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/.

Tuesday, March 14 – Marguerite Judson

This sermon was preached for Tuesday, March 14 by Marguerite Judson. The texts for this sermon are: Isaiah 1:2-4, 16-20, Psalm 50:7-15, 22-24, and Matthew 23:1-12.

We’re in trouble. Again!

The Holy One is taking us to court. Our sacrifices at worship are offensive. Our attempts to figure out just what God is asking of us are not working!

And it’s just as true now as when today’s lessons were written. No matter whether we reflect on the passage from Isaiah, the portions of today’s Psalm, or Jesus’ conversation with the disciples (of which we hope we are one!) about knowledgeable and rigorous religious obedience, it’s clear that we are in trouble!

When we look at the first chapter of Isaiah, we find all the legal setting for the Holy One taking the community of faith to court. Creation itself is called to witness. Our rejection of the Holy One who loves us is laid out. Not just rejection…but despising God, being completely estranged from the One who created and loves us.

I think it is important to also look at the verses which were skipped in today’s lesson. What evidence does the Holy One bring against us in Isaiah? How is it obvious that we have rejected God?

As God’s words are so vividly paraphrased in The Message,

“Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings— meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!

Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing

people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.

I watch the news and I see it happening, “…you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.”

I reflect on the ways I judge other people, condemning them for their use of political power, and discover that I am tearing people to pieces in my heart.

This weekend I did the Creating a Culture of Peace training which made it painfully clear how important it is to have compassion or empathy for opponents. I experienced how compassion is necessary to build justice, it is essential when I strive to “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Thanks, but it’s much easier to focus on what YOU, and other people, are doing wrong!

But still the Holy One offers mercy, invites us to reason it out, to examine what we are doing in the light of what God calls us to do. If we change our ways, God will wash away our sins. If we keep going the way we’ve been going, the natural consequence is to be destroyed by violence. The violence which flows from injustice.

The lessons don’t get any easier to take when we turn to the Gospel of Matthew.

It is important to remember that Jesus tells the disciples to do what the scribes and Pharisees teach.

You might, like me, get caught up on the criticism “do what they say, not what they do” but that’s not the point. None of us is perfect; not scribes, Pharisees, bishops, arch deacons, professors, seminarians, people of faith, searchers, political activists, or family members.

But we might get side tracked by how good we look while we’re doing good!

I am reminded of a vivid lesson at a week-long training I attended 20 years ago as I started doing fundraising. Someone who was raising money for a university spent months and months with one donor, discussing, planning, and finalizing a very large gift. Once the donor signed on the dotted line, then this fundraiser worked with a fundraising team to do a special dinner at which everyone could celebrate

what a big difference this gift would make. Speeches were made, pictures where taken…all of the donor and the dean. The fundraiser was NOT in the picture.

And one of the people on the fundraising team realized: I hate this…I can’t do a job like that, to always be on the sidelines, and NOT be in the picture. So he resigned.

How am I, how are we, like that team member? Must we be recognized by other people for the good things we do? How loudly must I proclaim being on the right side of an issue?

Our goals may be good, our actions could be right, but our focus may be wrong.

During this lent, may our prayer be:

Lord, help us to hate sin. Pour out your healing love, that we may turn to you. Help us to quietly and fiercely, learn how to seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. For we long to walk closely with you and with your beloved people; all people to whom you give the gift of life; all of creation which sings your glory; and with the angels and saints – past and future – among whom we now stand. In your holy name we pray. Amen.

Prayers of the People, Tuesday, March 14

Each week student lay assistants compose original Prayers of the People for our Eucharist services. The following was written for Tuesday Eucharist, March 14 by first-year student, Phil Hooper. 

In humility and in love, let us offer our intercessions to the Exalted One in Whom all things are reconciled and renewed, responding to “God, in Your Mercy” with “Hear our Prayer”.

Bless your Body, the church, O God.  Animate us with your Spirit, that the breath of life and truth may emanate from our lips.  Sustain us with the Blood of your Son, that it may course through our limbs and bleed joyfully in Your service.  Illuminate us with Your loving power, that our eyes may be lamps dispelling all darkness.  

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Guide this nation, and all nations, ever closer to the justice and peace of Your heavenly kingdom.  Inspire our leaders, that they may walk hand in hand with Wisdom and in so doing, tread the pathways of the righteous.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Look lovingly upon Your creation, O God.  Where there is degradation, show us the way toward restoration.  Where there is division, grant us the courage to seek understanding.  Where there is apathy, wound us with the tender painfulness of feeling, that we may live again in Your presence.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Be with this community, O God, as it grows, flourishes, and becomes rooted, ever deeper, in the mission to which you have called us.  Show us how to care for one another, how to inspire one another, and how to walk alongside one another in humility.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Bestow your consolation on those who need it most, O God: those who tremble alone in the darkness, those who fear the light of a new day, those who, in their pain, are blind to the quiet yet insistent beauty of the ordinary.  We pray especially for those who are sick, suffering, or otherwise in need, especially: ________ and those we now name.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

Run gladly, O God, with joyful abandon, to embrace all those who have departed this life.  Welcome them as sojourners, arriving home at long last, and grant them a seat alongside all Your saints at the eternal heavenly banquet.  We commend to you especially ______ and those we now name.

God, in Your Mercy, Hear our Prayer

 

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, March 7 – Keith Howard

This sermon was preached for the First Tuesday in Lent by Keith Howard. The readings for the sermon are: Isaiah 55:6-11, Psalm 34:15-22, and Matthew 6:7-15.

In today’s lesson from Second Isaiah, we are taught that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  We are also taught that we may never understand the mechanism by which God operates.  “Nor are your ways, my ways.”  God’s actions and thoughts differ from our own.  I suppose we should give God the benefit of the doubt and accept what God says.

If we are at seminary with the hope that we might lead people toward God, this lesson should give us all pause.  It suggests that what we think we know and what we think will be helpful in guiding others to God may be wrong.  How then, can we have confidence, stepping forward to the front of the line to lead and guide God’s church?

Today’s New Testament lesson gives us the essential equipment we need.  The lesson today is the Lord’s Prayer.  This prayer is located in Chapter 6 of book of Matthew (there is a shorter version in Luke).  It follows the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 5.  In that passage, Jesus teaches his followers that much of what the world values is a mistake.  It is all upside down.  Jesus teaches that the meek shall inherit the earth; that peacemakers are blessed and that those who have pure hearts are blessed and they may see God. The Sermon on the Mount gives us insight into how the ways and thoughts of humans may differ from those of God.

After that sermon, he teaches us, his disciples, how to pray.

In today’s lesson, Jesus suggests that we focus on the Kingdom by praying secretly, in the way He instructs us.  The Greek word in the text translated as “secretly” could also mean “inwardly”.  These prayers, then, are for the inward journey.  He teaches his disciples a way to pray that helps us purify and turn our hearts to God.

Think about the structure of the prayer.  It has three parts.  First, we are to sacredly recall our source and creator, and ask for the divine presence to be in our lives here on earth.  Then we ask God to join into earthly time.  We seek Daily bread – spiritual and physical nourishment, today.   We ask for forgiveness for yesterday’s wrongs and release from future temptations.  We ask for this because we see the ultimate reality:  the Kingdom of God, power and glory forever.

By praying the Lord’s Prayer, we take the inward journey, we acknowledge our creator, we ask for support and forgiveness and we affirm the power of God.  Through this prayer, we strengthen our relationship with God.  We speak to God and God speaks to us.  The contemplative process opens our hearts and allows us to discern God’s direction for our actions.

Having prayed as we are commanded, we are strengthened and ready to take the next step, which is to act, in accordance with God’s commandments:  to love God and to love your neighbor, as yourself.

So as a leader, can you weigh the sacrifice and benefit of stepping to the front of the line?

Consider this: In the summer of 1964, a young man was ordained as a deacon by the Baptist church. Before the end of winter, he would be dead.  Beaten, shot, and beaten again all in the same night, by police after he had participated in an action related to the Alabama Civil Rights voter registration drive.  His name was Jimmie Lee Jackson.  Deacon Jackson had been working in Selma on the voting rights campaign, but on the night he was beaten, he was protesting in Perry County, about 30 miles to the north of Selma.

Since starting seminary at CDSP, I have spoken with people who grew up in Selma.  They told me that after Deacon Jackson was beaten, he was denied medical help in Perry County, because no hospitals in that county would treat African-Americans. Instead, he had to be driven the 30 miles back to Selma, where the Catholic Church had built a medical center to serve all races. Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson succumbed to his injuries on February 26, 1965.

In response to his death, Civil Rights leaders in Selma organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital – about 55 miles away.  The march would symbolically lay Deacon Jackson’s body on the capitol steps and at the feet of Governor George Wallace.

Fifty-two years ago today, Sunday March the 7th, about 600 unarmed residents of the area started walking across the Edmund Pettis Bridge.  They were met by armed authorities and were beaten back, in a violent clash of city police, county sheriffs and deputized local citizens against the protestors.  Today is the anniversary of what we know as “Bloody Sunday”.

After two and one-half weeks of court battles, 25,000 marchers arrived in Montgomery.  On March 24th, on the capitol steps that Dr. King is remembered for speaking about Justice – and when it would be realized:

How long? He called. (How long?) Not long: the crowd responded (Not long).

Deacon Jackson and Dr. King, were Christian men of faith – a deacon and a pastor who took action in the world, standing up to civil authority that was violating the human rights of their fellows.  That action led to a chain of events that changed the course of modern American history – but also led to their deaths.

How could Deacon Jackson and Dr. King have confidence that it would be worth it?

How can we be confident that our actions in the world will result in a better world for all people?  “Our ways are not God’s ways.  Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts.”

The reading from Psalms 34, gives us hope.  That reading comes from a lesson taught by a sage to the children…… “Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” Psalm 34:11.

The teacher explains that righteousness is rewarded by God and that evil collapses of its own weight.

Listen to the end of the lesson again.

“Evil will slay the wicked;
the foes of the righteous will be condemned.
22 The Lord will rescue his servants;
no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.” (Psalms 34: 21-22)

“Evil will slay the wicked.” This passage grounds our Christian actions in hope, in the knowledge that in the end, God’s will prevails.

It is this hope for the efficacy of our actions to bring about the Kingdom that empowered Dr. King, as he said: “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Not long) because:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir).”

It is in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Christ that we know – that we are assured — that the order of the world is not as it seems and righteousness will overcome evil.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  The meek will inherit the earth. Blessed are the pure on heart.  As evil is all which is opposed to God, it collapses because it is not grounded in the foundation of God.

Deacon Jackson could not have known what was to follow as a result of his actions.  The 600 protestors on Bloody Sunday could not have known where the journey would lead.  Dr. King, standing on the steps of the Alabama capital could not have realized the reach of their protests.  And we will not know in the moment how our leadership will shape Christ’s followers and the world.  Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not God’s ways. But we can join with all who have preceded us and sacrificed their own agendas to God, by taking a confident first step on the bridge of faith which leads God’s people toward the kingdom.

Let their lives inspire us in faith and hope as we move ahead to lead others.

Amen

Thursday, March 2 – The Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer

This sermon was preached on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, March 2, 2017 by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer. The texts for this sermon are: Deuteronomy 30: 15-20, Psalm 1, and Luke 9: 18-25.

“Choose life!” urges Moses in our first reading, and which one of us wouldn’t?  (I want to add, to our visitors, “Choose CDSP too!” but that’s probably not a legitimate use of the privilege of the pulpit!)  But isn’t life what we all want:  prosperity and blessings and length of days;  a noble purpose, a happy ever after ending, and a glorious legacy?

Moses, and our Psalmist too, make it clear that real life can be ours, if only we will serve and obey the living God.  I get suspicious about that, though, suspicious of myself, suspicious that what I think is life, and what I think is serving the living God, doesn’t actually have a lot to do with God’s vision.

There’s been a big and intractable example of this in my life for the past few years.  I live in San Francisco, and one of the things I face every day is the presence of chronically homeless people who live on the streets around my home.  And the religious exchange model that I construct from Deuteronomy and Psalm 1, the model that says that if I am only good enough, I will have the good things that I want, that model just doesn’t work in this situation.

Good enough?  Does that mean that all those suffering people I encounter every day are simply bad human beings, (not) getting what they (don’t) deserve?  I don’t think so.  Good enough?  Does that mean if I give enough, if I’m humane and pleasant enough, helpful enough, sympathetic enough … what will happen?

What I am secretly hoping of course, in my sinful, narrow little heart, is that this big problem will go away because it makes me too uncomfortable.  I’m hoping that “my” streets will magically be quiet and clean;  that I will not have to face the heartbreak of seeing people sick, cold, and hungry in “my” space;  and that I will not have to admit that I cannot solve this problem despite – or perhaps because of – all my privilege.  My secret hopes have nothing whatever to do with God’s vision of life, certainly not for the un-housed people on the streets, and not for me either.

And then Jesus comes along in tonight’s Gospel, and completes the job of busting my “be good and get goodies” religious racket.

Jesus is not who the disciples think he is;  the life he offers is not remotely what they expect;  and what he promises if they serve and obey the living God is absolutely not what they want.    The disciples are clear that most people see Jesus as a re-make of an old story: he’s John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the ancient prophets.  But above all he’s a known quantity, part of the established divine narrative, the story that promises the good life in exchange for faithfulness.

Peter, however, is bold enough to blurt out a new understanding:  maybe, just maybe, Jesus is the Messiah of God, the one sent to redeem Israel.  Now God knows, occupied Israel could do with some redeeming from the Empire of Rome.  But by proposing this new idea, Peter inadvertently opens a completely new can of worms.  He makes it possible for Jesus to reverse everyone’s preconceptions about who “the Messiah of God” will be, and what the new order of things that his life and death will inaugurate is all about.

It is not about any kind of military redemption, any kind of triumphant vindication for a subjugated and oppressed people.  It is all about suffering, rejection, and death.  Above all, for Jesus, it’s about taking up his cross – and for his followers, it’s about taking up their own cross.  The identity of the disciples of Jesus is apparently going to be a cross-shaped identity.

Now, that whole concept is a really hot potato.  It has been used by Christians to oppress many people – people of color, poor people, women, minorities – who have been told over and over again to take up their cross, usually by those who have a vested interest in maintaining their own power and privilege.  And it has been trivialized, over-used in relation to ordinary human suffering.  “Oh, it’s just my cross to bear.”  Of course all human suffering is real, and of course it should be taken seriously – God surely takes our suffering very seriously indeed.

But the cross is not ordinary, and it’s not about ordinary suffering.  It is, however, central – central to who Jesus is, central to what he calls us to do and to be as his disciples, and central to the upside-down kind of life he is offering us.

When Jesus tells us to take up our cross, he is telling us to identify with the class of people (including Jesus himself) who are most likely to be crucified – those who oppose unjust regimes, and who are poor and powerless besides.    Crucifixion was reserved especially for them, and it was designed to stamp out their humanity.

Other versions of this Gospel story portray the disciples’ dismay and rejection of this very idea, and especially of Jesus’ invitation to them to walk the same road.  And when it came to the point, they couldn’t, they didn’t walk that road with him.  Jesus took up his cross alone.

I am not wild about the idea that there’s a cross out there with my name on it, either.  So I need to wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ command to take up my cross – its implications for a disciple like myself, a person of privilege, whose life is constituted in such a way as to avoid suffering and loss at all costs.

The cross is solely and completely an instrument of death.  And Jesus is dead wrong about the “taking it up” thing.  Nobody, in his day, ever took up their cross willingly.  It was laid upon you, loaded onto your naked, bleeding back, by the executioners of the Empire.  Nobody “took it up,” except Jesus.

What Jesus did with the cross was to use it to shatter the moral foundations of the Empire, in which might makes right, in which money and power talk, in which the little people are under the boots of the conquerors, in which resisters get what is coming to them.[1]  Jesus turned that whole rotten system upside-down.

Not by being “the Messiah of God” that his disciples were hoping for.  Not by beating the Empire at its own game, but by taking vulnerable non-resistance to the level of an art form, in order to re-make the world – in all its violence – into the image of God.

“You want to come out with swords and cudgels to arrest me?

Let me heal your servant’s cut-off ear.

You want to intimidate me into telling you me who I am, and whose authority I work under?

Thank you, but no, I will not give you your answers – I operate under a different authority, so far above yours as to make you laughable.

You want to break me with your brutality, to make me curse God and die whimpering?

I will forgive you;  I will pray for you;  I will turn towards others in love even when I have been skewered naked onto the Empire’s torture and execution machine.”

It is because Jesus does this to death that resurrection happens.  His systematic taking apart of the Empire’s way of death makes space for God’s way of life to break through and change everything.

Jesus won that battle for us all, once and for all;  it doesn’t have to be won again.  But it has to be lived again, by us, in the only way we can – by taking up our own cross daily.  That means identifying with, standing in solidarity with, suffering with, all those whom today’s Empires brand as “God-forsaken:”  the outcasts, the despised, the resisters of the way-things-are, all the people who are treated as less than human.  It means standing up with and for people who get their crosses laid upon them, who don’t have the luxury of choosing whether to take them up or not, as I do.

For a respectable, privileged Christian like myself, taking up my cross means letting Jesus break apart, piece by piece, my own participation in the power of the Empire, just as he shattered the Empire itself from his cross.

In practical, everyday terms, it means letting go of my self-righteous indignation about “the homeless problem.”  It means coming out from behind my defenses and letting myself really see and be touched by the humanity of the people asleep on the San Francisco street outside my front door.  It means opening my mouth and speaking to them, asking their names, getting to know them as Linda and Nick and Lee and Judy – as children of God like me.  It means making their interests my own, and being willing to pay in full for doing that.  Only if I all do these things can the cross continue to do its subversive work of shaking the moral foundations of the Empire in my own life, which is in part built on imperial privilege.

The hymn we will sing at the end of tonight’s service ends like this:  “For only those who bear the cross may hope to wear the glorious crown.”  But the thing is, cross and crown are not an exchange.  We’re so far beyond the world of exchange here.  When you follow Jesus, the cross is the only crown that there is.

Working out how to help my sinful, narrow little heart say yes to that truth just a little bit more fully is going to be my daily work this Lent.  Only in this way I can serve and obey the living God and choose real life.

[1] I am indebted to my colleague, Paul Fromberg, for this understanding of the cross.

Image from TracyHall Art.

Tuesday, February 21 – The Rev. Ann Hallisey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 17 – Dr. Jennifer Snow

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

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

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

lego-bible-the-flood-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, February 14 – Janet Wild

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

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