Sunday, September 17 – Phil Hooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Thursday, September 7 – Dr. Jennifer Snow

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

Jennifer Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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Georgia Harkness, author of “This is my song”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord, in your mercy,

Hear our prayer.

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

Lord, in your mercy,

Hear our prayer .

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

Lord, in your mercy,

Hear our prayer.

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

Lord in your mercy,

Hear our prayer.

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

Lord in your mercy,

Hear our prayer.

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

Lord in your mercy,

Hear our prayer.

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

Thursday, May 4 – the Very Rev. Mark Richardson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 2 – Dr. Julian Gonzalez

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

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

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

These are not trivial or casual requests of the supplicant.

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

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

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

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

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

The candor of the supplicant is evident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This psalm exemplifies our deepest expressions of anger and hope.

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

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

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

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

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

Image: “The Broken Terracotta Pot” by Michelle Calkins

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

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

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

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

We know that he:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Image: Moses Stands at the Burning Bush BY YORAM RAANAN

Tuesday, April 25 – Peter Skewes-Cox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes we pay the ultimate price for doing this work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

Monday, April 24 – José Daniel Pinell

This sermon was preached on Monday, April 24 for Genocide Remembrance by first-year José Daniel Pinell. The readings for this sermon are: Isaiah 2:2-5, Psalm 70, Revelation 7:13-17, and Matthew 2:13-18.

This is a story of escape, a story of forced migration, a story of massacre. Reading this horrific story, it is hard not to think of our current migrant situation. As the story tells us, some managed to escape to safer lands, others were not so lucky. Jesus, the migrant, is forced to flee Bethlehem with His mother and father. They are able to flee with the help of an angel of the Lord, who warns them in a dream to take the child Jesus and flee to Egypt. And as with millions of migrants before them, and millions of migrants after them up to this date, the Holy Family is forced to flee their land in the middle of the night.

Today we are commemorating the victims of Genocide. We are living in unprecedented times of forced migrations. The Syrian refugee situation is a major humanitarian crisis, with over 5 million registered migrant refugees. These number don’t include the over 400,000 that were killed as a consequence of the Syrian civil war. And south of our border, we encounter the humanitarian crisis of the unaccompanied minors who are venturing into foreign lands, in a treacherous and unforgiving journey from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. In the first year since the crisis broke the news in 2014, it is estimated that anywhere from 60,000 to 90,000 unaccompanied minors were crossing our borders. Anywhere we look, the crisis is almost impossible to make sense of, the lost of life too high, our regard to human life too low, and sometimes we are tempted to look away lest we become overwhelmed and too disturbed. Like today’s Gospel story, sometimes we don’t know what to do or think about the horrors of state sanctioned persecution and the senseless violence we see at the fringes of our lands.

In today’s Gospel story, Herod becomes infuriated once he finds out that he was fooled by the wise men. A few verses before today’s reading, we see Herod troubled over the news of the birth of Jesus, and how all Jerusalem became troubled with him. They became troubled because of the unpredictable, jealous and schizophrenic character of Herod. They probably thought, “What would Herod do this time?” Herod, in his fury, sets out to massacre innocent male children in Bethlehem from 2 years and younger. His power threatened, his urge for self protection knows no bounds and is willing to sacrifice innocent children to keep his throne. In this manner our nation can also act like Herod. In the name of self protection, many in our nation are calling the government to close our borders to thousands of refugees seeking shelter in our country. We don’t know what these children will grow up to be! They say, sure, most of them will probably not turn out to be a threat to our society, but just in case! We are willing to sacrifice thousands to an uncertain fate in our self made altar of protection and safety. Power and privilege are intoxicating, and once it is tasted by a nation or a king, we are willing to sacrifice God’s creation to keep it.

Now, as our New Testament professors are quick to point out to us, outside of the biblical text, there is no evidence that Herod ever ordered this massacre. For this reason, some scholars doubt the historicity of these accounts. Other scholars, however, point out to how the story is in alignment with Herod’s character, who at one point arrested many Jewish leaders on false charges and ordered them to be killed when he died, so that people would shed some tears at his death. Some scholars also point out that since we are talking of the death of a few children, since Bethlehem’s population was not large back then, it is not unlikely that this act would not have been recorded during such violent times.

My point here is not to argue the historicity or not of the accounts, but to propose that perhaps one of the reasons it was not recorded outside of the gospels is history’s tendency to easily forget and label as insignificant events like these. History is more prone to remember the leaders who are killed, the war heroes and religious heroes who died for a nation. Perhaps history had much more “significant” things to report than the death of a dozen or so innocent children. Perhaps this is the same tendency we have whenever we ignore the cries of the Rachel’s weeping over their little ones being washed on the shores of foreign lands.

Perhaps this is why so many of us in the privileged and developed world are willing to shut our hearts, our doors, and our borders to the overwhelming lamentations of those fleeing violence and poverty. Today’s Gospel reminds us that there are no insignificant little ones who are not worthy to be remembered, even if they are not great in numbers. Today’s Gospel reminds us of the horrors that can be pursued in the name of self protection and security. Today’s Gospel also reminds us of the dangerous and unsafe life many people in the margins go through, where one’s home is ever fleeting, and one’s seeking of a better life is seen as a threat to other people’s ways of life.

As some of you know, this past Thursday I received a letter from immigration telling me that my application for permanent residency had been approved. After 14 years of waiting as an undocumented immigrant I finally took a big sigh of relief. I felt blessed. I felt joyful. I also felt a little guilty.  Why me, Lord? As I was in fellowship with some friends this past Sunday morning, including one who is still an undocumented immigrant, I felt a sense of guilt for being so blessed while others still suffered in the shadows. Why me, Lord? We met this undocumented friend when he was in Juvenile Hall in San Francisco, while doing ministry outreach among the incarcerated. When he was released from Juvy he moved out to a transitional home we used to have in the mission, and he lived there for a couple of years. He got clean from drugs, got a job, started attending church, and got baptized. We witnessed how God transformed the life of our dear friend. Before he was released from Juvy, however, the judge informed our friend that now that his fingerprints were in the systems, he would never be able to “fix his papers” that is, he would never be able to get documents in this country. Our immigration system leaves no space for grace. It has little room for reconciliation.

I felt guilt, then, this past Sunday, as I told the news to my undocumented friend “ya me aprovaron los papeles!”, my papers have been approved. I remembered that unless our current immigration laws change, he would most likely never have this opportunity. My joy was cut short. Why me, Lord? I wonder if Jesus felt the same way years later, as he learned the family story of his escape to Egypt, and the fate of those who stayed in Bethlehem and did not make it. I wonder, as He was discerning His call of Who He Is, the Son of God, I wonder if He prayed to His father and asked, “Why me, Lord?”

Now, to those of us privileged enough to be sitting here without fear of deportation or living in the shadows, it is not my purpose to instill guilt in your hearts. But are we asking the question, Why me, Lord? Why am I so privileged? I hope you look back at history straight in the eye and ask of it the reason of why we stand in privilege while others stand in misery.

This morning I want to move you from guilt to conviction. Guilt paralyzes people, conviction moves them into action. This morning I want to move you from shame and survivor’s guilt to the freedom found in forgiveness and reconciliation. I want to move you from simple inspiration to self emptying sacrifice. I want to move you and exhort you, my dear brothers and sisters, to the imitation of Christ, who being in the form of God, took human shape and emptied himself, seeing equality with God something not to be grasped at. God took human form, as an infant was the sole survivor of the massacre at Bethlehem, grew up in the wisdom of God to serve and live with those in the margins, those whom society ignored, those whom history had little regard to. He lived and then He died for our sins. He died at the bloodthirsty hands of a power hungry empire. And on the third day He rose again, showing us the way of discipleship: come, follow me and die, for whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Come then, let us follow Jesus, and let us find him in the stranger among us, in the migrant who lives in the shadows, in the midst of the cries of Rachel for her little children. If you seek Christ, this is where you will find Him.

Thursday, April 20 – the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers

This sermon was preached for Easter Thursday, April 20 by the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers. The readings for this sermon are: Acts 3:11-26 and Luke 24:36b-48.

Tonight’s Gospel picks up in the middle of a story, so a little context is in order. It’s evening on the first day of the week, and the disciples are gathered somewhere in Jerusalem, comparing notes about the events of the day.

First, early in the morning, a group of women had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. But instead of a body, they found two men in dazzling clothes who announced that Jesus had risen. When the women reported this, the disciples found it to be an idle tale.

Then two of them, walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, had met a mysterious stranger on the road. The stranger had used the Hebrew Scriptures to explain to them all that had happened. When they invited this stranger to dinner, they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

The two disciples had returned to Jerusalem to share the news. There, they found the eleven and their companions gathered with news of their own: Jesus had risen and had appeared to Simon!

This is where we begin tonight, in the hubbub of that room, disciples repeating their stories, trying to make sense of their experiences – an empty tomb, a vision of angels, Jesus appearing in the breaking of bread and then disappearing.

In the midst of the chaos, Jesus appears. “Peace. Shalom,” he says, offering well-being, wholeness, harmony, divine grace and blessing. But the disciples are terrified! How could one who had died be standing before them? Despite reports that Jesus had risen, the disciples think that they are seeing a ghost.

So Jesus offers his crucified body, showing them the wounds in his hands and his feet. The risen Jesus who stands before the disciples is the same Jesus who had lived among them, who taught and healed and fed the multitudes, who was tortured and nailed to a cross. As further proof of his bodily resurrection, the risen Jesus asks for food, and right before their eyes he eats the piece of fish that they provide.

In a similar way, at Emmaus earlier that evening, the stranger had taken bread and blessed it, then broke it and gave it to the disciples. At that moment the disciples recognized Jesus.

In “Supper at Emmaus,” painted by the Italian artist Caravaggio at the beginning of the seventeenth century, we see Jesus seated at a table, his right hand stretched out over a meal that includes bread and wine as well as fruit and a roasted chicken. The two disciples are seated at the table. The one on the left is at the edge of his seat, his hands gripping the arms of his chair, leaning forward in astonishment. On the right, the other disciple’s arms are outstretched, and he, too, leans forward. The energy is palpable. The artist has brought us into the scene at the moment that the disciples’ eyes are opened to the true identity of the stranger they met on the road.

There is another person in this scene: the innkeeper. He stands next to Jesus, his head tilted slightly to one side. In contrast to the astounded expressions of the disciples, the innkeeper seems unaffected, attentive yet oblivious to the revelation right in front of him.

We gather at this table, where bread is taken and blessed, broken and given. What do we see in the breaking of the bread?

Back in Jerusalem, Luke doesn’t tell us how the disciples responded to Jesus’s crucified and risen body, or his ability to eat in their presence. Did they recognize Jesus? Or were they still terrified and disbelieving?

The encounter with the crucified-and-risen Jesus continues. As he had done earlier in the day, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus turns to scripture, interpreting his life and his passion, death, and resurrection in light of the law and the prophets. The disciples on the road to Emmaus later recalled that their hearts were burning within them when Jesus opened the scriptures to them. I wonder whether the disciples gathered in Jerusalem also felt their hearts burning within as Jesus taught them.

For the disciples in Jerusalem, Jesus does more than teach. He commissions them. They are to be witnesses, telling the world about Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection; proclaiming repentance, forgiveness, and new life to all nations.

In tonight’s reading from Acts, we find the disciples doing just that, bearing witness and calling people to repentance. This reading, like tonight’s Gospel, drops us into the middle of the story. It takes place at the temple in Jerusalem, where Peter and John had gone for afternoon prayer. At the gate of the temple, they encountered a beggar, a man who had been lame, unable to walk for his entire life. Instead of money, Peter offered healing. “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” Peter said, “rise up and walk.” Then Peter took the man’s hand and raised him up. Acts tells us that the man entered the temple with Peter and John, walking and leaping and praising God. We enter the story here, as the crowd gathers, abuzz with wonder, staring at Peter and John, trying to figure out what power they have.

It’s a preach-able moment. Peter bears witness, right there in the temple. Everything he says emphasizes continuity with the faith of Israel. Invoking the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of their ancestors, Peter attributes the healing to Jesus, the crucified-and-risen one. Jesus, says Peter, is the prophet like Moses, the servant who fulfills the servant songs of Isaiah. The suffering that Jesus experienced was predicted by the prophets. Now, God is doing something new, raising Jesus from the dead and calling people to repentance and new life.

“You are witnesses,” the risen Jesus had told the disciples. Not, “you will be,” or “you ought to be.” “You are witnesses.”

The Book of Common Prayer appoints readings for the Eucharist for each day of Easter Week. Each of the appointed Gospels is a resurrection story, culminating on Sunday with the story of doubting Thomas, who insisted that he needed to touch the wounds of Christ, to see and feel for himself. The same Gospel passages are appointed year after year. The fact of resurrection – and I use that term advisedly, in this age of alternative facts – the fact of resurrection is so astounding that we need to hear and remember the accounts of those eyewitnesses who walked on earth with Jesus, who ran away when Jesus was crucified, who struggled to believe when the risen Christ appeared in their midst. Without those eyewitness accounts, told from many perspectives, we might think that the resurrection – the resurrection of the body, as we say in the creed – is but an idle tale. By immersing ourselves in the stories of the resurrection, we remember who God is and what God has done for us, most especially in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

During Lent, at my parish, All Souls in Berkeley, I helped lead an adult formation series on the Baptismal Covenant. Each week, we rehearsed the Apostles’ Creed, our affirmation of what God has done for us in Christ, and then we dug into one of the promises, asking how we live that out not only individually but also as a parish. Our promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” is specifically about witness.

As we explored each commitment, I became newly aware of the ways these promises are intertwined. We proclaim the Good News as we participate in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship. Our worship, the breaking of bread in which Christ becomes present among us, the offering of prayer for the world and the church: all of this bears witness to the crucified-and-risen one. Loving our neighbor, striving for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being: these acts, too, bear witness to God’s love made known in Jesus. We persevere in resisting evil as we work for justice and peace, all of it a witness to the Good News of God in Christ.

Here, today, Christ is risen. In the midst of a sinful and broken world, with saber-rattling over North Korea, catastrophic climate change, and increasing hostility toward immigrants and refugees; in a world in which fear and anxiety so often rule, we proclaim that Christ is here with us, calling us to repentance and offering new life. Here, tonight, in this place, among this seminary community, we celebrate the crucified-and-risen one, and we are witnesses to the Good News of resurrection life.

Image: “Supper at Emmaus” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

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)