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

Tuesday, April 18 – the Rev. Stephen Shaver

This sermon was preached by the Rev. Stephen Shaver for Easter Tuesday, April 18, 2017. The readings for this sermon are: Acts 2:36-41, Psalm 118:19-24, and John 20:11-18.

One winter morning in 1891, the people of Randolph County, Virginia, emerged from their homes to find two feet of fresh snow on the ground. That wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that the surface of the snow was covered with worms. Live, wriggling worms. Sometimes up to four inches of worms. No one could quite figure out where they had come from. Some thought they’d come up out of the ground, but the snow was crusty and undisturbed. Some thought they’d fallen from the sky. It happened several more times that winter. No one could quite explain it. Fun fact.[1]

In 1846 an English gentleman adventurer, of the kind they had back then, found an interesting snail in the Egyptian desert and sent it home to the British Museum. The curators, presuming it was dead, glued it to a card and put it in storage. For four years it sat there, until 1850, when someone noticed a suspicious-looking filmy trail on the card. When the curators gave it a warm bath and offered it some cabbage, the snail poked its head out of its shell, none the worse for wear after its long hibernation. The so-called “Lazarus snail” lived another two years and its shell is still in the museum’s collection. Fun fact.[2]

In about the year 33 a political criminal was executed outside Jerusalem. A few days later it was discovered that not only was his body missing, he was actually alive again. Several people saw him walking, talking, and eating fish. Fun fact.

Now one of these facts is not like the others. Because only one of them started a movement. Only one of them flung people out into the streets and markets to preach like we heard Peter doing today. Our reading says his listeners were “cut to the heart.” Nobody was ever flung out into the street or cut to the heart by news about a hibernating snail or a freak of worms and weather. Those things are cool and weird. Resurrection is cool and weird. But the first thing Peter’s listeners say is, “Brothers, what should we do?” They know this news isn’t just something to hear about: it’s something to act on.

My father-in-law, when he retired, took up a hobby of collecting frequent-flier miles. He and my mother-in-law have literally traveled around the world on very little money just by finding these special offers and amassing huge totals of points and miles. There’s a whole community of blogs and experts and people who do this. You can go to points and miles conferences. And when there’s a particularly good offer, my father-in-law will send out an e-mail to friends and family, and he titles it, “News you can use.” News you can use, something not just to file away as trivia but to take action on.

That’s something a little closer to the gospel than just reading about a fun historic fact. The resurrection is news we can use. But it’s more than that too. Because it’s also news that will use us. If you act on a great points and miles offer, it might change your vacation opportunities. But if you act on this news, it will change your life.

When the people ask, “What should we do,” Peter doesn’t say, “Sign up for this rewards program.” He says, Metanoēsate, which we translate “repent” but has very little to do with how we use that word in English today. We think of “repent” as something like feeling bad about your past misdeeds. But metanoia means something more like “reorient your whole self.” It doesn’t have much to do with how you feel but how you act. It means changing your behavior and your worldview, which often happens in that order.

And Peter spells it out further: be baptized. Receive the Holy Spirit. Join a new community with a whole new way of life. The verses immediately after this reading tell us exactly what that way of life is. It says the new believers devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers. It says they share their possessions and care for those in need. It’s the same way of life we commit ourselves to every time we renew our baptismal covenant from the Prayer Book, just as we did three nights ago—was it already three nights ago? It’s an Easter way of life, and it’s countercultural, and it’s profoundly attractive today just as it was back then.

What matters most about the resurrection isn’t the fact, wondrous as it is, that a dead person once got up and walked out of a tomb. What matters is who that person was, and is. He was the one who proclaimed the reign of God was near, who healed the sick and fed the hungry and said the greatest is the one who serves. He was the one who had already gathered a movement around himself, and when he was crucified it looked like that movement had died with him. But he didn’t stay dead. He’s alive today and his movement is marching. You and I have been swept up in it. And it won’t stop until God’s love and glory have filled up the entire world.

How did you get swept up in it? Just the fact you’re sitting in this room today means this news has touched you in some way, maybe a way that has changed your life. What is it about this person of Jesus that reaches to your heart? What is it that makes you not just file it away but makes you ask, “What should I do?”

It might be different for different people. Maybe for you it had to do with the search for community. Or for justice. Or for meaning, or beauty, or human dignity, or truth. It was different for people in first-century Jerusalem than it is for people in twenty-first-century Berkeley—or Sri Lanka—or Nigeria. And part of what’s so good about this news is that it’s big enough and good enough to speak to the longings of everybody.

Because what we have to share is not a fun fact, but a new life.

[1] http://www.ripleys.com/weird-news/cartoon-04-17-2017/; Journal of Microscopy and Natural Science 11 (1892), 118.

[2] http://www.metafilter.com/151242/The-desert-snail-at-once-awoke-and-found-himself-famous. (Image “Helix desertorum. Forskal. From a living specimen in the British Museum, March, 1850.” from metafilter.com)

Thursday, April 6 — Caroline McCall

This sermon was preached by Caroline McCall on Thursday, April 6 for the commemoration of the Rev. Daniel Gee Ching Wu. The texts for this sermon were: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7I Thessalonians 4:9-12 and Mark 8:1-9a.

I find that my default response, particularly in times of stress and uncertainty, tends to be no.  Whether in word or action, when faced with new challenges or confounding situations, my first impulse is not imagination or possibility, it is status quo. I rationalize a negative response by saying I am tired, or that my time and resources are insufficient, or that I do not have the skills or knowledge to meet the challenge. If I am honest, I can acknowledge that I want to say no because I am afraid. That uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. Fear of my own finitude, based in assumptions about limitations of my life and the inevitability of my death, create a powerful pull to keep me stuck in no.

The default to “no” rather than “yes” reflects the human tendency to move back to a point of equilibrium or homeostasis, whether that point is healthy or not. “No” is our comfort zone, offering familiarity and certainty. Even when that familiarity and certainty is heavy and hopeless, we are drawn to it over and over again. We act from fear of the unknown as we repeat the patterns that keep us in no. And yet, as Christians, we know that the Kingdom of God is a place of yes and that we are called to that Kingdom already and not yet.

The tension between the no of fear and the yes of possibility is at the core of our Gospel tonight.

It is a familiar story – Jesus is engaged in teaching and has been at it for three days. He notices that the crowd has nothing to eat and imagines what might happen if he sends them away without food. The disciples, true to form, seem to have amnesia, they just don’t get it. Two chapters earlier in Mark, the disciples were there and helped Jesus feed an even larger crowd with only five loaves of bread and two fish. They were there when Jesus acknowledged to the Syrophoenician woman that the that the “food” he offers is not just for the children of Israel, that there is enough and it is available even to the Gentiles. And yet, when Jesus shares his compassion for the crowd, and his concern that they need sustenance for their journey, the disciples respond with their default – “no.”

I have sympathy for the disciples – their imagination is limited by confusion and fear. They are traveling with their beloved leader and teacher, who insists on putting himself in dicey situations. They cannot see beyond the present, beyond their insecurity and fear. So they ask “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?”

Today we celebrate Daniel Gee Ching Wu in the only commemoration we at All Saints chapel recognize during Lent this year. Wu was born in China and moved to Hawaii as a child. While in Hawaii, he met Emma Drant, a deacon in the Episcopal church who through her faith inspired him to convert to Christianity. Wu taught Drant Cantonese while she taught him English. Eventually, it was Emma Drant who called Daniel Wu to join her in the Bay Area where she had started two Chinese Episcopal Mission congregations. Wu responded to her call, enrolled at CDSP, was ordained in 1912, and became vicar of both True Sunshine Episcopal Church and Church of Our Savior These mission congregations continue to serve Chinese Episcopalians today, offering services in Mandarin, Cantonese and English.

Wu’s practice of ministry included meeting Chinese travelers as they stepped off ships into a harsh reality of immigrant life. Wu and his wife taught the new immigrants English. They were committed to assuring that the immigrant children maintained a connection to their Chinese heritage, and offered classes in Chinese and in sewing. Wu served the Chinese missions in Oakland and San Francisco for 36 years.

Daniel Wu was not flashy, he was not martyred, he did not suffer torture, he did not become a bishop. So why do we hold him up in commemoration today? Perhaps because through his low-key, committed, and faithful life, he transformed the church. Daniel Wu engaged in a ministry of everyday action and activities. It was a ministry of “yes,” undaunted by fear, discrimination, or financial hardships.

Mark’s gospel was written for a people struggling with daily cares and burdens in a time of crisis. Nero was in power, persecution was a fresh memory and a clear future possibility. I would imagine that mortal fear was both pervasive and justified. Mark is writing to counter the grip of this fear, to offer encouragement to his readers and to show them the way forward.

Mark tells us that Jesus has compassion, gives thanks, breaks the bread and feeds those in need of sustenance. At this point in the narrative, Jesus’ body is not yet broken and hanging on the cross, but we, like the earliest readers of Mark, know the importance of bread broken for us. We know the way this particular bread can feed a hunger we may not even fully recognize. And we know that through the cross and the resurrection, there is always enough, more than enough, unlimited by our finite reality.

Jesus shows us the way. When the disciples cannot imagine feeding the people with bread in the desert, Jesus tells them to give him all that they have, it will be enough.

This is a profound truth and challenge of our Christian faith. Give God whatever you have, trusting that it will be enough. If what we have is enough, the fear of finitude no longer has sway. If what we have is enough, we too can live a ministry of yes.

I believe that the cross and the resurrection demand that we move from no to yes. If we truly believe that Jesus was crucified once for all, we are free to operate from an assumption of security rather than fear, security that allows us to be creative and imaginative and to welcome the unknown. If we truly believe in the resurrection, we are called to say yes to the discomfort of change and the vulnerability of hope. We are called to say yes to the Mystery of the Kingdom of God.

I can forgive the disciples for saying no because they had not yet had their imaginative capacity freed through the resurrection. But Friends, we do not have that excuse. To live as Christians means operating from assumptions consistent with our belief in the resurrection – the belief that we are not bound by our finite reality. To live as Christians means living in yes rather than no.

This evening, at the close of a week when Bashar al Asad used chemical weapons to attack his own people, when images of evil, reminders of our mortality and finitude fill our screens in the form of small children in diapers, we are pulled toward despair, anger, blame and suspicion. In our place of privilege, we have the luxury of staying there, sharing our outrage on social media, engaging in virtual activism. We have the option of staying in no.

But we are called to a different life. It is because the suffering is real that we must find our way to yes. This is what the cross and the resurrection demand of us. Together, let us set our faces to the future, open ourselves to compassion, vulnerability and imagination. Let us live by giving all that we have to God who will make it enough if only we say yes.

Tuesday, April 4 – the Rev. Dr. Julian Gonzalez

This sermon was preached on Tuesday, April 4 by the Rev. Dr. Julian Gonzalez. The texts for this sermon were Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 102:15-22, and John 8:21-30.

Imagine the scene. Fiery serpents, the Masoretic Text does not say they are poisonous. They are all around the people, crawling under their feet, climbing up their legs, sneaking under their clothing, robes. Just image the sensation of fiery snakes on your skin, constricting your limbs and biting you, who knows probably a very strong constriction since the word for fiery is the same word for seraphim, the angelic beings who guard the cosmic dwelling of Israelite’s god.

They are biting Israelites in a place of no help, in the midst of the desert, after many years of wandering, of complaining for what they left behind: the great land of Egypt. People are dying all around you, we do not know why. Are the snakes actually poisonous? Are they strangling the people? Are the people dying because they cannot breath? Are the snakes fiery because of the burning sensation at the injection of venom and from the subsequent inflammation?

Imagine the scene. They, fiery serpents and dying people, are all around you. Yet we read that some were able to come to Moses to implore for help.

What? They come to Moses? Where the heck is Moses? Is he not supposed to be with the people? Since the people need to come to Moses, Is Moses actually among the people? It seems not. He remains oblivious of the people’s predicament up till the moment some of them come to speak, actually to implore. They ask Moses to pray to this strange deity who sends fiery serpents.

Israelites just came in the previous scene, from victory over the Canaanites. Apparently that has made them eager to conclude the journey. They may think now the journey is a trouble-free future. But just after this victory, they are all taking a detour. Everybody needs to go around the land of Edom. Why not to face them? We have just defeated the Canaanites. Why now cannot we defeat the Edomites?

The text remains silent. We do not know. However, Israelites are impatient. There is no explanation for not taking the shortest route. To face the Edomites and to defeat them as well.

Their litany of woes include lack of food and water, nothing new in the drama of Israelites during their time in the wilderness. However, this is the first time that their complaint is directed not merely against Moses and Aaron, but “against God” as well.

Previous complaints are about a vegetarian menu. People wanted meat. Now, with this new turn of events, with the decision to go around Edom, people become bold as to state that they detest the bread of worthlessness. It is not that they detest a worthless bread as most English translations say. The Hebrew says “A bread of worthlessness.” They are projecting onto the bread, their own situation. After decades in the wilderness, they see themselves as worthless people, and the food that has sustained their lives has lost its meaning. It continues to feed their body, but their souls are tired.

Their complaint has brought more problems, snakes are killing them. So they do the other thing they are good at: praying after screwing it up. The remedy comes in the form of another snake. Moses is to place a bronze fiery, a bronze seraph. Again, the text does not use the word “serpent” but seraph. It is a fiery bronze. Is this a suggestion of a cosmic presence? Are the people perceiving a divine presence in their midst? A seraph that could save their lives. A seraph that could protect them from the snakes but that actually is another snake. It is ambiguously an image of both divine presence and divine threat.

The ancient idea of a connection between serpents and the power to heal is carried down to modern times in the caduceus emblem (a staff entwined by two serpents). In modern times, it has become the symbol of the medical profession.

So the remedy sent by YHWH requires not another bite or injection. The antidote is a way of seeing. It requires gazing upon a bronze snake that magically negates the venom of the fiery serpents. The Israelites were to inoculate the venom by gazing at an image of a serpent. Sight could be an attribute of life and literally, gazing is life in this story. It is by seeing, and in this case at the serpent, that Israelites may find divine reality and also be reminded of divine threat.

Magic, sympathetic magic, one in which the venom of the serpent is manipulated through the creation of a bronze model is happening here. Magic works because the Israelite deity is in the bronze serpent. Once the bronze serpent is prepared and set up, it becomes the locus, the place of the deity’s presence. The serpent becomes what it is taken to represent. The story does not describe how the bronze serpent acquires its effectiveness to heal the people. But it seems to acquire its effectiveness by divine command which invests the mundane and unimpressive with magical powers capable to avert the power of the venom.

What is my reflection?

There is an act of trust in gazing at the bronze snake. Image the scene. Snakes are crawling under your feet. They are climbing up your legs. Their scales are roughing on your skin. Their fiery venom produces burn and inflammation. You see death all around you. People crying out and stopping breathing. And you are required to gaze, to stop fighting the serpents, to let them crawl under your clothing, to endure their burning bit. You are required to gaze as evidence that you finally are willing to trust. To stop complaining at the life your living. The gaze focuses the sight and mind upon the possibility of a saving act. So those who are saved are not saved by the thing that was held, but by the deity who now is present in it.

Israelites are YHWH’s chosen people, but contrary to the belief that this divine act brings a trouble-free future, the community is learning that chosenness means trouble and hardship. There is no escaping of reality. You will encounter snakes, poisonous snakes in a life of faith. Some of them you will bring to your life. Some will be brought by neighbors who are suspicious of your presence, like the Edomites who take the very existence of someone who is different as imminent threat.

Who are you? Are you the snakes injecting venom in fellow life-travelers in this wilderness?

Are you the Israelites with a master degree in complaining? Are you the Edomites unwilling to compromise and unwilling to extend hospitality to migrants, sending them to a trap of snakes? Are you another Moses, insensible to the suffering of the people, just paying attention when begged by others to do it? What a great model for ministers is Moses.

Could you sometimes be a healing presence among people who are crying and dying eager to gaze at your healing presence when they are surrounded by death? Are we all at sometimes of our lives serpents, Edomites, Israelites, healing presence? Who are you? Who do you choose to be today?

Image: The Uplifted Serpent by Douglas Ramsey.

Thursday, March 20 – The Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers

Tonight’s Gospel is a study in contrasts:

One man is rich; the other, decidedly not.

The rich man is clothed in fine linen, with purple robes that signify his wealth, his power, and his privilege. The poor man’s body is covered with sores, his anguish amplified by the dogs who lick his sores, perhaps because he’s too feeble to chase them away.

The rich man feasts every day, his table loaded with sumptuous foods and fine wines, while the poor man languishes at the gate, famished, longing for even the smallest scrap of leftovers.

Curiously, in this story the poor man has a name – Lazarus. The rich man does not.

Their fortunes are dramatically reversed when they die. Lazarus’s suffering is finally relieved, as he is carried up to heaven to rest in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man ends up in Hades, a place of torment where even a drop of water to cool his tongue would be a blessed relief. But the rich man who feasted so extravagantly in life can receive nothing.

In death, the rich man and Lazarus are divided by a vast chasm that cannot be crossed, just as in life, a wall protected the rich man, and Lazarus could go no further than the gate.

Who do you identify with? For this congregation, it would not be Lazarus, would it? Are there ways in which we are like the rich man, well fed and well dressed, walled off from the neediest members of society?

As the scriptures appointed for Lent so often do, this story challenges us to look deep within and face honestly the ways that we fall short, the ways that we fail to see and respond to the needs of others. We began our worship tonight with a short passage from the First Letter of John: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

I wonder how this parable might help us open our eyes not only to the privilege that comes with wealth, but to other forms of privilege.

Many years ago, I was invited to design liturgy for a meeting of the Episcopal Church’s Council for Women’s Ministries. The group had been organized in 1983 as an umbrella organization for women’s groups throughout the Episcopal Church, enabling them to collaborate and support one another in their particular ministries. The Council was celebrating its tenth anniversary, and its leaders wanted a big celebration, one that gathered more women than just the leaders of each constituent group.

A core value of this group was a commitment to racial and ethnic diversity. That week, my experiences taught me just a little about my ways of leadership as a white woman. I needed liturgical ministers, so I created a sign-up sheet, and at one of the first sessions, I made an announcement and invited people to sign up. Soon after the session ended, one of the leaders pulled me aside. “You can’t just do a sign-up sheet,” she said very gently. “In some cultures, people don’t put themselves forward. They need to be invited. If you leave it for people to volunteer themselves, the only people you’ll have as liturgical ministers will be white.”

As is common for such events, there was a conference T-shirt. Five women’s faces are depicted, different skin tones and hair colors suggesting different races and ethnicities. The women’s hair is braided together, long, beautiful braids pointing to the group’s efforts to weave together women from many different cultural backgrounds.

Toward the end of the conference, representatives of the different women’s organizations made presentations about their work. Several women, all women of color, stood up and began to speak together, “You put us in your braid, now listen to our needs. You put us in your braid, now give us staff support from the Church Center. You put us in your braid, now put us in your budget.”

In the Episcopal Church, a predominantly white institution then as now, white privilege is everywhere, a cultural norm that can be difficult to see and even more difficult to subvert. The privilege of the majority creates a vast chasm, one that is not easily bridged despite good intentions, however many beautiful braids we might weave.

A few months after the Council for Women’s Ministries met, the House of Bishops issued a pastoral letter on the sin of racism, a letter they understood as the beginning of a series of teachings. “In this introductory message,” they wrote, “we evoke words and images sacred to our tradition. We share with you an analysis of the current dynamics of racism, confess our complicity with that evil, declare a covenant with each other to work to eliminate racism wherever we find it in church and society, and invite all Episcopalians to join us in a mission of justice, reconciliation and unity.”

Today in the Episcopal Church, we are still enmeshed in the sin of racism, this evil that enslaves us, this evil that we do and that is done on our behalf.

At the spring meeting of the House of Bishops that just concluded, the bishops spent three days working on questions of race, diversity, and inclusion. Episcopal News Service reported that this effort was conceived “in the aftermath of the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.”[i] At the March 2015 meeting of the House of Bishops, they decided it was time to write a new letter to the Episcopal Church about racism.

But a few months later, meeting at General Convention, the writing team decided they needed to do something different. They needed to address the issues of power, privilege, and race directly, deepening their commitment to the difficult work of racial justice, developing their capacities for leading their dioceses in this vital task.

The bishops’ work is a step in breaking down the wall of privilege, chipping away at a barrier that divides us within the Episcopal Church and in our world. It is Gospel work, rooted in Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” rooted in a baptismal vision that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female.

At the conclusion of the House of Bishops meeting, Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation, and creation, acknowledged that the work continues. “For Episcopalians, the work will always be inner work and outer work,” she said. “It’s figuring out what are my biases, what are my fears, what line of difference am I most terrified of crossing and how is God growing my heart. I have to be doing that even as I look around at systems and ask the questions about structure or racism, structural discrimination.”

Last fall, a call went out to the Episcopal Church from North Dakota, where water protectors had been camped for months, protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline because it would disturb land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and threaten their drinking water. Over 500 people responded to that call. They gathered around a sacred fire one evening to prepare for public protest the next day. Elder Regina Brave addressed the crowd, “We knew you were coming; that one day you would come here and start asking questions about your government,” she said, “We are all children of God. Black, red, yellow, white, are all represented.”[ii]

In that moment, people reached across the chasm, those with privilege and those without standing together in solidarity to hold the United States government accountable to fulfill its treaty obligations.

The work continues, at Standing Rock, in our churches, in our nation and in our world. Breaking down dividing walls, bridging the chasms that separate us, is Gospel work. It requires transformation of our hearts and concrete action in our lives.

A few minutes ago, I asked who you identify with in tonight’s parable. Perhaps we are neither Lazarus nor the rich man, but the siblings of the rich man, still on earth, still able to change our ways. We, too, have Moses and the prophets, calling us to do justice and love mercy. We also follow Jesus, the crucified and risen One, who invites us into new life, turning our hearts to our neighbors who are in need and empowering us for the Gospel work of reconciliation.

[i] Mary Frances Schjonberg, “Episcopal bishops make three-day journey into diversity and inclusion,” Episcopal News Service, March 15, 2017,  http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2017/03/15/episcopal-bishops-make-three-day-journey-into-diversity-and-inclusion/.

[ii] Lynette Wilson, “Peaceful, prayerful, nonviolent stand of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux,” Episcopal News Service, November 4, 2016,  http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/11/04/peaceful-prayerful-nonviolent-stand-of-solidarity-with-the-standing-rock-sioux/.

Thursday, March 9 – Dr. Rod Dugliss

This sermon was preached on Thursday, March 9 by Dr. Rod Dugliss. The texts for this sermon are: Esther 14:1-6, 12-14, Psalm 138, and Matthew 7:7-12.

One of the things I notice as a result of the current upheaval in our national life is how different, old and familiar words and passages of scripture now sound. Not a word has changed. The context in which they reverberate has changed. They now teach, puzzle, inspire us to see, understand, and act in new ways.

Pericopes and passages that were once smooth stones in our hand have become rough, or perhaps are now one of those smooth stones chosen by David to take down the bully, Goliath.

Evolving in context is a key part of what happens to Esther in tonight’s reading. The Book of Esther is well known as the one book in the Bible which does not mention God. It is a narrative of human cleverness and courage. As such it has inspired and comforted secular and observant Jews for centuries. It provided a festival in which children can wear costumes and a distinctive cookie named after the villain.

But under the harsh oppression of the Seleucids and then the Romans in years just preceding the birth of Jesus, the resurgence of anti-semitic threat and violence rendered Esther’s story inadequate. The text was appended throughout to call the reader back, through her story, to a relationship with and reliance upon the Covenant God. So tonight we hear an Esther who has withdrawn to figure out how she can possibly save her people from pogrom, praying urgently–”help me who am alone and have no helper but you O Lord.” A verse from tonight’s psalm tells us  the response she received; “When I called you answered me, you increased my strength within me.” So strengthened, Esther can act.

Jesus teaches his followers and us, to ask, search, knock. . . and be assured of God’s response. This can easily become or be seen as a formula, as an injunction to be perpetual petitioning, striving for more of . . . something. In the context of the great American Experiment this teaching has, for many, generated a transactional God who is supposed to fix and provide. Even more potently, it becomes a prosperity Gospel that links judgement and grace to accumulation. Those blest in their asking, searching, and knocking are obvious as the visibly, materially rewarded. Those not blest in their asking, searching, and knocking have erred in making bad choices—like opting for a cell phone instead of health insurance.

In these times we are called back to the heart of Jesus invitation. Ask: ask of God how shall we be in and with each other? Will you increase our strength within us so that we have courage, can be faithful, can be the change we desire? Search: search not for advantage but for the way, the way that is the incarnate Word, the way that is inexorable movement into the dream of God. The words of Eucharistic Prayer C thank God for gifting us with “memory, reason, and skill.” These words always grab my attention. They are the tools for searching. They invite us to bring our best to finding and living the way. In the midst of the cacophony of click-bait and the energy of fear we search, looking for the sure way of right relationship with God and each other. So simple. So hard.

Knock: knocking is something physical, sensate. It is a moment of possibility. “Knock” evokes a very personal image for me. One of the things we have appropriated from Buddhism is the practice of sounding a bowl-shaped bell. In good Western fashion we tend to use it in  our worship to mark time. I have been privileged for a number of years to do some retreat leading with a good friend and colleague who is a self-styled Quaker Buddhist. She brings to her dharma teaching and practice a large, resonant bell with a rich and arresting sound. A participant in one our retreats noticed that she first touched the bell and then paused before, in her terminology, inviting the bell. She explained that each sounding of the bell begins by “waking” it, bringing it present with a gentle tap. Then, with a gatha, or what we would hear as an invocation, the bell is invited. The final words of the gatha are, “may the sound of the bell call us to our true home.”

Knock. Let the sound of whatever we can attend to in the moment open for us the door, the way to our true home in God: our home in the moment—in every moment. Our ultimate home, at one with the One. When we know our true home, we are free to risk following the way wherever it takes us.

Again, in the context of radical individualism, in a church culture that keeps asking, “where are you on your personal spiritual journey,” the call to ask, search, knock can be heard as inviting a richer, deeper personal piety. Jesus sets this as work to be done in relationship with the final words we heard this night.  “In everything . . .everything . . do to (act for and with) others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Some of these words are known as the Golden Rule. It has become a solid universal standard for a reciprocity that can minimize, if not eliminate, exploitation and mistreatment. For us, it is the insistence that we ask, search and even knock together. Asking, searching, knocking are the work of community often in very dark and risky circumstances.

This is how I finally “got” why the base community movement is so powerful, and why it has been suppressed by ecclesial hierarchs and secular tyrants. When people engage the law, the prophets, and the Good News as who they are, and where they are in any broken system, they ask, search, and knock together—and the powerful perspire. Asking, searching, knocking builds solidarity, not isolated individualism. This is why Pope Francis says of the movement, “the word solidarity frightens people in the developed world.”

In these dangerous, abusive, mendacious, grasping times; in this context, this is how we are invited to hear our Gospel for this night and for our common work in the worse that is sure to come.

AMEN

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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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.