Sermon for July 30, 2017: Teach us to pray (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

One day my husband came home really irritated.  He rides his bike to work and on his way home a teenager threw a full cup of soda out a car window at him.  “I was,” he said, “tempted to ride up to them at the next red light, take a picture of their license plate and turn them in to the cops – but then I thought I should be able to ignore it.  And then I thought if I didn’t report them that then they’d get away with it and do it again.  And then I thought I should be able to forgive them.  But then they turned the corner so I couldn’t catch them anyway.  Otherwise, I don’t know what I would have done.”

I don’t know what I would have done either – because while I can tell you that theoretically ignoring the slights of others, praying for your enemies – doing what Christians call “turning the other cheek” – is the right thing– the truth is, it’s really hard sometimes.  Maybe ours are small annoyances, but these little frustrations add up and, if you’re like me, you have days when it seems like it would be easier to remove the calories from chocolate than to let go of your irritation.

So, how do we do it?  First of all, we have to ask for help.  In today’s first lesson, God appears to Solomon in a dream and asks him what he’d like as a gift when he becomes king. Somewhat famously, Solomon asks for wisdom instead of riches or beauty, but that’s not the whole story. First of all, if you look carefully at the narrative, you will notice that Solomon does not ask for intelligence; he asks for discernment – or, in Hebrew, a “listening heart.”  I talk a lot about my belief that many spiritual seekers won’t go to church because of preconceptions about “religion,” even while what they are looking for is right here.  Solomon’s story gives us an example of how a popular modern construct can show up in an ancient religious text.  When Solomon responds to God in his vision, his answer is very similar to what we think of as the Serenity Prayer: “God,” says Solomon, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” – with the emphasis on wisdom to know the difference.

Solomon knew what he needed. Despite calling himself one, Solomon was not a child when he became king; he was an adult – a very sinful adult who had, among other things, murdered his brother in order to ascend to the throne. By admitting to his ignorance and immorality, Solomon demonstrated humility and, because he asked for the right thing, God gave it to him.

So, how do we know what we should ask for when we pray?  Because as far as I’m concerned, knowing the difference between what we want and what we need – knowing what to pray for -seems pretty hard.  Luckily, we have help.  We have been given a lens – a rule of thumb, if you will, to help us make these choices.  Jesus tells us that sin is “separation,” separation from God and one another – so we know that things that cause separation – that cause sin– are probably not things we should be praying for.  So, in Gary’s case, it meant not praying that the kid who threw soda at him would slip on his own ice and crash into a tree.

Praying for things that unify rather than separate is exactly what St. Paul told the Romans to do almost two thousand years ago.  According to Paul, like us they did not know how to pray as they ought. The way they ought to pray, he said, was with the understanding that all right prayers are already answered.  Then, after detailing some of the earthly powers that cause separation- hardship, distress, persecution, reckless leadership, famine, nakedness, peril, war, death, everyday life, dwelling on the past, and worrying about the future,– he told them that none of these things could separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Unless we let them. Unless we willingly separate ourselves from God and our neighbors by ignoring or subverting the ethics of God. For the psalmist, those rules were determined by Torah – “instruction”- from their ancestors. For Christians, our template is the wisdom, teachings and behavioral example of Jesus the Christ.  We believe that it is through Jesus that we are saved from sin – from separation. Given that understanding, all we have to do is to look to Jesus to figure out what– and what not – to pray for.

In order to do this, it’s helpful to remember that Jesus’s instruction always comes through two lenses – tradition and context.  As a devout Jew, Jesus bound himself to the laws of his tradition – to Torah- but he also tied these ancient ethics to the realities of life.  He talked to people with examples and images they could understand –farming, cooking, buying and selling –things his disciples did every day.  The question for them – and for us – is what these things have to say about the nature of Christian discipleship and the kingdom of God.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses mustard seeds, yeast, and hidden treasure to describe what the kingdom of God is like, so let’s look at these things.  Mustard is a weed that most farmers of Jesus’s day would have pulled out of the ground so it wouldn’t create chaos and take over their fields of more orderly crops.  Yeast was an unpleasant compound considered to be impure and potentially toxic.  As to the buried treasure dug up by the searching merchant, lest we forget: It wasn’t his field!  So the kingdom of heaven, then, is like a pushy only minimally useful weed; a polluted, potentially lethal bit of rotten food, and stolen merchandise.  The kingdom of heaven, in other words, is not what you might expect.

For Jesus’s followers, that was good news – that God’s kingdom was not like the one they lived in – the Roman Empire. The question that we need to ask ourselves is whether our church, our denomination, and even our country are consistent with Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of God. “What,” we might wonder, “if a society resembles the empire of Rome more closely than it does the empire of heaven, expressing in policies and budget the values of social inequality and redemptive violence”?[1]

If that’s true, then we need to change it- and one of the most significant things we can do to bring our world closer to that of Jesus is to pray. We need, like Solomon, to pray for the power to discern – to listen with an open heart.  We need, like Paul, to pray to understand how we are called to work together for good.  We need, like Jesus, to pray for a world in which “the marginalized, the unclean, and the left out” are as important as the accepted, the beautiful, and the wealthy.  We need to pray for the understanding and moral conviction that is true wisdom.  And we need to pray fervently for the arrival of the kingdom of heaven here and now.  Because when we are one with him and with one another the kingdom of heaven is in us -and it is the place where we do not need to worry about how we pray, because our prayers are already answered.  It is the place where our desires and those of God become one.  It is the place where our prayers and those of all people demonstrate humility in the face of God’s goodness.  The kingdom of heaven is the place where we are able not only to forgive – not only to live with –but to actually love those with whom we struggle- and in God’s kingdom, that will not be hard at all.  AMEN.

[1]Ibid.

Sermon for July 23, 2017: We are not God (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

Sermon for July 23, 2017:  We are not God

Last week I gave blood and during the course of my donation I chatted with my phlebotomist, who asked me what I do for a living.  When I told her that I am a priest, she said, “Oh, how nice for you.”  She said it politely, but it was clear that she was not a fan of religious folk.  I was not put off.  I love the opportunity to evangelize.

But she was a tough customer.  Raised in a strict black Christian family, she described herself as “barely believing” in God.  When I asked her what drove her away from the church, she said, “Hypocrisy” and mentioned, among other things, mega-churches with extremely rich pastors and priests who have committed sexual abuse.  “What,” she demanded, “does your church do?  Do you have a lot of fundraisers”?  I told her that we support people both in and outside of our congregation in a variety of ways. “You know who does a lot to help people,” she asked, “the Mormons.”  “Indeed they do,” I agreed, “but they also believe that it is important to convert everyone to their religion.”

This was interesting to her, as her biggest gripe with organized religion is that churches don’t practice what they preach. She wanted to know specifically what our church does to help others.  I told her that we work to feed and house homeless people, and advocate for those in need. She seemed suspicious, so I also told her about a study I had just read that found that while, ”At least half of Americans realize that churches feed and clothe the poor… far fewer are aware of other social services that congregations provide.”[1]  According to the author, “Though the Bible speaks of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, a significant number of Americans haven’t heard of churches providing [these things].”[2]

I said I thought this was sad because many people seek opportunities to help others but the church seems to be the last place they go to find them. She said that might be because religious people seem to believe that they have the right and/or the ability to decide who is good and who is evil – who belongs and who doesn’t. I agreed with her and suggested that most religions, including Christianity, including this denomination, have been guilty of this very sin of exclusionism.

The “My God is better than your God,” game is an ancient one.  We heard echoes of it in today’s Isaiah passage.  In it, God seems to be on the defensive from non-believers. “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.  You are my witnesses!”  Wait – it’s up to us to stick up for God?  But how can we, when we sometimes doubt God ourselves, when we like so many others have had prayers go seemingly unanswered?  We can, if we remember what God has done for us- not the material trappings of success, all of which mean nothing in the eyes of God – but the times we have tested God and been saved, the periods we have walked in darkness and been forgiven, and the moments we have been alone and found community.  “The true witness of one’s faith comes alive in the dark moments when it is difficult to see the blessings of God,”[3] but when we truly remember, we can see that “Even in the midst of suffering and pain”[4] God is present.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to complain. Today’s psalm is an excellent example of what scholars formally call “lament.”  The psalmist is afraid and anxious – perhaps even angry at having to deal with his enemies – but these feelings do not drive him away from God, but rather toward God. The psalmist is not ashamed to ask for help, as we so often are.  He complains directly to God because he believes that God is present and God will help him. He has faith.

He also knows what to ask for. The psalmist doesn’t ask God to destroy his violent enemies – instead he requests strength to deal with his enemies, that “those who hate me may…be ashamed.”  In other words, he doesn’t want his rivals to be terminated but rather transformed. And he understands that he needs to do his part for that to happen.

Paul also understood this. While Paul’s letters have often been interpreted to argue that if you are saved by Jesus Christ you don’t need to worry about anything anymore, what you believe is more important than what you do – I think that is exactly the opposite of what Paul repeatedly says.  He does not tell his people they can wait passively for salvation, but rather that they must wait actively – patiently enduring suffering with hope.  For Paul, all of our struggles, all of our pain, all of our worries are not a hardship but a gift – because they remind us of our intimate link to Jesus Christ.

This is not the most user-friendly message: “Join our group and you can suffer patiently for an unknown period of time for a reward we can’t prove you will get.”  (Let’s put THAT on our Facebook page)!  But explaining Christianity that way misses the point; the point is not that we suffer, but that our God understands our suffering and is willing to share in it –that our God is fully present to us – all the time.  Our God is patient.

Which is a good thing, because human beings generally aren’t.  Nonetheless, that is what the Parable of the Weeds tells us we are supposed to be whenever we are tempted to judge someone else. Written in the context of a growing and changing church in which members were dealing with issues of new cultural and racial diversity within their ranks, this parable acknowledges that there is evil in the world – and in the church, but we are not equipped to accurately identify it.  This story isn’t about categorizing evil – it’s about dealing with it – the same way God deals with us, patiently.  Despite the fact that the servants in the story, like us, push the master to help them separate the wheat from the weeds because they want to “settle forever the problem of who is in and who is out,”[5] Jesus tells them to wait -wait until both the wheat and the weeds are fully grown, because then the reapersnot us – will separate the evil from the good.  In other words, be patient – and trust in God.  “The God who is glimpsed in this parable models for us an infinite patience that frees us to get on with the crucial business of loving, or at least living with, each other…a God who does not merely tolerate endlessly a world that is a mixture of good and evil…but who finally, in God’s own good time, acts both to judge and to redeem the world.”[6]  This is a God with an endless capacity to love – a God to whom everyone has the opportunity to belong.  It is not our job to decide who is a sinner – who should be separated from God.  That is not our calling. We have been called to wait with patience for God’s judgement, and, while we wait, to contribute to God’s good harvest by seeking to bring about God’s kingdom in this world, welcoming and loving our sisters and brothers, attempting to alleviate their suffering even as we endure our own, and inviting into community all those who are seeking the path that leads to God’s eternal and unfailing light. Let anyone with ears listen.  AMEN.

[1]Adelle M. Banks, (July 20, 2017), “Good works of churches often go unnoticed,” Religion News Service,  http://religionnews.com/2017/07/20/good-works-of-churches-often-go-unnoticed/

[2]Ibid.

[3]John L. Thomas, 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], 246.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Theodore J. Wardlaw, (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], 265.

[6]Theodore J. Wardlaw, (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], 265.

Sermon for July 16, 2017: Hope, the long game (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

One of the great privileges I have as a clergy person is to spend time with people during significant moments in their lives.  Sometimes these occasions are full of joy – such as seeing and blessing newborn babies – and others are quite sad, like when I visit with people who are seriously injured or ill.  These opportunities are one of the reasons that it is a blessing to be a priest.  But it can be difficult – and one of the hardest things to witness is the moment when people begin to lose hope.

I have been confronted with this loss of hope several times recently.  Many of you know that this past week the Canon to the Ordinary of the diocese, Stefani Schatz passed away after a long battle with ovarian cancer.  Stefani was first diagnosed while on pilgrimage in Iona, Scotland in May of 2016 where she collapsed and was subsequently and shockingly diagnosed with cancer.  Early this year, after having significant surgery, Stefani was doing well enough to return to work full-time and appeared on the road to recovery.  Unfortunately, in April Stefani was found to have a new tumor which was growing aggressively.  After a visit to Texas to meet with specialists she was told that “cure” was no longer an option. They were told there was no hope.

Many other people face hopelessness. There’s James, “a single, 60-year-old man…diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer” who lives in fear that Congress will enact a new health care bill which will dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and without its benefits he will “be bankrupt.”[1]  Janice is a homeless woman who was recently “cleared out” of a Martinez s encampment by police just two days before her appointment with an agency that places individuals in housing, and now believes she will never find a permanent place to live.  And there’s Donna,[2] whose spouse has been fighting chronic illness for years, and whose eyes I looked into this week and realized that she has begun to lose hope.

In such situations as these, it has always been hard for me to know what to say or do to help someone, and this feeling has intensified since I became a priest.  Perhaps it’s just my perception, but it always seems like I should have the ultimate answer to that omnipresent question, “Where is your God now”? Where is your God when people go hungry?  Where is your God when people are homeless?  Where is your God when people become sick and die?

For me, the answer to that question lies not in deep and complex theology, but in the realm of human experience – the place where fear, anger, and despair originate -and in our holy scriptures, which frequently and fearlessly address the struggles of humanity.  And, sure enough, today’s psalm responds to that desperate question, “Where is your God”?  The answer is “right here.”  Because the God described in Psalm 65 is not a clockmaker God who created the world, wound it up and stepped back to see what would happen.  The God of Psalm 65 is an active God – a god who visits, prepares, provides for and blesses the world he created.  This is not a god who takes away; this is a god who gives. And one of the things that God gives is hope.  And hope, I think, is what today’s lessons are all about – which is good, because we can all use more of it about now.

When I was a child and I would say my prayers, I would always ask God to bless things, “God bless Mommy.  God bless Daddy. Etcetera.”  And then I would ask for things.  “God please give me a new bike for Christmas.”  “God make my grandma better.” And when I got a little older, “God, help me to meet my one true love Jimmy Osmond.”  It didn’t occur to me until later that I almost always said the exact same things when I wished on a star.  “I wish so-and-so was better,” “I wish I could have thus-and-such,” “I wish Mr. Perfect loved me the way I love him.”  My wishes were prayers without God in them, and my prayers were often merely wishes.  “So what,” I began to wonder, “is the difference”?  The difference is faith.  Faith is the thing that says you believe that whatever you wish – whatever you pray for – is possible – and it’s possible for a reason.  It is possible because there is someone out there who loves you enough to listen to your desires – even the stupid ones like meeting Jimmy Osmond – and to give you what you need.

Notice I said, “what you need,” and not what you want.  Because, as we well know, believing in God does not mean you will get everything you want.  Believing in God does not mean we will not suffer.  Believing in God does not mean we will not die. Believing in God means that all things are possible.  Believing in God means that we have hope.  If we have faith – if we believe that God can and will give us what we need, then we will always have hope.  This is what Isaiah means by saying that the word of God does not come back empty.  Hope says that even in the midst of struggle, we expect that good will be the ultimate outcome.[3]

But hope can sometimes be hard to find- and hard to give.  As it was when I recently looked into the haunted eyes of someone whose beloved is emaciated, weak and laboring to breathe.  “We live on this side of the veil of heaven and can often see only pain and loss.  We do not see all that there is in creation.”[4]  We do not know the reason for what is happening to us.  We do not know God’s purpose.  That makes it challenging to see the possibilities for our lives – to envision an outcome without pain or fear or grief. That’s because we are always thinking in human terms.  And the greatest power that human beings ever experience is death.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about sin and I said that sin is separation – separation from God and one another.  In today’s reading from Romans we hear Paul tell the early Christians that we are condemned when we try to earn salvation through our own power –when we decide that we don’t need God to help us – when we separate ourselves from God.  But our power is limited. We are bound to this world and its restrictions, and ultimately there is nothing we can do to overcome death. But God has already overpowered death.  And if we believe that then we will have faith that anything is possible.  We can hope.

It’s a difficult concept to understand – that the things we think of as most valuable – money, power, fame, beauty – are ultimately unimportant and that giving up power could lead to life and peace.  It seems impossible to think that suffering could ever be a good thing.  We simply cannot accept that a god who is both loving and all-powerful would allow good people to suffer.  But God does not make sense.

The parable of the sower is familiar to most of us as a story about what makes a good Christian.  We have all heard the story of the seeds and the fates that befall them, and we have all been told that we need to careful not to be “bad seeds.”  Don’t be the seed on the path; deeply engage with God’s word, lest you be swayed by those who don’t believe in God (the birds).  Be faithful to your belief in God, or else when times get tough you will give up on her (like the seeds on the rocky ground).  And watch out for the hot sun, otherwise known as the worldly dangers of money, fame, sex, and pride.  Focus instead on the right things, and you will grow and thrive.  In other words, being a Christian, like anything worthwhile, requires effort.  It requires us to do our part – to be good seeds.

But I think that when we focus on the seeds we miss something important about the sower. What this sower does does not make sense.  This sower does not act like a rational farmer.  Think about it: instead of sowing seeds only on good ground, this sower sows seeds all over the place.  This sower throws seeds in bad and broken places.  This sower throws seeds out as if he believes that all of the seeds – no matter where they are planted – have the same potential to grow and thrive – that even in rocky, dry, thorny ground surrounded by predators, something wonderful can grow.  This sower believes that even when we are surrounded by illness, fear, poverty, and immanent death, something amazing can happen.  In other words, this sower, our sower, our God, has hope.  And so should we.  AMEN.

[1]The Editorial Board of the New York Times, (June 24, 2017) “If we lose our health care…” The New York Times Online, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/24/opinion/sunday/obamacare-repeal-health-care-bill.html?mcubz=0.

[2]Pseudonym

[3]John L. Thomas, 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], 218.

[4]Thomas W. Blair, (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], 222.

 

Sermon for July 2, 2017: How do I know? (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

This week I was challenged to welcome several surprising visitors to Grace, including a prophet of doom (the tree guy who told me that two trees behind the Parish Hall are dying), an angel in disguise (someone who dropped off a donation that will probably cover the cost of the tree removal), a bicycling evangelist, and a lunching “Charismatic Christian,” among others. It was a week in which I struggled with my own fears and biases to find grace in anxiety, trust amidst paranoia, and hope in a sea of desperation.  It was a week in which it was hard to know who to trust and what to do.

It’s an old problem, and one the people of Judah struggled with too.  About six centuries before the birth of Christ, the Judeans were living in subjugation under the Babylonians and deciding if they should rebel – so they asked their religious leaders what to do.  But, just as it so often happens in our time, they found that their religious leaders didn’t agree with each other.  And, like us, they didn’t know who to believe.

This led to that precursor of pro-wrestling: the prophet stand-off.  Two prophets with completely opposing views, both of whom claimed to be speaking with authority from God.  In one corner: Hananiah, popular, powerful and with a message that these oppressed people wanted to hear.  “We should rebel. We are God’s people.  God is on our side.” In the other corner: Jeremiah – wild, grubby, wearing a yoke tied around his neck, and delivering a really unpopular message.  “Don’t fight for your freedom.  God wants you to submit to Babylonian rule.”  Who are they going to believe?

It seems to me, that if it were us, we’d put our money on Hananiah.  After all, isn’t faith about believing that God is on your side?  Don’t Christians think that we have been saved by our belief in Jesus Christ and that our faith will protect us – no matter what?  Actually, no – that’s not what we believe. What we believe is that we have a covenant with God – that we are in relationship with God, and that God will be faithful to that relationship no matter what. But “that covenantal faithfulness is not an insurance policy that kicks in automatically when [we] think [we] need deliverance from hardship…[It is a] relationship that requires asking, what is God’s will today?… God’s will may very well be that our tribe is not ascendant in all times and places.

What is certain is that God does not abandon us.  Today’s psalm tells us that God pledges “hesed,” – a word that means steadfast love, loving-kindness, devotion, and faithfulness.  But God never promised to give us everything we want.  Contrary to what proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel” argue, scripture tells us that being religious is “no guarantee of material or spiritual abundance.”[1]  What it is a guarantee of is the opportunity to become our best selves – the opportunity not only to be loved for who we truly are, but the chance to love everyone else that way too.

One of my unexpected visitors this week really made me think about how to figure out what is right.  This person reported that she was baptized Roman Catholic, but then her mother was “seriously saved,” and she has been a charismatic Christian since that time.  We had a lovely chat, agreeing on many things, including the need for all Christians to find common ground, that Christianity is not about seeking and using power, and that “the bottom line” of Christian teaching is Jesus’s command to love God and love one another. She asked if she could pray for my ministry and I gratefully accepted.  It was a wonderful, hopeful encounter – until I said that it was important for people who do not have the same exact doctrine to support one another in their basic Christian beliefs. At which point she stopped me and said, tapping her Bible meaningfully, “As long as their doctrine is consistent with what’s in here.  The problem with religion these days,” she continued,” is that no one talks about sin.  People need to be told when they are sinning – and then she began to list groups of people whom she identified as sinners. When I suggested that perhaps it was not ours to judge, she agreed and said that she would never judge.  She said she believes that it is up to us to simply inform people they are sinful – inform them with love.

Our conversation left me with a significant amount of emotional turmoil.  On the one hand, our talk had ended pleasantly.  On the other hand, I had failed to tell her that I believed that what she was saying was, in fact, opposed to scripture -that it’s impossible to “inform” someone that what and who they are is “sinful” with “love.” That excluding anyone from the opportunity to live in relationship with God and with other human beings is simply wrong.  In fact, just as she had suggested, I, a church leader, had, in the interest of maintaining harmony between us, failed to talk about sin.  So I’m going to do it now.

Sin is not about breaking rules.  Sin is about breaking faith. I’m going to say it again: Sin is not about breaking rules, it’s about breaking faith – with one another and/or with God.  Sin is separation.  Yes, it is a sin to steal, to kill, to commit adultery, to lie, to cheat and to take God for granted – but not because those are rules, but because the result of breaking them is to separate us from one another and from God.  But sometimes keeping rules for their own sake is just as separating – just as sinful.  I believe that it is a fundamental contradiction to say you are a Christian and then argue that anyone should be condemned for who they are.  I think it is unchristian to say that there are some sins that are unforgivable.  And it is my opinion that it is completely inconsistent with scripture to suggest that hate is ever a good or godly thing.  What our scriptures actually tell us is that human beings are imperfect and prone to sin.  I don’t think that’s news for anyone here.  The real news – the good news – is that “holiness is [actually] what we were made for.”[2]  We are meant to be and can be without sin, but not by our own will.

That is what St. Paul was talking about in his letter to the Romans when he admonished them to be “enslaved to God.”  He was not suggesting that in order to be saved we need to give up our intelligence or our sense of justice or our compassion for other people.  To believe that is to misunderstand the context in which Paul was writing. When we speak of slavery, we are talking about the depravity of taking away the will and freedom of other people – of treating human beings as possessions – of the evil that people have perpetrated in order to serve themselves.

But that’s not what Paul is talking about.  When Paul talks about slavery, he is saying that everyone serves someone or something – be it your country, family, or some other passion.  For Paul, it is when you choose to focus on an earthly concern more than your relationship with God– when you become a true slave to fashion, or television or money – or religion – that you sin. That is why he calls it slavery – and it is a sin because it takes away our freedom to choose to submit to the holy relationship that God offers us.  It is a sin because it separates us from God and from one another.

And separation is the last thing God wants for us.  God sent Jesus Christ into the world so that we would never be separated from God’s love again.  That’s why Jesus’s last command to us was to share his love – to offer it to everyone and anyone who asks – to welcome others with the “hesed” – the loving kindness and compassion – that he gives to us.  This is not always easy -because we are not only called to welcome those who are like us.  We are not called to change those who are not like us.  We are called to welcome all people with love and compassion.  It doesn’t matter that ”love is not always met with love…Sometimes…we are called to love in the midst of hate…Jesus calls us to put our love in jeopardy so that that its blessings are made manifest in our lives and in the lives of others.” Because that is the right thing to do.  AMEN.

[1]Robert A. Cathey, (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], 178.

[2]Ted A. Smith, (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], 186.

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 June 4, 2017: The Ember and the Flame (preached at Grace Episcopal Church Martinez, CA)

You may listen here:

Last Sunday, a beloved long-term member of our parish announced that he is moving away and, necessarily, leaving Grace behind.  This is a loss felt by many of us, including me, but it is particularly painful for those who know his generous and loving heart best.  “What,” lamented one such person, “are we going to do without him”?  It is the same question that so many of us have asked on other occasions – when someone we love dies –after a divorce –when a long-term beloved rector retires from a parish – and it is the same question that scripture tells us the first apostles asked and prayed about during the fifty days after Easter.  “What will we do without him”?

Today we celebrate the event that answered that question: the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost, best known to most Episcopalians as “that Sunday when we wear red,” is probably the most undervalued feast day in the Christian calendar.  Few of us understand the great significance of Pentecost and many of us don’t even show up for it, since it often coincides with “summer vacation time.”  But we should, because, just as the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection on Easter teaches us what we believe, Pentecost – the fiftieth day after Easter- tells us what we should do – and gives us the strength to do it.  We call that power the Holy Spirit.

For the last several weeks, we have been hearing the story of the post-crucifixion disciples, who appear to have spent most of their time after the resurrection hiding together in locked rooms and arguing over whether Jesus really appeared to them after his death.  It’s hard to blame them for this behavior – remember that every one of them left their professions, families, and homes to follow Jesus.  They believed they were prepared to give up their lives for him, but after witnessing his death they were almost quite literally paralyzed with fear and grief.  Jesus was their friend, their teacher – their whole lives –and they didn’t know what they were supposed to do without him.

As with many things, Jesus anticipated this, which is why he reassured them prior to his death with the words that we heard just two weeks ago.  “I will not leave you orphaned,” he told them – or, as it is alternatively translated, “I will not leave you comfortless.”  I will send you an Advocate – and that entity will never leave you.  That is the Holy Spirit.

But what, exactly is this “Holy Spirit”?  That’s what Sally Hanson wants to know – so much so that she chose it as the topic for the sermon she won as a raffle prize at the Spring fashion show.  It’s not an easy question, and not one that Jesus answers very well himself, telling the disciples only that, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.”[1]  So, does that mean that the Holy Spirit is Jesus’s holy ghost?  Or another form of God?  Or, as George Lucas would have it, the Force?  No, yes, and maybe.

At the most basic level, what the promise of the Holy Spirit means is that the disciples – and all followers of Jesus – are permanently connected to him – and that that connection transcends life as we know it.  It is unbreakable.  Maybe that’s why we have so much trouble comprehending it – because there is no real analogy for it in this world, where, ultimately, everything – including the earth itself– is all too breakable.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit is hard to describe because it is bigger, stronger, and more elemental than anything we can think of to equate it to.  The Holy Spirit is simply more.  Nonetheless, Jesus’s apostles still tried to explain it – doing their best to express it in terms that we can grasp by relating it to the most powerful – and essential – things in our limited understanding.

It is from these comparisons that the church developed its Pentecost traditions.  For Luke, the Holy Spirit is fire – dangerous, powerful, and potentially deadly, but also critical to life- thus the color red.  Paul describes the Holy Spirit as water, essential for health and well-being –and in washing our souls clean through the action of baptism.  And in John’s gospel the Holy Spirit is represented by our very breath, without which we cannot survive.  Fire, water and air – three common, everyday elements, without which we will die.  Just as without the Holy Spirit we cannot truly live.

Which is why God has not only given us this Spirit, but provided us with an abundance of it.  Listen to Luke: “there came a sound…and it filled the entire house;” and, quoting, Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit;” and John: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”  The Holy Spirit is not a “light breeze.”  It is not a trickle of refreshment.  It is not a single flame.  The Holy Spirit is a hurricane.  It is a deluge.  It is an inferno.

But only when we share it.  Because God did not give the Holy Spirit to the disciples alone.  It was not sent to one nation or one culture.  It did not arrive in private.  The Holy Spirit came to people from “every nation under heaven,” in a place where many people were gathered – for a Jewish festival of Thanksgiving. And it brought them together.  Their sudden ability to “speak in tongues” did not separate the people; instead it “broke down [the] dividing wall [between them].”[2]  They all understood what they were saying – they just couldn’t figure out how they were doing it.  These apostles –these future evangelists – were given a spirit not of confusion or exclusion but of comprehension and inclusion.  They were given the power to speak like God – the power to speak for God.  The “pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the church [was] both the sign and the instrument of the launch of the church’s mission.”[3]

A mission that belongs to all God’s people.  A mission that cannot be accomplished by any one person, sect, or denomination.  A mission that requires the followers of the risen Christ to work together – to trust one another – and to love one another.  “No man is an island,” John Donne wrote, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”[4]  We too must be “involved” with humankind, because each of our own gifts of the Spirit is worthless unless they are shared with the greater whole.  By describing the many disparate gifts of the Spirit, St. Paul tells us that the differences between us are not only acceptable, but necessary – that each of us has within us an ember of the Holy fire – a breath of God’s tempestuous wind – a drop of the sacred water – but without one another to immerse, stir, and fan that Spirit, it remains a token of God’s love, rather than the consuming force it is meant to be., a force for inspiration, instigation and creation.

“What will we do without you,”? the disciples asked, and Jesus answered, “I will not leave you comfortless.”  I will send you a Paraclete, one who walks alongside you.  I will send you an indestructible spirit of love.  You will see me no more, but you will see one another – and, if you look closely, you will see me in one an other.  Light the spark of the Holy Spirit within you by sharing it with your neighbor; breathe on one another with the breath of God that the tempest of God’s grace will blow wherever you are; baptize each other in my names and together you will become a river of life.[5]  Victor Hugo said, “to love another person is to see the face of God.”  May it be so.  AMEN.

[1]John 14:19

[2]Stephen A. Cooper, (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], 17.

[3]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], 14.

[4]John Donne (1624),”Meditation XVII,” in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.

[5]Thomas G. Long, (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], 25.

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.