Tuesday, February 21 – The Rev. Ann Hallisey

This sermon was preached on Thursday, February 21 by the Rev. Ann Hallisey for the commemoration of John Henry Newman. The texts for this sermon are: Song of Solomon 3:1-4, 1 John 4:13-12, and John 8:12-19

In the fall and spring of 1981 I took several courses at CDSP in what was then affectionately known as “Anglican Finishing School.” I believe we call it the Certificate of Anglican Studies now and it’s an actual thing rather than an attempt on the part of my bishop to round out an M.Div. from Yale, pass the GOEs and make me a proper Anglican. I had been a Roman Catholic all my life and had been recently received into The Episcopal Church. One of the courses was a reading course in Anglican Church History with the venerable Sam Garrett. Among many other things Sam assigned John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Since I’d recently traveled in the opposite ecclesiastical direction from Newman – from Rome to Canterbury – I was pretty interested in his thinking, quite drawn to the romanticism of the Oxford Movement and also attracted by Newman’s deep spirituality. I remember coming into Sam’s office one day with a rather maudlin story about Newman after his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Newman was standing outside the churchyard gates of St. Mary the Virgin, the University Church of Oxford where he had once been vicar, during the singing of Sunday Evensong with tears rolling down his cheeks. Well, Sam Garret the historian was having none of that. He dismissed the story as apocryphal and that was the end of that little detour into sentimentality.

Remembering that early attraction to Newman and knowing I was preaching today, I’ve spent time in the last week brushing up on his biography. It was a result of that research that I discovered he was the author of the hymn we just sang, “Lead Kindly Light.” Newman wrote it just after a nearly deadly illness on a becalmed boat returning from Italy with friends. Newman also wrote the text for our opening hymn, “Praise to the Holiest in the Height.” He was in fact, a prolific writer of theology, sermons, essays, polemic, poetry, letters, prayers, hymns and novels. Of course he is best known to Anglicans for his leadership in the Oxford Movement and authorship of most of the Tracts of the Times. In addition to these his best known works from his Catholic period are: Essay on the Development of Doctrine, The Idea of a University, his spiritual biography Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the long narrative poem, The Dream of Gerontius set to music by Edgar Elgar, and An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Ascent.

John Henry Newman’s was a long life spanning most of the 19th Century. Beyond his involvement in the Oxford Movement there were a number of spiritual turning points for him, conversions, if you will. He was raised in a nominal Anglican household, sent away to boarding school at age 7 and at 15, as a result reading Calvinist theology under the influence of one of his teachers, had an intense conversion experience which held power throughout his life, even as his beliefs evolved. He attended Oxford University and became a fellow of Oriel College where he taught for several years. During this time he was ordained and became vicar of St. Mary the Virgin. Gradually he drew away from the Evangelical, low-church theology that dominated the politics and most parish practices of the Anglican Church in the early 19th Century. And his immersion in the Early Church Fathers But by the 1830s in the universities there was growing interest in recovering elements of pre-Reformation liturgy, theology and spiritual practice. This impulse eventually came to be known as the Oxford Movement because of that university’s scholars’ role in making the public argument for the Anglo-Catholic perspective. Newman started writing about these things in Tracts for the Times along with John Keble, Edward Pusey and others, hence the name, “Tractarians.” In the final tract, Tract 90, Newman argued that the 39 Articles did not condemn core Roman doctrine but only certain errors and exaggerations of practice. In Newman’s evolving thinking, the ecclesiological differences between Anglican and Roman Catholic doctrine was not a fundamental one.

The Oxford Movement was mostly clergy but also included prominent lay people. Eventually many of the devotees of this Anglo-Catholic movement found their way to Rome, as did Newman, in 1845. Newman traveled to Rome to be received and quickly ordained a Roman Catholic Priest. There he was greatly influenced by the monastic community of St. Philip Neri and returned to England to found an Oratory eventually settling his community on the outskirts of Birmingham where he lived as a monastic for the remainder of his life. Before his conversion to Catholicism he’d founded an Anglican Monastery at Littlemore outside Oxford, so there’s this monastic impulse in his spirituality from his early 40’s to the end of his life.

There are many more details and nuances to Newman’s story that you can read for yourselves, if you’re so inclined. More exposure to the complexity of his life and thought has gone a long way to remove my earlier over-identification with him, though I do confess to continued attraction of much in Anglo-Catholic spirituality and sacramental theology. In homiletic reflection, however, what today’s commemoration invites us to consider today is not so much about his doctrinal theology. You have classes for that. I’m curious about what it was that made Newman distinctive in his times. What enabled his leadership? What did it take to make the personal and spiritual transitions that he did and also deal with the considerable personal consequences of his decisions? What was going on in his soul underneath his several conversions; the turning and being turned? After his conversion to Roman Catholicism the church and university establishment in Oxford shunned him, as did lots of his friends and family. And he wasn’t treated all that well by the Roman Catholics either. His ideas were too liberal for them; he was suspect as a convert. Perhaps that’s why we have this reading from John’s Gospel in which Jesus says, “I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Throughout his adult life it seems that Newman’s convictions led him to contend with the prevailing winds of church and culture. In its costliest moments such contention is felt as darkness, which only the love of Jesus can enlighten.

At one level I think he spent the rest of his life trying to make sense of his awakening to God at 15 years old. What is the meaning now about what happened to me then? It’s a question we might all ask, to make sense of our first opening to God and ask in each phase of our life, what does that experience of conversion mean for me now? Following Newman’s lead and his courage, because we never know where this question will take us: How do we grow in God?

Yesterday at the Quiet Day Fr. Bede said there are three core questions at every stage of life’s journey:

  • Who am I?
  • Whose am I?
  • Who am I for?

These were questions in John Henry Newman’s life, as well. I don’t know if he would have articulated them quite that way but the answer to such questions lays the groundwork for conversion, if we let them. In matters of the spirit Newman’s wisdom was continually seeking understanding rather than mastery. Newman was indeed a great intellect but even more than that he was possessed of “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love God…,” as we pray over the newly baptized. Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s what I’m intuiting about Newman’s spirituality, that his life-long yearning to know God was shaped by his inquirer’s heart. And the grace of his baptism, like the grace of baptism for all of us, constantly grew him Godward. It may be for this reason that the lectionary offers us the first reading from the Song of Solomon, which is really a poem about human love, God isn’t even mentioned. Judaism and Christianity historically have interpreted it allegorically and that would have been Newman’s exegesis, as well: “I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.”

In a 2010 article in the London Review of Books Terry Eagleton writes, “Born in 1801 Newman was a contemporary of Keats and Coleridge and a Romantic to his fingertips. Like Soren Kierkegaard he found God not in the evidence of the external world but in the depths of the self.” Seeking God as the Beloved was the driver underneath Newman’s ecclesiological questing. His and the Oxford Movement’s contribution to the richness of Anglicanism today was a recovery of those things in spirituality and practice that open our souls to the numinous, to the experience of God, far beyond any thinking about God.

A couple weeks ago on the PBS program “Religion and Ethics” there was a report about the Benedictine monastic community of New Camaldoli in Big Sur. The abbot, Fr. Cyprian was interviewed and he said, “If we’re not rooted in the spiritual, which we believe is actually the deepest part of being human, then we’re not fully alive. And the thing that’s really starving is our souls. We keep trying to fill them up from the outside, not realizing that there is this fountain inside.” One view of his several conversions might be a quest to fill his soul from the deep fountain of God that flows in every one of us. I think Newman’s spiritual questing was exactly that attempt to be rooted in the spiritual in a way that was congruent with his intellect and his values and in relationship with those he most deeply love.

I want to close with one of my favorite prayers in the Prayerbook. Imagine my delight when, as a new Episcopalian struggling with the intense rupture of family relationships that my own journey from Rome to Canterbury caused and the sympathy for Newman it evoked, I discovered Newman’s authorship of this prayer. It comes at the end of his Sermon 20 in Sermons on Subjects of the Day, titled, interestingly enough, “Wisdom and Innocence”:

“May He support us all the day long, till the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in His mercy may He give us safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last!” Prayer number 63 on page 833 of the Book of Common Prayer.

Thursday, February 17 – Dr. Jennifer Snow

This sermon was preached on Thursday, February 17 by Professor Jennifer Snow. The texts for this sermon were: Genesis 9:1-13, Psalm 102:15-22 and Mark 8:27-33.

So, Noah’s ark, huh? The way we are all introduced to the bible as kids.  I think it deserves a childs-eye hermeneutic.  One day in the nursery room at church, I sat down to read a little book called LEGOS: Noah and the Ark with my three year old son, Taal.  Every page was an elaborate lego setup: Noah and his family, the building of the ark.  Look at the cute lego trees!  The adorable lego animals!  Look, the lego ark is floating away on the lego sea, tip-tapped by lego rain beneath gray lego clouds!

Then suddenly a two page spread: a brown expanse of lego mud, with the lego ark parked in the brown mountains in the background, and the foreground filled with little lego skeletons. Animal skeletons, people skeletons, bones and skulls everywhere scattered in the lego mud as far as the eye can see.

lego-bible-the-flood-2

Well, probably like most of us, I quickly went on to lego rainbow, and showed the book to the child care person who found it so disturbing that she removed it from the bookshelf permanently.

Now, for some reason – probably also having to do with Sunday school — all the mental images I’ve had of the Noah’s ark story are just a little less disturbing.  The dove brings back the olive branch, everyone gets out into a newly flowering semitropical paradise, rainbows and good times are back again.  But that’s not actually what the biblical story says.  Lego’s on to something here.  Just before today’s reading, the bible says, twice, that all life was blotted out.  Everything that had breath died, people, animals, even insects.  It took the waters months to recede, even after the ark came to rest.  If we imagine the reality of the world post-ark, we must imagine unlimited devastation.

And for some reason now, as I envision that skeleton-strewn muddy lego landscape, I envision God wandering through it, and saying to Godself, I will never do this again.  I envision the repentance of God from the unrestrained use of power, even righteous power, even power in the service of righteousness.  And the scripture says, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”

The covenant that God gives to Noah – and to all who live, animal, insect, plant, human – is the promise to never again destroy all that is.  And the promise is unconditional.  Whereas the destruction of the flood comes in response to human evil, the free covenant of the rainbow does not depend on human good behavior, luckily for us, because nothing has changed for humanity’s ability to live up to God’s expectations.  In fact, the next thing we hear about Noah is that he gets falling-down drunk and curses his youngest son to eternal servitude and exploitation.  It’s a good thing that humans don’t have to earn God’s favor.  For as God meditates upon the devastation God has wrought, wandering in the wasteland that was the world, God sees that unlimited power and punishment, even to ensure the good, does not change hearts, especially not the hearts of human beings.

This does not mean that God’s just giving up.  God will not simply to accept the evildoings of people, their injustice and abuse of others and of creation.  The entire Hebrew Bible is a testament to that fact.  God still has a goal for humanity and creation.  But after the disaster of the Flood, God says to Godself, “I will find another way.”

The power that God instead chooses to use will be shaped henceforward by the goal God has for creation. The desire of God, as we see in today’s psalm, is summed up in the words “justice” and “reconciliation” – weak words for a reality rooted in a love beyond our comprehension.  God will regard the prayer of the destitute, set free those doomed to die, hear the groans of the prisoners.  God’s power will be moved and shaped by God’s compassion for the suffering.

How will God accomplish this, without using unbounded divine power against creation? How will God’s desire come to be in the world?

This is where we can turn to the Gospel today.  It is clear that the Messiah, the anointed one of God, will not pursue God’s goal in human terms. Not through kings or military might.  Not through destruction.  Not even through the overwhelming divine glory that no human being could resist.  The divine power will work through the renunciation of forcible power, through shared suffering – literally, compassion.  From the power of the flood to the power of baptism, the water of destruction to the water of transformational life. This strategy of renunciation, of love, of meekness before the powers of the world rather than the blazing power of legions of destroying angels – this, of all things, is God’s change strategy.  

I will say, it doesn’t seem immediately very effective, and not very emotionally satisfying.  Like Peter, I imagine, I would like to see the Messiah protecting the innocent and punishing the evildoers of the world.  I want karma in action, right here, right now. But perhaps that is because I am putting my heart on human things, and not divine ones.  The story of God’s choice to avoid the devastation of absolute power is still quite realistic about human evil; God does not assume that evil will depart from us.  Perhaps the power that could destroy the universe holds itself in check at our profound capacity for hurting ourselves and others because of compassion for our limitations, and desire for us to grow not into citizens of a totalitarian system who toe the line in fear of destruction, but into true partners and friends, giving our hearts to the transformation of ourselves and the systems we live in, willing and creative citizens of the reign of God.

This is a time in our national history when we are giving much thought to power, to what is legitimate use of power, what is abusive.  Our power, of course, is different than that of God, yet we do have power of various kinds.  The Hebrew scripture for today again gives us a hint, for God has given even more power to human beings over creation than they had before the flood.  All animals will live in fear and dread of human beings, and all animals are given into human hands.  Despite God’s knowledge of human tendencies, God continues to share power, even the power of life and death, with humanity.  And so as human beings desiring to move towards God, to share in God’s purposes for creation, we must consider our power carefully.  What should be renounced?  What should be creatively used?  How can we, as Christians, judge the uses of power?  When faced with devastation, what strategy of power can we embrace? The story of the flood, and the story of Jesus, show us one important axis of judgment, one which even God has promised to adhere to.  Power must be rooted in compassion.  Power – even legitimate power – is to be judged by the ways in which it nurtures life, reconciliation between peoples, and justice for the poorest and least.

Sometimes, my child’s innocent view of the unvarnished story brings me to new places.  A few weeks ago, after one of our many rainy days, Taal and I were driving across the Bay Bridge.  We saw a rainbow, and Taal said, Mommy, God put it there so we could see it.  How do we judge and use power?  How does God’s power work with us?  The flood and the passion, the rainbow and the resurrection: God put it there, so we could see it.

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Tuesday, February 14 – Janet Wild

This sermon was preached on Tuesday, February 14 by third-year Janet Wild. The texts for this sermon are: Genesis 6:5-8, 7:1-5, 10; Psalm 29; and Mark 8:14-21

I’d love to be up here today preaching a sermon on St. Valentine or Valentine’s Day. However, with the unsettling news and tales of suffering that surround us right now. I’m going to talk instead about love and faith in a confusing time. It’s challenging to be a Christian, to follow Jesus and live out our faith in the best of times, the worst of timesi. To continue on even when we are disheartened and overwhelmed. So we arrive once again at a time where we must ask ourselves, how can I be a good disciple? How can I continue on even when I don’t understand or know what the path ahead will be?
Cyril and Methodius trusted in their faith, became missionaries and fought to spread the
word of God in the common language of their people. These brothers gave up their life of
privilege to serve the Slavic people. In their time, the clergy believed the only true languages of the church were Greek, Hebrew and Latin. They challenged and thwarted the brother’s at every turn. The brothers were undeterred, and in order to move forward they traveled to Rome for the Pope’s approval, which they received and where they were also made Bishops. Cyril died before he could return home. Methodius returned to Moravia, continued to be harassed and was eventually imprisoned. Nonetheless, he was able to translate the bible and Byzantine ecclesiastical law into the Slavonic language, and to continue his missionary work. You have to know these two brothers didn’t always know where they were going. But ultimately they followed what they knew to be true in their hearts and continued on no matter what the circumstances. In our time, how are we responding in the midst of political unrest and confusion? Do we know what is in our heart?
In today’s gospel from Mark, I imagine Jesus, rolling his eyes at the apparent cluelessness of the disciples. They didn’t know how to be good disciple’s either. Here they are worrying about bread and Jesus had just fed thousands, twice! He had calmed the water. He had walked on it! And here they were again, doubting and worrying and missing the bigger  symbolism, the connection that Jesus was offering them. Jesus wanted them to learn and then in turn be able to teach others. Imagine Jesus here right now. Would he be rolling his eyes at our lack of trust or would he be like a parent telling us the same story one more time?
I recently saw a movie called “The Visitor,” in which a college professor, Walter, comes home to find a couple, Tarek from Syria, and his girlfriend from Senegal, both illegal
immigrants, living there. Walter understands they have been tricked into thinking they had rented his apartment and lets them stay, in a very short time their lives become intertwined- Tarek teaching him to play drums, expanding his world farther by introducing him to a drumming circle, living, eating and laughing together. When suddenly Tarek is arrested and ultimately deported. Walter’s life is irrevocable changed and he can’t un-see his expanded world. He does the only thing he can think of to honor his friend, as illogical as it might seem, he goes down into the subway to play drums as he knows it’s something Tarek always dreamed of doing. After the last few days of immigration raids, I find myself thinking about this movie and wondering how I will respond as people in my life face the same uncertainty. What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ in this situation?
As we move forward in our own time, these are the questions that we must answer – the
ones that we must find in our own hearts. We live as part of the Jesus movement, even when we’re not completely sure where we are going or how we will get there. We can reach out like the brother’s Cyril and Methodius did, building our communities based on a shared experience and language. We can learn, as they did how to hold to our values and strengths while still growing, changing and moving forward. In action, this means coming together as partners in community organizing, marching not only to raise money for valuable causes but also to gather in numbers that create impact and give us the feeling of solidarity with our neighbors.
Participating, leading, and connecting in this way is being a good disciple. We will learn to see the world around us with clear eyes. We’ll learn from the disciples, who didn’t understand or trust in the miracles and teachings of Jesus in their time. They were caught up in the details of the day to day and completely missed the bigger story. Are we doing
this in our current overwhelm?
We need to wake up and pay attention to the world around us. Our heads are down and
we’re just plowing forward. We don’t see what’s going on with our neighbors, what’s happening all around us. We keep our world small in the hope of avoiding pain and suffering. In turn we loose connection, love and community. Jesus taught us that this is what we need.
As good disciples we will strive to see the love and miracles around us at all times. Like the character, Walter, we will step out of our safe and unconscious paths through the world in order to connect, learn and give back in the only ways that make sense. We’ll follow what we know in our heart to be true – and this will be our Jesus Movement.
And Jesus, like the unconditionally loving parent, will continue to tell us the story so we
in turn, might be grounded, heartened and continue on.

Monday, February 13 – Peter Homeyer

This sermon was preached on the Feast Day of the Rev. Absalom Jones on Monday, February 13 by second-year Peter Homeyer. The texts for this sermon are: Isaiah 11: 1-5, Psalm 137: 1-6, Galatians 5:1-5, and John 15:12-15.

Anyone here ever feel like the writer of Psalm 137?  Like you need to grieve a little, “to sit down and weep”?  That it is painfully obvious that our choices for ourselves and how to live our lives are being held captive by the powers of this world?  Have you wondered, “how shall we sing the Lord’s song”, when what we see around us are restrictions on the most basic recognition of our lives: like who we can love or where we can travel?  I know I have.

Today we remember a man who lived in a time of oppression more profound than that experienced by many of us and as deep as that of the Israelites when they were carried into captivity.  Today we honor Absalom Jones.  Born into slavery in Delaware before the Revolutionary War, he eventually became the first African-American Episcopal priest, and his lifelong song of praise to the Lord remains an inspiration for all those who find themselves bent under the yoke of oppression by those who will not grant them the basic dignities of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But before I continue, would you please join me in prayer?  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight o Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

Just over a year ago I had the good fortune of worshipping for a few weeks with the congregation of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Inglewood, CA.  The church, like the city of Inglewood, is predominately African-American.  They offer weekly Bible study, which I was able to attend a few times.  On Sunday mornings the room was packed and lively discussion buzzed around from participant to participant.  People talked not only about that day’s passage, but how it related to their own lives.  In each class, no matter the scripture passage we were studying together, eventually someone in the room would give a little chuckle and say, “Sounds like you got a life lesson on the difference between Chronos time and  Kairos time.”

Chronos, is the Greek word for chronological or sequential time but Kairos measures time differently.  It is not any particular amount of minutes, hours, days, or years.  It is indeterminate in length, measuring instead transformational change.  The members of Holy Trinity understand this to be God’s measurement of time.  And working in God’s time, means putting aside the schedule and the timetable.  Working in God’s time takes patience and humility.

Absalom Jones understood kairos time.  In the United States before the abolishment of slavery, babies born to female slaves were the property of their masters.  Absalom Jones at sixteen was sold away from him mother and sister and moved with his new master to Philadelphia.  Later, when, he met his wife, Mary, he carefully saved his money not to buy his own freedom but first obtain her liberty.  He did this to make sure that his own children were born free, breaking for one family, a cycle of bondage which passed from generation to generation.

At church Absalom Jones suffered through the kind of faulty thinking which Paul warns the Galatians to abandon.  After his own manumission, he and other freed blacks in Philadelphia tried to join a local church, but once inside they were told they could not worship with the other members.  They could not sit or kneel with the rest of the congregation, but would need to segregate themselves to the balcony.   Instead, after completing their prayer, Jones and the others walked out.  Not welcome to participate as full members in the white church, they established their own black congregation, independent of white control.   This church became a gathering place for those speaking out against slavery and it was here that Jones was ordained as a priest in 1804.   Unlike the Galatians, or the members of the white church, Reverend Jones was not to be fooled: differences to the exterior of our bodies are not material in our relationship to God.  

Does anyone know when it became permanently illegal to import slaves into the United States?

January 1, 1808, 20 years after the ratification of the Constitution.  Many people were not sure it would happen at that time.  The way the Constitution is written, this prohibition could not be made before 1808 but did not specify that the international slave trade must be abolished, simply that it could be.  When Congress did pass a bill outlawing the international slave trade, Reverend Jones gave a sermon entitled, A Thanksgiving Sermon.  Using Exodus 3:7-8 as his text, he reminded listeners of the, “nearly 400 years” the people of God lived, “degraded and oppressed” by the Egyptians, when “all was misery.  all was grief.  all was despair.”   But even during that time, “God was not indifferent to their sufferings”, open to, “every tear they shed… every groan they recorded”.  And, in due time, in Kairos time, we might say, God came down to them and transformed their lives.

Reverend Jones did not live long enough to see God manifest herself by ending slavery in this country.  During his lifetime the number of people living in bondage increased ten-fold.  There was good reason to sit and weep.  To forget how to sing the Lord’s song.  But, instead, in his Thanksgiving Sermon, Reverend Jones suggests a celebration.  An annual gathering on January 1st as a time to: (1) celebrate the partial victory represented by the end of the international slave trade; (2) show gratitude for allies still struggling alongside them: (3) pray for further heavenly influence; and (4) encourage virtuous living in the face of hardship.  

These components are just as relevant in our own time, as we sit and weep in a land for from what we imagined God had in store for us.   We must remember God’s past presence with us.  We must support each other to bring about God’s justice.  We must remind each other of the standards of gentleness, mercy, compassion, and conviction God asks of us.  And we must cry together to the Divine One for intervention. These are the notes of the song faithful in all times and in all places.  As Reverend Jones reminds us,

“the history of the world shows us the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance in which it has pleased God to appear on behalf of oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent and of those who call upon his name.”

– Absalom Jones, 1/1/1808
In the name of the Great Liberator.  In God’s time.  Amen.

Thursday, February 9 – Dr. Scott MacDougall

This sermon was preached on Thursday, February 9, 2017 by Dr. Scott MacDougall. The readings for today were Genesis 2:18-25, Psalm 128, and Mark 7:24-30

So, here in Mark, we have what seems like a pretty unflattering portrait of Jesus, one in which he essentially refers to a desperate woman as a dog. Now, if you’re at all like me,you probably don’t prefer to see God incarnate doing this to anyone, but it may be especially uncomfortable to see him doing it—not to put too fine a point on it—to a desperate Syrian.

What difference does her Syrianness make, anyway? Well, unlike in Matthew’s version of this story, where the woman is simply called a Canaanite, Mark is more specific—she’s Syrophoenician. That means she’s a member of a Hellenistic, Greek-speaking ethnic group within the Canaanite population. And as if that detail weren’t enough to make clear what Mark is trying to communicate, he underlines it by telling us explicitly: “the woman was a Gentile.” She is not Hebrew. She’s a pagan who stands completely outside the nation. Unlike even the despised Samaritans, her people were never God’s people. She’s a total outsider. But she is also a desperate mother with a daughter who’s tormented by an unclean spirit. Having heard tell of this teacher passing through town who seems to be able to handle such situations, she finds him, prostrates herself before him, and begs him to heal her daughter. And Jesus’ response is to tell her he’s not there for her. He’s on a mission, a mission to the children of Israel, and to help her would be like the master of the house feeding his own children’s food to the dogs. The healing he brings is for his own people, not for her. But this does not stop her. After all, she’s on a mission, too. She accepts the insult and tries again: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And she prevails. Jesus tells her that her daughter has been made well. The demon has been cast out. #ShePersisted.

It’s really easy for Jesus to come off here as ungenerous at best, and as, well, kind of bigoted and awful at worst. And certainly also as rude and terribly insulting. But there is something important here that Mark is trying to get us to see. What does Mark want us to perceive about God? And about Jesus’ relationship to God?

To answer that, I’m going to take what might seem like a detour. But follow me for a bit and we’ll come right back around to Mark. Think back to the story of Abraham negotiating with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Respectfully but boldly, Abraham talks God down from a wrathfulness bent on destroying entire towns wholesale, and gets God to promise not to destroy the Cities of the Plain if even fifty righteous people could be found there. And then pressing the point, eventually whittling God down by fives and tens to agreeing to spare the city for only ten righteous people. Of course, we all know there turned out to be no such people in Sodom and so both it and Gomorrah were incinerated for their violence and injustices. But the point is, God listened to Abraham. Abraham pled a case. And God listened.

Later, God listens to Moses, as well. Moses begs God not to send him to deal with Pharaoh because of his stutter, and so God agrees to have Aaron be the spokesperson for Operation Exodus. When God threatens to destroy the people for worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses begs for God to relent, which God does. Moses tells God that managing the people in the wilderness after the Exodus is too much and begs to let him die, so God takes some of the spirit he had laid on Moses and transfers it to seventy other leaders able to help him. Moses pled a number of cases. And God listened.

Hannah, childless for so long, begged God for a son and promised she would dedicate the child to God’s service. And she conceived and gave birth to the great prophet Samuel, who anointed Saul and then David king over Israel. Hannah pled a case. And God listened.

These are only illustrative examples. There are others. Suffice it to say that by the time of Jesus, there was a tradition of narratives depicting God as one who listens. Who can be persuaded. And who responds with blessing after the struggle. Isn’t this precisely what we see in Jacob wrestling with the “angel”? He wrestles with this heavenly figure for an entire night and refuses to let him go until after being blessed. Jacob receives that blessing, along with a new name: Israel, which means “he who contends with God.” And he fathers the twelve patriarchs, giving rise to the Israelite nation, an entire people named “the ones who contend with God.” This God expects us to contend with, to importune, and to persist with Godself. And this God has been revealed as willing to listen and to bless us when we do those things.

Mark’s purpose in depicting Jesus as speaking sharply to the Syrophoenician woman is best read in that light. This episode repeats a familiar pattern. This story is used by Mark to identify Jesus with God in a powerful way. Jesus responds to being contended with by a person in some kind of urgent need, the way God was seen to do in the scriptures. It’s this,  not the “children and dogs” business, that is the real heart of what is happening, here. That’s why it follows hot on the heels of a set of episodes in which Jesus upbraids the Sadducees and Pharisees for their punctilious observation of the Jewish law, which nevertheless leaves them unrighteous, while this explicitly non-Jewish woman is rewarded for going toe-to-toe with Jesus. Also, in Mark, unlike in Matthew, where Jesus tells the woman that her faith has effected the release of her daughter from the demon, Mark’s Jesus tells her that it is “for saying that”—that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs—that she will be able to return home to a daughter free of the evil spirit. It is through her contending with him, through her importuning him for healing the way the widow importunes the unjust judge for justice till she gets it, through her persistence, that she occasions the exorcism. Because this is just what God desires of the people God has made and loves. God is waiting to be contended with. Prepared to be wrestled with. And ready to bless.

That is the central point of the psalm for this evening, too. God promises to bless those who respect God and walk in the ways of God. And while the psalm concludes with a desire for peace to be on Israel, the nation that contends with God, given that this Syrophoenician woman explicitly has no connection to that nation, Mark is prodding us to notice how the people of God has begun to widen beyond the borders of the Israelite nation. Not completely, of course. After all, Mark’s Jesus does tell the woman that he needs to attend to his “children,” which clearly indicates Israel. But note—he says that he needs to do that first. First. Jesus needs to restore Israel because it is through Israel that God has promised to bless the nations. But the blessing does not stop with Israel. And the Syrophoenician woman, because she contends with God, is allowed to receive that blessing, ahead of time so to speak, having humbled herself before a power she recognizes is salvific, even if she doesn’t comprehend the full extent of it. A pagan. A pagan is blessed as if she were a Jew. Without any requirement to convert. Without any statement of faith. Just because she was asking for healing for someone out of love. God hears that cry. God is persuaded. God responds. And God blesses.

We miss the point of the story of the Syrophoenician woman if we focus on the content of the exchange between her and Jesus and miss its pattern, its shape. Mark uses an old pattern and applies it to Jesus to identify him with the divine. And he shows us how God’s blessing begins to extend the borders we think confine it, even to include those who we supposed were on the outside. God recognizes who God’s own people are, whether they are Israelite or not. They are those who humbly strive with God, even in ways they don’t fully understand. They are those who contend with the God who welcomes the struggle. They are those who persist in claiming God’s fervent desire to lovingly shower them with abundant life.

Strive. Contend. Persist. And be blessed.

Tuesday, February 7– The Very Rev. Mark Richardson

This sermon was preached on Tuesday, February 7, 2017 by the Very Rev. Dean Mark Richardson. The readings for today were: Genesis 1:20-2:4a, Psalm 8, and Mark 7:1-13.

This meditation this morning is based on my reflections on Genesis 1.  I’m going to speak from a first person point of view a lot of the time today, about my own wondering, and doubts.  I see these reflections as connected to gospel, but it might at times be at odds with your own wonderings about big and unresolvable places in our story of faith.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been in conversations with someone who said,  “I used to believe in God and as a child I liked the creation story, but then I started taking science and those stories of my childhood seem, well, meant for childhood. I can’t live there in my understanding anymore.”  I most often just let the conversation go because it’s too complicated for a passing moment. “God said, ‘let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky’…and God saw that it was good.” This sublime picture is not, for me, about fantasy vs. reality, former truths and new modern truths.  But it is worth pondering:  just why is it that I return to these ancient sacred stories and respond so differently from these conversation partners? And why is it also that something in the ancient story does grate on me, something is not on the table yet, something hasn’t been said that needs saying.

I’ve spent much time pondering the kinds of thought and discourse we bring to this human quest to know: distinguishing factual, from theoretical and worldview and metaphysical levels of human words and thoughts, and finally arriving at existential experience which may be the richest place of all in our pursuit of meaning.  It is the place of loyalty and trust, of placing ourselves in the way of the evidence, as the doorway into who we are, where we come from, and what we are pursuing as human beings.

I go back to today’s story from Chapter 1 of Genesis looking for its hold on me; and I see at bottom it is about trust that I share with those who tell the story. I’m not a scholar of the dominant worldview during the time of the priestly tradition, and how ordered ritual time mapped onto the ordered coming into existence of a cosmos. But when I look for the heartbeat of Genesis 1, the truth of this picture language, what I feel coming through is trust in the One who is source of all there is and finding it a worthy place to be. At the end of the day, is the universe and life and the creativity of existence an expression of God’s will and desire, or not? Is its order a reflection of God’s intention, so that chaos and randomness and meaningless are not the last word, or can we not trust this? And is life in this universe fundamentally good, or is it filled with too much suffering to be labeled good, and just something to be endured?  Yes, in the end it is a question of faith, a spot at the boundary questions where one places one’s stakes in the ground.

The story tells me that this universe did not have to be. It could have been otherwise, and I am utterly, utterly dependent on this with every breath I take, and it’s possible even if almost unimaginable, that there could have been nothing, no thing as physical cosmos, yet God said ‘let it be’.  The ordered days of the story tells me further that I can count on the regularity of things, the natural and moral patterns even in the midst of unpredictability and messiness. For those who probe the depths of the physical universe, the universe responds and talks back to our inquiry about it in signals that can be understood. This for the ancient writer meant that what is, is ordered and intentional. The proclamation of goodness at the end of each day, when I pay attention, places me in a position of reverence, not because nature is god, but because God declared it good, and as such it is a window onto our knowing and relating to God’s goodness. This is what I trust; and this is what the story of ancient times tells me in spite of its modesty from the perspective of today’s knowledge, today’s ‘facts’.

All of this is from a people of faith on a little plot in ancient Palestine, gazing into the skies, into their lives, taking their experience of covenantal faith and wondering, imagining about origins and destinies so far as their place in the universe could take them. We have advanced vastly in knowledge but frankly, in my opinion we are in no different position for answering the ‘why’ question about ‘what is the case’. I can’t dismiss this story so quickly as my interlocutors often do.

But among the more reflective doubters there is something I pick up, which must be taken seriously.  When we fast-forward to today’s cosmos and leave the ancient world, our knowledge includes stark reminders of our finitude, the coming and going of life, the accident of a genetic mutation here and there that determines a biological and emotional destiny (sometimes gracious outcomes, sometimes soul destroying), of disease, mechanisms of aggression in the natural process millions of year in the making which tells us that the shadow side—suffering and pain—are built into the processes and fabric of the natural world too; the sublime picture needs some revision.

We’ve always had to cope with suffering and death but the contemporary cosmic picture throws it in our face and says “whatever you think about the beauty of the universe and God as its creator needs to include this darker part of the story.” And I think this is right: we must conceive the creative goodness of God so that it embraces the whole picture; I must allow my wrestling with suffering and despair (which comes to me simply by being part of this natural world let alone the social-political world emerging from it) within the frame of our trust in God. The psalm may say we are a little lower than angels, and Augustine that we are fallen from our primordial heights, but I suspect we are less like fallen angels and more like rising apes, emerging on the shoulders of millions of years of life, only slowly and fitfully opening the apertures of our moral vision and capacity, and never in a straight line in our history. We are participating in the wonders of spiritual awakening in an environment where treachery already exists and complicates our picture of goodness. But these just are the real conditions of coming into faith in God.

Is this a deal breaker with respect to the good news of Jesus Christ? I don’t think so. We may claim, with William Temple, that Christ is the supreme expression of God’s self giving love which has always been the case from the foundations of the world. We may not know why this mode of creating a universe, but we stake our claim in God as not only source of this creating, but also present to it in its suffering. We aspire toward the urge of love, on the one hand, and under conditions of perceived scarcity and real rivalry, on the other hand? Isn’t this where we have met Jesus also?

If we are at all alive and awake we have probably been personally touched by meaningless and alienation from God and who knows what coping mechanisms that follow, just simply from finitude itself. I think oftentimes, that the liberation from the bondage of sin, in our collect, is about being released from the discouragement that touches us directly in times of unknowing and shaken hope. Grant us, the collect prays, liberation from this bondage and a new experience of abundance as we have found it in Jesus Christ.  Let trust, we pray, be restored and fill us with courage and not fear in the face of what we cannot know.

So this is really a sermon with a modest message: Don’t walk away; face into the picture, all the way in, to see the parts that leave you thrilled in wonder, and the parts that haunt you. Ultimately we must return to the question of trust over and over again as we did in contemplating the first chapter of Genesis, now from our expanded picture.

Sometimes in this frame I return to the Eucharist prayer of humble access, to the humility of recognizing my finitude and dependence:  that on the face of things in the scope of all that is, and standing before the mystery of God, I am a blip on the screen of time and space not worthy to come to the divine banquet on terms owed to me, not worthy to gather up the crumbs under the table. It can be as simple as a recognition that the gift of existence itself is amazing grace, and we are owed no explanation whatsoever for what’s on the table. Yet this prayer, which begins with our finitude, arrives in a few short lines at the extraordinary claim that God never ceases from drawing us into the divine life itself, so that we might evermore dwell in him and he in us.  What begins in insignificance ends in a rich and unsurpassable love, in amazing grace.

I think that what I return to over the years as the heart of my faith, in moments of discouragement, either brought about by natural ills or social and political ones, is this: Christ comes to us not to pay a price in order to turn the face of God back toward humanity; Christ comes to turn our gaze back toward God in hope once again, Christ the power to inspire, convert, and transform our fear into courage, and pioneer a way that follows from this fundamental trust that God is maker of heaven and earth, and it is good.

Thursday, February 2 – The Rev. Tripp Hudgins

 

This sermon was preached for the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) on February 2 by the Rev. Tripp Hudgins. The texts for this service were: Malachi 3:1-4, Psalm 24:7-10, Hebrews 2:14-18, and Luke 2:22-40.

Let us pray.

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

Make these words more than words and give us all the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

So, brothers and sisters, especially you students in the Intro. to Homiletics course, this is what it looks like when you have prepared one sermon for Candlemas only to have anarchists and outraged students set fire to campus the night before you are scheduled to preach.

Candlemas, indeed.

Lawyers gather in airports to help refugees and immigrants.

People fill city streets in protest across the globe to draw attention to the plight of women in this nation and the world and how our new President might be a threat to women.

With a media cycle with the shelf-life of a politicians tweet, this preacher finds it challenging to stay focused…

…to keep up

…to discern the Spirit.

…and if, by chance I do, is there anyone who will listen?

But here we are…

…and so it continues.

“All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected, but in every place in this country are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.

“The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public services they use impose burdens on our taxpayers. That’s why our Administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more, by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens.

“We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.”

~ Pres. Bill Clinton, State of the Union Address, 1995

The politics of 1995 were not the politics of our day, but the rhetoric sounds eerily familiar. Familiar enough, at least. In this same address, President Clinton spoke of the pressures of globalization and the pressures on the American worker and middle class families.

These policies did not begin with him. Nor did they end there.

And so it continues.

Maybe you have heard about the Twitter feed, @StLouisManifest, where its authors share pictures and names of the Jewish refugees aboard the S.S. St. Louis who, in 1939, were turned away from New York harbor with the Statue of Liberty in plain sight. Each tweet is a photo, a name, and information about how that person died in Europe during World War II.

The concentration camp in Auschwitz.

A small village bombed into rubble.

A stand of trees in France.

A name. A face. Families, adults, children…all turned away from our shores. So many to die in the violence of World War II.

Still recovering from an economic depression (25% of the labor force unemployed), US immigration quotas of the time were draconian. Add to that the political strife of global warfare (“they might be spies”) and you have yet another example of our continuing struggle and shame as a nation.

Political disagreements rage in the courthouses, Congressional conference rooms, and airport terminals of our nation, a nation founded on the profits made on colonial violence and slave labor.

We debate about national identity; yet we are who we have ever been.

We debate about the national best interest; yet we are who we have ever been.

We pick sides. We always pick sides…we are who we have ever been.

…And so it continues.

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

What did she say about the child? We don’t have her words, but in your imagination, what were her words? They were about the redemption of Jerusalem. How so?

I doubt they were polite words.

I doubt they were a-political.

This is Luke’s gospel, after all. “Woe to you who are rich now…” are words that usher out of Jesus’ mouth right after he proclaims who is blessed in the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ first public act of ministry in Luke’s Gospel is to proclaim the year of the jubilee. It almost gets him killed.

And Mary, she sings. And O how she sings. She sings rebellion. She sings redemption.

Perhaps she had met Anna before at the Temple.

Maybe years before as a little girl and Anna pulled her aside and said,

“Here, let me teach you a song. I think you will need it.”

So Anna sees the child messiah and, praising God, begins to tell all who were seeking the redemption of Jerusalem about God’s promise fulfilled in their sight.

Follow the story! Follow your imagination…

She tells them:

“Here is a light to enlighten the nations!”

“Here is the glory of Israel!”

“Here is the promised Son of David!”

“Here! Now!”

“You crazy old woman, sit down,” someone shouts from across the plaza.

And so we are faced with a familiar truth.

Not all are seeking redemption, not for Jerusalem, not for the United States.

Not even for Berkeley.

Some are not interested in redemption.

Some cannot imagine redemption.

Some cannot believe in it.

There are warmongers and faithmongers alike profiting on the troubles in the world.

Redemption flies in the face of such profit.

But Anna still has a word. She still goes out into the streets. She leaves the Temple to tell those who would listen, those seeking redemption, those seeking reconciliation, truth…light…that the child is here.

She offers a word of redemption. She proclaims Christ Jesus.

“There. Is. Light.” She stands erect in the plaza with so many gathered about.

Jesus is present.

“At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”