glory” as things to be acquired – as things to be won – as things to die for.  But taking power from others is not God’s way.  God does not ask us to pray for the glory of a single, narrow, self-serving vision of what is right, of what is strong, of what is proud, of what is great – God asks to pray for “a new reality in which the new order that will be shaped eternally by God’s vision for love and justice and service can also be realized in relationships and communities now.”[4] The truth is that “if God’s creative and redemptive purposes depend [only on the future] of this country, [then] our hopes are as misplaced as those of the original eleven disciples.”[5]

Our hope should not lie on this country, but on the people in it – and on God’s people everywhere.  God’s purposes depend on us – to pray “in hope and fear, in faith and doubt, in obedience and wonder,”[6] in war and peace – and to stay together. This was Jesus’s last and most fervent prayer: that we should be one with one another.  This seems terribly hard for us, although it shouldn’t really – most of us learned “the buddy system” in preschool.  In a hazardous or scary situation – in a situation where someone is likely to get lost – always stay with your buddy.  And there is no place in which we are more likely to get spiritually lost than a world in which people believe that the power and glory that is rightfully God’s only can be claimed by any one nation or individual.  “No warring serves God’s kingdom, no zealous uprising, not even the expulsion of occupying forces, but simply the communal witness and their preaching of the Gospel,”[7] a gospel that tells us that we cannot rely on our own strength.  A gospel in which our savior prays for us.

Today’s gospel passage is taken from what is called “Jesus’s high priestly prayer.”  In it, Jesus asks God to protect his beloved people and to allow them to truly know him and to experience her glory.  Jesus does not suggest that his followers should seek glory, but simply asks that they learn to experience the glory of God that is already in them.  Jesus makes it clear: God’s glory is not something that can be taken.  It is something that God shares with us.  It is ours when we declare and show our love for God.  It is a gift.  We know this.  We say it every week:  For yours – God’sis the kingdom and the power and glory” – not mine, not yours, and not the province of any earthly nation or leader.  God is bigger than any one human being’s – any one nation’s experience of God.  “[It is only] when we cry out from the pit…when we cry out to God burdened by the cross we are called to carry, [that we] lean into the full [glory] of God’s faithfulness.”[8]  God is greater than our pain, our fear, our lives, and our deaths.  God is greater than our ideas of right and wrong.  God is greater than any power in all the reality that is known to us.  To God be praise and glory.

And to God be our loyalty and devotion, for it is for God’s kingdom that we should be willing to die – and for none other.  We live in a time and a place in which violence, anger, and hatred have become commonplace – a place in which children feel free to malign one another based on race or creed – a time in which we are encouraged to separate ourselves from those who are somehow deemed less worthy than we are.  We live in a time when “we all need God’s protection from our own worst impulses as well as from others whom God also loves.”[9] It is not too many steps from this place to one in which we will be asked to die for our beliefs.  So let us be clear about what those beliefs are – what our fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and friends and all of our honored dead laid down their lives for: freedom, honor, and community – for the ability to seek wholeness through relationship with other people – for the ability to seek unity with our neighbors – for the ability to love one another as God loves us.  It is this way of sacrifice that Jesus showed us in responding to hate with love, by living and dying for his God.  Live without fear.  Your creator loves you and has    always protected you.  Follow the good road in peace and you too will share in the free gift of God’s power and glory.  AMEN.

 

[1]Lawrence Binyon (1914), “For the Fallen.”

[2]Sean A. White, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 520.

[3]Ibid, 522.

[4]Nancy J. Ramsay, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 540.

Sean A. White, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 522.

[6]Randle R. (Rick) Mixon, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 522.

 

[7]Sean A. White, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 522.

[8]Thomas L. Are Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 530.

[9]Nancy J. Ramsey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Seventh Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 542.

Sermon for May 21, 2017: the Jesus Movement (preaced at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

This weekend the Diocese of California was blessed with a visit from the Most Reverend Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.  He was here to participate in the Eco Justice Weekend, which included a moderated panel on the role of the church in environmental justice, graduation at my alma mater, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, a reception and celebration Eucharist at the Cathedral on Friday night, and Eco Confirmation at the Golden Gate Overlook in San Francisco yesterday morning, at which two of our parishioners were confirmed and two others received into the Episcopal Church.  At the Friday evening Eucharist service, Bishop Curry preached what Bishop Marc called, “a transformational sermon that will form the basis for the Episcopal Church’s understanding of our relationship to the environment.”  It was, quite simply, amazing. Paul Brooks turned to me afterward and said, “I never knew an Episcopal priest could do that.”  I encourage all of you to listen to the sermon in its entirety when it is posted online.  For now, I wanted to share with you some of the things that came up for me in listening to Bishop Curry.

  • He preaches the Gospel. He tells us, “This is the Bible.  This is right there in scripture.”  But he knows his audience too.  He says, “But I know Episcopalians.  Episcopalians think, “Well, yes, scripture is good, but if it’s not in the Book of Common Prayer….but it is in the Book of Common Prayer,” and he tells you where.  But he also knows that we are a thinking people, a rational people.  We are the crazy Christians that believe in – science and informed debate.  So he gives us some more evidence.  “If not the Bible if not the Book of Common Prayer, then the Pope” and the Journal of American Medicine.  And back to the scripture.  Because, although we do not as a denomination believe that the Bible is inerrant or literally true, we still believe that it is the bedrock of Christian belief.  And we should not be afraid to share it – and preach it.
  • He refers to the church as a movement, “the Jesus Movement.” He tells us that we must be about doing God’s business.  We must be about spreading God’s word.  And we must be about doing this together, as a community because by doing it together we need not fear.
  • He is never overtly political, but he makes clear what the values of the Episcopal Church are: being good stewards of all that we have been given – all of God’s creation; living in relationship, striving to make communities of harmony and peace; keeping our mission, our high calling, in our heads and hearts at all time by seeking to live according to the words and actions of Jesus Christ; by working together to welcome, support and serve all God’s people.

He spreads the Good News.

Bishop Curry did not preach at the Confirmation service.  Instead, he asked each of us to think of a moment of wonder that made us aware of the presence of God.  As I thought about my own “mountain top moments” – times when I felt a particularly strong sense of “Immanuel” (God with us), I realized that my own first reaction and, I suspect, beings and I think it is part of our God-given nature to share Good News when we receive it.  As part of Confirmation, we renew our baptismal vows.  Thus, yesterday morning, we found ourselves committing to a life of evangelism.  That’s because proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ is, in fact, one of our baptismal vows.  And it is also the definition of evangelism.

“Bishop Curry invites us all to join “the Jesus Movement,” which centers on sharing of the Gospel to our hurting world…The term evangelism stems from the New Testament Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news.” Evangelism is the sharing of the life giving Gospel of Jesus Christ in word (proclamation) and deed (actions)…Verbal proclamation, social justice, and the works of mercy and charity are linked by our incarnate Savior.”[1]  Evangelism involves three actions: proclamation, social action, and invitation.  We must tell people what we know to be true: that the way of Jesus is the path to salvation.  We must act on our words by demonstrating the way of Jesus through kindness, generosity and forbearance toward others.  We must, in other words, show we are Christians by our love.  Finally, we must invite others to join us, to offer them the opportunity to share our path toward peace and love.

Bishop Curry believes that, “In all of our work, we must especially remember that God is the great evangelist, and yet he graciously allows us, his Body, to be ‘his ambassadors, making his appeal through us… Evangelism wasn’t a dreaded task in the early Church, it was a joy to share the best news: of salvation for the world through Jesus Christ… [According to Bishop Curry], the Church will experience joy and abundant life as it stretches beyond its walls. We must, though, take heed to hold together, equally, proclamation, social action, and invitation in our evangelistic efforts.”[2]

I believe that Episcopalians fear the word “evangelism” because of its historical association with forcing others to change their beliefs and because it has been co-opted by other Christian denominations whose beliefs about the way in which to follow Jesus are different than ours.  But just because those associations exist does not mean we should not call ourselves “evangelists.”  Rather, it gives us that much more reason to learn to evangelize so that we can show people the true way of Christ, the path that follows the words he gave us when asked what the greatest commandment is: “Love God, Love your neighbor – everything else is secondary.”  That we love our God who gave us so much and that we actively seek to love our neighbors is the way of Christ, and it should be spread.  In fact, it must be spread.  It must be spread here at Grace.  It must be spread here in Martinez.  It must be spread to all those we love-and to all those we are tempted to hate.

Bishop Curry believes in the future of the Episcopal Church –and it is the same future the disciples believed in – the same future that Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker believed in.  The same future we have always had: life in Jesus Christ.  “Do not be afraid my brothers and sisters,” Bishop Curry told us, “We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement and we will not be silenced.  We will not be defeated.  We will not fail.  God is with us and God is good.”  Amen.

[1]Carrie Boren Headington (2016), “The Episcopal Church’s ‘e-word,’ – what is evangelism”? The Living Church, http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2016/02/02/the-episcopal-churchs-e-word-what-is-evangelism/.

[2]Ibid.

 

Sermon for May 21, 2017 (8 a.m. only): The Jesus Movement (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

Today we heard about St. Paul’s efforts to spread the Good News of Jesus – and they were not without controversy.  That’s because Paul was willing to work with people of other faiths and draw parallels between his budding movement and their already-existing beliefs.  He’s a bit sneaky.  “I see you are very religious people,” he tells the Greeks, who have many gods.  “And I see that you have a statue to an “unknown god.”  I am here to tell you that your “unknown” God is known to us. And, coincidentally, that God is the only God you need.  Some people take exception to this way of evangelism, suggesting that it waters-down the Christian message by comparing it to other religious traditions rather than explaining what it is.

I don’t agree.  I think that as long as we know who we are – something I preached about the day we introduced our new mission statement – we can safely explain it to people in terms they understand.  Knowing what it means to be an Episcopalian and preaching it so people can get it is something our Presiding Bishop, The Most Reverend Michael Curry, does very well   This weekend the Diocese of California was blessed with a visit from the Bishop Curry, who was here to participate in the Eco Justice Weekend, which included a moderated panel on the role of the church in environmental justice, graduation at my alma mater, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, a reception and celebration Eucharist at the Cathedral on Friday night, and Eco Confirmation at the Golden Gate Overlook in San Francisco yesterday morning, at which two of our parishioners were confirmed and two others received into the Episcopal Church.  At the Friday evening Eucharist service, Bishop Curry preached what Bishop Marc called, “a transformational sermon that will form the basis for the Episcopal Church’s understanding of our relationship to the environment.”  It was, quite simply, amazing. Paul Brooks turned to me afterward and said, “I never knew an Episcopal priest could do that.”  I encourage all of you to listen to the sermon in its entirety when it is posted online.  For now, I wanted to share with you some of the things that came up for me in listening to Bishop Curry.

He preaches the Gospel.  He tells us, “This is the Bible.  This is right there in scripture.”  But he knows his audience too.  He says, “But I know Episcopalians.  Episcopalians think, “Well, yes, scripture is good, but if it’s not in the Book of Common Prayer….but it is in the Book of Common Prayer,” and he tells you where.  But he also knows that we are a thinking people, a rational people.  We are the crazy Christians that believe in – science and informed debate.  So he gives us some more evidence.  “If not the Bible if not the Book of Common Prayer, then the Pope” and the Journal of American Medicine.  And back to the scripture.  Because, although we do not as a denomination believe that the Bible is inerrant or literally true, we still believe that it is the bedrock of Christian belief.  And we should not be afraid to share it – and preach it.

He refers to the church as a movement, “the Jesus Movement.”  The part of church, he says, where we sit in the pews on Sunday – the part we’re doing now – is only a tiny percentage of what church is about.  We are, as St. Teresa of Avila reminded us, God’s hands and feet in the world.  We must be about doing God’s business.  We must be about spreading God’s word.  And we must be about doing this together, as a community because by doing it together we need not fear.

He is never overtly political, but he makes clear what the values of the Episcopal Church are: being good stewards of all that we have been given – all of God’s creation; living in relationship, striving to make communities of harmony and peace; keeping our mission, our high calling, in our heads and hearts at all time by seeking to live according to the words and actions of Jesus Christ; by working together to welcome, support and serve all God’s people. 

He spreads the Good News.

Bishop Curry did not preach at the Confirmation service.  Instead, he asked each of us to think of a moment of wonder that made us aware of the presence of God.  As I thought about my own “mountain top moments” – times when I felt a particularly strong sense of “Immanuel” (God with us), I realized that my own first reaction and, I suspect, beings and I think it is part of our God-given nature to share Good News when we receive it.  As part of Confirmation, we renew our baptismal vows.  Thus, yesterday morning, we found ourselves committing to a life of evangelism.  That’s because proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ is, in fact, one of our baptismal vows.  And it is also the definition of evangelism.

“Bishop Curry invites us all to join “the Jesus Movement,” which centers on sharing of the Gospel to our hurting world…The term evangelism stems from the New Testament Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news.” Evangelism is the sharing of the life giving Gospel of Jesus Christ in word (proclamation) and deed (actions)…Verbal proclamation, social justice, and the works of mercy and charity are linked by our incarnate Savior.”[1]  Evangelism involves three actions: proclamation, social action, and invitation.  We must tell people what we know to be true: that the way of Jesus is the path to salvation.  We must act on our words by demonstrating the way of Jesus through kindness, generosity and forbearance toward others.  We must, in other words, show we are Christians by our love.  Finally, we must invite others to join us, to offer them the opportunity to share our path toward peace and love.

Bishop Curry believes that, “In all of our work, we must especially remember that God is the great evangelist, and yet he graciously allows us, his Body, to be ‘his ambassadors, making his appeal through us… Evangelism wasn’t a dreaded task in the early Church, it was a joy to share the best news: of salvation for the world through Jesus Christ… [According to Bishop Curry], the Church will experience joy and abundant life as it stretches beyond its walls. We must, though, take heed to hold together, equally, proclamation, social action, and invitation in our evangelistic efforts.”[2]

I believe that Episcopalians fear the word “evangelism” because of its historical association with forcing others to change their beliefs and because it has been co-opted by other Christian denominations whose beliefs about the way in which to follow Jesus are different than ours.  But just because those associations exist does not mean we should not call ourselves “evangelists.”  Rather, it gives us that much more reason to learn to evangelize so that we can show people the true way of Christ, the path that follows the words he gave us when asked what the greatest commandment is: “Love God, Love your neighbor – everything else is secondary.”  That we love our God who gave us so much and that we actively seek to love our neighbors is the way of Christ, and it should be spread.  In fact, it must be spread.  It must be spread here at Grace.  It must be spread here in Martinez.  It must be spread to all those we love-and to all those we are tempted to hate.  This is exactly what Peter was talking about in today’s New Testament reading: know who you are and be ready to explain it to anyone who asks at any time.

The future of the Episcopal Church that Bishop Curry believes in is the same future the disciples believed in – the same future that Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker believed in.  The same future we have always had: life in Jesus Christ.  “Do not be afraid my brothers and sisters,” Bishop Curry told us, “We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement and we will not be silenced.  We will not be defeated.  We will not fail.  God is with us and God is good.”  Amen.

[1]Carrie Boren Headington (2016), “The Episcopal Church’s ‘e-word,’ – what is evangelism”? The Living Church, http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2016/02/02/the-episcopal-churchs-e-word-what-is-evangelism/.

[2]Ibid.

Sermon for May 14, 2017: Being in Relationship 2 (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA:)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Today we heard about St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew who was converted to Christianity by the apostles and appointed a deacon in Jerusalem.  The fact that he was already considered an outsider made it exponentially more dangerous to preach about Jesus -and Stephen knew it.  But he did it anyway and, according to the writer of Acts, he died for his witness.

But why?  Couldn’t he have just dialed down the rhetoric a bit?  Preached to more receptive converts?  Moved to a less hostile town?  We may admire his courage, but we can’t help but wonder about his common sense.  What would compel someone to knowingly put himself in a life-threatening situation if he didn’t have to?  But people do.  Not just ancient, seemingly remote people like Stephen– but saints in our own time.  We can pick up a newspaper or go online today and be inspired by Christians who die for refusing to renounce their faith.  But would we could we –do the same?

It’s hard to know.  I don’t know if the disciples fully knew what they were getting into when Jesus tried to talk to them about who he was and what would happen when he was gone- when he went to a place he called, “his Father’s house” – to his true “home.”

We all have our own ideas about what “home” means.  For many of us “home” is associated with a place, but for others “home” is a person or a state of being.  I sometimes say, “Home is where the husband is” because we moved so many times as a result of Gary’s military career (and because I love him).  For young people, “home” is often the place where the people who have raised and nurtured them can be found –be they mothers- or fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or beloved mentors.  Home, Robert Frost said, “is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in…Home is the primary connection between you and the rest of the world.”[1]

But where was Jesus’s home?  That’s what Thomas wanted to know – where was Jesus going?  And how were they going to find him?  But when Thomas asked, Jesus told the disciples that they already knew the way, because he was the way.  He told them he was the way they have been allowed to know God.  He told them that he was their home.

Those are probably the most confusing directions ever.  Thomas asked Jesus where to go and Jesus instead told him how to live.  He told his disciples that God’s kingdom is not a physical place but a state of being, a relationship -that God’s household is a dwelling made not of cloth or bricks, but of mutual loyalty and love.  It is a committed relationship grounded in faith and located in the collective soul.  “Know me,” Jesus tells them.  “Love me.  Trust me – and you will be part of God.  And, what’s more, if you do that, you will have power like mine.  You will have power greater than mine.  I will show the world the glory of God – through you.”

That’s an astounding idea if you think about it.  If you believe in Jesus, you will have the power of God.  Think how that promise resonated with the poor and oppressed people who followed Jesus.  Think how that belief has sustained demoralized and subjugated people for thousands of years since.  I think Jesus’ promise of power is one of the primary reasons that Christianity grew so quickly.  I think it’s the reason that people are still willing to die for it.  I think it’s the reason that people are willing to kill for it.  Because people – Christians –think they can harness the power of God.  But I don’t think it works that way.

My husband and I once took a trip to South Korea by Military Airlift Command.  MAC flighting was a great way to travel to places you could never afford to go.  Basically, you packed your bag and showed up at an air force base where you could watch a board of posted flights.  When you saw somewhere you wanted to go, you got in line and, if you were lucky, you got on a plane – and you got home the same way – or hoped you would.  This particular trip started out well, but when we got to Korea, we found out that there were a lot of people who were considered a higher priority for placement on a return flight than us joy-riders.  So, every day we packed our bags, checked out of our hotel and went to the base.  And every day we didn’t get a flight, returned to the hotel, and checked back in again.  Now, this was before ATMs and cell phones, so after a few days we found ourselves down to about ten dollars in traveler’s checks and living off Dunkin’ Donuts and granola bars, so we were thinking about paying for a flight back home.  The next day we went back to the base and met a young couple who were in the same predicament as we were.  When we told them we were thinking of buying plane tickets to get home, the young woman said, “Didn’t you just tell me you are Christians”?  “Yes,” we said.  “Then why aren’t you praying”? she inquired.  “We are praying,” I said, “but we’re not necessarily expecting God to get us on a MAC flight.  He probably has bigger things to worry about.”  “Well,” she huffed, “I guess you don’t have much faith, do you”?

I’ve thought about that incident many times over the years.  She believed that I lacked faith because I didn’t believe that God would provide what we needed.  But it wasn’t that I didn’t believe that God could provide what we needed.  I just didn’t think I had the right to decide if what we really needed was to get on a MAC flight.  (And for those of you who can’t stand to not hear the end of a story, what God ultimately provided was a new, promotional direct flight from Seoul to San Francisco, complete with a meal and hot towels and a credit card to pay for it.  Amen).

So what was different in our approach to prayer?  Was one of us right and the other wrong?  The writer of John’s gospel provides a very comforting answer.  He tells us that Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  Believe in God.  Believe in mebecause you know me.  I am willing to do anything for you.  We are in a relationship and because of that relationship I will always answer your prayers as is best for you.

I think anyone who is in a committed relationship can understand this.  Whether it’s a romantic partnership, parenthood, or a treasured friendship– sometimes you do things just because the person you love asks you to.   How many times have you gone to a movie that wasn’t appealing to you?  Or spent the night cleaning up after a sick person?  Or gone to church when you had no interest in learning about religion or even God for that matter?  That’s love.  And Jesus’ love for us opens the door so that we can find our place in God’s household.   Allowing himself to be bound to this sinful earth and its imperfect inhabitants in the form of Jesus is God’s priceless gift to us.

But what are we willing to do for God – and is there anything we really can give to God?  Peter’s answer is the same as the gospel message – believe.   “Grow into salvation…Come to him…Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house -” let yourself be built into God’s house.  God wants us to be part of him.  That’s all – and that’s everything.  Because I have started to believe that our good and bad behavior matter less to God than whether we accept her divine love and share it with others.  God asks us to open our eyes and see – see and believe that such complexity and beauty cannot be random.  To acknowledge that the challenging, confusing, and amazing people with whom we share our lives are not just replicated DNA.  To admit that there are places inside of us that cannot be filled by earthly things.  God asks us to accept what has already been given to us.  God asks us to believe.

For many people, that’s nearly an impossible task.  Many people can’t even imagine such a belief.  So we must imagine it with each other.  We may have to imagine it for one another.  We must keep showing and telling each other what we see and what is in our hearts.  We must, like Stephen, gaze into heaven and allow ourselves to be emptied of fear and filled with the Holy Spirit.  The power that comes with being in relationship with God is not the power to know things or have things or even be things.  It is the greatest and most important power of all – the power to love others as God loves us.  And that is worth dying for.  AMEN.

[1]Frank T. McAndrew (August 3, 2015), “Home is where the heart is, but where is home”? Psychology Today,  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-ooze/201508/home-is-where-the-heart-is-where-is-home

Sermon for May 7, 2017: Who are We? (Preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

This past week I attended a gathering of clergy where we talked about our concerns and hopes for our various parishes and the Episcopal Church as a whole.  Although it was not the stated topic of the day, our conversation eventually drifted – as it so often does – to the subject of “how do we bring people back to church.”  Eventually, someone introduced a topic that is the bane of many clergy: Sunday morning youth sports.  Most priests have at least one family in their congregation – and often many – who are not seen at church for long stretches of time because one or more of their children plays some kind of sport on Sunday mornings.  “How,” moaned one of my colleagues, “do we make church more meaningful and valuable than soccer”?

The thing is, I don’t think the real issue is whether people think church is more important than soccer.  I think that sports are just the thing that families do on Sunday mornings now.  In the 20th century, families went to church.  Now they go to youth sports.  And for a lot of people, church didn’t have much meaning anyway, which made it easy for them to switch when there was a shift in societal values.  So, for me the question is not how we make church more meaningful than soccer – or anything else.  The question is how we communicate that church is meaningful – that it is valuable – that it is invaluable.  The question is how we tell people who we are.

But first we have to know the answers to those questions.  According to John Nielson, “The question of identity is important to everyone. So much of our life is framed by the struggle to truly understand who we are and why we are here.”[1]  The same thing is true of institutions.  It was certainly true of the fledgling Christian community we have been reading about during this Easter season.  We have heard from the authors of letters of Paul, Peter, the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of John, all trying to explain what “the Way” – the original name of the Jesus Movement – was all about.

By most accounts they were pretty successful.  Not only did they sextuple their membership as the result of one apparently fabulous sermon, but they also attempted to live harmoniously by sharing both their material and spiritual lives, with the result that they continued to grow.  Theirs was an idealized lifestyle – one that has resurfaced again and again under different names over the many years since – communes, kibbutzim, socialism, and “intentional community” – all have been repeatedly tried with great hopes, but most, including that of these earliest Christians, have failed.  It seems that human beings are simply not evolved enough yet to successfully share everything.

Luckily, the growth of Christianity was not dependent on the manner in which its disciples lived.  Nor was it about being willing to suffer for our religion, despite the way our reading from Peter has often been interpreted.  The text does not say that we as Christians should seek out suffering in order to identify with Christ.  The author’s message is simpler than that.  Suffering, he says, happens.  It is present in our lives from birth – and it is a crucial part of rebirth – and rebirth is what becoming a Christian is all about.  Membership in the body of Christ necessitates the radical alteration of who we are.  And, as anyone who has tried to drastically change their body or behavior can tell you, transformation can be painful.  It requires enormous strength and motivation.  So, when Peter tells us that enduring suffering is good, he is not saying that pursuing it will make us like Jesus; he is saying that when we are struggling with it, Jesus is present with us, as our example and our reward.

To know Christ is to know the Good Shepherd, the gateway to salvation.  Some scholars have suggested that the twenty-third psalm, familiar to many of us as a poem of comfort, is better described as a Song of Confidence, because in its six short stanzas it reminds of us of what we will find in the course of our transformation.  It describes what it means to be reborn in the image of the true God – a God who revives not just our souls, but our “whole selves,” a God who “hounds” us with kindness, whether we want it or not – a God who fully knows us –enough to call us by name –enough to lay down his life for us.  It tells us how to recognize the Way of Jesus and to follow it.

Are we, like the early Christians, devoted to God’s teaching?  Do we make time to pray together, to break bread together, and to enjoy fellowship with one another?  Do we listen for the voice of Jesus as he calls us by name?  Are we willing to suffer for justice, to resist abusing when we are abused, and threatening when we are threatened?  Who are we?

These are some of the questions that your faithful vestry reflected on yesterday at our annual retreat.  Our goal was to review the amazing work done during the interim, when parishioners were asked to think about who we are as a community and our hopes and dreams for the future, and then to synthesize that  input into a formal mission statement and vision for Grace Episcopal Church.

Like the early Christians, your vestry members prayed, heeded the apostle’s teaching, broke bread together and shared fellowship.  They listened for Jesus’s call for Grace Church and considered what the greatest strengths and desires of this community might be.  I asked them to do this foundational work so that we can move forward together with a strong sense of identity.  A mission statement expresses who we are.  It describes the heart of our community, “our unique and strongest gifts for ministry… [and provides us with] a tool to communicate the personality, passion and purpose of [our] parish… [It will hopefully] energize and provide direction to [those of us who are already here, as well as create] an invitation for those seeking a community like [ours].[2]  A vision statement, on the other hand, is aspirational.  It helps us decide who we would like to be and what mark we would like to leave on the world.  I believe that in the best spirit of collaboration, the vestry accomplished this task and I am pleased to share these statements with you.  Our mission statement: “Grace Episcopal Church: working together to welcome, support, and serve all God’s people. “ Our vision statement: “We strive to be a vital, loving community.  We believe in practicing the way of Christ.  All are welcome at God’s table.  We grow spiritually by offering help and hope to all we meet.”

I am most grateful to be part of this vision for the future of our community and I encourage you to support our mission and to tell others who we are “with glad and generous hearts, praising God” and securing “the goodwill of…people,” so that “day by day the Lord [will add to the] number of those [being] saved.” AMEN.

[1]John W. Nielson, (May 17, 2012), “Who am I”? in The Les Mis Project: Finding the Gospel in the music of “Les Miserables,” https://thelesmisproject.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/who-am-i/.

[2]Linda Buskirk, (January 6, 2012), “The value of a mission statement,” Episcopal Church Foundation: Vital practices for leading congregations, http://www.ecfvp.org/blogs/937/the-value-of-a-mission-statement.

Sermon for April 30, 2017: Be known to us Lord Jesus (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

    

All churches have traditions.  I’m not talking about the formal customs and procedures of religious practice.  I’m talking about the unofficial rituals that make a certain church our parish home.  And while most of these aren’t written down anywhere and their origins have usually been lost to history, they are nonetheless entrenched in the culture of the parish.  They are, in their own way, sacred.

I knew I had encountered my first Grace Church Martinez unofficial holy law of obligation when I asked why we have pancake breakfasts during Lent instead of Easter season.  “Isn’t that,” I inquired with innocent concern, “backwards”?  “Well,” I was told (gently but firmly), “I don’t know about the theology of it, but to me Lent at Grace Church is the smell of pancakes.”  And I, knowing that church doctrine is no match for the aroma of maple syrup and sausage, shut my mouth and said grace.

The truth is that for many of us food and God are inextricably linked. One of the very first conversations between God and human beings was about food.  After God strongly suggested to the first people that they not eat from one particular tree in the beautiful garden where they lived, they went right ahead and did it anyway, leading to all kinds of trouble – but also providing us with the comforting knowledge that we are certainly not the only p unable to resist attractive but forbidden foods.  We are also not the only people who miss food when we are deprived of it.  After God released them from lives of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites tried to mutiny because they were hungry – and when God gave them something to eat, they promptly got angry because they didn’t like the taste of it.

We do God a disservice, however, when we focus on biblical stories in which God’s people were deprived of food, because there are many, many more tales in which God provides food for the people.  God not only sent manna to feed the Israelites in the wilderness, but he also dispatched a raven to feed his prophet Elijah, Abigail to provide for David, and Joseph to be sure that the people of Egypt had enough food stored to survive a seven-year famine.  Ours is a generous God, a god who has continued to provide physical and spiritual food for the human beings she created and loves, despite the fact that we have been ungrateful for them – despite the fact that we have rejected them – despite the fact that we have often destroyed them, including God’s own child, Jesus, the unblemished sacrificial Lamb, the perfect spiritual food which we, in our anger and fear, despised, rejected, and crucified.

That’s what Peter was trying to help the people of Jerusalem to understand – and it “cut them to the heart” when they realized that they had misunderstood and rebuffed God’s mercy. This passage is not about how “the Jews killed Jesus.”  It is not about the collective guilt of the people of the city.  Peter was not there to condemn the group – why would he bother?  He’s there to offer forgiveness and salvation to each individual person.  Jesus is the Lord, he tells them, the Messiah whose mission was not thwarted but fulfilled by his sacrificial death.  Jesus is the one they were waiting for, and, miraculously, they could still be part of it – part of a new life, a life free of corruption and fear.  All they had they to do was not throw away the gift they have been given.

It’s all we have to do too.  I recently read an article touting the effects of a miracle drug that can, “improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans – at no personal cost.”[1]  That drug is religion. Long-term research suggests that although “the draw for many may be meaningful liturgy, perhaps a sense of forgiveness and ultimately, salvation,”[2] that’s not all regular church attendees are getting.  Churchgoers (as opposed to non-churchgoers) are more optimistic, less depressed, have a greater sense of purpose, exhibit more self-control, are less likely to smoke, and more likely to have a stable marriage.”[3]  And, just to be clear, these benefits are related to church attendance, not individual spirituality.  These findings fly in the face of what Jeff Paschal calls, “shallow, privatized, and individualized faith characterized by statements such as…’What I believe is between God and me’; ‘I am spiritual, but I do not practice organized religion’; ‘I am Christian, but I practice my faith by myself by being a good person.’  For too many church members, faith has become little more than mouthing the words ‘I believe in God and in Jesus’ as some sort of magic formula.  There is [no] public and communal dimension of thanksgiving and responsibility.”[4]

Yet, as today’s scripture readings so clearly tell us, it is exactly the public and communal aspects of the early Christian church that drew people to it, so much so that three thousand people were baptized in one day.  That seems impossible today – but I’ll tell you something.  I don’t think it is.  Because I think that people need something to believe in now just as much as they did then.  Human beings need something to give them strength, and something to share – and I believe that “something” is God –whether they know it or not.  The job of regular churchgoers is to show them.

One of the most beautiful practices we have here at Grace is when I invite forward those who would like to share the joys and sorrows of our lives together by disclosing a struggle or offering a thanksgiving with the group. This opportunity – to hear that one of our sisters only needs one more chemo treatment, or that a long-awaited heart transplant has occurred, or even that one of our friends is still struggling but remains hopeful – is an incalculable blessing – the same blessing that brought people to Jesus and to the movement that still bears his name.

That is what true Christian hospitality is all about, demonstrated over and over by Jesus in life and confirmed in his death.  It is the way in which Christians are supposed to be known – by our willingness to provide not just for one another, but to anyone who asks. Each time we break bread in community, whether it’s pancakes or wafers or granola bars; whether it’s in liturgy or fellowship or on the street- we are known to one another – and Jesus is known to us.

“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six,” Sara Miles writes in Take This Bread, “I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer but actual food—indeed, the bread of life.”[5]

 

That is the lesson and the promise of the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus; that “Jesus will meet his beloved ‘in the breaking of the bread.’ [That] the hospitality of…traveling companions [will become] the doorway to grace… [This requires] trust and hope…Hospitality expresses deep vulnerability; welcoming a stranger is always risk,”[6] but it is the way in which we are asked to demonstrate our faith, our gratitude and our understanding of God.  It is the way in which God opens our eyes to the gifts that he has given us and the way in which we learn to accept those gifts.  That bread is a miracle.  Take it. Eat it. Share it.  And be known in it.    AMEN.

[1]Tyler J. VanderWeele and John Siniff (2016), “Religion may be a miracle drug,” USA Today online, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/10/28/religion-church-attendance-mortality-column/92676964/

[2]Ibid.

[3][3]Tyler J. VanderWeele and John Siniff (2016), “Religion may be a miracle drug,” USA Today online, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/10/28/religion-church-attendance-mortality-column/92676964/

[4]Jeff Paschal, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 408.

 

[5]Sarah Miles, (2008), Take this bread: a radical conversion, [New York: Ballantyne].

[6]Molly T. Marshall, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 422.

 

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

You may listen to the sermon here:

Picture this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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