Tuesday, October 10 – Ethan Lowery

We pray for the church and its leaders, we pray for those in discernment, for our GTU friends and colleagues. We pray for those who are without communities of faith, we pray for those who have been hurt by the church and who are looking for a way back in.

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

We pray for our country.

We pray for our leaders, for our president and legislators, for wisdom and charity in their leadership, and for courage for those who are willing to protest their decisions, policies, and actions.  

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

We pray for an end to violence, war, bigotry, and greed and for relief from the insecurities of men that drive us to fight rather than to reconcile.

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

We pray for relief from natural disaster, for those suffering from flood, fire, hurricane, and earthquake and we pray you, God, to soften our hearts to help those in need and to temper our own contributions to this severe climate.

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

We pray for those displaced by and fearful of the fires in Sonoma, Napa, and Santa Rosa, we pray for the strength and resolve for the relief workers and first responders.

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

We pray for our community, for the homeless and underemployed, for the sick, the suffering, and those in pain, for those with broken relationships and those in isolation. And we pray for a spirit of self-sacrifice, that we would be willing to reach out to those in need. we pray for those experiencing weariness and fatigue in their studies and in their work for those struggling with distance from family, friends, and loved ones.

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

We pray for all who have died, including those we now name.

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

Advertisements

Sunday, September 24 – Ethan Lowery

 

This sermon was preached at St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Orinda by first-year Ethan Lowery. The texts for this sermon are: Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; and Matthew 20:1-16. Audio available HERE.

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

I love the story of Jonah. I love it. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s moving—and it somehow manages to fit all of that into only two pages. And so last summer, I decided to teach Jonah at high school camp at the bishop’s ranch one day. And I began by asking the youth “How many of you have heard of Jonah?” and almost every had went up. And I asked “How many of you know what happens to Jonah after he gets out of the whale?” and every hand went down.

And so let me ask y’all:

How many of y’all have heard of Jonah?

How many of you know what happens after Jonah gets out of the whale?

So let me tell you the story, because our Old Testament story this morning tells us some of what happens to Jonah post-Whale.

 

God shows up to Jonah one day and calls him to be a prophet, and asks him to go to the people of Nineveh and tell them to repent. But Jonah doesn’t like the people of Nineveh, and so he runs away, and ends up a stowaway on a boat out at sea—he wants to get away from God so bad. But God sends a storm in pursuit and the storm threatens to sink the boat, so Jonah throws himself overboard in order to appease God and save the crew of the ship and is promptly eaten by a big fish. Jonah stays in whale time-out for three days until his pettiness cracks and he comes around, singing a song of praise to God. He goes to Nineveh, he says the things a prophet says, the city repents, God decides not to reign calamity down on the people of Nineveh.

But then Jonah remembers that he doesn’t like Nineveh and he gets mad again. God was going to destroy Nineveh but Jonah got conned into helping God save them, and Jonah didn’t want them saved. Jonah wanted them destroyed; he can’t pull even an ounce of pity for them. God asks him: “Is it right for you to be angry?” So God does this scheme-y little thing in order to shame Jonah. God kills the bush that Jonah was sitting under, and Jonah is sad about the bush and God basically rolls up and says “Oh you can mourn a bush but not 120,000 people?? Huh??”

Jonah had passed judgement on Nineveh, and Nineveh didn’t get what he thought they had coming. And he was mad about it. And I’m curious about this angry feeling—of having passed judgement on something/somebody and wanting to inflict harm on them.

All summer long I shared with these youth–at mission trips, at camp–my hypothesis that the Bible is an anthology of the most relatable stories of human experience. No matter what you are going through or what you feel, somebody in the Bible knows what that’s like. The Bible is about us. And so this drive to pass judgement and to see through punishment…it’s not cute… and we may want to distance ourselves from it… but it’s also about us.

I think we all know what that feeling feels like. Like… it starts out as early as the playground, where somebody takes the ball from you and you push them down, right? It’s like when the most annoying kid in your class doesn’t study and then gets the highest grade on the test, and you studied all night for a B. It’s like when that one co-worker—the one who is just downright unpleasant to everybody—gets the promotion that you wanted… or that one co-worker who doesn’t work as hard as you, who isn’t as charming as you, who hasn’t been at the company as long as you. This kind of stuff happens and something in our reptilian brain stem activates, and your face gets hot, your stomach goes cold, maybe your brain starts to buzz and smoke a little bit. That’s the feeling that Jonah is feeling! Nineveh is bad and I am good and why is God saving them and punishing me? That’s the feeling that the workers have in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Those lazy workers got the raise that we wanted… and they didn’t even work for it.

God has a similarly shaming question for the all-day workers: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” In both cases, in Jonah and in the Gospel, God has little patience for the judgment passed by us. There is a tension in these stories between God’s judgment, God’s righteousness, and our own judgment, our self-righteousness.

There are two things I wanna say about this and God’s question for Jonah: Is it right for you to be angry?

First, God asks: is it right for you to be angry? It’s not fun to be a Jonah, pouting under a bush. It’s not fun to be the grumbling laborers, with a full days wages in pocket and still a bone to pick. And in these readings, God is affording us the option to not have to feel that way. We don’t have to hold the burden of condemnation ourselves. Our faith practice… a deep rooted belief in the redeem-ability of all people can actually change our emotional state. Christianity isn’t exactly anger management… but it’s not far off, haha.

This is not to say that the Christian life is all rainbows and butterflies and soft harp music playing in the background. Christianity is not merely an exercise in positivity. We get to get mad… and we are encouraged to be mad when we see the dignity of all people not being upheld. But we don’t have to play God and to sit in the uncomfortable seat of Judge’s Chair and that ought to be of some relief to us.

Second, God asks: is it right for you to be angry? Jonah’s condemnation of Nineveh is in direct opposition to God’s plan of salvation for Nineveh. The laborers frustration at their common wage flies in the face of God’s generosity. This self-righteousness clashes with God’s righteousness, and that’s a tough pill for us to swallow. Our own qualitative sense of right/wrong isn’t reliable for the people of God. We are responsible for building God’s kingdom out in the world, and not our own kingdom. We don’t get to selectively condemn folks based on Who. We. Think. Needs. Condemning. For us as Christians, we have to focus on God’s work and sometimes that might feel like we are getting a raw deal, or like other people are being treated better we are… or than we think they deserve to be.

Again, for us Christians, it all comes back to the Gospel and that, for us, means loving the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength and all your mind, and loving your neighbor as yourself. That’s it. And so everything we learn from society would have us ask the question: is this good for me? Our religion would have us instead ask the question: is this good for all of us?

And this why is so much of our national discourse ought to be so frustrating to us. We’re out here talking about global nuclear conflict and climate crisis and universal healthcare and damn near all of the commentary is happening at the level of: is it good for me and for the people that look like me? Is it good for business? Is it good for the Democrats, is it good for the Republicans, is it good for my party, is it good for America? Our terrestrial allegiance is of no concern to Gospel. We instead must ask: is it good for the marginalized and the oppressed? Is it good for humanity? Is it good for the planet?

Instead of asking

“how much tax money will it cost me?”

“but how will they earn it?”

“does North Korea have it coming?”

“but how will we maintain our status as the leaders of the free world?”

“is there enough science behind it?”

 

I wonder what it would be like if, instead, we chose to ask:

“who is hurting and how can we help?”

“are we doing our best to reconcile?”

“is this good for all of us or is it only good for me, and people like me?”

“how many people will die if we don’t do something?”

“what’s the best way for us to take care of our planet?”

 

It’s so tempting to ask the previous questions—our society teaches us to ask those questions, and to challenge the veracity of every claim. But if we’re being honest, devil’s advocate isn’t really a good look for the people of God. The devil doesn’t need more advocates, Lord knows he’s got enough of ‘em already out there in the world. Jesus needs more advocates. And we [motions with hands] are the only people for the job. And when that work gets hard and we find ourselves frustrated or ready to deviate from it, we have the responsibility to ask ourselves:

Is it right for me to be angry?

Is it right for me to be angry?

Is it right for me to be angry?

Sunday, September 24 – Mia Benjamin

 

This sermon was preached at St. Aidan’s, San Francisco on Sunday, September 24 by Mia Benjamin. The texts for this sermon are: Exodus 16:2-15Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45Philippians 1:21-30, and Matthew 20:1-16.

Did you bring us here just to die?

The Israelites have been through a lot at this point in the Exodus story. They’ve watched as their old homeland, Egypt, descended into the chaos of terrible plagues all around them. They left behind everything except what they could carry on their backs. They’ve trusted in a prince turned prophet, a column of cloud, and a mysterious, splitting sea. And all that has landed the chosen people here, in the desert. Lost. Starving, and afraid. So they want to know. Did God put us through all that just to have us die? Maybe we should have stayed put, kept our heads down, and made ends meet the way we knew how.

Not too long ago, I moved to live in the desert not far from where the Israelites were wandering. I had gone there on a research grant to figure out if this whole academia thing was for me. The problem was that I had my answer pretty quick. And that was a loud, resounding “No.” At first, I struggled with the motivation to write and research, set up interviews, study the language. But soon I found myself struggling to even get out the door, or to feed myself. And I knew I was losing more than just weight. It felt like essential pieces of me were wasting away. The excited parts of myself that loved to learn, that wanted to achieve something to make this whole year worthwhile—I could feel them withering in the dusty, desert air. What was I doing here? Did I leave everything behind just to fade away?

In the Exodus story, when the Israelites cry out to God, God provides. Bread from heaven, in the exact amounts they need. But what God provides in Exodus seems so simple: food to fill hungry bellies. What happens when our needs are deeper, more complex, maybe even impossible to articulate? Maybe you’ve been there, too. At some point in your life, crying out to God for the inexpressible. Maybe you’re there now.

I’m not sure what I was longing for back then. Maybe it was longing for a purpose, a life-giving path out of the desert, maybe it was just a way home. In any case, it was certainly not something that can just fall from the sky. Or even, I realized, something I could discover by looking deeper and deeper into myself.

Now this was back before the word “discernment” was part of my regular vocabulary, but looking back that’s exactly what I realized had to do. I had to stop, reassess, and yes, let go of making sure I got the big, bright future I thought I deserved. I had to move from keeping my head down and making ends meet to looking around and noticing the world outside of myself. Even if in that moment all that meant my neighborhood outside my door.

See, larger purpose I was looking for turned out to be right down the street, in a little old Melkite Church where God was already doing amazing things, bringing Jordanian Muslims and Christians together during a contentious time. I stumbled upon God providing for others, and found I had a role to play there, too. And through that work, and subsequent partnerships with chaplains, I began to hear again the call to ministry I had given up on for so long.

In Jesus’ parable this morning, we find God again making sure everyone is provided for. Granted, God’s provision for God’s people isn’t as easy as dropping manna for the people to gather. The workers receive their daily bread as wages for back-breaking work, all day in the scorching sun. Each batch of new recruits is understandably focused on staying in the vineyard, keeping their heads down, and making ends meet.

Yet, at the end of the parable, it’s also clear that in doing so they’ve missed a huge part of the story. It’s not about you! God chides the first group of workers when they complain they deserve more than the laborers who worked fewer hours. The real story is my version of justice, says the landowner. The real story is my generosity, my grace.  The real story is what I was up to, this whole time, while you were busy.

Because here’s what God, the landowner was doing. God was looking out of the vineyard and seeing the unseen. The lost, the starving, and the afraid. God was going out into the streets hour after hour finding the left behind and bringing them in. God was making sure everyone God came across got that daily bread at the end of day, disconnecting the fulfillment of basic needs from the value society places on the last and least. So I wonder, how might the story have gone if the workers stopped to notice what the landowner was up to, this whole time?

As Christians, the life we are called to is far more than making sure that we’ve gotten what we deserve. God calls us, the church, to a larger purpose—loving our neighbors as ourselves, to seeing the unseen, the unfed, the unhoused, and the unemployed, and inviting them in. The last shall be first. And here’s the thing. God’s already out there, showing us the way.

This morning I want to wonder with you, what does it look like to lift our heads up and look around to see what God is up to in our neighborhood? Who is left standing empty-handed on our streets today? It might involve pausing in what we’re busy doing. It might even take setting something down or letting go of big dreams. Taking a break so that we might better listen for how God may be inviting us to lend a hand.

In a way, that’s what my new mission is, here at St. Aidan’s, as your seminarian. I’m here to listen and look for what God is already doing in your midst. To eavesdrop on neighbor checking up on neighbor at the Food Pantry on Fridays. To listen to the hard work of moving from denial to reality to hope in Christian Ed. To pull back the layers of discernment about what our neighborhood needs sanctuary to mean.

The good news is that God hasn’t brought us here, to this point, to just spiritually wither away. Here, at this table, is the bread of heaven. Here, in this neighborhood, the life-giving, justice-making, death-defying work is already underway. Are we ready lift our heads up and see it?

 

Sunday, September 17 – Phil Hooper

This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 17 at Christ Church, Alameda by middler Phil Hooper. The texts for this sermon were from Revised Common Lectionary for the Feast of the Holy Cross: Numbers 21:4b-9Psalm 98:1-51 Corinthians 1:18-24; and John 3:13-17.

What are you afraid of?  What makes you break into a cold sweat, makes your stomach do a few flips?  For the Israelites in today’s reading from the book of Numbers, it might have been those deadly snakes that were slithering around in the wilderness.  Maybe for you it’s public speaking, or flying in airplanes, or creepy clowns.  I’ll tell you mine: audience participation.  Whenever I end up at one of those performances where they want a “volunteer from the audience”, I say a silent, desperate prayer: “please, God, please, don’t let them pick me.  Anyone but me.”  Almost invariably—they pick me!  I think they must have a way of finding the reluctant ones. And so I have to go up, engage in some deeply embarrassing little activity, all the while feeling like I want to crawl in a hole and hide.  It’s terrible.

Why do we fear the things that we fear?  One reason, as in the case of those biblical serpents, is pretty obvious: we don’t want to die.  But you might have heard the oft repeated fact that many people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying.  My reaction to audience participation probably falls under that general category.  Because here’s the thing: even more than death, many of us are afraid of looking FOOLISH.

To be considered foolish is a two-part trauma: mockery, then dismissal.  First they laugh at you, then they reject you.  It is a paradox of intense scrutiny and invisibility all at once.  We are seen but not known, observed but not acknowledged.  As innately social creatures, yearning for acceptance, being made to feel like a fool can be experienced as a type of brutality.  Maybe you’ve felt this at one point or another and know what I mean.

So why this meditation on foolishness?  Well, today we are observing the Feast of the Holy Cross—a moment in our liturgical year when we pause to deeply consider this object, this symbol that is so ubiquitous that it achieves its own sort of invisibility.  For the Christian, it is everywhere—above the altar, around our necks, imprinted on book covers and tattooed onto skin.  What is this cross?  How do we understand it?

Well, it is many things, but today I offer it to you as a symbol of foolishness.

Yes, foolishness.  By our typical measures of success, the cross stands for failure.  The starkest kind of failure.  When Jesus of Nazareth was hung upon that cross, he was not admired.  He was not lauded for his wisdom.  He was mocked, and then he was abandoned—abandoned by the curious crowds, abandoned by his beloved friends.  In that moment, He was seen as the fool.  We need to think about this; we need to feel this.  The embarrassment; the shame; the longing for a loving word, and the deafening silence of no such word coming.  And so he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We have to hold onto this part of the cross, because without its weakness we can’t begin to comprehend the power of the resurrection, without its isolation we can’t begin to comprehend the communion, the fellowship that we partake of at this table.  Before all of that joy, we are like Christ on the cross, the desolate fool whom the world does not know.

Today’s readings also include that famous gospel passage, John 3:16—”for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  But gave God’s only son…to what?

He was given over to the arms of the Cross: its pain, its foolishness, its senseless misery.  Why?  How can this make sense?  It’s ludicrous! Scandalous! This is what victory looks like?! We talk a lot in this day and age about “winners” and “losers”, and I suspect I know what the powers of Rome in the first century would have said in 140 characters or less on Twitter: “Weak Christians are worshipping a loser who couldn’t even save himself! Sad!”

And we sometimes remain stuck there, friends, confusing prestige with virtue.  We want “likes” on Facebook.  We want money and applause. We want to be seen.  In our current climate of media and celebrity, notoriety is what we thirst for, whether it’s more friends, more social media followers, more members in the pews, more pledges on the balance sheet.  Status becomes the bottom line. We pray “Condemn us, God, call us sinful, but please, God, don’t let us be unimportant.  Don’t let us be the fool.”

And yet….and yet….there stands the Cross.  It is the unavoidable reminder that to participate in God’s love is to risk being foolish.  The Cross is the call to embrace that one thing we might fear more than death—our vulnerability—and bring it into a world that is likely to scoff at us.  Because it may be that the thing we fear is the thing that will save us.  Think back about those snakes—they were killing people, and then Moses took that embodiment of fear and death, cast it in bronze, lifted it up on a pole and turned into a symbol of salvation.  Just like Jesus was lifted up on the cross.  Just like we will be lifted up, in our own ways.  That which kills me, heals me.  In becoming the fool, I am given wisdom.

And so we end up with Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians, that all that is foolishness in this world—vulnerability, rejection, invisibility—is the doorway through which we enter the wisdom of God—a wisdom that lives in love, not in ego.  A wisdom that inverts everything we’ve ever done to make ourselves feel important and worthy.  A wisdom that is unlocked by the ultimate victory that the Cross points toward, the Resurrection, in which foolishness is transfigured, overturning all our assumptions about what is good and what is praiseworthy.

We honor the Cross not because it removes our fears but because it fully realizes them, and it leans so hard into them that it opens the door to all that is on the other side of fear, the risen Christ, in whom God’s wisdom takes this world’s priorities and makes THEM look foolish.

So yes.  If we look to the cross, we might be called fools.  And that is just as God would have it, because it means we are risking everything for God’s loving promise. So to some we are “fools” when we engage in justice and service ministry, believing that our contribution can change the corrupted systems and heal the wounds of this world.  We are “fools” when we vulnerably testify to others how God has changed our lives through a community like Christ Church.  We are “fools” when we welcome the stranger without conditions, without building walls to separate the so-called worthy from the so-called worthless.  We are “fools” for believing that a world soaked in countless generations of blood and tears, fueled by racism, nationalism, and xenophobia could ever be redeemed.  But my friends, if that is a fool, it’s the kind of fool I want to be. It’s the kind of fool that the Cross demands us to be.

Remember that bit about audience participation?  You didn’t think you were going to get off that easy, did you?  We won’t make it too hard today.  Just repeat after me:  GOD LOVES A FOOL.  GOD LOVES A FOOL.

May we all be fools for God, looking to that Holy Cross as a symbol of risk, of love, and of true wisdom.

Amen.

Thursday, September 7 – Dr. Jennifer Snow

This sermon was preached on Thursday, September 7 by Professor Jennifer Snow. The readings for this sermon are the Propers for Education: Deuteronomy 6:4-9,20-25Psalm 78:1-72 Timothy 3:14—4:5,  and Matthew 11:25-30

Jennifer Snow

It just so happens that today we pray “for education,” and our readings are chosen to reflect on this theme.  And these readings tie in to the complexity of what it means to learn, to be certain, to pray, to do justice, in the light of God’s love.  The tension between certainty and love is brought out in reading after reading, with great declarations of simple truth followed by calls to share the story, intertwined with elaborations of what truth is and what it means and where it comes from and how to avoid error that demonstrate that truth in God is not the same as truth in human terms.  Truth is simple.  Truth is complex. Knowledge comes from scripture and readings and teachers.  Knowledge is given to infants.  The truth is told in parables; the truth is stated in mysteries; the truth is told in story and memory.  Proclaim the message, but beware of teachers that simply lean to your desire.  Proclaim the message, but avoid unsound doctrine.  We always ask why, children that we are. When Nazis and white nationalists marched on Charlottesville, it just so happened I was in the Outer Banks in North Carolina with my family.  It just so happened that I had good friends in Charlottesville who had helped organize the counterprotests; I didn’t know what had happened to them.  It also just so happened that I took a wrong turn on the beach trying to catch up with my sisters and ended up having a long walk alone in the dark, listening to the waves crash.  It just so happened that I wanted to pray, and when my words were inadequate I turned to music, which I do.  I stood on the sand and sang to the waves the song we will sing in a few minutes.  This is my song, I sang, O God of all the nations…a song of peace, for their land and for mine.  This is a song about loving what is good, and nonetheless loving those who oppose and would destroy what I love, because they too are loved by God.  God loves my opponents – not because they are right, but because God loves them.  God loves my friends – not because they are right, but because God loves them.  How is it possible, then, both to love and yet to name what is true, what is right, what is wrong, what is good, what is evil: to declare that a given action or belief is incompatible with God’s truth and God’s desire for us?

There are two temptations in the face of this complexity about truth and God.  One temptation is to reject the idea that knowledge and learning about God is at all worthwhile, and choose to deliberately remain ignorant.  Presumably, since we are here at seminary, we are resisting that temptation.  But the second temptation is to identify what knowledge I hold, what I believe to be true, at any time, to be certain truth about God.  It is a temptation because it can make truth itself into an idol; following the teacher of my own desires, my desire to be right.

In today’s readings from Deuteronomy and Timothy, we are exhorted to proclaim the message, to tell the story, to remember the truth; and the truth has a definite content, the story has a clear focus.  Yet the Gospel says something different to us about truth and knowledge.  Knowledge of God is literally held within the knowledge of Jesus, and Jesus calls the listener to “learn from me.”  And this learning is not stated in terms of doctrine or particular statements about God or God’s activity, but is to “come unto him…for he is gentle and humble of heart.”  The knowledge we seek – and the knowledge is perhaps found only in the seeking – is through this following, through seeking to rest in Jesus, through the one who is gentle and humble of heart and who gives up all that is of human value in order to demonstrate that love beyond human love.

One way of understanding this is that the seeking of knowledge of God itself comes through love – not abstract love, but love of one another.  Knowledge of God is found not within ourselves, that endless search for “authenticity” – that would indeed be following the teacher that suits our own desires – but in the other.  Perhaps even, specifically, in that other who denies my worth, my faith, and my very existence as valuable or valid.  And that can happen at a white nationalist march, or it can happen in any Christian community of seminary or church.

The third stanza of the song we will soon sing was written by Methodist Georgia Harkness, right here at the GTU, where in 1950 she became the first female theologian to hold full professor status in a United States seminary.  While publishing over thirty books and articles, she also spent her life in fighting for the rights of women and women’s ordination, for international peace, for the rights of people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ people.   Her very first book, in 1921, defended the rights of immigrants at the height of American nativism.  Before she died in 1974 she advocated for the legal and religious inclusion of gay and lesbian people.  I have no doubt that many times, Dr. Harkness was accused of teaching unsound doctrine, and that she had to engage in passionate disagreement with those who defended patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, and white nationalism, both Christian and secular. She yearned nonetheless to submit all conflict to the judgment of Christ, which judgment is always love.

220px-Dr._Georgia_E._Harkness
Georgia Harkness, author of “This is my song”

This is a starting point very much appropriate for where are as members of a global Communion and an ecumenical seminary.  We share a faith in Christ with many who disagree with us, fundamentally and deeply, about what is true about God and God’s desires for humanity and creation.  We must name what is evil; we must argue against what is false.  As the letter to Timothy says, we must be persistent, whether time is favorable or unfavorable: we must convince, rebuke, encourage, with the utmost patience. To acknowledge that our relationship can never be ruptured by disagreements and anathemas, because our relationship is rooted in the love of God in Christ for each one of us, is not to embrace a tepid tolerance of dissent or indifference to the intellect and to justice.  It is certainly not to permit others to abuse us or those around us, politically, physically, spiritually, intellectually, or emotionally.  It is to choose a committed, passionate path of disagreement and action while remaining constantly aware of God’s love for the other.  It is to place even conflict about truth and justice under the judgment of God.  It is to follow the one who is gentle and humble of heart, whose yoke is easy, because it is never inflicted with the whip and the goad; whose burden is light, because it is always shared among all of us.

Learn from me, Jesus says.  Proclaim the message, in the presence of God and Christ Jesus.  Join in the seeking for the love that seeks us.  We are invited, day by day.  We love to tell the story, because we know it’s true.

Hymn: This Is My Song, O God of All the Nations (FINLANDIA)” performed by Harvard University Choir, posted August 4, 2014.

Tuesday, September 4 – Prayers of the People by Phil Hooper

Awake in the light of faith, let us offer prayers to the God of our salvation, responding to “Lord in your mercy” with “hear our prayer”.

Guide your beloved children, Lord, the Church that seeks your brilliance.  Walk with us through the shadowlands of your creation and let our lives be a beacon for others.  Bless your ministers with intuition to feel what they cannot see clearly, and the courage to face those things that are all too clear.

Lord, in your mercy,

Hear our prayer.

Guide this land, Lord, and those who have been entrusted with its stewardship.  Let us never confuse building community with being exclusive; let us never forfeit the sacred bonds of civic duty, woven in love and protest, in exchange for a complacent nationalism held together by fear and illuminated by the flickering lights of false prophets.

Lord, in your mercy,

Hear our prayer .

Let the world, in all of its vast need and promise, be more than just a dream to us, Lord.  Awaken us to the interconnectedness of your creation, and the comfort and responsibility inherent in that connection.  Help us find sustenance in common experiences, and challenge us to encounter those whom we cannot fully comprehend.  Help us find Christ in both places.

Lord, in your mercy,

Hear our prayer.

Bless this community, Lord, as it begins another academic year.  Help us to see the potential of living and studying alongside one another, and help us also to remember how fleeting our time together will be.  In this new season at CDSP, Lord, give us thankful hearts for all that is to come, and for the particular work  you have called each of us to do.

Lord in your mercy,

Hear our prayer.

For some, Lord, night is at hand.  Fear, pain, illness, weariness—these are the companions that wait along the roads we fear to tread.  Lord, we ask for your consolation for our brothers and sisters who traverse these desolate territories, knowing that you are with them always.  We pray especially for ________ and those whom we now name.

Lord in your mercy,

Hear our prayer.

For others, Lord, who have departed this life, the dawn of your heavenly kingdom casts its radiance.  We turn our hearts toward them, and toward the eternal joy that you have promised us in Christ.  We remember especially your servant Gregorio Aglipay, founder of the Philippine Independent Church, ___________ and those whom we now name.

Lord in your mercy,

Hear our prayer.

Tripp sermon 9.5
“To proclaim, to work for, to act upon God’s reconciling work is to step into all the conflict and chaos that humanity can dish out…and love.” – the Rev. Tripp Hudgins
Prayers published with permission by the author.

Thursday, May 4 – the Very Rev. Mark Richardson

This sermon was preached for the Feast Day of St. Monica, Augustine’s Mother by the Very Rev. Mark Richardson. The readings for this sermon are: Judges 13:2–8Psalm 115:12–18Galatians 4:1–12a, and John 16:20-24.

It is very clear that we would not know St. Monica if it weren’t for her son, Augustine, whose mark on Western Christianity needs no introduction. We know Monica through Augustine’s Confessions, his generously recorded affectionate memories of Monica’s life, scattered throughout the pages, and the memory of her constancy in prayer especially for Augustine during his pre-Christian years. Indeed, one full chapter of Confessions, is virtually a memorial stated in prayer and devoted to Monica, a saint who prayed without ceasing for her family, shedding tears to God in her desire for their spiritual awakening in the Catholic faith.  She is a picture of constancy, sometimes humility, and prayer. I am reminded of the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew, who pleaded to Jesus for the healing of her demon possessed daughter, and would not take ‘no’ for an answer even after Jesus’ resistance.  This was the spirit of Monica.

The good news is that this is not the story of a perfect family, good news because none of us comes from perfect families either. Augustine’s family life was actually quite complex. His father cheated on his wife so flagrantly that family and friends all knew about it. And she had a tendency of being too self-effacing in response to her husband’s sexual indiscretions in order to keep the relationship intact. It was a humiliating burden they all lived with. And Monica, she too had a bout with substance abuse, a period of excessive love of wine, until a life circumstance was strong enough to expose this to herself and she came to a reckoning with it.  

Nor was Monica not a perfect mother; in fact, she was at times what we would call today a ‘helicopter mom’, who over-managed. The tone in Augustine’s Confessions is that though mild in manner, this was not a woman to mess with. I’m being a bit anachronistic here but her managing ranged from setting up the marriage for the adult son, Augustine, to an appropriate family. It included traveling to find her wayward adult son from present day Algeria to Rome and when she discovered he had moved to Milan, she chased him down there also, setting up Bishop Ambrose to be Augustine’s personal confessor and catechist. And later, she arranged to delay Augustine’s marriage so he could concentrate on his intellectual career. This meant that Augustine extended his concubinal relationship still longer, something that he knew dragged him down spiritually into his sexual addiction which he fought for years.  

The son of these parents, as is often the case, became like the father in his obsessive relation to sex; it took over his imagination, absorbed his time, and greatly distracted him. Indeed, it took over his capacity fully to love.  He admitted that love and intimacy was no deeper than his sexual lust from his youth. Augustine writes,  “I was caught up to you by your beauty and quickly torn away by the weight of my lust…” (Bk 7)  This is an extraordinary sentence, for it recognizes beauty and desire at the heart of God’s urge to be known to and present in us. At the same time it recognizes the dangerous power of finite loves meant to be the gateway to still more robust love, yet prone to the immediacy of self-serving desires essentially detached from love and connectedness  This was the condition of Augustine, and known to his mother, and one source of her tears.

Augustine later reflected that it was God’s spirit working through Monica toward divine purposes even through conditions that deeply alienated him from God. In prayerful eulogy he writes: “I shall not pass over whatever my soul may bring forth concerning your servant Monica, who brought me to birth both in her body so that I was born into the light of time, and in her heart so that I was born into the light of eternity. I speak not of her gifts to me, but your gifts to her…for even from the fury of one soul you brought healing to another.  Thereby you showed that no one should attribute it to her own power.” (Confessions Book 9)

We do not celebrate Monica for her perfection, nor her family’s perfection. If anything her constancy of faith, her relentless devotion to prayer, her trust that in God all will be well, and her tears of love—all of this made her, in her imperfection, even more a vehicle for the action of God. What I take from this is that we, too, must separate the drive toward perfection from the quest to be faithful.  

We know these stories of love in the midst of brokenness in our own lives.  My wife, Brenda, was raised by her mother, a single working parent. It was by no means a life without strife. Her mother had to send Brenda away to live with aunts from ages 2-4, because of the financial instability of the time.  Later, she moved the family to one of the balkanized neighborhoods of Brooklyn and as the only black family this left its mark on the Brenda and her sister who endured the unfriendliness. One year, Brenda’s mother purchased a terracotta donkey for her garden, imported from Mexico.  It was not inexpensive. One day, at the age of 9, and with the mother away at work, Brenda was playing rodeo, riding the donkey, and carelessly broke off one of the ears. She quickly turned the donkey in a direction and location where her mother might not notice the broken ear. Her older sister, meanwhile, was there when it happened and like siblings are prone to do, she manipulated Brenda through threat by telling her, “If you do what I say, do some of my chores, I won’t tell on you.” This went on for some time until finally Brenda, at the extreme pain of hurt and humiliation, had had enough. She was going to tell her mother what she had done.  So she went crying in confession to mother, who clearly saw how terrified she was, and how sad she was to have hurt her mother. “Oh darling that’s alright. We’ll get it fixed. She gave her a deep hug, and made it clear that she loved her and cared about the sorrow she was carrying and about her much more than the donkey. Looking back, Brenda sees she was also teaching the older sister a lesson as well.  

It is one instance, only one instance among many, of the quiet and steady and active love of parents in the process of forming us. It is the catechesis of love that builds us into the people we become, not because our models life were perfect but because they were faithful. The miracle is the millions of children who grow up without experiencing this bonding and nurturing and somehow survive (though some do not).  Oh how important are the ministries of those who care for the children who are poorly cared for, creating the memorable moments that children build upon. We can never overestimate the importance of this role in our ministries.

Those of you who are parents know that whatever we do, so much of the time we feel out of control. We know we are like Monica, able to pray and shed tears, recognize our flaws as parents, and leave the rest in the hands of God.

I think of the words of our gospel as Jesus is teaching his disciples about what lies ahead for them in his absence. He says to them: “You will weep and lament; you will be sorrowful but your sorrow will turn to joy. When a woman is in labor she has pain when her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.” (John 16) I’m told on the authority of some mothers that this bit of scriptures has been falsified; they do remember the pain.  But otherwise the point is clear.

And I’m wondering about this as the story of God’s creativity—the action more like ‘breaking out from within’, than ‘breaking in from above’. Imagine God’s creation as a giving birth to the world, sharing the pangs of suffering with the world, as its creatures move toward the joy of unity in the divine life itself.

This ‘bursting out from within’ captures something about our being formed ground up over our life times. This formation is the basis for those deep and poignant moments we call transformation that none of us can predict, anymore than could Augustine on that day in the garden when he was finally swept off his feet by the grace of God. Augustine’s magic moment in the garden when he opened the scriptures and had a conversion experience was not magic at all.  It was built upon countless acts of kindness and love over many years, constancy of prayer, and incalculable gestures of embrace that prepared for his transformation. There’s an expression many of you will have heard: ‘chance favors the well prepared’.  We are speaking of the spiritual version of it: meaningful coincidences occur and when we have been formed, prepared, we read the signs that take us to a new place.

Years ago I was a country boy growing up in Oregon, working on farms in the summer time, exposed to little outside of the Pacific northwest. After college I lived in Princeton (culture shock enough) then a few years later ventured to NYC, completely out of my element, alone, flailing to find meaning in my being there, desperately looking for connection. Why did I think I could call the Dean of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine and ask him to give me a place as an intern?  Why after a short time did I think I could work alongside different local groups in sweat equity housing projects in South Harlem during this dangerous era in the city’s history?  I don’t think at the time I could possibly have understood how relationships of faithful people in my life formed me to turn this culture shock into an opportunity of transformation. But that’s exactly what happened. You have these experiences; look back on them in gratitude each time you come to those growing edge moments when you feel you do not have the resources to get through to the next step in your life and ministry.  

As you seniors prepare to leave this place, some of you in ordained ministries, try to visualize for yourself Augustine’s moment of conversion. Put yourself in his place because many of you will be going to new and unknown contexts, with new modes of building relationship with people, now as leaders. This will in effect be transformative for you. You would not even be able to recognize these personal transformations for what they are if the grammar of formation were not already there for you.  You will begin new ministries not tabula rasa, as if the new does not come from something before as the measure of what ‘new’ could mean. The new shaping and molding is part of a pathway you have traveled that includes untold numbers of people who love you and prepared you for this moment, including friends who prayed, studied and laughed with you while you were here for a few years.

Now shift and place yourself in the position of Monica. You will enter ministries attempting to lead, lure and coax people into a higher level of fulfilling their Christian baptismal vocations in the neighborhood and in their workplace; it will at times frustrate you.  And you will probably soon discover the foundation for this in the pastoral tasks, the spiritual guidance and prayer that precedes all else. Sometimes the best you will be able to do, even if not the only thing, is hold members of your community in prayer: when, for example, a family is concerned about drug addiction of their teenage child, or who knows what tragedy or demoralization has wounded your community. Sometimes you can act, sometimes you cannot, but always you can, like Monica, be faithful. They will need you to pray for them with constancy, hold them up before God, maybe at times shed tears for them, like Monica, filled with hope as she calls upon God’s spirit to be present in her son. You will learn how to relinquish control, and find the sweet spot between the courageous to do those things you can, on the one hand, and being faithful in prayer and waiting in those things we cannot change.

Last weekend Brenda and I went to the consecration of Jennifer Baskerville Burrows in Indianapolis. We have known her since she was an adolescent in New York City, and she is one of us, an alum of CDSP. After the very beautiful consecration, one of the moments that struck me most was the picture taking ritual. The time came for the official family photo, with her husband and 5 year-old son. What I focused on was her 5 year old son, who looked bewildered, then smiled, then looked into his mother’s eyes. And I wondered how he must feel with all this attention placed on his mother, and what she must carry in her heart.  She now carries a new yoke as shepherd of a diocese, and what we know about Jennifer is that she will be their faithful chief pastor. But she will also be a mother of this precious little boy for whom she will pray daily and, I imagine, sheds tears over the years of his formation.  Jennifer will no doubt worry about the culture into which she must release him in the future, worry about time lost because time divided. She will learn there is no perfect solution and that in the end she, like we are imperfect, even if faithful, vehicles through whom God enters and transforms us, breaking out from within.

ens_050117_BaskervilleBurrows_greets
“Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows greets the congregation at her consecration as Bishop Barbara Harris, center, and Bishop Catherine Waynick, left, look on. Photo: Meghan McConnell” Episcopal Digital Network, May 1, 2017

Tuesday, May 2 – Dr. Julian Gonzalez

This sermon was preached for Tuesday, May 2 by Dr. Julian Gonzalez. The readings for this sermon were: Acts 7:51-8:1a, Psalm 31, and John 6:30-35.

I run to you, God; I run for dear life.
    Don’t let me down!
    Take me seriously this time!
Get down on my level and listen, this time
    and please—no procrastination!

I’ve put my life in your hands. This time
    don’t drop me,
    never let me down.

These are not trivial or casual requests of the supplicant.

These are urgings on which everything-life and death- depends.

The voice of the supplicant in the psalm arises from dire social needs. What is at stake is more than the usual trivialities about which we pray for.

It arises from the most elemental sense of jeopardy. Death is an imminent reality.

At the same time the voice arises from a sense of entitlement before God. A deity who has pledged attentive protection and sustenance.

This is not simple or merely some sort of self-talk psychological activity, as we in our modern rationality often think prayer to be. This is a real transaction, raw, innocent, and trusting.

The candor of the supplicant is evident.

The speaker is not only requesting respite for himself, which seems legitimate enough in the covenantal language of her demand.

But in addition to that request there is an ultimatum for God’s forceful action that the deity should take against the speaker’s adversaries and detractors.

In other words, the speaker is able to get down and dirty in regressive, even childish speech about real feelings.

I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
  a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
    those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
    I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
    terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
    as they plot to take my life.

The speaker sees himself as a monster to his enemies. He is ridiculed by his neighbors, and even to his friends, he is an object of dread, horror.

His body is so disruptive that even people who see him in the street flee from him.

He is in nobody’s memory, he has been ignored and forgotten by the community.

In his childish, ignoble, raw emotional expression, the speaker feels free to voice the deepest urge for retaliation and vengeance against those who have diminished his life. His god is a deity who “abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily” against our speaker.

Why should this deity care about the speaker’s situation?

Our clever supplicant motivates God to act on his behalf by underlining God’s character and self-regard.

This is a righteous deity. This is a faithful deity. This is a deity who in the eyes of the speaker is full of goodness. This is a deity whose acts are driven by steadfast love.

In other words, the reasons that God should respond to these petitions is because who God is in the eyes of the speaker.

It is as though God needs to be reminded that God is characterized in this way.

God should act to verify that god is indeed the god who the supplicant thinks the deity to be.

That is to say even if theologically the deity is free to act as the deity pleases to do.

Rhetorically, the speaker is making sure god gets the message. You should act if you actually claim to be who you are.

In the patriarchal context of our speaker, he is using the notion of honor, in this case of a deity who is imagined and addressed as male in order to make sure, He, the divine listener of this supplication, gets the message. The male speaker’s goal is greater intimacy and connection with a male deity.

The motivation is not only about the character of God. There is also the need for a predisposition of the supplicant who desires to be close to Yahweh.

This is an example of homosocial bonding, but one that supports patriarchy and glorifies stereotypical masculinity.

I’ve put my life in your hands. You won’t drop me. You will never let me down.

Our speaker then combines two important aspects of a life of supplication: one is the desperate need in the midst of death, and second the covenantal devotion to a god who might do something.

A more surprising motivation for God’s intervention plays on God’s self-regard that runs toward divine vanity. In the consideration of the speaker, God wants to be well thought of by all people.

In this psalm, the offer of praise to God is something of a bargaining chip.

It is in God’s own self-interest to do so. The motivation for divine rescue is that God will receive the praise to which God is entitled and that God so much wants. Praise enhances God in the eyes of the people who are oppressing the speaker. The speaker knows that and trades on it.

This sort of prayer may strike you as angry, regressive, somehow childish, also as unworthy of good worshipers and probably as unworthy of your god.

But anger is not outside of the options of worthy worshippers and it is very important in theological understandings of hope. Anger is a resource for the long and hard work of organizing and it impels people to focus and be disciplined in actions against injustice.

If this prayer strikes you as childish, full of anger, or unworthy of the way you may address your god that is exactly the point.

Honest prayer expresses the basest reality of our lives. It runs the risk of implying problems for God if praise is withheld. It assumes that one has leverage with God in prayer and that God can thereby be compelled to act in ways that God might otherwise not act.

It is raw prayer. It is a prayer that seeks to make sure that the deity gets the message.

This kind of venturesome speech is not something we readily do when all is well. When all is well, we might even disapprove of people praying this way. Such disapproving only exacerbates our own blindness to the privilege social conditions from which we disqualify a prayer as childish and the resulting dullness of our prayers because we seldom experience the nearness of death in our daily lives.

But when life is not well and we are pushed to extremes, the lament psalm offers a model of engagement in full candor with the god of possibilities and threats. A god who might engage us in our deepest fears and trembling, with emphasis in might. There is no assurance that such needed, desirable divine intervention will take place. Our speaker ends his prayer not with the assurance that the deity intervenes but with the cliff hanger of the waiting room. The sometimes peaceful and most of the time silent room where we hope for the best but many times the silence is broken with even worse outcomes.

The psalm is an example of prayer that moves deeply beneath our usual innocuous prayer in which nothing is at stake, because in this kind of prayer everything is at stake: the body of the supplicant is craving for life in the midst of death.

This psalm exemplifies our deepest expressions of anger and hope.

Anger helps us to identify and express dangerous and desperate situations. According to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of hope, he argues that we live by hope. Living in hope says to us: there is a way out even from the most dangerous and desperate situations.

More important, is the relation b/w hope and anger. Freire suggests that:

Hope without anger is hopeless. Anger is the existential concrete imperative for action. Hope is part of our discourse and the orientation towards the future. We hope the best. We hope deeply and banality. Hope and anger empower us to continue our work for justice even as the forces of injustices may gain greater power for a time.

Usually when we think about hope we assume, coming from our sociocultural entitling position that God is under the obligation to bless us because we are god’s chosen people, because we live in god’s chosen land, because you repeat since childhood that this is god’s chosen nation.

But the psalm humbles us to be able to express anger and hope in a different way. By anger we lay it all out raw and unfiltered before our gods. By hope we continue living in the waiting room; with the expectation that who knows perhaps this god will turn and relent and leave a blessing behind.

Image: “The Broken Terracotta Pot” by Michelle Calkins

Thursday, April 27 – The Rev. Dr. Randal Gardner

This sermon was preached for the Feast of Christina Rossetti on Thursday, April 27 by the Rev. Dr. Randal Gardner. The readings for this sermon were: Exodus 3:1-6, Psalm 84, Revelation 21:1-4, and Matthew 6:19-23.

What do we know about young Moses, the Moses we meet before this encounter with a burning bush? We know that he was:

  • Born to Hebrew woman
  • Rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter
  • Raised in Pharaoh’s home
  • Aware of his Hebrew heritage and saw the oppression of his people

We know that he:

  • Murders Egyptian
  • Flees from Egypt to Midian
  • Meets the priest of Midian
IMG_20170427_180034
The Rev. Dr. Randal Gardner

Perhaps we can imagine the confusion Moses would have been dealing with in his flight from Egypt.  Given the privileges of a royal upbringing, aware of his own Hebrew heritage, so troubled by the discovery that the good fortune of his own life rested on the oppression of his own family. When he enters Midian, he is recognized by the women he meets as an Egyptian, not a Hebrew.  When he names his firstborn child, he gives the baby a cry of lamentation for his name – I have been an alien living in a foreign land.  Moses does not know himself.  He does not know what is true.

The scripture is often frugal with words, conveying powerful meaning in such shorthand that it slips by us.  With whose household does Moses join while he is in Midian?  — The priest of Midian, named as Reuel or Jethro.  The priest of Midian.

Three times Jethro is called the priest of Midian, just so we are sure to see it.  When Moses meets his father-in-law years later, after the exodus from Egypt, we can recognize tenderness and affection between them.  We can imagine that Jethro was a guide for Moses, teaching him the patience needed for watching sheep – such a different occupation than that of a prince.  We can imagine that Jethro would have offered insights into the ways of the spirit, insights into the wisdom of God.  Perhaps Jethro taught Moses to pray so that, like Patrick of Ireland, Moses used those long hours of solitude with the sheep to deepen his spiritual life and attunement with God.

It may have been essential for Moses, born with a purpose from God to be the deliverer, also to have these years of exile in the company of the priest of Midian.  It may have been essential for Moses to have this deep friendship and guidance from a holy man to be ready to see the burning bush, in order to have the curiosity to investigate this strange phenomenon.

To be in seminary is also to be a stranger in a foreign land.  Those of you who are here for a while to study and prepare have left behind the familiar, and perhaps the comfortable, for the sake of a burning bush you have seen.  Those who are here for a seminary career as teachers and staff support can also feel like strangers in a strange land, working to interpret afresh a church that is changing year by year, and often chaotically.  Together we are all engaged in a conversation about the church and ministry that has become much more fluid than structured, much more complex than simple.

For those of you almost finished with seminary, who will soon be accorded titles as professional holy women and holy men, some of whom will sit down at the family dinner wearing a black shirt and white collar for the first time, you may do your best to imply that nothing has really changed.  I predict that there will be a season when this new role can feel alien, foreign.  I pray that it will always feel so.

The faithful news is that we are not alone, that our strangeness in the church and world is not a fruitless exile.  Have your eyes open for the possibility to meet your own Jethro.  The world abounds with those who are priests of Midian, many of whom are not officially leaders of the church.  Watch for those who can teach you the way of the spirit and steady you for the work of self-risking ministry.  The most important gift of a true priest of Midian will be the encouragement and companionship that will enable you to lose yourself, to venture beyond what is manageable, comfortable and successful into the realm where there is only Christ.  Let your treasure be in heaven, Jesus teaches.

It is not enough, however, to reflect only on our own experience of strangeness and transience.  We live in a relatively rare period in history when levels of human migration are creating political and economic upheaval.  There are all kinds of reasons that people are leaving their homelands today, and the majority are moving because of relatively easy travel to take advantage of opportunity or to expand the influence of one culture in others.  By far the greatest migration in the past ten years has been from India into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

What we see in the news are the millions who are all but driven from their homelands by war, violence, oppression, poverty, natural disaster and famine.  As these refugees flee toward safe and stable nations, the host nations experience a groundswell of resentment, fear and antipathy toward the immigrants.  Marie Le Pen is tapping that resentment in France, just as Donald Trump tapped into it here.

While Moses rose above his own distress at being displaced and uprooted, he also embedded that experience into the center of the faith and justice culture we inherit.  To be a true participant in the faith story of Moses, Elijah and Jesus requires an identification with, rather than a disdain for, the immigrant and alien among us.

For the faith and the belief system that flows from Moses to our own time celebrates that alien status.  The scripture reminds us over and over that we were once aliens and slaves living in the land of Egypt.  We are one with Jesus of Nazareth, who exclaimed that he was no longer welcome in his own home.  Jesus reminds us that our treasure is not the treasure of this earth, but that it is to be invested in that which transcends the transient.

“All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee” – many of us have exclaimed that on the Sundays of our lives.  But the scripture quoted 1st Chronicles 29:14 rolls on into verse 15 – “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on earth are like a shadow, and in them there is no hope.”

As we strive to be faithful ministers of God’s Good News, our goal is not to become happily settled or comfortably familiar.  If we are not occasionally lost or uprooted, we are probably missing out on relationships with the priests of Midian; we have probably stopped leaving the path to hear the voice of God in the burning bushes we pass.  When we find that there are blessings in the times when we are lost and uprooted, our sense of connection with those who are aliens, strangers, and immigrants will be transformed.  No longer merely advocates for the immigrant, no longer merely workers for justice on their behalf, the immigrant and alien will become companions and kin.  Then we will not speak for them, we will speak with them.  As David cried out on the temple mount, “For we are all aliens and transients in the eyes of God, as were all our ancestors.”

 

Image: Moses Stands at the Burning Bush BY YORAM RAANAN

Tuesday, April 25 – Peter Skewes-Cox

This sermon was preached for the Feast Day of St. Mark the Evangelist by senior Peter Skewes-Cox. The readings for this sermon are Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 2, Ephesians 4:7-8,11-16, and Mark 16:15-20.

Today we celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Mark the Evangelist. Tradition holds that the author of Mark’s Gospel is the same person as Mark of 2 Timothy, Mark called “my son” by the author of 1 Peter, John Mark of the Acts of the Apostles and Mark, cousin of Barnabas in Colossians and Philemon. The Church of Alexandria in Egypt reveres Mark as the founder and first bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and so Mark is remembered as the founder of Christianity in Africa. By tradition, Mark was martyred in 68 by pagans celebrating the feast of Serapis, the god of Alexandria. Mark was buried under the church he founded, although the Venetians stole much of his remains in 828 and took them to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Today, St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria is said to stand on the site of the original church founded by Mark which served as the historical seat of the Pope of Alexandria, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

st. mark's
St. Mark’s Cathedral, Cairo, Egypt

In Alexandria on Palm Sunday this year, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the gate of St. Mark’s Cathedral, killing 17 and injuring 48.

In our readings today, Second Isaiah tells us of the arrival of the messenger who brings good news of peace and salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns, your Lord comforts his people, for he has redeemed Jerusalem.” The Psalmist writes of those who set themselves against the Lord and his Anointed, telling us what the Lord said to his Messiah: “You are my Son; this day have I begotten you. Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance and the ends of the earth for your possession.” The author of Ephesians summarizes Christ’s gifts to us: “some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

How do we, sitting here today, in this seminary chapel in Berkeley, make some sense of all this? We listen to these readings in light of the story told in Mark’s Gospel, a story first told 2000 years ago. And as we hear this story again in this place, new Christian martyrs are made half way round the world in the place where the evangelist brought Christianity to Africa. For those of us here today, only partway through our Christian journeys, there is clearly more of our own stories that are yet to be told.

Our Gospel reading for today offers us several clues about how to think about our work here. Mark’s Gospel is thought to originally end at verse 16:8, with an empty tomb and the words to the women of a young man dressed in white who said, “Jesus has been raised, he is not here. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him.” The story ends. No post-resurrection appearances, no final words from Jesus.

Scholars speculate that Mark’s Gospel having been written first, the later evangelists found its ending incomplete and so they each wrote a longer ending, as we find today in Matthew, Luke and John. The longer ending for Mark’s Gospel that we heard today was perhaps written early in the second century, borrowing from the other Gospels to give Mark’s Gospel its own proper ending, and introducing some unique elements. Jesus makes a post-resurrection appearance to the eleven and sends them into the world to proclaim the good news, and then he is taken up to heaven. And the disciples went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere while the Lord worked with them.

As we sit here, 10 days after the Resurrection, we contemplate what is to come for each of us. Graduation in 4 weeks for some of us, graduation in one or two years for others of us, and some further years of ministry in this place for those who work here. All of us may have a sense that our stories are more like the original ending of Mark’s Gospel. What does it mean? How will the good news of an empty tomb change my life? The meaning of our stories cannot be reckoned until the stories have an end. An end that is still before us, as we sit here, contemplating an empty tomb, literally open-ended.

There are more clues in the longer ending about how we should carry out the work Jesus has given us. The longer ending makes explicit what is only implicit in the original ending. The good news of the empty tomb gives us the power to carry on Christ’s work in the world. The writers of the longer ending picked up signs of the working of the good news from the other Gospels: exorcisms, speaking in new tongues and laying of hands on the sick. All positive signs of the divine. But they added two more signs without New Testament parallels: handling snakes and drinking poison. The good news of the empty tomb gives us the power as workers of the divine to also physically handle the demonic.

Handling snakes and drinking poison comes in two ways. For many of us, our challenges to work with the demonic begin with our own personal transformation. We are empowered to be healers of others, even as we recognize that we are wounded healers, as we struggle with our battles with personal demons. We are empowered to love others even while we are having trouble loving ourselves. We are empowered to model a relationship with a living God for others, even while our own relationships are dying. We are empowered to open ourselves to the indwelling Spirit who heightens our knowledge of the Holy that surrounds us even as we struggle to stay sober, to stay away from everything that dulls our perceptions, our emotions, our pain.

Even as we do our own work of personal transformation day by day, we respond to the call for social transformation, to handle the snakes and drink the poison that threaten our common life together on this planet. The good news of the empty tomb gives us the power to confront the demons of climate change and threats to the sustainability of life on earth. To survive the toxic brew of racism and sexism, enforced gender identities and religious intolerance. To confront the demon of thinking that our material lives are governed by scarcity, not abundance. To survive the toxic brew that would keep us from welcoming immigrants and refugees as our brothers and sisters.

Sometimes we pay the ultimate price for doing this work.

On Palm Sunday, Naseem Faheem, a guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, redirected the suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated. Faheem was likely the first to die in the blast, as he saved the lives of dozens inside the church. A few days later, on Egyptian national television, the country watched an interview with his wife who said: “I’m not angry at the one who did this, I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’”  The headlines summarized the response: Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable.[1]

One observer commented: “The families of the martyrs are promoting a worldview that is 180 degrees contrary to that of the terrorists. The great majority of Egyptians now carry deep respect for the Copts, who are viewed as patriotic people of faith.”

A local Bishop summarized the message of hope for Egypt: “When people see this attitude from Christians and the church, they ask themselves, ‘What kind of power is this?’ But with this witness we must also declare the message of Christ, which we are fulfilling—literally.” He said, “We may not see the response immediately. But we will in the near future.”

The story in Egypt is open-ended. The longer ending has not yet been written.

As we sit here today in this seminary chapel in Berkeley, we contemplate the work we are all called to do. To speak in new tongues, to heal the sick. And to handle snakes and to drink poisons and yet carry on.

Today we remember the life and witness of St. Mark, as evangelist and martyr.

And we remember Naseem Faheem, whose life and witness also makes him evangelist and martyr.

Amen.

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/april-web-only/forgiveness-muslims-moved-coptic-christians-egypt-isis.html