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October 7, 2018, 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Year B, 20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 7, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”

What a week!  But please don’t be on edge about triggers, today we’ll talk more universally than the presenting issue of the past weeks, and what a week it has been.  I had to re-read my Tune Up article about the proper use of anger.  A couple of times.  It was about when anger arises, that we should always remember what we love, not just what angers us, and that we must do something, channel that anger towards tangible action.  Those are two ways to keep righteous anger from morphing into soul and world damaging hatred.  That is how Jesus put His Holy anger to use in making real the Commonwealth of God.  We must do that, too.  (And we can).

This is a bad news, good news sermon.  I’ve been trying to keep the news at arms-length in my preaching this past year, but these last two weeks need some meaning to be made, some Christian contextualization to be done.  So the bad news continues to be that that the sky is falling.  It has always been falling, yes, but it does seem to be accelerating.  (For all the kids, maybe you’ve noticed your parents being upset by the news, more upset than usual over the past two weeks?  You all know that women are as just as important as men.  There are people in our country, in our government, arguing about that, which makes no sense at all, and that is very upsetting because everyone should know that already).   And it is not just the drama of the past weeks around the Supreme Court and all that implies or reveals about the patriarchal nature of our society, it is about everything in our common lives together, and it has been going on for a long time.  The myriad divisions within our nation, in particular racial division, immigration, the disparity of wealth, endless war, gun violence, ecological instability… none of that started under the current administration.  Our problems are much larger than one man or one political persuasion having the keys to the kingdom.

On Wednesday the Rev. Chris Hedges, spoke here in town.  He’s one of my go-tos.  He was a Pulitzer prize winning war correspondent for the New York Times before he left journalism for seminary (he’s a fellow Harvard Divinity grad), and was ordained a Presbyterian minister.  I first encountered him in the run up to Gulf War 2 when he was on tour with his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. 

I couldn’t go to hear him (Windy and I drew straws and I took the girls home after Choristers), but Win filled me in and I have read some of the stuff he was speaking from.  He’s a lot, a lot to take in.  His thought is politically and economically radical, and is firmly grounded in Christian morality; a combination that ticks-off most conservatives and most liberals, hence the kinds of ideas he explores are rarely echoed or even acknowledged in mainstream media.

Hedges’ latest book is America: The Farewell Tour (I said, he’s a lot, the book is brutally explicit in the portrait of suffering he paints).  In it he describes the way the sky is falling and he explores why it is falling.  The current administration, the dysfunctionality of our Congress, those aren’t, he writes, causes of our problems, but are symptoms, signs of brokenness deep within the structure of our society. One of the ideas he fleshes out in this book and elsewhere is our big word for the day: anomie.

Anomie is a term that comes from the late 19th, early 20th century French scholar Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science.  In a book examining suicide, he identified the dissolution of social bonds, the decay of society itself as a key factor contributing to individual self-destruction.  He called it anomie, a word meaning “normlessness”, or “rule-lessness.”  (Not anarchy, which is the absence of external authority. Anomie is what can ensue if the social rules, social norms that hold a society together are compromised).   When normal structures of society deteriorate, the whole system comes apart, from stem to stern.  From Wikipedia, the source of all that is right and true, anomie is described as “…the breakdown of social bonds between and individual and the community… unruly scenarios resulting in fragmentation of social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values.”  That doesn’t sound good; it does sound familiar, though.

This is how Chris Hedges introduces the idea.  “Societies are held together by a web of social bonds that give individuals a sense of being part of a collective and engaged in a project larger than the self… The bonds provide meaning, a sense of purpose, status and dignity. They offer psychological protection from impending mortality and the meaninglessness that comes with being isolated and alone. The shattering of these bonds plunges individuals into deep psychological distress that leads ultimately to acts of self-annihilation. Durkheim called this state of hopelessness and despair anomie, which he defined as ‘ruleless-ness.’”

Most of have more virtual “friends” than actual ones.  We buy things on our computer not from local shopkeepers.  We drive almost everywhere. Most of our food was grown a thousand miles away, and how?  Few even know. Our faith in institutions is abysmally low.  Churches, not Resurrection, but many and increasingly are empty or shrinking.  (The Episcopal church as a whole shrank 3.5% last year).  Faith in our congress is in single digits, the courts surely took a hit this week, even trust in our system of elections is shaky after another electoral/popular vote discrepancy.  (Hedges quoted Emma Goldman on Wednesday, “If voting change anything, it would be illegal.”) But you intimately know the litany of what is wrong in the world, in your world.  What Hedges observes now, what Durkheim observed 100 years ago, is that all of those injuries to our common lives together not only infects the commons, it also grievously wounds us each individually, to the point we begin to self-annihilate.  The meth and opioid epidemics are self-annihilation happening.  So are the mass shootings.  So is allowing so many to live on our streets, or not having health insurance.  And chronic obesity, porn-stained sexuality, the kind of people running for office and the quality and content of our public debate are ways our self-annihilation manifests; that is it happening. Our moral fiber, collectively, is a mess.  And that collective mess contributes to the moral degradation of each of us individually. It is beyond the scope of Moral Man, Immoral Society.  If society becomes immoral enough (or amoral enough), it compromises, it damages the individual actor.  Maybe we are getting there.  A few weeks like the past ones could make one think so.

This is not political talk, this is moral talk, this is completely in spiritual territory because it is our spirits that are under assault.  Anomie is a moral, a spiritual ailment that infects a society and its members.  Spiritual injuries last, they get passed on from generation to generation, they cross class and race and gender divides because spiritual injuries are injuries to the whole self.  And they hurt everyone one involved, everyone: the victor and the vanquished, the perpetrator and the survivor, and everyone else, the innocent bystanders, there is always civilian collateral damage.  That is the condition of anomie.  Certainly there are other pictures we can draw of now, and that is one of them: anomie.

That’s the bad news. It is pretty bad.  And no one knows where this is all going to go, how it is going to end up.  No one.

So where’s the good news?  Where’s the Gospel?  Don’t worry children, there really is good news and it is really good…  Here’s the good news.  Look around.  Really, look at the person next to you.  Now look at the person across the nave from you.  Look up in the loft.  Simon says look up here.  (This is hard stuff.  We’ve got to laugh.  “If I can’t dance, I don’t want any part of your revolution.” another Emma Goldman quote.  Laughter is our spirit dancing.  That’s one thing that bums me out about scripture: it doesn’t record Jesus laughing.  We hear that Sarah laughed, but not Jesus.  We need to laugh sometimes.  I do).  Back to looking around. This is, we are the ecclesia, Greek for the Beloved Community; we are the Body of Christ, right here; we are one teeny-tiny twig on the Tree of Calvary.  And this is where it happens, since day one of the Church, one gathering of Christians at a time, this is where the face of Christ is seen, this is where the hands and feet of Christ find their purchase in the world.

A solution to our problems, a remedy for anomie is exactly what we are doing right now.  Forming morally grounded, joyful, nurturing, loving community (what church should be), what we are making a pretty good try at here; that is an antidote for anomie.  The way Hedges put it (he was preaching to mostly radically (if not hostile-y) secular Eugenians), the way to cure anomie is movements, social movements.  People gathering together, forming community in order to save the world.  Be it through empowering women, reversing climate change, ending homelessness, it doesn’t matter, as Gandhi observed, every justice issue, taken to its ultimate conclusion, is a conflict with empire, which, of course, was the battle ground upon which Jesus fought.  Done in movements, societies can be restored.  Movements bind people together, giving purpose and meaning, companionship and the dynamic of community.  Friends, loves, lives connect in movements.  And that is what we are part of here, part of a movement, the Jesus movement, a global religious movement for peace, inclusion and justice that has existed for 2000 years.  It is not the only way, but church is one of the ways that we can not only keep our own heads above water, but we can be agents of healing in our society, the healing of our community’s moral fabric.  Don’t discount the power we have here.  Look how much influence is exerted, how much damage has been done by the religious right.  Imagine how much good Christians with a different set of values could do?  Maybe with Resurrection values?  That is a heartening thought, but the religious right is so successful because they are committed, very committed to their values, and they give a lot, in all sorts of ways, in support of those values.

Today is the kick off of our annual giving campaign.  I am sure Patty is up there wondering how this sermon ties into that.  Well it does, intrinsically, because it is about believing in this place.  I believe in what we do here.  I believe in who we are here.  I believe in you!  I love you!  Isn’t that how community should be?  Sure, we do a lot of good works, our caritas is strong.  But the best thing we do, the most important thing we do I believe wholeheartedly, is what we are doing right now, worshiping God together, keeping the spirit of Jesus Christ alive in our hearts and shining that into the world.  In raising up these children as awake, moral participants in the world, in building a resilient community made up of resilient people, we are sustaining an island, a beacon, an outpost of the Commonwealth of God. We are knitting together strong bonds of community.  We are loving each other, welcoming others into that love, and shining that love out into the sin sick world.  That is pretty heartening indeed.

We are part of a movement, an ancient and global movement arrayed against the forces of malice and wickedness, the forces that tear down and destroy, against the forces that cause anomie.  Because “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”  And what does it, what holds us together, has held us together for 2000 years, through times a lot worse than this, is God.  It is God that does it.  Or another way to say the same thing: it’s love.

Today we kickoff our annual giving campaign.  You should have gotten materials in the mail.  If you didn’t, we’ve got plenty to share!  I believe in this place.  A lot of us do.  Not as just our church, our little community, but truly as one of thousands, millions of points of light that can contribute to the salvation of the world, binding the wounds of self and society.  Stewardship is the tending of the community, taking care of our common life together.  Part of that stewardship is minding our finances.  We need you here in church, our prayers together radiate out further than we can fathom.  We need your time and energy, you volunteering to make this place work.  But that is not what we are talking about right now.  In this season we are talking about money.  We need money to make this place run.  My salary, Tina’s, Gay’s, the rest of the staff.  EWEB.  Comcast.  We use a lot of legal sized paper for the bulletins.  The cookies at coffee hour aren’t free.  Neither are the plates we use at Egan, the wine we serve at Mass, the chairs AA uses on Wednesdays, the Bibles we give to our children.  All in all, it costs a little over $250,000 to operate Resurrection for a year.  Almost all of that comes from you, members of the Resurrection community through annual pledges.

We’ll be talking about money the next few weeks.  We’ll consider the spiritual practice of giving (if you can’t feel the gift, you are missing the spiritual benefits, of which there can be many).  Matching our values to our use of money (the theology of a budget).  The value of the gift is not its size, it is what it means to you (the widows mite).  Today, though, it is about the value of church, of this church itself, and why we need to invest in our collective futures by investing in something that can heal the violence done to our common life together, that can be a balm to our fractured society, a river whose streams make glad the city of God.

“What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”  What happens here at church is not us, it is God.  But without us, without the relationships we have here, the work and prayer we do here, the love we express here, the money you invest here… it wouldn’t be.  God works through each of us here, in all sorts of ways, and collectively we can’t do it without you.  And in a world that serves up weeks like this past one, a world plagued with anomie, it is all hands on deck.

So please keep your eyes and ears and hearts open to our giving messages the next few weeks.  (And your checkbooks, too).  Consider how giving here can help save not only yourself and your family, not only South Eugene, but could maybe be one more pebble on the scales, tipping it towards the salvation of the whole world.  AMEN.

September 30, 2018, Feast of St. Francis

The Feast of St. Francis
September 30, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”

We need some good news this week.  What a mine-field of triggers it has been for so many of our sisters and brothers.  So much pain, so much anger.  So much callous disregard on display.  And so much courage, so much humility, so much gentle Christ-like strength.  Lord have mercy upon you and all of us.

When Dorothy Day was alive, rumors of her eventual canonization into the communion of saints arose from time to time, to which she apparently responded, “There are not getting rid of me that easily.”

I fear that in some ways St. Francis of Assisi has been gotten rid of that easily.  Bob Ross-like paintings of him with birds and dogs.  Cement statues in the garden. Pretty thoroughly domesticated.  Even here, we here will celebrate the venerable saint with our children and a blessing of our kitties at the end of Mass.

And that is okay.  His all-consuming love of the whole creation is a much more age appropriate way to introduce Francis than talking about how he inaugurated his ministry by stripping to his hair shirt (and only his hair shirt) wandering off into the snowy Umbrian forest.  And joy, frolicking even is a Franciscan virtue, so it is not disingenuous, it doesn’t cheapen his blessed memory, just so long as we don’t stop there.  Because his joy and frolicking often was best expressed in the face of the punishing asceticism he inspired and called for.

In the spirit of a quote attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel, use words if necessary,” this will a bit briefer than usual.  (Gotta to leave time for the kitties).  I spent some time with G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Francis.  It is full of devotional fervor and grace, but it was not written as a hagiography; it does not put him on a pedestal, though the praise through-out is befitting a saint.  He also did not write it as a history, a recollection of facts and anecdotes, though the real life and times of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, dubbed “Francesco” by his cloth merchant father, is clearly and professionally rendered.  No.  Chesterton tells the story of Francis in the form of Francis’ life, that is as a love story.  His biography is a romance.  Because that is the story of Francis; a wild story of extravagant love.  Not love for an abstract God or abstract love for a holy idea, but open-hearted, open armed love the flesh and blood human being named Jesus, and everything else.  Chesterton writes, “He was a troubadour, he was a lover, he was a lover of God, and was really and truly a lover of men, possibly a much rarer mystical vocation.” He didn’t love nature, he loved the nature of everything he encountered.  He didn’t love forests or trees, he loved that tree, and that one.  He didn’t love humanity, he loved humans.  He didn’t love Christianity, he loved Jesus Christ.

Love is the very beating heart of Christianity.  Our very image of God, the Trinity, is f a swirling cloud of love; the love of a Father for a Son, a Son for a Mother, the Spirit intertwining, begetting, becoming, loving.  And not, as I said before, an abstract love, Christian love is not abstract love, it is rooted, its source and end, the subject and object of Christian love all flows from real, visceral love of God, of a human being, of God and Human made one in Jesus of Nazareth, a real person, in a real place, in real time.  Jesus was born, had a mother, broke her heart.  He knew His God as Abba, the Aramaic diminutive form of father: daddy or papa.  He had friends, many friends upon whom He depended for life and whom depended on Him for love.  Francis knew this in every cell of his body, he loved God in Christ, loved Him as a parent loves a child, a child their parents, as a friend loves a friend, as lovers love each other, as we love our land, our dog, kale, the hummingbirds in the tithonia.  In this, Francis found his sainthood, for he loved his brothers, his friends, the lepers he fed, the wolf who ate the villager’s sheep, the birds to whom he preached, he loved them with exactly the same devotion, exactly the same fervor and expectation as he loved God.  Because in Francis, there was not holy/profane barrier, no sacred v. secular separation, no flesh as opposed to spirit; it was all of God, and he loved it, The Gospel of our Lord is love… the sainthood of Francis emerged as that love utterly infused his being, pushing every other concern on earth or in heaven aside.

Fr. Sam Portaro was the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Chicago.  He wrote, “In Francis, as in Jesus, the gospel was made flesh and dwelt among us, an incarnation impossible to ignore, so tangible and physical it compels a response.”  In Francis, that response was the complete and open love for that incarnate God and all that flows from that Creative, Incarnate God, for everything.  Potaro continues, “In a world increasingly material, it is the most powerful way – perhaps the only way – to communicate truth.”  That is what St. Francis gave to us, truth communicated in, by, for and of love.

Love is true.  It cannot not be denied.  It cannot be compelled.  It is the purest, most valuable gift we have to give; it is the purest, most valuable gift we have ever been given, and it is as inexhaustibly and infinitely abundant as it is priceless and precious. A pearl of the greatest price freely given to all, one being at a time.

Because you don’t live a life of ascetic rigor for an idea.  You don’t sacrifice yourself for a concept, or a doctrine.  Marines in a fighting hole or sailors on a burning ship are not fighting for “democracy,” they fight for the man or woman beside them, or the ones they are thinking about back home, protecting them. Whether that is right or wrong is a different matter entirely, what I am talking about is what stirs the human heart, and that is love of those you share your life with; that is what brings the God in you to the surface, what brings your Christ nature to the fore, which steers you on the way of and to Jesus.  Emotive love.

This is a place that we in general struggle, Episcopalians that is.  We don’t talk much about a personal relationship with Jesus like our evangelical brothers and sisters often do.  In the Examination of Candidates in the Baptismal rite, you were asked “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?”  That is about the closest it comes in the BCP, a call to that one-on-one really real relationship with Jesus.  You see, that is what Francis had; as real, as personal, as living and alive and intimate a loving relationship with Jesus as is possible for one person to have with another, living or dead, real or imagined.  St. Francis experienced that kind of love and through the community that he and St. Clare founded, through the rigorous disciplines he developed, he shined that real, personal love on the whole world, and called us to it, to the love of Jesus.

I really wrestle with that corner of my faith, my relationship with the Living God in Jesus Christ.  My return to the Christian faith was certainly delayed because I couldn’t determine if such as personal relationship was a prerequisite to call one’s self Christian.  I have since learned that it is not, and I have also learned, more recently, that while it is not required, it is desirable.  Maybe even desperately so.  I get glimpses of it sometimes, what love for that Man could be, maybe, I’ve been trying to.  It is fleeting for me, and not very comfortable.  I think too much sometimes; I like loose ends tied up.  Personal relationships are emotional, effectual, unpredictable, unscripted.  They are messy.  They inspire praise music!  Heavens to betsy!  And that exact kind of personal, loving relationship of a one human being with Jesus Christ is what carried little Francesco from martial and mercantile excess straight into the loving embrace of God, and that relationship was so close, so palpable, so real that might have helped to carry Europe out of the feudal mess that was the dark ages.  (Well, some would say it did, that St. Francis was a morning star of the Renaissance).

So don’t worry, we’re not going to break out the guitars and put our hands is the air, and I am not going to start preaching personal relationship as the one and only path to the Savior.  But when you hear someone say something about it, try not to dismiss it out of hand.  You might even open just a tiny flap of your heart to the idea of it.  Because in the dark night of your soul, in the inky black moments of your life, in the wake of a week like we all just made it through, a solid Christology is maybe not what will give you comfort, is maybe not what will save you from the abyss.  Love for another could do that, real, living, passionate love for Jesus can.  That is the good news of St. Francis.  That is the good news of Jesus Christ, too.  AMEN.

September 23, 2018, 18th Sunday after Pentecost YR B PR 20

Year B, 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20
September 23, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”

So how is your Christian elevator speech going?  We talked about that a couple of weeks ago, how we are going to be working towards a clearer understanding of our faith so 1, we have something readily available for us to hold on to when the wind buffets or if the mid-term elections don’t go the way you hope; and 2, for apologetic or evangelical purposes, so you have something intelligible to say to your skeptical brother-in-law at Thanksgiving (apology) or that nice lady in line at the grocery store (evangelism – because you say it right before you invite her to church).  Anyone making any progress?  ___   After last week’s scripture, I thought “Giving my entire life to following Jesus Christ” might be a one, but then I don’t want to have to cross my finger behind my back when telling it to someone.  Because that probably is a right definition, it is what He expected of His disciples, His friends, us, but I know I have a long, long way to go to make that true.  A really long way.  But like we talked about last week, just because we have a long way to go, that we are far from perfect followers (or perfect anythings), that does not mean that we can’t, that we shouldn’t try.  That’s the Christian contract.  Keep working on it.

You’ve all heard of the notion of being “in the world but not of the world.”  It is in St. John’s Gospel, 1st Corinthians, Romans, 1st  John.  A couple of weeks ago we heard St. James define pure religion as helping the widow and orphan in their distress and keeping oneself “unstained by the world.”

This is not an injunction to flee from the world, to renounce its tawdry and corrupt ways in exchange for a pure life.  You know, a Christian school/Christian music/Christian movie/abstinence only existence, or a pleasant garden within a cloister unsullied by profane secular influences. Sometimes that sounds pretty good; not just the cloister garden, I lived in one for five years and it was exquisite!, but it can also sound good to just flee the world, block it all out.  We don’t need a monastic habit to do that, we can just ignore the bad, deny the sin, think about rainbows and unicorns or the next beautiful Air b’nb we’ll rent.  And who can blame us in a world like this, a world where it is uncertain who is going to sell more books about our President: Stormy Daniels or Bob Woodword? One is horrifying because it can be written, the other because it needed to be.  Or Or where for one second anyone should consider not hearing what Professor Ford has to say about a potential Supreme Court nominee?  That 35 inches of rain falling in a single storm anywhere in the world, let alone the Continental United States should not strike fear in our hearts and raise every conceivable alarm possible.  You’ve seen the images of South Carolina.  I sometimes just want to switch off the radio, unplug the CNN-blaring TV at the Y, throw the phone and lap top in the creek and just go out to Jasper and turn off, tune down and then drop out.

If you pay attention to the world, you all know that feeling I am sure.  Thomas Merton, writing in the chaos of the late 60’s tried to avoid the whiplash of the news cycle.  He suggested forgoing the news cycle and waiting for the book.  That, he said, was a sufficient incubation period for sanity if not more truthfulness.  In the current nanosecond to nanosecond information age, I wonder if that wisdom still stands?  Is that possible and still be in the world responsibly?

Because tuning out, withdrawing from the world, is that what Jesus wants us to do?  Is that what Sts. Paul, John and James are teaching?  Of course not.  We need to be in the world.  This is where life is, this is where the work is, this is where Jesus is.  Not just His ministry, but Him, the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us, here.  Jesus came into this world to save us, sinners, those who were on the wrong path, doing the wrong things.  And to save us, He charged us with following Him and helping others stuck in this morass.  But we can’t be of the world, like He wasn’t. He didn’t do it like everyone else.  He was born in a barn.  He was itinerant, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”  Never did.  He certainly did not adhere to social convention, to conventional wisdom, to the sterility of polite society.  Prostitutes and tax collectors, lepers and demoniacs, the unclean and uncouth, jokers like Peter and Judas, like you and me, sometimes saintly, sometimes not.  And He chose the cross.  He willing walked a path that He knew would lead Him there.  He warned His friends in last weeks reading, and He did it again today.

It is not the world.  The world is not bad. The physical world, the flesh, is not bad: it is from God!  Paul juxtaposes flesh (sarx) with spirit (nous), but he is not talking about this, about actual flesh, about the actual biological processes from conception to death… no, that’s the world we are in, that’s life happening, and it is good, very good.  The sarx, the flesh Paul cautions us about, that is the “of the world” species of flesh.  That is this, the beautiful, the pure, the created being perverted in the truest sense of the word, and perverted by… what’s the word???  Makes Episcopalians more uncomfortable than talking sex or money?  Sin.  Original sin.  Why is it harder to do right than it should be?  Why is the Jesus path more narrow for us, less traveled by us than the other fork in the road?  It is so familiar that we all know exactly what it means when Billy Joel sang that he’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.  Why are the saint’s crying?  That’s what original sin is about.  That something is amiss…  and we need to do our best to avoid that part of it.  Being of the world means dabbling in those parts, hanging around in those dark corners, or even just not admitting that a darker side of things exists at all, not being mindful of it.  Being in the world not of the world is about not engaging the world with the lesser angels of our nature (or maybe not engaging the lesser angels of nature)?

That is not a very hard concept to grasp, being in the world, not of the world.  It is simply not going along with the program, the sinful, worldly program.  Simple, but a very, very hard thing to do, because in real time, in the moment to moment living of life, with the enormous pressure of the culture in which we live, what is of God and what leads us to God can be hard to differentiate from those things that lead us in other directions, less edifying directions.  Not less pleasant ones, the roads away from God, those are the enjoyable ones, the more enjoyable ones usually… in the near term the road away from God is usually much easier, much smoother, has much more laughter and much better cocktail service than the rocky, steep climb through a lousy neighborhood to righteousness.

Our epistle (we’re still in James) and our Gospel (we’ll be in Mark ‘til Advent) both give examples of the Christian life being in the world, not of it.  James tells us to “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”  That is beautiful, “gentleness born of wisdom.”  Such is a good life, if not the good life, a life in the world lived with “gentleness born of wisdom.”  That is not life of the world.    And that wisdom, “wisdom from above,” what is that like?  It is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

Those are some words.  Pure.  Peaceable.  Not peaceful, peaceable, descending from Latin word meaning “to please,” it means not arguing, avoiding violent conflict.  Gentle.  Willing to yield.  Full of mercy.  Every one of these phrases or words… are those normative to 21st century American culture?  Does our society favor those traits?  They are kind of the polar opposite of “stand your ground.” Expressing those traits through your good life, living within the boundaries of mercy, gentleness, peaceability… If you do that, if you seek that, seek to live like that, that is life in the world in the way Jesus asks us, expects us to be.  And the fruits of that life?  “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”

This is the heavy lift of the Christian life, living in it but not of it.  This is as counter-cultural as can be.  Have any of those words describing wisdom from above ever appeared in a Harvard Business Review article about traits of a good leader?  They certainly didn’t cultivate gentleness or willingness to yield at Marine Corps Officer Candidate’s School, nor do they at Autzen Stadium, nor before a dissertation committee (the candidate “defends” right).  Do those words even describe the average playground?  (Ours out back is going to be above average).

In the Gospel today, Jesus gives another clue as to how we live in but not of the world.  He spoke of His fate again: betrayal, execution, rising again on the third day.  The disciples again didn’t get it, for next thing we know they are arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest.  Jesus must have been shaking His head as He called them in close and picked up one of the children. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

In that age children were barely people.  They had no rights, no protection, no status in society whatsoever, and Jesus delivers a live action parable demonstrating that whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.  What an affront to the conventional wisdom of the day!  If you aspired to be great (or at least greater, and who in their right mind wouldn’t?), you did it by associating with those greater than yourself; the greater in power, wealth, status, station.  Honor was gained by associating with those with honor.  Things haven’t changed.  CNAs in hospitals and nursing homes, pre-school teachers, anyone ones who care for our children, do or will care for us when were are back in a least of these category, we treat and pay them how?  Folks who work with the homeless, addicts, survivors of domestic violence, or folks who clean up after us, they are where on the social ladder?  Well, if you are looking to get right with God and not be immersed in the striving, achievement-driven, envy-laden world of competition and accomplishment, then you would be right exactly where you are supposed to be, amongst the least of these.  That is where you find God.  In the world, very much so, but not of it, not the in the way of worldly gain and glory.  So must we be also.

Nothing earth shattering here.  Well completely earth shattering if we actually did it, but it is nothing that you have not heard before, you’ve heard it ad nauseam if you pay attention to the Gospels. But it is hard to relate it to our daily lives, so I want to propose a thought experiment, or maybe a heart experiment for you to try this coming week.  I want you to try to notice some moments that you might be able to choose between in and of the world.  We are a capitalist, consumer society, worldly, material goods define much of our culture, much of our identities, so that is a good place to start.  This week, I’d like you to notice yourself in relation to things.  For example, notice it when a fancy car drives by.  Maybe it is a sleek late model Jaguar (very Episcopalian) or a mint condition 1971 VW bus (very Eugene) or the slickest Tesla out there (better get’m quick before the SEC gets involved).  Or someone pulls out the latest iPhone, or the best season tickets, or whatever it is that you sometimes covet, the beautiful clothes, the job offer, the gorgeous home, the well-mannered child, whatever tempts you.  When you get that flash of want, maybe envy, notice it.  What do you feel?  What would having that thing actually do for you, to you?  What would having (or not having) it say about you?  Who would say that?

Or maybe material goods aren’t your poison, maybe it is pride.  So next time you are at a coffee shop, or a restaurant, look around and notice who you would most want to have coffee or lunch with.  Not a date, just who you would like to spend an hour with at that coffee shop, that restaurant.  And who not.  Why?  Why not?  Does it have anything to do with hoe their company would reflect on you?  How?  In whose eyes?

Or watching TV, being on-line, notice how you react to all the things our economic overlords dangle before you, try to entice you with, make you feel less for not having.  Be it the abs of steel, the partner with abs of steel, the vida loca life-style, a winning lottery ticket, perfect teeth…  What would having, being any of those things do for or to you?  Or do for or to your relationships with yourself, those you share this life with, God?

I encourage you to take that baby step, noticing your relationship with the world, how close (or far) you are from what society tells you you should be, and how Jesus does.  All that stuff, worldly stuff, it is not bad, it is what we do with it, how we identify ourselves with that, and not with what is actually important, with God in Christ with the Holy Spirit, that is the problem.  Keep your eyes open to yourself this week.  Notice. AMEN

September 2, 2018, 15th Sunday after Pentecost, YR B

Year B, 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17
September 2, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“Lord who may dwell in your tabernacle? * who may abide upon your holy hill?”

It is Labor Day weekend.  The fleece is coming out of the closets.  The stuff you left in the backyard got wet this week.  4J opens its doors on Wednesday and homeschoolers are already starting to close theirs…  We are passing from Summer to Autumn.  You can hear it.  It is glorious.  And there is much to do.

Our lectionary sets us up well for our transition from the Summer rest to the busy Fall.  We have some very practical texts before us today.  Having left the stratospheric heights of St. John and returned to Year B’s down to Earth heart, St. Mark’s Gospel, we also are in the first of five weeks with the letter of St. James, Brother of our Lord.  St. James is eminently practical.  We’ll talk more about the letter itself next week when we hear its most famous verse, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Today we’ll keep it a little lighter and just discuss the purpose of religion.

What does it mean to be a Christian, to be Christian?  ­­­­_____  That is a question.  _____  Seeing that not everyone’s hand shot up, I’ll take that as confirmation that many, most of us do not have our Christian elevator speech worked out.  You know that term, “elevator speech?”  Being able to describe something in the span of an elevator ride… a big city elevator.  (Fitting it in between the parking garage to the 3rd floor of the library is an unreasonable goal).  This is a theme we will be exploring over the next couple of months, and hopefully we’ll form for each of us a basic, digestible, communicable, enlightening, sustaining and even healing understanding of our faith.  There is an adult ed series starting in October that I will call something like “We believe what?  How to explain the Christian Faith to children and other novices.”  Something like that.  It is specifically for parents as the first catechists, but we all would do well to be able to explain this stuff at a child’s level.  Pew Research did a study some years ago that indicated that most of us operate at a 2nd grade level of religious education… And in this time where apparently “Truth isn’t truth,” we need to get back to our foundation, we need to get back to basics, so that the moral compass of our God is right there in front of us.  For that, is what this sin-sick world craves more than anything: actual truth; actual grace; actual love. Therein is our salvation.

What does it mean to be Christian?  St. James is about as crystal clear as can be, isn’t he?  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  Got it?  Go forth and spread the Word!

What does it mean to be Christian?  James is right; serving the least of these and remaining holy, which is something like following Jesus’ injunction to “be in the world but not of the world,”; to not be sucked into the morass of temporal concerns in the face of Ultimate Reality.  That sounds pretty good, and it sounds like a pretty all in sort of endeavor.  And it is, and many, most of us don’t go far enough with it.  James talks about deceiving ourselves, being pious hearers of the word who do nothing different in our lives.  Even though we are given “the implanted word that has power to save your souls,” so often we just hear it, maybe repeat it, maybe go through the motions, come to church on Sundays, but are not actual “doers of the word.”

This is like Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in our reading today.  They pointed out that the disciples did not adequately follow the Law when they ate with dirty hands.  Jewish law indicated ways that many daily tasks were to be accomplished.  Some minor, some profound.  So they critiqued the disciples unobservant eating habits and in response Jesus quotes Isaiah at them, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”  Ouch!

Jesus is speaking specifically about those who rigorously observe religious law, the rituals and customs when it suits them, but not when it doesn’t.  But really He is getting at the same thing St. James was getting at: what does it mean to actually be religious, to take the life of the spirit seriously?  What does it mean to follow God, to follow Jesus Christ?  What does it mean to be Christian?  Because through the lens of James and Jesus, this, being here, saying these prayers, worshiping God together in the ways handed down by our ancestors, believing the way our ancestors did… that ain’t it.  That is not what being Christian means.

I think the root of what Jesus is saying and James is amplifying is maybe best summed up in something Windy said the other day.  We were talking homeschool philosophy, what the goal of her schooling of our girls is.  One of the guiding principles that she hopes to pass on to the girls is this:  It is not as important to be right as it is to do right.  It is not as important to be right as it is to do right.  Now that is a rule to live by.  (And a hard one for those of us who have spent as many years in school as some of us have and make or made our livings being right.  Because really, being right really matters very infrequently; doing right always matters).

If we just believe things, believe them correctly; if we follow all the rules, not the “do unto other” rules, but the rules like Jesus is talking about, washing your hands properly, or like St. Paul talks about, being circumcised or not, or like good Episcopalians talk about, crossing yourself during the Sanctus when we sing “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” or which altar candle to light first or which color vestments are appropriate to the season… if we just did all of that and the myriad other traditions we have been handed, will every little thing be alright?  Will be we in line with the teaching of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior?  No.  Those things don’t matter, because it is not as important to be right as it is to do right.  What we need to do is “… care for orphans and widows in their distress, and [to] keep oneself unstained by the world.”  There is a difference between God’s commandments, between pure and undefiled religion and what we are doing right now, following human ecclesiastical tradition.

AndAnd you know what, you probably should cross yourself during the Sanctus when we sing “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”  It is proper to light the right candle first.  It really wouldn’t be appropriate to have the white altar frontal out right now, though I think it is the best one we have, or for me to wear the gorgeous blue stole that Kim made for me a few years ago, my favorite stole ever.  And you know, we are going to follow the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, and follow them pretty strictly.  As you know or will soon learn if you are new to this community, I have only one really conservative bone in my body: the Liturgy.  There are some things I can be very flexible about; the conduct of our principal Mass is not one of them.  Of course.  What did you expect?  We are Anglican, for goodness sake.  My own liturgical formation happened at a monastery, talk about observance of ancient tradition.  There are ways we do things and ways we don’t (or shouldn’t)?  And that has what to do with what James or Jesus are saying in our readings today?  And that has what to do with what it means to be Christian?  Now those are good questions.

What do you think?  Why does it matter that some of us give a simple bow, just a head nod at the name of Jesus in the liturgy?  Or that Blue is for Advent, Green for Ordinary time, Purple for Lent and White for Christmas, Easter and Funerals?  (There is Red, Black and Rose, too, but let’s not get carried away).  Why should we even consider using the form of the Daily Office as our principal devotion between Sundays?   Why does any of this matter?

You might have guessed that I have a couple of thoughts on that.  First and foremost, we humans, we are scatty creatures.  You know how distractible you are hearing, and consider Jesus’ run down of the horrible things that arise in the human heart:  fornication, murder, avarice, wickedness and the rest of them.  Those sinful tendencies are in our hearts, more often that most of us like to admit, even to ourselves.  We need help along the way.  One of the antidotes, a means to a holy end is discipline.  Rigorous discipline.  Getting up in the morning, and whether you feel like it or not, doing the spiritual equivalent of putting on your running shoes on a cold, wet morning.  Maybe it is the last thing you want to do, say Morning Prayer or go to Church, but it is good for you, so you discipline yourself an you get up, wash your face and start your day right.

Submitting to a common way is a means to temper our ego; to remind us that it is not in fact about us, because it isn’t.  Discipline pushes us into places we might not go otherwise.  And it is not so much the content that matters, though we’ll get to that, it is the form.  Accepting a form not generated by yourself.  Going through the motions, mindfully going through the motions itself is good for us, it focuses out attention and can clarify our intention.  In this my preferences age, submitting to the discipline of a larger body is a clear path to freedom.

Another reason that our traditions and customs are helpful is that they help to reveal a whole universe of faith, that cross-references, builds upon, reinforces itself.  The vocabulary and images of our faith are ingrained in marvelous ways.  “Walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering to God.”  We hear that each week at the Offertory.  And a few weeks ago, the Lectionary present us the source code, Ephesians 5:2.  I love when that happens.  The whole Mass is cut and pasted from scripture, and when you encounter it, reading your Bible or hearing a line in a song, it is another brick in the wall, a good wall, the wall of a beautiful home where you live in peace, and love radiates out and the doors are open to all.  All of this stuff, the fussiness, the traditions, the words collected from ancient times and modern ones, collated in this little red book in 1979, it begins to be a map, a map of sacred references points, pointing us in the right direction… which happens to be East.  Because churches have always faced East!

It is good!  We get a glimpse in the words of a hymn or in the Taize chants we share.  A line from a collect sticks and emerges when we need it.  A bow of the head when encountering something holy.  It all builds upon itself, revealing the holiness of everything. Layer upon layer… our Christian faith offers a deep and ancient well from which to draw.  Remembering, practicing the tradition reinforces the inter-connectedness of it all and inserts tools, reminders into our souls.

That brings us to the category of practice itself.  Practicing being in a holy space makes it easier to see other spaces as holy, makes it easier to act holy when we are in them.  I have called this the Karate Kid school of religious practice.  You’ve seen that movie?  The boy goes to the master to learn karate.  But instead of going to the practice floor, he is given a paint brush:  paint the fence.  Do it this way.  Then he is told to wax the master’s car: wax on; wax off.  Do it this way.  He does it, but by the end of the day he is frustrated.  “Painting, waxing… that is not what I need.  I am getting beat up at school!”  So the master, Mr. Miyagi, stands before him, “Paint the fence” and throws a punch… the boy’s new found muscle memory deflects the blow.  “Wax on”, the boy parries left.  “Wax off,” with new instincts ingrained by practice, the blow is parried right.  If you set your mind and soul and even your body on God, and you practice saying the words, feeling the feelings, letting yourself get carried by the community to the mystery of the Table, just the simple (and profound) act of bowing or kneeling, practicing that, practicing putting yourself into  posture of receptivity to God, a posture of vulnerability within a group of others that you can, you should try to trust, if you do that, then when you encounter hardship in your life, when you need to feel the warm, familiar arms of God, when you want to trust that what you know to be right is right no matter how hard it might be… the practice you have done here, week after week, month after month, year after year… it adds up, and it can bend you in the direction you need to bend towards, it can help you face God when everything and everyone one around you is facing in precisely in the opposite direction.

Someone wrongs you: forgive.  Someone wrongs you: forgive.  Encounter difference: do not judge.  Encounter difference: do not judge.  Do unto others.  Do unto others.  “The Lord is my shepherd, he walks with me always.  He knows me and he loves me and walks with me always.”  When you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, when you are at your worst, your weakest, your least capable of doing right, what we do here, the hooks that you place in your soul each time we pray our common prayer together, that can save you.  It can become for you a beacon, a shining city on a hill, calling you home through the storm.  That is why this, doing all this matters, can matter.  That we are doing it, what we are practicing, all of that serves, can serve, to focus our attention on God.  (That and it is wicked fun for us priests to wear this stuff.  I mean really, my job description includes wearing a cape!  That is awesome).

Now we can always slip into becoming more concerned with what we are doing, with the form itself, than with the why we are doing it, the end.  We can easily become more concerned with being right than doing right.  That is Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, James’ caution about being hearers, not doers of the word and that is a constant moral risk we face.  But it doesn’t mean that tradition should be abandoned, it just means we have to be careful.  We have to be mindful, and ensure that God in Christ, not us, is the center of our practice.

So we didn’t quite answer the question of what does it mean to be Christian, part of it, maybe, but we’ve got a long way to go, and it is not something we, that you, can do only on Sundays.  So I am going to offer the opportunity for your own study this week, homework if you like, ‘tis the season.  I want you to read the Baptismal Covenant, found on page 304 – 305 in the BCP.  I have some printed copies in back, too.  Today we covered point four in the Covenant.  So please read it, even talk about it with someone, and we’ll continue with it next week.  AMEN

 

Aug. 26, 2018, 14th Sunday after Pentecost YR B Pr. 16

Year B, 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16
August 26, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

“This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”

We’ve got some demanding scripture this morning.  This is what, our fifth week with St. John’s Bread of Life discourse?  It is some deep water.  It is about time that those disciples fessed up that “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”  I mean really, first there is all the definitive nature of our relationship to God stuff, and then Jesus talks about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, and doing that is all about our relationship with God?  If we think that sounds outlandish now, imagine when it was being said for the first time?  A “difficult” teaching to be sure, and Jesus is right there this morning, telling us that it is up to us to believe this stuff. Just like Joshua told Israel hundreds of years before, you’ve got to choose whether to believe or not.

So fast forward 2000 years.  Here we are, on the penultimate weekend of summer, fall and all its fallish-ness is nearly upon us: school is about to start up again, the church program year is almost here, the rain (God willing) is coming, mid-term elections will happen.  All sorts of occasions to buckle down are before us.  We have all sorts of choices to make.  Some simple, easy ones; some less so, a lot less so.

I mean thanks be to God, right?  Choice.  Having choices.  Having choices is a definition of freedom.  In the beginning, God gave us the ultimate freedom, free will.  We tell it through the Adam and Eve story.  Our mythical parents didn’t know about Good and Evil to begin with, but they were able to choose to disobey; and being human, they did.  We are free to make bad choices, and good ones.  We are free to make choices contrary to the will of God, to how things are supposed to be, and those in alignment with that same Divine will.  That is true existential freedom.  The little kitty cat doesn’t have that freedom.  Seeing the cute mousy running across the kitchen floor, he doesn’t have a choice but to pounce on it and noisily chew on it while I am trying to write a sermon.  That’s just his nature.  We, on the other hand, have a choice.  That is a gift from God.

We are not automatons.  And our form of Christianity, the Anglican form embodied in the Episcopal Church, treats us as such.  We don’t have a list of things to believe: there is a God to trust, relationships to have, choices about what you do with that to make.  Thanks be to God for spiritual freedom!

That link between choices and freedom have much more mundane manifestations, too.  The poor have fewer choices, and poorer ones, than those with enough.  Education widens perspective, informs you of choices you wouldn’t have known about otherwise.  Living in a democracy means that theoretically at least we have choices about who governs, though sometimes it is, as Senator Lindsey Graham said, like a choice between being shot or poisoned, but it is a choice!  And while it is a high privilege, a divine gift that we get to choose, it can also be an onerous burden, having to choose.

Joshua was the right hand of Moses.  Remember, Moses saw the promised land, but he was not to make it there himself, that was for Joshua and the rest of Israel.  Starting with the trumpets circling Jericho, and its formidable walls coming down, Israel conquered.  It is a fascinating story, one that continues to inform events in that part of the world, though one that likely informs us better spiritually than historically.

In any case, Canaan was conquered, and the land was divided up amongst tribes of Israel.  That brings us to the reading today, the Renewal of the Covenant at Shechem.  Joshua calls Israel together and recounts their history, from Abraham through the 40 years in the desert tht had just ended, and all the ways that YHWH blessed them.  Then, he clearly tells them what he thinks they should do, but he doesn’t take anything for granted.  “Now therefore revere the Lord, serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.”  That’s what he thinks they should do, but he leaves it up to them.  “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve…”  He tells them that there is a choice, that they can make that choice, and that they have to choose.

Now fast forward 1200 to 1300 years, to the synagogue in Capernaum and Jesus teaching that He is the Bread of Life.  It was difficult teaching, offensive even, “…who can accept it?”  Fair question.  You know about it, we’ve had five weeks of St. John in a row.  The followers asking this were beyond the 12, it was the crowds who were complaining about it, grumbling like the opposition did at the beginning of this discourse, like Israel did in the wilderness about the food.  And Jesus doubles down, no, in fact, “…no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”  And knowing who believed and who didn’t, who would betray Him and who wouldn’t, seeing how many had turned back, had left, Jesus puts it the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” He is telling them to choose.  It is up to them to make that choice, but they had to make it: then.  O the choices we have!

It is all about choice, these readings.  Choices we need to make about our relationship with God in Christ, about what we believe, how we practice, how we determine right from wrong, what we teach our children, what we are willing to sacrifice, how seriously we take it all.  We have choices to make.  It was pressing then, and I fear it is becoming pressing now, too.

For the past year, I have not talked about our political situation much.  Some of you are very glad about that; some of you are not.  I’ve heard as many kudos as complaints.  It is a conscious choice that I made coming back from sabbatical, a choice based on what I believe is the most important and effective thing I can do as your priest in our current dumpster fire of a political climate.  What I chose to do was change my focus from my the work in the wider community, out on the streets in particular.  I chose to not focus on offering piercing theological critique of late stage free market capitalist empires, as much as I love doing that.  Rather, what I think is most effective and helpful is to focus on you, on here, this parish, our little corner of the creation, our sliver of the beloved community.  And from focusing on the basics, atonement, evangelism, basic theology and religious literacy, from Jesus Christ the cornerstone on up, I would help to build a strong, resilient community here, doing my work here to support you and your work in the world out there.  And it radiates out from those basics, from theology, Holy Scripture, the Sacraments we share around this table, building a firm foundation of informed faith, because, as one commentator starkly puts it, “There is real evil in the world – institutional, systematic, authoritarian evil,  (and) such formidable forces require spiritual weaponry.”  There are plenty of partisan and economic and social and identity battles to fight, but the war we are in the midst of is moral in character.   This is about right and wrong; spiritual issues.  And the victor in this moral war between the agents of empire and death and the agents of light and life will be the ones willing to sacrifice the most for their cause.  I have not a single doubt in my mind about that, hence some of my cynicism. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  That is the winning formula from the moral heroes of the ages from Jesus through, Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, King, Romero, Day, Tutu and the countless anonymous saints the world over.  This is a moral war and we need spiritual weapons.  We need to put on the armor of God like St. Paul writes of in his letter to the church in Ephesus.  (I love Mike’s visualization of this on the cover – what a natty knight).

But before any of that, any boots of truth or shields of faith, we need to do what Joshua and Jesus are talking about: we need to choose.  Or, being uncharacteristically direct for an Episcopal preacher, you need to choose what you are going to do right now.  You need to choose whom you will serve.  You need to choose if you also wish to go away.  This is deadly serious stuff.  People feel threatened in this climate. It is less safe to be anything but a normative middle class, straight, white American than it was two years ago.  You need to choose what you are willing to sacrifice in this moral war against evil.

I hear a lot of grumbling, like in the Biblical sense.  A lot of grumbling about how things are.  “He did this!” “He said that!”  “This that and the other thing happened.”  “The sky is falling!”   Yes it has always been falling, but we can measure it now and it is accelerating: fair enough.  Paying attention, though, is not enough. Being informed is not enough.  Even reading the NY Times or watching Rachael Maddow or John Oliver  IS NOT ENOUGH!  (Nor is giving to One Revolution or clicking on a Move On! petition).  And for those of you who don’t lean left in all or most or even some things, you have choices, too. A searching and fearless moral inventory of our system and your leaders is in order.  The right doesn’t have a corner on scoundrels seeking power, not at all, but the right is in power so its scoundrels are more dangerous right now.

There is manifold evil in this world; some of it has a bead aimed squarely between our eyes.  Evil doers exist.  There is also manifold hatred in the world, some of it because of the evil we have manifested.  By we I mean you and me.  Things we do sows evil in the world, some of it near, some of it far.  From our polite corner of existence here in South Eugene, it is impossible to appreciate how much evil has been done on our behalf so that we have $3-something gasoline, or (usually) don’t have to wonder if the tap will be drinkable, or that we’ll have 24-7 electric coverage, or that our streets, even all the way out to Jasper, are still controlled by the government.  Oh the things we take for granted!  Oh how much those things being taken for granted cost the rest of the world!

There are choices to be made.  Moral choices.  We have moral choices about how we make our livings, how we handle our wealth, how we consume resources, both how much and what kind.  We have choices about how we raise our children, who gives them their moral educations, who forms them as people.  We, you, all of us have moral choices about what we are willing to sacrifice in order to make this world the best that you can make it.  The way Gandhi would say it is that for some of us, our karma is to change the world. His was, and he did.  As Christians we might say purpose or vocation.  For a few, their vocation is to change their nation.  For a few more of us, it is our states or provinces.  Even more of us are suited to change, to morally improve our cities and towns.  For most of us, our spiritual/moral capacity is maxed making the community you are a part of, your neighborhood, ward, parish, church, village, making it a little image of the Commonwealth of God.  Even if it is just your family, if that is all you care capable of doing, helping you family be the morally righteous institution that a family can be, that God intends for it to be, that alone could be super-hero material.  Can you imagine if this world was populated mostly by people in and from healthy families?  It would be paradise!

What should you do in this moment?  Heavens to betsy, I don’t know, all of the above?  No, that’s the boiler plate American answer that will get us doing a whole bunch of stuff, none of it very well thought out.  No, that question is for you and you alone.  What can you do?  That’s the first stop on the discernment train.  Really ask yourself that question.  What can you do?  We can do different things at different points in our lives.  If you’ve got young children at home, or things are hard for you for one reason or another, or you are on the other end of it, convalescing, or just working hard to put one foot in front of another, maybe that is all you can do; so do it mindfully and well with some kindness.  That will make the world you inhabit and the people you share it with better.  Or maybe you can support this church and our ministries financially or with your time and talents.  Or build a barricade in Portland with the antifa folks, or protest at the prison in Sheridan where ICE detains people, or be like Lucy and run for office.  What can you do?

All tied up in that question is what are you willing to do; what are you willing to sacrifice?  It is sort of like church giving.  If you don’t feel the gift you pledge, if you don’t notice it in your life, there is no spiritual benefit.  Sacrifice is good for us, and it feels good, in its way, like a hard work out.  That is not shiatsu massage chair feel good, but sweat running down your brow after a run, or digging that fence post, or game of kick ball with the neighborhood kids good.  It feels good and it is necessary to create a just and moral world.

Just like Joshua and Jesus put it to their people, we too have choices to make, moral choices about the nature of our lives in relation to God, the world an everything.  Pray.  Talk with your family, your friends, whichever of your partners in life and crime that you admire for their morality.  Come talk to your priest about what it is that you can do, what you can contribute in this time of national what, need? turmoil? embarrassment? moral turpitude?  The troubles of this world, they are moral, spiritual ones, and they require moral, spiritual remedies.  As St. Paul tell us, “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  The choice is yours.  AMEN

August 19, 2018, 13th Sunday after Pentecost, PR 15 YR B

Year B, 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15
August 19, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Is there one thing in your vocation that is why you really do it?  Like if you are a scholar, is it learning that thing, figuring something out?  Or if you are a teacher, is it that student learning that thing, figuring it out?  If you are in healthcare, is it the look on someone’s face when you figure out what the problem is?  Or when what you did relieved their suffering?  In business is it closing a deal?  Satisfying a customer?  Having a grateful employee?  Or if your vocation is parenting, is the thing that makes it all worthwhile looking in on the kids right after they fall asleep (certainly not before) but just watching them, thinking, “there goes another day together with these people”?  For many of us, our calling, our vocation has that one thing that makes it all worth it.  For me, as a priest, I will put up with a lot of credit card receipts, a lot of night meetings, a lot of bad coffee (not here, but everywhere else in the church), I will put up with a lot of the hard for me parts of ministry in order to celebrate the Mass of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

As I celebrate the Mass, raising the elements and bowing and the rest of it, besides the occasional glare at the unruly child, all that is going through my mind is “Arrived.”  You.  Me.  God.  We are here, we have arrived at this moment, in this place.  We are here, together, eternally and actually, encountering each other, abiding in each other as we eat His flesh and drink His blood just as He told us to do.  That is why I am a priest; that is why I am your priest.

Today I want to talk about the Eucharist; Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Divine Liturgy, the Great Offering, the Mass, all of which are appropriate Anglican names of the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.  The Mass is one of the two great sacraments, with ____.  (Baptism)  There are five others, which are? (Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Reconciliation and Unction).  Why are the first two special?  ___ (Jesus gave them specifically to the Church).

What is a sacrament?  Someone quote St. Augustine for me… “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”  It is something that we do out here, that has something to do with God’s presence, God’s action in here.  This is the first and most important aspect of sacramental theology:  it is all grace and mystery.  Both of our theological jokers are in play.  (I’d call them our trump cards but I’d get emails).  Grace and mystery.  By grace, this comes from God alone.  Whatever efficacy, whatever benefits, whatever spiritual, relational growth you experience is God’s doing.  We who celebrate, who enact these rites, its got nothing, nothing to do with us.  That would be magic.  The Sacrament is given by grace, and by grace mysteriously.

The whole sacramental realm is cloaked in mystery.  The Anglican smug shrug is the best we can do in explaining what is going on and how.  How does it work?  {Shrug} What is actually going?  {Shrug}.   Why do we do them?  We’re all over that and will get to it in a minute, but howWhat is going on?  All we know, and you hopefully know this for yourself, is that for 2000 years people, Christians, have and do encounter the Living God around tables just like this one.  In those always stale little wafers and plastic bottles of Welches and in the hand-made organic loaves and fine Oregon port made by a friend of a friend of this church, God is there.  The proof is in the experiential pudding of billions of the faithful in every time and clime and place.  But how?  {Shrug}.  Great is the mystery of faith!

That leads us to the second super important aspect of sacramental theology.  The sacraments are the property of the church.  They were given to the Church, they are guarded by the Church, they are administered by agents of the Church in the midst of and on behalf of The Church.  The authority I have to conduct these rites is given (and can be taken away) by the Church.  My authority to celebrate is given in sacrament of Ordination, and the sacrament of Eucharist happens only here, where 2 or 3 are gathered and one of them having that authority.  It is not the ritual action that matters, it is ritual action within the relational universe that is the Church of Jesus Christ that does.  On some Sunday you feel like sleeping in, you could break out your BCP, get a little bread and wine and say Mass.  I am as certain as I can be that lightening won’t strike.  If you do it with respect in your intention, there is nothing wrong in that, it just is not a sacrament of the church, it is you, on your own, making a ritual action.  In other traditions, like the Disciples of Christ, anyone can do communion, and they do.  Dan Bryant never says the Sunday communion prayers.  Their tradition is that a lay person does it each week.  Not bad, or wrong, just different from the right way.  (That is a joke – don’t tell Dan.  The variety of Christian practice is a gift from God’s own laughing heart.  That is right for them.  And it is.  This is right for us. And it is, too).

But why do we do it?  Why do we break bread and drink wine this way?  Well here we do have a simple and definitive answer: Jesus told us to.  OK.  We good?  In our Gospel today, Jesus said“…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”  In the synoptic Gospels and St. Paul, we get the Words of Institution, the key words in the consecration of the elements.  “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you.  Do this for the remembrance of me.”   We do it because Jesus told us to.

Over time, though, the plot has thickened.  We do it because Jesus told us, but the revelation has expanded and our tradition has deepened our understanding of what is going on.  Part of it is recreating the agape-fellowship meal of the Last Supper.  It is a memorial, a symbolic  remembrance of meals past, a gathering of people together around a sacred thing in a sacred way in a sacred moment.  The past two weeks of the Bread of Life discourse sort of intimates that side of it.  Today’s reading is distinctly about a second aspect of the rite, participation in the Paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.  In the Eucharist, we participate in the Passion, the suffering, the death, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is a sacrificial, an atoning act of surrender; it is an eternal and actual participation in the entirety of Jesus Christ.  The Eucharist, as we celebrate it, is not just a memorial fellowship meal, not just a ritual act… there is a whole lot more going on.

The key word in that last sentence is “just.”  Because it is a memorial meal.  It just also is something more.  And this is the most basic Anglican theology.  From 1559 and Queen Elizabeth’s Act of Uniformity, every Anglican Eucharistic prayer has included a proclamation of the Eucharist as a memorial feast, purely symbolic AND as that something else.  That something else is participation in the Paschal Mystery; it is the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament.  It is right there in the Eucharistic prayer.  In the one we’re using today, we’ll say “for the remembrance of me” twice and “Remembering now his work of redemption, and offering you this sacrifice of thanksgiving.” It is a memorial meal, very satisfying to the Protestant half of our heritage.  And we also say, at the Epiclesis, the actual moment when whatever happens we understand to happen, “Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Not “to be like” the Body and Blood, but “to be.”

Which brings us to the big misconception about what the bread and wine become.  In Roman Catholicism, they call it transubstantiation.  That is not a claim that it changes physically in any way.  It is the idea that the substance, the essence, the bread-ness and wine-ness of the elements, that changes into Jesus’ Body and Blood at the consecration. In the Anglican way, we speak of consubstantiation.  The prefix con- means together, with.  By faith we understand that at the consecration the substance of Jesus coexists with the substance of the bread and wine.  We usually call it the real spiritual presence of Jesus Christ.  Consider that when you partake.  Imagine that Jesus, mysteriously, inexplicably inhabits this bread that Jane Smith made and this wine that Bob Sogge is responsible for, or that juice that Charlie at Grateful Harvest Farm made; because He does.  In that space here between you and me and God, in our attention and intention, by grace and in mystery, that happens. These mundane, profane things become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, sacrificed, for us, on the Cross.

To be true to our way, it is worth your while to really mediate on the very real nature of all of this.  We are talking about flesh and blood.  Really.  Jesus’ body was torn and broken.  His blood was spilled on the ground.  He was publicly tortured to death by agents of an Empire at the behest of traitorous, collaborationist religious leaders.  There is nothing clean or nice in this.  It is the stuff of life and death, as real as is divinely possible.  Don’t shirk from that language.  There is a pretty obscure early 20th century Cofe scholar and priest named Sir Edwyn Hoskyns who nails this.  He preached that the language of flesh and blood is the language “by which Christianity stands or falls…”  (He was not a subtle chap).  He continues, “By our Christian language, by the express doctrine of the Church and its worship, we are being thrust into the whole relativity of human life, into the life where human beings are not God, where their ideas and notions are not the absolute Truth of God, where at best human beings speak in parables, and where their actions are not the righteousness of God, where life in fact passes to death… Into this realm of death the Lord passes with eyes wide open, with inexorable purpose, and into this realm, He draws His disciples with Him.”  In the Eucharist, we are brought with Christ into the fullness of existence, from the very best to the very, very worst that we have to offer.  Immersing ourselves in this sacrament, there is no denial, no dishonesty, just the piercing, cleansing light of a God who subjected Himself to the same world in which we dwell.  In taking the Body of Jesus into our body, in commingling the Blood of Christ with our blood, we have the chance for the scales to fall off of our eyes and encounter God, and in the light of God, encounter our world, our neighbors and ourselves in all the beauty and brokenness, in the heroism and the horrors that is the “whole relativity of human life.”

We need to see the world with the honest eyes the Mass can give us.  The CDC just reported 72,000 overdose deaths last year, we had someone passed out on our lawn on Tuesday, took like 45 minutes to wake her up.  Fires are raging in our northwest forests.  Our tax dollars are paying for bombs dropping on people all over the world.  Our empire is creaking along with its evil heart ever more obvious and its and corrupt leaders ever more shameless.  I can’t imagine facing this world, raising up children into it, let alone mustering the courage and strength resist the mounting evil, to even work on getting an actual public shelter built in our fair city, I can’t imagine doing anything worthwhile without some connection to the foundation of existence.  I am not strong enough, brave enough, patient or forgiving or loving enough to do anything helpful on my own.  I don’t think many of us are.  But the regular little dip into eternity we get around this table each week; the commingling of our bodies and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, His substance, our memory, all of it, in that encounter offered here at the altar of the Church, we are tapped into something much larger, infinite even.  What we do around this table does not end here.   There is splendor and honor and royal power in this true food and true drink.  It can, it has, it will change the world.  And it does that if you follow Jesus Christ with your eyes wide open and let Him take you where you are supposed to be.  AMEN.

 

 

August 12, 2018, 12th Sunday after Pentecost PR 14 YR B

Year B, 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14
August 12, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“I am the bread of life.”

Good morning everyone! It is good to be back here after a couple of weeks back East! We
spent a week on the North Shore of Boston with my family and a week on a lake in Maine with
Windy’s. We had good, I mean good Italian subs and a clambake… two things you cannot get this
far west. And there were cousins and kayaks and connecting with family and all the trappings of
summer. It was a good rest. And, it is very good to be back here where it is neither humid nor
crowded. There are a lot of people back there, and they all seem to be trying to get somewhere at
the same time! And you all aren’t back there. I do love and appreciate you all and this community.
Thank you for the time away, and thank you to everyone who made that possible. All the worship
leaders, preachers, Jerry our Senior Warden, Mo. Jo on pastoral call, and all of you keeping up with
what you do around here, praying and coming to church and paving parking lots… thank you.

It is August, the smoky days of late summer and today we are in St. John’s gospel. John can
be tough. It give us some of the most resonate and beautiful language and imagery of our faith and
some of the most striking challenges to our faith. You can feel ok about feeling uncomfortable with
this gospel. It is not very comfortable. That’s a good Christian rule of thumb: if it is too
comfortable, too easy or too palatable, it’s probably not Jesus. Jesus is the hard case, the narrow
gate, the mighty effort. The fourth and latest gospel is all of those things. On one hand, it is so
seemingly abstract, so floating out there in the nousphere. “In the beginning was the Word…”
Water transformed into wine, or walking across the sea. It is His long, theologically dense and hard
to decipher discourses. The Disciple who loved Him. Deep water. On the other hand, John gets
very concrete in ways that to modern ears, liberal ones especially, are hard to take in. Those “I am”
statements are like that: “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the way, the
truth and the life.” Unequivocal. And those unequivocal claims of identity are backed up with some
equally unequivocal theological claims. Think 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.” Or
14:6 “No one comes to the father except through me.” And conversely, today’s verse 44 “No one
comes to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me…” What does it all mean? Or more
disturbingly, does it really mean that? Does Jesus really mean that, that He is all those things, that
He is the only way? There is not a lot of wiggle room in this Gospel, not a lot of place for us to hide
from truth claims by and about Jesus, the universe and everything. It is a post-enlightenment, liberal
nightmare! To take this gospel seriously, we really need to decide for ourselves: is Jesus who He says
he is? (A hint: we need to take this gospel seriously).

I used to be just plain old scared of John. My biggest reservations of the Christian faith were
played out in those kind of verses with their certainty about the nature of things, God in particular; with
their exclusivist claims that this is the only way and you are damned, quite literally, if you don’t
follow it. Coming from outside the faith, why would we believe this? It is totally self-referential.
There are a couple of miracles, some healings are described and we hear some testimony, that’s
pretty convincing, but in the end, we are called to believe this because St. John said that Jesus said
He was those things? Is that the expectation? Well… yes. We are supposed to believe this, believe
that Jesus is the bread of life, is the light of the world, is the way, is the truth, is the life and that
through Him we come to God (and through God we come to Him). We are supposed to believe,
supposed to have faith, supposed to take refuge in, to trust that God is in fact what we hope God to
be, is in fact what God promises God is. Wheh… I don’t know about you, but thinking that way
makes me feel kind of funny inside, and not in a particularly good way. It is a stretch for a lot of us.
It scares me to think about believing all that. That is not me, it is unreasonable, unenlightened. Isn’t
that the first step to fundamentalism? Or maybe the concern is what do I have to do and be if I
have that kind of faith in Jesus Christ, you know, heart wide-open religious faith? What do I have to
give up to do that, to be that, to believe?

I don’t know about all of that, but I do know that this reading today, probably the whole of
John’s gospel actually, but this pericope for sure is about grace. Grace. The undeserved, unearned,
un-worked for love and action of God. Grace. That’s good news, grace is good news because grace
lets us off the hook in some very important ways. It is more important as a get-out-of-jail-free card
than “mystery”, it sort of gets us out of everything, every argument about reason-ability, because
grace is not reasonable, or rational, nor is it about you. It is not about what do or fail to do, what
you believe or don’t believe, feel or don’t feel. It is not about what you have faith in or don’t have
faith in. The grace that God is offering through the good offices of St. John the Evangelist is that
getting to God through Jesus (or to Jesus through God), is not up to us. It is up to God. That is
what the little story of Jesus telling us that He is the bread of life is about.

“I am the bread of life.” That is where last week’s reading ended and this week’s begins.
Jesus was having a conversation with the Jews (One note, a more helpful rendering of “the Jews”
would have been “the Jewish opposition”). They were not buying what He was selling so they
“complain about him.” This complaining or grumbling is similar to Israel’s grumbling that led to the
manna miracle in Exodus… that would be an interesting thread to tug at; maybe in three years when
this reading comes around again. They grumble that he says He is from heaven because they know
Him, (the human part at least). He is Joseph and Mary’s son; He’s not from heaven, he’s from
Nazareth. (And everyone knew that nothing good comes from Nazareth, a pre-modern sort of
West Virginia joke,). And Jesus’ response is very simple and full of grace: Stop complaining. That is
the only thing He tells them to do, the only directions He gives them. Stop actively working against
me and what I am saying/doing/being. That is all you need to do; the rest is in God’s hand. God
will call you. He tells them, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me…” This,
faith, believing in Him doesn’t happen by your own effort. As one commentator writes, “You just
don’t come to faith by yourself, through your own deduction, reasoning and insight alone. You are
wooed, invited, even cajoled.” All Jesus asked the opposition (and by extension, us) to do is to just
stop grumbling, stop saying “no.”

There is a branch of theology called Process Theology. It is kind of complicated and is not
always in fashion, I’m not sure where it stands now in the academy, but one helpful and beautiful
notion it offers is about how God’s power works. Process theology posits that God does not coerce
or force us into anything, that is not how God’s power works. Rather God’s power manifests as
“yearning love” within our own hearts. God can’t (or at least doesn’t) make us do things, we can
resist. This theology implies that God is maybe not all-powerful, but it allows for God to be all-loving.
And it is that love that draws us in, it is that love that Jesus is talking about when He says
that “no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father…” Like St. Augustine said, “…our
preaching in only noise to the ears unless listeners are drawn by the Father’s love to hear it.” I fear,
and at the same time am glad, that this is the truth.

Sure we can work ourselves up into a frenzy through extreme asceticism, long fasts, sleep
deprivation can do it, or joining a whole bunch of other people all leaning into the ecstasy of
common experience and common belief, nationalist demagogues are as good at that as religious
charismatics, but that is not where it comes from, not true “belief” not true heart opening, eye
widening, mind bending, soul eviscerating faith. That sort of thing, the sort of thing Jesus is talking
about here in John chapter 6, is about grace, God’s undeserved and radical invitation in love
embodied in the life sustaining flesh of an only Son. Accepting that love and the graceful power
that comes with it takes surrender. It takes letting go. As our 12 step friends admirably strive
towards, let go, let God. Open yourself to receive the grace of faith, and I’m not always convinced
that we can even do that. Maybe the best we can do is to just stop saying no to it.

And this can be inviting some high adventure. Because if you really let go, really surrender,
really submit to and accept the powerful, yearning, grace-given, life-sustaining love like Jesus is
talking about here, O! The places you will go! This is where we get people who actually give away all
their belongings to the poor and follow Him. This is where we find the people who will march
peacefully into ranks of police and white supremacists. This is where people who stand up against
tyranny, heedless of the personal costs come from. This is how you end up choosing to lose your
life in order to save it. This is how you experience resurrection.

Now the question really comes down to this: Do you want that? Do you want to have faith
that tells you that Jesus Christ, the Jewish peasant dead now 2000 years, that He, His presence in
your life, in the world itself is as basic to your life as the force of life itself? Is as important as a
shepherd is to her sheep? Is as necessary to your subsistence as bread? He is the bread of life. Are
you willing to not put reason aside, but transcend it? To live into God with your heart, soul and
body as much as your mind? To risk succumbing to the foolishness of Christ and have life, and
have it abundantly? Is that what you want? I do think it what we all need, but is it what you want?
And are you willing to let it happen? To stop saying no to it? To accept that the grace of our Lord
Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit will be with us all evermore?

This is not a sermon with a lot of answers, but is rather one with a lot of questions.

Questions for you.
Why are you here? On earth; in your life; at church, at this church?
What do you want? What do you need? What do you hope for?
Who is God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth? Who is Jesus Christ, the Son, the
redeemer of the world? Who is the Holy Spirit, the giver and sustainer of life?

Jesus tells us that He is the bread of life. “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are
they who trust in him!” AMEN

August 5, 2018, 11th Sunday after Pentecost Pr 13 YR B

August 4/5, 2018
11th Sunday after Pentecost, PR 13 YR B
Ed Lawry

 

“…it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.”

Probably the most celebrated miracle of the Old Testament is the story of how God rained down “manna” on the Israelites as they wandered their long way in the wilderness in search of the promised land.  It is not only justly famous for its intrinsic enchantment, but it also provides us with the iconic relationship of God to the people of God—the nurturing benefactor who provides food to keep us alive on our journey.  It is not surprising that this story from Exodus is echoed so often in the Gospels, particularly in the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 with “a few loaves and fishes.”  For good measure the evangelists do the Old Testament one better by mentioning that not only did Jesus provide the “daily bread” for everyone as Yahweh did for the Israelites, but there were 12 baskets left over (presumably for microwaving tomorrow).  The manna story is indeed a paradigmatic type for the central mystery of Christianity—the bread which is broken and shared and which is at the same time, the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.  It is not only our “daily” bread, but the bread given so that we will “never be hungry.”

With remarkable thematic overlap, all the readings today celebrate the wild, miraculous, and life sustaining generosity of God.  We are awash in an abundance of gifts from God—plenty to give us permanent sustenance.  Abundance—our God is so rich and full of generosity that it cannot be contained and flows down and around creation and lifts it up with holy value.  Recently, my wife and I were lucky enough to pay a visit to the Rocky Mountain National Park.  Winding through roads and pathways, lifting up our eyes to the heights of the mountains, or gazing down on the vastness of the vistas from the summits, meeting on the way noble and gentle elk sauntering up beside the astonished cars stopped along the road, marveling at the nonchalant brilliance of the wildflowers, we and all our fellow visitors in the park were gripped by a familiar feeling that is regularly characterized as “religious”.   Amid such glorious surroundings it is easy to get carried away with talking about the abundance of God.

But it is not so easy to recognize God, the giver of gifts, when we are confronted by poverty sickness, pain, disorder, filth, garbage and the like.  Scarcity is a constant threat in all the societies of the world.  Poverty, homelessness, disease, sickness, often accompanied by wanton cruelty are pervasive threats.  God gave manna to the Israelites, but now we all must work for our daily bread.   Jesus fed the 5000, but statisticians tell us that more than one out of every six children even in the comparatively wealthy United State suffers from food insecurity.  Where is the daily bread?  A great deal of what we see around us in the world often induces the sensibility in people that God has abandoned the creation or that the world has never contained generous gifts, but only random alterations of its constituents.  These experiences and reflections have often led people to the conclusion that there is no God at all.  From this point of view we may say that they are gripped by a feeling that could be characterized as “irreligious.”

There has always been a tension between those who experience the world with that “religious” response and those who experience the world with that “irreligious” response.  If the truth is to be told, we all feel this tension in ourselves–waxing and waning between enthusiasm and discouragement.  Our religion, our church communities, keep calling us back to the source of religious experience and I think the best way of characterizing that religious experience is to say it is an experience of GRATITUDE.  We were so grateful to be able to visit Rocky Mountain National Park and automatically wished that everyone could share in its glorious being.   While it is often said that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, I would like to suggest that “gratitude for the gifts we have been given is the beginning of love.”  And while wisdom is certainly to be prized, love seems even more precious.  Even when we see the world of scarcity with our “irreligious” eyes, we may have a grim wisdom about it.  Nevertheless, such wisdom often works against our experience of “gratitude for the gifts that have been given.”  Let me acknowledge that theological commentators have explicated the idea of fear of the Lord as a kind of awe that can involve us in authentic religion.  But even that explanation tends for some to emphasize our smallness, powerlessness and even sometimes our alienation from God and creation.   What I am suggesting is that our typically shallow ways of understanding these matters tend to lead us in the wrong direction.

Jesus performed miracles and drew crowds often because of his miraculous wonders.  The crowd that followed Jesus across the water in today’s gospel illustrates the point of mistaking the mere thrill of being satisfied by something we want or need, from the religious ideal that instills gratitude.  He tells them they have confused things.  They have followed not because they saw signs and witnessed miracles, but “because you ate you fill of the loaves.”  He tells them “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”  And then a few verses later repeats the same point: “Very truly I tell you it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven” (which would fill your belly and slake your hunger for a few hours,) “but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven” (which gift inspires lasting gratitude.)  They immediately mistake the point again by asking Jesus to give them this bread always.  And Jesus exasperatedly tells them “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will not be thirsty.”  But we forever continue to make the mistake of looking for bread and missing sustenance.

In a marvelous book entitled The Gift, Lewis Hyde provides a wonderful insight into the nature of love prompted by the bestowal of gifts and the perennial mistake of seeing gifts as possessions (as in mistaking sustenance as bread).  Using anthropological research into the organization of indigenous cultures, Hyde distinguishes between “gift economy,” most clearly exemplified by indigenous peoples, and “market economy,” familiar to all of us because we so thoroughly live in it.  The gift economy is characterized by the bestowal of ephemeral or non-practical goods (as symbols of the spirit of abundance) in a ritual manner that circulates among all the peoples of the community, most often embodied in some sort of public ceremony involving the most prestigious leaders of the tribes.  The famous “potlatch” ceremony of the Northwest Tribes is cited by Hyde as a good example, and any communal feast might be another good image to capture what he is driving at—for example our celebrations of Thanksgiving which at least dimly harken back to what we think of as the “original thanksgiving.”  Wikipedia tells us that Thanksgiving was a feast lasting three days attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims in 1621.  Or tellingly, the ancient practice of sacrificing the first fruits, the fatted calf, or even the first born son to God in a conflagration.  These practices all spring from some form of gratitude for gifts bestowed in which something which has been given is given back, symbolized by the destruction of the gifts with the assumed assurance that the gifts will somehow be bestowed again.  No doubt, these practices are based on the cycles of the natural world, in which things die periodically, only to arise again in the next season, and whose fruits sustain the people.  Hyde generalizes and says the gift economy operates only where the gift keeps moving, or better, circulating, and that is why he calls it a gift “economy.”  It is an economy which ties together a people and sustains their lives.  The spirit of the gift is that it remains a gift and is given away again by those who receive it.  And we all recognize that when given a gift, we feel gratitude toward the giver and in some way or other wish to give the giver something back.  This economy is an economy of abundance, for its fecundity remains always present among the people who share in it.  There is a shared spirit in a continuing wish to make some return for the gifts received.  As soon as the gift is “owned” in the ordinary sense of being a private possession, it loses its sense as a gift and though it may then benefit the recipient-owner, it ceases to sustain the community.

Obviously, the market economy is the contrast where everything is owned privately and where, because of this outlook, there is no shared spirit but rather only a sense of individual dissatisfaction followed by some moments of individual satisfaction.  This market economy is an economy of scarcity, because no one individual has all the satisfactions he or she wants, and these satisfactions keep disappearing, or at least threaten to disappear, and thus create fear rather than security as a dominant outlook.

In an economy of abundance, where we feel secure there is no need or worry about giving things away.  And this ties back to the notion of gratitude that I began with.  In the National Park, there was no hesitation to engage even strangers in marveling at the surroundings and expressing delight in them, for there was no question that in giving away the fullness of our emotion, there was no chance of losing it.  And so it is with love.  When we give our love away, we do not lose it.  Rather it comes back to us, even more abundantly.  For love is not possessed, but a spirit which possesses us.  And when we are filled up with gratitude, we intensely sense that we have been blessed and that the blessing is so rich that there is plenty of it to share with others.  The blessing comes from something larger, sweeps through us and continues on its path of enrichment.

  1. D. Thoreau was wise when he told us that “a man is rich in proportion to the things he can do without.” But Jesus was even more astonishing when by his life he assured us that persons are rich in proportion to the things they can give away.

God Bless You.

July 29, 2018, 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12 YR B

The Rev. Frank H. Moss III
Resurrection/Pent. 10/Pr. 12B/July 29, 2018 
2 Kings 4:42-44/Ep. 3:14-21/Jn. 6:1-21

 

This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.

The feeding of the 5000 is the only one of Jesus’ miracle stories that appears in all four Gospels. In fact, it appears twice in Matthew and Mark, once with 5000 people and a second time with 4000. Clearly it is a very important story. That is especially true of John’s version which we heard today.

If you have studied the Gospels at all, you probably know that Mark is the oldest Gospel and both Matthew and Luke borrowed a lot of their material from Mark. That is not true of John. His version is the latest and he leaves out a lot of the material that the other three Gospel writers share, including Jesus’ birth story and the last supper. The fact that he included the feeding of the 5000 suggest that it was a very important story in his narrative.

By the time Jesus burst on the scene the people of Israel had spent a lot of their time in exile. Much of the Old Testament describes stories of the Israelites being dragged off into exile and then being rescued by the prophets and brought home. None of those stories is more important than Moses’ leading the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land. It involved the overcoming of the sea and the miraculous feeding of the Israelites in the Wilderness. It is such an important story that the Jews still observe Passover as one of their most important feast days. It is impossible to read today’s Gospel without seeing the striking parallels with the Exodus story.

Whenever Jesus had spent a lot of time with the crowds, he always retreated to a quiet place to recharge his batteries. Unfortunately, wherever he went, the crowds followed him, as they did in today’s reading. As often happened, they had no plan other than to be with Jesus. When mealtime came, Jesus asked the disciples how they were planning to feed the crowd. In typical fashion they responded that it was impossible. Much to their astonishment, Jesus took the meager resources that a young boy had brought and divided it until there was enough for everyone, with food left over.

The people of Israel had spent their entire history waiting for a king, a conqueror who could finally assert their place in the world. After all the things that they had witnessed Jesus’ doing, they were convinced that he was the one: “This is the prophet who is to come into the world.” Their long wait was over. Unfortunately, Jesus had not come to be the kind of king they had been waiting for. He fled to the mountains and when we next see him the disciples are caught in a huge storm and are terrified. Jesus walks to them on the water, the storm is calmed and the disciples are saved.

Why did John put these two stories together this way? They were not intended for us to marvel over miracles, but to really see who Jesus is. Jesus is the one who comes to calm the seas and to feed the hungry. John used these two stories as his version of baptism and the Eucharist. Just as Moses calmed the water so the Israelites could cross over to the other side, the water of baptism carries us over to the other side as members of the body of Christ. Then we are fed by Jesus with the bread that doesn’t ever run out and all of our hungers are satisfied.

As some of you may know, Betsy and I live at Cascade Manor and we had to do some major downsizing to keep our apartment from looking like a furniture store. We are now at the point where we don’t need anything. It has been a hard adjustment for me because I have come to realize that I really like to buy things even though I know that the joy of having new stuff only lasts for a little while. As John points out in the Gospel, the only thing that truly lasts is our life in Christ and the bread we share at the altar. As the crowd found out, the king is here and nothing else matters.

July 22, 2018, 9th Sunday after Pentecost YR B

Proper 11B
Psalm 23
Robert Zandstra

 

There’s a historical young adult novel I really like, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt, set about 100 years ago in Maine. The two children protagonists befriend an elderly widow in their community who has a reputation for being very pious and very stern, very revered but also pretty isolated and a little scary. And they find out she’s actually really fun and interesting. One day it’s super hot out, and the old lady says, “It’s hot as hell in here. Could you kids go get me a ginger ale from the icebox?” So they do, and when they come back, they find that the widow has passed away. Now in that community, the dying words of a person, especially a very pious person, were seen as especially important, indicative of their character or the wisdom they were leaving with the world. So everyone says to the children, what were her last words? And they’re like, Uhh, we’ll tell you at the funeral. So at the funeral, everyone is like, Okay, tell us what were her last words? And the children know they can’t say her actual last words, so they start saying, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want…” And everyone groans, Ugh, Psalm 23. Seriously?

That’s kind of how I’ve felt. Like Psalm 23 is almost like a cliché of what our Christian lives or spirituality should look like. I don’t know about you, but I think of Psalm 23 as one of the most familiar, well-known texts in the entire Bible. Certainly that’s the case for me. I was kindergarten when I memorized Psalm 23. Now I’m really grateful that I’ve had this Psalm memorized almost my entire life, and it’s a great psalm, but I’ll be honest: Just like I’ve matured past other elements of my childhood faith (which is good, I think), I’ve kind of felt like I’ve outgrown Psalm 23. I think of it as a kindergarten level psalm.

When I’m particularly uncharitable, I’ve felt like it was a little too much like the prosperity gospel—“trust in God, and you’ll receive health and wealth.” The Psalm felt like a poetic Thomas Kincaid painting—artificial prettiness only partially in touch with reality. That’s just me, not the psalm itself.

So today I want to take time to look at this maybe over-familiar text and try to defamiliarize it a little, to defamiliarize the spirituality of the psalm—the posture it takes toward God and what it says about God. Digging deeper into the significance of some of the words and images of the text really helped me see it and appreciate it anew, and I hope it will help you see it new, too. (And if you aren’t familiar with Psalm 23, then I have the pleasure of introducing it to you.)

As familiar as the text and imagery are, this psalm comes out of a very unfamiliar context, written at least 2500 years ago half way around the world. We get hints at this in the Psalm. How many of you have every had your head covered with olive oil, and thought that was the epitome of living the good life. But this foreignness of context even more true of the central image here—the shepherd. First, shepherds are very rare now, so we don’t have much reference, but were very common then.

But even more, to be a shepherd in ancient Hebrew literature meant something totally different than our popular images of a shepherd. When I think of a shepherd, I think of a man, probably with a beard, kind of unkempt and scraggly, caring and peaceful, out on the hills, probably pretty poor, isolated, socially marginalized. Where did I get these images? Probably from Sunday school material on Psalm 23, or the parable of the lost sheep, or Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

But that image is not that accurate. First of all, back then, many shepherds were women. It was a common occupation for women to do in pastoral families and societies. In the Bible, Rachel, Zipporah (Moses’ wife), and other women are specifically called shepherds.

Even more importantly, the meanings attached to being a shepherd were totally different then. All societies have character types like this. Like when you think of a Western, there are certain character types, like a cowboy or a quick-drawing sheriff. Those character types have meanings attached to them. And if we tried to tell an ancient Hebrew, The Lord is like a cowboy (not that the Lord is), they’d probably be really confused. Or think about translating the meanings of an occupation like brain surgeon or rocket scientist into ancient Hebrew. It’s kind of what I’ve found it’s like just to take “shepherd” at literal value—it doesn’t convey the full meaning.

So what did it mean to be a shepherd in ancient Hebrew literature?

In Old Testament literature, shepherds were indeed caring figures, but they weren’t peaceful. They were fierce defenders of their flock. Remember that when David was preparing to fight Goliath, everyone was like, you’ll get killed for sure–you’re just a kid, and he’s a giant. And David was like, “I may be young, but I’m a shepherd. I’m tough. I can fend off wild animals attacking me.” There are many other examples.

Additionally, the most common parallel in Ancient Hebrew literature to shepherds was to kings. Kings were like shepherds, guiding their flocks. This is exactly the metaphor in today’s reading from Jeremiah. Kings should be like shepherds. But they’re not. They’re more like wolves, scattering and devouring the sheep they should be caring for. I don’t want to dwell on it, but if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, it’s hard not to see the parallels.

A similar metaphor to the king-shepherd metaphor is how we get the word “pastor.” The word used to mean “shepherd” in English and it was used as a metaphor for how clergy guided and their spiritual flocks. Now that there are many more clergy than shepherds, the meaning of the word itself has changed.

And just as kings were like shepherds, shepherds, conversely, were regal, heroic figures. All the greatest heroes of ancient Israel were all shepherds —Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses (for 40 years between fleeing Egypt and leading the Exodus), and King David. (Psalm 23 is “of David,” written in the David literary tradition).

The first shepherd mentioned in the Bible is Abel, whose offering please God, as opposed to Cain, the farmer, the one who built the first city. To be a shepherd was to live on the margins of empires, and to reject those empires, which were the source of oppression, injustice, murder. To be a shepherd was to follow Abel’s lead, and be free to please God, to do the right thing. It also probably meant getting killed, when then as now the world continues to choose the path of Cain.

So, shepherds were fierce, regal, and heroic figures. They like Iron Age knights in shining armor. That’s what the Lord is like, the Psalm is saying.

Of course, the Lord still in the Psalm is in the metaphor of a shepherd, with very concrete shepherding imagery. But here, too, the translated words that we’re familiar with sometimes mask what’s going on in the original text, so I want to look at a few words here

For instance, the word for “pastures” doesn’t have the sense of the pastures along I-5 in the verdant Willamette Valley. The word in Hebrew assumes the context of a wilderness, so in an oasis, or a growth in the desert just after it rains. It’s abundance, but in the midst of scarcity or fragility. Just knowing that helped me see that this wasn’t just a pretty scene divorced from the everyday work of the world or from the reality of the valley of the shadow of death or the presence of foes who trouble us. That dark reality is present throughout the psalm.

Likewise the word translated still or quiet in “still waters” is the word menuha, which means rest or quietude, but it almost exclusively refers to Sabbath rest. It’s the tranquility, the mellowness of spirit, that comes from God in the midst of our busyness, our daily stresses. Knowing that helped remind me that that is an important aspect of spirituality, one that I know I’m often desperately short on.

“He restores my soul.” So the word often translated “soul” is the Hebrew word nefesh. That word originally meant breath or the throat—the part of the body that breaths. Now, the word “soul” can mean a lot of things, but if we’re thinking it means that kind of essential part of us that is immortal and lasts after we die, that’s the opposite of what the psalm is saying. Nefesh meant life, the breath of life, but in particular it meant bodily life. Certainly God refreshes us inwardly, but the psalm is saying that the Lord refreshes our bodies too, that our spiritual orientation to God involves more than just the so called spiritual as opposed to the physical or worldly aspects of our lives. We might say that this suggests in incarnational spirituality.

“He guides me on right pathways” Or “paths of righteousness.” The Hebrew word for “right” or righteousness is tsedeq, which also always means justice, the kind of justice that characterizes right relationships. There is no sense of “self-righteousness.” (This is different from mishpat, which is the kind of justice that puts right injustices.)

Now, if there’s one thing to know about what it means to be a sheep, it’s that they stray away without guidance. They get off the right path. This is a common Biblical metaphor for us, God’s people. One of my favorite sections of Handel’s Messiah says “All we like sheep have gone astray, every one to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Isaiah 53) We often like to think we’re in control of our own lives, autonomous, making our own choices—but we’re not. (Now don’t get me wrong—freedom and self control are good things, and being controlled or oppressed are bad. But freedom isn’t an end in itself. It needs to be directed toward justice, and only God is can guide us there. Making our own decisions about what’s right and wrong is just as idolatrous as worshipping any other idol. On our own, even with good spiritual or political leaders, we’re like sheep without a shepherd.)

This tendency of sheep to go astray is hinted at “goodness and mercy will follow me.” The verb there translated “follow” is radaph, which actually means to pursue. The psalmist is pictured as being chased, like a sheep by a sheepdog perhaps, pushed forward rather than leading these qualities. And the word Hebrew hesed, which is often translated as mercy or loving-kindness or steadfast love, actually is a more specific term that refers to God’s faithfulness to the covenant. Humans have hesed for each other, too, but God’s relationship to us is the clear model. What pushes us in the right direction when we would go astray? God’s faithfulness.

Verse 4 seems to me to be the real crux of the psalm. As I mentioned, the reality of the valley of the shadow of death is present in all the imagery of abundance. That valley, that shadow, those foes who trouble us, they look different for every one of us, but we’ve all been there. It’s painful, it’s lonely, it’s confusing. It’s normal to fear evil, or harm, or disease, or death itself, simply not to fear, but instead to feast, to be at rest. That’s radical, even in the midst of the hard realities of our lives and the world.

And God, our heroic shepherd, helps us through it. Here is where I can’t help but look forward and see Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the one who braved the valley of the shadow of death in his life and the crucifixion. In John 10, the “I am the Good Shepherd” passage, Jesus adds another quality of what the shepherd does for the sheep. He lays down his life for them. And that’s exactly what Jesus did, and he came out the other side of the valley of death itself resurrected. That’s who is with us. That’s why we don’t have to fear even death.

At this point, the psalm makes an important shift. Everything up to this point has referred to God in the third person. “He leads me” “He makes me lie down.” But here the psalm shifts to second person, “You are with me.” And when I realized that, I thought, yes, it’s in the darkest times that I really turn to God, that I realize I need to pray. That’s built right into the form of the psalm. It’s those times that I realize that God has always been with me, I’d just been taking it for granted.

The final passage I want to highlight is “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” which might seem a little incongruous if we’re used to thinking of rods and staffs as tools of punishment (“spare the rod and spoil the child”). But punishment, or for that matter the horrible things that have been justified using that verse, isn’t what those tools were for. They were used for keeping sheep moving in the right direction, for rescuing them if they strayed, or for defending them. So how might we think of that rod and staff as tools that comfort us, that help us stay on the straight and narrow path even through the valley of the shadow of death? I have a couple ideas rooted in our epistle and gospel readings.

For one, I think we can look to the Gospel reading. Mark says that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were life sheep without a shepherd. So what did he do? He teaches them. Of course, he goes on to perform miracles—feeding the crowd, walking on water, healing and casting out demons. But it’s his teaching that he gives them in order to guide them. Following Jesus teachings, and the teachings of the Bible, is a way to stay on the path and a way to find comfort. I think we get great teaching from Father Brent, but it’s not something that I think Episcopalians do particularly well. Other ways the Bible tells us we’ll encounter Jesus—breaking the bread, in prayer, in serving the poor—I think we do well. But following the Bible’s teachings in our private lives can be hard. It’s a rod and a staff. It’ll goad us but also rescue and defend us.

One teaching I think is particularly apt to mention here. I mentioned I memorized Psalm 23 as a young child. Another thing I memorized as a young child was the first Q&A of the Heidelberg Catechism, an important document in the church I grew up in. It says, “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong in body and mind, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” The knowledge that we are not our own can be hard to accept. We want to be like the sheep that strays “I can do what I want, do what feels right to me, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone” or the sheep that just follows the herd “It must be okay to do what everyone else is doing.”  Not only is that way of thinking false, it certainly won’t bring us any real comfort. We belong to Jesus, and knowing that he is the only one who can ultimately show us the way, is a great comfort.

For the final way of thinking about the rod and staff that guide us, I want to turn to the epistle. Paul is comparing the family of God to a building built of the foundation of Jesus that includes people of all backgrounds. In the early church, the controversy was whether non-Jews had to first become Jews to be Christians, and the answer was no. Anyone could be a member of God’s family in Jesus just as they were. (In John 10, Jesus says something similar, saying that as the Good Shepherd, his flock was larger than just those who were in the fold of Israel.) But being in fellowship with people different than us can be hard, whether those differences are socioeconomic, racial, political, or even religious. But those differences, too, can be a rod and a staff, lest we think that we or people like us are the only one’s who have the path.

In closing, I hope this sermon has renewed your appreciation for Psalm 23, and my prayer is that we would indeed find comfort in it’s message.

I’ll leave you with these words of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for us sheep, from John 14:

But the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.